August 9, 2013

I'm watching a movie on my iPhone. It's a tiny thing, and I'm not wearing headphones, so the sound is a bit tinny. I'm hunched over, my head down--and the posture seems familiar somehow, the experience not a new one, not contemporary at all—but maybe it's every time I've watched a movie. Maybe if I look up I'll be in a nickelodeon and we'll all be hunched over Kinetescopes and watching Why Mrs. Jones Got a Divorce or The Gay Shoe Clerk or The Mystic Swing—or maybe it's just Hulu Plus or Fandor or Amazon or Netflix streaming them, finally getting every motion picture right there in our hands—diminished but endless—or endlessly diminished.  A few years ago someone posted a video of David Lynch growling how pathetic it is that you think you're watching a movie on your "fucking phone"—and in the background played the Apple jingle, gently upbeat, optimistic about what you'll view next. I nod in agreement with David—and return to the movie in my hand.

July 14, 2013 [Pacific Rim]

Here's some typically Japanglish cockeyed poetry: neon-genesis-evangelion--three words in a row without any clear connective thread, but evocative: a "neon genesis" would be quite a thing, all pale yellow and pink and aqua and Kelly green--and an "evangelion"; what could that be? Some kind of evangelizing hellion?

Don't be silly: Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the brightest jewels in the anime crown, silly-sexy and startling and surprisingly complex and comic-book straightforward, depending on which episode or incarnation you happen upon. The one I saw at the movies, though, came in through a side door: Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro's heartfelt love letter to that pastel cartoon--even more so than an homage to big monster rally movies, although there's plenty of those. And along the way are hints of H.P. Lovecraft and Thunderbirds Are Go! and sundry pop-apocalypse movies and comics and animations.

After Transformers, people who like movies were understandably skittish about this one. But del Toro is reliable, whether campy (Hellboy) or Gothic (Cronos) or surreal (Pan's Labyrinth)--and always somehow moving, as he is most of all with The Devil's Backbone.  I'd heard at one point he was supposed to direct The Hobbit--and I was relieved; I knew he would approach a beloved children's book with affection and respect, no matter how extravagant the effects.

Instead, though, he found an outlet for untrammeled extravagance in Pacific Rim--indeed, it might not have worked if approached with anything resembling restraint.  He often likes to mix-n-match genres and moods, and that kid-at-play instinct serves this movie well--although it manages to keep its head and, unlike Transformers movies, actually lets us see what's going on. The action sequences are--what word can suffice? "Gargantuan"? "Monumental"? "Colossal"? They all sound self-evident--or Golden Age Hollywood overcooked, the kind of thing the ad department would scream all over posters for DeMille pictures. What I remember is the beauty of it, the shining water cascading over light and silver, the deep dark overlaid with flashes and a glow that made me care less what was happening, as long as I could keep looking at it.

Children know how to watch movies better than anyone because they're so good at seeing--not the analytical stare of the critic or the "male gaze" that claims ownership. No, children look not at something but within it--and not with "empathy," exactly; that's too moral a vision. They see something for not only what it is but what it is to them--no, that's not quite right either. All I know is that a child--if you haven't damaged him or told her to stop daydreaming--can look at the bark of a tree or a wallpaper pattern and not be bored. Their gaze seems simple; actually, it's deep and untrained, so it's free to keep gazing, a constant act we cease as we become adults--but one that a lucky few revive, sometimes just watching giant robots splash around.

June 30, 2013 [Husbands, Pineapple Express, The Heat]

I'm sorry I missed This Is the End last month--no, really I am.  Pineapple Express made me laugh, still does--in large part because of its home-made feeling, as though the players have known each other for years--and for all I know maybe they have; in any case, it was as if an elaborate home movie had been found, something kids would do in their backyard--because it was juvenile and slapdash, but persistent in its efforts to make everyone comfortable with foolish fun.  Most important, it felt improvised--but not lazy, the great danger of such freedom as cameras roll.  And maybe a worse danger: not being funny, which Pineapple Express avoided because the actors were so generous with each other, and did everything they could to stick it out together.

Not to make too big a fuss about it--when have I ever?--but this kind of picture, as raunchy and gross and stupid as it may be, brings me back to John Cassavetes' work, in particular Husbands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Cassavetes himself method-improvising their way through a long post-funeral meander.  I went on YouTube and reminded myself that I hadn't imagined it: the three of them really did go on The Dick Cavett Show and wreak havoc, maybe drunk, certainly in their own altered counter-culture-Stooges state, wrestling and yelling and mugging and even driving Cavett off the set for a while. As I reflect on that moment in 1970, it reminds me that the '70s had a spark of hope as it tried to smash foolish idols and find new kinds of comedy and tragedy. The cynicism and egoism that came with such efforts was inevitable, but sometimes I can look past that to the childhood joy of breaking windows that decade so often encouraged.

Now, one could argue that Cassavetes & Co. were geniuses, so such cinematic horseplay achieved a certain height--or depth, whatever. But Pineapple Express--and, I suspect, This Is the End--have their own inspired height/depth aspirations. I said they were generous to each other; well, they're also generous to us, inviting us in and palling around the dangerous curves of the ad lib and the unexpected.

We went to see The Heat and felt a similar centrifugal force--or maybe, as the observers, it was centripetal--then again, when we laughed we became a part of the movie, so maybe the force is centrifugal only when I laugh--oh, screw it: The Heat moved like Cassavetes and Seth Rogan and James Franco and the others back there spinning and flinging us around.  Melissa McCarthy, even when the physics are wrong--as they were with Identity Thief earlier this year--still sends off sparks, mumbling asides like Popeye and riffing on every little thing. In The Heat she seems to have regained her footing--only to jump straight up, yanking along Sandra Bullock, the two of them unashamed and even eager, like those guys in their ultra-R-rated bromances, to cast off all dignity in order to find something funny.
And one thought more: Sandra Bullock, the postmodern Lucille Ball, emerges in The Heat as one of the most generous actors I've seen. She lets McCarthy flop around like a fish--or pummel like a jackhammer--and keeps right up--and not merely by exercising her own freakout (although by the end the plot requires her personality to be McCarthy-ized); no, she accepts her straight woman role and finds its own awkward-embarrassed slapstick. McCarthy's sneering at Bullock's pajamas is masterful: she misunderstands the garment, then covers by mocking it, imagining a surreal bed-tuxedo, overstepping a little, as she often does--but here it works, because all Bullock has to do is wear the darn pajamas and let McCarthy put her foot in her mouth and mutter insults around it.  I won't hesitate to say that at these moments Bullock's touch is light and precise--again, allowing McCarthy's outrages to work.

Well, back to the '70s one more time: All these post-millennial comedies owe more to National Lampoon than to Porky's: the former peeps and giggles at girls, while the latter, both as a magazine and the force behind Animal House and Vacation, wanted to free the actors--especially John Belushi and Chevy Chase--to let them tear down the walls of propriety in their own way--which seems filled with a kind of joy--even if by the end all your idols are smashed.


November 20, 2012 [Lincoln]

Among his observations of Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson noted "Uncle Abe"'s "boyish cheerfulness" in telling a story or delivering a witty line: "When he has made his remark, he looks up at you with great satisfaction, and shows all his white teeth, and laughs." Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis do the same with Lincoln: despite the wrangling, the anguish, the horror of having to grind out politics during slaughter, they find Lincoln's sharp and openhearted mind with great satisfaction—and ask us to laugh with him, the survivor's laugh, startled that one is still alive despite all that calamity, and suddenly realizing the truth of bravery, that you have to earn it, the hardest labor of all.

Already, they're Oscar-buzzing about Argo, a movie about movies—plus it's patriotic in a non-denominational way. And, like Lincoln, it depends on engrossing us with the process, since history has already told us the punchline. But Lincoln made me wonder how it was going to end, as though I was not watching dramatized facts but listening to one of Lincoln's illustrative stories—that even as he told it, became proverbial. As Emerson also notes in his eulogy, "I am sure if this man had ruled in a period of less facility of printing, he would have become mythological in a very few years, like Aesop." And of course Emerson was wrong: the man did become mythological. I haven't visited the Lincoln Memorial in twenty years or so, but I still recall how quiet everyone grew in there, tourist-chatter minimized in front of that saddest face in American politics. Lincoln knows that look, and Day-Lewis reproduces it with uncanny mimetic power—but there's a light in there, too, one whose purpose is moral, and that wants to shine "with immense power"—as Lincoln thunders about himself as President—and not just at that moment, but along the long decades, now centuries, since he finagled the Amendment to the Constitution despite the Constitution, all the while showing his teeth and laughing.

November 12, 2012 [Skyfall]

How cool was Daniel Craig in Layer Cake? As cool as that other guy, Jason Statham, in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (and by the way: when it's time to finally make a Doc Savage movie the right way, they better get Statham), the two of them instant old hands, neo-Rat Pack-ers to the core.

Statham, though, was more of a jack-in-the-box than Craig, and more working-class—and he's never lost that almost-light touch, bounding around and double-flipping his way out of kinetic scrapes. Daniel Craig seemed to settle down, hold it in—and so he made perfect sense as James Bond—twice, for sure, Quantum of Solace not the disappointment some decided it had to be—maybe only because Craig seemed confident that he could just keep being the best Bond since Connery.

Fortunately, the guys who spend the money didn't listen to the Quantum of Solace complainers—or maybe they did: Skyfall manages to be both old-school Bond and Dark Knight-ish moody. Sam Mendes directs with a nice bifurcation: when things aren't dizzy and careening they're painterly and balanced—Jim Emerson in his blog Scanners points out how symmetrical the framing often is—and it's one of the best things about the movie, the almost comic-book-ish centering of the hero in the frame while around him lights and patterns and golden splashes fly.

—And one more bifurcation: of Bond himself, in his evil double, Javier Bardem's Silva. Sure, Bond villains always have more fun than Bond, but Bardem bears down on Bond with those wild eyes of his—and he sees himself in Bond, and makes Bond see himself in Silva. Between the two of them, the movie reaches further than pop pulp and reassures me that all those Bond films are not, in the end, simply too many Bond films. As long as Craig keeps his gaze level and his mouth shut, he'll gives us a Bond that knows his duty and just keeps working—as he does in the novels, a little bemused, but solid.


September 25, 2012 [How to Survive a Plague]

How to Survive a Plague chronicles a mighty effort: to deal with AIDS during the Reagan/Bush years. Just tapping out those words is daunting--I remember what the bigger better kinder gentler America was like during that decade-plus--and it was a struggle, mostly between those who saw the end at last to New Deal liberalism and those who knew that America was about to change. We were post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-oil--but also mid-Ayatollah, with the Soviet Union teetering on the brink of the Information Age and unable to keep its balance--plus Poland having enough of it and new waves of terrorism adding to an already-global sense that everyone's neighbor was building something dangerous in the basement.

Into this murk sprung Reagan with a kindly smile for some, a you-just-don't-get-it shake of the head for others, and a tear-down-that-wall growl for the cameras.  I'm long done joking about the actor in the White House, the Bedtime for Bonzo sneer. No matter what they were or what you thought of them, Reagan's promises were kept--and to do so he had to put up a wall against the facts of life.

--And into that murk sprung AIDS, and it was as though all the seething resentments of the past half-century had an outlet. There it was, a disease that seemed made especially for someone it was always safe to scorn, fags--and boy did we dive in.  I can't think of those years without recalling Eddie Murphy in, I think, Delirious--I'm not sure; one of his concert films--talking about girlfriends going out with their gay pal and getting a little kiss from him and coming home with that AIDS on their lips.  Man, was he funny.

--And into that murk sprung ACT UP, with its successes and missteps, even failures, but which rose up and fought back--and they were right all long: they ended up being us, as much Ryan White as Rock Hudson. And knowing that helped us finally to shut up--or at least show up--Jesse Helms and even, just a little, just for a while, the John Joseph O'Connors and Reaganites--and now here we are, trying hard to leave each other alone--the great American Dream of independence from other people's stupidity--while finding ways to lend a hand.  But Silence still = Death, and the good AIDS drugs we got at last should be just the start; after all, that urge to be left alone can be a knife, and it cuts both ways: We don't want to hear it any more, whether it's homophobia or racism or whatever wall we build because we're tired, we've got bigger problems than who marries whom and what we're supposed to do about it.  But if all those people who worked so hard in the '80s are dead now, somebody has to keep doing something--even if it's a misstep or failure.  How to Survive a Plague reminds me that silence can be a sin--with its own wages, its only wages, one decade after another.


September 23, 2012 [End of Watch]

End of Watch is a "found footage" movie, the cop's Media Studies course project and the crooks' lookit-me videos combined with cop-car cameras all edited to give us a movie that gets as close as anything I've seen to the privacy of the everyday—even though that "everyday" is frequently punctuated by gunshots and fist-fights. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña seize this opportunity and make us believe not only that they're L.A. cops but that they've known each other for years. And their humor, anger, and love—for reckless action and each other—suffuse the movie with the sharp lines of bright sunlit conviction.

And so I barely noticed when the camera suddenly leaves the characters' hands and asserts the experience as a movie, a constructed thing that is not organic but scripted, not a path we follow along with them but a straight line to a hell that the director and writer, David Ayer, has delineated before, filled with melodrama and Hollywood-filtered fury—with Christian Bale in Harsh Times and Kurt Russell in Dark Blue and perhaps most famously with Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in Training Day. As rough as these rides may have been, they were discernibly movies, and I could let them move along their course without getting involved.

But here Ayer draws back, lets the conversation between Brian and Mike be itself—as though I was in the back seat with them, or standing off to the side in those tense living rooms and alleyways. So when the conceit of the character-held consumer-end video camera ends, I barely noticed. Ayer simply also seemed to be there, and so it made sense he'd hold the camera for them as everything fell apart, when filming stuff was the last thing they were thinking of or needed.