The initial conflict begins without any clarity or certainty of agency. The causes do not match the effects, an early primer for director Sam Fuller’s hard-headed humanism and his eye and ear for the absurdism of conflict and a life that doesn’t conform to our rituals. A kind of retrospective parody of the famous D-Day invasion from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan – all gung-ho violence and viciously unsentimental grandiose hell-raising – The Big Red One’s opening scene finds a platoon of Americans disappointed that they’re fighting Vichy French (co-collaborators of the Germans, or at least those acquiescent to Nazi might). The Americans rush to a line of barbed wire. A French general orders his men to fire with a machine gun placement. His man disagrees. The general kills him. The general’s underling shoots the general, who falls on the machine gun, setting it off accidentally. A brief skirmish that mounts to nothing starts. It’s over as soon as it starts. Fate, or chance, or whatever, seems to stack the pieces in favor of assault no matter who tries to stop it, as though the universe wanted them to start a conflict and then pitilessly lost interest in the human’s actions immediately. Whether the men are competent or not has nothing to do with it. Continue reading
Ever since the truly sublime Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch “Salad Days”, Sam Peckinpah has been something of a punchline for critics who reduce him to the rampant Novocaine of violence opiating the masses. His only proper war film, Cross of Iron, is not a full-throated rejoinder to that criticism, but it certainly problematizes the animating cinematic thrill of, say, The Wild Bunch. It’s not an abandonment of violence, though, so much as a rough and rowdy revision, punchy in the typical Peckinpah milieu but more decrepit and alienated from its bloodletting.
The introduction is a little over-baked, but it works as a sort of amuse-bouche for Peckinpah’s exceedingly dry comic sensibility, with a documentary video-reel of Nazi imagery marinated in an overtly condescending, cheeky military march. Great stuff, and it reveals a truly mordant sense of humor underneath Peckinpah’s usually stone-faced cinematic exteriors. Peckinpah also inverts the famous opening credits of The Wild Bunch, where color soldiers unsympathetically flash into still-photo black-and-white as if to trap them in time and enervate them of life-blood. Here, the black and white footage flashes into static blood-red, as if the distanced and denatured imagery of the past is being provocatively reinstated as a bloody present. Continue reading
Ahh, the wonderful world of John Boorman, that perennial cinematic oscillator between the realm of exhausted greatness (Point Break, Deliverance) and spirited atrocity (Zardoz and Exorcist II). The man just eludes categorization, except that all of his films seem to share a pure and unabashed self-centeredness. Yet many of his best films paradoxically stamp themselves in the director’s personality not through baroque visual extravaganzas but through thriller minimalism. His greatest achievements are not screeds radiating shards of discontent or phantasmagorical whirlygusts of excitement. Deliverance and Point Break are white-knuckle, certainly, but they are also thoroughly dog-tired, whipped features, spent forces rather than self-propagating fires of combustion. Continue reading
With Dunkirk making the rounds and tearing up the critics, I’ve decided to review a few (better) alternative WWII films that are not part of the official war film canon, or experience delayed entry to the minds of the public. Saving Private Ryan need not apply.
Polish director Andrzej Wajda would wrangle his uniquely collapsed view of humanity in disrepair into a perhaps even more vital and existentially uncertain achievement with his next film, Ashes and Diamonds, the finale of his famous trio of war films. That film has often unfairly overshadowed its more bombed-out predecessor Kanal, and not without good reason: its central disagreement between two ex-soldiers tasked with assassinating a communist leader is slyly sorrowful and vigorously taxing at an exceptionally interiorized, mental valence, visualizing a hideous war of the mind and the body politic rather than simply of their bodies. Continue reading
The Black Dahlia
A slovenly hodgepodge of deliriously over-churned, gluttonous style as a commentary on the golden-hued artifice of the Hollywood noir in the modern age, The Black Dahlia is a stylistic Pavarotti with a baroque sensibility that is by turns deconstructive and viciously parodic. Like LA Confidential histrionically emboldened to Byzantine extremes of melodramatic gaudiness, The Black Dahlia never feigns an attempt to hide its pungent, borderline psychotic artifice. The fallout of such a decision? A film ricocheting wildly and with woolly abandon between rhapsody and pornography, from deconstructive elegance to ham-fisted, ungainly incompetence. In De Palma’s vision, frankly, the two may be one in the same. Continue reading
The obvious soul to siphon for Dont Look Back is Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, a comparison that is not circumstantial but, I suspect, intentional. After all, the mid-’60s films featuring and warping the Beatles public persona were revolutionary in their day, and they feel as ribald and restless today as they were then. These films not only utilized but mangled the burgeoning cinema vérité stylings of the French. They were markers of subversive anti-documentary documentary filmmaking that threshed out the interstitial regions between fact and fiction, narrative cinema and documentary cinema, and an untested wandering soul named D.A. Pennebaker couldn’t resist. Continue reading
Stop Making Sense is, and this is not nearly as common and ubiquitous a statement as you might imagine, a truly singular film experience. Sure, there are great concert films; Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz is very likely a superior concert film with more to say about the nature of music as it exists in the ether. But Stop Making Sense isn’t a concert film, at least in the traditional sense. It is a film about cinema, and about what cinema can do to transform the ethos of a concert beyond what a concert is in person. If this extends it beyond the realm of a concert, it also does more to make us think about what a concert entails as a realm for voyeurism and socio-spatial art. Stop Making Sense does not merely hit the mark for a concert film; it transforms it. Continue reading
This is Spinal Tap is so inescapably rife with over-the-top zaniness and gleeful, knowing stupidity. But for all its exuberance, what’s most astounding about this concoction of sugar and spice is how easy-going, relaxed, and even lethargic it is. The tone of the film conveys a sort of laid-back afternoon, with sly, subversively restrained performances complementing characters rather than stealing them and running away with them. This is not one of the many throw-shit-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks-films becoming popular around the time of this film’s release; it’s a comedy with a difference. The batting average for jokes is remarkable, with each one seemingly assembled with care and craft. It is a thoroughly composed, careful, willful, and even delicate motion picture, and it is one of the sharpest comedies ever released.
Martin Scorsese’s lived-in film adaptation of The Band’s legendary, star-studded farewell concert, cheekily titled “The Last Waltz”, is wholly at odds with the fundamental logic of the conventional concert film, and it is all the more fascinating for it. At the eve of their dissolution, Scorsese chose to film the Band warts and all. He captures, more than anything, their own distance from the music they no longer necessarily want to call home. You can feel his love for the energy of raw music, yet he uses this energy to capture a fundamental malaise. His camera becomes their most knowing fan, giving the film a live, human physicality even as it deals in the deadened decay of men too tired to care anymore. The Rolling Stones’ documentary Gimme Shelter, itself fairly stunning, is haunting for the way a single tragedy intervened and permeated the celluloid of the whole film. Here, however, we come to understand something more deadening: the perpetual tension of joy and melancholy of life on the road, something a tragedy wouldn’t so much break-up as become one small portion of. On this tension between the lively and the embalmed, the film presents a fascinating vision of humanity and performance equaled by few films. Continue reading
Edited and updated mid-2015
This being the first in a (slightly delayed) series on music movies for the month of October.
Two years before its release, Billy Wilder gave the world Hollywood’s greatest anti-Hollywood poison-pen-hate-letter by taking equal parts film noir fakery and haughty Grand Damery, putting them into a blender, and turning it to “positively eviscerate”. Perhaps populist Hollywood was listening. Just as that film peered behind the Hollywood lens, so too does Singin’ in the Rain give us a peek behind the cameras and into the unease of the filmmaking process. But while Billy Wilder came from a place of deep concern and perturbed, quiet nervousness, Singin’ in the Rain comes from a place of unabashed, borderline-oppressive, love. Continue reading