In his moonlighting career as a director of steely, even mulish focus, the perpetually weathered, stern Tommy Lee Jones has taken the Clint Eastwood route of imbibing in the great American traditions, although he does not share Eastwood’s masculine commitment to the Sam Fuller get-in-and-get-out storytelling method. Jones imbibes so much, in fact, that he catches his nation’s favorite tradition, the Western, when the genre is looking the other way with its pants down. In his previous directorial work The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, he pursued the sociospatial region of the modern American small-town – a space forever clinging to its past and stubbornly, cantankerously refusing to examine itself – as an avenue for comment on the history of the American imagination. Continue reading
John Sturges, mostly famous for his two later rugged process-driven films, The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven, drew out a mostly forgotten niche of manly not-quite-action films. They weren’t really violent, but they had the soul of action entertainment in their braggadocio and mechanics-first brand of raspy storytelling. His two most famous films are given at least the repute of minor-classics, but he is not particularly associated with them. He was a man who worked with groups of talented actors, and they often dwarfed him in the final analysis, not because he was appreciably under-skilled, but because he always subsumed his skill to the mechanics of the narrative, and we as a society tend to focus on actors and narrative at the expense of directors. He didn’t have a truly unique style, so to speak, but he was an ultra-competent director, and arguably the ultra-competent director. And his competence never tipped over into out-right genius quite like it did in Bad Day at Black Rock. Continue reading
One of the Coen Brothers’ most popular works, and with good reason, No Country for Old Men opens up as a dark-hearted thriller with a suitably soul-churning slow-burn style and some stunningly subfuscous cinematography from long-time Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins, and concludes as a burning bullet into the American soul and a deliberate, deeply textured dissection of Western iconography and the myth of the American Dream. For all its thematic heft, it’s an astoundingly sensory motion picture, where theme and content merge with form, and style becomes substance; every image and sound, no matter how slow and cavernous, coalesce into an abominable whole that attains a sort of lurching, poisonous, unspeakably despairing propulsive forward movement. It’s an indefinably visceral motion picture, the kind that feels humanity’s worst sorts in its very bones, and it sits back and shakes its head with a sense of hopelessness. For everything crawling under its skin, it never feels obtuse or over-written, and looking back on the 2000s, few cinematic achievements find craftsmanship so pure and perfected. Continue reading
Update 2018: I know Coppola’s film is famous for its sound, but there’s an indescribably elegant moment in the middle of the film that not only encapsulates The Conversation but sums up the American New Wave. When Hackman’s character witnesses what he believes to be a murder after a drawn-out waiting game, a bloody hand lashes out at the frame, the film graphically matches to Hackman’s hand rising in terror, and the rest of a scene which had so elegantly wound-up its suspense in perfect continuity style now unwinds itself into a pit of abjection, the continuity of the editing ripping to shreds as if the film is scratching at its own celluloid in itchy paranoia. Hackman returns into his hotel, his fears clarified, but he can not ensconce himself in the safe haven of continuity cinema anymore. The film practically undoing itself before our eyes, it’s an incredible visual, and an even more incredible visual metaphor for the US in the ’70s.
Francis Ford Coppola arguably had a more sterling streak than any American director, or any director bar nation, throughout the 1970s. Partially, this is because he brought only four films to screen during that decade, but this argument elides the quality of those films. 1972 brought the most famous, the romantic, classicist The Godfather which moved with rhapsodic, soulful flourishes, and its 1974 sequel only went further by adding on narrative heft to the point where it functioned less as a film and more as American opera of capitalism and criminality.
Not content to release one of the grandest statements of all time on the American condition without also almost killing himself in the process, Coppola then had to set out to do exactly that on a four year trek that nearly claimed his sanity and the lives of many crew members. The production of Apocalypse Now famously became the story of the film, replicating the jungle-fueled haze of the narrative as Coppola and company became lost in disease, destruction, and their desire to put to rest the ultimate American story of the ’70s and to create and perfect the very of idea of opulently grimy filmmaking in the process. The voodoo of location worked its magic on them a bit too well, but the location was not the jungles of the Phillipines; it was the jungles of the mind. That mind was one of the most committed, perfectionist directors of the ’70s, a mind that almost got the better of him but one which took America to task in a way few other New Wave directors even attempted.
Having finished the extended yearly New Wave series that somehow held me hostage until well into the mid ’90s, I’ve decided to go back to a couple of reviews I had milling about but didn’t make it into the yearly bit. Both are related formally in that they star Gene Hackman and more existentially in that they illuminate important realities about the cynical ’70s that frighten like few films we can think of, and which may be more relevant today.
Viewing The French Connection in 2015 is a tall order, for the time period it exists in and its rampant amoral cynicism toward roguish individualist heroes seems increasingly ungainly today (even as it still pervades and even anchors our individual-smitten culture). The 21st century likes its cynicism to be of the slightly-masqueraded-by-humanism variety, and not the primal and primitively muddy variety exhibited by the early ’70s. William Friedkin’s The French Connection wholly defines this milieu, and increasingly stumbles into problems with its racist hero and its cautious way of staring him down without necessarily coming to terms with him. In today’s concerned world, The French Connection increasingly seems like a naively cynical product out of time with a none-too-well-guised fascist streak, a movie unwilling to address its problems and indebted to a form of cynicism perpetually stuck in a state of arrested development.
Many have gone out to bat for Foxcatcher’s particularly dour format of carefully positioned gloominess, and they are right to focus on the film’s meticulous craft. It’s a stolid, compartmentalized film, assured and close to perfectionist in its specific, highly detailed character, its rigid delineation of human frailty, and its formal precision backing up an intentionally cold-and-clinical dissection of American inequality. Grotesque millionaire John Du Pont (Steve Carrell) fancies himself an American hero and plays with Olympic wrestler Mark Scultz (Channing Tatum) from beginning to end, but director Bennett Miller would not have you think of it as play. Through his eyes, the film is as detached and despondent as humanly possible, perhaps fitting for the films’ themes of mechanical people sleepwalking their way through life with bored non-momentum. Yet style and story clash and never occupy the same film, smothering clinical precision with the film’s weepy, drippy “important story” narrative and sacrificing the sweat and spit of genuine emotion for a staid waxworks show. Foxcatcher is a perfectionist film, but it gives perfectionism a bad name. Continue reading
Or: a couple of short reviews I had penned and linked together in one of my patented “just made up on the spot” combinations, namely that they are both products of 2005, they are both depressingly cynical and nihilistic modern reflections of the long history of their respective genres, and they, respectively, fit into the genres I’ve covered in the past couple months: the western and film noir. Again, don’t think too much about why I posted these films together. Just enjoy the ride.
The significant resurgence of the Western genre since about 2005 (for reasons I’m not entirely sure of) is one of the few truly surprisingly revelations from the cinematic world to be found this past decade. It’s all the more notable particularly because the Westerns themselves have taken so many different forms, from pure, effervescent myth-making, to black-hearted heaving gasps of grimy moral decay, to slowly gliding, almost Impressionist location tapestries where characters serve merely as extensions of the environment, to plain ol’ rootin-tootin shoot em’ up character studies.
One of the first, and among the absolute best, in this trend was John Hillcoat’s rusty nail mauling of the gaping, open wound flesh wound of Australian history, The Proposition. It wouldn’t emerge the best Western over the past ten years (my vote would probably go to the sensuous The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), but it’s within earshot of the title. Considering the film’s swaggering aimlessness and rough-around-the-edges decay, it may even graze that ear. Continue reading
Updated mid-2017 after another rewatch – such an amazing, amazing film, not particularly violent in a diegetic sense, but one which feels as though violence has been done to it.
This post being in honor of the film’s fortieth anniversary this upcoming Wednesday, October 1. Here’s to forty more years of soul-deadening terror.
The story of five nobodies wandering through rural Texas and running afoul of America’s hidden secrets, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is infamously violent, which is curious because it’s hardly violent at all. The body-count is shockingly low and deaths happen mostly off-screen, relegated to the abyssal margins of an already poetically empty screen space, one which seemingly voids participation in a wider social milieu. But if the movie feels violent more than it is violent, that’s because it feels positively disgusting. This is grimy, disturbing filmmaking in every possible way, almost toxically fugitive in its disobedience to propriety. It may be one of the grossest-looking famous movies ever released, somehow both punishingly direct and monstrously, mystifyingly oblique, like it’s showing us everything head-on while veiling more submerged truths about American discontent. The film grain, even for the time, is knowingly poor – it feels like a documentary more than a film, lending it an unsettling and grimy immediacy, but also an evasive sense of ambiguity. The film-grain scratches which are testament to the authenticity of its expression of reality also suggest the film’s curiosity about a reality that is ultimately inexpressible, a sense of horror which is both extremely forthright – sometimes breaking through the film screen itself to confront us head-on – and obliquely suggestive of terrors we aren’t, and perhaps can’t be, privy to.
With the summer release of Jeff Mickle’s new film, Cold in July, set to prove him as a director of considerable skill who’s in it for the long haul, it seems appropriate to look back on his two previous, relatively unknown and under-appreciated films, truly strong efforts both and films any discerning horror fan can appreciate. 2010’s Stake Land and 2013’s We Are What We Are are scary films, but their horror comes not from shocks but slowly building dread (don’t worry, though, Mickle knows how to underline his composed filmmaking in blood-red strokes when necessary) . He doesn’t give us choppy quick cuts. He lingers, letting his characters define his horror and giving us a blood-curdling melancholy.
Stake Land is a post-apocalyptic vampire road-Western about a family of loners who come together to survive, while We Are What We Are is something of a psychological thriller about a cultish family that maintains religious practices long out of time, including a propensity for cannibalism. But they both share a crucial feeling, a sense of hopeless malaise that seeps out of the screen and permeates the environment. Above all, they’re weary films about the struggle to survive in a situation where survival may not be the best option. Continue reading
Few genres run the gamut of nervy nightmare to clear-conscience mirth like the Western. Some films have used the medium to push deeper and deeper on the world’s great un-bandaged wounds. But, traditionally, the genre has been enjoyed for its ability to set the mind at ease. Filled with grand, black-and-white archetypes which convince us of a world long-gone predicated on righteous morality, the Wild West is less reality than a dream, a moral vision of America’s mid-century hopes for a conservative world in an era where the world’s complications were increasingly boiling to the surface. In the 1940s and 1950s, the genre was the ultimate in cinematic comfort food.