It must be said: excepting The Matrix, no single film has done more harm to the modern cinema industry than Pulp Fiction. The old “every filmmaker who saw it made their own movie” card is the great equalizer, uniting genuine talents and hacks alike. But in the case of Tarantino, the results were far from equal. A few genuine craftspeople followed in his wake, but they were diamonds in the rough compared to the far more significant cohort of filmmakers who whipped Tarantino into a frat boy’s wet dream and perverted his vision of cinema from the ground up. Largely, this has to do with Tarantino’s supposed “cool factor”, the superficial blanket hanging over all his films that has beckoned first-timers the world over to ape his penchant for slick, sick violence, whirlwind camera jerks, and self-consciously fantastical style. This style has always been a noose around Tarantino’s neck, and it has strangled the world of cinema for years to come. Continue reading
In order to properly understand Starship Troopers, one needs to understand its casting. At some level, casting is the de facto entry point for any of Verhoeven’s American films over the decade from Robocop to Starship Troopers. Total Recall, although somewhat muted by its need to be an Arnie vehicle, definitely gestured toward using the big lovable lug as a critique of the idea of an Arnie film. More successful was Basic Instinct, where Verhoeven cast a seemingly unaware and genuine Michael Douglas more for his weathered, aged wrinkles and flagellating variant of all-American thuggery. And one doesn’t need to explain Showgirls these days, a work where Verhoeven cast (cruelly so, at that) the young whippersnapper Elizabeth Berkeley and forced her through all manner of gross, grotesque abuses on screen in a meta-commentary on the way in which her character, and young Hollywood starlets altogether, are forced to go through the wringer to find success, leaving others in their wake and losing their dignity and respect for themselves as they forced to do the unthinkable.
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.
It’s been a couple weeks, so here’s a double-dip of classic cult comic book movies for you, and some prime so-bad-its-good filmmaking on both counts.
It’s been a long way for Batman, and superheroes in general. Over the past fifteen years, comic books have been codified and examined and re-examined until there’s nothing left, but very rarely do they ever bring anything new to the table. This can not be said of the ’60s Batman television show, nor can it be said of the film spun off from it. The show was an absurdist trip through modern society’s fascinations as they had been captured on celluloid and in other well-worn forms of media. Undeniably campy and decked out to the teeth with kitsch, the whole affair worked like a playful rib at the cheerful superficiality of a day and age where the world was changing around its inhabitants so fast they couldn’t even comprehend it in terms of reality. It was on a dangerous path to surrealism, and Batman, like a less vicious Bunuel, was there to catch it with its pants down.
They say that Terry Gilliam was truly angry post-getting absolutely royally screwed over by a distributor that had no interest in his mind-melting glam rock drunken rant on the internal contradictions of the literature dealing with totalitarian government (not to mention the contradictions in the US of 1985 that loved to thump their copies of Orwell at the Soviet Union and conveniently pass by the same arguments, and Orwell’s democratic socialism, when the oppressions of the US came to the conversation).
If “they” are right about Gilliam’s rage, it had clearly subsided in the three year interim before his next film. Or, if they hadn’t, Gilliam had at least developed an ability to poke fun at himself while mocking the censors in the process. This work, 1988’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, passed by the censors with much less eyebrow raising. And it’s easy to see while: although it is, in its own genial way, as radical as Brazil, it is much less obsessively difficult and intentionally obtuse, and it is less proud and open-faced about shouting its own radicalism right in the faces of the censors and rubbing their noses in it. Continue reading
By this point, it would seem apparent that if ’80s popular cinema was at an all-time low in larger-scale narrative creativity and form, at least ’80s genre cinema often knew it was as chintzy and fake as all hell and tried its damnedest to use this as an asset rather than a detriment. By 1987 we find this trend at its absolute apex with one of the few true unambiguous comedies to seek to re-energize tired genre filmmaking: Rob Reiner’s arch-fantasy parody The Princess Bride. And like most of the best films to come out of this trend, it approaches its chosen poison-pen love letter topic, fantasy, from a place of love rather than the smug self-superiority that would engulf and cloud any such genre riff post-1995. For this reason, more than any other, it attains the sort of genial fluffiness and ebullient effervescence most fantasy films can’t even dream about.
Update late 2018: With the new Halloween film out in theaters, the implacable, autumnal chill of the John Carpenter classic that kickstarted that series is as irrevocable as ever. But, while I adore his Halloween, as wonderfully quotidian and keyed-in to late’ 70s social malaise as it is timelessly antediluvian, I have a soft spot for this far squirrellier film, Halloween’s polar opposite, and a comic paradise to Halloween’s purgatorio and the frostbitten inferno of The Thing.
A self-aware critique in the spirit of Said, this film is as loopy in its meditations and as mischievous in its skepticisms about social convention as any of Carpenter’s films, and it still feels like a more deliciously disreputable extension of Raiders of the Lost Ark, to name another ’80s bastion of American masculinity that is, in fact, infamously recalcitrant in its attitude toward its protagonists’ white-male-hero bonafides. Few filmmakers could pivot from the monstrous to the ridiculous quite like Carpenter.
Edited June 2016
John Carpenter always wanted to make a martial arts film. With Big Trouble in Little China, he reconstituted something closer to THE martial arts film. This is, of course, not to say it is the best martial arts ever made (far from it). Rather, this is a film that tries its damnedest to pay homage to the genre by marinating it in its own juices, a kind of ur-martial arts film that doubles back to self-parody. Pure tripe of the 14-karat variety, Big Trouble has goofy, slantwise characters, a schlocky-shifty sensibility cooked to perfection, mostly non-stop action that twirls and flourishes with pizzaz and gusto like choreographed ballet (albeit of the grubby variety), and above all, it paints a vision of the world in which everybody, and I mean everybody, knows martial arts and is just waiting around for an opportunity to use it. Less a send-up of martial arts than a critique of anglicizing Eastern products, Big Trouble is a teasing rib at the carnival of Indiana Jones imitators cascading through the ’80s landscape. In particular, it presents a self-mocking portrait of Western films which mobilize Eastern martial arts and thereby essentialize and exoticize it.