Jesus' Son

Billy Crudup and Samantha Morton in Jesus' Son (dir. Alison Maclean, 1999).

Billy Crudup and Jack Black.

Denis Johnson's 1992 book of short stories Jesus' Son not only leaves its narrator unnamed, but it leaves open to question whether this narrator is in fact the same from story to story. It's easy to see why so many readers assume it is. The voice throughout goes back and forth between various levels of heroin-addledness, which one can reasonably imagine as representing one person at different stages of deterioration or (partial) recovery. But it's never made explicit. This narrative structure is crucial to the book's power: the very notion of continuous identity is one of the commonplaces rendered unreliable or even moot by the destructive force of addiction. Similarly, even if we decide the speaker is the same, it's not clear that the order of the stories is chronological. They could well represent randomized memories of a life in irreparable disorder.

These are the main reasons that Alison Maclean's 1999 movie version utterly fails as a whole, despite the impressiveness of many of its parts. The decision to treat the book as a novel with an unequivocally consistent central character is disastrous (though it would have been equally disastrous to come down explicitly on the other possibility, that the characters are different, and it may be that the book is simply unfilmable). It's always a bad sign when a film adapted from a book relies heavily on voiceovers of speech lifted directly from the original text, and in this case the offense is particularly grave. Though probably no one could pull this off, Billy Crudup has no idea what to do with Johnson's gnomically elliptical prose. He tries to make it sound natural, even jaunty: big mistake. It's not natural, it's literary. It's not a script for performance, not a realistic facsimile of someone's interior monologue, but a deft superimposition of a pointed authorial sensibility onto characters who, if they were real, might well not even share much of that author's vocabulary. In the same way, the decision to render the discrete stories as a continuous arc of dramatic crisis eventuating in cathartic self-realization flattens out Johnson's far more challenging avoidance of obvious sequentiality.


Where the Wild Things Are

A wild thing with James Gandolfini's voice and Max Records in Where the Wild Things Are (dir. Spike Jonze, 2009).

J. Hoberman, in his Village Voice review, refers to Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are as a group therapy session with muppets, and that's not inaccurate. For Hoberman this is a problem, but to my mind, Dave Eggers' script is the most engaging application of neurosis as an impressionistic medium since early Woody Allen. A word I might use to describe the film is "druggy," which is also usually an insult. But these are really weird, powerful drugs that leave the viewer--this viewer, anyway--in an emotionally complex state.

Sendak's book was never much on my personal canon; I always thought of it as slight and ponderous at the same time, too infused with what seemed to me like pop Jungianism and cheap primitivism--which is sort of impressive, considering that there can't be fifty words in the whole thing. But you know, it was just a kid's book, so no big deal. The pictures were pretty. Eggers' script, however, takes the dated psychological undertone of the text and turns it inside out, using the threadbare therapeutic allegory as satirically baroque wallpaper. The satire is never harsh or overly cynical, so the resultant tone is a poignant mixture of farce and elegy. Says Carol (James Gandolfini), walking with Max through a desert that symbolizes the sadness of a young person's first apprehensions of universal entropy, rocks turning to sand, and sand to dust, "I don't even know what comes after dust."

The weakest moments in the script are the two or three instances in which Sendak's words are pasted reverently into the dialogue (e.g., "Let the wild rumpus begin," or "I'll eat you up, I love you so." Other than this, the overall mood of sloppy beauty is immensely moving. A lovely film.


Drag Me to Hell

Adriana Barraza, a goat, and Alison Lohman in Drag Me to Hell (dir. Sam Raimi, 2009).

Commercial horror with the vicious glee and exuberant silliness of an EC comic. Sam Raimi appears, on the evidence of interviews, to believe that his little film carries a moral message. This proves only that one does not have to be very deep to make a good movie. If we take Raimi seriously, we have to conclude that he has the moral vision of a radical Protestant bolshevik, and frankly he's not that complex a thinker. The "morality" of this story is really just stylized cruelty wound up tight like a mousetrap programmed to snap at well-timed intervals, which is the only thing that really makes it more interesting than any other PG-13 horror comedy. Because the main character is a loan officer who rejects an old lady's plea for an extension on her house payment, some reviewers read the film as a thoughtful socio-economic critique of some sort. Again, forget it. It's nothing but base carnival spookhouse manipulation that only asks to be taken seriously at the climactic moment--making that the funniest moment of all.


Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974

Miyuki Takeda in Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 [Gokushiteki erosu: Renka 1974] (dir. Kazuo Hara, 1974).

The intensity of some films makes one not only overlook their technical limitations, but embrace them as essential to its vision. Throughout most of Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974, which was shot on bargain-basement home equipment, the voice synch isn't even close enough to be considered synch, and whole scenes, including a crucial one, are entirely out of focus. It's impossible to ignore these distractions--and they are distractions. There's no way to construe them as intentional, or even as accidental enhancements, in any direct aesthetic sense. But what one is aware of is the length to which one is willing to go to overlook the glitches, as though peering out a hotel room window at night, willing away the darkness and the noise of the traffic, voyeuristically trying to make out what's going on in the room across the street. The obstructions are not a means of invention for the artist, but a sacrifice the viewer is willing to make--and having made that sacrifice, our involvement is deeper.

Miyuki Takeda, the subject of Kazuo Hara's film (and of his own romantic obsession), is anamorphically chimeric: she is complex, and brutally simple; passionate, and cold; nurturing, and hard; sympathetic, and repellent; radically feminist, and thoroughly colonized by patriarchal ideology; quixotic, and realist to the point of cynicism. That is, she is real in a way that can never be fully captured by fiction. She drives Hara to tears on camera, and it's irrelevant whether we think she is cruel, or he is a sap, or both, or neither. "Character" dissolves into medium, and morality is transformed into memory. We feel the death that fills in the space behind each human experience like curtains of black ink, and that death sobers us out of judgment.

The streets and ports of seventies Okinawa are correlatives to both Takeda's toughness and Hara's sentiment. They are never picturesque, never lyrical, even in a noirish sense. They are just fleeting splashes of the historical Real, left as stains on film. Similarly, the two live births that are the culmination of the documentary defy any habitually conditioned emotional response. Takeda's relationship to children is somehow central to the film's "dramatic" movement, but by the end, all that can happen within that structureless structure is an overflowing or outpouring, a release of new life that is neither particularly hopeful nor particularly fatalistic. The final images of Takeda soaking in a tub full of babies arrest whatever prejudicial impulses might still be left flickering in the viewer's brain, and replace them with a simultaneously frightening and exhilarating readiness to see what new meanings can be forged there.


Pit and the Pendulum

Barbara Steele in Pit and the Pendulum (dir. Roger Corman, 1961).

Larry Turner as the young Don Medina.

Vincent Price.

The second of Roger Corman's eight or so Poe adaptations (depending on which ones you count as actually having anything to do with Poe). Richard Matheson again supplies the script, as he did for House of Usher the previous year.

Corman's Poe films have been celebrated often and vigorously, and for good reason. They are models of just how much visual and emotional power can be generated on a relatively low budget, and without worrying too much about things like logic, continuity, or decent acting. Barbara Steele (star of such horror-sleaze milestones as The Maniacs, Terror Creatures from the Grave, , etc.) is perfectly cast for such an enterprise: nearly rangeless as an actress, and creepy looking in a really hot way. And Vincent Price, of course, transcends conventional definitions of talent altogether. As the tortured Nicholas Medina, he gives a masterful portrayal of simpering guilt that slides abruptly into psychotic mayhem. The rest of the cast could be replaced by bookshelves wearing clothes, but the total effect is so good it doesn't matter.

The title contraption is all that remains of Poe's story (actually, that's all there really is to Poe's story). The rest is stock gothic plot elements woven into a flimsy and familiar shape: Nicholas's beautiful young wife Elizabeth (Steele) has died suddenly, and there are fears that she may have been buried alive. Elizabeth's brother (Michael Kerr) arrives from England laden with suspicions. Nicholas's doctor (Antony Carbone) and sister (Luana Anders) supply additional occasions for purple dialogue and advancement of the narrative, such as it is. But from start to finish, somehow, it offers everything one can reasonably ask of it, and the final shot is one of the great moments in horror cinema.

One more thing I have to add, speaking from purely poetic interest: I love the way the film omits the first article in the original title ("The Pit and the Pendulum") while retaining the second. It defies grammatical sense, and should by all rights never have made it past whoever was in charge of looking out for those things (well, there you go, I guess). And it's perfect. Any parallels out there that anyone else can think of?

The colorful title effects.


The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2008).

Mickey Rourke has never been one of my favorite actors, and it's odd that this stale dirty-realist draaaaama should show him to best advantage. He gives himself entirely over to the role of Randy "the Ram" Robinson, a wrestler who was big in the eighties and still clings to the decade's hair-metal ethic for dear life. The film gets just the right grainy look, and for the first twenty minutes or so, you're ready to believe that The Wrestler will plunge Cassavetes-like into the quotidian depths of its subject matter's spandexy squalor. But Darren Aronofsky is no Cassavetes, and after the insanely gnarly barbed wire and staple gun scene, which is almost worthy of Gummo, it's mostly clumsy emotion-wringing about the wrestler's relationship with his estranged daughter and the stripper with a heart of gold who tries to help him straighten out his life. (The stripper, by the way, is Marisa Tomei, whom I refuse to stop thinking of as my favorite actress despite not being sure if she can really act or not.) There are a couple of scenes with Rourke working behind the meat counter of a supermarket that nearly redeem the otherwise patience-testing stretches of generic triteness.


Top Ten Films of 2008

This year's list took some padding and slippery conceptualization before it would satisfy me. If it had been a list of just comedies, it would have been easy to complete: many of the top ten are comedies, and I would have felt OK about including Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Role Models, Semi-Pro, Baby Mama, The House Bunny, Ghost Town, and maybe even Tropic Thunder and the fatally flawed Zack & Miri Make a Porno (not What Happens in Vegas, though). None of these, however, felt quite strong enough in the context of a general list of all the new films I saw during the year. I'm not quite sure what principle I'm appealing to in this distinction. But finally, the ones that made the cut did so on the basis of how strong my combined emotional and intellectual reaction was to them, and as a result, how often I thought about them after seeing them. Note: there are still quite a few prominent releases from 2008 that I haven't seen yet (e.g., Milk), so it's possible that this list could be modified in the weeks ahead.

10. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (dir. Guillermo del Toro). I don't remember much of this one now, but I know that when I saw it I was impressed by the sensuous energy of its fantasticality: the kind of thing Terry Gilliam always aims for (when Gilliam hits, it's only because he uses a shotgun). It was drowned out by the thunderous release, a couple days later, of The Dark Knight, and it deserves some recognition.

9. The Happening (dir. M. Night Shyamalan). "Best" must be carefully qualified here. Like a lot of other viewers, I was at times slack-jawed at what was either ineptitude or tonal inscrutability on the part of almost everyone involved in this bizarre, dreary, eco-Jeremiad. But it has stuck with me. Some of the images have the irrational, troubling aura of nightmare, somehow made all the more eerie by virtue of their blank execution.

8. Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman). This would be either higher or lower on the list if I could decide whether it adequately critiques the middle-class white-male subjectivity it privileges, and whether it makes a difference even if it does. I think maybe I only put it on here at all because I just really like synecdoche.

7. Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (dir. Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg). Crass, unfocused, and adolescent. Anyone got a problem with that? Rob Corddry wipes his ass with the Bill of Rights. Enough said.

6. Gran Torino (dir. Clint Eastwood). In his late seventies, Eastwood is looking more and more like Bud, the domesticated zombie in George Romero's Day of the Dead. But he wears it well, that beautiful, beautiful psycho.

5. The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan). Batman Begins was elegant, but narrow and overly prosaic; The Dark Knight is a steam-shrouded juggernaut, a Wagnerian spectacle. Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker is like an ultraviolent aria. Oh, the film's politics are screwed up. Well, if they weren't, it wouldn't be a very accurate reflection of the state of our collective military-industrial fantasy life, now would it?

4. Pineapple Express (dir. David Gordon Green). Gratifying buddy antics with Seth Rogen and James Franco. Part of what recommends this, I will admit, is simply the memory of the trailer, so expertly edited to M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" (which I don't believe actually plays in the movie itself).

3. Step Brothers (dir. Adam McKay). "I'll kiss you on the mouth, Kenny Rogers."

2. Appaloosa (dir. Ed Harris). Renée Zellweger is such a ho in this! And yet the film manages never to judge her. Rather, it makes her a central hub of sympathetic attention (without requiring her to move a muscle, really). And on top of that, it's just a fine old-school western: relaxed dialogue, tense physical confrontations, and bold, expressive vistas. Big cat sitting on a mountaintop, watching a train go by in the distance. Hallelujah.

1. Burn After Reading (dir. Ethan Coen & Joel Coen). The Coen Brothers squeeze into the number one spot for the second year in a row with their most pessimistic and contemptuous work to date. Burn After Reading is a grim downward spiral of a spy spoof that drags you around by the heels till your fingernails scrape off on the asphalt. It gleefully forces its cast to surrender all dignity, especially Brad Pitt and George Clooney. A cinematic tone poem blowing a shrill raspberry at the human species.


Gran Torino

Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Brooke Chia Thao, Chee Thao, and Ahney Her in Gran Torino (dir. Clint Eastwood, 2008).

The critical controversy surrounding Gran Torino is that Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) is a largely unrepentant racist: he calls the Hmong family living next door to him "gooks" and other unpleasant things, even after he develops fond feelings for them and befriends the directionless son, Thao (Bee Vang), who tries to steal his precious 1972 Gran Torino in a botched gang initiation rite. The ideological problem, in plain terms, is that Eastwood's character is depicted as simultaneously bigoted and likeable. Obviously this sends a clear message that racism is endearing, and as a result audience members will leave the theater hurling epithets at minorities and expecting that people will find it cute. A small percentage of viewers, it is true, may realize that it is a work of fiction and not an educational filmstrip on social etiquette.

It was pointed out to me after the movie by the people I watched it with that Bee Vang is a terrible actor. I guess this is true in retrospect, but it didn't bother me. He's such a likeable kid. The whole movie is immensely likeable. And if its likeability weren't in many ways troubling, it wouldn't be as resonant as it is.

At one point, Thao's sister Sue (Ahney Her) tells Walt that she wishes he had been her father. Her own father, she says, was "old school." Walt points out that he's old school too. "But you're an American," she replies. We're not told what that means exactly, but it's clearly supposed to be a good thing. I think it has something to do with allowing people (including oneself) to screw up. This is certainly presented as a major theme of the film, thus the subplot about Walt needing to go to confession so he can cast away the "burden" of the horrible things he did in the Korean War. And that's as good a way as any of describing what is best and worst about being American: the idea that you can be forgiven for just about anything, especially if you're charming enough.

As a director, Eastwood pushes the adjective "workmanlike" as close as it can get to "excellent." He's like Walt: he has a garage full of a bazillion tools specially made to cover just about any task that might come up. He has a masterful sense of detail, fluid narrative energy, restrained symbolic instincts--if at the end the total structure is still that of a 1980s made-for-TV movie, it is at least the one that you watch again whenever it is rerun. And as an actor, he is tops in his field (the field of stony, snarling, antisocial scarecrows who must one day make hard choices that are too big to be contained by their day-to-day moral world views, and that thus explode them). Like John Wayne, he embodies both the romantic and the repellent sides of conservatism at once. He performs jingoistic, self-destructive, guilt-ridden acts of paternalistic heroism for you so you don't have to get your hands bloody. In return, all he asks is that he gets to call you a pussy. I treasure the man. I can't help it.

Nutshell synopsis: combines the best aspects of About Schmidt and Death Wish.


Synecdoche, New York

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Samantha Morton in Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman, 2008).

The heading for one of the message board threads at the IMDb page for Synecdoche, New York reads, "Maybe this makes more sense to atheists."

Honey, nothing makes sense to atheists. That's the way we like it.

I am left deeply unsatisfied, nevertheless, by the incoherence of the frivolous Schenectady/synecdoche pun out of which I cannot but imagine the film initially sprang as an improvised whim. This dissatisfaction, in fact, is itself a synecdoche for my more general misgivings about Charlie Kaufman. Yes, I was entertained by the movie, even moved at times, but I could never quite get past the way it broadcast its sense of itself as the work of an intrepid junior genius. Prodigal precociousness became Being John Malkovich; a decade later, it smacks a little of wishful thinking.

And yet the perennially-on-fire apartment is a lovely metaphor, both humorous and haunting, and there are a number of these touches throughout.


Across the Bridge

Rod Steiger in Across the Bridge (dir. Ken Annakin, 1957).

A businessman (Rod Steiger) fleeing to Mexico to avoid prosecution for financial corruption throws a fellow passenger off the train in order to assume his identity. Upon deboarding, he finds he has inherited the man's dog. From a short story by Graham Greene. Despite the slightly distracting feature of having lots of Mexicans played by British actors, a fine, taut drama with a Wellesian feel (more, probably, on account of the setting and theme than anything else--stylistically, it's closer to Hitchcock). The central narrative problem is how to make the gradual development of the man/dog relationship interesting without resorting to tired sentiment, and it's handled very intelligently. Steiger becomes more likeable as he starts to fall apart under the pressure of paranoia and guilt, even though there's never any overwrought "moral transformation."