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
How does one approach the colossal elephant in the room that is Showgirls? Outside of perhaps Battlefield Earth, it may be the most lambasted and popularly despised film of the past quarter-century. At the time of its release, it was an unmitigated commercial disaster (unmitigated commercial disasters being the unofficial theme of the film year that was 1995), and to this day it almost universally reviled. Those that don’t revile it, a group that includes a heavy swath of more youthful critics and viewers who indulge in the film for its unapologetic descent into high camp and subversive anti-populism, mark it as some sort of misunderstood modern masterpiece. It is a deeply confusing film that openly solicits both interpretations with arms wide open and no concern whatsoever that its two guests have opposite aims and hate each other. But that is Paul Verhoeven for you folks, and whatever you think of Showgirls, it is probably, for better or worse, the culmination of everything he stands for. It is nothing less than The Paul Verhoeven film. Continue reading
The Wages ofFear, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s famed French-Italian white-knuckle thriller was and is almost incomparable as an exercise in hair-raising. It is so well edited, choreographed, acted, and composed that one almost wishes to reduce it to the level of thriller alone (not that, with this skill, it would be “reducing” per-se). Yet Clouzot was not, nor was he ever, simply content to thrill. His scabrous films simply used the conventions of thriller cinema to chill to the bone, to indict and valuate, to scare, to hope, and to leave nothing in their wake. His 1953 work is absolutely one of the most thrilling films ever released, yet this does the texture of the piece a disservice. If it is Hitchcockian, and Hitch is the director Clouzot is almost always compared to, then it evokes Hitch on all his levels, not simply thrilling but tacitly provoking and confronting society’s very base construction and the nastier aspects of the human condition under a thin membrane of sharply composed set pieces. Continue reading
Ahh, the biopic. Lionizing and valorizing when you ought to humanize and critique, you are the greatest filmic manifestation of the hyper-individualist tendencies of modern America society which favor a view of the world where-in individuals are its chief agents. You emphasize not the complicated and conflicting causation of change in society, but the “greatness” of certain individuals who can rise above others and lead. As a result, you tend to see something innately compelling about individuals and displace how these individuals developed in the first place, what social factors drove their development. If you are particularly adventurous, you will pay lip service to how complicated and flawed these individuals can be in secret, but nothing more.
You give us a sort of “greatest hits” version of a life, where we see important events we are familiar with and learn how individuals are connected to them, and often influence them. You are a lecture in a film’s clothing, not a living and breathing account of human frailty but a waxworks show for middlebrow suburban types interested in a patina of depth without willing to truly seek it out. You suffocate on your own boredom. You are formally stifling, for you rely on “historical evidence” in lieu of storytelling prowess, banalized content rather than form, and you place all your cards on one “Great Performance” as a galvanizing center in hopes that he or she will distract from the lack of directing or scripting skill on display around them. Continue reading
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
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
Kiss Me Deadly, released in 1955, is one of the last great classic period film noirs, but it wasn’t often acknowledged as such originally. It was fought by politicians and “moral” figures at the time of its release, seen as the kind of film dangerous teenage types went to see in hopes of engendering social subversion. And this concern, about the danger it posed to accepted, conservative social mores, was valid: not only is this a lurid and exploitative film, but it has the gall to elevate these qualities to high art and use them to reflect on the luridness and exploitation perhaps intrinsic to human nature. Continue reading
This being the first in a month-long film noir review series.
A basic description of Otto Preminger’s Laura gives the impression of a typical film noir: a woman is murdered and a detective tries to figure out who did it. Technically that’s an apt description, but it misses the forest for the trees. When one thinks of film noir, one imagines dark, hard-edged characters, masculine cynics who deal in obsession, and a film with a suitably single-minded focus, a film suffocating on pure mortal fear and sin. This is not Laura. Where we expect focus, we find malaise. Where we expect single-mindedness, we have a lackadaisical atmosphere. Where we expect desperation, we get pomp and circumstance. And where we expect something ruthlessly efficient, we find something that quietly sneaks up on you, is generally amused with itself, and befuddles at every turn. Continue reading
Was there ever a better cinematic pairing than Nicolas Cage and Werner Herzog? Well, Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog, but here I sense a second coming. The H-man was always obsessed with something, anything, even obsession, and Cage also plays his roles with an unhinged, wild-man version of obsession, even if recently it’s been obsession for paychecks so he can go trampoline in a castle somewhere. And here they’ve produced the kind of film that wouldn’t be more appropriate anywhere than on a screen in front of said trampoline, ready to give you a splitting headache or cast you into the stratosphere. I’m not sure which.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, a spiritual successor to the 1992 film of the same main title, is a film noir, but it’s the kind we haven’t seen in decades – the kind epitomized by eccentric ’50s films like Kiss Me Deadly. These films were gloriously weird and slyly subversive. They played by their own rules, created characters that fit types of their own creations, and took joy in a sort of playful anarchy of their own creation. They were like playgrounds for filmmakers interested in raw emotions taken to extremes that couldn’t exist in reality. They were fantasies, all the more ruthless because they masqueraded as reality. Nowadays, we get stoic, grim films with no sense of humor and a nagging desire to strive for reality. In doing so, they sacrifice unconscious affect. Continue reading