Friday, December 4, 2009
Making A List, Checking It Twice
Christmas Time is here, time for love and cheer, and another of Dennis Cozzalio's amazing movie quizzes! This year, Dennis has chosen (like a true Angeleno) to make those of us in cold-weather places dream of island paradises, with the PROFESSOR RUSSELL JOHNSON'S "MY ANCESTORS CAME OVER ON THE MINNOW" THANKSGIVING/CHRISTMAS MOVIE QUIZ. Like one of the Professor's whozzits, it's chock full of complex, gee-whiz gadgetry and know-how (and fifty movable pieces!). But unlike those devices, it will actually work, and take us from the Moreau-like hell of being trapped with Bob Denver to something far more blissfully cinephiliac. So let's dive right in, shall we?
(As always, feel free to play along in the comments section, or to cut-and-paste-and-answer at your own blog-- and if you do the cut-and-paste route, please be sure to link back and provide credit to Dennis).
1) Second-favorite Coen Brothers movie.
In order to answer this question, one would properly have to have a first-favorite Coen Brothers movie, yes?
Before the blog police come down on me (and let me say that the Coens have a fervent and very vocal fan-base that makes them the art-house equivalent of Edward and Bella)-- I like the Coens. Really. I do. But for every film of theirs I love, like Fargo or Blood Simple (and underrated gems like The Man Who Wasn't There or The Hudsucker Proxy) they offer up a film so mind-wrenchingly awful that I'd rather spend time with Edward and Bella than see it again (I'm looking at you, shitty remake of The Ladykillers).
This means I can't worship them with the same depth and wit and grace and passion that blog pals like Glenn or Bill do-- and I feel lucky that I don't have to, since these folks write about the Bros.' movies with such skill that reading their reviews is far more enjoyable to me, on occasion, than seeing the films they are discussing.
But while I love the Coen films I love in pretty equal measure, if one film stands a few hairs above the others, it's probably Miller's Crossing. It's on this film, for me, that the Brothers' technical skill and love of genre pastiche collides with a story so heartfelt and funny and sad that the beautiful images take on an extraordinary, vibrating, hallucinatory depth- in every sense of the word, they stun.
2) Movie seen only on home format that you would pay to see on the biggest movie screen possible? (Question submitted by Peter Nellhaus)
The first film that popped into my head was 2001, but then I remembered I saw that film projected on a giant sheet in a friend's backyard a couple of 4th of Julys ago: it was not a "proper" big-screen theater showing, but in many ways the weather and the company and the way the sheet fluttered in the wind (to say nothing of how the stars from the night blended with the stars of the movie) made it much more magical than any 70-mm air-conditioned projection could have been.
So, instead I will mention a film that's long obsessed me, but that I've only ever seen on various home video formats and television broadcasts: Gone With The Wind. I'm not sure it's "good" in any logical, traditional sense of aesthetics: its haphazard movement from the sublime to the ridiculous to moments beyond category means it's always been impossible for me to get a full grip on (maybe that's why I love it, in addition to the fact the really interesting "movie" is what happens in its production). I wrote about that a little here, and I wonder if seeing it on a big screen would clarify things a bit. In any case, it would make Gable & Leigh look even more spectacular than they do at home.
3) Japan or France? (Question submitted by Bob Westal)
In what sense, Charlie?
4) Favorite moment/line from a western.
John Wayne striding, as only he can, through the cattle on his way to kill Montgomery Clift, Red River
5) Of all the arts the movies draw upon to become what they are, which is the most important, or the one you value most?
So many good choices-- I suppose I gravitated to cinema because of special effects (Star Wars was my first film, when I was four), and stay because of directors and actors. Movie stars are still one of my favorite ways of thinking about and organizing cinema history (I once spent a blissful summer catching up with most of the Cary Grant films I hadn't seen).
But if I could shift the question a bit, I think the way we receive cinema (a slightly different but related way of thinking about how they "become what they are") is closest to the way we hear pop music. It's ephemeral, and toggles between plot (lyric) and style or form (timbre) in terms of what catches our eye or ear. And while we can talk about notes or words or shots in detail, the experience of the song or movie is sometimes harder to get into words. As the Shirelles put it, "Is this a lasting treasure/Or just a moment's pleasure"?
To get my students thinking about editing this fall, I had them do an exercise in making a mix tape (or mix CD-- which itself suggests differences between the analog and the digital that cinema is also imbricated within). I told them that the perhaps abstract concepts of editing had their twin in the process of list-making and juxtaposition that we'd all done at one point or another with music. How do you flow or crash from one song to another? Are your lines organized around ideas, instrumentation or voice? As Godard asked, when and why do you start a shot (song) and when and why do you end it?
And our writing about this process of making and receiving can similarly pop. For me, it crafts a duet between writer and text that comes at the reader as a series of riffs and improvisations, or imaginative choreography between ideas and texts: at once analytic, conversational, quotational, romantic, angry, searching and witty. If it works, the concept will eventually give way to the groove.
6) Most misunderstood movie of the 2000s (The Naughties?).
Why did everyone gang up on poor Wes Anderson over The Life Aquatic? It might not feel as fully-shaped as Rushmore or Bottle Rocket, but I liked it a lot more than The Royal Tennenbaums (a film I also love, just not to the same degree), and found the father-son dynamic between Bill Murray and Owen Wilson much more affecting than the more archly played relationships between Gene Hackman and his children in the earlier film. For some reason, too many people want to apply a frankly specious "reality thesis" to Anderson's work (as if verite minimalism is the sole criteria of cinematic goodness), and just as many trust-fund Marxists take an odd pleasure in mocking Anderson's class pre-occupations (because it ain't cinema if folks aren't wearin' work-boots, ya know).
But all kinds of brilliant filmmakers from Disney to Hitchcock to Jacques Tati have read cinematic space as a playground to be explored and perfectly timed out, and The Life Aquatic's critics missed how the underwater ships and reflecting mirrors, the schematic diagrams and childishly scrawled notes are deployed to reveal and connect, rather than hide and spirit away. The most revealing thing about the lengthy interview Anderson conducts with Peter Bogdanovich on the DVD of They All Laughed is that Anderson did it at all; thinking about his work in the context of a love for Bogdanovich's best movie clues us in to just how much Anderson learned from that film's mixture of delicate fantasy and harsh reality, and how the former can act as an exuberant gateway to the latter.
7) Name a filmmaker/actor/actress/film you once unashamedly loved who has fallen furthest in your esteem.
There are a lot, actually, so I'll just choose the one I saw most recently, in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen: You owe me, John Turturro. And give Spike Lee a call-- your career just doesn't feel the same without his guidance.
8) Herbert Lom or Patrick Magee?
Sigh. And once again, my lack of love for (and knowledge about) horror films trips me up. Afraid I will have to pass.
9) Which is your least favorite David Lynch film (Submitted by Tony Dayoub)
Lost Highway. I haven't seen it since a rainy-night screening in Chicago (was it really raining? It's David Lynch, it must have been raining) twelve years ago, but I didn't like it at the time, liked it even less upon reflection several days and weeks later, and have had no desire to see it since.
10) Gordon Willis or Conrad Hall? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)
Willis, no question. Hall was brilliant, but I'm convinced that '70s American cinema simply wouldn't have happened in the same way without everyone's favorite "Prince of Darkness" there to make it look as strange and scary and beautiful and funny as he did. And anyone who can paint The Godfather at one end of the decade and Manhattan at the other (with All The President's Men and Annie Hall in-between) owns this question.
11) Second favorite Don Siegel movie.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers-- it's a close call, but I give Dirty Harry the slight edge as my favorite. I also very much like what I've seen (although I've never seen all of it) of The Shootist.
12) Last movie you saw on DVD/Blu-ray? In theaters?
On DVD, the lovely romantic drama Medicine for Melancholy, whose partially black-and-white images and indie rock soundtrack frame an offbeat, jazzy (in the sense of feeling improvised) San Francisco; in theaters, Julie & Julia, which tells you how long it's been since I went to the movies (then again, with New Moon in its record-breaking third week at my single-screen local palace, can you really blame me?).
13) Which DVD in your private collection screams hardest to be replaced by a Blu-ray? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)
Probably something animated-- I was teaching Pinocchio this week, and thought of the luscious screen grabs Glenn posted back in March, and I really wished I could project that sucker on a big screen for my students. I've grabbed one of his grabs for illustration, and hope he doesn't mind:
But since I don't have a blu-ray player these dreams are all, to pardon the pun, a bit academic to me.
14) Eddie Deezen or Christopher Mintz-Plasse?
Grease is one of the seminal films of my childhood, and I adore Deezen in the underrated I Wanna Hold Your Hand; but Mintz-Plasse is so good in Superbad, taking his very Deezen-ish stereotype of a character and imbuing it with geniune charm: McLovin' is not a put-upon outcast the way he might be in other films-- he genuinely believes he's a bad-ass, and all evidence to the contrary won't stop him from making the scene. It's a wonderful spin on the type that Mintz-Plasse nails, and it happily drains the film of treacly sentimentality. This is a geek with a future.
15) Actor/actress who you feel automatically elevates whatever project they are in, or whom you would watch in virtually anything.
Daniel Day-Lewis and Stanley Tucci are tied here. Tucci is the actor Kevin Spacey thinks he is, and Day-Lewis is the reason I cringe when people mock the idea of seeing Nine. It's Daniel Day-Lewis singing, people! It can't be that bad, right?
16) Fight Club -- yes or no?
A tentative yes-- I thought the film was very funny when I first saw it (which surprised me-- the oh-so-serious, hand-wringing reviews when it was first released didn't clue me in to the satire), but it didn't hold up well under scrutiny when my class chose it as their final film last year. I'd still rather watch it again than sit through Zodiac twice, though-- I miss the Fincher who could still tap his genre-loving, Anger-tweaking trashy side, and I still think The Game is one of his best movies.
17) Teresa Wright or Olivia De Havilland?
Both spectacularly good, but like Errol Flynn, I must go with Maid Marion. Could anyone else have given such grace and depth and quietly dark spirit to Gone With The Wind's Melanie?
18) Favorite moment/line from a film noir.
Kirk Douglas, all oily charm, makes a fake-friendly gesture to Robert Mitchum: "Cigarette?," he offers; Mitchum is all cool control in response, barely raising the illustrative butt in his hand: "Smoking," he replies (Out Of The Past).
19) Best (or worst) death scene involving an obvious dummy substituting for a human or any other unsuccessful special effect(s)—see the wonderful blog Destructible Man for inspiration.
An obvious dummy substituting for a human? Robin Williams must die in one of his films, right?
20) What's the least you've spent on a film and still regretted it? (Submitted by Lucas McNelly)
I saw Highlander 2 for free when I was 18, because the friend of a friend worked at the theater and snuck us in. I still haven't forgiven that theater employee for doing that to us, and it makes me wonder if letting us in wasn't some elaborate prank designed to make us hate movies in general.
21) Van Johnson or Van Heflin?
In the battle of the beefy men with the broad foreheads, I have to give the edge to Johnson, because of my love of comedies and because he's so good in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.
22) Favorite Alan Rudolph film.
I like to imagine a mash-up where Dorothy Parker falls into a love triangle with Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, and the three of them move to 1920s Paris.
23) Name a documentary that you believe more people should see.
I imagine this question is meant to highlight obscure or forgotten docs, but the Up films aren't that at all. They're simply the most gripping and funny and moving documentary films I've ever seen-- as witty as Lubitsch, as generous as Renoir, and as suspenseful as Hitchcock. Political cinema at its very human best.
24) In deference to this quiz’s professor, name a favorite film which revolves around someone becoming stranded.
25) Is there a moment when your knowledge of film, or lack thereof, caused you an unusual degree of embarrassment and/or humiliation? If so, please share.
Oh, sure-- I've been caught out a few times in class, when students ask about a film I barely know. But those are what we call "teaching moments," and while they're very, very embarrassing, they also open up to really interesting discussions sometimes.
26) Ann Sheridan or Geraldine Fitzgerald? (Submitted by Larry Aydlette)
The Oomph Girl looks great in a uniform and behind the dashboard of a truck, and I have to give her the edge simply because of her role in this funny (and possibly apocryphal) anecdote from David Niven's Bring On The Empty Horses:
That night at La Maze Bogie was confronted by a large man with a flushed face wearing an open-neck shirt turned down outside his jacket.
I was sitting in a corner with the "Oomph Girl," Ann Sheridan. Bogie with Mayo was a few tables away. We couldn't hear the confrontation, but we could see that the scene was developing along traditional lines. The large man was bending over their table and poking Bogie in the chest with a forefinger, Bogie was smiling insults, Mayo was rising like a ruffled hen turkey from her seat, and waiters were circling warily around, taking up action stations to isolate or eliminate the impending conflict.
Suddenly all hell broke loose. Bogie threw a full glass of scotch into his aggressor's eyes, and at the same moment Mayo hit the man on the head with a shoe. I caught a momentary glimpse of flinty-eyed characters rising purposefully from the table whence the large man had come and of a large phalanx of waiters converging on the battle area. Cries of rage and alarm rose on all sides, and the air became thick with flying bottles, plates, glasses, left hooks and food.
"Quick," screamed the Oomph Girl. "Under the table."
This was a suggestion with which I was only too happy to comply, but for some technical reason, it was impossible to get beneath our own table, so we threw ourselves to the floor and crawled on hands and knees to a larger sanctuary a few yards away.
We had not been installed there for more than a few seconds before Bogie came padding in on all fours; he was laughing like hell.
"What's going on up there?" I asked.
"Everything's OK," he chortled. "Mayo's handling it....I wish I'd brought a fork, though-- I might be able to jab the bastard in the leg."
27) Do you or any of your family members physically resemble movie actors or other notable figures in the film world? If so, who?
Well, I've been compared to both Eric Stoltz and Ron Howard a lot (although I thankfully still have my hair).
28) Is there a movie you have purposely avoided seeing? If so, why?
I find it hard to watch films about mental illness, so not even my admiration for Samuel Fuller can overcome my reluctance to watch Shock Corridor; the truly disgusting pre-release stills have always caused me to avoid Gummo (even thinking of the title makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit); and even though it's heading into a record-breaking third week on my small-town palace's single screen, the obnoxious gothy tweens my partner and I encountered roaming around the Crocker Park multiplexes on opening weekend have turned New Moon into my own cinephiliac garlic (does garlic effect the sparkly vamps in that film, or is that another part of the mythology that doesn't fit its abstinence fairy tale?).
29) Movie with the most palpable or otherwise effective wintry atmosphere or ambience.
Citizen Kane's snowy flashback and much of Dr. Zhivago (my favorite Lean film) fit this criteria. But for some reason my mind went to the wet, cold, snowy and frighteningly electrified landscapes of The Ice Storm, and how well they capture the interiority of the characters wandering through them.
30) Gerrit Graham or Jeffrey Jones?
Jones-- anyone who can come out of Howard The Duck not only unscathed, but with his reputation actually enhanced is OK in my book.
31) The best cinematic antidote to a cultural stereotype (sexual, political, regional, whatever).
The Up films do this pretty beautifully (and touch on all those categories you've mentioned), but since I've already talked about them upstairs, I'll mention two very different views of the American South, one cinematic and one televisual. To Kill A Mockingbird's movie adaptation loses some of the gentle contradictions present in the first-person voice of the novel, but its keen sense of place, its quietly unfolding, anecdotal everydayness, and that central performance by Gregory Peck all work to offer a richer portrait of the region than American cinema sometimes provides.
25 years later, the television show Frank's Place (still criminally unavailable on DVD, a tragedy in a time when the format offers multiple seasons of Too Close For Comfort, but once available in its entirety on YouTube) offered a complex, searching and very funny look at intra-race relations in New Orleans, touching on everything from black and white, to black and black, to rich and poor, to the differences between Creole and Cajun cuisine. A brilliant, too-shortly-lived show that was one of the best things television did in the 1980s.
32) Second favorite John Wayne movie.
Probably The Searchers or Stagecoach (my favorite is Red River), but I have a real affection for his war pictures-- good, bad and very mediocre-- so on another day, I'd have to give the nod to In Harm's Way or the richly varied emotional tones of They Were Expendable.
33) Favorite movie car chase.
There's Bullitt, of course, and any number of Bonds (the best of which might be in The Spy Who Loves Me). The French Connection, The Italian Job, and What's Up, Doc? are all outstanding. And while I'm tempted to ask if anything is better than Mitchell (as those brilliant robots on MST3K put it, "It's easy to tail someone when they use their turn signal"), the earnest part of me has to give the nod to that spectacular horse-and-truck-and-car chase that climaxes Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The way Indiana Jones' face shifts back and forth between determined concentration and devious glee captures Spielberg's delight in staging the sequence, a delight that's fully extended to the audience.
34) In the spirit of His Girl Friday, propose a gender-switched remake of a classic or not-so-classic film. (Submitted by Patrick Robbins)
I have no idea what it would look or feel like, but what about Casablanca?
35) Barbara Rhoades or Barbara Feldon?
Number 99, Number 99....
36) Favorite Andre De Toth movie.
Er, if I promise to rent a bunch of DVDs, can I get back to you on this one? De Toth is one of those crucial filmmakers I really need to catch up with someday.
37) If you could take one filmmaker's entire body of work and erase it from all time and memory, as if it had never happened, whose oeuvre would it be? (Submitted by Tom Sutpen)
Farewell, Darren Aronofsky.
38) Name a film you actively hated when you first encountered it, only to see it again later in life and fall in love with it.
I don't know if there's ever been a film I've actively hated at first, then later liked or loved-- that happens with people for me, but usually not with films (when it comes to movies, to paraphrase Mr. Darcy, "my good opinion, once lost, is lost forever"). But there are several I've been confused by, or lukewarm about, that I've later fallen in love with (sometimes first dates are deceiving).
Most prominent for me in this group is Rules of the Game. I first tried to watch it on a small library TV, with a bad VHS print that had hard-to-read, white-on-B&W subtitles. That's not the best format or place to first encounter Renoir's classic, but I think the larger problem was that I was 18 (maybe 19-- it was my freshman year of college), and Rules of the Game, with its witty double entendres, deep focus (in all senses) and moral ambiguity is not a film that you're going to get when you're 18, at least not in its fullest sense. I didn't get it at all, didn't even get through it, actually, as I turned off the TV midway through.
I tried to watch it again a few years later, this time at home in a cold winter apartment in Chicago. I was older and the print was better, but while I could appreciate its technical skill, its status as a masterpiece still eluded me. It was not until a few years after that, when I saw the Criterion laserdisc and knew more about Renoir, that it all snapped into place.
The beauty of the laserdisc, with its lovely extras, certainly helped, and so did being better primed for Renoir via the French New Wave (Truffaut's great gift to his idol is that he helps young phillistines like me better appreciate him after we see Jules and Jim). But the biggest difference is time-- Rules of the Game makes more sense after your heart has been broken, after you've come to realize that you don't know everything, and the world is far more contradictory than you believe on the barricades of 19. Where once Renoir's refusal to judge felt like a cop-out, now it feels like the most beautiful act of grace in all of cinema.
39) Max Ophuls or Marcel Ophuls? (Submitted by Tom Sutpen)
Max by a very long tracking shot. There's no political subject Marcel could choose that would ever equal the look of Joan Fontaine in the snow in Letter To An Unknown Woman, or the way Peter Ustinov's voice breaks slightly in his circus speech at the end of Lola Montes.
40) In which club would you most want an active membership, the Delta Tau Chi fraternity, the Cutters or the Warriors? And which member would you most resemble, either physically or in personality?
Delta Tau Chi would probably be more fun, but they won't have the grace or warmth or heart of the Cutters (ironically, I went to college in Bloomington). I've never seen The Warriors (shameful, I know!), but I'm a lover, not a fighter. Physically, I resemble none of them, actually, but I'm willing to smash a beer can on my head if you like.
41) Your favorite movie cliché.
I have a real fondness for the old newspaper-headline montages that dotted 30s and 40s American films (and that Coppola resurrected so well for the first Godfather). It makes me sad to think that the collapse of so many papers means that soon those scenes will appear not only archaic, but opaque to future generations.
42) Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen? (Submitted by Bob Westal)
Stanley Donen's brief soft-shoe at the Oscars a few years ago is one of my favorite awards moments (and a breath of fresh air for a ceremony that increasingly veers from the self-righteously pretentious to the not-even-the-fun-kind-of-camp campy) (and somehow, Slumdog Millionaire fits both those categories!). But while Charade and Singin' In The Rain and Funny Face are all aces, Minnelli's just in my pantheon of all-time favorite directors. His fluency across genres, his attention to detail, his strength with actors, that intoxicating mix of knowing sophistication and touching naivete-- it's simply unbeatable when evaluating the MGM house style in the 50s and 60s.
And "The Girl Hunt" is my desert-island sequence of supreme sublimity.
43) Favorite Christmas-themed horror movie or sequence.
There's nothing scarier than the trailer for Jingle All The Way.
44) Favorite moment of self- or selfless sacrifice in a movie.
Barry Lyndon is Kubrick's most heartfelt and human film, and I've always thought its climax-- as Barry fires his dueling pistol into the ground, sealing his downfall--was a fascinating moment of existential responsibility mixed with hubris. Ryan O'Neal plays it beautifully.
45) If you were the cinematic Spanish Inquisition, which movie cult (or cult movie) would you decimate? (Submitted by Bob Westal)
Well, I made fun of the Coens' cult right in the first question, so I'll avoid that one this time (besides, it would mean killing too many people I like). But I'd be OK with never hearing about The Lord of The Rings again. Zodiac, too.
46) Caroline Munro or Veronica Carlson?
I mentioned that car chase in The Spy Who Loved Me a few questions back, and Murno's wink to Roger Moore is one of the sequence's campy high points.
47) Favorite eye-patch wearing director. (Submitted by Patty Cozzalio)
If eye-patch wearing directors no longer existed, only Nicholas Ray gives the impression that he could re-invent them, or would want to.
48) Favorite ambiguous movie ending. (Original somewhat ambiguous submission---“Something about ambiguous movie endings!”-- by Jim Emerson, who may have some inspiration of his own to offer you.)
I think Jim covered most of them with his wonderful post, so I'll throw in the end of Nashville, the end of Before Sunset, and the end of nearly everything Godard did between Breathless and Weekend.
49) In giving thanks for the movies this year, what are you most thankful for?
I'm still catching up on 2009 movies, but I'm most thankful for three non-film, film-related places and groups: The Cedar Lee in Cleveland Heights, a lovely independent theater whose multiple screens, great coffee and excellent taste in foreign and independent film has provided my partner and I with many wonderful movie moments together over the last year; the smart, funny, and deeply curious students at Oberlin who I am lucky to teach three times a week, who've constantly noticed new things in films I thought I already knew well, and have taught me so much as we've looked at them together; and the movie blogosphere, for its friendships, insights, and for writing so well that it's allowed me to learn about movies I might otherwise never see.
50) George Kennedy or Alan North? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)
Alan North could never convince me to eat 50 eggs in a row, but Kennedy is a natural-born world shaker.