Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Creme de la Creme


Assassins! Just as the weather was getting warm, and this blog was starting to heat its carburetors, throw its pistons into gear, and do other metaphorical car things that I really don't understand, that dastardly headmaster, Dennis Cozzalio, returned to keep us in line (and heavy with cyber-guilt) with one of his maddeningly addictive quizzes, this time invoking "that distinguished lady of letters and professed expert on the Romantic Fascists, Miss Jean Brodie." That's right, the Dowager Professor has reared her tenured head, with the Miss Jean Brodie's Modestly Magnificent, Matriarchally Manipulative Springtime-For-Mussolini Movie Quiz. Although Dennis assures us that taking part will not lead to inappropriate affairs, shocking deaths, or support for Franco, I'd warn you that heading over to Dennis' site via the links above may result in the loss of countless hours of productive work-time, as you luxuriate in the hundreds of posts Dennis has crafted-- all of them full of wit, perception, great screen grabs, stimulating opinions, and endless grace. So, consider yourself warned. As Miss Brodie herself might say, give Dennis a cinephile at an impressionable age, and he or she is Cozzalio's for life.

So, to avoid P-E-T-R-I-F-I-C-A-T-I-O-N, let's begin!


1)  The classic movie moment everyone loves except me is:
       

I really like My Best Friend's Wedding, a sweet-and-sour romantic comedy that uses Julia Roberts' blend of charm and entitlement to excellent effect (even if it has absolutely no sense of Chicago geography). But I cringed and slipped down into the bottom of my theater seat when Rupert Everett started leading the wedding party in a campy rendition of "I Say A Little Prayer," the Bacharach/David classic that no one but Dionne Warwick should try to sing. It's less the besmirching of a favorite song that bothers me, than the forced "fun" I knew was about to descend upon the theater (as noted cultural critic Cordelia Chase might say, "Please note my air quotes around the word 'fun'"). I really hate the notion that we're all supposed to sing, or clap, or wave our hands in the air ('cause I just don't care), simply because a movie (or play, or any cultural object) tells us to; it's a fake obligation reinforced by the implied bullying of everyone around me, wondering why I don't want to join in the hijinks. You know why? Because I'm paying to watch other people do that, thank you, and they're up there on the screen or stage.  

Also, singing along like you're at Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Sound of Music Sing-a-long really does seem to miss the point of the scene, doesn't it? Everett is having a laugh on Julia Roberts, deliberating making her feel uncomfortable by putting her on the spot (and by extension, having a laugh on the rubes at the table who sing along with his clearly satiric rendering-- and maybe having a laugh at the folks singing and dancing in the movie theater, too).   

2)  Favorite line of dialogue from a film noir
 
 

I've quoted this scene several times on this blog, but I absolutely adore the moment in Out of the Past when Kirk Douglas-- all snake-oily charm and sinister smiles--offers a wary, watching Robert Mitchum a breakfast cigarette on the balcony; without breaking a sweat, Mitchum holds up a cupped hand holding his drag, and replies, "Smoking." If there's a platonic circle of film noir, that almost has to be at its center.    
    
3)  Second favorite Hal Ashby film 
 

The Last Detail (1973). The best Hal Ashby movies are really Robert Towne movies.     

4)  Describe the moment when you first realized movies were directed as opposed to simply pieced together anonymously


 
I was eleven years old, and my father had just taken my Webelos troop to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark countless times in the theater and on videotape, and have been looking forward to this trip for months, and so it's with a heavy heart that I sit on our back porch after the film, and try to ascertain why I feel a curious disappointment in what I've just seen. "Indiana Jones needs a stronger villain," I tentatively explain to my father. "Belloq is like...he's like his opposite, so it...it means more than the guy pulling hearts out of the chest." Even then, I know my discomfort has as much to do with telling my father-- my hero, who had organized this outing--that I didn't like the film, something that it's very hard for me to do at a young age, as I'm afraid he will take it personally (which he does not). Being able to articulate that disappointment is an important moment. But it's also the moment when, in sensing and trying to work out a movie's failures, that I begin to understand that they are the result of choices, good or bad, that can affect the whole. I will later shift my opinion on Temple of Doom-- it's deeply flawed, but I love its go-for-broke spirit-- but this backyard discussion heralds the next step in my transformation: from film fan and trivia geek to budding critic.

5)  Favorite film book   

Oh, man-- so, so many to choose from (budding critic indeed!). Andre Bazin's What Is Cinema, vols. 1& 2 were an immense discovery for me in college; I've talked so much about Pauline Kael's work on this blog that I almost feel like she should be its avatar; I adore David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film, even if its author has abandoned his movie love for a weird love/hate cinephobia (although I think that stance also gets exaggerated by Internet movie mandarins with opposing agendas); while not strictly a "film book," Raymond Benson's James Bond Bedside Companion (which combines analyses of the books and movies) was my first encounter with "serious" (i.e., not newspaper) film criticism at the tender age of 13, and so it holds an important place in my heart; the 1950s and 60s collections of Cahiers du Cinema (and Francois Truffaut's The Movies of My Life, and Tom Milne's edited collection Godard on Godard) remain benchmarks of movie crit cool; everything written by James Naremore is essential; and a world without Andrew Sarris' The American Cinema is simply unthinkable.




But if I'm honest, it's probably The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy (1995), Robert Ray's wittily titled academic study of the Mickey Rooney series. 
 
Describing it that way is like saying Citizen Kane is simply about a man with a sled fixation, and I don't make that comparison flippantly-- for me, reading it over the course of a Chicago winter was as life-transforming as watching Orson Welles' masterpiece was for those young cinephiles in post-war Paris. "To make Citizen Kane at 25, is that not the dream of every young cinephile?," Truffaut wrote, and for me, on the cusp of 24, Ray's formally audacious book blew open my notions of what film writing--especially academic film writing-- could be. Starting from the (sadly still-true) proposition that academic film studies has, through institutional inertia and ideological convenience, found itself recycling the same theoretical tropes again and again (ironically, much as the Hollywood apparatus it so often critiques recycles genres and stars), Ray proposes two seemingly opposed solutions: moving from "major" films to overlooked B-films like the Andy Hardy series, and applying Surrealist and post-structuralist strategies for examining them. But not just the ideas of those movements (which are well-integrated into academic study), but their formal methodologies: games, fragments, experiments, an Exquisite Corpse of film study. From Irrational Enlargement to Barthesian ABCs to Ulmerian mystories, The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy casts a wide, deep, and thoroughly engaging net. And it reads like a dream.  


 Simple plot summary doesn't do it justice, anymore than a capsule can capture a film-- you just have to read the damn thing to get its real effect (which is, after all, Ray's larger point about needing to make academic study as accessible and addictive as the movies it studies).  Ray's work had hit me at several moments in my life: the fall evening in 1992 when I read his essay on It's A Wonderful Life in my dorm room and had a "eureka!" moment, pushing and pushing and finally understanding his use of structuralism; reading A Certain Tendency of The American Cinema, his first book, in the fall of 1996 in a drafty Rogers Park apartment, thinking about graduate school, enthralled by his readings of The Maltese Falcon and The Godfather; being so excited about that book that I immediately dove into the next, read the first few pages of The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy, and threw it across the room in seething disgust, actually spatting out a "NO!" as I did so; picking it up a while later, and really starting to read it, and pushing through its dense ideas (only some of which I was then familiar with) over the next couple of months. I was in the process of applying to graduate schools, and Florida, Ray's homebase, was one of the places I was looking. I got in, wasn't sure where to go, and finished the book on a bus back from a trip to Bloomington, Indiana. I think it was the ABCs chapter that was my eureka moment that time--it was enthralling, and I thought, "I could do this. I could go there, and do this kind of work." 

 
And that's what I did.  That fall I moved to Gainesville, met Ray, took his class the following spring, and it was, as Rick says to Louis at the end of Casablanca, the beginning of a beautiful friendship. My M.A. thesis would be built around the ABC method described in the book, looking at Since You Went Away; my dissertation-- an anecdotal history of Hollywood-- would be a new extension of the experimental strategies Ray outlined in 1995. I've taught The Avant-Garde several times, had students write experimental papers based on its strategies, asked them to dream up new ones following its inspiration. Ray lit a fuse in me with that book, a desire for a writerly academic cinephilia, that burns to this day (hell, it's why I blog). He would be a director, mentor and friend for the next fifteen years, as he remains today. The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy is the most readable academic film book I've ever encountered, and even if one cares not one whit for Mr. Hardy, it can transform your life. After all, it transformed mine.
   
6)  Diana Sands or Vonetta McGee?

Who?
       
7)   Most egregious gap in your viewing of films made in the past 10 years

Staying current with films at all becomes a bigger and bigger challenge as I get older, and life takes a greater hold on one's time, so simply catching up with what movie blog pals are discussing is a win in my book. After making the mistake of watching Requiem for a Dream in the theater, I've avoided all subsequent Aronofsky films, but I don't consider that a "gap" in the way some people might (more an island of cinephilic sanity). There's a lot of Iranian cinema in the last ten years that I need to see, and more Korean films; I've only started really diving into anime in the last five years, so I'm sure there are stacks of things to watch in that area.


 But here's my big confession: I've never seen No Country for Old Men. Despite the fact that I've owned the movie for four or five years, I've never gotten around to it. And I really should.
       
8)      Favorite line of dialogue from a comedy


Well, a scavenger hunt is exactly like a treasure hunt, except in a treasure hunt you try to find something you want, and in a scavenger hunt you try to find something that nobody wants. 

9)      Second favorite Lloyd Bacon film

Footlight Parade, although it's a testament to Bacon's skill that I enjoy Knute Rockne despite my Notre Dame antipathy, and I've always meant to see Marked Woman.

10)   Richard Burton or Roger Livesey?


Livesey-- I love Burton, of course, but there's nothing in Burton's oeuvre to match the full-bodied emotional depth of Livesey in Colonel Blimp, or his charm-with-a-dash-of-acid in I Know Where I'm Going!
       
11)   Is there a movie you staunchly refuse to consider seeing? If so, why?


Sure-- I'll never see The Passion of the Christ, a film whose existence bothered me so much that I openly mocked it to folks standing in line for tickets as I left the multiplex (I'm both ashamed and unashamed of that). Otherwise, I think there are films I probably won't see, for a variety of reasons, but that I'm not staunchly against ever seeing. For instance, my difficulty with films about mental illness means I've never seen Shock Corridor, despite my admiration for Samuel Fuller. I have trouble watching films about the suffering of the elderly (especially after Umberto D. just destroyed me-- god, that scene with the dog and the train! I get shudders and a lump in the throat just typing this). This means it will probably be awhile before I get around to Amour or Make Way for Tomorrow. And then there are those films I've skipped out of sheer cussedness, just because I got sick of people telling me "YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS!!" Or worse, the various internet discussions around various films that make you sound like a bad cinephile if you haven't seen fill-in-the-blank (be patient and I'll get to you eventually, Holy Motors).

12)   Favorite filmmaker collaboration





Cary Grant is the only actor I ever loved in my whole life.
                       --Alfred Hitchcock

       
13)   Most recently viewed movie on DVD/Blu-ray/theatrical?

DVD:



Blu-Ray: I don't have one, but the last movie I streamed was this:



Theatrical:

14)   Favorite line of dialogue from a horror movie
     

    Do me a favor... save my life. 
                  --Kevin Spacey

What? It was one of the most terrifying times I ever spent in a theater.
 
15)   Second favorite Oliver Stone film
      
I assume this question is timed to Miss Brodie's romanticizing of dictatorial strong-men, and their Boswells? There are few contemporary American directors I hate more than Oliver Stone-- from the misogyny of his work, to the smug lefty idiocy of his public statements, to the endless, literal thematizing that destroys whatever joy his images generate. He makes Michael Moore look like Jean Renoir.

My favorite Stone film, such as it is, is Wall Street. I love its shamelessly operatic structure, its cartoonishly blunt look at father-son relationships (which is present in Platoon, too, and far more obnoxious there), its garish fetishizing of cars and homes and over-sized cell phones. Even Daryl Hannah's pointlessly arch line readings work (I'll forever be haunted by the way she reads "I'd say Gordon is one of the most astute collectors out there" like a community theater Cruella DeVille) because they're framed by a world where everything is over-the-top, and everyone is straining to craft a larger-than-life public image. "Greed is good" is not only Gordon's motto-- it's the film's, whose beautiful people, energetic mobile framing and neon mise-en-scene mock and invert the easy moralisms of its screenplay (cinematographer Robert Richardson is Stone's Bud Fox, getting the sheen the director needs to make his larger points). "I never judged a man by the size of his wallet!," a very good Martin Sheen screams to his son Charlie, and we nod at his sage proletarian posturing; but you can almost imagine Oliver Stone giggling behind his viewfinder, thinking of another way for his camera to lust after Gordon Gekko's striped shirts and Cuban cigars.



Wall Street is the one time Stone gives in to his considerable talent for melodrama; he certainly doesn't put his desire for a political cinema aside (check out that title, after all), but it's forced to filter through rich blues and oranges and yellows that soak through his lens like red wine falling on Gordon's shag white carpet (see? It's so powerful it even makes you write like Edward Bulwer-Lytton-- and that's not an entirely bad thing).


But of course, the question was, what's my second-favorite Stone movie? And I'm very hard-pressed to think of one, because everything else falls apart under Stone's endless posturing to be the Biggest Guy In The Room.  Weirdly (because I find his conspiracy theories sophomoric), I guess it's JFK-- it's a remarkably stupid film, but one with a feverish desire to slide, skid and surf across the surface of cinema, to get high on the images and try to get us movie-drunk, too. Ignore Stone's tenuous grasp of history-- I suspect his obsession with the Zapruder film has nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with the garish, Roger Cormanesque qualities of the bullet smashing the President's head back. It's Stone's ultimate found object.

16)   Eva Mendes or Raquel Welch?

Welch, I guess, although Rita Hayworth blows them both out of the water.


17)   Favorite religious satire


       
18)   Best Internet movie argument? (question contributed by Tom Block)/19)   Most pointless Internet movie argument? (question contributed by Tom Block) 


Here's the thing: I'm convinced you can have a good movie argument-- fun, forceful, perceptive, wide-ranging, full of animated gestures (or internet drawings of gestures) and facial expressions (or internet emoticons)-- about anything. The trick is to have it with the right people. Which means that avoiding the most pointless internet movie arguments is not about choosing a topic, but about avoiding those people you don't like or respect, who will drag it all down into name-calling, ad hominem accusations, and endless, irrelevant YouTube links. Know your trolls. 

20)   Charles McGraw or Robert Ryan?


If he'd only done Crossfire, he'd be here. But the fact that Robert Ryan still had The Set-Up, The Woman on Pier 13, On Dangerous Ground, The Naked Spur, Bad Day At Black Rock, The Dirty Dozen and The Wild Bunch ahead of him makes him an easy choice. I'm also dying to see the Jay Gatsby he did for Playhouse 90.
          
21)   Favorite line of dialogue from a western

Just before I started writing this post, TCM was running The Westerner with Gary Cooper. Now, Cooper isn't necessarily one's go-to guy for dialogue, I suppose, but I was reminded again of how much the western-- as much or moreso than any genre outside of science fiction--is reliant on imagery to carry meaning, to the point where words are almost superfluous. That's not to say that there aren't great lines in westerns-- of course there are--but what I want is the landscape, and the movement across it, and the fall of the sun behind the mountains, and the swift pull of a gun, or the leap on a horse. So I hardly ever think of favorite lines from westerns, the way I might with noirs, screwball comedies, or musicals. But, in honor of that great scholar Quentin Tarantino, let's go with "That'll be the day."
       
22)   Second favorite Roy Del Ruth film



Born To Dance, because I love Eleanor Powell. But honestly, I've only seen his musicals (and I think of The Ziegfeld Follies more as a Minnelli film). I stare at Roy Del Ruth's IMDb listing, and I see a wealth of films that sound spectacular, which I have not seen. To Netflix, to Netflix!
       
23)   Relatively unknown film or filmmaker you’d most eagerly proselytize for

 Every film I can think of is less "unknown" than "unappreciated," or "underrated," or "despised," none of which are exactly the same thing. As someone who does not go to festivals, I feel like most films and filmmakers are known by someone by the time they get to me, which makes this question even harder. So I'll just pass, and say that I look forward to learning about these things in other people's entries.

    
24)   Ewan McGregor or Gerard Butler?


Since being miscast as the title character in the doomed movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera (it really would have helped to cast someone who can sing), and then dragging as the hero of the interminable 300 (named after how long its running time feels, no doubt) Gerard Butler has proven to be a charming leading man, but he's really only as good as his co-star. That means he's very sweet and sad opposite Hillary Swank in P.S. I Love You, but suffers when trying to make a convincingly real human out of Katherine Heigl in The Ugly Truth. My affection for Jessica Biel means Playing For Keeps is sitting in my i-tunes rental library, but the fact that I'm less enamored of Butler means I haven't rushed to watch it the way I might if it starred, say, Paul Rudd in his part.



Ewan McGregor, on the other hand, is a fantastic actor-- and at this point, a weirdly underrated one. I suppose the Star Wars prequels damaged some of his hipster cred, and I can't imagine going to see Jack The Giant Slayer anytime soon. But the list of films, big and small, that he's enhanced with with his blend of charm, menace, intensity and searching romanticism is simply endless: Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary, Brassed Off, The Pillow Book, Down With Love, Velvet Goldmine, Moulin Rouge, Big Fish...Even something like The Island, which becomes Michael Bay's best film simply because of how thoroughly and uncondescendingly McGregor embraces the film's ridiculous conceit and makes it feel vital, at least for those two hours of watching. He's also a lot of fun in the two TV miniseries he made with Charley Boorman, Long Way Round and Long Way Down, which document their globe-hopping bike trips. And even though almost nothing about the Lucas prequels works as well as it should, none of that is McGregor's fault-- he mimics Alec Guiness' timbre and inflections beautifully, while also bringing a young man's controlled rage to the Jedi mythos. When, in Revenge of the Sith, he's finally allowed to cut loose and be an action hero, the smile that dances on his lips and the gleam in his eye makes up for a million Jar Jar Binks malapropisms. 


25)  Is there such a thing as a perfect movie?

Of course there is.       



 
26)   Favorite movie location you’ve most recently had the occasion to actually visit *


To celebrate our one-year anniversary, my wife and I spent a weekend at the Renaissance Hotel in Downtown Cleveland. A couple of weeks later, we sat in a theater in Westlake and watched The Avengers, and when Loki appears in Germany, tries to take control of the area outside the opera house and gets smacked down by Thor, we suddenly realized it all looked very familiar: "Germany" was actually the square right next to our hotel (and the cast apparently stayed there while shooting in Cleveland the previous summer). Given the city's heavy blend of German, Serbian and Croatian communities, it was a poetic "casting choice" for the location of that particular scene (our cab driver told us he actually witnessed a lot of the battle scenes being filmed in the city on his various routes).

27)   Second favorite Delmer Daves film


Nothing can compare to Dark Passage, one of those great noirs that really deserves more attention. But Daves' gift for a tight frame and slow-building terror was well-deployed in Destination Toyko, where he also gets a tough, stripped-down performance out of Cary Grant.

28)   Name the one DVD commentary you wish you could hear that, for whatever reason, doesn't actually exist *


Orson Welles, regaling us with anecdotes about Joseph Cotten on the commentary track for Criterion's double-disc, full restoration of The Magnificent Ambersons. If he also wants to throw in a chorus of "The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo," I will not complain.

29)   Gloria Grahame or Marie Windsor?


      
30)   Name a filmmaker who never really lived up to the potential suggested by their early acclaim or success

At one point, I would have said Whit Stillman, who made two perfect films (Metropolitan and Barcelona), one mediocre one (The Last Days of Disco), and then disappeared for fourteen years. But Damsels In Distress was such a joyous return that it's hard to say he hasn't lived up to his potential, just that one wishes he'd access it a bit more often.


What about John Singleton? It feels remarkably dated now, but Boyz N The Hood was a huge deal back in 1991-- it came out the summer before my freshman year of college, and the impact on people my age, especially, was immense: it was the crest of the so-called "Black Pack" renaissance that Spike Lee had kicked into gear with She's Gotta Have It, and the future seemed like an endless horizon of potentially great films. Singleton followed it up with the flawed but interesting romantic drama Poetic Justice, and the heavy-handed but skillful Higher Learning. And then...

And then what? He's continued working on projects both personal (Rosewood, Baby Boy) and product-driven (Shaft, 2 Fast 2 Furious), but none of them show the flash of personality that his debut film did. He's only 44, so he has a lot of time to explore, but it's hard to imagine him ever capturing that kind of excitement and insight again.

31)   Is there a movie-based disagreement serious enough that it might cause you to reevaluate the  basis of a romantic relationship or a friendship? *

No, but I would not want this man showing up on my television.

2 comments:

le0pard13 said...

Enjoyable read. You might even like 'No Country For Old Men'... at least 3/4ths of like me ;-).

Brian Doan said...

Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. I'd like to get to NO COUNTRY soon, and can't really say why I haven't watched it yet. I guess it strikes me as being the kind of movie one really has to be in the mood for, and I want to pick the right time to savor it. As I usually like the Coens best when they're doing crime movies, I'm pretty sure I'll like it.