Sunday, August 31, 2008

Summer Reading List


Pow! Zap! Bang! He's back! Dennis Cozzalio (superhero name: The Fabulous Blogger) returns with another of his crime-fighting seasonal Movie Quizzes, this one entitled DR. ZACHARY SMITH'S LOST IN THE SPACE AT THE END OF SUMMER MOVIE QUIZ, after the imperious snot on Lost In Space (Dennis doesn't know this, of course, but memories of that televisual monstrosity can literally make my head spin, as I remember watching it one long-ago childhood summer while suffering from the flu. Irwin Allen and I just don't get along).

Labor Day's right around the corner, so let's not put the summer reading off any longer! Please feel free to copy over the questions and provide your own answers in the comments section, or to copy it over to your own blog (but, as always, please link back to Dennis's original post!).

1) Your favorite musical moment in a movie
David Thomson, in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, noted that if he were trapped on a desert island, and could only choose one scene from film history to watch, he'd choose the "Begin The Beguine" number from Broadway Melody of 1940. That's a great number, and so is the "This Heart of Mine" dance between Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer in The Ziegfeld Follies; "Make 'Em Laugh" from Singin' In The Rain (which makes a neat juxtaposition with "Wilkomenn" from Cabaret: it's the dark and light manipulation of the Clown); "Can't Buy Me Love" from A Hard Day's Night and "Falling Slowly" from Once (exuberance jostling against quietly blossoming love); and the eternal pathos of Judy Garland asking-- urging, pleading-- for us to "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas."

But, as Mr. Thomson says in another entry in his fine book, a cinephile has to be honest with himself. And if I'm honest- if I was trapped on a desert island, or death row, or a Republican planning meeting-- and I could only have one more musical number before I died, it would have to be "The Girl Hunt" ballet from The Band Wagon, the most sublime sequence in all of American cinema.

2) Ray Milland or Dana Andrews
Ray Milland is so overpoweringly good in The Lost Weekend, and so silkily evil in Dial M For Murder, that I must give him the nod, even though Dana Andrews was more quietly consistent for a longer time (but really only transcendent when he worked with Otto Preminger).

3) Favorite Sidney Lumet movie
If it wasn't such a baggy beast with a bad score, I'd say Serpico, which pops with dozens of startling moments but never quite coheres for me. If it didn't eventually collapse of its own cartoonishness, and thus ironically become what it's criticizing, I might have said Network, because it gives William Holden-- one of my favorite actors-- a dazzlingly good role. If it didn't seem so smugly stuffy and "look at us being old-fashioned and proper," I'd give the nod to Murder On The Orient Express (and I still think Albert Finney is the screen's most enjoyable Poirot). So, I'll go back to the beginning and name 12 Angry Men, a film whose narrative is dated but whose technique is still, 51 years later, amazingly assured.

4) Biggest surprise of the just-past summer movie season
Three: That people made Mamma Mia! a hit; that Robert Downey, Jr. finally became the beloved star he always deserved to be; and that there was such a backlash against The Dark Knight: I knew, once it hit big, that hipster revisionism would inevitably occur (it was like the Nevermind of summer movies that way), but I didn't expect the arguments to get as fierce as they did.

5) Gene Tierney or Rita Hayworth
Was this question on the winter version of the quiz? I'll stick with Rita, my answer back in December.

6) What’s the last movie you saw on DVD? In theaters?
DVD: The Golden Compass; In theaters: Mamma Mia!.

Why on earth wasn't The Golden Compass a hit? I know Philip Pullman's books aren't the monster franchise of the Harry Potter novels, and that the movie faced predictable criticisms from fans (who complained about changes) and the religious right (who made it 2007's cinematic equivalent of the Fox News "War On Christmas" meme)-- but damn! Does this movie ever look spectacular: it's like seeing Jules Verne come to life, and that high-flying imagery is grounded in a smart, witty screenplay, and wry performances from Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman and the remarkable Eva Green that were both richly detailed and larger-than-life all at once. Unlike so many family fantasy films, which can feel overly scrubbed and CGI'ed, this was a trip through a textured, cinephiliac imagination, and I can only hope its mixed box office doesn't prevent sequels.

I teased Mamma Mia! above, but it's not without its pleasures: Meryl Streep chews the scenery as if she's been told by Jeffrey Cordova to give him the "whole eight-eighths!," but she sings well enough; Pierce Brosnan is fine in the dramatic scenes, but sounds like Nashville Skyline-era Dylan when he hums a tune, to the point where you want to yell at him to not sing through his nose. The rest of the cast is also fine (although, as some critic noted, when Christine Baranski is the one underplaying onscreen, you know something's gone horribly wrong), and the narrative does a surprisingly good job of crafting a workable book out of disparate ABBA songs.

A little ABBA goes a long way, though, and so does direction that should really be called (if one is feeling generous) 'direction': possessed of a need to zoom not seen since the glory days of Robert Altman, Phyllida Lloyd almost never lets us get our bearings or catch our breath, until Mamma Mia begins to feel like the bastard child of Baz Luhrmann and Can't Stop The Music. There's a hypnotic awfulness to the musical numbers, whose campiness might be enjoyable if it was done with any degree of flair (I did like the chorus line of cabana boys in flippers, though). The choreography is atrocious, and the increasingly frantic piling on of number after number gives the movie the unsettling feeling of forced 'fun' (as proto-blogger Cordelia Chase once put it, "Note my airquotes around the word 'fun.').

I knew, from the previews, that the numbers would be an assault, and that the film would offer a number of dreaded audience sing-along moments, so I steeled myself for all that. But I wish it had taken its cue, not from "Dancing Queen" or "S.O.S.," but from "Slipping Through My Fingers," the quiet, lovely solo number Streep gets 2/3 of the way into the film. Shot as a series of long takes, the ballad is set to images of Streep helping her daughter get dressed for the wedding, and it's one of the few places where the actress clamps down on her manic behavior and lets us see the warmth, pain and reflection beneath it all. It contextualizes and humanizes the rest of the movie, and in its own way, it's deeply touching.

7) Irwin Allen’s finest hour?
This might be the most oxymoronic question in the history of the Internet.

8) What were the films where you would rather see the movie promised by the poster than the one that was actually made?
1) Underworld: The poster's mixture of Les Vampires-style expressionism, John Woo-ish action and comic book camp was so much more interesting than the ugly mismash of the movie itself.

2) Sin City: The poster promised noir thrills, while the movie provided no thrills (although it compensated with an excess of misogynistic nihilism and unintentional hilarity).

3) The Boris Karloff Mummy: I love the art of Classic Hollywood movie posters, but there's probably no way the film could deliver on the eerie, exotic mysteriousness of this poster, with its painted, pulp cover art. I was just surprised at how dull the actual film was, less the creepy slow build of Dracula or Frankenstein than the talky staginess of an early thirties prestige dud like Cavalcade.

9) Chow Yun-Fat or Tony Leung
Falling out of a building with a cigarette dangling from his mouth and both guns ablazing in Hard-Boiled? Steadily anchoring the corporate dualisms and pained betrayals of The Killer? Offering more wit and grace to Anna and the King than it really deserved? Bringing the weight of nostalgia to Crouching TIger? Gotta be Chow Yun-Fat.

10) Most pretentious movie ever
Wow. Where to begin? And how do we define it? Prestige pictures like those of Merchant-Ivory are an easy (and often apt) target, but I think i'd rather watch Howard's End than a million There Will Be Bloods. Kevin Smith's work-- with its insistence on an insular, jus' folks hipster dialect--is as pretentious as anything from Antonioni (and far more grating). Coen brothers comedies step in dungpiles of pretentious nihilism that their dramas nimbly avoid. And does anyone really need to watch Cavalcade or any Cecil B. DeMille film for any reason except historical completism and curiosity?

Also, pretension isn't necessarily a bad thing: one might argue that Michael Snow's Wavelength is the most pretentious movie ever made, but it's also one of the most beautiful and subtle. Truffaut's The Green Room and Two English Girls were once criticized as pretentious, but now they're rightly noted as some of his most deeply felt work. And even if he's probably an asshole, I love the films of David O. Russell precisely because they messily overreach and want to say 600 things at once, in a generous, operatic voice (and don't even get me started on defending Wes Anderson).

Instead of "most pretentious movie ever," I think I'd rather offer my all-time favorite Most Pretentious Critic's Line Ever. Our winner is, unsurprisingly, Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman, a man who never saw an Oliver Stone movie he couldn't praise. It comes from his review of 1996's The Saint, and although I have not laid eyes on the review since I read it on an el train twelve years ago, this line is forever seared into my brain:

"The film is the apotheosis of the New Incoherence."

That, my friends, is pretension.

11) Favorite Russ Meyer movie
I've only seen Beyond The Valley of The Dolls, but Lord, do I love that film.

12) Name the movie that you feel best reflects yourself, a movie you would recommend to an acquaintance that most accurately says, “This is me.”

The me I am, or the me I want to be? I'd love to say I'm as cool as Bogart or Belmondo, as smooth as Cary Grant or as warm as James Stewart. My favorite films offer worlds and philosophical/aesthetic spaces to escape into: Rules of the Game, Casablanca, Breathless, The Big Sleep, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Some Came Running, The Band Wagon, Trouble In Paradise, Duck Soup, Only Angels Have Wings, The Red Shoes, Goldfinger.

In a sense, then, all of those movies are "me," in different ways. But if I had to choose one film that really spoke to me, and spoke in different ways at different times, I guess I'd choose Annie Hall. I've seen it too many times to count (really-- I know I've seen it at least twelve or fifteen times, probably more), and it's the film whose infinitely quotable screenplay I probably know the best. And it works for me the way that La Dolce Vita works for Roger Ebert:

Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw "La Dolce Vita'' in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom "the sweet life'' represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw it again, around 1970, I was living in a version of Marcello's world; Chicago's North Avenue was not the Via Veneto, but at 3 a.m. the denizens were just as colorful, and I was about Marcello's age.

When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was 10 years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way. By 1991, when I analyzed the film a frame at a time at the University of Colorado, Marcello seemed younger still, and while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him. And when I saw the movie right after Mastroianni died, I thought that Fellini and Marcello had taken a moment of discovery and made it immortal. There may be no such thing as the sweet life. But it is necessary to find that out for yourself.


I don't remember how old I was when I first saw Annie Hall, probably fourteen or fifteen. Alvy's nervy, nerdy wit and moral self-righteousness seemed appealing. I loved the film's formal plays (especially the internal monologues of Alvy and Annie as they flirt on the balcony), and immediately fell in love with Diane Keaton (that love is the only constant in my appreciation of the film). As sad as the ending is, it had an open-endedness that felt hopeful, and the movie's vision of adult love was alluring, particularly in a geeky adolescence.

When I saw the film again, countless times, in college, Alvy was still a role model, but I also felt myself distancing from him, more and more put off by his neuroses, and beginning to feel sorry for Annie. The formal play still dazzled, but it was more the atmosphere of the film that appealed: that world of smart, beautiful people talking about art and literature and cinema while disparaging television: very appealing to a college freshman.

When I started to teach film classes in graduate school, I would teach the movie, and found myself as fascinated by what the students responded to as by my own reactions: everyone seemed to like Annie's "la di da, la di da" monologue at the tennis courts, with some students actually clapping in intense identification with her insecurities. I also noticed, more than ever, its structural brilliance-- how its fragmented narrative drew on Surrealism, 60s art cinema and vaudeville in equal measure, and created a series of rich ironies that my more singular, fifteen-year old self never would've noticed.

Now, I still love all of that, but I've come to have a renewal of sympathy for both Alvy and Annie in equal measure. I wouldn't want to be either of them, with their wracked, devouring emotional problems, but I have tremendous affection for the film's generosity: however grating they may get, it lets both of them have an equal measure of screen time to make their arguments, and its finds a level of open-ended grace that I desperately wish Allen (and all romantic comedy makers) would return to.

13) Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo
Ooh, damn-- that's tough. Dietrich is the more skilled actress, but Garbo is the greater icon, and she inspired one of my favorite film essays, Roland Barthes' "The Face of Garbo." So, I'll say Greta by a porcelain cheek.

14) Best movie snack? Most vile movie snack?
Best: Dots and popcorn together (not literally mixed, but you have to bring both the sweet and the salty into the theater with you). Worst? Movie nachos-- dripping with gross fake cheese, which is usually spread over stale chips and then smothered in lukewarm jalapenos. As appealing as Pearl Harbor.

15) Current movie star who would be most comfortable in the classic Hollywood studio system
My immediate impulse was to say George Clooney, undoubtedly-- as many people have pointed out, he already seems like a product of that era, and his screen persona is certainly the closest we have to actors of that period (at least for men). But then I realized his hyphenate status and indie desires would mean he'd feel confined within that seven-year contract (although he'd do spectacularly varied work-- can't you just imagine Clooney in something like an Anthony Mann western?).

I wondered if Clooney's Ocean's 11 mate Matt Damon might not be a good answer, because he has a great range, and seems very comfortable just being a working actor who can go from action to comedy to drama in a snap. But Damon wouldn't be a star necessarily in the studio era, but a wonderful character actor like John Garfield or his fellow Patricia Highsmith actor, Robert Walker. Cate Blanchett certainly would've thrived in the studio era, and so would Joan Allen and Mary-Louise Parker.

But I wonder if I couldn't tweak the question a bit-- not who would feel more comfortable in the studio era, but who would benefit from it? And oddly, for all her indie rep, I would nominate Parker Posey. Posey is a dazzingly gifted actress whose talents are only intermittently well-used in contemporary films; in the studio era, working in several films a year, she'd be Eve Arden and Katharine Hepburn both, easily moving from melodrama to wisecracking screwball dame to gangly dancer in a Bob Fosse routine. And she'd be fabulous.

16) Fitzcarraldo—yes or no?
Yes, because then you can see Burden of Dreams, perhaps the best movie about moviemaking ever made.

17) Your assignment is to book the ultimate triple bill to inaugurate your own revival theater. What three movies will we see on opening night?
The Red Shoes, The Crime of M. Lange, and Something Wild-- three deeply personal tales of creativity, community, madness, and hope, and how the overlaps between all four open up new spaces of possibility.

18) What’s the name of your theater? (The all-time greatest answer to this question was once provided by Larry Aydlette, whose repertory cinema, the Demarest, is, I hope, still packing them in…)
The Duck Soup

19) Favorite Leo McCarey movie
Duck Soup, a film that feels more like a documentary with each passing year. My Son John is also insanely great (or greatly insane, whichever).

20) Most impressive debut performance by an actor/actress.
This question is frustrating because I'm more impressed with the way careers develop than how they start: Cary Grant is certainly the greatest actor in the history of cinema, but does anyone really love (or get the chance to see) This Is The Night?

My two choices embody this: they are not debuts, but they feel like debuts, and they are certainly the moment when the actors are noticed: Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows: so good, this very gifted actor could never escape it; and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (oddly, also a tale about adolescence of a sort, and also setting a mold the actor never quite escaped, although she seemed happier in it than Leaud).

21) Biggest disappointment of the just-past summer movie season
Could Judd Apatow please go back to the spirit of Freaks & Geeks? Please? Pretty please?

22) Michelle Yeoh or Maggie Cheung
No one rocks a leather costume like Cheung, or finds so many shades of feeling and ambiguity within the meta layers of Irma Vep

23) 2008 inductee into the Academy of the Overrated
John McCain

24) 2008 inductee into the Academy of the Underrated
Well, Disaster Movie, clearly.

25) Fritz the Cat—yes or no?
Yes, definitely-- I've taught it twice and it always inspires great conversation, perhaps because it both embodies and punctures all those moldy hippie dreams and nightmares of the sixties with such a savage, conflicted edge.

26) Trevor Howard or Richard Todd
Trevor Howard-- Brief Encounter is my favorite David Lean film.

27) Antonioni once said, “I began taking liberties a long time ago; now it is standard practice for most directors to ignore the rules.” What filmmaker working today most fruitfully ignores the rules? What does ignoring the rules of cinema mean in 2008?
*Ahem* (He warms up his best professorial voice...) It seems like today's filmmaking is both un-hierarchical (with cable and Netflix and Torrent and other service providers offering all kinds of choices) and also deeply stratified (we can see practically anything, but we only choose to see certain things-- out of economics, aesthetic taste, ideological insistence, etc.). There are certainly a lot of rules, but it often feels like they are more of an imposition on audiences (who are fearful to leave their cliques and risk looking unpopular, too popular, unhip, un- or too snarky, etc.). I mean, look at the flame wars that can erupt even on film blogs, especially if a film is insufficiently praised or castigated (poor Dave Kehr suggested on his blog last fall that No Country For Old Men was not actually the second coming of Citizen Kane, and commentors acted like he'd outed Valerie Plame).

So, I think the biggest breakers of the rules are those who try to bridge or ignore those viewer gaps, and those who challenge on the level of tone. In an era when even our superhero movies must go dark to get street cred, I'll nominate Wes Anderson: he's not afraid to live inside his own head (a place where a lot of great filmmakers have lived), but also longs to generously share the contents of that head with his viewers. His films are accused of being twee, because they're as finely composed as music boxes or gingerbread houses, but that gorgeous artificiality is just the entry point for a deep, rich exploration of life's joys, pains and paradoxes. No one is a hero or a villain in Anderson's films (that avoidance of binaries might be what sets off filmgoers, even--especially-- the hipster ones, whose WTF cool often masks a deep conservatism), and everyone is allowed a moment to dance.

28) Favorite William Castle movie
Matinee

29) Favorite ethnographically oriented movie
How are we defining the term? I don't know if it fits, exactly, but I really love Michael Apted's Up films, which are simultaneously social document and cinephiliac drama. I also love, in a completely different way, Godard's 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, the perfect mixture of character study and essay film.

30) What’s the movie coming up in 2008 you’re most looking forward to? Why?
I'm curious to see if the Coens can keep up their consistency with Burn After Reading or if they'll revert to their one-off/one-on rhythm; I always look forward to new Richard Linklater films (and one with Zac Effron just sounds so counter-intuitive that it intrigues); and of course, I'm deeply curious about Quantum of Solace.

31) What deceased director would you want to resurrect in order that she/he might make one more film?
Either Hitchcock (can you imagine what he'd do with CGI?) or his cinematic son, Truffaut. Then I'd like them to do another book together.

32) What director would you like to see, if not literally entombed, then at least go silent creatively?
Can we take away Darren Aronofsky's DGA card, please?

33) Your first movie star crush
Not a movie star, but a TV star-- my young, six-year old self seriously crushed on Erin Gray when she starred on my favorite TV show, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Yes, she was incredibly beautiful, but it was also that her character, Col. WIlma Deering, was smart and funny and tough-- she didn't get to do as much as she should've (oh, for someone like Joss Whedon to remake the show, and finally give Wilma her due!), but that strength and confidence on display was the real attraction. I laughed when I read an interview with Ms. Gray where she said she'd met so many fans who told her variations on my story that she was thinking of getting a t-shirt made that said, "I know-- I was your first."

1 comment:

dave said...

Wonderful responses to this stimulating series of questions!