Sunday, December 29, 2013

BLACKFISH....DON JON...WRONG COPS...


The tiny black eyes of a killer whale are so deeply set in their black faces that they don't seem to have eyes at all. At times, all we see are their teeth, and it seems they are smiling. They look like blindfolded giants, grinning at us. They are inscrutable. But as we learn in Gabriela Cowperthwaite's  Blackfish, if we listen, we can hear them cry.

Tilikum, the killer whale at the center of this dramatic and upsetting documentary, was captured and placed in captivity at age four. The stories of how the young whales are captured and taken from their families are deeply moving, particularly when one old-timer remembers the horrible sound of mother whales screaming. While at Sea Land, a shoddy, low rent sea show, Tilikum killed a trainer.  Obviously a dangerous creature, "Tili" was then shipped off to Sea World for breeding purposes. Somehow, perhaps because he was such a large animal and could make the all important big splash to soak the customers, Tilikum was soon performing at Sea World, too. Not surprisingly, he killed another trainer there,  grabbing her arm and holding her underwater, before mutilating her.

Killer whales, or orcas, are intelligent creatures. They are social, and like to travel about the ocean with their families. They have a complicated way of communicating, and a study of their brains have revealed these whales to possess levels of feeling we had not imagined. Blackfish puts forth a compelling argument that keeping such a bright species in captivity is akin to keeping them in solitary confinement. They go a little crazy. They get depressed. They'll kill.
Tilikum is examined in Blackfish almost like a teen serial killer in one of those A&E Biography shows. Former trainers remember him as a nice whale, with a fun disposition, but he could be moody. He occasionally charged at trainers, and at times seemed listless. We learn that he was separated from his mother at a young age, and that the female whales at Sea World bullied him. Tilikum's not alone, though. We see clips of other killer whales attacking trainers. Such attacks have been going on for years.

We learn that the whales in captivity don't live nearly as long as whales in the ocean, and that their fins seem to grow limp from lack of use. Being kept in tiny quarters and let out only to do stunts is a kind of slavery; when they attack, it's a slave revolt. Sea World doesn't cop to anything, though, and wouldn't participate in the film. We only see clips of Sea World employees, talking robotically about the greatness of Sea World, and reciting the company line about how the captive whales receive top treatment and care. (Sea World has recently issued a rebuttal to Blackfish, calling the documentary "propaganda." I suppose it's now up to Sea World to make their own documentary. Fair is fair, right?)
 
There are a number of former Sea World trainers in the film. They express feelings of guilt about their time there. The clips of experienced trainers working with the whales are indeed breathtaking, and I can understand why places like Sea World do such great business. But these trainers remind me of mountain climbers who crave the action and the beauty of nature, yet seem surprised when they get trapped in a crevice and die. There's a kind of na├»ve arrogance about them. One of them says she'd hoped the whales actually liked their trainers, and didn't just see them as the person feeding them fish. The irony is that the trainers being killed are often referred to as "the best trainer" at that particular facility. The most recent killing took place after a trainer had scolded Tilikum for not performing a stunt properly. Then Tilikum ate her. Was I wrong to be rooting for the whale?
 
It was easier to root for a mad whale than, say, a porn addict from New Jersey. Writer-director-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt  was hoping we'd sympathize with such a character when he made Don Jon.  This one is now available on DVD and VOD, and while watching it the other night I was struck by two things: One) Levitt actually thought audiences would care about  a Jersey muscle head who is so addicted to internet porn that even when he wins the affection of his dream girl (Scarlett Johansson, in a rare turn as an unlikable woman), he can't take a break from his nasty habit. He ends up ruining the relationship, which is ok because she was turning out to be a bitch, anyway. Two) As problematic as the film may be, it's strangely watchable, and I sort of liked it.
 
Perhaps Levitt's earnestness did it. He believed in this idea, and his enthusiasm shows. Or maybe it was Johansson's willingness to play an all out, ball busting shrew.  Maybe it was  Tony Danza's comical cameo as Levitt's foul-mouthed father ("Are those tits real?"). I liked how Johansson expectations of how people should behave seemed to come from romantic movies, an idea that needed more developing. I also liked how Levitt eventually tried to explain his problems to Esther (Julianne Moore), an older woman he meets at night school. It's all too pat, of course, and he predictably learns about love in the arms of Esther, an earthy crunchy type who somehow landed in New Jersey, has her own problems, and for some reason feels compelled to cure this guy of his porn addiction.  A better movie could've been made about this macho jarhead bringing a woman like Esther home to meet his family. They'd loved Scarlett. They'll hate Esther. That's the film I'd like to see.
 
Ultimately, as an examination of the problems faced by a porn addict,  Don Jon is too glib, too simple. A porn addict, like any addict, is a troubled soul whose habits tend to effect his entire life in a negative way. Levitt makes porn addiction seem kind of fun. It's not.

 


Wrong Cops is the third film from writer/director Quentin Dupieux,  and while it's probably too strange for most audiences, it does have a few things going for it, namely the brusque performance of Mark Burnham as Duke, a corrupt cop who sells pot to kids (using the corpses of rats to store it in), listens to techno music, and goes on drug fueled tangents about heaven and hell. He is by far my favorite corrupt policeman in any film this year.

I also enjoyed seeing Steve Little (Stevie from HBO's Eastbound & Down) in a small role.  Little is one of the few actors who can make me smile just by thinking about him. Burnham hires Little to help dispose of a dead body, except the body turns out to be alive. That's just about the entire plot, although there is something about Little having once posed in a gay porn magazine, and there's another cop who keeps holding women at gunpoint and ordering them to show their breasts.  Marilyn Manson is here, too, in a surprisingly good cameo, sans goth makeup. I'm not sure if Manson is playing a nerd, or a male prostitute, but he's funny.
Wrong Cops may not be for everyone, but it made me laugh out loud three or four times. For a modern comedy, that's pretty good. Dupieux has his own rhythm, his own idea of what's funny, and seems to defy viewers to get on his wavelength. His stuff is unique, which doesn't necessarily mean it's good. Still, I want to see his next one.

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET...



The city was dead yesterday, the community still in some kind of post-Christmas hangover,  which made for a perfect day to hide out in a movie theater for three hours to watch Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street.  But the tiny audience around me, made up largely of older females,  retired dentists, and disturbed loners, was not merely trying to get out of the dank weather; they were splitting a gut laughing. Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Quaalude gulping Wall Street icon, was flat on his face, sliding down a brick staircase, trying to get to his car. The customers had been laughing at his drug indulgences all evening, and this was the pay off.  You see, Belfort's home had been bugged by the FBI, and his loudmouthed buddy Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), was on the phone talking to a Swiss banker about one of the many they've scams pulled.  One slip up, and Belfort and Azoff go to prison.

 Belfort, unable to walk because the Quaaludes had left him in a "cerebral palsy" phase,   crawls like a wounded animal to his car, one agonizing inch after an another, contorting himself like a circus performer, and somehow, miraculously, manages to drive home. It is a physical performance by DiCaprio that rivals the best of Steve Martin or Jim Carrey or Jerry Lewis. That it takes place in the middle of one of the most disgusting portrayals of humanity in several years made it that much funnier. At the very least, it was a nice break from watching DiCaprio behaving like Caligula. It was like watching a carton villain get his comeuppance.
 
Then, even though he's unable to walk, Belfort crawls into his home and begins grappling with Azoff, who also happens to be under the effects of Quaaludes;  the two of them can barely control their movements. As they struggle like two dinosaurs trying to climb out of a tarpit, Belfort manages to yank the phone out of Azoff's hand before Azoff can say anything incriminating. Azoff, meanwhile, starts choking on a piece of ham and collapses. Belfort sees that his buddy can't breathe, so he crawls to his cocaine stash, inhales a mother load of powder like Popeye eating spinach, then rises slowly, triumphantly, to his feet. Momentarily upright because of the cocaine slamming through his body, Belfort performs a desperate Heimlich maneuver on Azoff. When Azoff coughs up the ham, the two buddies collapse on each other. All is well. The scene, like the film, is a whirlwind, taking the audience from laughter to suspense and back to laughter.  There are about 10 other scenes as good or better than that one in this movie. I'm tempted to describe them, but you deserve to see them for yourself.

The little old ladies in the crowd may or may not have known who Martin Scorsese is, or where he belongs in the pantheon of great directors. Chances are they came into this theater because the film  seemed like it was for grown ups. It was either "the wolf movie," or go next door to watch a movie about hobbits.   For me, it was a hell of a Christmas present - Martin Scorsese, at 71, gave us a Martin Scorsese movie. What bigger thrill can there be? After several years of his stylish but overwrought movies, each with moments of brilliance but none matching his best work, here's one from Scorsese that can stand alongside his masterpieces. Granted, it's not as visually sumptuous as his earlier films, and Belfort is certainly not as tortured as Jake La Motta or Travis Bickle, but he's at least as interesting as Henry Hill. Best of all, Scorsese seems to be having a grand old time telling this story of modern decadence.
 
In many ways, The Wolf of Wall Street feels like Goodfellas without the murders. It's to Scorsese's credit that he's made a nearly three hour movie that is never boring, and he doesn't have to kill anybody to keep our attention. Of course, there are hints of darkness here and there, including the suicide of a man who married a slut, and another fellow who dies of a sudden heart attack at 35, both friends of Belfort, both casualties of a reckless, hedonistic life. In one of the few nods to Scorsese's past films, the suicide is shown like an old Weegee tabloid photo, a bloody hand draped over the side of a bathtub.
 
The whirling dervish screenplay by Terence Winter is based on the confessional memoir by Belfort, the swashbuckling multimillionaire stockbroker, who served nearly two years in prison for defrauding high-profile investors in a Wall Street corruption scandal that included celebrities and banking industry big shots. As crooked as Belfort is, his story is just short of inspirational: he rises from being a 22-year-old rookie on Wall Street to running his own self-made investment brokerage firm selling penny stocks out of an abandoned storefront.  It's not long before he's living a crazed lifestyle that includes a mountainous supply drugs and whores, not to mention the old Wall Street rituals of snorting coke off a hooker's ass, and dwarf tossing. Watching his rise gave me the same giddy feel I get while watching a VH1 documentary about a rock star's rise. Part of the fun is that his operatives are mostly the mooks he knew from Queens, high school buddies who can barely chew with their mouths closed, yet he teaches them the fine art of bullshitting customers over the phone. Belfort's downfall, brought on by greed and arrogance, is just as fascinating as his rise.

The film is helped by several outstanding performances, including Matthew McConaughey as Belfort's Wall Street mentor, Rob Reiner as Belfort's father, and Kyle Chandler as the FBI agent who is on Belfort's trail (Chandler's scene with DiCaprio on the Belfort yacht is another incredible set piece, where Belfort tries to bribe his way out of being investigated.) Joanna Lumley is also perfect as Aunt Emma, a British relation of Belfort's who helps him smuggle money into Switzerland. She's not onscreen for more than a few minutes, but as she winks knowingly, reminding him that she survived the 1960s and understands his desire for indulgence, we see her entire story. 

Jonah Hill is a show-stealer as Azoff, wearing oversized teeth and adapting a voice slightly different than his own to play Belfort's right hand man. In a way, Hill has the part Joe Pesci would've played 20 years ago. He and DiCaprio have an electric chemistry together - I can't recall if Belfort ever tells either of his wives that he loves them, but I vividly recall the times he says those very words to Azoff.
 
DiCaprio is Oscar worthy as Belfort, rallying his employees with an almost religious fervor, partying like a thug, and battling tooth and nail with his long suffering second wife (Margot Robbie). It's tempting to comment on DiCaprio's "maturity" as an actor, but he's nearly 40; this is as mature as he's going to get, and we may never see him this good again. If the film is a hurricane, he's a hurricane within that hurricane.  It was also smart of Scorsese to cast DiCaprio as Belfort. Belfort is such a sleazy character that a three hour film about him should be unbearable. DiCaprio, though, even when he punches his wife in the ribs, remains somewhat likable. (The crowd I was with reacted strangely when he hit her - not with jeers, but with a sound of disappointment, something like "Awww..." like he'd picked the wrong door on a game show. It was as if they'd thought he was really a nice boy, and decking his wife was just a temporary case of bad judgment.)
 
The real star of the film is Scorsese. He's like an experienced jockey, lashing this movie across the haunches to bring it to full speed, taking it around sharp turns, up steep inclines, down slippery slopes.  All that he's learned about twisted male camaraderie is on display here, presented gloriously. The film not only moves with the sweep and grandeur of his earlier films, but it's infused with new touches, particularly the heavy use of Bo Diddley and Howling Wolf on the soundtrack (Old Scorsese buddy Robbie Robertson is credited as "music supervisor"). Hearing so many vintage Diddley hits was fascinating (as was watching DiCaprio pop and lock to Diddley's 'Road Runner' in one of the film's many party scenes) but the tunes also made sense within the film's framework. The story of man's greed and gluttony reaches back centuries. What better way to symbolize that than with the chaka-chaka rhythms of Elias McDaniel, whose sounds seem to belong to some primitive era, where men fought for supremacy in caves and jungles. The crazy growls of Howling Wolf's 'Smokestack Lightning' threatened to bust the walls of the theater, the echo of the old Chess recording momentarily taking us out of Wall Street and into one of Wolf's hoodoo nightmares. It was spellbinding.

Some critics have questioned whether the film is celebrating or condemning Belfort. I think people who ask these questions are underestimating the intelligence of filmgoers.  Belfort is undoubtedly a lowlife. If people leave the theater feeling strangely uplifted, it's not because they identified with Belfort, or condoned his lifestyle. They revel in the film because of Scorsese's artistry. Of course, some folks are so disgusted by the behavior onscreen that they can't appreciative what a strong film this is. Let me leave the final word on The Wolf of Wall Street to one of the elderly female patrons who was overheard as she exited the theater: "That was repulsive, but so well-made."
 
 DLS

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

CUTIE AND THE BOXER...JOBRIATH AD...



Art is a demon, and it drags you along. So says Ushio Shinohara, dubbed "the most famous of the struggling artists." 

At one time Ushio was a popular painter in Japan, creating his own violent riffs on American pop art, but he's spent nearly 50 years struggling in New York.  Now at age 80, he's still on the hustle, preparing for a show at a local gallery. His wife, Noriko, is also an artist, but she's been in Ushio's shadow for decades. Some work of hers will be shown in the gallery, too, a sweeping,  illustrated history of her relationship with Ushio. This couple, their long marriage, and their struggle to create art at all costs, is the story of Cutie and the Boxer, a poignant documentary by Zachary Heinzerling, and one of the best films of 2013.

I love Ushio's pugnacious style; he puts on boxing gloves covered in paint and hammers away at a giant canvas, digging in with punches until the entire canvas is spotted with glove prints. When he's finished, he turns and raises his weary arms, just like a prizefighter at the end of a punishing bout. There's a clip in the film from a home movie taken in the 1970s, when a drunk Ushio is extolling the virtues of his art. It's painful to watch, because he unexpectedly bursts into tears, trying futilely to explain the wonders of being an artist. "I have nothing," he says, "but I believe in my art!"
 
Ushio's over-sized emotions are reflected in his work. Along with his boxing canvasses, he makes hulking sculptures of motorcycles, monsters, and dinosaurs. These are figures that a little boy would enjoy, which makes it doubly touching to see these bulky pieces hauled around town by an elderly man.  Indeed, Ushio wanted the exhibit promoted with a dinosaur theme. But he's also surprisingly down to earth; when the catalog for their gallery show compares the Shinoharas to Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner, he sneers, "That's crazy."  When  a major sale appears to fall through, he shrugs. He's felt so many disappointments in life that he's immune, like a boxer whose been hit so many times he barely feels it.
 
Nuriko's style is far less histrionic than her husband's, but she's just as passionate about the life she's pursued. From her illustrations we learn that she came to New York as a young woman to be a painter. Ushio was charismatic and living the life Nuriko dreamed about. They fell in love and married, even though he was 22 years older than her, and an alcoholic. They had a son. The son is now an alcoholic. Nuriko and Ushio's life would be grim, if not for their devotion to each other.
 
Ushio shows occasional affection towards Nuriko; a kiss on the cheek, a playful pat on the knee. She, in turn, calls him disgusting, and claims he would get rid of her if he had money.  "You only need me," she says, "to read the subway maps." 


Despite their well-honed comedy banter, the impression is that they've weathered some hard times, with Nuriko being the anchor that keeps the family together. We sense that Nuriko has come into her own as Ushio has aged. She needles him, which she wouldn't have done when she was a younger woman. Her illustrations, which have a delicate, dreamlike quality, are about two characters obviously based on herself and Ushio, "Cutie" and "Bully."  Cutie is a firebrand, a young woman trying to tame Bully, a narcissistic doofus.  Yet, as we read in a caption for one of her drawings, "Cutie understands Bully's great need to be loved."
 
When looking at his wife's work, Ushio remains silent. His face is a mystery in these scenes. Maybe he's admiring her craft, and perhaps fearing her style is more commercially viable than his own. He may also be looking at her stories of their past and feeling some guilt at not being an ideal husband. Maybe he's concerned that the public may see him as a buffoon. "Cutie is dangerous," Ushio says of his wife's fictional character. "She fights back." 
 
Heinzerling occasionally strives too hard for the elegiac. There are a few too many scenes of Nuriko walking alone, and too many scenes of the couple quietly eating in their tiny apartment. Heinzerling obviously cares a great deal about his subjects, and I can't blame him. Ushio and Nuriko are a memorable pair. At one point she goads Ushio into a conversation about art. She gets him to admit that he believes an artist's early work is always best. "Then why," she asks, "do you continue?" He has no answer. It's only when we see him at work that we understand. For Ushio, art allows his wild spirit to take to the air. Even at 80, he has plenty to give, and will probably be punching at his canvasses until he drops.

Who is the villain in Kieran Turner's Jobriath A.D.? Is it Jerry Brandt, the manager who took a talented young performer and hyped him to such a ridiculous degree that the public couldn't wait to see him fail? Was it the radio programmers of the 1970s, who weren't particularly interested in an openly gay singer? Was it the  rock & roll culture, which was still largely homophobic? Or was Jobriath himself a co-conspirator in his own failure? Jobriath, after all, approached Brandt and said he wanted the same arrangement as Elvis Presley had with his manager. That sort of chutzpah can backfire. And when the career bombed after two albums and an aborted tour, Jobriath didn't hesitate to kill his gay image, which makes me think it was all a big sham to begin with.

The legend of Jobriath has come down in dribs and drabs over the past 40 years. There's an occasional article in MOJO, or a mention in someone else's documentary. I vaguely recall being in a shopping mall at a very young age, and seeing an album cover staring down from a shop window. The man on the cover scared me. His face was blue, and he seemed otherworldly. As I grew older, I always assumed it was David Bowie. Now, after seeing Jobriath A.D., I think it may have been Jobriath. As many people say in this interesting and melancholy documentary, he was so far ahead of his time that no one knew how to take him. (Judging by some of the clips of Jobriath performing, I think Bowie actually borrowed some of Jobriath's look for his Scary Monsters album.)

The portrait of Jobriath that emerges in the film is one I wouldn't have expected. The strange blue man was a boy from Pennsylvania, a classically trained pianist who had been part of a Los Angeles production of Hair, and had blown away record producers at Electra with demos of his original songs. Hearing them now, there are snatches of Bowie and Mick Jagger in his vocals, some lush melodies, all underscored by his piano brilliance. In some ways, his music also reminded me of Meatloaf, with that broad, theatrical bombast, or perhaps a glam version of early Billy Joel. The gay movement was on the rise in the mid 1970s, and Brandt thought the time was right for a character like Jobriath. Apparently, though, Jobriath's image, which included calling himself "the true rock & roll fairy," was too gay even for the gays.

How much of this was Jobriath's idea, and how much was Brandt's?
In  the footage of Jobriath and the fast-talking Brandt, Jobriath appears distracted, and uninterested. He answers a reporter's questions with no real passion or intelligence. He wears the glam makeup, but it feels unnatural compared to the earlier scenes when he was a hippie-looking kid, exuberantly working in a recording studio. The concert footage shows him to be a competent performer, but too fragile for the rock & roll stage. There was even an appearance on Midnight Special that saw the magic Jobriath was trying to create evaporate under the TV lights. "We looked," says one of his band members, "like performing monkeys."

Jobriath's first love had been the old show tunes of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter.  There'd been   a somewhat unhappy childhood, including a mother who didn't appreciate his talent.  Jobriath amused himself at the piano, memorizing old Tin Pan Alley numbers. When the glam rock phase of his career imploded, he went into seclusion, worked for a while as a male escort, and then reinvented himself as "Cole Berlin," a Manhattan cabaret performer. He seemed on the way to a successful career as a nightclub singer when he died of AIDS in 1983.

I liked this documentary. Unlike most films about performers, there's no moment of triumph, no career peak.  At least  he was in control of his career at the end,  playing the beloved songs of his childhood, although it's likely the Cole Berlin persona would've eventually melted away like all of his other facades. What's the lesson here? I'm not sure. Jobriath reminds me of a character in a Nathanael West novel, 'Day of the Locust,' perhaps, or 'A Cool Million.' He had some talent but he was a hollow man. He  tried. He tried.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

SOME VELVET MORNING...JOURNEY TO PLANET SANITY...



Blake Freeman's A Journey to Planet Sanity is everything that's good and bad about documentaries. It starts out earnestly enough - Freeman meets Leroy Tessina, a 68-year-old delivery man who believes in any crackpot theory involving UFOs, psychics, and the paranormal. Leroy has even invented a helmet he wears to bed to prevent space aliens from reading his mind. Realizing Leroy is going broke by visiting psychics and spending money on UFO paraphernalia, Freeman takes it upon himself to change Leroy's thinking. He brings the old-timer to several UFO conventions, psychic healers, and ghost busters; the predictable comedy ensues.

After a while, Leroy sees that he's been spending his money and his time on a lot of hokum. Their journey is occasionally funny, but by the end of it, Leroy's depressed. Not only has he wasted his life on a lot of nonsense, but he reveals to Freeman that he's about to lose his home. Hearing him talk about his life is genuinely heartbreaking. Having invested so much in Leroy, Freeman decides to help him. The way they save Leroy's home is entertaining, and in the end, everybody feels good.
 
As I watched the first half of the film, I thought Freeman was hitting too many easy targets. It's no challenge to make UFO followers and psychics look silly, and Freeman comes off as a smarmy know-it-all looking down his nose at these people. Also,  I didn't buy Freeman's grandstanding that "society" had forced Leroy into the position he was in by force feeding him tales of alien abductions. There are also moments in the movie that seem right out of Jackass. After a voodoo priestess puts a curse on Freeman, he spends what are supposed to be his last 24 hours doing dumb stunts, like donning a red tutu and picking a fight with some homophobic neo-Nazis. I really disliked this part of the film.  It had the plastic "real, but not real" sense of reality TV shows, where everyone acts up for the camera, and we're supposed to laugh at the crudity of it all. The worst culprits here are a pair Freeman meets at a UFO convention, one who believes he is half-alien, and another who believes he can summon alien aircraft by chanting. Freeman brings them aboard to help stop the end of the world (according the Mayan calendar, which, if you recall,  predicted we wouldn't be here after 12/21/12). It's mildly amusing to see these loons arguing in the van, but it also feels forced. Freeman works in Hollywood, and you can sense him thinking, 'This'll be funny! We'll get these nuts together!' Meanwhile, Leroy simply seems happy to be out of the house.
 
The film's hook, and what keeps it from being just a run of the mill look at UFO crackpots, is that Freeman discovers Leroy's interest in painting. Apparently, when Leroy wasn't designing helmets to ward off aliens, he busied himself in his garage by creating a bunch of Jackson Pollock knockoffs. To save Leroy's home, Freeman puts several of Leroy's paintings on display at a local gallery, and even gives Leroy a makeover to pass him off as a French artist. Just as I suspected might happen, enough local LA phonies buy Leroy's artwork that he is able to pay off his debts.
 
The lesson here, I guess, is that the selling of abstract art is just about as bogus as the selling of UFO hysteria and psychic healing. A con is a con, and a buck is a buck. At least Leroy doesn't end up homeless. Freeman, too, seems to open up his heart by the film's end, showing what seems to be a real concern for Leroy. I liked their friendship. I wasn't crazy about Freeman at first, but by the end of the movie I felt we should all be so lucky to meet someone like him. "You screwed my head up," Leroy says at one point. "But you did it the right way."

And the good part of documentaries? Well, it's always kind of eerie to me that if you keep a camera on someone long enough, a story emerges. Freeman couldn't have known that Leroy would come so close to losing his home. Yet, that's what gives A Journey to Planet Sanity its drama. Without that final third, the film would've been another  snide look at UFO hucksters. It ended up a surprisingly touching film about one person helping another.

* * *  
 
Poor Neil LaBute. Judging by his films and plays, he lives in a world where people heap tons of mental abuse on each other, and manipulate each other like chess pieces. His male characters are arrogant and don't think much of women, and the women in his stories are either dumb, or shrewish. Although I haven't checked to make sure, I think someone usually gets raped in his films. I wouldn't want to be a character in his films. I wouldn't want to be Neil LaBute.

His latest, Some Velvet Morning, plays like a greatest hits collection, with all of the usual one-upmanship, mental game-playing, and hostility between the sexes that we know from LaBute's previous work. Stanley Tucci plays Fred, an angry middle-aged man who has left his wife to take up with Velvet (Alice Eve), an old lover he hasn't been with in four years. To make things more complicated, she once had a relationship with his son, and eventually reveals that she acted as a prostitute to get her self through school. Fred and Velvet banter, bicker, argue, declare their love, admit that it won't work, and so on and so on. She wants him to leave. He won't leave. LaBute wants us to be titillated by the violence and hate percolating under the dialog.  It feels like  play, a heavy-handed writer's workshop edition by someone who has read too much Pinter and Albee. Then Tucci rapes her.

There's a surprise ending that plays pretty well and might make you think you've seen something worthwhile. That all depends on how you feel about sitting through 90 minutes for a 30-second twist at the end. The ending is just a step above "It was all a dream," but some viewers have been really amused by it. I wasn't. Still, Tucci is very good as the embittered Fred, and Eve is excellent as the weary, vulnerable Velvet. They're good enough to transcend LaBute's ham-fisted cheap joke of a script.

 

Monday, December 9, 2013

THE JERK (1979)

Don't underestimate the importance of The Jerk. It was a key moment of the late 1970s for many movie goers. It was the year's ninth highest grosser - on a budget of approximately 4-million dollars, it made $100,000,000 worldwide, an astonishing amount for the time, particularly considering it was anchored by a man known for wearing an arrow through his head. Seeing it now is like stepping into a time machine. There's plenty of disco music, and gold chains, a parody of Bruce Lee movies. We see some old, familiar faces, from Jackie Mason and Bernadette Peters, to M. Emmet Walsh,  Bill Macy, and Carl Reiner. In one scene we even see a pair of blues legends, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. As wacky as it is, it's very much an American road movie, taking place in gas stations and carnivals, swanky Los Angeles, and even Hollywood's skid row, each episode suggesting the dangers of fame. Is it only a coincidence that the opening scene takes place in an alley behind a theater showing Deathtrap?

Steve Martin plays Navin Johnson, a borderline imbecile who was adopted by a black family in Mississippi. The idea came from Martin's stand-up act, when he would casually say, "I was born a poor black child..." He's loved by his family, but struggles to fit in: he doesn't like their food, he preferes Tuna on white bread, Tab, and Twinkies. But more disconcerting to him is that he has no rhythm, and can't dance to the music his family likes. In a scene where his mother hugs him, he tries in vain to snap his fingers. She reveals to him that he's not black, which shocks him. ("You mean I'll stay this color forever?") When Navin accidentally hears some "white" music on the radio, he takes that as his cue to hit the road and find himself. Like Voltaire's Candide, he's an innocent seeking out the best of all possible worlds. He ends up working as a gas attendant, and then, as a carnival barker. When a fluky invention of his is patented, he becomes rich and famous. Then, through another fluke, he loses it all. He ends up a homeless wino. "I'm no bum," he says. "I'm a jerk."



The audience was ready for Martin's first starring vehicle. His appearances on Saturday Night Live, his comedy albums, and his stand-up comedy tours had made him the most famous comic of his era. My generation didn't see the Beatles or Elvis on Ed Sullivan, but for us, seeing Steve Martin on SNL was just as inspiring, sending us to school the next day saying Did you see it!? It was  unheard of  in the 1970s for a stand up comic to star in his own film, but there was a sense that The Jerk was inevitable.  In Martin's memoir, 'Born Standing Up,' he says he wanted the film to "have the feel of a saga," and that the title should "be something short, yet have the feeling of an epic tale. Like Dostoevsky's 'The Idiot', but not like that." Working with screenwriting partner Carl Gottlieb, as well as Michael Elias, and director Reiner, Martin aimed for a laugh on every page. "I didn't know the rules," Martin said. "So it had a freewheeling feeling, which I liked."

It was a good era for comedy. The public's appetite for silly stuff had been whetted by films like Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and Animal House, as well as the early years of SNL and Monty Python's Flying Circus.  Sophisticated comedies like 10 and Manhattan were still popular, but silliness was coming to the fore. Martin didn't hide the fact that he idolized Jerry Lewis, a performer who didn't mean much by the late 1970s.

The Jerk was released in Dec. 1979, to mixed, and even harsh reviews. The New York Times' Janet Maslin described it as "by turns funny, vulgar, and backhandedly clever." A critic from the Chicago Daily Herald found Navin Johnson to be too dumb to be sympathetic, and cited "Reiner's limp direction" for "allowing even the best scenes to be dragged out beyond the point of excruciating boredom." Roger Ebert, who wasn't a fan of Martin in those days, wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times, "There's a smarmy undercurrent in this movie that seems to imply that Steve Martin may be playing a jerk, but that we all know what a cool guy he is. Well, if you're going to play a jerk, play one as if you think you are one, or you might wind up looking like a jerk." Ebert eventually came to appreciate Martin, as did Pauline Kael, who described his work in Roxanne a few years later as a cross between W.C. Fields and Buster Keaton.

Things happen to Navin Johnson by accident. He doesn't survive by his wits, he survives by dumb luck. His relationships with women are passive, too. First, he meets a female stunt driver at the carnival who abuses him physically and turns him into a cowering wreck. His real love is for Marie (Bernadette Peters), a much sweeter girl (it's Peters who beats up the stunt driver, rescuing Navin and taking him for herself). Navin is also being stalked by a madman (Walsh) who arrives at the gas station where Navin works and shoots up the place. There's much random violence in this world of The Jerk -the psychopath stalking him only does so because he picked Navin's name out of the local phonebook;  Marie even takes up knife throwing and uses Navin as her target.  Navin narrowly avoids disaster, as if protected by his own good nature. At one point he  falls to the ground in fear as the madman approaches. The madman, though, has turned over a new leaf by this time and is no longer stalking him. Again, Navin is saved, but not by anything he's done. Navin Johnson may be the most passive of comedy heroes.
 
 
But audiences didn't love him for being a man of action. We loved him because he had a dog named Shithead; we loved him because he left home wearing  a WW1 aviator's helmet and goggles; and when he danced, he did so with abandon. Besides, if he could land a sweet-looking honey like Peters, there was hope for the rest of us jerks.

Peters and Martin have a nice chemistry here - they were romantically linked for a while in real life - and it makes me wish Peters and Martin had made a dozen movies together. She has one of the film's memorable lines, when she realizes Navin has lost his fortune. "I'm not going to miss the money," she says, closing her eyes dreamily. "I'm going to miss all the stuff...." I'm not sure why that's funny, but it still tickles me. She manages to be greedy, and guilty over it, in the same breath. It's also Peters who bails Navin out at the end. He ends up living in the gutter, but Peters tracks down his family and rescues him. That Martin opted to play a character constantly abused, and then rescued, by women, was far different than most of the comedy stars of the day. That the film did such good business says a lot about the audiences of the time.

The Jerk outgrossed films by Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, and Robert Redford, that year,  a sign that an era of smirking macho men was perhaps coming to an end. Even Moonraker, the year's James Bond offering, fell to The Jerk juggernaut.





 
Martin was smart to keep the movie in the vein of his stand-up shows, because that's what his audience wanted and expected. But a strange thing happened. Once filming had ended, he felt ambivalent about returning to the concert stage. He still had several months of show dates to fulfill, but he was growing increasingly cranky about the touring and the repetition involved. He also suspected his stand-up comedy days were numbered. Making movies, he felt, was his future. He also felt The Jerk  provided a culmination of everything he'd done previously. What his fans felt was a raucous debut, was actually his goodbye to a certain type of comedy.  He would go on to have a fine career as an actor and screenwriter, gravitating towards a milder kind of family comedy, but nothing he did would ever match The Jerk in terms of mass appeal. Its influence is still felt in the films of the Farrelly brothers, and particularly in the films of Sacha Baron Cohen.

At a recent AFI program celebrating the film, Martin spoke about its longevity. "I think the reason it's lasted is because it's so innocent, and because it's so cheerful, and because the lead character is pretty stupid; you kind of get on his side pretty fast."
 
Some of the film's power comes from the simple plot, which is the basic "hero's journey." A young man leaves home, experiences some adventures, and then returns to share what he has learned. It's a plot as old as storytelling itself, found in everything from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings. Such basic sagas have a curious power about them, and rarely fail.  Martin's masterstroke was that he married this type of story to his wacky persona of the day. Audiences got two things from The Jerk: a character they recognized, and a story arc that absorbed them, like the best fairy tales. Critics may not have understood what was happening, but audiences did. Navin wasn't just a jerk, he was our jerk.
 
It was smart to end the film with Navin Johnson returning home. Had it ended with him going on to more fame and fortune, or if the film had followed his trajectory of success established in the first half, we might have seen Navin become president or the king of a foreign country. That may have provided a few laughs, but it wouldn't have been logical. Any good that came to him was strictly happenstance. Perhaps his fortune would change again, but chances are the madmen and abusive women would be there, too. Navin belonged with his family where he'd be safe. Besides, his father had invested the money Navin had occasionally sent home, investing in a bigger shack. In that regard, Navin was a hero of sorts, providing some comfort for his loved ones.
 
The film's closing scene is my favorite. The family is on the porch, jamming on a country blues tune called 'Pick a Bale of Cotton.' Bernadette Peters is seen at the side of the porch, clapping her hands in time to the beat. Then Navin comes roaring out from nowhere, banging a spoon on a coffee cup, and incredibly, dancing. Martin seems superhuman here,  his body appearing to bend at unfathomable angles, careening from one side of the porch to the other, looking as if he might tumble. He stops once to kiss Peters, and then resumes his joyous dance. He's where he belongs. He has found his rhythm.
 


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

WAITING FOR GUFFMAN (1996)




Waiting for Guffman isn't a film about small town theater actors, so much as it's about average people dreaming of something bigger than they are, fighting and scratching to get out of their comfort zone. That their dreams are so small says a lot about them. One of them, a Dairy Queen employee, dreams of someday going to New York and watching TV with Italian guys. But even the smallest dreams are worth nurturing. In comparison, Corky St. Clair dreams of returning to Broadway where he was once crushed by the city's  indifference to his talents. He ended up in Blaine, Mo., directing the town's yearly theatricals. When he learns that a mysterious Mr. Guffman, a New York producer, is coming to see his latest effort, a gaudy musical called Red, White, and Blaine, he thinks he's on the way back to Broadway.

Corky has so much riding on this endeavour that he occasionally snaps. When the town board refuses to give him more money for his production, he glowers, "You're all bastard people! I'm going home to bite my pillow!" When a hunky actor bows out of the show a few days before opening night, Corky screams into the phone, "I hate your ass-face!" He's such a whirlwind of writing, directing, choreography, and in some cases, teaching his neophyte cast how to act, that he can't be blamed for losing his temper. The chance to become something other than yourself can drive most people mad. By the end of the film, marriages will end, some people pursue their dreams and find them empty, and others remain stuck where they are. If this hadn't been one of the funniest, smartest films of the 1990s, it might have been one of the bleakest.

 
Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman came out in January, 1997, the time Hollywood uses to dump its refuse. The studios don't premiere a movie at the beginning of the year. It's too cold and no one is going to the movies anyway.  Besides, most of the holiday blockbusters are still in the theaters. Not surprisingly, Guffman was a financial bust. Audiences caught up with it, though. It played in small cinemas for nearly six months,  and it has developed a loyal cult following during the ensuing years. For some, it is the Citizen Kane of modern comedy; for others, they don't quite get it.  It's particularly effective if you'd ever spent time in a community theater environment, as I did for a short while. I had a cock-eyed idea that I wanted to be an actor, so I ended up in a number if terrible summer stock shows, many of which were worse than what we see in Guffman. Strangely, a few good actors crossed my path in those days, including Hank Azaria and Oliver Platt, but for the most part, the people I knew were much like the people in Blaine. I remember an old carpenter with a deep voice who usually got the lead roles. It wasn't that he was talented, it was because he had the loudest voice and could be heard in the cheap seats. He was terrible. I was terrible, too. That's why I love Guffman.

There's a dentist (Eugene Levy, who co-wrote the screenplay with Guest) who dreams of stardom; there's a husband and wife team (Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara) who star in all of Corky's productions, and are known as "The Lunts of Blaine." There's the Dairy Queen girl (Parker Posey) and the frustrated musical director (Bob Balaban) who sees through Corky and knows he's a fool. There's even a UFO expert (David Cross), who explains how Blaine was once visited by extraterrestrials, a moment dramatized  in Red, White, and Blaine.

Guest's movies often have a strange sexual undercurrent.  In his movies there are people who enjoy kinky activities, have past lives in porn, undergo sex changes, and keep their inner lives a thinly veiled secret. This goes back to Guest's This is Spinal Tap days, when his Nigel Tufnel had an obvious man-crush on David St. Hubins. In Guffman,  Corky has an eye on one of his young male cast members, while a male member of the town council seems to have a crush on Corky. Meanwhile, the townfolk are under the impression that Corky is married. "We've never seen his wife," says one character. "Although I once saw Corky in a store buying clothes for her. Maybe she's not supportive of him."  When the young actor Corky fancies (Matt Keesler) drops out of the show, Corky casts himself as the show's male ingenue. He's wrong for the part, but he doesn't trust anyone else to do it. This is, after all, his shot at redemption.

What's remarkable about Guffman is that the side stories are every bit as interesting as Corky's. Dr. Allen Pearl (Levy) is the sort of schmuck who wants to be funny, but isn't. "People ask me, 'Were you the class clown?' I say 'No, but I sat next to him and observed.'" Mrs. Pearl (Linda Kash) is one of my favorite characters in the film. Although she is somewhat mystified by "these creative types," she's passionately supportive of her husband's dreams. When she attends opening night and sees him make his first appearance, she wants to burst into applause. "I knew he could move," she says, proudly. The Pearl's relationship is touching, as is the obvious affection between Ron and Sheila (Willard and O'Hara.) Sheila cries a lot, and seems to have a drinking problem, and Ron's a blowhard who overestimates his talent, but they're  sweet together (and their 'Midnight at the Oasis' is actually quite beautiful.)  I love the scene where Ron does his (bad) impressions of Henry Fonda and Humphrey Bogart, and she can't figure out what he's doing. "I always have to tell her," Ron says, smiling. I also love when Ron and Sheila go to a Chinese restaurant with Mr and Mrs Pearl, a scene that still creates unease when Ron asks Dr Pearl to check out a peculiar surgical scar.

Guest's style comes from  Second City, and the classic SCTV TV show, and the same influences that created the early years of Saturday Night Live (he was an SNL cast member in 1984). Yet, he has been quite vocal about the way his leaning on "improvisation" is interpreted. "I don't want people to think we're just screwing around and filming it," he's said. "This is just a way to get the most laughs possible." 
 
Guest and Levy put together the Guffman  screenplay, setting up the basic plot, characters, and situations. Then his carefully chosen cast of Willard, O'Hara, and the rest, "masters of the craft," as Guest has called them, provided bits of their own dialog through an "improv" rehearsal. The scene where actors audition for Red, White and Blaine is an example of the spontaneity Guest wants to capture; Guest has no idea what he'll be seeing as the characters walk in to do their piece. He and the audience are seeing it together for the first time. (I especially like the fellow who does a scene from Raging Bull as his audition piece.)  Guest shot about 58 hours of film and spent more than a year cutting it down to less than two hours.

Waiting for Guffman kicked off a reign of laughs that would last a decade and include A Mighty Wind, Best in Show, and For Your Consideration. Each movie was funny and sharp, but  Guest's recent HBO series called Family Tree felt tired, as if he may be running out of ideas; the actors seemed as if they'd seen his other movies and were trying to ape the style. Guest practically invented the "mockumentary," but now everything on television feels like a mockumentary. Where Guest's style has had its biggest influence is on TV shows like The Office and Portlandia, but there's never been anything to match Guffman. 
  
I've never thought of this film as condescending towards its characters, or as 'Entertainment Weekly' put it, as mocking "the shameless enthusiasm, of middle Americans whose lack of talent is matched only by their eagerness to parade it." I maintain that it's a movie about the yearning to be something you're not, and how you're willing to do crazy things to change your lot. The origins of Waiting for Guffman were once explained by Guest in an interview with AVclub.com:

"I had gone to see a junior-high production 10 years ago of Annie Get Your Gun with 13-year-olds playing grown-ups, basically. And I was very moved. I thought it was very poignant, the whole idea of the seriousness with which they took this task. The director afterwards came up and he was crying, and they gave him roses. This is no different, really, because we're not trying to parody a small town in this. It's really to show that in human nature, this is something that would happen. And I make the point sometimes that if you were to go backstage at a Broadway theater and say that Woody Allen was sitting out there, people would just go insane. People would be falling all over each other, even though they're professionals. And they would make the same leap in their logic to say, well, obviously he's here to see me and put me in a movie."

The whole plot twist of whether Guffman is going to show up or not feels heavyhanded to me. I guess it would have been worse if he did show up and panned the show, because, quite frankly, I love Red, White and Blaine, and I love how the little audience cheers it on. I especially love when children are shown in the audience, looking on in wide eyed wonder. They aren't in on the joke. They see Eugene Levy dressed as a martian, and they're sucked in by the magic of theater. Besides, I can't watch this movie without  'Nothing Ever Happens on Mars' sticking in my head for three days. (As well as Parker Posey's rendition of 'Teacher's Pet.')

Guest saves the absolute best laughs for when the movie has ended, and he's working in a New York novelty shop, surrounded by Brat Pack bobblehead dolls, My Dinner with Andre and Das Boot action figures, and The Remains of the Day lunch boxes. Yet, what makes the ending unique is that there are  moments of sadness threatening to creep up and destroy the jokey atmosphere.  Yes, Corky's returned to New York, but not in triumph. He's selling baubles to tourists, and acting as an understudy in My Fair Lady. He has struggled mightily to attain mediocrity. ''There was...a discussion...of whether this was all too sad,'' Guest said during a commentary for the 2001 DVD release. ''Which I tend to like.''
 
There's also Ron and Sheila, who are seen going to LA to become actors, but are only given work as extras. Ron asks of the Hollywood film crew shoving them around,"Why can't they remember our names?"  One wonders how long Ron and Sheila's good cheer can last.
 
Finally, I think of Dr. Pearl, leaving his practice in Blaine to work as a nursing home entertainer in Miami. He seems happy, singing and telling jokes to an audience that's falling asleep on him. Then the camera zooms to Dr. Pearl's hand; he's not wearing his wedding ring. That he's left his adoring wife for this low end  show biz fantasy is just about the saddest thing I can imagine.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

PARKLAND...THE PUNK SINGER...













 
 
 
 
 
Early in   Peter Landesman's  Parkland, we see a group of doctors working on the dying body of President John F. Kennedy. They're up to their elbows in blood, hammering at his chest to get  his heart going. Fifty years later, it's as if we're still elbow deep in the man's blood, while filmmakers, authors, and historians, are still pounding on his chest, hoping for a sign of life. This is a story that has been told hundreds of times, from hundreds of different perspectives. Somehow, Landesman pulls off the impossible: he unfurls the events of Kennedy's assassination and makes it seem new.
 
By focusing on characters at the periphery of the story, Landesman makes the action pulse in unexpected ways. Kennedy is merely a small player in the story. Not only is this a welcome relief in that we don't have to hear another actor struggle with that grotesque Hyannis accent, but it gives room to the other players. We see instead the doctors, nurses, and FBI agents who try to keep their heads during one of America's darkest hours. By giving these bit players the focus, the story feels fresh, pulsing at us in new ways. Landesman's attention to detail and ability to ratchet suspense in unlikely places made me think of Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon.

Landesman is also helped by a cast of Hollywood's most unheralded actors, each taking what would beconsidered a smallish part and making it gleam like an emerald. Billy Bob Thornton is a show stealer as the head of the Secret Service in Texas, a veteran of 30 years who has never lost a man, until this day. Zac Efron and Colin Hanks are the young interns on duty at Parkland Memorial Hospital  in Dallas, where Kennedy's body is brought; Marcia Gay Harden is the no-nonsense head nurse in the hospital trauma unit;  and Paul Giamatti is Abraham Zapruder, the onlooker who  feels cursed to have taken the tragic Super 8 footage of the motorcade that ended up in Life magazine.  The scenes where Thornton's Secret Service man patiently talks Zapruder into handing over his film are among the best in the movie.
 
The bloody hospital scenes, including one where Jackie Kennedy (Kat Steffens) gently handles a piece of her husband's skull, are played  against scenes of Kennedy's aids who react to his death like high school jocks reacting to the death of a beloved coach. There are several moving scenes involving these game young men, including a near fracas at the hospital when a Texas medical examiner demands the case be treated as a local murder. I also loved the image of the men hauling Kennedy's coffin up the stairs into an awaiting airplane at Love Field. Their struggle reminded me of  the American soldiers at Iwo Jima hoisting the flag.
 
The second part of the film segues smoothly into the Oswald chapter. Jeremy Strong looks exactly like Lee Harvey, but he's given only slightly more screen time than Kennedy. It's James Badge Dale as Oswald's brother Robert who grabs the second act of Parkland for himself. He is stunned by the news that his brother killed the president, but barely has time to register his thoughts when he has to deal with his arrogant, self-absorbed mother (Jacki Weaver), a delusional woman hungry for her 15 minutes of fame (She suggests that her son was an important American and should be buried next to Kennedy). Ron Livingston is excellent as FBI agent James P. Hosty, who had been studying Oswald from afar, and had even received several crackpot letters from him. 
 
The movie speeds along. Landesman's trick is that even though we know this story, we're still watching to see what happens next. It feels as breathless as the real incidents must've felt. There's also a calmness that takes over when people buckle down and go about their business. I found it especially touching when Robert Oswald plainly asks some photographers to help carry his brother's casket to the grave. Grimly, not thinking twice, the photographers put down their cameras and help. Moments like that make this film, Landesman's directorial debut, well worth seeing. Like the scene where Jackie searches for a spot on her husband's torso that isn't covered in blood to give him a farewell kiss, Landesman found the part of the story that hadn't been told.

 
The problem facing any documentary about the "riot grrrl" movement of the early 1990s is the same problem facing documentaries about the folk music boom of the early 1960s. Taken out of their historical contexts, the music doesn't always hold up, and the importance of it is lost on anybody who wasn't paying attention at the time. The Punk Singer, an interesting and well-made documentary about Kathleen Hannah, founder of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre,  can almost transcend this problem. The film is energetic, and Hannah is a worthy subject. There is also, these days, a slight nostalgia for the riot grrl movement; the film ends with a 2011 tribute to Hanna at Brooklyn's Knitting Factory, where several groups performed her songs.

The first time we see Hanna in the film, she's at an early '90s spoken word performance, stomping her feet and reciting a "poem" about being molested in her house. Then, in a rhythmless blur we learn the Kathleen Hanna saga: that Hanna was friends with Kurt Cobaine;  that Courtney Love punched her; that  Hanna may or may not have been sexually harassed by her father; that she worked part-time as a stripper;  that she married one of the Beastie Boys;  that she once recorded an entire album in her bedroom; and that the career that began as an effort to empower women was ended by a tick bite.
 
A lot of the film is typical band stuff about the long hours on the road, and the pressure cooker of being in a band and getting on each other's nerves. We hear that Bikini Kill couldn't agree on anything, but we're not really told what the disagreements were about. Instead, we get a lot of talking head appearances from other female musicians who praise Bikini Kill's influence.  Perhaps the film should've been called And We Now Praise Kathleen Hanna.
 
Director Sini Anderson obviously reveres her subject, but The Punk Singer borders on hagiography. We're told that Hanna's a brilliant lyricist, but nothing in the movie backs that up. We're told she's a great singer and performer, but from what we see in the film, she was a standard, post-punk yowler. We're told that she's some great beauty (someone compares her to Liz Taylor!), but in the film it's sometimes hard to distinguish her. It took me 20 minutes to figure out that the older woman with dark hair talking about Hanna is actually Hanna.

Hanna and her peers can put a person off, if only because they're always on the defensive. If you comment that they can't play their instruments - they can't - you're told that you're stupid, and that they don't give a shit. In fact, the phrase "I don't give a shit" is repeated at least 50 times in this documentary, and the effect is numbing. Hanna is so strident that she almost encourages you to not like her. It's the old, "You're either with us or against us, and if you're against us, you're one of our oppressors."
 
There's also something embarrassing about the other people in the movie. Their feigned inarticulateness is monotonous. Hannah's husband, Adam Horovitz, reacts to everything by saying, "This is crazy shit," or, "this is serious shit." Many of the women, all college educated, adapt, like, an ironic valley girl pose, which is a strange way to, like, make a personal statement.  Like, ya know?

It's not a surprise that the entire "angry girl" music genre was sideswiped by the various Disney acts to come. That's the traditional curve of the pop culture. Folk was usurped by the Beatles. Punk was replaced by its more danceable cousin,"New Wave." Riot grrrl was replaced by Britney and Katy and Miley. Anger isn't built to last; it's usually just camouflage for sadness, which doesn't sell like perkiness. To the film's credit, there isn't much bitterness about this.  The women here didn't make a lot of money, but they were happy to make some noise and inspire other young women, sending the message that you could talk about important issues and still be a "girl." They were the new face of feminism. Their mission was noble, even if it developed a "save the whales" atmosphere. Still, I kept wondering  about girls who didn't want to be in bands. Were they less feminist? Does the message only matter if you're screaming?

I felt bad for Hanna as she revealed the various health problems that shortened her career.  The film ends with Hanna chastising her invisible critics, accusing them of not believing her because she's a woman.  I imagine her  cracking up someday,  driven into a mental ward by the fear that no one believes her. She'll be the Frances Farmer of punk rock. 

Then again, there's a great deal of narcissism in Hanna. I think her complaints about the press are just a form of vanity, as is her distrust of the male gaze.  She's like someone who keeps screaming "Don't look at me!" and wonders why people stare. 
 

 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980)


 
 
The first time I saw David Lynch's The Elephant Man, I wasn't quite as moved as everyone around me. I appreciated the movie, but the people in my row were going absolutely berserk. The man next to me was snuffling and nearly choking; at times it seemed the entire audience was involved in a symphony of nose-blowing.  I can still hear them today. A man behind me cried nonstop, from the opening credits to the final fade. I couldn't believe a human could contain so much fluid in his head. All around me I heard sobs and wails of grief, like the overdone crying you might hear in a beginner's acting class, or at the very least, the funeral of a loved one. Occasionally I looked around to see what these people looked like; many of them were scrunched down in their seats, as if the sadness from the screen was bearing down on them.  The only respite came early in the film, when some teenage girls seated a few rows down screamed for someone to remove the Elephant Man's mask.  These girls were the types who would've cornered the Elephant Man in an alley and gang-stomped him. For a brief moment, the little New England cinema I was in wasn't far removed from 1880s Victorian England. The rowdy girls eventually piped down, though, and the weepers owned the night.

I'd read a story about the real John Merrick (or "Joseph," as we've learned in recent years was his real name) in a paperback book I owned called Very Special People. I remember that reading it was an emotional experience, and recently those feelings came back to me when I saw a picture of the Pope embracing a man who seemed covered in barnacles.  Of course, the film has some scenes guaranteed to bring out the tissues, particularly when Merrick talks about his mother, and how she had "the face of an angel."  But the film is more than just a tearjerker about an unfortunate young man. It's about the strangeness, and randomness of the world. In many ways, although you might not think so at first, it's a typical David Lynch movie.

First, the machines. Lynch has always been interested in machinery, both visually and metaphorically. He's especially fond of loud, clanging ones, and in the 1880s, when The Elephant Man is set, London was a nightmare of factory smoke and noise. As Dr. Treves (Anthony Hopkins) operates on a patient, he laments the harm done by these new-fangled monstrosities that can take a man's finger or leg without remorse.  Does Treves (or Lynch)  think the industrial age was somehow the cause of Merrick's condition?  As we become more like machines ourselves, automatons at the assembly line, will some part of the human soul become like the misshapen features of Merrick?

We first see Merrick the Elephant Man (John Hurt)  in a small, dark display, seemingly held captive by a Dickensian villain who occasionally gets his points across with a whip. Treves attends a showing, grows fascinated, and arranges to "buy" him. Merrick is soon living comfortably at the hospital where Treves works. There's some controversy, as the hospital isn't equipped to house the "incurable," but Treves' mission wins out. Merrick learns to speak, and is soon reciting Bible verses and poetry. He becomes a local celebrity of sorts, as Treves arranges for several local dignitaries to visit him.  Treves eventually confronts his own part in Merrick's life, wondering if he's merely putting him on display again, for a different set of gawkers. "Am I a good man, or a bad man," Treves wonders aloud. Lynch himself may have wondered the same thing, for at times it seems he's made a two hour movie about a crippled man being beaten by strangers. And by keeping Merrick in shadows or silhouette for much of the film's first act, Lynch is also guilty of stringing viewers along as if we've paid to see a horror film, not a drama about the human condition. The strategy works, though, because by the time we see Merrick we've already grown sympathetic.

The film gets loopy at times - a porter at the hospital abuses Merrick, and makes money by charging local drunks for a chance to come see him. They barge into Merrick's comfy room, pour alcohol down his throat, and throw him around like a sack of leaves. How this could go on at a London hospital seems unlikely, and many criticized Lynch for playing with the facts to add melodrama to an already dramatic story. Merrick is even kidnapped and taken back to the carnival life,  made to sit in a cage of howling monkeys. The gross melodrama ends when a friendly group of other "freaks" break him out of his cell and help him return home. It's when he wanders through a foreign port, somewhat disoriented, that we hear the famous line from the film. "I am not an animal! I am a man!" By now he's trapped, surrounded by people mocking him, including a brat with a peashooter.  (They were distant relatives, perhaps, of some naughty girls who would be sitting in a Brockton cinema with me 100 years later.)

Merrick is eventually reunited with Treves, who greets him with a  hug, the only open display of warmth in the entire movie. After attending a play, Merrick comes back to his room where he has finished a scale model of the cathedral across the way. Then, wanting to sleep like other people, he lies back in bed and dies, the weight of his own head causing his neck to snap. Merrick could only sleep sitting up with his enormous head balanced on his knees.  To lay back was to invite death. I imagine, after so many years of virtually sleepless nights, death was welcome.

There are some scenes I love: when Merrick shyly asks Treves if there is a cure for his condition, and Treves politely says no; when Treves brings Merrick to his home, where Treves' wife does her best not to be shocked by Merrick's appearance, and Merrick can only admire the lovely portraits of Treves' children; Merrick in his room, fawning over the gifts that people have left for him, including a fancy grooming kit that he handles like delicate pieces of art; and finally, when Treves invites a famous local actress played by Anne Bancroft to spend some time with Merrick. Their scene together, where they read from Shakespeare, is hokey, but Bancroft's smile alone looks as if it could not only power the dark London streets, but add a few years to Merrick's life. For years after seeing this scene, I was convinced Anne Bancroft was the most beautiful woman in the world.

The film itself is beauteous. I have often thought The Elephant Man was a sort of younger, prettier sibling of Eraserhead, Lynch's first film. It has many of the same visual motifs,  including a reliance on dreams and hallucinations, short blackout scenes, an uncomfortable drone of sound in the background, and at times, Merrick's misshapen head seems like something that might have been in the earlier film.  Lynch had a thing for clouds back then, and Merrick's head at times looks like a giant cloud formation. Clouds and smoke are predominant images in these early films of Lynch's.  The black and white Panavision cinematography of Freddie Francis, who had done his share of horror films as a director for Hammer 20 years earlier, gave The Elephant Man its inky atmosphere. The lighting for the industrial scenes,  and the dreamy white smoke that roils out of the factories, create a kind of cushion for the harsh story. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker described the smoke as being "like J.M.W. Turner's clouds, but carrying poison."  Again, are the factories creating monsters?

The fear/repulsion of birth that was a theme of Eraserhead is carried out again in The Elephant Man, as Merrick (or someone) has a dream where his mother is run over by elephants, which he may feel has caused his condition. One of the first times we see Merrick clearly, he is positioned so he actually resembles a baby, or an infant, looking out from his swollen skull with tired, innocent eyes. Lynch takes this subject of horror and somehow makes him cute for us, which he also did with the monstrous fetus in Eraserhead. Whatever motivated Lynch's first film was still on his mind as he made The Elephant Man. That is what makes The Elephant Man the work of an artist. Even though it's a historical period film, Lynch fuels it with his own quirks and neurosis.

Still, I often wonder what the film might have been like had Lynch not forced the "action" scenes on it. The kidnapping of Merrick is bad enough, but there's also a scene where Treves gets tough with the orderly who has helped arrange Merrick's disappearance. Treves suddenly turns into an angry avenger, grabbing the man by the neck and threatening to hit him. It's not that Hopkins isn't believable, it's that the whole scene feels forced into the film to give it a "plot." Wouldn't we have felt moved by the simple story as it actually happened? In reality, Merrick's early life was actually worse than is portrayed in the film, while his life at London Hospital was actually quite comfortable, including a few daytrips to the country where he collected wild flowers for his room. He became a popular local figure for a time, grew increasingly unhealthy, and then died in his sleep. Would that not be enough to get us wheezing and weeping? Would The Miracle Worker have been better if Helen Keller had been kidnapped and made to sleep in a cage with monkeys?  

There was a resistance on the part of some critics to embrace Lynch's vision when the film was initially released in Oct. 1980. Some felt he laid the pathos on too thickly.  Roger Ebert called much of it "pure sentimentalism" and scolded Lynch for "an inexcusable opening scene in which Merrick's mother is trampled or scared by elephants or raped - who knows? - and an equally idiotic closing scene in which Merrick becomes the Star Child from 2001, or something."  Writing for the Saturday Review, Judith Crist  took Lynch to task for playing with the facts, and for leaving viewers with "only a voyeur's guilt, pious sentiment, and a pretentious fadeout to take with us." For the most part, though, most echoed The New York Times' opinion that Lynch had made "a handsome, eerie, disturbing movie," and that John Hurt's turn as the shambling Merrick was "truly remarkable." 

Merrick suffered from many physical deformities, including a head that measured 36 inches in circumference, and a badly twisted spine, which Hurt commendably approximates, particularly with his walk. He seems to have one good leg that drags the rest of his body behind, as if hauling a great burden. The prosthetic makeup by Christopher Tucker makes him seem like a sculpture gone awry, or, Kael again: "a work of art...one of Picasso's bulging distortions." What Hurt does from within the makeup is astonishing, making Merrick a surprisingly gentle, childlike, figure. Physically, he makes Merrick seem like a giant rag doll, something we want to put on a shelf for safekeeping.  

 
Hopkins' work is underappreciated in this film.  The real Treves, from what I have read, also cared for Merrick but never stopped looking at him as a specimen; he performed the autopsy on Merrick's body,  dissected it, and took plaster casts of his head and limbs. We can't imagine Hopkins' version of Treves being so coldly scientific. Hopkins' patience in dealing with Merrick is touching.  We believe Merrick would come to trust him.  It's one of Hopkins' great roles.

Despite the reservations of some critics, The Elephant Man was a successful movie in its day. Along with several Oscar nominations, it made a very respectable 26-million at the box office, which would translate into five times that now. It also received a Best Film award from  The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), where Hurt was also recognized as Best Actor. The character of John Merrick became a kind of touchstone for people needing shorthand to describe outcast figures, and made the news again when Michael Jackson attempted to buy Merrick's bones. (The bones, if you're wondering, are hidden away at the Royal London Hospital, and have never been on display.)

It would  be many years later that the film's executive producer was identified as Mel Brooks, who didn't allow himself to be part of the film's marketing. He was right to do so, for at the time he was one of the kings of comedy. That he was willing to stand aside and let the film speak for itself is admirable. But why was Brooks so enamored of the story to begin with? In a recent interview, he referred to Merrick as "the poor guy," and said only that he thought the story should be filmed. When one considers that Anne Bancroft was Brooks' wife, and that she has a scene where she befriends Merrick and calls him "Romeo," it's tempting to read into Brooks relationship with the subject matter. At the very least, Brooks knew there is a bit of Merrick in many of us.