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
David Cronenberg has spent the past fifteen or so years milling around with Hollywood credibility and narrowly avoiding losing himself to the ether. He’s too fundamentally personal and fascinating a filmmaker to ever make an out and out boring film, but he sometimes seems like he’s trying. Maps to the Stars probably ought to be more of the same (the anti-Hollywood Hollywood tale is not exactly fertile ground anymore), but Cronenberg has selected Maps to the Stars for letting his hair down. Rather than a burst of Old Hollywood prestige with all the i’s dotted and the t’s dashed in squared-off fashion, he’s given us a burst of New Hollywood trash, a conglomerate of messy fluff and corrosive melancholy that flops around when it should push and throttles forward when it should relax. It’s not sensible, nor is it entirely reasonable. It’s the sort of film you’d expect from a New Hollywood affiliate losing themselves to their personal inhibitions at the expense of rhyme or reason, or an unformed young gun with ambition and passion to spare (neither of whom are Cronenberg). Either way, it’s not the work of a classically refined filmmaker. In fact, it’s much better. Continue reading
Everybody’s been talking about it lately, but the Academy is on a nervous show-biz kick recently, with The Artist, Argo, and most recently Birdman winning Best Picture awards in a new glut of the much vaunted “films about films” genre (even if, in Birdman, as it is in many other works, film is only ever sub-textual). Shockingly, you really have to go back sixty five years for another film about the art of stagecraft to win a Best Picture award, and since nearly every review of Birdman has compared it to a certain self-hating implosion from Joseph L. Mankiewicz, I figured Birdman’s award last Sunday is as deserving a reason as any to actually edit and post the review of All About Eve I wrote sometime around like last August (I was busy in the ensuing half year, it turns out). Enjoy!
When it comes to performances, it really doesn’t get any better than Bette Davis’ Margo Channing. She captures every conflicting facet of a marvelously convoluted character: bitter anger, a desperate joy in bringing harm to others, brittle loneliness, an existential masquerade locked under a thick, tetanus-infested mesh of coiled barbs and white-hot superiority, a sadness about a world that has spit her up and thrown her out. When All About Eve is discussed, the conversation naturally shifts to Davis, and certainly, she deserves it; she draws eyes like the fires of hell target moths. But what’s lost in this conversation around Davis is no less substantial: the vicious, all-fangs screenplay surrounding her, and the tight, snug filmmaking that crawls around it and locks it into a vise that squeezes every ounce of spiritedly, tirelessly mean complication and viciousness out of one of the greatest screenplays ever written for cinema and lays it barren right on the screen. 1950 was Hollywood’s self-hating year, and no filmic attack dog bore greater, more lustful fangs than Joseph Mankiewicz’s absolutely undying All About Eve.
If the Coens had fiction and the intellectual dents of the anarchic human brain on the mind with Miller’s Crossing, they doubled-down with Barton Fink. Probably the Coens’ strangest and most esoteric piece, Barton Fink is both a wry exploration of the “troubled artist” trope and a purposefully artificial construct to throw a kvetch Hollywood’s way. It’s a formalist’s dream, but it uses formalism to shoot formalism in the kneecaps and poke the wound a few hundred times. It’s no Sunset Blvd, but it’s one of the few Hollywood parables with the chutzpah to dive into the cynical stew of a Wilder and never come up for breath.
We’ve all heard this sort of story before, because Hollywood loves to self-aggrandize even in the negative. Barton Fink (John Turturro), an NY playwright, goes to LA to break into screenwriting. In the midst of seemingly trying his hardest to do everything but that, he meets Charlie (John Goodman), a neighbor whose local haunt happens to be Barton’s room. Along the way, Charlie teaches Barton a little about Hollywood living (namely that it ain’t). But the fact that we’ve all heard this story before is exactly what the Coens’ are preying on, for if we’ve heard it before, we’ve never heard it from a two-headed soothsayer.
Barton Fink begins with Barton Fink, and what the two authors who’ve created him want to do to abuse him. He’s one of the Coens’ finest characters, a fascinatingly neurotic loner ably played by consistent Coen Brothers collaborator John Turturro (by 1991 knee-deep on his way to becoming a stand-in Coen Brothers version of Alvy Singer, albeit more sniveling). However, there’s a key difference: here, the filmmakers don’t have sympathy for their lead character. They only find pity. He rants and raves about his writer’s block and the difficulties he has selling a story to the immolating, hollow, bogus Hollywood machine, but the film subtly undercuts his character by rendering him almost inconsequential, nothing short of a phony himself, an eternal victim without the backbone of the true New York underdog he claims as an identity. Ultimately, he is as artificial as the Hollywood cronies he has to deal with, or the famous Faulkner-esque writer he, and the Coens, admire, who is here rendered deranged fool. If the Coens are the most literate director-writers working in America today, they aren’t above tearing so-called literate Hollywood sell-outs a new one, and implicating themselves in the process. Continue reading
It is the unfortunate burden of Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place that it is almost never treated separately from two other films released in the same year with similar subject matters: Sunset Blvd. and All About Eve. Both films, of course, are Hollywood royalty. This is perhaps ironic considering they both deal with Hollywood royalty, although one is nominally about Broadway to create, perhaps, thinly-guised distance from the hand that feeds. Like those films, In a Lonely Place deals almost entirely in brittle cynicisms and barely contained self-deprecating snark, aimed squarely at mommy dearest: Hollywood. It’s astounding that three of Hollywood’s most disturbing and grandly disparaging self-mutilations came out within 12 months of each other. Perhaps something was in the water (more on this later). Strangely, while those two films now bump shoulders with the likes of Citizen Kane of Casablanca, In a Lonely Place has been somewhat demoted to “lesser classic” status. That’s a shame, as it’s a true dark horse masterpiece of self-hating, jaundiced malaise that expends its dying breath clinging to any tatters of hope it can find illuminated amidst the dense chiaroscuro of Ray’s irrepressible visuals .