Saturday, August 27, 2011

Lawrence Of Arabia

The central image of Lawrence Of Arabia is of great crowds of people looking at Lawrence. Sometimes they look in awe, sometimes in fear, sometimes in admiration, sometimes in out and out hostility. But never once does anyone look at him with comprehension. David Lean usually considered the most square and establishment of filmmakers turned in a remarkably subversive film. It is an easy thing and not an altogether remarkable thing to make your hero a charmless thug and crow about your revisionism. It is quite another to make a heroic epic that manages to call the entire concept of heroism into question.

Yes amazingly up until now I had never seen Lawrence Of Arabia. It was just one of those holes, every movie geek has a couple, that I never managed to fill. It wasn’t anything malicious, and I always figured I’d get to it one day. It’s just that Lean wasn’t terribly in vogue when I was cutting my teeth as a cinephile. There wasn’t any urgency. What can I say that wouldn’t be the first dumb mistake I’ve made.

This really should be the worst possible time to watch Lawrence Of Arabia anyway. It is after all at its core a story of Western intervention in the Middle East. Made at a time when most westerners fervently wish that the concept of intervening in The Middle East was still entirely foreign to them (When Rains says the line “On the whole I wish I’d stayed in Wales.” the laugh he got had the distinct ring of commiseration). But like all great cinema Lawrence Of Arabia stands out of time. Perhaps that is the test of truly great film. From the opening images on it’s impossible to judge Lawrence by any standards but its own. Art forces you to accept things on arts terms.

It helps that Lean presents Arabia in a way that goes beyond mere exoticism. Arabia ceases to be foreign and becomes down right alien. The ceaseless bleached white vistas, the rocks that dwarf the human characters, the ever shifting sands and winds.. Everything, from the crazy grace of the camels, to the clothes to the architecture takes on a new aura and significance. Blown to eye shattering proportions on an immaculate 70 mm print it becomes in its own strange the world’s most photorealistic sci fi film. 

There are of course all the things that usually get talked about that make the film remarkable. It’s incredible scope, the sheer beauty of Lean’s cinematography, the cast which includes such pleasurable ringers as Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn and Claude Rains, as well as the debut of the unbelievably charismatic Omar Sharif.

Just as alien is the figure at the center. Of course some of this “strangeness” is a bit easier to parse now than it was fifty years ago. I’ve often heard about the “ambiguity” of O’Toole’s sexuality in the film. Let me tell you there’s nothing ambiguous about it. Short of indulging in a cabaret number it’s tough to tell what more Lean and O’Toole could have done to telegraph that Lawrence is flagrantly DC. And yet the crucial thing, the thing that makes the film not just ahead of its time but in many respects ahead of ours, is the way that the film instinctively understands that this explains nothing at all. Lawrence’s sexuality is only one aspect of the character. It adds to his outsider status but it doesn’t define it. To say “Well that explains the enigma, he’s gay.” Is no more helpful than to say “Well that explains him, he’s straight.”

From frame one the film is dedicated to you not knowing Lawrence. He's obscured first in an overhead shot, then through a pair of insectile road goggles. When we finally do meet him face to face it’s after the man is already dead and buried. In the rest of the film he’s mercurial, messianic, fey (at one point actually skipping across a courtyard) and barbarous, in equal measure. In one of the film’s most famous shots upon reaching The Suez Canal (providing a shot of Steamship traveling across the desert that I can’t help but wonder got Herzog’s wheels turning) a British officer on the other side bellows out “Who Are You?” to a dazed Lawrence. A look of horror quickly spreads across Lawrence’s face. At first glance this would seem to be an example of being a bit on the nose. But that’s only if you consider the question from one angle.

You see, I think the horror is not a result of Lawrence realizing he doesn’t know who he is. I think he is horrified by the fact that he knows exactly who he is. He is a man who marched into the desert and found himself waiting for him. “Nothing is written.” He says in one of the movies most awe inspiring moments. Nothing. Except perhaps character. The one thing we can’t escape.

Who is Lawrence? Who’s to say? All we see is the poetic image of the shadow dancing across the sand.

(Postscript: To the three to four douchebags who sat behind me at The Paramount and snickered like Jr. High School Girls for three hours before I finally snapped. Congratulations, you are officially above the movie or something, and the entire back half of the Paramount Theater got to see evidence of that fact.   

Next time you want to prove you're too cool for a movie rent it, and then make snarky comments about it when you return it to the video clerk. Don't spoil a 70mm revival screening with your rudeness. If it's too much to ask that you have a little taste, at least have a little respect. The cinema is a church.)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Summer Of Samurai: Ghost Dog The Way Of The Samurai

It helps to understand that the hero of "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" is crazy. Well, of course he is. He lives in a shack on a rooftop with his pigeons. He dresses like a homeless man. The whole story is so strange, indeed, that I've read some of the other reviews in disbelief. Are movie critics so hammered by absurd plots that they can't see how truly, profoundly weird "Ghost Dog" is? The reviews treat it matter of factly: Yeah, here's this hit man, he lives like a samurai, he gets his instructions by pigeon, blah . . . blah . . . and then they start talking about the performances and how the director, Jim Jarmusch, is paying homage to Kurosawa and "High Noon." But the man is insane!

-Roger Ebert-

Understanding this seemingly self evident fact is the key to understanding Ghost Dog. Paradoxically this becomes tougher the more of Jim Jarmusch’s films you have seen. Usually seeing a body of a filmmaker’s work clues you into their method, but indeed in Ghost Dog it just obscures it. After all, all of Jarmusch’s characters tend to live in their own pocket universe. Their actions, dress and manner dictated by inscrutable personal style that might as well be Byzantine codes of honor. So Forrest Whittaker plays a hitman who lives by the code of the samurai, how is that any odder than Johnny Depp’s Cowboy/Accountant/Possible Reincarnation of William Blake in Dead Man? Or Winnoa Ryder’s precocious grease monkey in Night On Earth? Or Tom Waits in day to day life?

Yet there is no getting around the fact that Ghost Dog is out of step with his would be siblings. If for no other reason than the film is so aware that the world is refusing to play long with his persona. Ghost Dog as a whole is a good deal less arch than the average Jarmusch work (Though there certainly is an element of that, mostly from the trio of gangster chieftans who end up hunting him. You have not lived until you’ve heard Henry Silva impersonate an Elk’s death rattle). He’s been accused of making all of his films with one eyebrow arched. But here it drops down at least a little bit. Once again the best way to figure out what Ghost Dog is is to compare it to what it’s not. Jarmusch would make another film about a taciturn, inscrutable Black hitman The Limits Of Control, a film that was perhaps doomed by its title. Compare it also to the other irreverent genre deconstruction, his weird western Dead Man. Perhaps the closest of Jarmusch’s films in tone to Ghost Dog, but still much more aloof.

Indeed the genre deconstruction is perhaps best viewed as another feint. Not that it isn’t a valid take on its genre, just that most people choose to view it through the prism of the wrong genre. The film was released in 1999, at the height of the HK film boom and the heroic bloodshed genre. A hitman meant Chow Yun Fat with two pistols gripped in his fists and two more on his feet just in case. But Jarmusch was harkening back to an earlier era (and different country) of genre filmmaking. Pulling cues from the surrealist gangster films of Seijun Suzuki, rather than the then current trends in Asian cinema.

Thanks to its inimitable concept, powerful performance by Whittaker, cult of personality from Jarmusch, and hypnotic awesome score by The RZA Ghost Dog was always guaranteed a place in cult film history. But despite all the praise that gets thrown its way, I have the sneaking suspicion it is still underrated. Go back to it, watch it with fresh eyes. It’ll be there, like its hero, quietly confounding all who approach it. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

All The Little Kids Growing Up On The Skids Are Saying...

After a two day marathon road trip I'm happily ensconced in my adopted home town. Should I manage not be blown up by Joss Whedon, I'll be back sometime next week.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Brief Message From Our Sponser

I don't usually do swag posts on TTDS. But as the immortal Arbogast once noted, "I cannot be bought but I can be clothed." So I tend to make an exception for the guys at Crazy Dog T-shirts.

The reason is simple, they make a quality product. And with so many fly by night clothing companies on the internet I don't mind pointing readers to one that is dependable. Their shirts are soft and durable. The logos actually remain after washing. Trust me on this one. I'm almost embarrassed by how much use I get out of my Camp Crystal Lake Counselor shirt. Which has become my mid twenties equivalent of Calvin's lucky rocket ship underpants. I put it on I know I've got a good day coming up.

Said shirt by the way, is currently retailing for 6.99. And if you type in the promo code that marks you as a TTDS reader (ICEPOP) you get five bucks off. That's a measly 1.99 to mark yourself as the survivor of one of the greatest massacres in cinematic history. What's not to like?

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Man From Nowhere

There are things inherently pleasurable to watch in movies, no matter how many countless times you see them. The story of a lone underestimated underdog working his way through a sizable portion of the criminal population is one of those things. The latest film to follow this ever dependable formula is the Korean movie The Man From Nowhere, a hard edged lean thriller that’s probably my favorite film to come out of the Korean since A Bittersweet Life.

While The Man From Nowhere doesn’t quite reach the crazed melodramatic heights of suffering and madness that one associates with The Korean New Wave (Seriously Euripedes saw Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and was like “Damn man lighten up.” Thank you five people who got that joke.) Though it is perhaps telling about the movement that a film that features organ harvested from people while they were still alive can qualify as “low key”. Instead it operates on a much more Western friendly level of intensity.

Indeed The Man From Nowhere resembles nothing so much as a Korean Man On Fire. A quiet loner with a dark secret in his past runs a pawn shop and forms a reluctant attachment with an adorable moppet. After said moppet’s mother runs afoul of heroin dealing, organ selling, puppy eating Gangsters (Puppy eating not confirmed) they kidnap the moppet for collateral. The heretofore mild mannered pawn shop owner rouses himself, comes to terms with his dark past (Spoiler Alert: It involves killing a lot of people. Also tragedy. It’s Korea.) in order to cut a bloody swatch through nearly every low life in Korea. Leaving them to bleed out from their severed wrists as they rethink the recent actions of their soon to be over lives.

These types of films work with the merciless efficiency of pistons. First by setting up the seemingly invulnerable, incalculably evil villains and then watching said villains pale before the hero’s righteous fury. As the hero’s righteous rampage begins and they realize they have fucked with the one person they should never under any circumstances have fucked with. As said it has been done about a billion times before. But like The Goldberg Variations the point is not the music but how the music is played. With its simultaneously gritty and stylized atmosphere, kinetic plotting, genuine emotional involvement of its cast, not to mention some brutal but badass fight scenes, The Man From Nowhere might tread familiar ground, but it does so with confidence.

The film was overshadowed on its initial release by the fully demented I Saw The Devil. But it’s worth seeking out. What it lacks in novelty it more than makes up for in satisfaction. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dispatches From The Man From Another Place

It has been a busy week even if hasn't strictly been here. But in the Red Room man things have been swinging.

First off, longtime friend of the site Neil Fulwood contributed an absolute cracking piece to Son Of Danse Macabre. This despite the fact that he's been busy with his awesome Summer Of Satan as well as large portions of his country being on fire. Inspeaking of the latter. Neil wrote what is probably the best piece I've read on the recent riots. You would do well to read it.

Secondly I once again guested on The Action Cast, this time talking about Hobo With A Shotgun. Which if you will remember I liked a whole lot. In typical Action Cast fashion it we manage to talk about every movie but Hobo With A Shotgun before getting to our duties. But that means if you've ever wanted to hear me do an incredibly awkward Paul Verhoven impersonation today is your lucky day.

Finally I've been hard at work at inReads where The New Column has kept me hard at work. Writing here has been an incredibly rewarding expirience, and anyone who joins the site so it can continue to be has my gratitude. There's going to be a lot of good stuff coming in the next couple of days. So keep your eye out.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Chase

The Chase is one of those movies that people always seem to ruefully shake their heads after referencing. A big bloated misfire of a movie, the type of Studebaker that they just don’t make any more. With a reputation like that how can you not want to see it?

The Chase tells the story of Bubba, a convict (played by an impossibly young Robert Redford) who breaks hisself out of jail and goes for the home place. His partner kills a man, steals his car, and leaves Redford framed for the job. This is a real problem, since the son of the local rich man has been having an affair with Redford’s wife and now the good townsfolk think he’s coming back for some southern fried vengeance. As things tend to do in bored southern small towns in films of the sixties, the townsfolk form together to get a bit of preemptive justice in the mix. Only Marlon Brando as the town’s outmatched sheriff stands between Redford and an untimely end.

While this could be the stuff of a fairly crackling eighty minute film by the likes of Sam Fuller, at a bloated runtime of near two and a half hours, The Chase has to be one of the most inert films I have ever seen. Ponderous and slow it’s one of those unfortunate movies wherein you are fairly sure you have seen an allegory, but damned if you know for what.

The cast is game enough, Marlon Brando is in full mumblecore mode, and strain as Penn’s camera does it cannot quite hide the fact that he has had plenty of access to pies lately. But he does not radiate out and out disdain for the project the way he would later in life. The film also features Angie Dickinson and there’s never anything wrong with that. Jane Fonda, Robert Duvall and Robert Redford round out the “Oh they’re in this?” contingent. All do fine work, particularly Duvall as an emasculated husband who looks like he wandered out of an Edward Albee play, though if ever there has been an actor who looked less like a “Bubba” than Robert Redford I have not seen them.

Penn gives the film a great deal of atmosphere. From the sunbaked sweaty streets of the small town, to the nearly expressionistic sets of Bubba’s hiding spot, to the provincial opulence of the manor. But the film simply goes on for far too long bogged down in too many subplots.

The real problem with the film, like all of Arthur Penn’s films of the period is that they’re films out of time. There’s plenty of Penn’s New Wave tendancies and ambitions on display here, if not so nakedly as in Mickey One (though certain parts, I’m thinking specifically of the massive junkyard set, and the riot that breaks out there would look right at home in that odd duck of a film). Penn simply had the misfortune to make a movie that straddles the line dividing Home From The Hill and A Band Apart and is extremely unlikely to satisfy fans of either school of filmmaking. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Vault Of Horror

I have a soft spot in my heart (and possibly my head) for Amicus. The other two syllable British Horror company that operated from the fifties through the seventies. Their brand of horror could basically be summed up as Hammer, but less classy. While Hammer’s gothic retellings of the old horror stories all had a kind of opulence to them, the Amicus films were endearingly ratty around the edges.

Amicus’s specialty was the horror anthology film. Five creaky horror tales for the price of one. The Horror Anthology is one of the most notoriously tough to do subgenres, given that even if you get one segment right you still get four chances to get it wrong, and the law of averages says at least one of the entries should end up a dud. Amicus was pretty good at them though. Sure the segments are not often scary, but they are at least usually entertaining.

Vault Of Horror was one of the two films that Amicus did with stories licensed from the old EC Comics line. It faithfully follows the EC formula of following rotten people doing rotten things before coming to rotten ends.  The first story follows a brother who decides to murder his sister in order to receive his father’s inheritance and runs into some complications thanks to her neighbors. The second follows the most British man ever filmed (Seriously he looks like an out take from Monty Python’s “Upper Class Twit Of The Year” competition) as he has some trouble settling into his new marriage. The third follows a magician husband and wife team who travel India and go to unwise lengths to procure a new magic trick. The fourth a dud about a poorly thought out insurance scheme. The final follows an Artist (Dr. Who!) who gets revenge against those who wronged him with the power of voodoo. As you might have guessed things backfire quite spectacularly in all five cases.

It’s doubtful that all but the faintest of hearts will get any real fright from the segments contained within. The Amicus films rarely were scary (the lone exception being Asylum, probably the best of the Amicus anthologies, which had at least one genuinely spooky segment, involving brown butcher’s paper). But there is something here for the genre fan, the pleasures involved in a genuine B-movie. They may not scare in and of themselves, but like the horror comics that they’re based off of; they manage to capture quite well the pleasure of the horror story. 

Monday, August 1, 2011

Doug TenNapel: Interview

So Doug Tennapel is one of my favorite authors. He has a new book out called Bad Island, which is pretty amazing. He was kind enough to grant me an interview, which you can read here.

I can honestly say this is one of the coolest things that has come out of blogging for me.