Sunday, September 28, 2014

We Can Build You (1962)

For the most part Philip K. Dick novels do not fall into the realm of "hard" (i.e., technically plausible) science fiction, which is one of the first things I noticed about We Can Build You. It's full of the usual preoccupations with schizophrenia and epidemics of mental illness, including a US governmental agency called the Federal Bureau of Mental Health (FBMH) that manages a national system of treatment and facilities. It's a bit totalitarian, to say the least, but also weirdly good-hearted. But the main feature of We Can Build You, I think everyone agrees, is the appearance of a deeply sophisticated Abraham Lincoln robot, whipped up in their spare time by a schizophrenic teen girl and an engineer at a manufacturer that produces electronic organs and other musical instruments. Never mind how preposterous it is. Dig, rather, the eerie gravitas this classic figure of Lincoln brings to a Dick novel. Partly it is the result of the reactions of the other characters, who instinctively address him as "Mr. President" (or simply faint, in one notably overplayed scene). Partly it is because Dick seems to have Lincoln basically right—or anyway in line with Henry Fonda's version in the 1939 John Ford movie, Young Mr. Lincoln. Dick seems preternaturally comfortable with our secular martyred national saint, fluidly touching all the familiar notes: his physical stature, his gloominess, his silly but endearing wit, his aching loneliness (this incarnation was seen most recently, of course, by Daniel Day-Lewis in the 2012 Spielberg movie). I went back and had another look at Young Mr. Lincoln just to make sure, and I have to think Dick was well aware of the movie as he wrote (in 1962, though the novel did not actually see light of day until 1969, serialized in a magazine, and was not published as a book until 1972). It is a typical bunch of Dick's anomic disaffected rubbing shoulders and having strange conversations about their strange ambitions and the strange ways they go about realizing them. It's set in Boise and Seattle, mostly. Dick loved the American West, that's plain. But with the Lincoln figure it is the first sense I get of him as an American writer, and citizen, so to speak. The US felt more like a canvas he was painting on in The Man in the High Castle. In We Can Build You—and this is perhaps the biggest surprise I've encountered yet reading Dick, which is saying something—we find a writer with a strong sense of American identity, no simple patriot or rejecting anti-patriot or (what I probably expected) oblivious apathist, but rather someone who lived in this country and understood very well our most profound and intractable complexities. We know this because he understands so obviously well how Abraham Lincoln represented them, or at least some mass shared historical perception of them, and how he continues to embody them somehow even if only in his caricatured $5 bill affect, as Dick is implicitly arguing, carried into a vision of the future that is reasonably plausible in terms of its psychodynamics. The last thing I ever expected. Not to be missed.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

USA, 81 minutes
Directors/writers/editors: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez
Photography: Neal Fredericks
Music: Tony Cora
Cast: Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael C. Williams

In its brief moment, The Blair Witch Project was such a many-tentacled phenomenon that even up front it requires a little sorting and unpacking. For your consideration: the over-the-top guerrilla marketing campaign, the extraordinary profit generated (nearly $250 million in revenue on a $25,000 production for a staggering return of 1,000,000%), its use of the so-called "found footage" narrative, the strategies of the filmmakers to elicit performances and create a unique look and feel, and last but not least the episodes of vertigo reported by viewers sickened by the shaky handheld style of shooting. There's also of course the question of whether it's even scary at all.

That last is an easy one for me. Yes, it's scary, not in the manner of outright shock and mayhem, but rather in exploiting an insidious, irresistible dread and hopelessness that feel like the last stop before complete despair, whether the sources are supernatural or it's just banal old death from exposure. The Blair Witch Project is loud, loose, messy, clumsy, aimless, and obvious. It's a stunt, with all manner of low-budget gaffes, no sense of tonal consistency, and numbing repetitions. Yet somehow it never fails to get inside my head and make my skin crawl. Likely spoilers ahead.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Lightning (1984)

This is another I had previously read in the 87th Precinct series by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter, which was not his real name either) and I found it worth revisiting. Part of the continuing interest in the series is how McBain found ways to reinvent it, as in the '80s the novels became these one-word one-concept titles with multiple cases going on, which are twice the size of the novels from the '50s. McBain unfortunately fits with John D. MacDonald and countless other mystery / thriller writers who seem a little too interested in the variety of harm and trauma men can inflict on women, so it's drifting some in a direction I'm not entirely comfortable with. The pattern of events depicted and the attention to certain details suggest unpleasant things about writer and audience alike. In one of the main storylines here a man is stalking and murdering women (in a notably fiendish way) and then stringing them up by their necks to lampposts. Altogether too detailed and dwelt upon. But now I've read it through twice so there's that too. It's got all the usual pleasures of the 87th Precinct characters, plus another role for Fat Ollie Weeks. This is the one I remembered where the characters discuss Hill Street Blues and all the similarities to themselves, which is basically McBain getting his digs in about sources and inspiration and it is priceless. Someone even name-checks Hunter, which is cute. Always there are the beguiling personal soap opera threads detailing the lives of his characters, and McBain is not afraid to deal severe blows to them, as happens to a significant continuing character here, Eileen Burke. We're also privy to the ongoing adventures of Steve Carella's wife Teddy (a deaf woman who signs and reads lips), who is not by any stretch a cop. Here she has decided to find a job after many years at home raising their children, and is in for a rude surprise. For all my misgivings about the treatment of women, and the level and detail of the violence, I'd still have to call Lightning a solid outing and maybe even a little better than that.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Caché (2005)

Hidden, France / Austria / Germany / Italy / USA, 117 minutes
Director/writer: Michael Haneke
Photography: Christian Berger
Editors: Michael Hudecek, Nadine Muse
Cast: Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, Maurice Bénichou, Annie Girardot, Bernard Le Coq, Walid Afkir, Lester Makedonsky, Daniel Duval, Nathalie Richard, Denis Podalydès, Aïssa Maïga

Written and directed by Michael Haneke, released in the UK under the name Hidden, and formally taking on the qualities of a thriller, it can't come as much surprise that Caché is a bit of a puzzle-box movie. In fact, in its premise, it bears a remarkable resemblance to another puzzle-box movie of eight years earlier, David Lynch's Lost Highway. Georges and Anne Laurent (played by Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) are an upper middle class Parisian couple with an adolescent son—smug bourgeoisie, not to put too fine a point on it. They begin to experience a subtle form of harassment. Someone is leaving videotapes accompanied by grotesque and cryptic drawings on their doorstep. The videotapes show hours of the exterior of their home, a static image shot from a stationary camera, with occasional traffic and pedestrians passing across the frame—even Georges himself at one point, who can't remember ever seeing a camera. The pictures show figures with blood.

The mystery is mostly irrelevant in the strategy of the movie, but I will register the usual point about spoilers. It doesn't take long before Georges figures out what it's about, and what really lies at the center of this story: relations between his family of origin and an Algerian couple they hired as servants. The couple disappeared in a historical atrocity now known as the "Paris massacre of 1961." In the backstory of Caché the result is that Georges's family is left with the couple's orphaned son, Majid, who is about Georges's age. At first they make plans to take custody of him but a 6-year-old Georges resents the intrusion on his place in the family and makes up stories about Majid that may or may not have resulted in Majid being "sent away," to an obviously inferior fate.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Love's Lovely Counterfeit (1942)

I don't think you can count this as one of the best by James M. Cain, which makes me wonder how precipitously the quality falls off after his three best-known novels (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce). Even this one got made into a movie too (Slightly Scarlet, 1956) so conceivably it is still better than many others. It frequently put me in mind of Dashiell Hammett's first novel, Red Harvest. Both are focused on changes of corrupting power in mid-sized or small cities, engineered by one or two clever enterprising fellows (and dames), the chief enterpriser also doing the first-person narrative honors. So we see and hear from such principals as the mayor, district attorney, chief of police, and boss crime lord. Excuse me for yawning. I don't see many productive directions for fiction about political corruption to go, All the King's Men notwithstanding. If it turns out the bad guys win it's cynical and also not a surprise; if the good guys take it it's not believable. Better all around to go the factual route, because the old cliché holds true: you can't make up the best stuff. Given that it is Cain in 1942, there's a certain amount of quality here in spite of everything (including that I would be surprised if he looked at this manuscript more than twice, and not at all surprised if it were only once). Dialogue and exposition are clipped and propulsive, also lots of people are strangely familiar with opera. There's a love story at the center but Cain is unable for once to make it sick enough to be interesting, so it tends to just lay there and quiver any time it's rotated up front. There's lots of action, lots of narrative sequence, but not much in the way of stakes, just low-level hoodlum types getting over on their higher-level superiors, extending all the way up to the mayor's office—two mayor's offices, actually, because of course there's also an obvious element of irony here about the everlasting fungibility of political corruption. There are biographies and history books packed full of stories much better than this. For better or worse, however, few will tell them as well as Cain does, so you can take that into account too.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Hoop Dreams (1994)

USA, 170 minutes, documentary
Director: Steve James
Writers: Steve James, Frederick Marx
Photography: Peter Gilbert
Music: Ben Sidran
Editors: William Haugse, Steve James, Frederick Marx
With: William Gates, Arthur Agee, Steve James, Emma Gates, Curtis Gates, Sheila Agee, Arthur "Bo" Agee, Earl Smith, Gene Pingatore

A couple of things about Hoop Dreams: First, perhaps most remarkably, it hasn't dated much for a documentary that somehow is already 20 years old. The story of two Chicago youths with a knack for playing basketball and dreams of turning that into their ticket to better lives remains, if anything, more poignant, compelling, and relevant than ever. This is accomplished partly by its willingness to slip into the syntax of classic Hollywood sports tales—for me, Breaking Away and Hoosiers come to mind immediately. Some of the best parts emerge directly out of the drama of important games with high stakes. Even more, it's accomplished by director and co-producer Steve James's willingness to settle on a story and follow it down its tortuous path. It's the story of any sports career. It's the story of any life.

Make that two stories: Arthur Agee and William Gates. The second remarkable point about Hoop Dreams is how short and incomplete it feels, even at nearly three hours. It focuses on Agee and Gates from when they are 14 and looking to use basketball as a leg up and a way in, both with talent enough to receive financial assistance from a Chicago private high school with a successful basketball program, St. Joseph. The picture follows the twists and turns of their high school careers and suddenly leaves us with only a few clues about their subsequent college careers. It's up to us to rush to Wikipedia to fill in what has happened with their lives since then, including whether or not they ever made it to the NBA. Hoop Dreams is so good at what it does it's virtually guaranteed most people seeing it will take the time to poke around for that information.

Friday, September 05, 2014

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo, Italy / Spain / West Germany, 161 minutes
Director: Sergio Leone
Writers: Luciano Vincenzoni, Sergio Leone, Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, Mickey Knox
Photography: Tonino Delli Colli
Music: Ennio Morricone
Editors: Eugene Alabiso, Nino Baragli
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef, Luigi Pistilli, Rada Rassimov, Antonio Casas

Eli Wallach's teeth are too good—and that goes for Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef too. Gleaming white and straight and lined up just the way modern-day dentists like them. At some point—I think usually around the time Tuco (aka "the Ugly," Wallach) has brought Blondie (aka "the Good," Eastwood) to a monastery to recover from a bad time in the desert—I notice how well tended those teeth are and I am taken temporarily out of the action. My last complaint. That's the niggling level of my criticism about The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which is otherwise practically flawless.

It is, as the mystifying phrase we like to use now has it, what it is, and makes no bones about it. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a cartoon-level Western trafficking in existentialism, with extra fine shooting and a bone-simple story of revenge and greed animating the three principals, as the divertissement, cutting across history and causing it to fall away: the Civil War, the railroads, horses and guns and broad brim hats and brown liquor downed straight. All the familiar elements are here, but merely to serve as feeble context for these three gods striding through and defining the action, straight out of a deck of tarot cards—the two angels of heaven and hell, and the trickster fool with the sad, sad story.