The Joys of Crazytown

Which is where I am, right now. I’ll try to send you a postcard.


Yeah, it's a real place. Go There, it's fun.

Yeah, it’s a real place. Go There, it’s fun.

My Day Job – well, Day as far as 19.5 hours a week go, because after that, you know, I’d be eligible for benefits – is, as usual, short-handed (gosh, I wonder why), so scramble is the operative word. Three shoots this week, somehow found time to edit one and a half stories. Fortunately, I do love this job. Just wish there were more of it.

I still work the other two part-time jobs.

I have a writing contract that is in the final stretch, and it still has a lot of work to be done.

I promised I would watch 100 specific movies this year.

Something has to give.

What that something is… is regular updates on this blog.

We’ve been here before. We’ll probably be here again. Until, against all odds, I become independently wealthy, this will probably be an occurrence frequently revisited.

I’ve tried to avoid writing about these 100 movies, but find I can’t, so I’m doing shorter reviews over at Letterboxd. Those reviews are linked on this page, so if you suddenly find you have a burning need to find out what I thought about Boss Nigger, that will be over there.

Regretfully, that means my in-depth article contrasting 8 1/2 with Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Souls will never be written. Do yourself a favor and program that double feature for yourself. There is a delightful amount of synergy there.

Things won’t be quiet here for long. Next month is October, and you know what that means:

Hubrisween 3 Black

Yes, that means you are going to get sick of me next month. And this time, there are more blogs taking part than last year, so you aren’t going to lack for horror movie reviews.

And speaking of blogathons, you have this to look forward to in November:

Criterion Banner FINAL

Yep, there’s a lot of blogs writing about the Criterion Collection and its movies on the Collection’s 30th anniversary, and honestly, I wasn’t going to take part, because as I mentioned earlier: my plate is very full and I really don’t need another run to the buffet table. Then I saw what movies had already been claimed, and it was a long list, and my eye wandered down it, and I discovered that no one had staked out my favorite movie of all time. Dammit.

So in November I am going to be writing about The Seven Samurai. This is in equal part awesome and terrifying. Writing about movies I like is always more difficult than heaping scorn on a movie that disappointed me; I want people to watch the movies that make me happy, so I don’t like to give away too much.

But this is an important movie to me. I’ve never written about it at length before. I haven’t had my yearly re-watch of it yet. So I’m going to try to forget the increased audience this event is going to bring in, and try to do it honor. And that will take time.

Wish me luck. I’ll see you around.

I May Be Too Stupid For Some Movies

100I’ve been binging on a lot of quality movies lately, trying to make the deadline for this 100 Movie Challenge I managed to get myself into (the number of ways I find to make watching movies feel like work is utterly astounding to me). That’s not my favored way of doing things. I like to sit back and ponder what I have just seen for a day or so. Okay, to be honest, if I don’t like what I’ve seen, I like to take a couple of days to figure out just how mean I’ll be to it. But my general covenant with movies – You entertain me, and I agree to be entertained – works and works well. I rarely have to be mean.

Didn't totally understand. Doesn't matter.

Didn’t totally understand. Doesn’t matter.

But sometimes I have to admit I’ve just not entertained as much as I am bumfuzzled. I’ve been going through a lot of movies with extraordinary imagery lately, and the processing on those takes longer. Some, like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “magical autobiography” The Dance of Reality are lush but fairly accessible – I had to satisfy myself with a briefer-than-usual review on Letterboxd just to get it out of my system so I could work on the more difficult tasks, all the while aware that the clock was ticking and I’ve got to cram in ten of these movies a month to make my quota, and win the challenge. Which has no prize other than finally watching movies I’ve been telling myself I really need to watch.

Now first up on that list is Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, which I grant you isn’t as jam-packed with symbolism or hidden meanings as something like 8 1/2 (which is one of the movies I’m still processing), but it is, unmistakably, all about the imagery. There is a well-deserved Academy Award for Cinematography given to Nestor Almendros (though Haskell Wexler will point out to you that he shot at least half of the movie, if you give him half a chance).

daysofheavenfeaturedNow for a personal digression: I recall reading an article sometime in the 80s about the difficulties of being a film’s producer, and one of the passages that really stuck in my memory talked about the wonderful director the project was lucky enough to score, but who demanded that the movie only be shot during “golden time”, the hour before and after sunset and sunrise, increasing the budget by drastically limiting the shooting time available. It is only now that I realize this somewhat bitter and bemused paragraph was about Terrence Malick.

Days of Heaven is beautiful, have no doubts on that front. When a movie evokes Wyeth’s Christina’s World (and I had a print of that on my wall for years), and does it well, that’s art. Where it falls down for me is the story.

The time is 1916. Richard Gere is Bill, a hot-tempered sort who flees Chicago when, in a fit of rage, he accidentally kills a foreman in the steel mill where he’s working (the foreman is Stuart Margolin, and who among us has not desired to murder him at one time or another?). Bill hops a train with his young sister, Linda (Linda Manz), and his lover Abby (Brooke Adams). They wind up working on an enormous wheat farm in the Texas panhandle owned by Sam Shepard (The Farmer isn’t even given a name).

days-of-heaven-92One problem for our peripatetic trio – besides Bill’s temper – is that they’re living under the lie that Abby is also Bill’s sister, but they don’t bother hiding their feelings for one another. The other problem is The Farmer becomes enamored of Abby (it’s Brooke Adams, who wouldn’t be enamored?). Bill overhears a conversation that indicates that The Farmer has only a year to live, and convinces Abby to marry the smitten Farmer, so their fortunes will be made. The last problem is that The Farmer is a genuinely good man, and Abby falls in love with him, too.

No, wait, the last problem is that plague of locusts. And the fire that burns the entire farm. And Bill, once again, accidentally killing the Farmer (who was, to be sure, trying to kill Bill). And then the law on their heels. And…

Days2_low-789890The cult around this movie perplexes me. It is beautiful to look at, I cannot stress that enough. These are all fine actors. That story though… that’s only one step removed from a TV miniseries from the same era, and one of those would have been better scripted, to boot (apparently Malick just let the actors improvise for a good while to “find the story”). I find I don’t have a problem with overwhelming imagery, as in 8 1/2 or Dances of Reality, as long as those images are backed up with ideas. So much of the two Malick films I have seen thus far – this and The Thin Red Line – seem to be about the beauty of nature  providing a contrast for man fucking up. I get that. I got that with Easy Rider. Can we move on?

There are more Malick movies, these are just the two that were on The List. I will watch more; my resistance against these two have not been enough to turn me against Malick (though I know plenty of people who have not only walked away, but are driven to screech on social media whenever I mention him). What has been presented has been presented so well that I feel there must be something I am missing. And I am not sure which may be the true failing here – my missing whatever it is or thinking that there is something I am missing.

Ilarge_gEG1V9vPaC5DPUxnCifKrKjitzQ am much more kindly disposed toward Picnic at Hanging Rock. Rather famously, it concerns the class of a girls-only boarding school in Australia who go on a picnic on Valentine’s Day, 1900 to the titular rock, a huge misshapen piece of volcanic stone jutting out of the forest. Four girls, against the prior orders of the school’s headmistress, climb the rock. Only one comes back, in a panic. One teacher goes in search of them, and she vanishes.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is mainly about the wear and tear on the people left behind by that singular event. The school and its personnel; the townspeople; the roommate of the ringleader of the missing girls, who was desperately in love with her; the son of a visiting English family who saw the girls wander off and becomes so obsessed with them that he spends the night on the Rock, hoping to find a clue as to what happened.

picninc_at_hanging_rockThere is an underlying feeling of the supernatural at work, but never so overt or clear that one can say, “Aha! This is what happened!” Which has always presented a problem for the movie, especially in America, where we like our mysteries solved (That last sentence really needs a font that implies sarcasm). Even knowing that this is going to be the case, the pining in your soul for an answer, any answer, is going to be extreme. Although the story is entirely from the imagination of novelist Joan Lindsey, many have tried to research the incident, only to be stymied when they can find no corroboration. It’s rumored the production company started a rumor that it was true story, just so people might not come to the film expecting any sort of closure.

Lacking an explanation, then, Picnic at Hanging Rock, while telling a period piece in a time and a place almost none of us have experienced, still manages the magic quality of veracity; though the images are pretty and often poetic, it feels real, as we are forced to ponder similar incidents which have no explanation, no end, no matter where or when we may be. This was Peter Weir’s third crack at a feature film, and he demonstrates a remarkably sure hand at a tricky subject, ably aided by his actresses and one of the more remarkable physical locations that was just waiting to be discovered.

wingsofdesire1I said last week that I like to leave things on an upbeat note when possible, so I’ll finish up with another movie also packed with remarkable imagery, but one that I could understand and appreciate: Wings of Desire.

Wim Wenders, after the success of Paris, Texas had wanted to make a movie about Berlin, which was, at the time, still a city divided by the Wall. In trying to find a hook on which to rest this movie, he at one point hit upon the idea of guardian angels. And here it begins.

Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander are Damiel and Cassiel, two angels who watch and observe the people of Berlin. They can hear the thoughts of these people, but it is their lot to watch but not interfere. The most they can do is, with a touch, impart a bit of grace, a calm, a peace. It sometimes helps; sometimes it does not. The two are part of an apparent flight of angels in the city; one of the best sequences is Cassiel slowly walking through a library, luxuriating in the chorus of thoughts, nodding to his fellow angels, each at a person’s shoulder, observing. Wandering through the story is Homer (Curt Bois), an elderly writer, who may or may not be the original Homer, immortal and eternally pursuing and preserving the story of Man.

imageThe thrust of the story concerns Damiel’s growing disenchantment with his angelic lot and a desire to become active, to, in short, become mortal. There are two things that drive this desire: a female trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) in a failing circus, whom Damiel first encounters complaining about the angel wings the Ringmaster wants her to wear; and an American actor (Peter Falk, playing Peter Falk), who can sense the angel’s presence, and tells him how good it can be on this side of existence.

The thematic touches are simple and glorious throughout; the angels’ world is black and white, only humans see in color. And perhaps the most striking scenery is provided by that Wall, which seemed so damned eternal in 1987. It is a frequent backdrop, covered in graffitti. When the angels walk through it to the Soviet side, the sight of those closely guarded walls so white and clean is shocking.

wings-of-desire2Hollywood, of course, sought to remake Wings of Desire after its success, and as usual sought to “improve” it. I’m not sure about the “improvement” part. City of Angels has much more of a three-act structure and solid through-line to it, but Wings of Desire, slipping in and out of Damiel’s quest, follow other threads, other people, manages to take an extraordinary, truly supernatural story, and make it feel more real that any number of movies built on carefully-studied Syd Field script models.

I really liked it, is what I’m saying. Am I missing anything Wim Wenders was trying to say? Does that matter? I liked the movie. I’m likely to tell other people to see the movie.

And really, that’s what this is all about.

One War, Three Fronts

100War is a given. Yes, let’s not beat around the bush, let’s not pontificate about the necessity of man stumbling while working toward his higher being blah blah blah. I wish you were right. I really do. But all the evidence points toward Man being a brutal, twitchy animal that needs only the slightest of motivations to get very violent, very quickly. In Wings of Desire, an apparently immortal Homer leafs through books in a library, wondering why there are no epic poems about peacetime. “What is wrong with peace that its inspiration doesn’t endure?”

We seem to be made of meat and conflict. As a writer, I am told again and again that the engine of story is conflict. Without conflict, there is no story. So, alright, we are made of meat, conflict, and stories. So I arranged my viewing in a certain way to embrace one of the biggest of those stories – World War II, for many the defining event of the last century – and it took me weeks to unpack what I had seen.

220px-OverlordposterOverlord is a movie I was turned onto by the redoubtable Chad Plambeck. It was originally planned as a documentary about the Overlord Tapestry, a sort of modern-day Bayeaux Tapestry commemorating the 30th anniversary of D-Day (Overlord being the code name for the massive amphibious invasion). Director Stuart Cooper, an American expatriate, sat through three thousand hours of war footage housed at the Imperial War Museum, and he and producer James Quinn developed instead the idea of a feature film about a young Englishman called up for service in the latter part of the War.

The movie starts with a flash-forward – the first of many – of a young soldier running on a beach, his life suddenly cut short by a gunshot. This shot is mirrored by our first sight of Tom (Brian Stirner) running home to collect his luggage, so he can meet the train to report for duty. He misses his connection, and is delayed overnight while Nazi planes rain bombs down upon London. This is also the first major use of the motif Cooper will use throughout, as firemen battle the blazes and collapsing buildings in just one night of The Blitz. Tom and his story is shot in black-and-white, and the marriage of the film of two different eras is handled almost seamlessly (the skilled sound work goes a long way toward making the older footage seem more alive and current, part of the world the actors move through).

maxresdefaultTom will go through basic training (not without a bit of trouble), forge new friendships, and start an almost-romance with a girl which is cut short by the secretive moving about of troops, seemingly at random, in the run-up to the landing. It is to the credit of Cooper, Stirner and Julie Neesam playing The Girl (literally) that the audience feels the pain of this termination, with no time to say goodbye or even explain, as keenly as the characters.

Throughout, Tom has visions of his death on the battlefield, and it doesn’t matter where the eventual battle will be fought, he has a vision for every terrain. As Overlord approaches, he becomes convinced that he will, indeed, be one of many who will be felled on that day, and says so in a letter to his parents – which on the eve of invasion, is burned with all his personal papers, as it no longer seems to matter.

imagesOverlord feels as gray as its cinematography, yet feels so utterly human that we never doubt the truth of what is being presented onscreen. Its major failing, perhaps, was in its timing -1975 wasn’t a good year for war. America was still smarting over the loss of Vietnam; the last completely successful war movies were probably four years in the past, movies like Patton and M*A*S*H*, neither of which could really be called typical war movies. And, at the time, if you didn’t open well in America, you simply disappeared. Which was the case with Overlord, until it was re-discovered and championed by Xan Cassavetes for her documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, for which we may all be thankful.

As big a story as D-Day was – big enough to support many, many movies – it was not the entirety of the war. Hell, it wasn’t even the only continent or hemisphere in which it was fought. So it was time to journey to the Pacific Theater with The Thin Red Line.

redline posterIt was 20 years since Badlands and Days of Heaven, and it is really odd to consider Terrence Malick coming back with a war movieThe Thin Red Line is the second book in James Jones’ war trilogy – the first is From Here to Eternity – and since Jones served in the battles portrayed, I tend to expect some truth from him. More on that later.

The movie The Thin Red Line is first and foremost an ensemble piece, and holy moley what an ensemble. Off the top of my head: James Caviezel, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Elias Koteas, John C. Reilly, Ben Chaplin, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, John Travolta, Jared Leto, John Savage, George Clooney I mean holy crap. That sounds like the cast of a late 20th century version of The Longest Day, except that it’s a Malick film.

That means there’s a lot of internal monologue laid out over the movie, by various characters, and sometimes you’re not really sure who’s talking. Like the girl’s musings in Days of Heaven, it feels like a Beat poetry fest suddenly overlaying the movie proper. In this case, most of them seem to be pulled from Jones’ text (and a few from From Here to Eternity, just to be sure), cementing Malick’s reputation as a philosopher-filmmaker, for better or worse. Many people think that’s for the worse.

RedLineTheRidgeBajaWhat cannot be denied, though, is the quality of the Oscar-nominated cinematography by John Toll. The contrast of the beauty of the countryside with the absolute terror and bloodshed and random death of the Battle of Mount Austen is hypnotic and engrossing. One image that will stick in my mind forever: a young soldier, cowering against the earth as Japanese bullets whiz over his head, noticing a fragile leaf that closes as his fingers brush against it, fascinated even as death flies and comrades die all around him. It’s an image cribbed from Picnic at Hanging Rock, but it’s a memorable one.

This portion of The Thin Red Line does handle the truth of the situation pretty well: this was the first combat experience for many of these soldiers, and that panic and havoc are well-conveyed. The booklet in the Criterion blu-ray reprints an article by James Jones from the 1963 Saturday Evening Post, shortly after Thin Red Line‘s publication. It’s entitled “Phony War Films”, and it contains this passage:

“…the true test of a true antiwar film is whether or not it shows that modern war destroys human character. None of these films does. Instead, they show that (for our side, if not for the enemy) war develops and enlarges human character.”

There is some of this in Malick’s Thin Red Line. Ben Chaplin, in a truly excellent portrayal as Private Bell, is a soldier who finds himself doing brave things not because he’s a hero, but because this is where he is, and if he does these things, maybe things will be better tomorrow, maybe more of his buddies will be alive. This means he winds up on the front line, taking out a hardened machine gun bunker in the only firefight shown in the movie, hectic and terrifying. Bell writes to his wife often throughout the movie, his memories of them together a source of strength, After this battle, his letters tell of his struggle to not change, to come back to her the same man as when he left. His reward is a letter telling him she has fallen in love with an Air Force captain, and asking for a divorce.

450px-TRLM1Garand-3The balance to this is Caviezel’s Private Witt, a former AWOL who sees a bright light in everyone, even the enemy. Sean Penn’s Sergeant Welsh, slowly being eaten alive by the war, regards him as a “magician” for that. One of them will survive the movie. I’ll bet you know which.

I find myself on the fence about Malick. I don’t hate what I’ve seen, but I’m not sure if I like it or not. That means I’ll watch more of his movies to figure that out, which puts him in the win column for now.

But for the sheer embodiment of Jones’ earlier statement about war grinding out all character in a person, we have to move back north again, for Elem Klimov’s Come and See.

Come_And_See___Go_And_See_(1985)I owe Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film: An Odyssey for my even knowing about Come and See. The few scenes referenced therein, a few episodes of the Hardcore History podcast, and the constant threats of “The Russian Front!” in Hogan’s Heroes was about all the prep I had for this one.

We start with Flor (Aleksey Kravchenko), a young Belorussian boy (Kravchenko was 14 at the time), digging in a WWI battlefield, much against his father’s wishes. Flor finds an old rifle, cleans it up, and joins the partisans in the surrounding woods fighting the invading Nazis. His dreams of glory are crushed when the commander leaves him behind to help establish a secondary camp. He’s not allowed to nurse his hurt feelings for long, though, as German bombs destroy the camp and troops begin filtering through the woods. He and a girl from the camp (Olga Miranova) escape to Flor’s village, only to find that the Nazis have already been there, and the bodies are stacked like cordwood behind a barn.

Flor... before.

Flor… before.

Flor finds the remnants of his village – vice versa really, he is shell-shocked, half-deaf, and almost gets himself and the girl killed in a bog – and he eventually heads out with a small guerilla force to find food for the refugees. The war is not going to be kind to this venture, and attrition will eventually leave Flor on his own. He attempts to steal a cart, only to be taken in by his attempted victim as a new wave of Nazi troops flood over the region. Flor’s rifle and partisan uniform are hidden in a haystack and he is hastily given a peasant tunic and the quick biographies of his new family, in case the Nazis ask.

The Nazis do not ask. They round up the entire village into a central building, lock the doors, and set the building on fire. Flor escapes this fate only through a whim of the commanding officer, who needs a victim for the photo op quoted on the video box. He is left in the middle of the burning village, devastated and ravaged as the landscape itself. He reclaims his rifle and uniform, and follows the Nazi’s tracks to where they have been ambushed by the very partisans Flor had joined a seeming lifetime ago.

Flor... after.

Flor… after.

Klimov filmed Come and See in chronological order, and we see the progression of Flor’s descent into the madness of war, how the events wear upon him. Klimov had sought to have Kravchenko hypnotized, so the filming would not cause him any lasting damage; but the boy was resistant to hypnosis. So filming proceeded, and by the time we reach the end of the movie, some of the 14 year-old’s hair had gone gray. That is not entirely acting and makeup at the end.

This truly is one of the great antiwar movies, by simply telling the truth. The slaughter of the village – which the closing credits tell us was the fate of 628 Belorussian villages and their occupants – is only one atrocity in a vast sea of them.

I’d like to end this with something calming, something soothing, but I fear I cannot. Every day someone new is beating the drum for war somewhere, and moreover, there is always war somewhere, not even for intelligible reasons beyond our apparent need for these stories, this fiction of war that is disproven over and over again, yet we seem to continually pitch headlong toward it. Perhaps our thirst for such stories really is that great, even though we have many, many sad stories to relate already.

War is a given.