Saturday, February 27, 2010

EVIL WHITE GUYS



I humbly submit that there is no better villain possible in cinema than a white guy in a suit. This position is reflected in the fact that every single bit of malfeasance in the world can, whether directly or not, be attributed to some white guy, somewhere, in a suit. Every single one. Even if you think you've got an exception to this rule, peel back another couple layers and some ofay motherfuck is sitting in an oak-paneled boardroom instructing an underling to do his bidding.

Whence these great political truths? Well, I'm glad you asked.

The Parallax View is one of the first wave of movies that realized, “Holy fucking shit, evil white guys in suits are going to kill every single one of us.” This realization came after evil white guys in suits conspired to kill president John F. Kennedy, his brother Bobby, Dr. Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, Patrice Lumumba, etc etc etc over the course of the 1960s. Warren Beatty, forward thinker that he was and is, noticed this damnable menace and decided to shine a light on it through the form of a Hollywood thriller.

Considered the middle installment of Alan Pakula's “conspiracy trilogy,” The Parallax View was bookended by Klute and All The President's Men. The narrative arc of the trilogy is clear: in Klute we are the not-yet self aware subject of the unseen evil white guys in suits, who oppress us with Jane Fonda's shitty acting. Then, in The Parallax View, Warren Beatty is basically Neo realizing what the Matrix is (only if Neo got his shit fucking wrecked at the end), and All The President's Men sees someone FINALLY ram it to evil white guys in suits, as Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman teach Richard Nixon that if you're going to send CIA guys to break into the opposition party's HQ, you should send the first string, not a bunch of fuckheads who fucked up at the Bay of Pigs. Clearly, the evil white guys' worldwide cabal sold out Richard Nixon for forgetting that one of the most important parts about being an evil white guy is being competent.

And yet I digress. The Parallax View. Warren Beatty stars as kind-of badass journalist Joe Frady, who starts poking around the story of an assassinated U.S. Senator. The witnesses to the assassination have been mysteriously dying, and Warren Beatty's old girlfriend is convinced they're being assassinated as well. Warren Beatty is initially like, “yeah, give me a break,” but when she turns up dead, he starts getting the sense that she was onto something and continues her investigation into this whole mess.

Soon, a redneck picks a fight with Warren Beatty over the length of his hair. A tough situation, for sure: Warren Beatty is but one Hollywood homo with long hair, and there is a bar full of rednecks. To shine some light on this dynamic, let us quote the great sage, Eddie Murphy:

“If we're in a movie, and I'm the star . . . I'll kick your ass.”

Warren Beatty is nothing if not a movie star. And so he beats the shit out the redneck. The town sheriff, impressed, becomes very friendly to Warren Beatty . . . but it soon transpires that the sheriff is In On It, and Warren Beatty has to run for his life. After disposing of the sheriff, Warren Beatty goes to his house and starts snooping around, finding a whole bunch of paperwork referring to something called “The Parallax Corporation.” (Corporation: from the Latin for “tool with which evil white guys in suits fuck us in the ass.”) Dum dum dum dummmmmmmmmm . . .

After Warren Beatty is almost blown up on a boat trying to get some intel out of the assassinated senator's old aide—who gets blown up—he sees in the paper that he's been reported dead, so he tells his editor to play along with the whole “Warren Beatty dies in boat explosion, groupies worldwide have existential crisis about who they're supposed to fuck now” charade.

This is where Warren Beatty does one of those simultaneously totally fucking retarded and epically ballsy maneuvers that only Warren Beatty can pull off: having determined that the Parallax Corporation recruits assassins, he is going to go to a shrink buddy to give him good fake answers for the entrance exam, and he's going to apply to become an assassin. BECAUSE WARREN BEATTY IS A MAN AND THIS IS HOW MEN DO THINGS.

The evil white guys' HR guy, played by Walter McGinn, makes contact with Warren Beatty and is actually really friendly about it. That's how they getcha, those evil white guys . . . so, anyway, Warren Beatty goes to work for them, and the sheer stupidity/testicular grandeur of his attempt to bluff his way through with no papers or anything creates a lot of cinematic tension. Walter McGinn and his henchman (bizarrely) "buy" Warren's horrendous bullshit alibi in re: his first false ID, and Warren somehow gets away with blatantly fucking up his first couple assignments.

Part of what makes The Parallax View fun is that at this point, the astute moviegoer is so caught up in the technique—Alan Pakula knew his shit, and his DP on this picture was Gordon Fucking Willis, so the pace is just slow enough to drive you batshit with suspense and there's always cool shit to look at—that the nagging thought “wait a minute, the evil white guys have to be playing Warren Beatty for a chump” doesn't even start nagging until it occurs to Warren . . . at the very moment that he's totally fucked, when a second politician is assassinated. Then there's the iconic shot of Warren hauling ass down the hallway. And then the evil white guys kill him and frame him for the second assassination, attributing his motive to his irrational obsession with a “non-existent” conspiracy surrounding the first assassination.

The problem with The Parallax View is that it's one of those movies where when you lay out what happens in writing like this, it sounds stupid. The three reasons why The Parallax View is not stupid, and is in fact an important cautionary tale about the dastardly acts of evil white guys in suits that still resonates today:

Warren Beatty. It took me a really long time to come around on Warren Beatty, because the first movie I ever saw of his was Dick Tracy, which sucked walrus schlong, and thanks to one of the funniest song intros in the history of rock 'n' roll, I had this image of Warren Beatty as this old fuddy duddy. Au contraire, home fuck. Once upon a time, in a land far far away, Warren Beatty bestrode the earth, a behemoth, fucking anything that came across his path, starring in some of the finest motion pictures ever produced in the United States of America. Bonnie and Clyde. Shampoo (the fact that Warren Beatty made a really good, really cool movie called “Shampoo” is but another badge of his demigod status). And by Christ that motherfucker had some good hair.

Alan Pakula. The way this movie is directed, it could have come out this decade. (Not talking about stuff like Warren Beatty would have had computers and cell phones, just talking about pace, cuts, mise en scene, that kinda thing). Note also that he managed to make a good movie with Jane Fonda in it, so we're talking about a major talent. And in All The President's Men, Mr. Pakula proved that he could make a cool movie without the handicaps of shitty acting and/or ludicrous plot.

Gordon Fucking Willis. Look at this resume. Best DP of the 70s? Well . . . Michael Ballhaus, Vittorio Storaro, and Vilmos Zsigmond might want to have a word with you, but those cats are basically playing rock paper scissors to determine alpha status. In The Parallax View, every shot is awesome. The best ones are, of course, the slow push in on the tribunal at the beginning that rubber-stamps the evil white guys' skullduggery, and the slow pull out from the same tribunal at the end, rubber-stamping the evil white guys' villainous martyring of St. Warren Beatty, patron of fall guys with nice hair.

One could advance the theory that The Parallax View being imperfect is another clever ruse by the evil white guys to get civilians to not take their menace seriously. I say we resist this ploy, and venerate The Parallax View. Even if the political necessity to bring evil white guys to justice is a little deep for you on the wrong evening, pop in this DVD and just groove on Warren Beatty's fucking hair. And maybe, just maybe, the message will sink in anyway.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A WORD FROM THE DANISH CHAMBER OF COMMERCE

Courtesy of my good friend Eric Winick comes this masterpiece. In honor of International Kick Lars Von Trier In The Balls Day (celebrated 365 times annually), I share it with you. Remember to commemorate this holiest of holidays by kicking Lars von Trier in the balls. Do it for the children.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A PRESTIGIOUS MEMENTO FROM THE INSOMNIAC KNIGHT

As a student of the human condition—with a specialty in the more retarded aspects thereof—I spend time lurking various internet fora. The less essential the subject, the more entertaining the forum. As much as I love movies and am consumed by them, I will grant that there are more important things in the world. You'd never get that concession out of your average imdb forum regular.

Matters of life and death are discussed on imdb, thousands of times a minute. Whether The Shawshank Redemption, The Dark Knight, or Avatar is the greatest movie ever made. Multiple, endless threads entitled “Quentin Tarantino: Does He Steal or Pay Homage?” And, most importantly for what I'm leading up to talking about, everyone's “My top 5 directors” list. The greatest thing about these lists is that a good 90% of them consist of the same five directors in various order, and if you relied exclusively on imdb for your assessment of who was who in movies, it would not be difficult to come away with the impression that the following five men are the only people who've ever directed a movie:

Stanley Kubrick
Akira Kurosawa
David Lynch
David Fincher
Christopher Nolan

Not a bad group of directors, by any reckoning. The wallpaper on my desktop is a self-portrait Stanley Kubrick took at the age of 16, so you won't get me to knock Kubrick (“misanthropic” and “fucking Martian” are terms of endearment.)


Kurosawa I've never much liked, but for subjective reasons—his importance to the cinematic canon is indisputable (though I do have my doubts as to how many of the 16 year old Andrew Sarris manqués on imdb have actually seen his pictures; his name is impressive to drop, especially by a 16 year old against another 16 year old).

David Lynch is fuckin' great, but he's so weird that you can't compare him to anybody else. Maybe Buñuel, but even Buñuel made more sense than Lost Highway or Mulholland Dr.

David Fincher is probably his generation's premier visual stylist, but every now and then (lookin' at you, Panic Room, stop trying to hide) he gets bushwacked by a shitty/mundane script. The 16 year old fanboys, on the other hand, recommend David Fincher for literally every single unoccupied directing job in the studio system. The Fantastic Four? Oh, Fincher should direct. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants? Gah, you're even debating this? Hire Fincher! “Man, you know, WALL-E would have been so much better if David Fincher had directed it.” Still, as ridiculous as some of that shit can get (“Dude, Gandhi would have been so dope if Fincher had directed it, bro”) and as much as I stupidly sometimes blame David Fincher himself for the esteem in which 16 year old retards hold him, there's no getting around the fact that he directed Se7en. He directed Fight Club. He directed Zodiac. Aside from the clamoring of high-pitched voices demanding that David Fincher direct a remake of Lassie, he deserves respect, and his place among his generation's elite directors.

And so we come to Christopher Nolan, who by virtue of directing Batman Begins and The Dark Knight has ensured that no white male between the ages of 12 and 35 will ever need Viagra again. Well, except me. Not that I need Viagra (not when one can freeze frame that shot in The Player where Gina Gershon is wearing glasses and a business suit). But I don't get as excited about the comic book movies as most people seem to, because my favorite comics (golden age Heavy Metal, Watchmen, Maus, Transmetropolitan, et al) are unfilmable. As uncool as it is to say these days, I don't consider the gay Adam West Batman to be any kind of crime against humanity (and how gay could it be with Julie Newmar in that catsuit, people?) Sure, The Dark Knight Returns is great, The Killing Joke is brilliantly disturbing and a masterful artistic achievement. Yaaaawwwwwwwn.

The other major result of Nolan's forays into comic book hagiography is his “A CHALLENGER APPEARS” style advent in the middle of discussions about whether David Fincher should direct a remake of She's All That. “LOL you're retarded, Christopher Nolan would be much better and he should cast Christian Bale as Freddy Prinze, Jr.” “STFU you *beep* retard, ONLY DAVID FINCHER CAN DIRECT THE REMAKE OF SHE'S ALL THAT.” (Note, the fact that you can't curse in an imdb forum leads to hilarious teenage Internet Tough Guy swagger-fest posts with dozens of *beep*s peppered throughout.)

But, you may ask, sure these dumbasses who annoy you think that he and David Fincher are the only directors currently working within the Hollywood system, the issue is, can Christopher Nolan actually direct? By the (very low) standards of the Batman series thus far, sure he can. Christopher Nolan is as superior to Joel Schumacher as the Yankees are to my intramural softball team at Bard where I used to have to swing the bat one-handed so I wouldn't spill my beer. He is also—and yes, I am going there—a clear superior to Tim Burton, who is probably the most overrated living director (seriously, keep Ed Wood—which is only marred by the presence of the hideous Sarah Jessica Parker—and toss the whole fucking rest of his career).

But, you may point out, with increasing annoyance that I still haven't gotten to the fucking point yet, just because he's better than Joel Schumacher—he of the Mr. Magoo camera eye—and the lucky bastard who gets to fuck Helena Bonham Carter, that I haven't yet answered the long-delayed thesis topic of this post: CAN CHRISTOPHER NOLAN DIRECT? Let's take a look at the ol' curriculum vitae:


Following (1998)

Not a bad first feature, and very stylish considering the non-existent budget. Gained some cachet when everyone was blowing each other about Memento when the hipper-than-thou resorted to their standard “you only like x because it's popular” gambit and started telling everyone Following was so much better than Memento, which was generic mainstream crap just because it had actors you'd seen before. As a result, a lot of pissed-off Memento fans went in to Following without the generous, expansive, patient attitude you need to watch experimental films. Ultimately, the problem with Following is that it's just interesting enough to keep you watching, but not deep enough to have any kind of satisfying totality. Still, for a first time out with no money, not bad at all.







Memento (2000)

Clever is not a four-letter word, but it was treated that way by a lot of people who thought this was too gimmicky. Sure it was self-consciously clever. Sure the backwards structure was a gimmick. The structure was neither as lame as the naysayers said or as earth-shatteringly profound as the furiously fapping fanboys insist to this day. Me? I thought Memento was just a damn fine night of entertainment. Guy Pearce shoots Joe Pantoliano in the opening scene and we spend the rest of the movie trying to figure out why. Pass the popcorn, baby, I'm hooked.

We spend a while explaining Guy Pearce's amnesia, which seems variously bullshit contrivance and kinda half-ass plausible, but a whole lot of time looking at his crazy tattoos, trying to figure out just who the hell Joe Pantoliano is, just who the hell Carrie-Ann Moss is, and seriously, trying to figure out who Guy Pearce is. The story unfolds at a nice, brisk clip, and all kinds of cool little touches are thrown in, like the classic:

Guy Pearce (voice-over): Okay, so I'm chasing this guy . . .
Other Guy fires gun at Guy Pearce.
Guy Pearce (voice-over): Scratch that, he's chasing me.

A lot of people don't buy the ending. Not me, I think it's terrific. But the reason I've always liked Memento is because—in spite of its low budget and bona fide independent status—I judge it by the same standards as a normal Hollywood thriller. Because, in spite of all the cute writing, Memento is shot and cut in a very dull, stiff, conventional fashion. It's not even in that unobtrusive Sidney Lumet style where he's pulling his Network false humility “I don't want to get in the way of the script” routine. Memento is actually really boringly shot. That doesn't get in the way of it being good, since the script is the thing here, but still. It's the one Achilles heel Memento has.


Insomnia (2002)


It's actually this movie that made me decide to do this post, because I've been up for about 36 hours for a variety of highly entertaining reasons. I'm not quite at the point Al Pacino is toward the end when he's supporting his entire body weight with his beer bottle while Nicky Katt tells the greatest joke ever: “What has two thumbs and loves blowjobs? [points thumbs toward self] Thissssss guyyyyyyyyyyyy . . .” But don't fuck with me. Because I'll explode.

Insomnia was first a Norwegian picture with Stellan “THESE ORDERS ARE SEVEN BLOODY HOURS OLD” Skarsgard, easily one of the coolest actors currently breathing. The original Insomnia was pretty good, it was a little stiffly paced and flat visually, but Stellan Skarsgard gets fuckin meshuggeneh (always fun to watch).

The remake is a borderline pile of horseshit involving Al Pacino's inability to sleep because it's sunny 24 hours a day in Alaska in the summer. Actually, the real reason Al Pacino can't sleep is because Robin Williams is running around overacting and for truly stupid reasons has decided that he's going to announce that he's the killer to the cops. And he lights up Al Pacino's partner—the guy from the Hal Hartley movies—right in front of Al Pacino, which leads to some gravelly-voiced angst. And a whole lotta not sleepin'.

Now, I'm not one to poke holes in verisimilitude unless you pull some Straw Dogs shit on me and I have no choice. But I have insomnia. Insomnia doesn't mean you're awake all the time. When it hits you bad, what happens is, you watch X-Files reruns until 5 in the morning and then putter around your apartment singing Bob Dylan songs to yourself until the 6am morning news starts, and about a half hour into the morning news you blink your eyes and it's 10-11 and time for coffee. Also, that rarely happens consecutive nights without a couple hundred dollars worth of cocaine, and I've never had a couple hundred dollars worth of cocaine. Anyway. Al Pacino being awake for five, ten, however many bullshit amount of days in a row it's supposed to be is just fuckin dumb. I don't care if he is Al Pacino, he'd be dead, or permanently insane.

Oddly enough, even though it's fucking retarded and there are about ninety annoying flaws—many of them in the movie's central nervous system—Insomnia is not that bad a movie. Partly because Chris kind of learned how to shoot, or at least without that fucking arthritic shooting and cutting he had the last time out. Partly because, until pretty recently, sending in Al Pacino to save a shitty movie about MEN was so reliable you could set your watch by it. In any case, it's not worth rewatching, but it doesn't suck, and it served its purpose in proving that Chris could direct a studio picture.


Batman Begins (2005)

My first exposure to this movie was in the form of a phone call from my friend Steve in Chicago. I waded through a little screaming and hyperventilating, about thirty-five fucks, and various and sundry expressions of frustration and displeasure before I realized Steve was talking about how badly filmed the action scenes in Batman Begins were.

Me: “They're really that bad, that you notice they're that bad? They're not just undistinguished?”
Steve: “No, dude, they fucking suck. Motherfucking the whole thing is fucking shot in fucking closeups and shit is so blurry you can't even tell who's fucking doing what to fucking whom!”
Me: “Well, scratch going to see Batman.”

Because, really, life is too short. I did finally see Batman Begins but not until it was on HBO, and the action scenes sure did look like shit, but I wasn't sure whether it was just pan-and-scan mutilation or what, so I Netflixed it for the sole purpose of determining whether the action scenes actually did suck that much. Sadly, something was lost in translation seeing the whole-screen image: the action scenes still sucked, but they didn't suck balls. I had been kind of excited watching Christian Bale kick ninjas in the nuts while making that Welsh taking-a-dump sound on HBO, because the possibility existed that in viewing the totality of the image a level of ineptitude yet to be glimpsed in the history of mankind, let alone cinema, might present itself. But no.

The rest of the movie isn't that bad, although they take for-goddamn-ever with the origin story and the villains, aside from Cilian Murphy as the Scarecrow, are gay. Not good gay, not George Sanders saying “read my column, the minutes will fly by like hours.” Gay. 7th grade gay. First of all, Batman fighting the fucking Mafia? And Gerald from the fucking Full Monty is not only an American but Italian? Fuck outta here. Ra's Al Ghul. Feh.

But, like I was saying before I got sidetracked, the movie really isn't that bad. Christian Bale does a decent job, though I must have missed the part where he has his vocal cords removed every time he puts on the Batman outfit. However, when he gets done doing donuts in that military vehicle and says to Morgan Freeman, “Does it come in black?” Yeah, I surrender, that was good. And I don't care if I'm the one cranky old fart left who remembers that the pre-Scientology brainwash Katie Holmes was hot. She was. Sure she was in over her head in this movie. The fucking director was in over his head in this movie.

Again, that Insomnia caveat. In spite of all this, not that bad. And, unlike Insomnia, rewatchable. But make sure you have some friends and some beer so you can movieoke the action scenes Rocky Horror/The Room style.


The Prestige (2006)

Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are rival magicians who get competitive at the expense of innocent people's lives and their own souls. Scarlett Johansson shows a lot of moxie trying an English accent. Michael Caine manages to stay awake long enough to act in a couple scenes. But—and note, the universe decided to put “Cat People” on my iTunes right when I started talking about this movie—David Bowie plays Nikola Tesla in this. Which means that The Prestige is awesome.

The movie looks great—Chris, a couple weird choices like having a couple exteriors in Victorian London be modern-day LA notwithinstanding, has been coming along nicely with the visuals—and the constant mindfucks that Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale lay on each other (and the audience) are entertaining up to a point, but the third act feels as long as the whole first two put together, just because there comes a point when shit just gets a little too “get the fuck out of here.” And so The Prestige is ultimately three-quarters of a pretty sweet movie, but that three-quarters is damn fine. (For comparison's sake, see also The Illusionist, which isn't as good but compensates by being a bit more laid-back and having a more satisfying ending).

Minor aside: DAVID BOWIE PLAYS NIKOLA TESLA. Note the following massive achievements in David Bowie's acting career:

---managed, in The Man Who Fell To Earth, to look more like an alien as basically The Thin White Duke than he did as Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane.
---played the Elephant Man.
---those tight pants in Labyrinth.
---responsible for the single strangest sequence in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, for which he should receive an honorary Oscar, the Nobel Prize, and a brand new car.
---nailed Andy Warhol. As in, played the part of Andy Warhol well. I don't know if he ever nailed nailed Andy Warhol, I've only heard the same Mick Jagger rumors you have, though “Angie” was not about Angie Bowie, it was about Anita Pallenberg.
---turned in the single coolest cameo ever in Zoolander. Don't look at me like that, it was great.


The Dark Knight (2008)

Rectifies a huge problem with the first Batman by introducing a proper villain: The Joker. Heath Ledger was the truth, RIP. The whole cast is pretty great, too; Aaron Eckhart in particular is tremendous. Christian Bale, though, still has that weird removed-vocal-cords voice as Batman.

One really surprising thing here is that out of nowhere Chris jumped in his progression as a visual stylist from retard to functioning retard to average Joe to HOLY FUCKING SHIT. The Dark Knight is not only a gorgeous-looking movie, it's gorgeous with a swagger, like, yeah bitch, watch this crane shot, that'll show you motherfuckers raggin' on the crappy framing in Memento.

Although Chris always was a pretty good writer, his writing took a similar evolutionary leap as his camerawork. There are dozens of meticulously constructed subplots, little touches of brilliance, and the script provides Tiny Lister with the best part of his career since he played the president of the universe in The Fifth Element (the shame of being told “you got knocked the FUCK OUT” by Chris Tucker in Friday now a distant memory).

Alas, the one caveat with The Dark Knight: it's too fucking long. But you have to hand it to Chris, at this point in his career, that's less of a flaw than some of the millstones he was dragging around earlier. Movies that are too fucking long are in fashion. But this really is too fucking long. After the Joker blows up the hospital the pacing falls off the rails and the resolution—which is goddamn depressing, dude—takes forever to come together even though it's so obvious as to be foretold. But, again, like The Prestige, the first three-quarters makes up for the rest. And the first three-quarters of The Dark Knight can hold its own with anything in cinema. The only reason dickheads like me harp on it not being perfect is because it was so close to perfection.


Inception (2010)

This will serve as the conclusion, since Inception's not out yet. But I'll answer the long-ago posed question (“Can Christopher Nolan direct?”) by saying, I'm every bit as excited about Inception as all those fanboys I insult constantly. Yes, Christopher Nolan can direct. His pictures are flawed, but who among us is not? Even when his movies don't work, he still has a level of intelligence and balls uncommon among mainstream directors. And when his movies do work, they can even make someone like me become passionately invested in a comic book movie. That takes skill, boys and girls.

So, come join me over on imdb, where we can read about the rumors about Chris Nolan and David Fincher's heated competition to snag the Little Orphan Annie reboot! But proceed with caution, and think before you post.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

THOU SHALT NOT COVET ANOTHER DIRECTOR'S PICTURE


Envy is one of the least useful emotions we have. I try to avoid it whenever I can, because part of coveting something I don't have is that second part, I don't have it. Why, then, piss and moan about something which—from a strictly subjective standpoint—is not real? Because envy goes back far enough that if cavemen had resumes, they'd look like this:

OG

Work experience: killing mastodons, making sharp sticks.

Education: University of Altamira, major: fine arts/cave painting, minor: mastodon killing training.

Special skills: killing mastodons, making sharp sticks, cave painting, getting pissy because Zog in the next cave killed two mastodons the other day and impressed the cavechicks.



One of the most annoying recurring themes in my life is that self-awareness doesn't make everything better, it just gives you a front row seat watching yourself act like an asshole. So yes, I fall victim to envy. Constantly. And I can only roll my eyes at myself and think, you silly bastard . . .

So, then, a list of movies I wish I could have made:

Bound (1996)--dir. The Wachowski Bros.

The worst part about this one is that someday I'm not going to be able to help myself and I'm going to make this one anyway. It's almost unfair how awesome this movie is. The premise is so elegantly simple—the standard noir story about a down-on-his-luck John Garfield type, just out of the slammer, trying to make ends meet, only to be seduced by a femme fatale with a scheme that needs a fall guy. Good solid noir template, that. What makes Bound one of the classics of the 90s is, the John Garfield part is played by Gina Gershon.

So, that means that she's seduced by an homme fatale, right . . .? Please, bitch. It's the 90s. Look at the poster. Within about thirty seconds of the movie starting, Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly are giving each other the eye and feeling a little fidgety. And, to the Wachowskis' credit, that arousal is palpable. Through sheer technique, they bring the audience to the level of almost uncontrollable desire, and they do it without being gratuitous.

Although the premise is Noir 101, the greatest strength this movie has is its skillful ability to just barely subvert genre conventions. John Garfield is a woman. The femme fatale's psycho mobster boyfriend (Joe Pantoliano, doing the weirdest Chicago accent in the history of cinema) menaces in bursts, not all the time. Little things like that. It never gets dumb. It never lags. And unlike pulp-era lesbian noir, the ladies don't have to “pay” for their sins, and unlike pulp-era hetero noir, no one has to be taught that crime doesn't pay. So Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly get away with it. In Gina Gershon's new fire-engine red pickup truck. Fuckin' Wachowskis. Why did you assholes have to make this when I was still in high school? Give me 10-15 years to learn my shit, goddammit.

Reason I wish I'd made it: Lesbians? Noir? Hello . . .


Watchmen (2009) dir. Zack Snyder.

I had been casting this one in my head for 20+ years. I re-read Watchmen so many times I literally had three different copies of it fall apart on me (number four's been holding strong for awhile; maybe other people were having the same problem and that reprint was a little sturdier). Part of me was holding out hope that I would manage to get my own film career to the point where I could get hired to direct Watchmen, or at the very least write it.

Every single attempt at a screenplay did something stupid like reset it in the 2000s (one of David Hayter's early versions) or rewrite Rorschach to make him indistinguishable from The Thing (Batman hack fuck-knuckle Sam Hamm's 80s version), and even the ones that weren't so bad (David Hayter's later versions, Alex Tse's drafts) still had the inevitable problem of trying to condense a massive, epic-length narrative told in another medium that existed as a projection of the conventions of that medium into as close to a two-hour movie as possible. I'm not saying it can't be done. Just not by those guys.

So then the news comes down the grapevine that Zack Snyder's going to direct. So I checked out 300. Thought to myself, “Well, now I've seen sepia-tinted CGI gay war porn.” (Note: I rather enjoyed it). I kept my fingers crossed. The trailers certainly looked good. When it came out, my girlfriend at the time and I saw it in IMAX, which was an experience. A while later, though, when I was thinking about the Watchmen movie I couldn't help but think maybe I needed to watch it without the enormous screen and the deafening sound system overloading my senses. And I Netflixed it, watched it again, and realized, fuck . . . this really isn't very good at all.

Zack Snyder is a very skilled director at making a certain kind of picture. 300, for one, is—despite its appeal to nekulturny frat boy types—a work of great skill. The difference between it and Watchmen is that Frank Miller (the author of 300), with his inimitable “13 year old boy experimenting with angel dust and Viagra” style, is a natural for someone like Zack Snyder, with his precocious skill for visceral cinema. Alan Moore is a lot more cerebral, a lot subtler a thrill, and he writes comics because they're his medium of choice. Watchmen was a comic by, for, and of the comics. Zack Snyder, poor bastard, saw a story about people who dress up in costumes. I'm not saying he's dumb. I'm not saying he's an asshole. I'm not even calling him a hack. I've never been mad at him for taking my favorite comic and making a shitty movie out of it. I'm just disappointed.

I had the idea, a few years ago, that as Watchmen the comic was a comic about comics, that a Watchmen movie would have to be a superhero movie about superhero movies. This presented the problem of making something so long, slow, self-reflexive, and intellectual as concise, well-paced, and accessible as possible. Of course, since the movie rights to Watchmen were owned by some studio or other—that was still when Fox and Warners were suing each other over who was going to make it—I didn't devote an enormous amount of time to it, since I knew that if they still hadn't made a movie of it by the time I was a hotshot screenwriter and/or director, the chances of it being made would be nil. But watching Zack Snyder's version . . . much sighing ensued.

Reason I wish I'd made it: Give me two years and a nine-figure budget and I'd have cracked it.

The Squid and the Whale (2005) dir. Noah Baumbach

I have a long-standing grudge—that like all grudges is kind of stupid and petty—against Noah Baumbach, going back to when I saw Kicking and Screaming back in the day. The 90s were an innocent time, when pretty people in their 20s could whine about not knowing what they were going to do with their lives and get movie and record deals. Kicking and Screaming, more than Reality Bites or early Pearl Jam, finally made me realize just how annoying, and how worthy of ridicule, was angst. I turned to the friend I'd watched Kicking and Screaming with and said, “This motherfucker has so much angst, he needs an umlaut.” And thus have I spelled it “ängst” ever since.

So when I found out that Noah Baumbach (who's only a couple years older than me) grew up in Park Slope, and his well-educated parents had divorced in the 80s, and that he had made a movie about it, I immediately began using curse words. Because I grew up in Park Slope in the 80s. My well-educated parents got divorced. There goes my autobiographical auteur picture. Fuck you, Noah Baumbach.

I finally watched The Squid and the Whale and I realized, well . . . his experience was enough different from mine that I can still make my movie. But there's going to be one douchebag critic—and I would not be at all surprised if it's Armond White—who's going to lead his/her review by going, “Bowes' coming-of-age tale, a stale retread of Noah Baumbach's excellent The Squid and the Whale . . .” and I'm going to have to drink large amounts of Jamesons, and my friends will be so thoroughly annoyed at my accompanying four-hour diatribe about how Noah Baumbach has ruined my life, that an untoward amount of unhappiness will be unleashed upon the world. Fucking prick.

Reason I wish I'd made it: “Noah Baumbach's coming of age tale, a stale retread of Danny Bowes' excellent The Downward Slope . . .” Doesn't that sound better?

The Good German (2006) dir. Steven Soderbergh

This was a lay up. The book, by Joseph Kanon, was one of those well-written, intelligent mainstream novels that Hollywood has been turning into good movies since there have been movies. It's about a war reporter who goes back to Berlin after the war to try and find his old girlfriend. Of course, because that's the way things are, she's married, so he's also trying to find her husband, a scientist who reluctantly worked for the Nazis. Some kid soldier gets killed, and the reporter looks into his death and finds all kinds of military misbehavior, and in the end we have one of those moments where the hero can stand there, having gotten the girl, and muse cynically about how right and wrong is a matter of where you're standing, but in a way that's simple enough that if you put him in a nice widescreen shot and have some wind blowing his and the girl's hair, the audience will walk out nodding solemnly and Oscars and box office success are foretold.

So Steven Soderbergh gets the rights. He casts George Clooney and Cate Blanchett. I'm saying “fuck yes.” But then I hear Steve's planning to shoot the whole thing on the Universal backlot with 1940s equipment. Hmm. I start reading quotes saying stuff like, I want to recreate a 1940s style movie but with bad language and nudity. Hmmmmmm. Didn't really seem to be the point of the book, but oh well.

I went to see the movie a week or so after it opened. A quick (prejudicial) look at the audience revealed that I was the youngest person there and the only one with a sense of humor. (Note: the author was in a shitty mood that day.) The movie unspooled, and it sure was shot with 1940s equipment. Steve threw in a ton of artsy camera angles that undermined his frequently-stated “I'm making a Michael Curtiz movie” intentions, but meh, whatever. The bigger issue was that when I walked out of the theater, the first thing that popped into my head was “wow . . . there sure was a lot of gratuitous foul language and nudity. . .” Now think for a second. Read some of the other entries in this blog. Bear in mind that I'm the guy who staged an homage to the Madison scene in Bande a Part with me and two girls, naked. I own the motherfucking patent on gratuitous foul language and nudity. If someone curses so much and so unnecessarily that it bugs me . . . and if I, for fuck's sake, think you have too many naked people in your movie . . . I couldn't even remember what the movie was about, and I'd read the book and been looking forward to the movie for a year. All I could remember was that Tobey Maguire cursed too much and smoked unfiltered cigarettes and spit loose tobacco.

Alas. As much as I champion auteurs, and don't think that literary adaptations need to be direct transcriptions of the source material, and certainly support the fine institutions of saying fuck and showing tits, I've only once been more disappointed in a movie than I was in The Good German. (Number one's coming up next). I think that, with a more conventionally commercial approach, and a “happy” ending (hero gets the girl, and while some shady dudes get away with it, the hero's moral superiority is established), The Good German would have been wonderful. Goddammit, here I am advocating Hollywood being unsubtle and emotionally manipulative. Fuck, Steve, I hope you're proud of yourself.

Reason I wish I'd made it: I wanted to have a widescreen shot of George Clooney kissing Cate Blanchett at the end with a John Williams/James Horner/whoever score soaring to the heavens. Sure, I'm square, but if I'd directed that picture I'd be a rich square, so na na na na na na.

The Long Goodbye (1973) dir. Robert Altman.

I'm pretty forgiving about who gets to be a Great Director. You don't have to be awesome every time. You can miss the target every now and again. You're even allowed to make a giant, steaming pile of shit once in a while; maybe you need rent money, maybe the hookers and cocaine are distracting you, maybe that notoriously difficult actor you hired because he was talented added to his notoriety by being difficult and the talent was nowhere to be seen. Maybe you don't have anyone around to tell you no, because you've already made a couple great pictures and everyone calls you a genius all day long. So, all that being said, Robert Altman was a great director. Top 5 all-time, American-born directors category. Why not? He made a handful of terrific movies: MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts, Gosford Park (yes, Gosford Park is great). His influence was vast, and even though he occasionally jerked actors around they all walked away speaking worshipfully about him.

But make no mistake, when Robert Altman fucked up he fucked up. For reasons that have never been altogether clear, in the early 70s Altman decided to make a movie of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye. A little bit changed between '53, when Chandler released the book, and '73, when Altman released the movie, and a lot of Chandler's social commentary about the idle rich was a bit dated, but the bits about the corruptibility of absolute wealth and power are timeless. Philip Marlowe never gets old either, because even in the time Chandler was writing, Marlowe was a man out of step with his time, clinging to outmoded notions of honor, of their being such a thing as right and wrong. But all in all, The Long Goodbye was probably not the hardest Chandler to update to the 1970s, or if Altman wanted to go MASH-style, to ostensibly set it in the '50s but really be about the modern day.

But rather than adapt Chandler, Altman and writer Leigh Brackett decided to dig him up and piss on his corpse. Brackett—probably still shellshocked from trying to turn Chandler's first novel, The Big Sleep, into something coherent in the 40s—came up with the idea, egged on by Altman, to:

---satirize the book, noir, and the painfully unhip pre-60s world in general
---set it in the present day
---turn Philip Marlowe into a shlubby pussy
---have the writer character commit suicide instead of being murdered, when his murder was essential to the plot of the novel
---change the Mexican gangster into a batshit crazy Jew for no apparent reason
---have Marlowe kill Terry Lennox at the end

This would have made sense if Leigh Brackett had been Chandler's ex-wife or something, but no. Altman's maverick renegade image was quite romantic, and frequently his rebellion against the traditional way of doing things resulted in great cinema. But those were the fights he had to fight. This was not one of those times. The Long Goodbye had just been sitting there, not bothering anyone. Other Hollywood New Wave writers and directors were experimenting with noir—Chinatown was a terrific example of updating Chandler, with Robert Towne and Roman Polanski (reluctantly) working together to turn a massive, unwieldy script into the most-cited script in “how it's done” lectures people like Syd Field give aspiring screenwriters. Altman, though, just decided to throw a tantrum and film it.

Ironically, this was one case where the maverick renegade fuck you motherfucker guy could have stood listening to the suits a bit: the suits wanted Robert Mitchum as Marlowe. Mitchum went on to do a couple not-half-bad Chandler adaptations in England, playing Marlowe, but Altman said, no, give me Elliott Gould, he hasn't been severely miscast yet, it's time he broke his cherry. Mitchum had the advantage of both being quite like the Marlowe Chandler wrote, and having a connection to the classic age of film noir (having starred in some of the best ones, i.e. Out of the Past). But no, the suits are always wrong.

One of Altman's stunt casting middle-fingers actually kind of backfired: TV sportscaster Jim Bouton (also the author of one of the best books ever written about baseball, Ball Four) was pretty good as Terry Lennox, and would have been better if his scenes weren't so fucking terribly written.

In the end, one giant sigh. Instead of dwelling on this or letting Altman being an asshole bug me, I prefer to put on one of his good movies. And in short order, all is once again well.

Reason I wish I'd made it: Because I want to see The Long Goodbye set in the 50s, in, if not a completely faithful adaptation, at least a respectful one.

That's it for today. Now that I'm back in functioning shape, there'll be more to discuss. And remember, envy is stupid.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

FUN WITH YOUTUBE, PART 1

In the grand tradition of Nikki Finke, I'm too goddamn sick to post anything substantive today(if you were expecting an anarcho-Marxist interpretation of the cinema of Jason Statham, you'll just have to wait).

Instead, I give you the Youtube channel of legendary Onion AV Club troll ZODIAC MOTHERFUCKER. His "Great Moments in Ownage" series is some of the best, most original film criticism out there. (Note: keep your volume control handy, ZMF likes loud metal.)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

WHAT IS THE ROOM? WHY IS THE ROOM?

Often, the title of Best _____ is debatable. Who's the best guitarist of all time? You got your Clapton people, your Jimi people, you have your trolls who advocate Yngwie J. Malmsteen. Best basketball player of all time? Most would say Michael Jordan, but the occasional old-timer will argue for Bill Russell. Best tabloid scandal: gay Republican jailbait enthusiasts? Tiger Woods' 9 wood? Unanimity is hard to come by with subjective opinion.


Except, of course, when the topic of Greatest Cult Movie of the first decade of the 21st century is concerned. There is but one: The Room. Released in 2003, The Room became legendary among Los Angeles-based actors and comedians, and made its way east a few years later, gradually becoming a national sensation. Much has been written about this glorious cinematic catastrophe—I'm very late to the game writing about it now—and the mysterious auteur behind it, writer/director/producer/executive producer/star (each credit is on a separate title card; his name appears a million goddamn times in the credits) Tommy Wiseau.

First things first.

(1) If you haven't seen The Room yet, do so now (any number of places stream it or have a torrent; failing that there's always Amazon or Netflix). If you have, skip to step 2.
(2) If you haven't already read this beautiful interview, do so now. If you have, skip to step 3
(3) Watch this. This is allegedly a sitcom.

What more is there to say? That, like Ed Wood, Tommy Wiseau is, despite his complete absence of talent, an auteur (there's certainly no one like him)? That schadenfreude is one of the most pleasurable sensations known to man? I say: there is certainly more to this story. Who, I asked myself, is Tommy Wiseau?

In the interests of journalism, I tracked down and interviewed Romanian filmmaker Titu Ceausescu. We opened with some pleasantries regarding Ceausescu's latest film Toamna Desperare (English: Autumnal Despair) before broaching the topic of Tommy Wiseau.


DB: So you went to film school with Tommy Wiseau.

TC: Yes. Very long time ago.

DB: He claims to be 40 years old.

TC: I do not think so, but is hard to say. He is strange man.

DB: Have you seen The Room?

TC: Yes. Is very good American film, like Tennessee Williams, but with the drugs.

DB: That leads me to a rumor circulating among many fans of The Room—that Tommy Wiseau raised the $6 million budget through drug dealing.

TC: I do not know. Of course, in America, you do not . . . how you say . . . subsidize the arts, so perhaps American filmmakers must sell the drugs to make money for film.

DB: To the best of your knowledge, are these rumors true?

TC: I do not . . . maybe they are. Tommy has very long hair and wears makeup, not that that means he is drug dealer, but he is very strange man. Maybe he is, maybe he is not. I hear rumor he sell knockoff leather jackets.

DB: I heard that too. Stranger things have happened.

TC: Yes. In Tommy's film, many stranger things happen.

DB: Were there any indications in film school—was this in Romania?

TC: Yes, in Romania. But, if reason you ask is because you want to know where Tommy is from, I can not tell you. His accent is very odd accent. Even in eastern Europe where we all have funny accent, we laugh and make joke about Tommy's accent. Is very strange. Is it American?

DB: Hmm. It does sort of sound like what would happen if you took a bunch of muscle relaxants and washed them down with a bottle of vodka . . .

TC: We would like very much for you to have Tommy. Please tell me he is American.

DB: I don't think so. Sorry.

TC: Oh well.

DB: Getting back to my previous question: were there any indications in film school that Tommy had the sort of unique talent he's since displayed?

TC: Yes. Actually funny thing happen one day. Tommy was camera operator on film I make about human condition—woman leaves husband because he is Communist, and Communist kill her in end—and is time for lunch break. Artosz, Hungarian guy, crazy fatherfucker, passes out potato (Communism is dead, but money still is what you say very tight) to crew. Tommy is messing about with camera, wondering why we only have 35mm camera and not HD side-by-side, when Artosz try to get Tommy attention. Tommy not paying attention. So Artosz throw potato at Tommy and say, “Hey, fuck maker,” but Tommy don't look up in time and potato smack him in head like BWAAA. Tommy go unconscious. We are all like oh fuck. After little while, Tommy wake up and see potato. Artosz says, “I am very sorry to throw potato, Tommy.” And Tommy says, “Potato . . . potato is like woman.”

DB: Oh my God. That explains the casting of the woman who plays Lisa in The Room.

TC: Yes, potato became big theory of aesthetics for Tommy. Potato was like woman, woman was like potato. This is first of many theory Tommy had. The most important was, because Tommy was convince that accident never happen if film use both 35mm and HD camera side-by-side, he shoot The Room like that. Also, he have theory that best looking woman who can actually act should have very small part in film, because that way is the avant-garde. Good-looking woman who can act in lead, very conventional. I do not say bourgeois because Tommy is not of Left.

DB: Well, nobody's perfect.

TC: No. Tommy also wrote 50,000 word essay on having two actors play same part. Not in Romanian, like most course work in the film school. Come to think, I do not know whether essay was in German, French, English, Russian, Romanian, all of above, because after head injury Tommy did not make a lot of sense. Neither did idea. But Tommy was fun to have around. Me, other film students, we used to get the vodka and maybe a little bit of the weed and we sit around, get Tommy little bit lit, and listen to him talk. Funny shit, my friend.

DB: So Americans aren't being provincial, making fun of the way he talks?

TC: Oh no. Believe me, I am first to say if America does something bad. Believe me, I do not like America, though you are one of good ones.

DB: Thank you.

TC: No, Tommy talks very funny. Is okay to laugh when thing is funny.

DB: Whew.

TC: Is true, in America, they say The Room is comedy?

DB: Unintentional comedy.

TC: Between you and me, I let you in on secret.

DB: Okay.

TC: Remember, I say earlier, The Room is great American movie? And I quote Tommy saying film is like Tennessee Williams?

DB: Right.

TC: You do good job keeping straight face when I say that.

DB: Oh. You were kidding?

TC: Of course I am kidding. Listen to me, I tell you great secret about Europeans.

DB: Cool.

TC: When we say weird shit about America, when we say random American film is greatest film of all time or crazy shit . . . we are doing this to fuck up you. To fuck with. You know what I try to say.

DB: Wow. So the French saying Bret Easton Ellis is the greatest American author since Fitzgerald—

TC: Of course is bullshit. We laugh when you read that in magazine and say, “Man, Europe is weird.” Funniest thing Americans do is when you try a war and we say “No, America is bully.” Americans on the right-wing news channel say very funny things. We drink wine, smoke the hash, and watch pirate signal American right-wing news channel. Is funny like Francis Veber film.

DB: So . . . is Tommy playing a joke on America? Is that what you're saying?

TC: No, no, of course not. Reason we all laugh at Tommy is because Tommy is dipshit. He does not have . . . what is word . . . never mind. Tommy I do not think is actually European. Maybe is very sophisticated scheme, born of self-loathing, to be both European enough to be laughingstock for Americans, but American enough that Europeans say “Hey, he is like American! Ha ha ha ha, pass wine and hashish, this is funny stuff man.” I do not know.

DB: Well, Titu, you've definitely given my readers a new insight into the idiosyncratic mind of Tommy Wiseau.

TC: It was pleasure.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"I JUST MADE PICTURES I WOULD'VE LIKED TO SEE."


It's kind of hard to call someone underrated when he won a gajillion Oscars, directed hit after hit after hit, and inspires other directors to say things like “I would like to believe in God in order to thank him. But I just believe in Billy Wilder . . . so, thank you, Mr. Wilder.” (Billy later called the guy up and said, “Fernando, it's God.”) But, despite having more writing Oscar nominations than anyone other than Woody Allen, more directing nominations than anyone except William Wyler (also underrated), and being one of only six people to win Oscars for writing, producing, and directing the same movie (The Apartment; the others were Francis Ford Coppola for Godfather II, James L. Brooks for Terms of Endearment, Peter Jackson for Lord of the Rings, and the Coen brothers for No Country), I still think Billy Wilder is underrated.

At this point I wouldn't blame you for asking: what more do you want, blowjobs? The problem, O wiseass straw man, is an unconventional one. Most of the time the problem with underrated directors is that civilians never know who they are, and that's not really the problem with Billy. Civilians all know Some Like It Hot, The Seven Year Itch, Sunset Blvd, and the real good civilians even know Double Indemnity, Sabrina, The Apartment. Billy Wilder is near-unique in that he's underrated by movie nerds.

The hipster douchebags who sigh at you that the only relevant directors in the history of the medium are Welles, Godard, Tarkovsky, Fassbinder, Bergman, and Haneke have no use for Billy. After all, the man's pictures are entertaining, he can't possibly be an artist. Make no mistake, I like Welles and Godard, and about one in five Fassbinder pictures—which is still about thirty of them—but come the fuck on. Even more annoying than the hipsters—because you can at least talk about how dope Weekend is with them while drinking cheap beer—are the kind of tweedy professional critic whose Ten Best of the last decade were all time-lapse documentaries about yaks fucking in Mongolia, pictures about Romanian women getting abortions, and, just to personally piss me off, one thing that actually does rule, like a Todd Haynes picture or something. I guess, because one time in 1968 when Godard had his period and declared Hollywood to be bourgeois and fascist, fun became aesthetically non-coincident with art, and ever shall be. Here's a mature, measured response to that type of film criticism:



Anyway, back to Billy, aka the man whose 10 Commandments were (1-9) “Thou shalt not bore” and (10) “Thou shalt have right of final cut.” Starting out as first a reporter and then screenwriter in Berlin, Billy came to Hollywood via Paris after '33 (although Billy made it out, his mother, grandmother, and stepfather all died in Auschwitz). After a number of notable screenwriting successes—among them Ninotchka, which considering it was produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starred Greta Garbo is one serious classic all-time writer-director-star triumvirate—Billy made the then-rare transition to becoming a writer/director. After amassing a solid string of hits, Billy then started producing as well.

Keep in mind, this was rare back then. Trying to think of writer-directors in Studio System era Hollywood, there's Billy, Preston Sturges, a little later Joe Mankiewicz, after a certain point John Huston, Welles before they kicked him out of Hollywood (and you don't buy those scurrilous rumors that Herman Mankiewicz, Joe's brother, actually wrote Citizen Kane and Welles' writing credit was because his ego needed one), maybe a couple other guys I'm forgetting . . . not a lot, compared to today. Billy Wilder basically said to the studios, “You can trust me, I make movies, not films. My movies make money. Now leave me alone and we'll all get rich.” And the execs were like, “Hurf durf, sure Billy, we like money. You're a swell guy, ya know.” (Don't ask me why Zanuck or Goldwyn or Warner or whoever talks like Goofy in my universe; some things you're better off not knowing.) The suits fucked off to the golf course while Billy smiled and said, “Now that those schmucks are out of the way, let's bend the rules as far as we can.”

Oh, yeah, you best believe Billy Wilder was a maverick. Just because his career didn't end in implosion, exile, or any of the industry standard auteur death scenarios doesn't mean Billy wasn't pushing envelopes, getting in occasional trouble with censors, and having at least four or five moments per picture where you're like, “wait, what year did this come out? Damn Billy was cool.”

The following is a selective—and admittedly incomplete—look at my favorite Billy Wilder pictures. If one of your favorite Billy pictures isn't here, I didn't “forget” it, I'm not saying it sucks, and I probably did see it, I'm just trying to keep this post under 20,000 words for once.

Double Indemnity (1944)

One of my favorite stories about this movie was, when co-scripter Raymond Chandler was futzing around with James M. Cain's dialogue—Cain having written the source novel—and the suits were pissed, they called up Cain to see if he'd lean on Billy (how that would have any effect, you'd have to ask the suits) and Cain told them, “You have Raymond Chandler re-writing my dialogue . . . and you're complaining?” That ended that.

Double Indemnity is one of those movies that really make you wonder why Billy always downplayed any suggestion that he was a visual stylist and claimed that he made movies 80 percent with the script (the other 20 being “having the camera in the right spot and being able to afford to have good actors in all parts”) because man does Double Indemnity look cool. You know the classic noir “light through the venetian blinds” shot? First done here. Also, without being lewd at all Billy makes Barbra Stanwyck look every bit as dangerously sexy as Fred MacMurray is supposed to find her. Granted, making Barbra Stanwyck look hot has about the same difficulty curve as tying your shoelaces, but still, Mr. “I just put the camera in the right spot,” stop it with the false modesty.

The Lost Weekend (1945)

More pioneering visuals: what Wikipedia calls “the 'character walking toward the camera as neon signs flash by' camera effect” (I shouldn't make fun, I don't know what the technical term is either). I guess Billy Wilder just had a really good instinctive visual sense, since his pictures didn't look cool because he was showing off.

Here we see one of Billy's greatest strengths: getting performances out of actors. Ray Milland is crazy good in this. And, unlike the average 30s/40s Hollywood movie where every scene starts with one character pouring the other a drink—the source of the invariably fatal Humphrey Bogart Drinking Game—we actually see the consequences of alcoholism here. Sure, you'd see people get drunk in movies, and they'd get a little wobbly, maybe even slur their words a bit. But Ray Milland is fucking struggling in this movie. Check out his DT's in this scene (the next time I remember seeing a DT's scene this intense is when Yves Montand goes apeshit in Le Cercle Rouge . . . 25 years later. In a French movie.)

Deservedly won Ray Milland an Oscar, though it would have been interesting to see what the movie would have been like if the Hays Code hadn't forced Billy to cut the part in the novel about how the reason Ray Milland gets so fucked up all the time is because people found out he had homosex in college. But hey, give me $10 million and I'll make the gay version, half as well as Billy did even with the handicap that the censors gutted Ray Milland's motivation.

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Billy kills the hero . . . in the opening scene. Boo ya.

Like most movies about the business by people who've been irritated by experiences in it, there's a healthy dose of cynicism. Think of the cynicism like a pint container of ice cream. Sometimes it's a bit much for one sitting, so you put it back in the freezer. Sometimes you then go back and finish it. Other times, you just sit there and eat the whole fuckin' thing and enjoy that delicious, cold feeling. And, more often than not, feel kind of sick.

The thing that's cool about Sunset Blvd. is that even though the game is the game, no one in this movie is arbitrarily fucked over by it. William Holden may not be a super-successful screenwriter, but he gets pictures made. Gloria Swanson may not have been in any movies for twenty-some years, but she's batshit crazy. Erich von Stroheim may have been a hot shit director in the 20s, but he chose to be Gloria Swanson's butler instead (and if his character is anything like the real von Stroheim, he probably turned in an eight-hour cut of one of his movies and then got pissed when the studio was like, “uhh . . . can you edit this a smidge?”)

Being cynical about cynicism? Attaboy, Billy. Oh, and while we're talking about stuff he invented, let's give Mr. Wilder another credit: I don't recall any movies before this that brought back 20-30 year old pop culture icons—in ascending order of screen time, Buster Keaton, Cecil B. DeMille, and la Swanson—so there's another reason why hipsters are dipshits for not being up on Billy. He invented being nostalgic about pop culture of days of yore. Okay, maybe that's stretching it, but there's no such thing as a gratuitous swipe at hipsters.

Stalag 17 (1953)

This might be Billy's best movie. Or maybe it's a ten-or-fifteen way tie. Wherever it ranks (assuming of course, that ranking movies can or should be done), it certainly has brilliant acting (the supporting cast mostly came from the Broadway cast of the play it was based on), particularly by William Holden, who cares so little about being liked that he actually goes almost the whole movie without correcting the misconception among his fellow POWs that he's giving information to the Nazis. Actually, Holden himself was very nervous about playing such a selfish prick and clashed with Billy about making him more likable but Billy told him to shut up and enjoy the Oscar he was about to win. As usual, Billy was right.

More in the ongoing “Billy Wilder was a master of every aspect of the medium of cinema” meme that I'm hammering you over the head with: the climactic sequence, when Holden busts the guy out of the camp, is goddamn incredible. The other directors I can think of who evoke such visceral response (I was on the edge of my chair screaming advice to William Holden) strictly through their technique are Hitchcock . . . Spielberg . . . Scorsese (sometimes) . . . shit, there's gotta be someone else . . . oh wait, Billy Wilder was a master of every aspect of the medium of cinema. Mount Rushmore.

Stalag 17 is particularly great if you've just seen a few shitty WWII movies, with all the cliches. This is a cliche-free zone. The camp isn't particularly hellish—it's not the Waldorf-Astoria by any means but it could be a hell of a lot worse. The Nazis are the bad guys, but Sig Ruman gets along with the prisoners okay, even though Otto Preminger is very bad indeed. The supporting cast, instead of the collection of boilerplate characters one usually finds in a WWII movie, are all rounded, nuanced, and come alive; you feel like the prisoners are real people.

Probably the most impressive thing is that Billy made a WWII movie that isn't depressing, and doesn't feel like the reason it isn't depressing is because it's skirting the issues involved. That's alchemy. Even Steven Spielberg—no slouch in the Making Entertaining Movies department—made WWII movies that leave you stunned, like you've been through the damn war. Billy's tone was more like “okay, war sucks, but you know what? We're gonna make it.” Without the “okay, war sucks” part seeming like a throwaway. Because Billy Wilder is a better writer than me.

Sabrina (1954)

Not terribly profound, but it's William Holden, Humphrey Bogart, and Audrey Hepburn in the same movie, which is an excuse to post a bunch of pictures of Audrey Hepburn.





The Seven Year Itch (1955)

See above, but substitute Marilyn Monroe. As per the frequent discussion of Billy and his underrated visuals, even the most civilian-y civilians in Civilianville know this one:


Billy really didn't like Marilyn Monroe: “Marilyn was mean. Terribly mean. The meanest woman I have ever met around this town. I have never met anybody as mean as Marilyn Monroe or as utterly fabulous on the screen.” The thing people always forget about Marilyn Monroe is that the bubbly, voluptuous, breathy-voiced bit was an act. Lee Strasberg favorably compared her to his other pupils, who were mostly just schmucks like Marlon Brando, and if you look at Marilyn Monroe movies remembering that that's not really her, she is a pretty impressive actor. She was also bitter about the way women had to get by in the business (after signing her first contract, she announced to the room with a sigh and a sardonic smile, “Well, that's the last cock I'll ever have to suck.”) and that bitterness made her mean. But Billy was all about the work, infinitesimal bullshit threshold aside.

This was one of the movies most responsible for Marilyn Monroe's elevation to icon status, precisely because to the main guy in this movie, she is a symbol, rather than a real person. She plays a model who makes a married man start having second thoughts about monogamy. Yeah, I know, “Wow. What a fucking stretch.” But there's being typecast, and there's being typecast, and the only actor in the world who could have played that part was Marilyn Monroe. And Billy knew it, and put up with her chronic lateness and “fuck you, motherfucker” attitude, because when you get a chance to make an all-time classic, you do it.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Oh, let's just make the best courtroom drama of all time that isn't To Kill a Mockingbird in our spare time . . . yawn . . . oh, sure, I'll take those Oscars. Gosh, that Marlene Dietrich is so much lower maintenance than Marilyn . . . though keeping Charles Laughton sober was a pain in the ass. Oh well. Win some, lose some.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

A brief autobiographical aside: when I was in elementary school and my primary cinematic interest was in Bruce Lee movies, I would occasionally consent to let my mom or dad pick the movie (mostly mom). This involved watching Grown-Up Movies. Some of which were Old. Now, being a sophisticated cineaste and a nuanced intellect, this was less torturous than it would be for the average, run-of-the-mill little kid, I was, nonetheless, still a little kid, so a lot of movies went over my head. Not all of them did, though:

Top 5 Grown-Up Movies (ages 8-12)

(5) Three Days of the Condor (1975), dir. Sydney Pollack.
(4) Shadow of a Doubt (1943), dir. Alfred Hitchcock
(3) The Quiet Man (1951), dir. John Ford
(2) The Maltese Falcon (1941), dir. John Huston
(1) Some Like it Hot (1959) dir. Billy Wilder

After you're finished being in awe of my precocious taste (if you still need help calming down, bear in mind my overall top 5 was exclusively Bruce, Arnold, Seagal, or Van Damme), let's kick it about how awesome Some Like it Hot is.

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are musician buddies who inadvertently witness the Valentine's Day Massacre, and can ID George Raft as the bad guy. Naturally, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon shit a brick , because who in his right mind wants to piss George Raft off? A solution presents itself—a gig down in Florida—with the famous wrinkle: it's an all-girl band. Thus we get to see the glorious sight—toldja Billy Wilder's visual sense was underrated—of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as the frumpiest couple of broads you've ever seen in your life. But wait! There's more! The singer in the band they sign on with is Marilyn fuckin' Monroe! In one of the greatest self-referential, self-aware, yet still organic and vital performances of all time! So Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon have to make sure Marilyn Monroe doesn't think they're lesbians. Or, for that matter, men.

Once they get down to Florida, Tony Curtis grows weary of this subterfuge and decides to disguise himself as Cary Grant (basically) so that he can shtup Marilyn Monroe without it being gay. (I love this movie so much.) Meanwhile, Joe E. Brown—whose yacht Tony Curtis is borrowing in his side-splitting Cary Grant gambit—has a raging boner for Jack Lemmon, who finds the situation initially awkward, but one night tangos til dawn with Joe E. Brown, who proposes marriage. Jack Lemmon accepts, before Tony Curtis reality checks him (“motherfucker, gay marriage won't even be legal 50 years from now”).

Just when all these entanglements are almost sorted out, George Raft and other “Friends of Italian Opera” arrive for a conference at the hotel, with blithe disregard for all the gender identity issues at stake. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon have to figure out how to get the hell outta Dodge without breaking Marilyn Monroe's and Joe E. Brown's hearts. Fortunately, George Raft's wicked ways have earned the ire of the other Friends of Italian Opera, whose favored form of aesthetic critique employs a tommy gun. With George Raft sufficiently ventilated, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, and Joe E. Brown all end up heading out to Joe E. Brown's yacht. Marilyn Monroe is willing to accept Tony Curtis as a man who isn't Cary Grant. But this leaves Jack Lemmon to explain things to Joe E. Brown:

Jack Lemmon: Yeah, Osgood. I can't get married in your mother's dress. Ha ha. That-she and I, we are not built the same way.

Joe E. Brown: We can have it altered.

Jack Lemmon: Oh no you don't! Osgood, I'm gonna level with you. We can't get married at all.

Joe E. Brown: Why not?

Jack Lemmon: Well, in the first place, I'm not a natural blonde.

Joe E. Brown: Doesn't matter.

Jack Lemmon: I smoke! I smoke all the time!

Joe E. Brown: I don't care.

Jack Lemmon: Well, I have a terrible past. For three years now, I've been living with a saxophone player.

Joe E. Brown: I forgive you.

Jack Lemmon: [Tragically] I can never have children!

Joe E. Brown: We can adopt some.

Jack Lemmon: But you don't understand, Osgood! [Whips off his wig, exasperated, and changes to a manly voice.] Uhhh, I'm a man!

Joe E. Brown: [Looks at him then turns back, unperturbed]: Well, nobody's perfect!


Fuck. Yes. Even if it wasn't for the whole rest of his career, Billy Wilder would be God for that scene alone. There are movies being made today that aren't that hip, and this fucking movie came out during the fucking Eisenhower administration. Oh, well. Fortunately, Some Like it Hot is so funny that popping in the DVD will cheer you up under any circumstances whatsoever, even when pondering the horrible fact that we live in a country where Joe E. Brown can't marry Jack Lemmon.

Billy still had a couple classics in him (The Apartment, One, Two, Three), but at a certain point the business, movies themselves, and the world itself evolved. And so his brilliant career faded away, but not before inspiring a handful of directors and leaving behind one of the more impressive bodies of work in cinema. Impressive, and underrated. So the next time some tweedy critic is name-dropping directors you've never heard of and wish he'd shut up, remember: Nobody's perfect. Though Billy Wilder at his best comes damn close.

Monday, February 15, 2010

DIRECTORS ON DIRECTING

I found this video pretty interesting. It's the five Oscar-nominated directors this year---Kathryn Bigelow, James Cameron, Lee Daniels, Jason Reitman, and Quentin Tarantino---talking about auditioning. It's a shame Kathryn doesn't talk more, but note the story Cameron tells about Point Break.

Happy Presidents' Day!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

IT'S FEBRUARY 14 . . . AND YOU KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS

It's Chinese New Year, byetches! Well, this year, anyway. There's apparently some other holiday today, but Herculean efforts to give a shit failed. The way I see it, last year I was in a relationship, and I can't even remember what we did last V-Day, so why should I give a flaming rat's ass now, when I'm single? Even talking about it for this long gives the mistaken impression that I give a fuck. So, without further ado, let's ring in the Year of the Tiger by kickin' it with the Little Dragon:




When I was a kid, I used to get beaten up from time to time. What would happen is, one kid would start a fight with me, I'd kick his ass, and then a couple days later he'd come back with five friends and proceed to kick mine. As much as, intellectually, I knew that not being able to beat five people at once wasn't necessarily a reflection on my testicular status, I'd still be sore. Being, as I was, not possessed of physical grace, and being also as I was rather larger than the average Napoleon-complex ravaged Brooklynite, I used to find myself in more fights than I found comfortable. Which sucked. What do you do when life sucks? I seek catharsis. Mine came in the form of Bruce Lee movies.

For some reason, in the mid 80s, they used to show Bruce Lee movies all the time on channel 9. I didn't question it. I watched anything with Bruce in it as many times as the universe would let me. Bruce could kick five dudes' asses at once, and do it with style, natch. He usually started the picture as a dork, like me. He was awkward with girls, like me. He'd inevitably run afoul of authority figures, like me. But at a certain point, Bruce would receive a shipment of whoop-ass, of which he would proceed to open a case. And any motherfucker who fucked with him got fucked the fuck up.

The greatest thing about Bruce movies was always the second-to-third act portion of the movie where he had to beat the shit out of twenty or thirty extras. Not just because this was the part of the movie with all the action in it, but because Bruce would frequently be blatantly fucking around. Like, “hmm, I'm gonna do this whole fight just kicking, no punching or blocking.” The effortlessly badass way Bruce navigated his way through the simplistic storyline of his movies gave me the strength to deal with shit in my own life (though it did lead to a couple embarrassing attempts to appropriate Bruce's moves in schoolyard fights).

Sadly, Bruce only finished four movies as the lead (the hilarious scene where he trashes James Garner's office in Marlowe doesn't count), leaving a fifth to be finished through stock footage and a double. His death was so mysterious and out of nowhere that there are nearly as many conspiracy theories about his death as there are with JFK (and, like JFK, his son also died too young). The Triads had him whacked. His wife had him killed for fucking around on her. The woman he was fucking around on his wife with killed him. He was a secret drug addict and OD'd. He faked his death, took a vow of silence, and is an anonymous Shaolin monk somewhere to this day. He faked his death and is chasing poontang with JFK, Elvis, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin. Et cetera. Ad infinitum.

I'm not enough of an expert on Bruce's life to go too deep into the history, though I will say the man has a number of awesome stories about him, mainly starring dipshits who challenged him to street fights and woke up a couple days later to be told, “Bruce kind of flicked you in the chest with his wrist, you flew across the room, and were rushed to the hospital with four broken ribs and a collapsed lung. The doctors had to give you an orangutan heart to revive you.” There was one tournament story where Bruce won in eleven seconds and everyone there swears Bruce managed to kick the other guy 15 times and land 4 punches before the ref stopped the fight. Someone once asked Chuck Norris (“when Chuck Norris falls out of a boat, he doesn't get wet, the water gets Chuck Norris” etc etc) who would win in a fight to the death, him or Bruce, and Chuck turned green thinking about how Bruce would leave him alive and humiliated so no one would ever question who was best again and said, “Um, Bruce would win.” Bruce Lee was so badass, Steve McQueen learned shit from him (seriously, Bruce Lee was Steve McQueen's sifu).

Certain things are going to be skipped in this discussion, like the Hong Kong movies Bruce made when he was a little kid (I haven't seen them), The Green Hornet (ibid), the aforementioned trashing of James Garner's office, and the horrendous racist ass-fucking Bruce received re: inventing the TV show Kung Fu and never receiving any credit whatsoever (to be left to people who know more of the story than “Bruce got fucked”).

Let us commence. (Note, if I fuck up and call something by its US title, it's because that's what they were called when they were on channel 9 and on the tape case at Valdez Video in the Slope. Also, some narrative chronology/details might be a little off.)

The Big Boss aka Fists of Fury (1971)

Bruce stars as Cheng Chao-an, a dork—but with a propensity for violence; he's under a resultant vow to never fight again, and wears a locket to remind him of the vow—whose uncle brings him to Thailand to live with his cousins and work in an ice factory. The guy who runs the place is a real piece of shit rich guy, and his son is a goddamn reptile. Bruce's cousins are all right, though, and their unofficial leader Hsu Chien goes out of his way to embrace Bruce and make him feel comfortable.

One night when Hsu Chien brings Bruce along to perform a good deed—getting a crying woman's gambling-addicted husband out of a crooked casino—Bruce inadvertently breaks his vow by socking some douchebag in the jaw, and Hsu Chien is like, hey, nice moves. But Bruce re-dedicates himself to not fighting again.

The boss and his asshole son are smuggling heroin frozen in the middle of the ice—something I've always found hilarious: what, no one's gonna see a big bag o' smack in the middle of a clear block of ice?—and when a couple of Bruce's cousins find out, the boss and his kid have them whacked, and subsequently dismembered with a circular saw and frozen in their own blocks of ice. The boss promises, a la OJ, to get to the bottom of this dastardly deed. However, it takes a little long for our heroes' liking, and Hsu Chien ends up putting two and two together and realizing the cousins are dead, at which point the boss ambushes him and has him killed. The workers at the ice factory have had enough, and stage a sit-down strike, but the boss is having none of this Communism: he sends a couple busloads of Thai Teamsters to kick ass. Bruce is still trying to adhere to his vow not to fight, but his locket gets torn off, at which point . . . stand the fuck back.

Bruce fucks up about thirty guys all by himself, after which the strikebreakers decide, “Um . . . let's leave.” The boss comes up with the idea of making Bruce the foreman of the factory—bear in mind, this is three years before Michael Corleone's “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”—and they very generously give Bruce booze and hookers. His cousins get a little mad at him for hanging out with management, and Bruce finds himself shunned.

The boss' son has a bit of a hard-on for Chiao Mei, the servant girl at Bruce's cousins' place, and decides ya know what, let's kidnap her and kill everyone in the house, while Bruce is out chatting up the hooker he fucked in re: ice factory shenanigans (she's the one who tips him off about the boss smuggling smack in the ice). So Bruce finds the pile of corpses, as well as Hsu Chien's and the first two guys' in the ice factory.

And this is when Bruce changes his phaser setting from stun to kill. The boss' kid ambushes him at the ice factory, but Bruce stabs his dudes (scalping one of them with a saw) before beating Boss Jr. to death. Bruce stops off for a snack then heads to the boss' house, where he dispatches a bunch of henchmen.

Here's one of the first items of cinematic note in The Big Boss. The way the fight scenes are shot and edited was a bit radical for '71. Bruce, having a fair bit of creative control, insisted that the fights be a bit more cinematic than had heretofore been the case in HK cinema; fights had been a lot stagier, more presentational up to that point. So, the climactic fight in The Big Boss between Bruce—the New Wave cinema guy who uses camera moves and edits as part of the fight choreography—and Yin-Chieh Han—a veteran fight director in his own right, mainly in the “old,” more theatrical mode—is really a metaphor for the paradigm shift Bruce caused in martial arts cinema. Betcha weren't expecting cineaste-speak today, were ya?

Fist of Fury aka The Chinese Connection (1972)

(Side note: the reason why this movie, which has nothing to do with smack dealers, was called The Chinese Connection and the previous one, which did, was called Fists of Fury was because some retard put the wrong labels on the fucking film canisters. Seriously).

In which Bruce dabbles in historical drama: the very-loosely-fact-based tale of legendary Jingwu martial arts school. Bruce plays a hot-headed student who returns home for the funeral of teacher Huo Yuanjia, and freaks the fuck out upon the discovery that Master Huo was murdered by the Japanese. The Japanese aren't very nice to the Chinese protagonists; they pretty much openly gloat that they killed Huo, because what the fuck are you assholes gonna do? We're in charge.

Um, not if Bruce has anything to say about it. The Japanese present Jingwu with a sign that says “Sick Man of Asia” and say “we'll eat our words” if the pathetically inferior Jingwu is able to challenge the Japanese. Bruce, being Bruce, decides to take them at their word. He goes over to the Japanese school, beats the shit out of everyone there in one good Good almighty awesome fight scene, removes the paper sign from its frame, and feeds it to them.

Shit gets personal at this point. Bruce kills a couple people—the ones directly responsible for Huo Yuanjia's death—and the Japanese try and shut down Jingwu. Bruce kills a Japanese interpreter. Many asses are kicked. Ultimately, Bruce gets his revenge by killing the head Japanese bad guy, after dispensing with his Russian mercenary pal (just a couple years after the Russo-Japanese war, no less; the Land of the Rising Sun does not come off as the land of principles or morality here). But, in seeking his revenge, he's done bad things, and so he faces a police firing squad, into which he jumps defiantly. He freeze-frames in midair as we hear a volley of gunshots.

Even when I was a little kid, Fist of Fury was never my favorite Bruce movie. It's a little stiff, and there are a couple really weird anachronisms—this was the movie that caused me to learn what that word meant, in fact—like in the scene when Bruce goes for a walk in the park only to find a sign saying “No Chinese or dogs allowed,” and while the guard is busting Bruce's balls a couple dressed in total 1970s ensemble walks past Bruce into the park. Keep in mind Huo Yuanjia died in 1910, and the movie gets the date wrong but sets it even earlier, 1908. The fight scenes are pretty great, but everything else is kinda meh.

It also suffers from the fact that in 1994, Jet Li remade it as Fist of Legend, and some changes, like letting some of the Japanese be kind of all right people:

---When Jet kicks Akutagawa's ass, and derisively tells him he never would have defeated Huo Yuanjia if he'd been healthy, Akutagawa gets pissed and yells at Fujita for being an amoral fuckhole, whereupon Fujita kills him.
---Funakochi is actually a really good guy. He and Jet have that amazing battle where they end up fighting blind, and Funakochi teaches Jet “with your talent, if you learn to adapt, you'll always be unbeatable.”
---Jet's girlfriend, Funakochi's niece, is a little whiny, but nice.

These, among other factors (like Yuen Wo-Ping's fight choreography; this was what got him the Matrix gig), make Fist of Legend an infinitely better movie. Jet's so fucking awesome in it people actually have “who would win in a fight, Bruce or Jet?” arguments. (For the record, Bruce would probably own Jet, due to his extensive street fighting experience as opposed to Jet being more of a tournament and exhibition fighter; Jet's moves look pretty, but Bruce would fight dirtier). All in all, it makes Fist of Fury a little hard to watch.

Way of the Dragon aka Return of the Dragon (1972)

Bruce directs! Basically, this movie exists for two reasons: to show lots of cool shit in Rome (where it takes place) and to showcase Bruce's fighting. These are awfully legitimate reasons to watch a movie, however. And the music kicks ass.

Bruce tries his hand at comedy, playing a dorky redneck who comes to Rome to help his friend's niece (Nora Miao, really really hot) deal with the local Mafia, who are harassing her restaurant. A number of eye-rolling fish out of water gags ensue.

Bruce teaches the restaurant employees Chinese boxing, and they—but mainly Bruce, and his trusty nunchaku—sufficiently frustrate the Mafia that the Evil White Guy resorts to progressively more baroque means to dispose of Bruce, ultimately becoming the first guy in the history of cinema to say “fuck it, I need to bring in Chuck Norris.”

And so Bruce and Chuck Norris square off in the Coliseum, with a kitten refereeing. This is one of the most famous fight scenes ever, and not without reason. It's goddamn magnificent. People forget, just because Bruce eventually beats Chuck, just how good a fight Chuck puts up in this sequence. Consider:

(1) “Bruce eventually beats Chuck”? If it takes long enough for Bruce Lee to kick your ass that you need to use the word “eventually,” you put up a good fight.
(2) When Bruce (reluctantly) kills Chuck, he stages a silent funeral ceremony out of respect.
(3) It was such a good fight the kitten watches the whole fucking thing. If you can get a cat to watch something it can't fuck or eat for longer than ten seconds, you have something very compelling on your hands.

After that, Bruce dealing with the treacherous head chef of the restaurant and the Evil White Guy are a little anticlimactic, but such is life. I was always a little disappointed that Bruce didn't end up hooking up with Nora Miao because holy God Nora Miao was foxy in the early 70s, but Bruce never really was one to get the girl in his movies.

A couple random notes about Way of the Dragon: the fact that the Don of the Roman Mafia was a really Jewish-looking American guy always cracked me up. Bob Wall shows up as one of the pre-Chuck mercenaries the bad guys bring in (Bob Wall rules, especially when he tries to act, goddamn is that shit funny). The music, again, is bizarrely terrific: it's a little heavy-handed about “ok, this is Bruce doing comedy,” but it's ridiculously catchy. My second grade teacher used to ask me why I was always humming the Pink Panther theme, and I'd have to correct her, no, it's Return of the Dragon, I'm just not a good singer. (She also once asked me why I was wearing a t-shirt for the Jordanian national airline once, and I had to gently explain that “Air Jordan” was a rookie for the Chicago Bulls).

Enter the Dragon (1973)

I saw Enter the Dragon way after I'd already seen Bruce's Hong Kong movies about twenty times apiece, and as a result it really threw me for a loop when I heard Bruce speak English. The day after Enter the Dragon played on TV (I guess I was in about the 4th grade at the time) and everyone watched it, much discussion ensued:

“Yo, he sound like a Chinese Elmer Fudd.”
“Chinese people don't really talk like that, retard, Bruce just has a speech defect.”
“You know, it's funny, because he grew up in America--”
“Danny, shut up. You're always all smart and shit.”

To Bruce's credit, he doesn't hide it at all. He does a lotta yappin' in this picture, and actually turns in a pretty terrific lead performance. Sure, there's the typically bizarre facial expressions, and random weird hand gestures, all the usual Bruce stuff (and, sorry, but his accent is brutally fucking hilarious). On the other hand, his charisma was second to none and he's got genuinely good comic chemistry with John Saxon. And, come on, it's a goddamn kung fu movie.

Enter the Dragon earns a lot of points for keeping it simple. The story: Han, a nefarious, reclusive villain is holding a martial arts tournament. British Intelligence hires Bruce to infiltrate and take Han out. Bruce has personal motives as well, Han's guys, led by Bob Wall, attempted to assault his sister, who offed herself with a shard of glass rather than have her honor violated, leaving Bruce to plot revenge. Compulsive gambler John Saxon enters the tournament because he needs to get out of town to escape creditors. John Saxon's Vietnam buddy Jim Kelly also has to get out of town—he kung fu'd a couple racist cops—and so also enters the tournament. Jim Kelly's Afro stars in a tour de force turn, defying gravity, never once moving, even during fight scenes, and instilled a life-long regret that I would never be able to grow a 'fro.

On the boat out to Han's island, Bruce takes the opportunity to relieve John Saxon of a few bucks betting on a praying mantis fight, as well as teaching a racist bully a lesson by teaching him the “art of fighting without fighting,” to wit, luring him into a lifeboat that he detaches from the ship, turning the rope over to the Asian crew members the guy had been fucking with (it's never revealed whether they let the lifeboat capsize, but either way lesson learned).

The tournament gets underway. Han lavishes the competing fighters with exotic feasts and women, having Ahna Capri shlep around a group of hookers to each fighter's room, offering the fighter his pick. This leads to a pretty neat bit of character revelation: Bruce picks the British Intelligence mole so they can swap info (because Bruce, for some reason, never seems to get a boner unless you slip him roofies), John Saxon picks Ahna Capri (because John Saxon never flies coach), and Jim Kelly picks every single girl Ahna Capri brings with her (over a half dozen, if my count is correct, and he fucks all of them, which makes the fact that can still walk, let alone fight, all the more impressive).

Bruce kills Bob Wall in front of everyone. Somber murmuring ensues. Han, in disgust, pronounces Bob Wall a disgrace and treasonous (Han has a tendency to use big words without really knowing what they mean, which fucked me up on a number of elementary-school vocab tests).

So while John Saxon is rolling around in a water bed with Ahna Capri and Jim Kelly is taking a breather after his menage a neuf, Bruce goes out snooping; Jim Kelly, while outside practicing his moves, sees Bruce without recognizing him and laughs, a couple seconds after hand-signaling to a patrolling guard, “Hey, just practicing my moves . . . by the way, I just fucked eight women!”

Bruce gets up to a bit of mischief and has to kick a couple guards' asses. Han gets pissed and has Bolo kill a couple of his other guards in a demonstration of what Han considers to be necessary ruthlessness. Han, not realizing Jim Kelly wasn't the only person out that night, has Jim Kelly killed. Han then, sensing worldliness in John Saxon, tries to co-opt him into selling heroin in the States, so Han can penetrate that market. However, when Han shows John Saxon Jim Kelly's corpse as a warning, John Saxon grimly resolves to vanquish Han (because it's that kind of movie; certain kinds of villains need to be vanquished, not just killed).

Bruce ass-kicks his way through Han's underground lair, but Han catches him, and the next morning has John Saxon choose between fighting Bruce and fighting Bolo (talk about your fucked-one-way-or-the-other decisions . . .) John Saxon chooses to fight Bolo, and, impressively, wins. Han, after John Saxon kills Bolo by kicking him in the balls, panics and sends his entire private army after John Saxon and Bruce, before fleeing to his underground lair. Bruce takes off in hot pursuit.

Which leads up to Bruce pursuing Han through a maze of mirrors. This sequence is terrific, not in the least for the “if you would beat an enemy, one must first conquer himself” imagery, but because it's shot and edited for maximum suspense, and the fact that you never see a camera in one of the mirrors even for a second is pretty impressive from a logistical perspective (I wasted a couple hours shooting one time because I kept getting the camera in the mirror's reflection).
After a while, Bruce gets pissed and just starts smashing mirrors so if Han walks in front of one of them, Bruce will know he's really there (earning, by my count at a very young age, 84 years of bad luck in the process). The ploy works, and Bruce impales Han on a spear and heads on out to the aftermath of the fight, and quietly exchanges thumbs-up with John Saxon as British Intelligence mops up.

Sadly, Bruce died less than a week before Enter the Dragon's premiere, and so his greatest American fame would be posthumous. Before he died, though, Bruce managed to get about 40 minutes of usable footage in the can for:

Game of Death (1978)

Originally intended to be a demonstration of Bruce's Jeet Kune Do style, where Bruce's character fought his way through a five-floor pagoda, with each floor manned by a fighter in a different style, whose weaknesses Bruce would expose by a) kicking their ass and b) explaining through dialogue why he was kicking their ass. Bruce had finished three “floors” as well as a sequence where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar kills James Tien (Hsu Chien from The Big Boss) when he got the offer to do Enter the Dragon. Bruce put The Game of Death on hiatus, dying before he could finish directing it.

A few years later, Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse took Bruce's footage and made it the climactic sequence in a completely different movie, wherein international martial arts movie star Billy Lo has run afoul of “the Syndicate,” who send an assassin on set to take him out (eerily prefiguring the way Bruce's son Brandon would be killed by an improperly-checked handgun on The Crow). Billy doesn't die, and swears revenge blah blah blah. Game of Death kind of sucks until the footage of Bruce at the end, especially his fight against Kareem, who in real life was a student of Bruce's. Considering that Kareem was, contrary to his official 7'2”, really about 7'5” (8' with his 'fro) and Bruce was a full two feet shorter, that's automatically a pretty awesome fight. The fact that Kareem never bothers to change out of his pajamas or take his sunglasses off make it even cooler.

But in the end, Game of Death was one of many cynical attempts to cash in on the cult of Bruce. The cult of Bruce was such that even the extras from his movies went on to be stars (Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, et al). If not for Bruce, none but the most dedicated nerds would ever have been aware of martial arts movies, and considering how much fun they are, that would have been a tragedy. Sure, you can poke holes in Bruce now, like an asshole: his acting was, at best, eccentric; the plots of his movies could have been written by a ten-year-old (hey, why do you think we all loved him back in the day?); and his voice, speaking English, was kind of funny (again, sorry). But focusing on all this shit at the expense of remembering how physically vital, mind-bogglingly badass, and truly original Bruce was brings to mind a quote from Enter the Dragon:

Don't concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.” (fast-forward to the 1:20 mark if you like, the whole scene's cool).

Fuck how he's saying it, people, that's good advice. As a philosopher, Bruce was well sorted out, as well (favorites in bold):

"Be formless... shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle; it becomes the bottle. You put it into a teapot; it becomes the teapot. Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend..."

"All kind of knowledge, eventually becomes self knowledge"

"Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it."

"Do not deny the classical approach, simply as a reaction, or you will have created another pattern and trapped yourself there."

“A quick temper will make a fool of you soon enough."

"Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it."

"It's not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential."


While, arguably, there may be martial artists as skilled as Bruce, or skilled in different ways, and martial arts movies with better production values or plots than Bruce's, Bruce was first. And there will never be another Bruce Lee.