Wed Oct 02 2013 14:16 September Film Roundup:
I missed a whole lot of museum movies in September because I was out of town for two weekends. And yet I still managed to see nine movies, plus wrap up a TV show, and write a huge blog post about it. Wonders, or at least me writing about them, will never cease.
- Rear Window (1954): Forget Vertigo. I was totally on board with the conventional wisdom of this as one of Hitchcock's greatest films. It was awesome. The work under constraints, the funny and sad minor dramas of the minor characters, the moralism aimed at you, the person sitting in your seat watching a movie, the inevitable twist in which it's revealed that Jimmy Stewart's paranoid obsession with Raymond Burr has caused him to miss an actual murder that went on right under his nose while he was watching.
Wait, that's not going to happen, is it? The movie's almost over. Well, at least I can look forward to the ironic tragedy of an innocent man killing someone who broke into his house trying to find evidence that he'd killed someone. No, that didn't happen either. Raymond Burr was the murderer. Jimmy Stewart was right the whole time. That's all, folks!
I'm not the only one who expected a twist here, right? I love Hitchcock's twists. (Except for the one in Vertigo.) But this movie didn't have a twist, and I also found it lacked Hitchcock's other big asset: the ability to create panic in the viewer. I would expect Jimmy Stewart flailing around, helpless, unable to convince anyone that his paranoia was justified. He got Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter on board really quickly. In terms of suspense and paranoia, I think Shadow of a Doubt did it better.
- Fig Leaves (1926): As I implied earlier, the first reel of this movie is great. There's dinosaur puppets, there's all the corny Flintstones jokes (dinosaur pulling a vehicle, stone newspaper). There's a very sophisticated stone-age-technology sight gag which... you know what, just watch it yourself. There's also a cool creepy snake puppet, previously used by Alexander of Abonutichus.
Tragically, before long the caveman fantasy fades to the modern day. Adam and Eve become Adam and Eve Smith, living in an apartment in the city. Adam and Eve both have their tempters. Eve is thrust into a world of high fashion and extreme emotional shallowness by Alice, her flapper neighbor across the hall. Meanwhile, Adam heads in to work at his plumbing business, where he is urged towards misogyny and outright wife-beating by his crass partner Eddie, the Mario to Adam's Luigi.
We spend most of the rest of the movie watching Eve in the clutches (and gowns) of histrionic fashion designer André. André's fake artiste act is funny enough, but unless you really like ogling flappers and/or fancy gowns, it's slow going. Like many in 1926, this movie isn't even sure how much time has elapsed since the time of Adam and Eve. It's either eight million years or 896 million years, or possibly 897 million. That's a pretty big differential! Get it together, movie.
I think it's interesting how silent films like Fig Leaves and Sunrise portray the changing gender roles of the 1920s. Both movies have an evil flapper-seductress character, but both movies also show a more "traditional" woman claiming some independence without becoming evil. Fig Leaves also shows a bit of the masculine side of the change, in the scene where Adam rejects Eddie's antediluvian advice in re: wife-beating.
- The Cradle Snatchers (1927): The person who wrote one of the two IMDB user reviews saw a completely different movie than I did. I'm not saying they experienced the same movie differently. I'm saying they mention a lot of things that were not in the movie I saw, including the term "cake-eaters." But the biggest mismatch was the claim that "the movie seems to be flaunting its naughtiness but it isn't really all that naughty, even by 1920s standards." Whereas the print I saw is probably the raunchiest silent film I've ever seen. And silent films are, almost by definition, pre-Code films. Is it possible that they made two different versions of this movie, one of them super-tame in case there was censorship? And then in the intervening years the two versions got mixed up? I don't know.
For the record, I'll summarize the movie. This is a pretty funny movie about three Margaret Dumont-like society ladies whose husbands are cheating on them with Sunrise-style evil flappers. (The best title card of the movie: one of the husbands is on the phone being told to get to the flapper-infested "Club of 400", with his wife looking on. What to do? The only solution is to invent a fake business deal as an excuse to get out of the house. Title card: '"Mr. Rockebilt? Two million dollars? You interest me strangely."')
Kitty Ladd, the aptly named and most Dumont-esque of the society ladies, discovers her husband's deception. Her title card introduces her as "A wife of ten years' standing... standing for almost anything."
But she's stood all she can stands, and she can't stands no more. When Kitty's niece sees the incriminating evidence, she offers to pimp her boyfriend out to her aunt to get back at her cheating uncle.
You might think (as some reviewers of this film do) that there's no pimping, that it's all innocent fun designed to "teach the men a lesson". But after an annoying SCENE MISSING which covers an entire reel, we rejoin the film already in progress to reveal that two of this guy's fraternity brothers have been drafted as "dates" for the other two society ladies. The triple-date is not taking place at, say, the Club of 400, the only place where showing up with frat-boy arm candy might profitably teach anyone a lesson. It's taking place in Kitty Ladd's abandoned mansion. And each of the would-be gigolos has been paid one thousand dollars, in 1927 money, for his services. You don't shell out that kind of cash and not expect some action. And... how to put this... there's action. It's not explicit, but there's one scene that leaves about as much doubt as to what happened as the conveniently timed fade-out in a James Bond movie.
This is based on a stage play, and a lot of comedy comes through in the title cards, especially those used to introduce the characters. E.g. "Ethel Drake, whose conscience is spotless... and who has consequently led a very dull life." Or for her husband: "Howard Drake, a husband at such the cutest age. Leave him alone and he'll play for hours!" There's a racist joke in a title card near the beginning, but at least the movie depicts a 1920s fraternity that admits Jewish members. Yes, I will apply modern standards to this silent film, thank you very much. Especially since The Cradle Snatchers has a number of character names that appear to be in-jokes inserted by a time traveller: "George Martin", "Ann Hall", and "Howard Drake."
Actually "Howard Drake" is probably a Howard Hawks self-insert.
- Dog Day Afternoon (1975): I missed this last month at the theater, but then I picked up a cheap DVD at a yard sale. And wow, what a great movie. Al Pacino shines as the guy who just wanted to rob a bank, is that so much to ask? Spot-on performances by everyone inside the bank. Everyone outside the bank is drawn kinda broadly, especially Angie and Leon, Sonny's two wives, who are pretty simplistic stereotypes. But the relationships between Sonny and his wives were believable.
These old movies (see also Fig Leaves above) keep surprising me with the way they deal with gender and sexuality. It's a mix of human decency and wince-inducing stereotypes. There's an exchange from Taxi Driver that kind of sums it up for me. Bunch of taxi drivers are swapping stories.
Driver 1: In California, when two fags split up, one's gotta pay the other alimony.
Driver 2: Not bad. They're way ahead out there.
Dog Day Afternoon also does an amazing job of maintaining tension. It uses the same trick I saw in There Will Be Blood. The characters spend the entire movie in a state of extreme danger, but there are no "action scenes" and almost no actual violence. Good stuff.
- La Jetée (1962): Well, this is embarrassing. This film was never properly explained to me, or else I wasn't paying attention. I somehow got the idea that the whole thing played out over the single static image of the airport terminal seen during the opening credits. I'd watched the first minute or so online and given up because I don't want to watch a picture of an airport for half an hour. (I'm looking at you, Andy Warhol.) But the double feature with Twelve Monkeys gave me a reason to force myself to see it, and it turns out the film is a series of static images, not just the airport terminal. And it's pretty good! My rule is not to expect hard SF from 1960s French movies, but as long as they're doing genre work, they're all right by me.
- Twelve Monkeys (1995): This movie is kind of a mess, and definitely suffers by comparison to La Jetée. Brad Pitt's performance as a crazy dude is embarrassing. The romantic subplot is both creepy and boring. Why don't you start La Jetéeing and stop La Jetéerorizing me?
That may be a little harsh. I did have a good time watching Twelve Monkeys. The plot is nice and convoluted, Bruce Willis does a great job, and there's lots of Terry Gilliam set-dressing insanity.
Given the combination of "a big Terry Gilliam mess" and "Leonard had a good time watching it," I find it kind of odd that Twelve Monkeys became a big hit. The museum's handout guide to the movie was an interview with Gilliam in which he mentioned that the big tent-pole movies of the season—Nixon and Casino—kind of flopped, which gave Twelve Monkeys an opportunity to move in for the kill.
There's a scene at the very end which I saw and immediately thought "Aha! The scene that completely changes the tone of the movie, which Universal forced Gilliam to include!" But IMDB trivia says Gilliam had final cut on Twelve Monkeys. So I guess he wanted that scene. It's a funny scene, and although it invalidates the whole premise of the film, it doesn't do so unambiguously.
- Only Angels Have Wings (1939): Can't believe Hal convinced me to watch this instead of I Was A Male War Bride. War Bride has Cary Grant with (presumably) a French accent in (presumably) a goofy comedy. That sounds awesome. This movie has Cary Grant as a macho stereotype. The kind of character generally associated with John Wayne, although every John Wayne performance I've seen has more nuance than I was expecting. But Cary Grant is so emotionless in this film that in the thrilling climax, a pilot uses his stiff upper lip as an emergency runway.
Most of the characters in this movie are based on pilots Howard Hawks encountered while doing location scouting in South America. I admire this movie's willingness to kill characters at random, and I can see how a real person in that situation would retreat into a shell of stoicism and refuse all human contact. But it's not very entertaining. Cary Grant is probably my favorite actor, but he's my favorite actor because I like the way he conveys various emotions. Don't take that away from me!
- Trent's Last Case (1929):Without a doubt the worst movie I've seen at the museum. (The benefits of having skipped Trash Humpers.) I nearly fell asleep, even though it's only 50 minutes long and silent movies don't generally make me sleepy.
This is Howard Hawks's final silent film, not the 1952 Orson Welles film that's based on the same book. We saw the only print in existence, so I will summarize the terribleness. The movie was originally going to be a talkie. One of the lead actors had damaged vocal cords, and I guess at the dawn of the talkie period it was conceptually funny to have an actor with damaged vocal cords be in a talkie. Once they started shooting it turned out not to be funny in execution, so they turned a talkie into a silent film at the last minute. Alternate explanation I've seen online: they had the rights to make a silent adaptation of the book, but not the sound rights.
Either way, that lack of attention to detail is typical of Trent's Last Case. As this Finnish review says, "The Howard Hawks approach is unrecognizable." It's just terrible. Here's Hawks's opinion, from IMDB trivia:
It was presented at a Howard Hawks retrospective in the mid-'70s and when Hawks found it was on the playlist he asked out loud, "You really aren't going to play this, are you?" Midway during the showing of the film Hawks walked up to the projection room and demanded the projectionist destroy the print of the film.
Little-known fact: this was the incident that led Crow T. Robot to form the Film Anti-Preservation Society.
There were some scattered, halfhearted laughs at the foppish PI, but only one gag in the movie was really funny, and I'll tell you it so as to kill any interest you might have in the movie. The villain is in the process of framing his secretary for a crime. The secretary's back is turned. The villain is a classic melodrama villain with a banker's suit and a little moustache. He's really hamming it up, chortling, wringing his hands in glee, about to foreclose on the proverbial orphanage. And then the secretary looks up, into a mirror, sees the villain prancing around behind his back, and gives him a look like, "what the hell are you doing?"
That's great. It's a joke you couldn't do in a talkie. But it doesn't justify the rest of this dumb movie.
- Scarface (1983): I missed the 1932 Scarface due to RESTFest, but returned in time to catch this monstrosity. I'm not really sure how this movie fits into the Hannah Montana continuity, but Al Pacino is always engaging, and it was really interesting to see all the stuff that Breaking Bad took from this movie (remember the famous BB elevator pitch, "From Mr. Chips to Scarface"). From obvious visuals like the pools of blue water and the scenes on the drug lord's patio, to thematic elements like "main character's attempt to provide for his family destroys his family."
I also found it really interesting that everyone remembers the full-on, screaming, coke-snorting, grenade-launching Tony Montana from the end of this movie, like he's some kind of badass. But that guy is a failure! He's a broken man. He's like that because he's lost everything. He's got cocaine smudged on his nose and he doesn't even notice. For most of the movie he's a lot calmer, more cunning, and a more effective badass/antihero.
The '80s abstract art and beachfront architecture in this movie is amazing! And no wonder—turns out much of the movie was filmed in the Los Angeles of my childhood. Take that, Miami, you cultural backwater!
And finally, I've kept this hidden so far but I didn't like this movie all that much. It's nearly three hours long and its plot is very predictable. Michelle Pfeiffer is bland as the serial trophy wife. And it's got a bad case of Hamlet cliches, because before seeing this movie I experienced the most famous cultural children of Scarface: violent gangster-themed video games like Grand Theft Auto and Hotline Miami. Those games are better. They have really dumb plots, but it's not like Scarface has a great plot. It has a very well-realized protagonist, and everything else has aged poorly. I would rather play through Hotline Miami again.
By the way, does anyone else think that Hotline Miami really needs a roguelike element? Randomly generated floor plans? That would be great.
- Breaking Bad (2008-2013): I thought I could justify putting this in the film roundup because we had a plan to SEE [the series finale] BIG at the museum, which fell through for a couple reasons, but this post remains the logical place to talk about the series as a whole.
This is the first time Sumana and I have been fans of a show that was also hugely popular with the mainstream. It was a really weird experience. Genre shows are becoming more popular, but non-genre shows are not becoming more popular with me or Sumana. At the same time, Breaking Bad pushed my genre buttons in a way that, say, Arrested Development never did.
This bit of Tor.com revisionism got me thinking that Breaking Bad might secretly be genre fiction, and after the finale wrapped everything up with a nice bow (too nice, one might argue), I've decided that Breaking Bad is in fact a Mundane SF twist on the classic mad scientist story.
Every few months on Twitter I saw someone reinvent a joke about how in the Canadian adaptation of Breaking Bad, Canadian Walter White finds out he has cancer, the government pays for his chemo, and that's the end of the show. But something very similar happens during the first season of the American Breaking Bad. See, American Walter White has some rich private-sector friends. They find out about his cancer and they offer to pay for his treatments. But he refuses, because he envies and hates his rich friends. A long time ago they cheated him, denied him his scientific triumph, condemned him to a life of obscurity and humiliation. Now they mock him and they want him to beg them for charity? Pah! Never! The fools! He'll show them all!
That's your mad scientist origin story right there, and it's also the point where Sumana and I lost all sympathy for Walt. The rest of Breaking Bad did a great job of a) creating a story we loved watching despite having no sympathy for the main character, and b) showing what it means, day-by-day, to be a mad scientist.
Sometimes you're up, sometimes you're down. Sometimes your technical know-how saves the day, like in a Tom Swift book. Sometimes your henchmen fail you, sometimes you get cornered and forced into a bad situation. And every time you achieve what you thought you wanted, it turns out not to be what you actually wanted, because you're a freaking mad scientist and your insane desires do not reliably correspond to your real needs.
The part of Breaking Bad that isn't about a mad scientist and his family is about the relationships between supervillains and their henchmen. So many great henchmen in this show. Sometimes a henchman makes a bid for power, more often they're comic relief or raised-eyebrow loyalty, sometimes they get in a villain's way and they just gotta die.
The two Breaking Bad scenes that really stick in my mind are both about the weird genre-fictional state of being a henchman. The first is Ted Beneke's IRS audit, in which Skyler White, the classic henchman who's smarter than the boss, saves her clueless boss by pretending to be the clueless henchman who screwed everything up. The second is the train heist, because that's the first real Todd sequence. The whole episode I'm thinking "Oh, man, now they're dragging Todd into their web of lies." I've got Todd pegged as the easygoing, dumb-jock henchman, like Jimmy Bond from The Lone Gunmen. And then at the end of the train heist, Todd reveals himself as the most evil person in a show staffed almost entirely by bad guys. It's no surprise Todd is one of the few henchmen who makes a bid for power, and oh, man, I love these dramatic switches. Good job, Vince Gilligan.
What's up for October? More Howard Hawks, it looks like. See ya then.