Friday, April 29, 2016

The Wild Bunch (1969)

USA, 145 minutes
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Writers: Walon Green, Sam Peckinpah, Roy N. Sickner
Photography: Lucien Ballard
Music: Jerry Fielding
Editor: Lou Lombardo
Cast: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O'Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sanchez, Ben Johnson, Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones, Albert Dekker, Bo Hopkins

It's been about five years since I foolishly started to attempt writing about every one of the 1,000 titles on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, which ranks movies all-time all-everything by some formula involving critical assessments. I know it's ridiculous to think I can write about them all (for one thing, they change around every year), but I've got "hi - igh hopes." Some of them—the silents, many Westerns, and certain directors such as Fellini or Tarkovsky—I know ahead of time are going to be hard to write about. I have little affinity for them, or have put off seeing them, or usually some combination.

I thought The Wild Bunch had the look of one of those. It has fallen from #48 to as low as #71 on the TSPDT list since I started, which afforded me time to dance around it. For a long time I liked the idea of director and co-writer Sam Peckinpah more than I ever liked the reality of his movies, which left me with some pretty big gaps in this and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, his two best. My previous head-butting forays—Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which I still find stultifying after I don't know how many attempts, occasioned mostly by liking the song "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" (somehow I feel certain I should like the movie), and Straw Dogs, which is both unpleasant and kind of dim—lowered his priority for a long time. Whenever I felt the need to check on Peckinpah again, I went directly to Pat Garrett again. Definition of insanity, I know.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Miracles From Heaven (2016)

Barreling on out of Passover weekend, the competition for this year's Easter winner—a category that has been around how long now?—looks to be pretty tight between Miracles From Heaven and God's Not Dead 2. Admittedly ignorant of this Christian drama genre, apocalyptic or otherwise, I was most surprised, and shouldn't have been, that a family-friendly movie would attract families, even on a Tuesday morning. Thus I found myself enclosed in a dark room with a young couple and their babbling 2-year-old, along with a handful of mild-mannered hanky-wringers, for the duration. To be clear, every single minute. Not screechy crying, thank God, but loud nonstop babbling, occasionally loosed and roaming about the theater: loballoballoballob. The story in the movie (based on true events, predictably) is about an upstanding white exurban family in Texas, a husband, wife, and their three daughters, who worship weekly at a megachurch. Naturally enough for me, I suppose, I found the glowing depiction of the megachurch lifestyle creepy. But in my defense I'd like to note that the actor playing the church pastor, John Carroll Lynch, previously played not only John Wayne Gacy in the FX series American Horror Story, but also the putative Zodiac killer in Zodiac. Anyway, loballoballoballob, one day one of the daughters becomes gravely ill with a rare and incurable condition. Now's the time to hoist the spoiler flag! The rhythms of this movie are familiar, more or less one standard template in the latter-day "woman's picture" fare found on the Lifetime channel: hysterical mother fighting for the life of a loved one in the face of bureaucratic indifference and mysterious disease. Jennifer Garner as Christy Beam, that very mother, is most convincing to me when she loses her faith, loballoballoballob. But I'm sure that's just me. I'm more or less a nonbeliever, so those scenes looked to me like someone coming to her senses, and seemed most natural. As for Garner, there's a news story presently circulating that this role brought her to Christ. I suppose it's possible, but let's give this conversion a few more months. The movie is still playing in theaters for crying out loud. Loballoballoballob. The ending, not surprisingly, bludgeons one nearly senseless with a thorough beatdown of hokum, which I was actually enjoying pretty well, or thought I might be, if that goddam kid would just shut the fuck up. But at that point the story is also hurtling toward the unbelievable with the momentum of jet aircraft. (As I've said elsewhere, "based on true events" almost always equates directly to the unbelievable.) I finally had to flee the theater abruptly when the end credits featured footage and images of the real Beam family. Somehow that was finally too much for me. Bring a hanky if you must see this one, because it works hard to make you use it. Fortunately for me, God sent a kid to distract me from falling into that trap, though I'm pretty sure my eyes swam and I sniffled once or twice. You can't be too careful with these Easter movies.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

"The Egg" (1920)

Read story by Sherwood Anderson online.

Sherwood Anderson is one of the most singular story writers I know, operating seemingly by his own rules, known only to him. Here he takes what is basically an anecdote, however poignant, and infuses it to bursting with portent and meaning around "the egg." There is not really any one egg in this story, though a single egg is involved in the anecdote, possibly. It's not entirely clear that's what's intended by the title. Instead, Anderson takes the idea of "egg," expands it to chickens, and packs the story full of both. It's a veritable Easter day event. The first-person narrator (we never learn his name) was raised on a chicken farm, where among other things his father kept and preserved in jars the deformed chicks that hatched there, with five legs or two heads and such, "nature's mistakes" let's call them (shown at county fairs in this story, and still seen at state fair sideshows too). He describes his father's bald head in egg-like terms. He mentions a story about Christopher Columbus and eggs. After the farm failed the narrator's family moved to town and opened a restaurant. The restaurant is where we reach the real Sherwood Anderson territory. The narrator's father is a classic Anderson character, possessed of dreams he can't begin to articulate. In this case, his dream is to create a place, the restaurant, where young people want to come and hang out. But he works the nightshift at the restaurant, which largely caters to train travelers from a nearby station. When a young person finally shows up one night, the narrator's father attempts to charm him with barroom magic tricks involving an egg—making it stand on one end (this is where Columbus comes up), and then, when that fails, attempting to steam it with vinegar to enable it to slip into a narrow-necked bottle. The boy doesn't know what to do about this strange restaurant cook, and ends by laughing at him on his way out the door. In that moment, the narrator's father finally has a glimpse of how pathetic he is, and is devastated. Well, it's all primo Anderson, as weird as it is effective in execution. The story comes just the year after his Winesburg, Ohio cycle of stories, where Anderson's unique sense of American pathos snapped into focus. My sense is that he was such a purely intuitive writer he barely knew what he was doing. There's a great sense of searching in "The Egg," searching for the way to express something burning inside him and all of us—a conflagration that goes out of control for the narrator's father in this strange, wonderful story.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

The Egg and Other Stories by Sherwood Anderson

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Trouble Will Find Me (2013)

Trying to figure out why I'm a little embarrassed to like this album so much. It's not because I'm late to the party—I'm always late to the party. Trouble Will Find Me is the sixth album by the National in some 12 years, following up the commercial breakthrough of 2010's High Violet with another big hit. Learning about something with the rest of the masses is not it either. Sometimes you just have to use those masses for your cues, and I have no problem with that. No, it's something more about the grain of the music itself, which is insinuatingly moody and often beautiful, but also has a certain softness that makes it feel just a little weak-kneed. But I'm a little weak-kneed myself in the presence of these lilting, lovely songs. I love that the origins of the band are in Cincinnati, Ohio, and that it's the label 4AD enjoying the bonanza of betting on them. Matt Berninger's deep croaking vocal loses power at certain ranges, which coupled with the lyrical strategy of banging away on evocative phrases ("you should know me better than that," "I stay down with my demons," "I'm not alone," "I need my girl," so on so forth), produces a certain equivalent to the movie aesthetic derisively labeled mumblecore. It's usually framed as a generational problem—mumblecore is for millennials and late Gen X-ers and real adults have no patience with it. So the National fits that way. But it's not a fair knock—mumbling has significant  sources reaching back to Marlon Brando and James Dean, not to mention R.E.M. It represents an ideal of the soulful incoherent, who communicates primarily emotion, primarily by gesture. That's not exactly what the National is doing—the production values have a good deal of clarity and precision, they are articulate, and 4AD makes a nice home for the kind of high swooning oblivion bliss-out exercises that are also touched here. But somehow the combination of effects undercuts one another just a little for me. I often feel a yearning to connect with it, even as it plays, and even as fragments of it reach me and nag at me when I'm distracted with other things. But on another level it somehow remains elusive to full attention. The surface of this music promises great depths, or implies them, and I'm starting to think they might not be there after all. But certainly it remains a lovely surface.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)

USA, 117 minutes
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Kelly Masterson
Photography: Ron Fortunato
Music: Carter Burwell
Editor: Tom Swartwout
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, Rosemary Harris, Michael Shannon, Bryan F. O'Byrne, Amy Ryan, Aleksa Palladino, Leonardo Cimino, Blaine Horton

Director Sidney Lumet's last picture came more than 50 years after his first, and it's a decent clinic in all the things he was good at. We learn by way of DVD extras, for example, that Lumet was at pains to describe Before the Devil Knows You're Dead as a melodrama rather than a thriller. With the caper crime at the center of it I've always been inclined to think of it more as a thriller, but he makes a good argument. One change he made to the original screenplay was to make Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) brothers rather than friends. It's simple, but amps up the tension between them, notably over the ongoing affair Hank is having with Andy's wife Gina (Marisa Tomei)—amps it up by approximately an infinite degree. Where it might have been just sad and pathetic, it now has more potential for convulsive epic tragedy.

In fact, this is a tremendously agonizing story, maybe even unbelievable in synopsis, but pulled off by the skill of Lumet and his cast and crew. I was reminded a little of Dancer in the Dark, which I was talking about a few weeks ago as hurtling vertiginously into darkness. The same arc is at play here, but whereas Dancer director Lars von Trier insists on distancing himself from the emotional wallop, Lumet rushes in fully embracing exactly that, shading everything he can think of to make it as fraught as possible. On the DVD commentary track, Hoffman points out a close-up of a finger squeezing a trigger and says that's when he knew he was working on a melodrama.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Dying Inside (1972)

Dying Inside is science fiction because author Robert Silverberg is a science fiction writer, with numerous Hugo Award and Nebula Award nominations and wins to his credit. The story has a fantastic element in the telepathy of its main character and first-person narrator, David Selig, a Jewish native of New York City in 1972 present time. But the latter elements tend to overrun the former, which is a good thing, because it ends up feeling more like a lost Philip Roth experiment than the typical technology speculations I associate with science fiction. Selig can read minds, that's all—he can't use his powers to control others or put thoughts in their heads, let alone predict the future or move physical objects or bend spoons. Reaching middle age at the time of the novel, in his early 40s, he finds his mysterious power leaving him. The sadness of this book is often overwhelming. It casts a dense pall. Most of this is due to Silverberg's ability to imagine life with this power, and the subsequent calamity of losing it. Silverberg creates a fully developed character in Selig, who is sustained by New York cultural currents and can't quite bring himself to "grow up" and take on a conventional life. He has a history of fractured relationships, as his power with his personality make him just a little creepy. He survives by hanging around the Columbia University campus, where he ekes out a living by writing term papers for students too busy or uninterested to write them themselves. There are a few samples and excerpts of that work here, familiar enough five-page double-spaced (it's the early '70s) exegeses on Kafka, Euripedes, and other usual suspects of undergraduate literature courses. What works best are the flights about the power. If anything, it is closer to a superhero comic book tale that way than science fiction or fantasy. Imagining myself with superpowers was always the main draw of superhero comic books when I read them faithfully. And mind reading (after only invisibility and super-speed, like the Flash) was a power that caught my imagination. Silverberg explores deep into that fascination—the voyeurism and sense of seductive spying, the potential for a perfectly "safe and harmless" (because one-sided) intimacy. You get to know everything about another person without having to reveal anything of yourself, hence no risk of rejection (which is mitigated anyway by finding out about it privately). Silverberg is so good at this that we feel both the exhilaration of Selig's power and the desolation of its loss. On an obvious level, of course, it's more about youth than telepathy. But it's still one not to miss.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, April 15, 2016

12 Angry Men (1957)

USA, 96 minutes
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Reginald Rose
Photography: Boris Kaufman
Music: Kenyon Hopkins
Editor: Carl Lerner
Cast: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Jack Klugman, George Voskovec, Robert Webber, Edward Binns, Joseph Sweeney

12 Angry Men may be director Sidney Lumet's first feature film, but it draws on many years of experience in the early days of broadcast television, taking on the self-serious grain of message pictures and the confined space of a soundstage to the point where it's almost dreary. Reginald Rose's screenplay is based on his own stage play about a jury deliberation that proceeds much in the format of an Agatha Christie "10 little Indians" tale. We only learn about the murder case they are deliberating by way of their own sparring analysis and debate. On their first ballot, early in the movie, when they finally sit down to start hashing out a verdict, the tally is 11 to one for conviction. It's the hottest day of the year, a thunderstorm is brewing up just outside the windows, and they have to make a decision.

Rose's story is fairly pat—you come to understand quickly that the drift here is changing "guilty" votes to "not guilty" votes, one by one. There are many convenient plot points along the way but nothing egregious. It feels, still, vividly evocative of its time (which is not to say dated by any means), addressing most directly issues of prejudice and bigotry there at the early years of the modern civil rights movement. We get one look at the defendant in the establishing shots early. He is a young man of color, but after that it is perfectly ambiguous. He could be Arabic, Mexican, Italian, Greek, or many other ethnic strains or combinations. But more than that, more than anything, 12 Angry Men comes across as a nearly full-throated affirmation of the American system of justice, albeit leaving room for concerns about it from many different directions.

Monday, April 11, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

Welcome to another tiresome franchise, with another tiresome spoiler alert if you really need one. Dubious yet certain sequels lie dead ahead. In fact, 10 Cloverfield Lane is kinda sorta already a sequel, related in some thematic and highly atmospheric and mysterious way to Cloverfield, which came out eight years ago. I enjoyed Cloverfield, though it is as preposterous as any other "found footage" exercise in the bin. Monsters like no one has ever imagined dealing Manhattan serious unprecedented death and destruction and dude keeps the prosumer gear running. The new J.J. Abrams production with the word "Cloverfield" in the title has a number of intriguing points, starting with the involvement of Abrams itself, which for me is generally a good thing. John Goodman as a mysterious wingnut survivalist (and/or sadomasochistic thrill killer, never quite nailed down) has made a career of this kind of thing. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a veteran of Death Proof, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and more. But the problem starts—and continues, because we're hardly done with this movie, no, we're just getting started—at WTF exactly is going on here?! This is what I call the peekaboo problem, which happens when a script (or scripts, in this case) actively hides important information for no good reason other than to prolong the story, e.g., in this case, WTF-exactly-is-going-on-here, as mentioned. And it's not good enough after two movies that the characters themselves don't know yet. There seems to be some kind of alien invasion—a serious calamity at least. But if I'm reading the story direction correctly, the whole John Goodman thing in this movie turns out to be a lurid red herring to the larger arc, and irrelevant. When all else fails, add serial killers, seems to be the prevailing ethos (I mean we're talking every trope and cliché of a certain omnivorous serial killer movie mindset). Look out, people, I smell Lost.

Michelle (Winstead) is waylaid on a lonely highway and wakes to find herself imprisoned—shackled, even, at first—in a room without windows. Howard (Goodman) tells her she is safe and there has been an attack, a big one. He won't let her leave the house. He mentions Russians and Martians as possible culprits. It seems likely Howard is crazy (always a winning plot point), but soon enough we see compelling evidence that the outside air is indeed as poisonous as he has warned. The reveals, when they come—and remember, we probably haven't even seen the half of them yet—are ludicrous. Technically, I have no complaints. As movie-movie, it is perfectly functional. There are plenty of setups for plenty of suspenseful scenes, followed by plenty of suspense. Will she ever be able to reach the thing? Did he already forget about the thing? Et cetera. Michelle is ferocious about winning her freedom, so that's a plus. The use of confined space is pretty good. But the violence, though relatively infrequent, can be awfully unpleasant. And my belief that this movie ever knew what it was doing ended with the last scene and no resolution whatsoever. Now it's Psycho. Now it's War of the Worlds. Now it's Night of the Living Dead. Now it's Silence of the Lambs. Good grief. Winstead is fine and who doesn't approve plucky young woman heroes in this day and age. But Howard turns out to be mostly a stunt, and that's lame. There's way too much totally kewl koncept and not nearly enough plausible resolution. I leave you with these words: Remember Lost!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

"The Story of a Year" (1865)

The second story published by Henry James appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, and this one had a byline. It's a Civil War story, or at least one key character, John Ford, is a lieutenant in the Union army. In the first section of the story (which has five parts and covers a year's time) Ford declares himself to Elizabeth Crowe, who declares herself back. It's something less than a formal engagement because Ford's mother disapproves of Lizzie, as she is called. Ford's mother thinks she is shallow, which he argues makes her ideal for a wife. Even this early, the concerns and themes of making matches are front and center. As a character study of Lizzie, however, it's nicely shaded for such a young writer, only 22. Lizzie is indeed shallow, or perhaps "immature" is the better term for our sense. She's young—she doesn't know herself well. She wants to be able to make commitments, but doesn't understand what it entails. She's easily distracted, as we see after Ford goes marching off back to war. Lizzie meets another man who pursues her—everyone in the story agrees she's attractive. Then Ford turns up with serious war wounds. He may be near death. He stays like that, off stage, for most of the rest of the story, worsening and rallying as the story needs. Lizzie is obstructed by Ford's mother from seeing him. She won't let Lizzie visit him in the faraway military hospital and she won't read Lizzie's letters to him either. I think Lizzie may have been intended to be less sympathetic, fickle and maybe empty-headed—"shallow," as charged. But that's not clear to me. Maybe it's a case of different times, but Lizzie is young and it doesn't seem surprising or anything against her that she would back off in the face of such ferocious resistance from the mother, with John in and out of coma. So in some ways I'm a bit confused about what's intended here, though for the most part, in its language, it's clear and straightforward, which I must say I always like to find in James. Here I am retreating to some of his early pieces, even as I'm getting closer to reading his later novels.

"interlocutor" count = 0 / 52 pages

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Ultraviolence (2014)

Sometimes good things happen for weird reasons, so if my interest in Lana Del Rey started with confusion between upstate New Yorker Lizzy Grant's adopted stage name and another evocative chanteuse, Rebekah Del Rio, who made a famous cameo in the movie Mulholland Dr. singing Roy Orbison's "Crying," and/or maybe Lana Turner, who appeared in The Postman Always Rings Twice, well then, all right. Whatever it takes. To be clear, there's something so silly about Lana Del Rey that, defensively, instinctively, I want to file it under "guilty pleasure." Consider how Tom Breihan of Stereogum breaks it down on the arrival of this her second album, detailing her carefully constructed persona: "A coastal-elite pillhead, a girl who strings rich men along and falls for drug-dealer dirtbags. She's juggling relationships where she has all the power and relationships where she has none. She's obsessed with transforming herself into a glamorous archetype even as she's figuring out that the glamorous-archetype lifestyle is no way to live. She knows that people think the way she acts is fucked up, and she delights in the judgement of others, even as she realizes she's not really doing anything to make herself happier." In other words, Ginger McKenna in Casino, which is not even Karen Hill in Goodfellas. The persona certainly appears to stem from some sector of the Scorsese galaxy anyway. (I found Breihan's summation, by the way, via a tongue-in-cheek round-up of Lana Del Rey think pieces.) This is how we get to an album titled Ultraviolence, and songs (often very good songs) titled "Cruel World," "Sad Girl," "Pretty When You Cry," and "Fucked My Way to the Top" (for the sake of Walmart and other delicate flowers, spelled "****** My Way to the Top" on the back cover). Perhaps the worst title is perhaps my favorite song: "Shades of Cool," which is an aching bruise about what else alienation meditation concentration. "I can't break through your world / 'Cause you live in shades of cool." Her gorgeous breathy stretch for the notes on "But you are invincible" and a guitar solo from producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys further clarify the sledgehammer points. In the next song she is found going on about "while I sing Lou Reed" and a boyfriend who puts her down. It's signifiers, heat, and flash, never really saying anything yet somehow alighting on random moments in which she seems to be saying everything. I want to call her a poet, but it's not exactly words, or anyway lyrics, where she most effectively expends her poet powers. She plays the sullen love doll for a joke, I swear, but then there's the song "Money Power Glory" (all of which she wants obv, though not necessarily in that order), with its word choice of "glory," which is so specific, deliberate, and apt. In these moments the songs on this album move with a will of their own. Sometimes even the wince-worthy "Sad Girl" is the one that can matter more than anything. Hard to stop listening to this and the albums on either side (Born to Die and Honeymoon) actually a fair amount.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Gravity (2013)

UK / USA, 91 minutes
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Writers: Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron, George Clooney
Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Music: Steven Price
Editors: Alfonso Cuaron, Mark Sanger
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

I see that my single favorite shot of 2013, which sent me back to see Gravity one more time while it was still in the theaters (and in 3D both times), is a well-known quantity at this point. At least, it serves as the climactic point of the looping scenelet on the DVD main menu. I'm talking, of course, about the final seconds of the 17-minute take that opens the picture, when astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) goes hurtling untethered into black space. It's when you realize that the carefully managed long take, with its slippery revolving camera, has totally communicated how vast, deep, cold, and alien it is in outer space.

I'm glad I indulged that second trip, because I must say Gravity loses a lot of mojo in the living room. It's faithful to the basic disaster movie template and with a great big tremendous finish. But it's just a little more puny like. In this movie, the two principals, Stone and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), have urgent things to do and critical places to go. A cascading disaster has killed the three others on their space mission, damaged their vessel, and cut off all communication with Earth. They continually encounter obstacles and then overcome them—it's a little bit like The Martian that way. Gravity benefits from its brevity, at just over an hour and a half, because its structure is so thuddingly repetitive. It doesn't mean you won't get caught up in it, but 90 minutes is probably about the right limit. What it lacks in originality that way, however, it makes up for with its fresh approach to outer space.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)

I think there's still plenty to love in Hunter S. Thompson's epic—what? Novel? Tall tale? It's so Nonfiction Novel Creative Nonfiction New Journalism that we don't even know what to call it. But every time through, I have to say, makes it seem just a little more dated, a little more self-indulgent, quaint, and time-bound, a little more inconsequential. Echoes of another time (sing now: "the way we were"). Certainly the gender politics are dated and all wrong, and the Samoan business is tricky on race. This also happened to be my first time through since Thompson's death, incredibly already more than a decade ago. I couldn't help but notice certain words and terms he favors like tics: "hunker down," "brutal," "lash together," and of course "fear and loathing" (though not exactly pro forma in that case). The drug use is still quite comical. Ralph Steadman's art remains perhaps the best part of all—even my July 1989 trade paperback has pages with those wonderful ink blots sprayed across them like blood from backsplash. There's a kind of innocence to the faith shown in hallucinogenic drugs, to an implicit belief that the behavior reported is desperate and outrageous in some noble way, and to the idea that "the American dream" (as featured in the subtitle, "A Savage Journey to the Heart of  ...") is an abstraction worth pursuing. Or, perhaps, worth pretending to pursue. But Thompson was never a phony if he was anything. He was problematic. My reflexive hero-worship of him in the '70s was nonetheless put off and disappointed by his fascinations with firearms and other ordnance as well as some of the behavior, which even with all the high-spirited reporting often seems merely loutish. All that notwithstanding and not to be minimized, it was still a pleasure to spend a little time again with the good doctor of journalism, Hunter S. Thompson, aka Raoul Duke, Doctor Gonzo, etc. The Johnny Depp phase embarrassed me for all concerned and Thompson's death saddened me. If I was uncritically adoring in the '70s perhaps I have reached a point of equilibrium now. He was good at what he did, though what he did was weird—sailed off on drug-fueled madcap adventures with some big media backdrop, while keeping his head enough about himself to look long and hard at our very depressing world, analyzing it to the fine points. This is the purest distillation of the cartoon character he made of himself and one of the most fun books to read I know. I keep meaning to look into Campaign Trail '72 again, because I wonder how it stands up across all this time. I know there's a good book of newspaper columns too, at least one, and scattered other good stuff. But this is the classic vintage and pretty much the good stuff straight, such as it is.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Denmark / Spain / Germany / Netherlands / Italy / USA / UK / France / Sweden / Finland / Iceland / Norway, 140 minutes
Director/writer: Lars von Trier
Photography: Robby Muller
Music: Bjork
Editors: Francois Gedigier, Molly Marlene Stensgaard
Cast: Bjork, David Morse, Catherine Deneuve, Peter Stormare, Cara Seymour, Joel Grey, Vincent Paterson, Jean-Marc Barr, Vladica Kostic, Udo Kier, Zeljko Ivanek, Siobhan Fallon Hogan

On one sardonic level, it's all too possible to take this mordant plum as director and writer Lars von Trier's homage to The Sound of Music. Dancer in the Dark, after all, celebrates all musicals and that musical specifically as just about the one dim source of light in a narrative trajectory that hurtles vertiginously toward darkness. Iceland singer/songwriter, pop experimentalist, and charming weirdo Bjork capably plays Selma Jezkova, a Czech immigrant to the US, who is living and working a factory job in Washington state in the mid-'60s. She's a single mother, and she is going blind from a congenital disease. She is living in a rented space and friendly with the couple she rents from. Her one aim in life is to save the money for a surgical procedure that will prevent her son from going blind in turn—he has inherited the same condition from her.

What's that got to do with The Sound of Music? Glad you asked. Selma loves musicals and for most of this movie is rehearsing the part of Maria in a community production of the venerable lumbering Rodgers & Hammerstein chestnut. Its songs are interwoven into the action, wryly commenting on it at points. It's easy to miss its pervasive lurking presence because it's overshadowed by the numerous outbreaks of Bjork videos. Typically enough for von Trier, Dancer in the Dark is a movie that is going to two extremes at once (emphasis on "extreme"): a heartbreaking story of a victim of soulless predators, call it a '50s style woman's picture, and a musical which reserves all rights for playful fantasy. The result is bewildering, to say the least.