Thursday, May 31, 2012

LOVING THE ALIEN: WHEN A CLASSIC REALLY IS A CLASSIC

Ellen Ripley, Warrant Officer of the Nostromo, Admiral of the USS Ownage

Monday night, I was watching basketball—as I do—and one of the weirdest fucking things I've ever seen happened. Stephen A. Smith is an ESPN personality whose presentational style can best be described thusly: If you were jackhammering without earplugs at a My Bloody Valentine concert while fighter jets flew continuously overhead, you'd have to tell Stephen A. to shut the fuck up so you can concentrate. He doesn't do play-by-play, so when he was suddenly shouting at me during a commercial break I was like “GAAAHH” for a second and dropped my remote control. When my composure returned, I realized Stephen A. was talking about Prometheus. And that was a sign that Prometheus hype had gotten out of fucking control. As I'm a man of taste and discretion, I'd gotten my big preparatory geek-out ritual out of the way earlier that day, taking in Alien at Lincoln Center, as part of their pre-Prometheus whole-career Ridley Scott retrospective.

Whether or not Prometheus is any good is something I'll be finding out at some point within the week, but what is certain is that holy balls Alien rules all the ass there is. Its place in history is massive: one of the best science-fiction movies ever made and one of the best horror movies ever made, not to mention one of the best, if not the best, genre hybrids. It established Ridley Scott as a commercially viable feature director (his first feature, The Duellists, was gorgeous and awesome, though nowhere near the hit Alien was). And it gave us Sigourney Weaver (pictured above), and Ellen Ripley, without whom cinema would be lesser.

The thing about movies like that, though, is that every so often critics need to check in with them to make sure they're still all that. Someone I respect greatly recently revisited Bonnie & Clyde (a massively important movie, historically) for the first time in forever and it didn't go so well for him; I like the movie, but can see where parts of it could be jarring. No picture should be an unquestioned classic. Go into Citizen Kane questioning whether it's Citizen Kane. I mean, the answer is invariably yes, because it holds up under even the most powerful scrutiny, but still. It's Citizen Kane because it's motherfucking Citizen Kane, not because it's some special snowflake. Same with Alien. I didn't go in looking to find fault with it, obviously, but I went in ready to scrutinize it as a movie. And I did. And it still fucking ruled.

From a strictly experiential perspective, watching it on 35mm film as opposed to a cleaned-up digital version added to the grittiness of the movie and the rough-around-the-edges scruffballs that make up the crew of the Nostromo. The print was perfectly fine, and seemed like a well-maintained old one (I should be clear: I'm so warped by digital projection and DVDs my ability to accurately assess a print ain't what it once was). The apparent age and lived-in quality of the print only added to the experience.

As for the movie itself, I mean, what can you say. The production design is exquisite even at its most grotesque and decaying, equal parts standard 70s SF (the computer room brings to mind Nic Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth, the suspended animation couches Kubrick's 2001, which managed to be 70s SF in the 60s because Stanley Kubrick don't give a fuck what year it is motherfucker) and the groundbreaking, visually pessimistic futurism, all darkness and water dripping from the ceiling with big swinging chains and everything looking all fucked up like a bunch of roughneck sailors have had the run of the place, which is exactly the case.

The camerawork is a lot more flexible than a lot of later-period Ridley Scott, where the compositions are polished and relatively static, even if the colors and subjects within them are gorgeously lush. DP Derek Vanlint's camera actually moves quite a bit in Alien, all to excellent effect, either building tension to the point where you just want to fucking scream, or, toward the end, mirroring the agitation of the ever-dwindling crew.

What I noticed more than anything else this time through is the sound. Ho boy is sound used to great effect in Alien. The pitch of the blips and beeps from the computer and equipment is just so that each one of them is alarming. The score agitates, rather than soothes. The sounds of the ship and the odd non-diegetic cue give the Nostromo a heartbeat, which is sometimes a character's, but really the audience's: it's a nervous speed. Added with the other technical elements, we're already about to fucking lose our shit and we haven't even gotten up to the alien yet.

Before we do, it's important to note that when your premise, at its most basic, is “a bunch of people trapped in an enclosed space with a relentless, voracious alien,” if we don't give a shit about the people we ain't got a movie. The emotional core of Alien is its cast, which is absolutely spectacular. H.R. Giger's creature design is awesome and everything, and the technique is nonpareil, but the fact that this terrifying monster with acid for blood is fucking up people we care about is what elevates Alien from “merely” a technical masterpiece to “holy balls this is amazing” all-time classic status. Due to the logistics of its setting—a spaceship in the middle of space, that lands on an uninhabited planetoid and then takes off back into space—only seven human beings appear in the movie (not counting the Alien, who at the end was played by an actor in costume, and the cat, who was played by a cat, oh, yeah, and one humanoid, too), so there's no extras or anything, just principal cast.

The thing that's great about the cast is that they seem like grown-ass adults, primarily because they all are. Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton were already well into their 40s at least, John Hurt was just about to turn 40, and the younguns, Veronica Cartwright and Sigourney, were both around 30. They really make the characters seem like a bunch of people who've spent way too much time with just each other for company. They bitch about money, being under-appreciated, and the shitty food just like real workers. The two women, who statistically you'd think would be a natural pair of friends, especially around all these rough-and-tumble dudes, clearly loathe each other, but not in the contrived screenwriter-y kind of sexist way it's usually done, rather in a way that comes out of really good acting based in real human interaction. Especially with a genre piece that's as far out as Alien is in terms of real-life experience—a spaceship that, judging by what's said about distance traveled and time, must not be bound by Einsteinian relativity, not to mention the fact that they run into a fuckin alien with acid for blood—it's essential to ground things as much in reality as possible. That way, whether or not you're sitting there thinking “whoa, this is excellent, organic, naturalistic acting” (if you're a doofball egghead like me) or thinking at all, the emotional impact, the thing that transcends respect for a movie and becomes love, is achieved.

And yes, to paraphrase David Bowie, I love the Alien. It's the rare picture that is enriched by its scores of imitators; watching movies that tried to replicate Alien and then watching Alien again only serves as a reminder of “oh, yeah, this is how you do that well.” Getting back to the above discussion of historicity, Alien is Alien because it's Alien, not because people say it is. If that one sequence where we cut from the dummy severed head to [name of actor redacted] playing his final, harrowing scene talking in hushed awe about the structural perfection of the Alien, and then back to the dummy severed head is jarring because the dummy severed head isn't [redacted], you know what? Fuck it. Some of the effects look like they were made 30+ years ago because they were made 30+ years ago. This is the way of the world. The movie still fucking rules. It's still scary as hell. All other SF, horror, and SF/horror pictures must genuflect. Prometheus got one big spacesuit to fill.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

A VOCABULARY LESSON FOR CRITICS


The other day, there was a piece on Flavorwire on the most “epidemically overrated” novels in history; I won't link to it, since the whole idea is that they're engaging in provocation for page views, but you can Google that phrase and find the thing easily enough if you really need to read something dumb. As a thing unto itself the list is the intellectual equivalent of a fart—seriously, anyone who reads James Joyce for the plot is a fucking asshat—but as an excuse for a state of criticism jeremiad it'll do just fine.

Here's the thing: the word “overrated” is an absolutely fucking useless term if the subject being discussed is something that can't be objectively quantified. In sports, being over- or underrated is an actual thing. There are objective metrics by which you can determine whether a sports guy is as good as people say he is. Variables like how big a city the dude plays in, high-profile successes or failures, or being white can skew perceptions from what the actual data indicates. In the arts, though, there's no on-base percentage, yards after the catch, or plus-minus, making objective evaluation trickier. One thing that helps, though, is the phrase “it's not all about you.” Or, in other words, whether or not you like something isn't the same thing as it being good. Thus, the fucktards who wrote that Flavorwire thing are really saying “we don't like The Catcher in the Rye, Wuthering Heights, Finnegan's Wake, Moby Dick, et cetera.” (Also, they kind of tip their trollface by having Twilight be the last thing on the list; no reputable critic puts Twilight in the same league as Bronte, Joyce, Melville, and Salinger, thus undercutting the “overrated” conceit.)

Here's an audiovisual aid (pay special attention at about 1:45):



Now, I know your mind is blown because you just thought about Ugly Kid Joe for the first time in 20 years, but stick with me here. That song is, to give it the benefit of the doubt, at least partly tongue-in-cheek, though it's sending up a real thing, namely the way people, in order to seem cool, will cop an attitude about absolutely fucking anything. Which isn't cool. If your coolness requires shitting on something else, you ain't swinging from the championship tee, dude. (Ed. Note: golf metaphors are an underrated way to describe the state of being uncool.)

But “overrated” isn't the only word misused to the point of meaninglessness by people who don't write criticism properly. Here are some others:


Uncinematic: The most apt usage I can recall of this was a review panning Susan Stroman's direction in the movie of The Producers from the play from the movie, because the compositions kinda sucked and just seemed like a camera plunked down on sticks while a play took place in front of it. But even then, calling that “uncinematic” rather than just not the best use of cinema as a medium isn't quite right, because the only way something can really be uncinematic is to not be cinema.

Literary: A word nekulturny douchebags use to describe Wes Anderson movies because Wes Anderson has the fucking temerity to read books. Yeah, heaven forfend Salinger, John Irving and Roald Dahl have any influence on the guy. (Also, if you have any pretense to knowing about movies and you're thinking of snarking on Wes Anderson, save yourself the trouble and skip ahead to the part where you go fuck yourself.)

Dry: Unless you're talking about a martini, think long and hard about how you use this one (and if you drink martinis, think long and hard about just drinking straight gin). Even if you're using it right, there's probably a better way to phrase things.

Fanboy: Already covered this one.

Sexy: This one drives me up the wall, because you'd swear the way this gets thrown around no film critic has ever actually gotten laid in their lives. Any actress with a hemline above her knee and a neckline below her neck is SEXY. Just, no. Look at the scene in The Last Days Of Disco when Chloe Sevigny's trying to shtup Robert Sean Leonard and says “I think Uncle Scrooge is sexy.” It was fucking funny, right? You know why? Because she was using words wrong. Uncle Scrooge is not sexy, as sexiness would not be a thing if everyone was sexy. (Ed. Note: Uncle Scrooge is not the only entity in the universe who isn't sexy, either. THERE ARE MANY OTHERS.) Sexiness is also not achieved automatically by a shot of some titties. Take Chloe. Chloe's a whole movie about how Julianne Moore secretly and then not-so-secretly wants to fuck Amanda Seyfried. Sounds hot, right? Well, with the exception of about five seconds when the two of them are totally naked and totally Doing It (which couldn't help but be), Chloe's about as sexy as a glass-topped coffee table. And yet all the reviews were like, “sexy” this,” “erotic” that. Come on, y'all.

X-meets-x: For an example, from Owen Gleiberman's review of Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom in Entertainment Weekly: “[Anderson's] rarefied, Salinger-meets-The Graduate-meets-music-video-meets-postmodern-TV-ads whimsicality.” This is an impressive pile-up of words, but it doesn't really mean anything. Salinger and The Graduate, sure, you can argue an intertextual relationship with Anderson's picture, even if they're kind of low-hanging fruit in terms of references. But holy shit “music video” and “postmodern TV ads” are vague descriptors, not to mention redundant, as they're both short-form audiovisual media made by most of the same directors. (He's also using “postmodern” wrong, but that's art geek hair-splitting.) X-meets-x is so rarely an illuminating tool and so frequently a “heyyyyyy, loogitme being all hip and shit” crutch that it really ought to just be sidelined.


Anyway, that's enough of that. Basically, all I'm trying to say is words mean things and they don't mean things that they don't mean. It's not all about you. And tits are awesome and everything, but you still need to make a good movie. You're welcome.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

IF THE PLAN DOESN'T WORK, IT CHANGES



Twas two years ago today the series finale of Lost aired. Revisit my wrap-up if you like, but seriously, the above interview with Damon Lindelof is what's really essential. Fascinating stuff, and really, the fact that he's that candid when he doesn't need to be kind of rules.

Friday, May 18, 2012

NEW YORK, NEW YORK



This guy fucking rules. (via Animal New York)

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

IN ANOTHER COUNTRY


This here's a guest post over at my friend Isaac Butler's site, Parabasis. It's about fandom, as portrayed in the movies Big Fan, The Fan, and Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope, and I'm pretty proud of it as a piece of writing. Cheggitout!

Monday, May 14, 2012

IF YOU'RE GOING TO ASK WHETHER SOMEONE EVER WAS A GOOD DIRECTOR, YOU NEED TO KNOW WHAT A DIRECTOR DOES


The thing about troll pieces is that their intent is to attract attention by pissing people off. You rage, you lose, as the saying goes. So I'm not going to get angry about this piece about Tim Burton. The rhetorical question posed in the title is a valid one, but it's one that has a very simple answer: “Was Tim Burton ever a good director?” “Yes. Yes he was.” He's one of the most unique visual stylists in the history of the medium, and one whose authorial imprint—in Burton's case, a blend between production and costume design, camerawork, music, and the frequently large, presentational performances he elicits from leading actors, frequently Michael Keaton or Johnny Depp—is unmistakeable. One can spot a Tim Burton movie a mile away. He's tilled the field as no one else quite has.

Most importantly, and this cannot be clarified enough, the term “auteur” as applies to cinema is not the same thing as being an “author” in the sense of being one who writes words on paper. Cinema consists of a wide array of elements, from costume/set/makeup/visual effects design to cinematography to editing to writing on down the line to the people who make sure lunch is ready. The producer is the one who hires all those people and arranges to pay for it (and don't sell that short as a skill; producing is one of the most under-appreciated roles in the entire medium and it's something one can be very good or very bad at). The director is the one whose job is to make sure all that insane amount of shit actually results in a movie. Directors can (and do, if they're doing it right) have a say in all the above-mentioned elements, including selecting their producer (or, if they can multitask, doing it themselves).

This is why it's possible for a director who does not write scripts, like Tim Burton, to be the auteur of the pictures he directs. He may not write the script. He may not even be the first director to work on the picture. But once he comes aboard it becomes, even for fleeting moments in something like the unfortunate Planet of the Apes movie he made, a Tim Burton film. Good or bad, and recently it's mostly been bad, this is invariably the case, even if lately it's more like “Ah, late-period Alice in Wonderland/Dark Shadows Tim Burton . . .” you still know it's him.

The argument that Tim Burton never was any good because he didn't write his own scripts will a) get you a machete in the balls from anyone who's ever seen Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, the two Batman pictures, Ed Wood, and from what I gather from the fervor of the people who've seen it, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, and b) betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of what it is a director actually does. Again, it could be that the author knows this full well and is pretending otherwise to piss people off. Though, if that's the case, it would be advisable to not make oneself look that fucking stupid in public. If indeed the author's entire argument does rest on the belief that to be an auteur one has to write one's own scripts, then I refer him to the work of Fritz Lang, John Ford, Roberto Rossellini, and Alfred Hitchcock; if black & white movies hurt his eyes, then Ridley Scott or David Fincher will suffice. But, seriously. Learn more.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A MOTHER'S DAY CHAT WITH MOM



Happy Mother's Day! This year, to commemorate the day, I decided I wanted to have a chat about movies with the person who took me to hundreds of them when I was a kid (and still occasionally to this day): my mom, Betsy Bowes.


me: Okay, so let's start: what was the movie that made you realize you loved movies?

Mom: The fist movie I ever saw, The Great Locomotive Chase, starring Fess Farker who was already my favorite actor from Davy Crockett. It came out in 1956 when I was either 8 or 9.

me: Was there anything in particular about the movie or about Fess Parker that really spoke to you?

Mom: There was plenty of action and I was already interested in the Civil War. Fess was an engaging hero.

me: So you already knew Fess from Davy Crockett; was this the TV version? It wasn't the radio show, right?

Mom: It was the TV version, withe theme song you had a record of when you were a toddler. I had to watch it at my next-door neighbor's house because we didn't have a TV.

me: So, before you got a TV in the house, did you primarily see movies at the neighbors', or in theaters? What were your options as far as theaters at that time?

Mom: I had a friend whose mother took a few of us to the movies for her birthday party each year. The Pajama Game in 1957, a few Martin and Lewis comedies (I always liked Dean better than Jerry), and Ocean's Eleven in 1960. I LOVED Ocean's Eleven. I didn't start watching movies on TV until I was a teenager and was babysitting. The movie theaters we went to were the Embassy in Waltham, a movie palace from the 20's or 30's (the first suburban Boston theater to show talkies), the Community Playhouse in Wellesley, and the multiplex at Shoppers World in Framingham.

me: Whoa, there were already multiplexes in the early 60s? I thought those only came along later.

Mom: I think it was a very early one. I remember there being several different movies playing there.

me: The thing about Ocean's Eleven---the original---that really stood out to me was that they all looked like they were having so much fun, like that was the purpose of the whole thing; was it that way for you too? Also, Sammy was awesome in that, driving the garbage truck and so forth.

Mom: Absolutely, and Sammy was awesome with the garbage truck.

me: Didn't you meet him or get an autographed photo or something once?

Mom: Yes, when I was a freshman at NYU . A friend down the hall in my dorm had an uncle who was a VP at NBC. He got us into a dress rehearsal for the Sammy Davis Show. Sammy spoke to us and gave us unsigned photographs. He was friendly and gracious. Some of the guests on the shoe that week were Frank Sinatra Jr, Leslie Uggams, the Copacetics, and Milton Berle. One of us approached Milton Berle but he snubbed her. Sammy was married to Mai Britt at the time. She was in the audience and was very blond and pretty.

me: Milton Berle's all like "I have better things to do," what a tool.

Mom: (Like in his youth fucking Aimee Semple McPherson.) I was never a big fan of comedians who used drag as shtick. Of course Some Like It Hot was a different matter altogether. There was a reason for Jack and Tony to disguise themselves as women to hide from the mob. And in Bosom Buddies Tom [Hanks] and Peter [Scolari] need an affordable place to live.

me: And in Some Like It Hot, you've got Joe E. Brown not giving the slightest fuck that Jack Lemmon's really a guy, which I always loved. Trying to think of a better last scene that that's hard, no?

(Also, I love that you throw Bosom Buddies right in there with Some Like It Hot.)

So, let me ask this: at what point did you start getting European movies up there? Those were about the only foreign pictures you got back then, for the most part, right?

Mom: When I was a teenager the Exeter Theater in Boston was the place to see foreign films. The first movie I saw there was La Belle Americaine which was a series of vignettes featuring the same fabulous big American convertible. Also there was a student exchange program with my high school and a town in France, with an annual movie as a fundraiser. One year they showed Black Orpheus, which I loved. I saw 8 1/2 in Boston with some friends and a 7 year old sister one of them was babysitting.

me: And was this around the time you developed your thing for Alain Delon and Marcello?

Mom: How could a teenager resist them?

me: Any other favorite actors or movies from that period?

Mom: At a certain point my parents decided that if a movie was based on a book I had to read the book first. So in 1959 I read Ben Hur from cover to cover and was allowed to ride my bike to the Embassy in Waltham by myself to see it. I particularly like the naval battle and the chariot race. I read Tom Jones so I was allowed to go into Boston by myself to see the movie. One had to be at least sixteen to get in and I turned sixteen during its run. I fell in love with Albert Finney then and still love him today.

me: Well, he's Albert Finney. When was it you moved to New York, 1965?

Mom: Yes, in September, and started going to the movies as much as I could afford. There were so many great movies to see at so many movie theaters within easy walking distance. Most of them are long gone.

me: I was going to say, I imagine you started seeing more movies at that point. Were there any particular places you went to a lot? Any specific kinds of pictures you sought out more than others? Or just everything, as much as you could see?

Mom: Also, in 1965 the Protestant center began a film series, where I saw To Have and Have Not, Scorpio Rising, Triumph of the Will, Olympia (parts 1 and 2), I forget what else they showed. My dorm showed movies also, Shane, the Zombies of the Stratosphere serial, and other stuff. At theaters I saw La Dolce Vita (two showings back to back), Georgy Girl, The Graduate, La Chinoise, A Hard Days Night, and lots of other movies.

me: Nice.

Mom: One thing I forgot to mention earlier was how Hitchcock enabled me to pass a my high school chemistry mid-year exam. I was so stressed out and knew that more studying would be pointless, so the evening before the test I persuaded my parents to let me go see a double feature of Psycho and Vertigo to chill me out. It worked and I passed with a B-.

me: Awesome. Now, especially people my age and thereabouts who didn't actually get to experience it firsthand, kind of romanticize the period from about the late 60s through most of the 70s as being kind of a second Golden Age, or the Hollywood New Wave, or some such. I'm curious, since you were actually there and going to lots of movies, whether that was something people were conscious of at the time, or whether it was a perception that happened in retrospect, when people looked at the volume of awesome stuff that came out and went "whoa." Was that something people thought and talked about at the time?

Mom: I don't think we were conscious at that time that it was any second Golden Age or Hollywood New Wave. I think we just expected movies to be good, were discriminating in what we chose to watch, and were rarely disappointed. There were just a lot of movies worth seeing.

me: You mentioned Fess Parker, and The Great Locomotive Chase being your early favorite, owing to the action. Have you always been into action movies?

Mom: I went to the Rex Cinema (now Cobble Hill Cinema) to see Frank Sinatra in Dirty Dingus Magee. It was unmemorable, but the second movie of the double feature was a western I had not previously heard of, For a Few Dollars More. My love (and respect) for Clint Eastwood continues to this day.

I was introduced to Hong Kong action movies when we got our first VCR and you picked out movies at our local video rental outlet. Together we watched all of Bruce Lee's moves over and over, then Chuck Norris, Stephen Seagal, Bruce Li, Jet Li, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Arnold, Sly, Jason Statham, Vin Diesel, heroes all. And the great franchises: Terminator, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, on to Transporter, Bourne Identity, Mission Impossible, xXx, The Fast and the Furious.

An important aspect of the action hero/antihero was that though battered, bloody and often tortured, he managed to beat out Evil in the end by HIMSELF (or with, if he had one, his team).


me: I remember you telling me about seeing The Godfather in the Metropolitan in downtown Brooklyn, back when it was all one theater....

Mom: We went to see it with our upstairs neighbors. I absolutely loved it although I thought Diane Keaton was miscast. The Metropolitan was a great place to see movies. I saw Death Wish there. I was almost the only white person in the audience and everybody cheered when Charles Bronson killed another mugger.

me: Yeah, I kind of miss the Metropolitan too, even after it got all run down. I'll always remember seeing Double Impact there with you, with the guy behind us going "Look out! There goes Bolo!"

Mom: As it got all run down, audiences changed, but everybody always CAME TO SEE THE MOVIE, and were totally into it. There was never a security problem during daytime movies, no racial incidents going one way or the other. Couples often brought sleeping babies to action movies there to save on baby sitters, and there was no problem with babies crying. The Metropolitan is now a church, and I wonder if it is even half as much fun as it used to be.

me: Not even on its best day, I bet.

Mom: Today's movies with stadium seating and properly functioning air conditioning may be more comfortable, but I miss the funky old theaters without endless advertisements or too many trailers for shitty movies I don't want to see, but with audiences who really having fun at the movies.

me: Yeah, the ads and shit drive me nuts, with all the stupid trivia questions "This actress, whose name rhymes with Shmishirney Deaver, starred in Alien and Ghostbusters", and it's like, come on, man, can't we just watch a movie?

Mom: Yes those are totally stupid and they keep looping so you see the same ones repeating while you are WAITING FOR THE FUCKING MOVIE TO START FOR FUCK SAKE.

me: Absolutely. And if you cut things too tight in terms of showing up on time so you don't have to see that bullshit eight thousand times, you either don't get a seat or miss the start of the movie....

Mom: Sometimes makes it worth the wait for Netflix to have the movie so you don't have to deal with that shit. But there's nothing like watching the movie on a big screen in the dark.

me: Absolutely. Do you have much problem up on the Cape now with people screwing around on their cell phones for the whole movie? That's kind of an epidemic here in the city these days.

Mom: Not a problem on the Cape. In fact I have seen a number of movies here (especially the first showing of the day toward the end of a run) when I have been the only person in the theater. If almost feels like a Command Performance for me.

me: Heh, "Entertain me, mortals."

Mom: Entertain me, Celluloid Heroes!

me: Yes! Celluloid Heroes! Thank you so much for ensuring I never had a Kinks-deprived childhood.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

THIS ENGLAND: TWO BY COWARD AND LEAN

David Lean (left, Noel Coward (right); photo from that Criterion box set I can't afford

There's a Noël Coward retrospective at Lincoln Center this weekend, because Noël Coward's awesome. I took in a double feature Friday night, of the first two films Coward made as producer: 1942's In Which We Serve and 1944's This Happy Breed, the latter from his 1939 play. These also, notably, mark the beginning of David Lean's career as a director. When Coward was approached by Anthony Havelock-Allan to make a propaganda film for the British war effort, he accepted the invitation on condition that he was allowed to write, produce, direct, and star. (Because part of being Noël Coward is knowing that you're Noël Coward.) Though he was sure that his experience in the theatre and Ronald Neame's skill as cinematographer would be sufficient for most of the task that would be In Which We Serve, Coward brought in Lean, who had to that point been a film editor, to supervise the action scenes, for which (as well as for other direct and indirect influences on the shape of the film) Lean was ultimately credited as co-director.

One immediately apparent influence Lean had on In Which We Serve, as related by Barry Day, was in advising Coward that his treatment was too long, and that Coward go see Citizen Kane, then in theaters, for inspiration to shape his idea into something more specifically cinematic. Not only Coward's script—built around flashbacks—but Neame's camerawork, with its unconventional tilts and use of deep focus, recalls Kane. While Coward's script and scenes of life on the home front give In Which We Serve its heart, Lean's action scenes give the film its teeth: they're a really extraordinary achievement in action cinema, shot and cut for maximum tension (and in a way that shows the influence of Eisenstein's Potemkin as well as Kane; if you're going to show influences, those are two good ones to flash, to be sure), but their simultaneously realistic and stylized use of sound prefigure modern action cinema, and hold up to what was done decades later in the genre.

But as skillful and ambitious as the filmmaking is, what makes In Which We Serve so effective as both cinema and propaganda is its characters. Family, country, and the Royal Navy intertwine, and are essentially as one; the affection the film builds for the crew members of the HMS Torrin makes the political point better than a speech would have. At the story's end, we want England to win the war because we like Captain Kinross, Chief Petty Officer Hardy, and Ordinary Seaman Shorty Blake so much. It's one thing to know that Great Britain was in a battle in which its very existence was at stake, it's an entirely other thing to know that, really, we serve because of our comrades. Love for one's fellow human beings is a far more effective motivator than abstract political principles; where the latter, when fully understood, are the actual reasons to fight and win, the former is the fuel that keeps the fire going. That Coward knew this so totally is the fundamental thing that makes In Which We Serve so great.

Part two of the double feature, an entirely different kind of film though embodying much the same theme of one group of Britons representing the entirety of the kingdom, was This Happy Breed. Lean's first solo credit as a director, and an adaptation of Coward's play, This Happy Breed is, like In Which We Serve, a departure from the prevailing notion of Noël Coward plays as being things where people swish around in silk dressing gowns and cigarette holders and banter dazzlingly. The Gibbons family, and their friends and neighbors, are working-class Londoners. Their lives are deliberately those any of their countrymen could easily have lived, as, like In Which We Serve, the film universalizes the British experience. Lean (with, of course, the help of the brilliant Ronald Neame, and in gorgeous Technicolor) accomplishes this universality by bookending the film with two rather glorious establishing shots: the first pans from a shot of the entirety of London to the house in Clapham where twenty years in the life of the Gibbons family play out. Then, at the end, the shot in reverse connects the house back to all of London, and thus, of Britain itself.

There's a repeated sentiment in This Happy Breed about the English character as being one not easily rushed, and of change happening gradually. That characterizes the movie quite well; its pace would be called slow by anyone unable to connect emotionally to the Gibbons. Indeed, parts of the story, especially in the middle-ish sections, do lag a bit (these are also, not coincidentally, where the film still feels excessively beholden to its one-set origins on the stage). But that's kind of the point of This Happy Breed. It's so warmly written and beautifully acted, not to mention the clear genius already present in Lean's direction, that its slowness is what makes it what it is, a deeply human drama.

The lead performances, by Robert Newton as Frank Gibbons and Celia Johnson as his wife Ethel, are both masterful bits of work. Newton, in the role Coward himself played onstage, brings an earthy gravitas Lean felt Coward couldn't (this in spite, ironically, of Coward actually having grown up in just such a manner as the Gibbons). Whether or not this was the case, we'll never know, but This Happy Breed does feature one damn fine Robert Newton performance. His Frank Gibbons is who he is, as he was and ever shall be, like the England he so loves. Also conveying that same reassuring sense of eternity is Celia Johnson as Ethel. She plays a variation on her character in In Which We Serve in This Happy Breed, with the variation being one of class, though she's every bit as powerful and real as the working-class Ethel as she is as the more genteel Alix. Just watching Celia Johnson act is a glorious thing, as well: every gesture is exactly what it needs to be, every line reading simple and direct. Without going in for a bunch of Method histrionics, she manages to convey a sense of real humanity even more effectively. Even more than her physical beauty (which she personally downplayed, presumably out of owning neither a mirror nor an ego) this sublime precision to her craft (most famously seen in Lean and Coward's subsequent Brief Encounter) is what makes her one of the great film actresses (in stature, if not resume).

There's a shot a ways into This Happy Breed that's both profoundly British and a sign that David Lean was well on his way to becoming David Lean even in his solo debut: their daughter has to break some tragic news to Frank and Ethel, and runs out to them in the garden. Rather than follow her or cut to the garden the camera stays inside and politely lets them hear it without eavesdropping, and slowly, as if not to make a noise, pans across the room to the door. At the end, Frank and Ethel enter, stunned. It's almost like the film itself is saying, we already know what they're going to hear, let's just give them their space.

That right there is what this whole cinema thing is about. That shot, more than anything else in either of these two pictures, is where the partnership of Coward and Lean clicked into place and harmonized perfectly. Coward's drama giving Lean's camera something great to observe, Lean's camera lending a whole other level to Coward's drama that mere words couldn't convey. Two brilliant minds working together and saying, this is where I'm from. This is me. “This little world, this precious stone set in the sea . . . this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”

Friday, May 11, 2012

REVIEW: DANGEROUS ISHHQ

It's ishq. And it's so dangerous it needs a second h. 

It's a little tough to get a bead on Dangerous Ishhq while watching it. Cinematically, it's slickly put together, and while its narrative flies around all over the place laughing its ass off at anyone trying to make rational sense of things it does so agreeably and makes a lot more linear sense afterward (an “okay, we know this was nuts, but this is how we got to this ridonkulous point” montage at the climax helps a lot) than one ever would have dreamed twenty minutes earlier. This is why, even though it has moments and indeed whole sections of being a very bad movie, Dangerous Ishhq ends up being a perfectly acceptable, utterly shameless entertainment by the time the credits roll.

Karisma Kapoor (of the Kapoors), in her comeback role after several years away from movies, stars as highly successful model Sanjana, whose romance with industrialist's son Rohan (Rajneesh Duggal) is not only highly photogenic but very much the real deal. After a very whispery, gauzy bit of romantic business, dudes in masks break into Rohan's beach house with guns and kidnap him; they throw Sanjana against a wall and she cracks her head, falling unconscious.

When she wakes up in the hospital, Sanjana begins having what appear to be vivid hallucinations. On the advice of her friend Nettu (Diyya Dutta), Sanjana goes to a shrink, who tells her nope, it ain't hallucinations . . . SHE'S SEEING THINGS FROM PAST LIVES! When I say “Re,” you say “Incar-fucking-nation,” y'all. Look, you have to understand, this may read like I'm making fun, or like I'm being culturally patronizing, but I swear this comes from a wholly innocent, good place: whenever an Indian movie features reincarnation as a plot point, I throw my fists in the air like the Knicks just scored the winning basket in the NBA Finals. I fucking love reincarnation movies. I liked the reincarnation twist in Om Shanti Om even more than I liked the joke about Abhishek not even being in Dhoom 5, and that was a good joke. (Ed. Note: for non-Bollywood initiates, even though Abhishek Bachchan is the cop good guy in the Dhoom movies, he was way overshadowed by antiheroes John Abraham and Hrithik Roshan, respectively, in the first two, and in the forthcoming Dhoom 3, the antihero “bad” guy is going to be played by Aamir Khan, aka the one of the three Khans who's so awesome no one ever snarks at him like SRK and Sallu-bhai. Oh, also, Hrithik Roshan got to tongue-kiss Abhishek's real-life wife in the second movie, and it was a wicked hawt kiss too. There, aren't jokes better when you explain them?)

That parenthetical actually serves a critical point in discussing Dangerous Ishhq: the movie goes off on tangents just like that one, with little as apparently to do with the movie at large as that bit of snickering at Abhishek Bachchan has apparently to do with this review. But, just like Abhishek was briefly engaged to Karisma Kapoor—fuck yeah, interconnectedness of all things—all these reincarnation shenanigans actually have a bearing on the kidnapping case in the present day. When Sanjana brings her incarnation-derived insights in the case to lead detective ACP Singh (Jimmy Shergill, who owns) at first he's like “yeah, right” but he tries out a bit of intel that Sanjana derived poetically from her past-life regression and finds out it's real, he's like, huh, fancy that.

Completely aside from not wanting to spoil the plot, I'll stop thereabouts because if I told you what happens in the rest of the movie, you wouldn't believe it. Suffice to say, Karisma Kapoor gets to wear a lot of cool clothes, Jimmy Shergill fucks shit up left and right, and while nothing that happens makes a lick of sense, an audience able to find something sturdy enough to suspend their disbelief with should have an okay time. It's a nice-looking picture with pretty actors and a couple not-half-bad songs.

One thing that can't be alibi-ed away, though, is Karisma Kapoor's performance. It's not that she's bad for the whole picture, but her performance is all over the place, and she seems like she's asleep for most of the present-day stuff. It doesn't help that the character is written as kind of a dingbat, but Lolo's huge unblinking, expressionless eyes don't convey a ton. I feel bad, because she's one of those actors you want to be good, but she ain't too great with nuance. The big emotional stuff, she's better at; this is why, as shit gets crazier and crazier in the second half her performance improves a bit, and she has a lot of supporting help. Like Jimmy Shergill. Holy shit that guy rocks.

So, yeah, Dangerous Ishhq: the extra “h” in “ishq” is for “Hwhat the fuck?” but mostly in a good way. No idea how it'll play with mass audiences, but it'd be nice for Karisma Kapoor to have a hit, just because.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

CLEANING LEXICAL HOUSE: A FAREWELL TO "FANBOY"


On Saturday, Roger Ebert tweeted “Removing the word 'fanboy' from my vocabulary.” I know the feeling: last year I made this argument to retire the phrase 'chick flick' from the vernacular, and I've made a conscious effort to stop using words like “retard” and “fag” ironically, the former because if I can't find a better word than “retard” I'm, well, a retard (Ed. Note: this one's a work in progress, clearly), and the latter because even though I'd probably put out for Michael Fassbender or Hrithik Roshan, there's a difference between having a shortlist and being family. But this raises the question, with regards to the word “fanboy”: is it really on that same level? Actually, yes.

It's no n-word. That's still the big boy on the epithet block. The silver medalist is the c-word, which is only acceptable under extremely rare, extremely intimate conditions (or in the UK or Ireland). Then, to paraphrase Brad Pitt (speaking of the above-mentioned shortlist) in Moneyball, there's fifty layers of crap, and then there's the field, your retards and fags and, per the focus of this discussion, your fanboys. “Fanboy” is actually a matched pair with “hipster,” in that the hateful fuckface in question is always some other hateful fuckface, it's never you. But, where cracking on someone for being a hipster is essentially saying “That person is thin, dresses fashionably, lives on the first couple Brooklyn stops on the L train, and listens to music I very well may claim I always liked in five years,” because even though there's a lot to be annoyed by with that vague genus of urbanite, there is a sliver of class envy there. Sometimes.

The “fanboy,” though, everyone pictures roughly as being like this guy (the guy this guy in the video is making fun of, to be clear):



The Simpsons has been fucking with that guy—not specifically him; “that guy” in the cosmic sense—for decades. And it's not like “that guy” is always just benignly bitching about Bioware's avarice or confronting William Shatner about the fact that he was holding his phaser wrong on some episode or other of TOS. Sometimes shit gets ugly. The week or so leading up to the release of The Avengers when the reviews started coming out, there were a couple nasty incidents of guys telling female critics who committed the unpardonable sin of not fawning over the picture to “stick to rom-coms, bitch” and accusing them of having to check with their boyfriends because girls clearly know nothing about comics, don'tcha know.

Almost as bad was the return volley of sneering about “fanboys” after all that shit. Heaven forfuckingfend we get deep on the origins of this kind of stupid misogynistic bullshit. The problem was not “fanboys” taking comics too seriously, or even the way Samuel L. Jackson impulsively tossed a lit match onto the gassed-up mob mentality of Avengers movie fans (n.b., before anyone other than critics had actually seen it), siccing them on A.O. Scott for his lukewarm review in the New York Times. Fandom, much like the Chinaman (why not just get all the offensive nomenclature into this post, amirite) in The Big Lebowski, is not the issue here.

The problem with the condescension and hostility toward women critics is with a warped variety of hetero male privilege, and an inability to assume responsibility for personal inadequacies. It goes like this: sometime after the onset of puberty, boy meets girl, boy wants to make sex with girl, girl does not reciprocate but due to there being other things in the world besides coitus maintains polite interaction with boy, boy interprets girl's politeness as an indication that she wants to sex his penis, girl meets other boy to whom she actually is sexually attracted and becomes boyfriend-girlfriend with him, first boy interprets this as meaning that girl has been manipulating him and that second boy is ipso facto a douchebag for making sex to first boy's beloved, with said sexmaking being entirely assumed by first boy. The end result is an abiding belief that any time a girl does not make sex with one, the girl has “friend-zoned” one, and that all girls like douchebags, and that nice guys (because one always perceives oneself as being a nice guy) are prey for manipulative, scheming villainesses who will weaponize nice guys' niceness against them. One awesome side effect of this avalanche of paranoia is a bitterness toward women that makes it impossible for the guy in question to get laid. This feedback loop has other byproducts, such as regarding women as the enemy and ascribing all kinds of weird, occasionally baseless characteristics to them a la the commies in the Cold War. Meanwhile women—with their own massive array of shit to worry about—are sitting there going “what the fuck did I do?”

But, the next chapter in this story is not “Frustrated by sexlessness, boys turn to all-male fandoms and become that supervillain . . . THE FANBOY!” Fandom has nothing to do with gender or how often one gets laid, it has to do with consuming, uncritical enthusiasm. One will note, the term “fangirl” is usually self-applied, by girls who are fans of things, i.e. “I'm a huge Buffy fangirl,” and there isn't the pejorative, always-the-other-never-me taint of “fanboy.” That's because the shit that pisses people off about so-called “fanboys” has nothing to do with fandom, and everything to do with a lot of bullshit repressed dysfunction, and denial of privilege and agency. Fandom is fandom, though, and doesn't have to do with penises and vaginas (unless you're in a really fun fandom), it has to do with the heart. Y'know, in the gooshy sappy emotional sense.

Fandom and criticism exist on a polarity, since fandom is an a priori, uncritical state of being, and criticism is concerned with rationalism, observation, and leaving one's own tastes at the door. This is why people like Roger Ebert occasionally toss around the term “fanboy” derisively, because to a critic, someone who reacts as a fan actually is the other. Until now, though, as—while I obviously don't know what his actual motivation was for deciding to purge his vocabulary of the word “fanboy,” I'll take the risk of guessing—it would appear Ebert realized that “fanboy” is a reductive term at best and, to my eyes per the above, not even really a thing.

I'll take it a step farther and say that fans and critics could do well to consider the other, or at least not dismiss the other out of hand. There's something to be said both for an emotional, visceral, experiential approach to the arts, and for understanding what in the given work of art creates that reaction. And, at the very least, we all need to remember that the world is not an extension of the self. So fare thee well, fanboy. And for fuck's sake get laid.


Friday, May 4, 2012

RIP, ADAM "MCA" YAUCH



For a long and rich career in music and film, may you long be remembered, sir.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

NEITHER GOOD NOR IMPORTANT


You gotta hand it to Armond White. He may hate comic books, but he still knows that with great power comes great responsibility, and that when one of the year's most anticipated movies is imminent, it is time to let loose. Behold this review of The Avengers, and bask.