Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Exorcist (1973)

USA, 122 minutes
Director: William Friedkin
Writer: William Peter Blatty
Photography: Owen Roizman
Music: Jack Nitzsche, Mike Oldfield
Editors: Norman Gay, Evan A. Lottman
Cast: Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Rudolf Schundler, Vasiliki Maliaros

I intended to have momentous or at least interesting things to say about horror movies approximately here, but often the scary pictures I've looked at in the past year have left me cold, and rarely frightened me. Maybe I should have looked in more unexpected places, such as the driving safety films we were shown in high school—they might still be scary, or certainly as gruesome as ever, I would think. The two movies that most gave me pause to revisit, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (both of which still retain the power to disturb), explicitly have nothing to do with the supernatural—like those driving safety films, come to think of it. But the supernatural has everything to do with The Exorcist, a movie that scarred me when I saw it on its original release (twice, foolishly, unbelieving of its power on me after the first time).

This reminds me of a story I used to like to tell, about a church youth retreat when I was in high school. As I recall, it was an overnight canoe trip. On the night over, a group of five or so of us stayed up late gabbing at a campfire. At some point we started swapping ghost stories and such. At some point we decided it would be fun to have a séance. We had a medium among us and people who knew the mumbo jumbo. We held hands and looked nervously around while someone recited the mumbo jumbo. We decided that our means of communication—admittedly ambivalent, but the best we could do in the circumstances—would be to make an ember glow that we pulled from the fire and stuck upright in the sand. Once for no, twice for yes. Being idiots we summoned the spirit of Adolf Hitler (to her credit, the medium did not approve). Things like this take some tinkering but finally we were pretty sure we had a spirit on the line and that it was our man. I asked if he really thought he could take over the world. The ember made a little popping noise and burst into flame.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Emma (1815)

I will likely be testing this theory of mine again soon, but in many ways Jane Austen's novels work for me in ways that are similar to genre novels. If I haven't looked at them in a while they are instantly absorbing, and perfectly charming, and I want to read another right away. But they resemble one another enough that I don't always have the energy to actually finish the next one. I love this world of Jane Austen's that is so single-mindedly focused on achieving happy unions between consenting adults, and all the daunting complexities back of them. There is always a deeply practical woman at the center of it, a few good men and women, and a host of lovable (and one or two not so lovable) recalcitrants to round it all out. Emma concludes on three felicitous—if I may use a Jane Austen word—marriage weddings, a typical if hyper Austen climax. Much of the novel is attempting to figure out who will end up with whom. It does not achieve the dramatic tensions of Pride and Prejudice, but it's a very pleasant journey. There is comfort even in the characters one does not like, partly because they so much resemble people we've known and are thus reassuring of our judgments, and partly by the familiarity. Austen was a uniquely alert observer of people, so even when her plotting begins to go flat or wayward it remains a great pleasure to follow along with her characters. It works at levels that are at once gossipy and profound, and enormously complicated, with fractured families and webs of relations across them, laid against an ever-shifting timeline of seasons and holidays, with events both pedestrian and momentous occurring in a regular rhythm. The language seems to me unusually lucid by 19th-century standards, and the society, while plainly antiquated, nonetheless recognizable. It's people just getting on with their lives, respecting their fundamental needs for human congress, to love and to be loved, and to be accorded respect and dignity too, in a world where both are so very easy to lose.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Tropical Malady (2004)

Sud pralad, Thailand / France / Germany / Italy, 118 minutes
Director/writer: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Photography: Jarin Pengpanitch, Vichit Tanapanitch, Jean-Louis Vialard
Music: Smallroom
Editors: Lee Chatametikool, Jacopo Quadri
Cast: Banlop Lomnoi, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Huai Dessom, Sirivech Jareonchon, Udom Promma

Tropical Malady yokes two unrelated stories into coequal halves so formally that it almost feels like an anthology. The second story even gets what appears to be a title ("A Spirit's Path"). Yet there are mysterious affinities between the two halves. Both involve soldiers and share the two acting leads (who look very different across the stories), both revolve around investigations by the military of unexplained deaths of villagers and livestock. Director and writer Apichatpong Weerasethakul is notably a comer on the list of 21st-century films at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, splitting votes by the evidence, with Tropical Malady presently at #12 and, behind it, Blissfully Yours at #15, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives at #36, and Syndromes and a Century at #45.

Weerasethakul is Thai and might as well be approached as something of an Asian David Lynch. It's an easy comparison. He's weird enough and his sources feel deep enough. Weerasethakul's fundamental preoccupation are with the spirit world, though his appreciation for the beauties of the carnal, physical plane are undeniable. If nothing else—and sometimes I think it's not much more—Tropical Malady is extraordinarily beautiful, capturing the luminous qualities of life and its visible surfaces: the glowing green of the jungle, the evocative faces of animals and humans, the way light plays in darkness. It is also glancingly good with the tender dances of falling in love, raising a family, working, being alive and human. You won't know what you saw, I can guarantee that much, but you might want to keep looking. Tropical Malady nags with an air of muted yet repellent fascination, like a person of inscrutable beauty used to being stared at. Think of it maybe as externalized meditation.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Fun House (1970)

(Previous "Complete Sessions" review here, sufficient preamble.)

I was vaguely aware of the Stooges in high school, but my general understanding at the time, from hippie contemporaries, was that they were very bad and scary music that only demented people would be interested in. Already the legends of Iggy suffering injuries in performance were circulating. Naturally I accepted the solemn word of mouth. So I did not actually catch up to the Stooges proper until many years later, in the late '70s, backtracking from an infatuation with Iggy Pop caught in the reflection of David Bowie. At first I thought The Stooges was the better album of the two (with Raw Power crowding both hard) because the sound seemed simpler and more direct and because the year song ("1969" vs. "1970") was so much stronger and anthemic. Come to find out how wrong I was about this assessment during a crucial period in the early '80s.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Tricks (1987)

Perils of following large series over a span of decades: sometimes you acquire the same book more than once. I read this novel from the 87th Precinct series by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter, which was not his real name either) back when it was still pretty new, but had forgotten everything except the harrowing decoy stakeout in pursuit of a serial slasher / rapist. At this point McBain is so good he makes it look easy. Set on a warm Halloween that brings frigid temperatures with evening, it's premised on goofs around the word "tricks." Trick or treat—it's Halloween. The serial killer targets prostitutes, posing as a john. A stage magician suddenly vanishes and hours later pieces of his dismembered body begin turning up. A crew of midgets in costume is holding up liquor stores, and killing clerks and bystanders. And Parker looks up a 60-year-old good-time girl named Peaches and ultimately turns a few tricks of his own. Et cetera. The centerpiece in Tricks is the stakeout and ultimate confrontation between Eileen Burke and the killer. Burke previously (no doubt in one of the books in the series) was attacked and raped on a similar operation, so here she is haunted by that. The character of the serial killer is an interesting one, reminiscent of Jim Thompson figures in the way he charms with an endless barrage of streaming jokes, which are often actually funny. It's an interesting device—a good trick, if you will—at once chilling and utterly engaging. Tricks is a real page-turner, as they say. In fact, it's one of McBain's best. At the same time, I will take the opportunity to say here, the details of violence (notably what has to be classified as his fetishizing of knives) and a too-frequent resort to rape as a plot device work to undermine interest. They are the stock devices of genre fiction, hardly exclusive to police procedurals. The fascination, such as it is, is a play on deepest fears. When people talk about exploitation drama, it's the exploitation of our basest fears I think they are talking about. McBain's regular resort to them has to be counted as a weakness. On the other hand, we are always looking for fascination too, so there's that.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Wo hu cang long, Taiwan / Hong Kong / USA / China, 120 minutes
Director: Ang Lee
Writers: Du Lu Wang, Hui-Ling Wang, James Schamus, Kuo Jung Tsai
Photography: Peter Pau
Music: Dun Tan
Editor: Tim Squyres
Cast: Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Lung Sihung, Cheng Pei-pei, Li Fazeng, Gao Xian, Hai Yan, Wang Deming, Li Li

Director Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—a project of love if ever there was one—still sits comfortably high on the list of 21st-century films at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, some 14 years on. But it seems every time I see this valentine to Lee's origins I like it a little less. Equal parts old-fashioned Hollywood potboiler, newfangled martial arts epic, overindulgent fairy tale, and great swooning romance (make that two great swooning romances), it shows among other things how deeply Lee had embraced the aesthetic of Oscar-bait even then, with its expensive color tones and crane shots, its impressive roster of Asian stars, and its clockwork alternations between ponderous exposition and gripping action scenes.

For balance, for fans, here is Richard Corliss of Time outlining the appeal: "The director convened stars of three movie eras—pioneer kung-femme Cheng Pei-pei from the 1960s, Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh from Hong Kong’s glorious ’80s and bright new lights Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen—and set them to battling over a magical sword. When the actors aren’t flying across roofs and balancing on treetops, in fight scenes choreographed by the great Yuen Wo-ping, they are navigating the murkier regions of personal responsibility and unspoken love. Crouching Tiger is a movie of gravity and buoyancy, of high art and higher spirits. It’s contemplative, and it kicks ass."

Sunday, October 12, 2014

On the Rez (2000)

The "Rez" in Ian Frazier's second book about his travels on the Great Plains of North America is the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, which famously is among the most impoverished regions of the country. Le War Lance, Frazier's Native American friend he met on the streets of New York City (as detailed in Great Plains), takes an even more central role in this rambling and always interesting collection of facts and anecdotes. Frazier makes it sound as if Le is always pressing him for money. But Frazier gets something in return, as he reveals in one telling moment near the end. Le and his friend Floyd John have once again beaten Frazier out of rides and cash as they attempt to repair an ailing car. Frazier writes: "On his back under the car, Floyd John wrenched and tapped. At the side of the house, Gunner, the dog, growled away at a section of deer ribs Le had thrown her. Two kittens, one yellow and one black, chased each other around. A warm wind blew. For a moment, we might have been sitting in front of a tipi in an Oglala camp along the North Platte River 150 years ago, braiding lariats and making arrows and gazing off across the Plains." It's not that Frazier entertains and can express such a fantasy, but that he does so even in the face of all the disturbing news he has to tell about the Rez. Maybe it's the only way he can bear the reality, which is here. It's bad, and he knows it, and there's more than 100 pages of notes sourcing it all. It is heartening and yet enormously sad, enormously sad and yet heartening, to read these stories of the Oglala Sioux and the life at Pine Ridge. It's mostly bad news but not all. He finds a hero he can believe in in a teen girls' basketball player named SuAnne Big Crow. And the pathos of his plain love for the Oglala, which does verge on obsessive, is always most apparent. For me, I like how it works as a kind of sequel to Great Plains, so focused on a palpable sense of place, if here focused even more, almost exclusively, on the modern-day reservation. He continually makes it come alive in totally unexpected ways.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Sound of Music (1965)

USA, 174 minutes
Director: Robert Wise
Writers: George Hurdalek, Howard Lindsay, Russel Crouse, Ernest Lehman, Maria von Trapp
Photography: Ted D. McCord
Music: Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Irwin Kostal
Editor: William Reynolds
Cast: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Richard Haydn, Eleanor Parker, Peggy Wood, Anna Lee, Marni Nixon, Angela Cartwright

At some point I realized that 1965 was going to be a critical juncture in this ongoing Movie of the Year project. It was the year I personally became aware of "going out to the movies" as an activity that meant something specific, and special, although parental accompaniment—or at least permission and transport—were still necessarily involved. I'm thus aware that my choice is something of a sentimental one, as seeing The Sound of Music was precisely a mandatory family activity, in the same year that I discovered top 40 radio and that the Beatles' Help! was released. I resented The Sound of Music then, rejected it as corny, and never looked back until a few years ago, when it somehow got in front of me again (also probably for sentimental reasons, with the death of my father looming). Programming note: It is also the last one I will be offering in the series for a little while, as I increasingly feel the need to research what's ahead for the early '60s, '50s, and back—March or April next year is my target for resuming, with 1964. From here on, all picks will come from retrospect, so I'm indulging one last opportunity for a movie I saw in its time, though my feelings about it are somewhat complicated.

Actually, in that later viewing, there was a particular moment that decisively turned me around on The Sound of Music, which for something like two hours I watched alternating between groaning and wincing and, surprisingly often, thinking, "Hey, this isn't so bad." When I realized the song "Something Good" was not only in the movie, but came from it, I fell in line. I had come to love the homely mystical approach of that song (both musical and lyrical) by way of a Caetano Veloso cover version of it in 2004. Coming at a swooning romantic high point of the picture, I was done. That was it. Even Julie Andrews capering about as dim bulb nun and mountain meadow maid (it has to bear some responsibility for The Flying Nun, yes?), with those magnificent snow-capped Alps peaks in the backdrop, convinced me now. I made my peace. The hills are alive, see.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

The Beginner's Goodbye (2012)

I found Anne Tyler's most recent novel to be surprisingly sad in many ways I'm not sure are so good, though by the same token I must acknowledge the profound effect it had on my mood. For one thing, it felt a bit like a retread of many ideas from perhaps her most successful novel, The Accidental Tourist. They are both built around the usual given, a quirky Baltimore slightly underclass family, but also in both the family is involved in a publishing business and successful series of books. From there the details diverge some: it is a vanity house in The Beginner's Goodbye, for example, as opposed to the slightly more legitimate travel guides of Accidental Tourist. It seemed hard to believe the size and nature of the "Beginner's" series (a kind of larky variation on "for Dummies" books), given the size of the staff combined with the size of the series implied by all the many different titles and subject areas mentioned, although it's possible that's the way things can go in vanity publishing ventures. The Accidental Tourist may have similar problems, but I never noticed. There is even a sister who at long last finds happiness. The story at hand in The Beginner's Goodbye concerns the brother, Aaron, who is younger, and recently widowed by the freak accident of a tree falling on their house. It is the first year or two after his wife's death and Aaron has begun to see her occasionally, back from the dead somehow, even exchanging some words with her sometimes, before she disappears. It should be the most unbelievable part of the book but instead it is the most convincing. That, in turn, lays a firm foundation for revelations about the relationship that contradict most of our initial assumptions. The relationship between Aaron and his dead wife Dorothy is the best part, flickering in and out with Dorothy herself. Then, after she is gone for good, a happy ending is made to this short novel. It's not very believable, it feels tacked-on and almost like a formal gesture of politeness. As if Tyler is asking forgiveness for going so deeply into the pain of losing what one had conceived was a lifetime partner, who turns out by circumstance to be anything but. Speak no ill of the dead, perhaps? It left me feeling foul.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Time Indefinite (1993)

USA, 114 minutes, documentary
Director/writer/photography/editor: Ross McElwee
With: Ross McElwee, Marilyn Levine, Ross McElwee Jr., Charleen Swansea, Dee Dee Gerarty, Lucille Stafford, Melvin Stafford, Adrian McElwee

As much as anything, Ross McElwee's ruminating and lovely documentary Time Indefinite is about transitions—from nothingness to life, from being single to marrying, from life to death, the classic transitions around which we construct our most profound rituals, updated to the age of media. Sherman's March may be the better known of McElwee's idiosyncratic personal documentaries, wherein he impishly conflates Civil War atrocities with his own inability to stay coupled, but Time Indefinite extends a few years and clicks of maturity the preoccupations with love and life and expectation and disappointment, bringing something more sober often missing in the earlier project (though Sherman's March is definitely worth seeing too and may be the better picture).

In Time Indefinite, which explicitly makes all kinds of connections between home movies and formal film structure, McElwee is notably fond of the moment when the film runs out of the camera, and the casual reality in which we have been immersed suddenly, jarringly, turns into scratches and sprocket holes, black screens of intractable interruption. It's apparent from what we see that McElwee is the kind of guy who shows up to every event with a camera on his shoulder and a viewfinder in his face. His friends and family are variously tolerant and exasperated, often looking directly into the lens and telling him to shut off the camera. There are times I want to tell him the same thing. But then the sudden shifts and amputations inevitably bring their own disappointments. Just when it was getting to the good part....