Posts Tagged ‘films’

GOAL!

There are a number of pre-requisites to the enjoyment of the bizarre Ken Russell/The Who film Tommy.  One is to actually like The Who’s music, because you’re going to be hearing it for nearly two hours.  The other is to be able to handle Ken Russell’s style, which is something like Luis Bunuel on acid.

There is no doubt that the original album Tommy is a thousand times better than the (mostly) covers of the songs that appear in the film.  Oliver Reed, although he’s a great actor (one of my favorites, and a sexy beast at that) cannot sing to save himself.  Ann-Margret, playing Tommy’s mother, can.  As can Tina Turner, Elton John, and Eric Clapton, all of whom contribute their vocals and prodigious musical gifts to the production.  Roger Daltrey is not really an actor, but then again he doesn’t need to be for most the film.  Keith Moon is Keith Moon, which means that you just have to enjoy every second he’s leering and laughing on the screen.

The plot of Tommy, such as it is, is more highly and narratively developed than the free-form of the original album.  Russell overlays a Jesus myth on what is basically a story about the rise and fall of a celebrity.  Tommy (Roger Daltrey), due to childhood trauma (he sees his mother and her new husband accidentally murder his father), loses his sight, his hearing and his speech.  The first half of the film encompasses the family attempting to find a way to give Tommy a normal life, to cope with his disabilities, and includes all kinds of fun stuff, like abuse and prostitution.  Luckily, these are all in the shapes of songs: Eric Clapton performing ‘Eyesight to the Blind’, Keith Moon as Uncle Ernie, Tina Turner singing ‘Acid Queen’.

Then Tommy discovers that, although he can’t see or speak or hear, he can play pinball.  He becomes, if you will, a Pinball Wizard

Do these shoes make my feet look big?

and Elton John sings a song about him.  It’s one of the most famous songs in the film, featuring John on ginormous platform shoes with The Who backing him — it’s also the one most taken out of context.  Tommy is now a celebrity.  But he’s still blind and deaf and silent.  After Tommy’s mother writhes on the floor covered in pudding and baked beans (it all makes perfect sense, trust me), the parents decide to take Tommy to a Doctor (Jack Nicolson?!) who reveals that there’s nothing physically wrong with him.  So he gets shoved through a mirror and regains his sight, his hearing and his voice.  And that voice, ladies and gentlemen, sounds like Roger Daltrey’s, so we’re all very happy that he can now sing.

If all of this sounds odd, that’s because it is.  But amazingly enough, it works.  Russell’s surrealistic style is perfect for The Who’s music.  Although the narrative is fairly straightforward, the images are wild, from John’s massive shoes, to Tina Turner’s trippy prostitute to the almost inexplicable scene with Ann-Margret writhing on the floor covered in baked beans (the reason behind that one is first that it’s a reference to The Who Sell Out, an album that included fake ads for real products, and a definite finger to the commercialization of rock music and celebrity, which The Who themselves engaged in).  Brief appearances by the band members — Entwhistle and Townshend in ‘Eyesight to the Blind’ and ‘Pinball Wizard’, Keith’s more extended performance in ‘Fiddle About’ and later in ‘Tommy’s Holiday Camp’ — remind us of the geniuses behind the rock.  The singing and music are all top-notch.  What’s more, although Townshend may have been perturbed at Russell turning Tommy’s story into a Christ story, it does work on a narrative level.

Where Tommy fails, unfortunately, is where it should succeed the most.  Once the title character gets his voice back, the film falls apart.  The weirdness that has permeated the scenes, the sinister nature of the characters and Tommy’s escape into his own mind, becomes externalized.  It’s a crying shame, because Daltrey has been silent for so long that it really is a thrill to hear him sing again.  Tommy’s downfall is precipitous and, one feels, unnecessary.  While ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ on the album feels like a declaration of independence from Tommy’s followers, a sense of liberation from having to ‘follow’ anyone or anything, in the film it becomes needlessly sinister as they murder Tommy’s parents and family, and drive Tommy away.

Finally, in a film of the FIRST rock opera, The Who barely get to perform together.  In fact, the only song that includes all four members of the most energetic rock band in history is ‘Sally Simpson’, but even then you barely get to watch Moon’s brilliant histrionics, or Townshend’s windmill guitar.  I think it would have been far better to allow The Who to be a sort of Greek chorus to the story.  At least one extended performance seems to be in order, for the viewer to be truly satisfied.  Daltrey is the most featured performer, but the dictates of the story force him to be silent for much of the running time.  And unfortunately, Daltrey finally gets to sing just as the film starts falling apart.

Did I mention that I love Keith Moon?

Taken in sections, Tommy is excellent.  Taken as a whole, it is at best problematic, at worst an incoherent text.  Russell doesn’t even seem certain what he’s trying to do with the film, whether it’s a showcase of the music or a Christ story or a tale of the rise and fall of a celebrity.  The film literalizes the lyrics: the smashing of the mirror is somehow a less powerful emblem when you actually see it done.  And the introduction of various symbols — the cross combined with wartime poppies, the cross with pinballs, the vaguely fascist outfits Tommy’s disciples wear, etc, etc, — don’t seem to have much purpose in the film as a whole.  Their significance is lost in a myriad of contradicting symbols.

Russell made better films than Tommy, no doubt.  Women in Love  and The Devils spring to mind.  But then again, he never made another movie with The Who and a whole bevy of 70s rockers.  There’s so much good stuff here.  I have a deep affection for the film because it introduced me to The Who and still energizes me when I’m feeling low.  It’s one of those films that can be watched in pieces, picking and choosing on the DVD, and actually comes out better than if watched from beginning to end.  It isn’t essential, but it is a lot of fun.  And Jack Nicholson sings!

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Confession time: I totally love Roman Polanski.  I don’t mean that I love the man — I don’t know him and there are certain issues that I’m not exactly sympathetic towards.  What I mean is that I love the director, the public artist.  As far as I’m concerned, there are three great living directors: Polanski, Scorsese and Herzog.  Everyone else is secondary.  I also happen to greatly enjoy Polanski’s screen persona in the few films he actually appeared in, like Innocent Sorcerers, Chinatown, The Tenant and the subject of this article, The Fearless Vampire Killers.  I often wish that he’d actually gone ahead and cast himself as the lead in Knife in the Water, just to have the pleasure of watching him act.

Right, so that’s out of the way.  Now, onto what is perhaps my favorite Polanski film (although not, in my estimation, his ‘best’ work): The Fearless Vampire Killers, or: Pardon Me But Your Teeth are in My Neck.  As the title suggests, this is one of the few unabashed comedies that Polanski has made.  All of his films have some element of absurd or grotesque humor — even the incredibly disturbing and nihilistic Macbeth.  But Vampire Killers is pretty much a horror-comedy.

The plot comes right out of a Hammer film: Professor Ambronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his assistant Alfred (Polanski) arrive in a small Eastern European village in search of vampires.  They find, naturally enough, buxom barmaids, wiley innkeepers, and well-dressed gents with long sharp teeth.  The film floats along with a series of comic mishaps.  Professor Ambronsius is the most useless vampire killer imaginable; he’s far more interested in proving the existence of vampires than he is in actually killing them.  MacGowran gives Ambronsius a wild look, the very picture of an out-to-lunch academic and a far cry from Peter Cushing’s elegant and rational Van Helsing of Hammer Studios.  Alfred, while far more gallant, is quite obviously a coward.  The one opportunity he has to defeat the vampires he blows because he’s incapable of actually driving a stake through anyone’s chest.

The film in many ways is a send-up; the spurting, garish blood and heaving bosoms recall the films of Hammer Studios, as does the extreme costuming of Ferdy Mayne in the role of the Count, complete with rolling eyeballs and massive plastic teeth.  All of the requisites of vampire movies are here: the elegant gentleman vamp, the promiscuous barmaid, the naive and lovely innkeeper’s daughter.  As Shagal (Alfie Bass) states when Abronsius asks him about a castle in the neighborhood:

“A castle? No, no castle.  There’s no more a castle here than there is a windmill.  Are there any windmills in the neighborhood? … You see? No windmills, no castles.”

The Count looks a bit the worse for wear.

But Polanski, never one to be outdone in his social critique, also teases out the ancient notion of Jews as vampires.  The innkeeper Shagal is transformed after the abduction of his daughter Sarah (Sharon Tate, more on her in a minute) by the Count.  And he’s a ridiculous caricature; a vampire who, because he’s a Jew, is not permitted to sleep in the same crypt as the Count and his son; who is not repelled by a crucifix because, as he says, ‘Oy, have you got the wrong vampire!’ The whole subplot involving Shagal is a beautiful send-up of European notions of vampirism: Jews having been accused, in medieval times, of drinking the blood of infants; the use of Jewish caricature in films like Nosferatu and Tod Browning’s Dracula.  That the victims of the vampires are primarily Jews and the vampires are all characterized as decaying Old World Teutons makes plain the project underlying this otherwise innocent, comic film: Polanski sends up, with characteristic viciousness, the very basis of the vampire genre.

What is adorable about The Fearless Vampire Killers is how marvelously innocent it is.  And, oddly enough, that innocence comes straight from Roman Polanski himself.  As Alfred, he’s a small, boyish figure, dressed in short pants and a cap that accentuates his youth.  While Tate doesn’t have a great deal to do, her few scenes, imbued with a playful innocence, give the film an extra dimension. The scenes between Alfred and Sarah have a sexual charge, but there is a sweetness to their relationship, making it the kindest, gentlest romantic relationship in any Polanski film.   It’s difficult to watch Vampire Killers without recalling that this the film that the couple met and began dating on.  Anyone aware of Tate’s life and death cannot help but feel a level of sadness watching her on screen, and the two of them together.

The Alfred/Sarah relationship drives the second half of the film, where Sarah is

abducted by the Count.  Alfred and Ambronsius go to great lengths to save her.  Arriving at the castle, they become acquainted with Count von Krolock and his son Herbert (Iain Quarrier).  In a sharp twist on the usual, Hammer-style vampire/damsel relationship, but quite in keeping with the shifting sexuality of vampires, Herbert is overtly gay … and thinks Alfred is pretty cute.  The scene between them recalls films like The Brides of Dracula (Quarrier is a dead ringer for David Peel in that film), only Polanski (not for the last time in his own features) is placed in the position of the damsel in distress.  It’s a weird, uncomfortable, funny scene.

I’ve called this my favorite Polanski film and it is.  But it is far from his best.  It drags quite a bit in the middle, dwelling on the meanderings of Alfred and Ambronsius through the castle as they search for Sarah.  Certainly the most fun are the beginning scenes in the inn, the final scenes during the dance of the vampires (the original title of the film), and the haphazard, slapstick escape.  Alfie Bass should get some serious credit for the characterization of Shagal, a role that could easily have become offensive.  Polanski also removes much of the attractive sexuality of the vampires that is so typical in vampire movies.  They are represented as decaying, decadent creatures, literally falling apart.  They are, after all, the undead, and it certainly shows.

In some ways (and this is odd), The Fearless Vampire Killers is Polanski’s most hopeful, most playful film.  While not shying away from some very trenchant commentary, it mostly delights in its own comedy.  The tenderness of the love story, even with the tinge of sadness attached to it, from a director not exactly known for warm and fuzzy films, is something of a revelation.  Which is not to say that this is not a Polanski film.  It is.  When watching it, there’s no possible way to forget that.

Hitchcock explains to Truffaut that he can't remember why he framed a single shot a particular way 40 years ago.

A recent New York Times article, by two critics whom I respect and mostly trust, gave me pause.  The article, entitled In Defense of the Slow and Boring, is a response from A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis to another article in The New York Times Magazine by Dave Kois (available here) that purports to describe certain films (I believe we call them ‘art house’) as slow, boring and, above all, not entertaining.  Scott, Dargis and Kois raise some interesting questions (although I do hope that they realize the questions are not exactly new): are films meant to be entertainment or art? Can they be both? SHOULD they be both? And so forth.  What troubled me about the Dargis/Scott article, however, was not that they asked the questions.  It was rather the way they asked them.

Being a film student and proud cinephile, I am not exactly new to the arena of film snobbery.  Ever sat through Michael Snow’s Wavelength? Ever had, by my count, 12 whole minutes of your life stolen by Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight? Ever stared blankly at Alain Resnais’s Muriel? Ever prayed for death during Diary of a Country Priest? No? Then don’t talk to me about boredom, confusion or general malaise.  Now those are all movies that I find dull.  But I have friends, cinephiles, who enjoy them.  Who find them fascinating, moving, educational.  And that’s just fine.  We can argue about it, debate the merits of Brakhage, of Warhol, of Resnais and Bresson.  We might not ever agree, but we can find some common ground for discussion.

As I’ve said before in this blog, I also like my fast movies, my stupid comedies, my entertainment.  And I baulk when someone accuses me of snobbery simply because I enjoy Resnais and think Michael Bay should not be called a ‘director’.  That’s not snobbery; that’s taste.  And if your taste is for Bay’s massive explosions, more power to you.  Those films will never go away, and really, we shouldn’t want them to.  Because the people those films entertain are not the idiot masses, as some film critics would have you believe.  Thor does not belong in the same class of films as Solaris, but (and here’s a shocker to Scott and Dargis): it’s not supposed to.  It’s a big, dumb action movie and it’s a pretty good big, dumb action movie.  It aspires to be nothing more; it should not aspire to be more.

There is an incipient disrespect for films at the bottom of the Scott/Dargis argument, not to mention a disrespect for audiences.  Modern audiences don’t want to think, apparently.  I think they do, just not every minute of every film.  Compare to the difference between eating a hamburger and a milk shake with eating a filet mignon and red wine.  You’ll always recognize that the filet is, technically speaking, BETTER than the hamburger.  That doesn’t mean you want to eat filet all the time.

The films that I find most pretentious are ones like Inception, the ones that purport to be full of depth and intellect and are actually nothing more than meaningless amalgams of better films blended with pop-psychology and a healthy dose of Sartre for Dummies.  Films like that insult the intelligence of the audience because they masquerade as something better, deeper.  But that’s just my opinion.  At base, movies (like books and theatre and television) have the capacity to provoke, to challenge, to educate, and to entertain.  Lest we forget that Alfred Hitchcock, the darling of the French New Wave and a massive influence on everyone from Truffaut to Tarantino to Scorsese to (I suspect) Malick, was one hell of an entertainer.

Only Werner Herzog could get me excited about a movie about cave paintings.  The thought of one of our greatest living filmmakers descending into the depths to examine the secrets of prehistoric man is wonderful to me.  And, as usual, Herzog did not disappoint.  He crafted a film in which paintings came alive, in which the weird world of calcified remains and sparkling geological wonders, buried beneath the surface, awakens into our own.  ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams‘ is both riveting and elegiac, and creates a sense of wonder coupled with a sense of just how small our current world is in comparison with that of our ancestors.

Herzog manages a great deal with a limited camera crew, limited lighting and limited mobility within the cave.  The images he produces are spectacular.  The paintings themselves — of cave bears, cave lions, furry rhinos, wooly mammoths, wild horses, and a host of other animals, many now extinct — are brilliantly shaded, complex drawings that exhibit the artistry of what we like to call primitive humanity.  The cave sparkles under Herzog’s lighting as he wanders on a narrow metal track, pointing out calcified skulls of cave bears, and the markings of animals and human beings alike.  One image that he can only describe and never show is that of a footprint of an eight-year old boy next to the pawprint of a wolf.  The images that evoke movement — a stampede of horses, two rhinos fighting — are linked to cinema, and Herzog dexterously draws out the correlation between some of the earliest forms of art with the most modern one.

There are moments when the film drags.  Herzog, for some inexplicable reason, seems to have an obsession with New Age choral music that detracts from the majesty of what he’s trying to present.  Rather than allowing the sounds of the cave to speak for themselves, he introduces a somewhat clunky heartbeat that recurs throughout the film and hammers home the point that the cave has a life of its own.  Some of the analysis of the archaeologists takes on a ‘well, we know nothing about this, so we’re going to speculate wildly’ tone, which might have been toned by a bit more scientific/historical discussion rather than what it feels like, which is rampant speculation.

There’s also plenty of Herzogian weirdness to go around.  A master perfumer wanders the forest trying to ‘sniff out’ caves.  One of the archaeologists attempts to throw a spear.  Another reveals that he was a circus performer before turning to archaeology.  And, finally, there are those albino crocodiles that take up perhaps one of the strangest postscripts in the history of documentaries.  But I won’t completely spoil that one for you.

I wish I could have seen the film as it was meant to be seen, in 3D (never thought I’d say THAT), but even in 2D, it is spectacular.  Herzog remains a master of his craft, a deft commentator on the beauty and futility of human endeavor.  He hasn’t quite mellowed in his old age, but he has achieved a new spirituality that is both welcome and, at times, a little weird.

Within the first five minutes of the new Scream movie, I was giggling uncontrollably.  Ensconced in my seat at the front of the theatre next to a whole row of twenty-somethings, my little cinephiliac mind flooded with endorphins.  I felt positively giddy.  Because the Scream franchise is among the cleverest out there, a self-aware product trading at once in parody and real slasher film aesthetics.  And Scream 4 (or Scre4m, apparently) goes to a place that the others only hinted at.  In a phrase, it goes beyond postmodernity.

In some ways, admittedly, the slasher film has run its course.  The knife-wielding psychopath isn’t really all that scary–the first Scream traded more on references and pastiche than in real scare tactics.  The Millennium did not require motives, but today horror films are  faced with a public that is not easily shocked or frightened.  Your typical Western audiences are so accustomed to the tortured terrors of the Saw Franchise, Hostel I and II, and the whole bevy of torture porn that ups the ante for pure shock with every new installment that a dude in a mask with a knife just does not provide serious shocks.  The Scream movies depend on an audience aware of the so-called rules so sharply laid out in the first installment: virgins survive, sex, drugs and alcohol kills, the blonde always dies, the multiple red-herrings, and that all-important final scare when you think it’s all over.  How then to cope with an audience that struggles to be shocked?

Well, the answer is simple.  Don’t shock them.  Entertain them.  What Craven is good at–has always been good at–is providing the jump factor, the pure enjoyment of waiting for the inevitable bloodbath, of betting on who will survive to the final act, who could be the killer, and what that final twist will be.  The darkness of the subject is lightened by the fact that it’s all a joke, a massive prank that the audience is in on.  For all the blood and guts, it’s still funny and we’re meant to laugh at it.

Scre4m merrily acknowledges the changes in technology that the other films did not have to address.  There are cell phones, Twitter, Facebook, iPods and iPhone apps, digital cameras, live streaming and web cams.  There are hyper-aware film geeks to lay out the rules–namely, that all the rules have changed–and to subsequently comment on them.  There are films within films, references to reboots and remakes, the veneration of the original, a whole pop cultural world the audience can recognize, relate to, be versed in.  There’s also an edge of commentary, amid the gleeful mayhem.  Cults of celebrity and the public lives of every individual are fixed securely in the viewfinder, right before the knife tears out their innards.  The film recreates the genre for the generation raised in the Millennium, a group able to surf the waves of metanarrative without ever stopping to have it explained.

Which brings me, finally, to my criticism of the critics.  I’ve already read several reviews of Scre4m that claim, among other things, that the film is for a generation afraid to be frightened.  Yes, it is addressed to us, the smart-asses, the hipsterish masses so aware of our hyper-reality that we seem incapable of existing offline or disconnected.  While the high schoolers of the original went to Blockbuster, we buy DVDs and mp4s, download music and hold four way conversations over multiple cell phones.  But we’re not afraid to be frightened.  We’re frightened all the time.  We’ve been told, for years now, that there are a million things to be afraid of, and the media, the government, Mom and Dad and the whole consumer culture trades on our fear.  Can you blame us if the psychokiller in a ghost mask doesn’t quite scare us? That we laugh rather than cringe at the obviously fake entrails or the crushing of bones? Or that we take open and obvious pleasure in the flaunting of the rules of horror that the makers of Scream themselves created? In the face of such overweaning terror, we either despair…or we laugh.  It seems to me that this generation has chosen laughter.

Nearing the end of the film, one character expresses to another:

“Wow.  That’s just so meta.”

“What?”

“I dunno.  Something I heard the kids say.”

We’ve gone round the bend, past meta, past postmodern, into an unknown land the critics have no word for.  Welcome to the Millennium.  Motives are incidental.