Castle Keep

Burt Lancaster in Castle Keep (dir. Sydney Pollack, 1969).

For a couple of years in the late sixties, movies were more postmodern than they have been at any time since. I don't mean postmodern in the sense of Baudrillardian simulacral sci-fi stuff, I mean in the sense of narrative, dialogue, and dramatic structure, a la Albee or Stoppard or Barthelme. Those only familiar with Sydney Pollack's later work, which typically perceives the world itself as a resolutely quotidian expanse peopled with the occasional reluctantly anomalous obstacles to the smooth functioning of its banal evils and repressions, would likely never guess he'd had a penchant for this sort of thing: half Dirty Dozen, half Putney Swope.

A troop of American soldiers, whose company includes a prominent art critic (Patrick O'Neal), a baker (Peter Falk), and a would-be novelist (Al Freeman Jr.), occupies the medieval French castle Maldorais. Maldorais contains an impossible cache of priceless European art, as well as an effete duke (Jean-Pierre Aumont) and his nubile young wife (Astrid Heeren). The eyepatched Major Falconer (Burt Lancaster) takes up with the wife, and the critic takes up with the art. Young Corporal Clearboy (Scott Wilson) takes up with a Volkswagen. Nearly all the men take up with the whores in the nearby village, where conscientious objector Bruce Dern wanders around with his makeshift Salvation Army band decrying war and fornication.

As the film "progresses," its elliptical lyricism gets more and more hallucinogenically pessimistic. As the derangement escalates, the story undoes its own narrative premises, violating its implied contract with the viewer in a formally radical way that's nevertheless so subtle it doesn't fully sink in until the credits are in mid-roll.



Bradley Hall and Ralph Fiennes in Spider (dir. David Cronenberg, 2002).

Miranda Richardson.

Ralph Fiennes.

Spider alienated many Cronenberg fans, who felt their beloved creepmaster was straying too far into "respectable" cinematic territory. The same critique was made, with somewhat more justice, of M. Butterfly (1993), but Spider is completely true to vintage Cronenbergian form. It doesn't have the usual level of blood or mangled flesh (though there are a couple of brief gory scenes), but all the trademark obsessions are there: the dread of sexuality, the encasement of the body, and most of all the dark fantasy of narrative and text assuming the power to corrupt one's sense of reality at a deep pychological, perhaps even cellular level.

I can't help but think that Cronenberg derived some cruel ironic pleasure from granting Ralph Fiennes his longtime wish of playing the role of the schizophrenic Dennis "Spider" Clegg--and then having author Patrick McGrath rework the script to remove nearly all of Spider's lines (originally planned as voiceover). Fiennes says maybe twelve intelligible words in the whole picture, and it lends considerably to the pervading sense of anxiety and isolation, as do all the shots where Spider is the only person in the frame.

Much of the story is presented as flashback, with Fiennes sharing filmic space with his younger self--and sometimes revisiting scenes he could not physically have witnessed in the first place. This is another of Cronenberg's familiar unnerving maneuvers: to put both us and his characters through vertiginous sequences of events that complicate and contradict each other. Miranda Richardson adds to the disorientation by playing multiple roles (I didn't realize this till the movie was almost over, but I'm hopeless with facial recognition). The final "twist" is predictable, but this doesn't lessen the emotional impact that much.

My favorite moment is the opening scene, where we watch what seems like half of Britain (actually the entire crew of the film) getting off a train and streaming past us, and we know that eventually we will be introduced to Spider as part of the stream--and the moment keeps getting deferred, until when we do finally see him, we are so relieved that our defenses are down, and we register his agonized presence like a sudden shock to the system. He crawls slowly off the train and onto the platform as though unsure of his footing, and our next impulse is one of protectiveness and sympathy. For the rest of the film, we feel bound to him, even responsible for him.

Tangential note: I say "we" because, even though I don't believe in a universally uniform audience response, this is how the experience of watching a movie feels to me: it's not directed at me, individually, but at an ideal set of spectators I happen to be among. I always sense that larger theoretical set, like a company into which I am temporarily inserted, when I'm watching a film.



Val Kilmer and Derek Luke in Spartan (dir. David Mamet, 2004).

Remember what I said about Mamet's films never threatening to turn into real movies? Spartan comes close to jumping the shark in that regard. There's just too much big governmental top-security danger danger action, creating the feel of one of those low-budget knock-offs of big-budget pictures like Patriot Games. The plot, if you can follow it, is preposterous in the extreme. But that's all right, because Val Kilmer brings his freaky intensity down hard on nearly every scene (does anyone besides me think he has a lot of talent?). He's the scariest character in the film, and he's the good guy.

Why is it called Spartan? Did I miss something? Is it a Marine thing?



Gene Hackman in a very Bergmanesque shot from Heist (dir. David Mamet, 2001).

I admit it, I'll always watch a Mamet film. I would say that this is one of his most minor directorial efforts, but they're all minor. Their brittle miniature quality is part of what makes them enjoyable: you're never worried that they're going to balloon into actual real life movies and draw attention away from all the fussy plotting and mannered dialogue. There is, however, probably less going on than average in Heist. I don't just mean that the heist itself is nearly an abstraction, and happens in the middle of the film; I liked that part. Actually I liked all of it. In a subdued manner of liking.


The Cooler

William H. Macy in The Cooler (dir. Wayne Kramer, 2003).

Bernie Lootz, played by William H. Macy, is a "cooler": a guy who goes to the gaming table in the casino to make customers lose, like just by emitting bad vibes or something. Do they really have those? Things get screwed up when he falls in love with Maria Bello and starts to bring good luck instead of bad. That's the dumbest part, that romantic fantasy element. The rest is fairly engaging, thanks to the production design (which is at once gaudy and noirish) and the chemistry between Macy and Bello (I know, bizarre, right?). The first sex scene is convincingly intimate enough to be a little embarrassing. In a "sweet" way, which is I guess what makes it embarrassing.


The Hidden

Kyle MacLachlan in The Hidden (dir. Jack Sholder, 1987).

I think I fell asleep when I watched this on late-night cable over fifteen years ago. I've always remembered that I liked it, but seeing it again, I remembered almost nothing. Which is nice, because I didn't know how it was going to turn out, so it was like seeing it for the first time. Anyway, it's a load of fun--it has some of that weirdo late-eighties sci-fi energy that say, Repo Man has (though not quite that much). The basic premise is that an alien life form takes over normal people and makes them want to do violent crimes and listen to terrible hard rock. Kyle MacLachlan, in his third screen role, plays an FBI agent, four years before Twin Peaks (did Lynch get the idea of casting him as Dale Cooper from this?).


Ms .45

Zoë Lund [as Zoë Tamerlis] in Ms .45 (dir. Abel Ferrara, 1981).

Abel Ferrara's sublimely tasteless splatter-drama about a young mute seamstress who gets raped twice in one day and goes on a man-shooting spree (her name is "Thana"--get it?). The main obstacle to her rampage is her nosy landlady, who has an equally nosy obnoxious little dog, and also happens to be a very, very bad actress. The big climax occurs when Thana attends a work Halloween party dressed as a nun and goes totally Carrie on the joint. It would all be contemptible if it didn't have so much sleazy New York soul. The very last shot combines black humor and cheap sentiment in a way I don't even know how to process.


Bob le flambeur

Roger Duchesne in Bob le flambeur (dir. Jean-Piere Melville, 1956).

Isabelle Corey.

Montmartre after dark.

Melville's classic anti-heist film is so wonderful on so many levels that I don't know what to say. It's a flawless piece of construction that never feels mechanically contrived; a celebration of human singularity that never stoops to maudlin psychologizing. To say that the movie is all style is no slight to its depth. Soul and wit, compassion and irony are made indistinguishable.

If I could be beamed back to any point in history, possibly to stay, it might be Melville's Montmartre of the fifties (who knew street cleaners ever looked like that, anywhere?). And if that Montmartre is merely imaginary, I would gladly dwell in its phantasm.

And if Isabelle Corey were there as well, that would seal the deal.


What Happens in Vegas...

Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz in What Happens in Vegas... (dir. Tom Vaughan, 2008).

1     What happens in Vegas is everything that is the case.

1.1     What happens in Vegas is the totality of facts, not of things.

2.01231     In order to know what happens in Vegas, I must know not its external but all its internal qualities.

2.2     What happens in Vegas has the logical form of representation in common with what it pictures.

3.221     What happens in Vegas I can only name. Signs represent it. I can only speak of it. I cannot assert it. A proposition can only say how what happens in Vegas is, not what it is.

4.112     What happens in Vegas is not a theory but an activity.

5.6     The limits of what happens in Vegas represent the limits of my world.

6.41     The sense of what happens in Vegas must lie outside what happens in Vegas. In Vegas everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value--and if there were, it would be of no value.

If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside all happening in Vegas and being-so. For all happening in Vegas and being-so is accidental.

6.43     The world of the happy is quite another than that of the unhappy.

6.44     Not how what happens in Vegas is, is the mystical, but that it is.

7     What happens in Vegas, thereof one must be silent.


Play Dirty

Nigel Davenport and Michael Caine in Play Dirty (dir. André De Toth, 1968).

Nigel Green.

Mohsen Ben Abdallah and Mohamed Kouka: "All they ask is kif and each other."

Another tough little movie from De Toth--maybe his toughest ever. Superficially, it's a Dirty Dozen knock-off, but really it's a brilliant deconstruction of the colorful-gang-of-wartime-scoundrels genre, with its stock theme of camaraderie under fire. As in Aldrich's film, a troop composed mainly of criminals is sent on a secret mission against the Nazis. The one non-reprobate is Michael Caine, an officer who's drafted from his safe duties as a port inspector to lead the group in question across the Egyptian desert to find Rommel's fuel depot and blow it up. Sent along with him to make sure he gets back alive is Nigel Davenport, an arrogant, cynical mercenary.

What you gradually realize as the film goes on is that none of these guys are ever going to bond. All the plot mechanisms are in place for it, but they just spin and whir to no effect as though the script were mocking itself. Nor does Caine ever come down off his high horse and examine the hypocrisy of his anachronistic British investment in decorum. The closest he comes is, in a pinch, to adopt the same disregard for the sanctity of human life as the rest of his outfit ("You're learning," says Davenport when Caine blows away some German ambulance attendants--and that's the closest thing we see to bonding). As for the supporting cast, you think at first they're going to be "colorful"; no, they're just soulless thugs. The two most likeable of the bunch are Hassan and Assine, a couple of gay Arabs. When three of the other men try to rape the German nurse who treated Hassan's injuries, Hassan gallantly shoots one of them in the ass from his stretcher. But even this small moment of decency is subject to an ironic recontextualization as events unfold.

Nigel Green plays the colonel who sends all these guys on their quest, and he is perhaps the movie's most complex, merciless joke. His endearingly dotty eccentricities (wearing sandals, planning attacks by consulting ancient battle maps) eventually give way to a revelation of his true character that is devastating in its offhandedness. In this way he is a microcosm of the film as a whole.


Day of the Outlaw

Robert Ryan in Day of the Outlaw (dir. André De Toth, 1959).

Mike McGreevey and Burl Ives.

Tina Louise.

Robert Ryan.

Frank DeKova as "Denver": "I want to look at you."

Robert Ryan sneers at old flame Tina Louise, who's contemptuous of his lack of mercy: "You won't find much mercy anywhere in Wyoming." De Toth's version of Wyoming (I have no idea where it was filmed) is bleak indeed: with all its snow and long shots and low-contrast black-and-white it looks a lot like Peter Brook's King Lear. That is to say, it looks great.

Ryan looks great too: grizzled, cool, and surly. Tina Louise has not yet surrendered her identity to become Ginger on Gilligan's Island, and at times she takes on the delicate gravity of a Sargent painting. Elisha Cook graces us with his presence for about ten seconds. David Nelson, son of Ozzie and Harriet, plays a clean-cut young outlaw you don't believe could have lasted five minutes among the gang of ruffians he rides into town with on the run from the cavalry. That scurvy crew includes Jack Lambert, who played "The Claw" in Dick Tracy's Dilemma and "Dum Dum Clarke" in Siodmak's The Killers; Lance Fuller, from This Island Earth and Slightly Scarlet; and Frank DeKova, as a grotesque (I think he's supposed to be an Indian) named Denver, who's oddly sensitive in a psychotic way. And, yes, Burl Ives as a renegade Union officer in charge of them all! All we ever find out about Ives' character, Jack Bruhn, is that he led a massacre of Mormon settlers in Utah. We don't learn why, and we're not let very far into the dark chamber of Bruhn's troubled conscience. His men are clamoring for alcohol and rough sex with the local wives and daughters of the townfolk, but he holds them tightly in check, even as he's suffering from a serious bullet wound. This power he has over them isn't really explained either, beyond the casual observation that they "need" him," but he makes it believable. He's a very reasonable outlaw, and scarier for it.


Baby Mama

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in Baby Mama (dir. Michael McCullers, 2008).

What is this thing with movies (the loathsome You've Got Mail being one of the worst offenders) in which it is explicitly pointed out how the main characters are privileged, entitled materialists, and how evil the big corporations they work for are, and so on--but then everything proceeds as though there were no consequences to these facts? Oh, right, realism.

But that can't make me hate Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Dax Shepard in this silly little movie. Or Greg Kinnear, though even he couldn't redeem You've Got Mail (no, nor could even Parker Posey). Steve Martin is funny as a pony-tailed organic supermarket CEO who gives his employees "five minutes of uninterrupted eye contact" as a reward. Sigourney Weaver is extremely creepy in her role as an extremely creepy person. The whole thing is an homage to mommy comedies of the eighties like Baby Boom, so if you're OK going into it knowing that, you'll probably have a good time.


To Live and Die in L.A.

Darlanne Fluegel and William Petersen in To Live and Die in L.A. (dir. William Friedkin, 1985).

Dean Stockwell.

Willem Dafoe.

Friedkin is a very hit-and-miss director. His approach--and I believe he would admit to this--is for the most part to throw stuff on the floor and see if it makes interesting patterns. A lot of the time it does, but a lot of the rest of the time, as with The Exorcist (in my opinion), you just have a messy floor. The floor is a little messy in To Live and Die in L.A., but it's a big enough floor that ... agh, I'm abandoning this stupid metaphor. What I want to say is that this is a very good, if flawed, movie. The flaws are weirdly hard to pinpoint, but I think they have a fair amount to do with the casting of William Petersen and John Pankow as the two Secret Service partners who go after counterfeiter Willem Dafoe. They're both fine as actors, but they look so eighties, in that fratty young white guy way. I can't get past that.

The look of the film is one of its main strengths. Wim Wenders' sometime cinematographer Robby Müller drenches the screen in evocative colors, shifting elegantly from pastels to neons, tight compositions to sprawling vistas. Moreover, the one scene that Müller didn't shoot, an out-of-control chase sequence that won't quit, had me squirming on the couch. Dafoe gives a restrained, intense performance as an artist who's really a criminal who's really an artist etc. And can I just say, Dean Stockwell (who is onscreen only about five minutes total, and doesn't really do much, but still saturates the picture with his scary quietness) is God? Why the hell doesn't he get more big-screen roles? Did he piss off some powerful person?


Springfield Rifle

Gary Cooper in Springfield Rifle (dir. André De Toth, 1952).

Perfectly entertaining Civil War western directed by the sporadically great André De Toth. It's a Hollywood heel-rider on at least two levels: it's Gary Cooper's next role after High Noon, once again as a guy who has to prove he's not a coward; and the title at least is an attempt to cash in on Winchester 73. People have complained that the title is misleading, since the eponymous rifle plays a relatively small part in the story. Those would be people who don't understand metonymy. The real subject of the film is counter-espionage as a military tactic, which like the gun in question was a relatively untried quantity at the time (at least the filmmakers work under the assumption that it was--beats me if it's true).

As I said, it's diverting enough, though no masterpiece. Lon Chaney, Jr. is good as a big dumb brute (surprise). Max Steiner's score is interesting: most of the time it hums along predictably with variations on "Battle Hymn of the Republic," but every once in a while it breaks out into stylized Coplandesque flourishes for no discernable reason.



Burt Reynolds in Hustle (dir. Robert Aldrich, 1975).

Robert Aldrich, remember, brought us Kiss Me, Deadly, one of the strangest and finest American films of the fifties. His Hustle is two films in one: one a brooding neo-noir in the vein of Chinatown or Night Moves, pregnant with socio-political critique; the other a unwatchably inept abuse of the filmic medium, not even good enough to be a TV movie. And here's the sad part: the main flaw is in the direction. The cast is great--Burt Reynolds, Ben Johnson, Eileen Brennan, Catherine Deneuve, Paul Winfield, Eddie Albert, Ernest Borgnine, even a young Robert Englund, of Nightmare on Elm Street fame--and frame by frame, it often has the look of one of those languorous seventies classics where the contempo casual decor and the seedy liquor store locations all bleed together into art. Steve Shagan's script is a little purple at times, but it's also full of potential. With the right editing and revision, it could have worked. But the pacing and general structure of the film overall is just off. It feels like a bad daytime soap. Occasionally the camera will swoop with unwarranted confidence, setting up a scene for some heavy moment of significance, bringing in landscape and architecture and urban atmosphere, and then--plop. It only works if you view it as unintentionally "experimental." There's a dream sequence with Ben Johnson, for example, where the superimposition and dissolves are so crazy it feels for a minute like you're watching Brakhage.


Blast of Silence

Allen Baron as "Baby Boy" Frankie Bono in Blast of Silence (dir. Allen Baron, 1961).

Walking the mean streets.

Harlem and the Apollo (Peter H. Clune, second from right, with the moustache).

I'd be willing to bet money that Taxi Driver is a near-direct result of Scorsese studying this movie frame by frame. It's all there: the fatalistic voiceover, the downbeat jazz score, the big slow cars gliding over rain-slick city streets, the sexually thwarted protagonist. Like Dassin's Rififi, it was shot by happy chance on overcast and stormy days, filtering muted expressivism through documentary frankness into a subjective grey totality. Director Baron stepped into the lead role after originally-slated actor Peter Falk said he couldn't do it, and he doesn't so much act as direct on screen, using his body's wary tenseness as a cue for the general spirit of alienation that drives the story. Like Scorsese's Travis Bickle, "Baby Boy" Frankie Bono is above all lonely. He wants to make human connections despite himself and his occupation (hit-man), and most of the time he succeeds in suppressing that desire. When he does let his guard down, the results are a botch. As soon as he allows an old chum from the orphanage--and more importantly, the old chum's sister--to talk him into attending a party, he makes himself fatally vulnerable. When he joins in a party game of pushing peanuts across the floor with his nose, we know he's had it. There's no way to recover the protection of his criminal shell. He's like Frankenstein's monster: gestures of kindness only enflame his awareness of his own maladjusted nature and lead him to embarrass himself (both emotionally and professionally).

The footage of New York City ca. 1959 is reason alone for watching. Each time the camera registers a specific location--Greenwich Village, Rockefeller Center, the Staten Island Ferry, Penn Station--it generates a little photoessay set piece. The Harlem sequence is especially striking.

More on the film at Noir of the Week.


Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

John Cho, Kal Penn, and Rob Corddry in Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (dir. Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, 2008).

The vulgar libertarianism (I guess the non-vulgar kind is plain old anarchy, which can be pretty vulgar itself) of South Park and other recent cultural productions is in full view in the new Harold & Kumar vehicle, and reveals itself predictably as the limited and limiting downward spiral of subversion and containment that it always is. The big payoff comes with the catch phrase delivered by a blunt-puffing George Bush, "You don't have to like your government to be a good American; you just have to love your country." The levels of irony and counterirony in this moment are so dense as to be opaque, and therefore negligible. It finally doesn't matter whether the Bush character or anyone else "means it" or not, let alone whether the phrase itself can be parsed into meaning anything at all.

All this, of course, is rendered beside the point if you are not so naive in the first place as to harbor the illusion that a popular movie can be a viable vessel of political resistance, assuming anyone connected with it ever even had that as an objective. In which case another fact about the picture emerges: it's funny as shit. It's funny in the same way that Cheech and Chong were funny for a few months in the seventies, before the pot smoke cleared and everyone could see that they'd been laughing at a condition of social abjection so large and irremediable they should really be crying. In other words, really funny, gallows funny, Rabelais-funny. The movie retreats into fantasy from the first frame onward, until it reaches a point of opiate denial so total that it approaches joy. The periodic demystifying gestures of romantic irony along the way are mere ruses, modes of deferral to increase the intensity of the final buzz.