The extended Eastwood binge I’ve been on, not to mention the recent Bollywood adventures I’ve had, have, for some reason, given me a hankering for Bergman.
Now, there are the Bergman movies everyone knows (The Seventh Seal, Persona, Wild Strawberries) and then there are the movies that are just as good that nobody ever seems to talk about. 1949′s Thirst is close to the top of my list of my Favorite Bergman Movies Nobody Talks About. (My number 1 Favorite Bergman Movie Nobody Talks About is the flabbergasting masterpiece Shame, which I had never even heard of before I popped it in my DVD player a few years back. It seared off my eyelids.) Honestly, Thirst is just really pretty freaking amazing, and if it weren’t for the fact that Bergman went on to make 20 or 30 movies that happen to be better than it, it would stand as a triumph in just about anyone else’s career.
urbaniak has been talking about watching Battle of Algiers since we watched Z a year and a half ago. I have always held Z up as my model of authenticity, a political thriller that really makes you feel like you are there watching history unfold. Now I have seen Battle of Algiers, a movie that, in terms of capturing a historical moment, makes Z feel as authentic as Fiddler on the Roof.
Somehow, urbaniak has gone all these years without seeing Dirty Harry. And I guess my recent enthusiasm for Things Eastwood is catching, because we’ve set aside our recent John Ford/John Wayne kick to watch Eastwood’s breakthrough 1971 detective thriller.
Here’s the funny part: in the "special features" part of the recent DVD set (which boasts a stunning transfer, by the way), Robert Urich (an actor whose work I’m familiar with primarily through Stuntman Mike’s discussion of it in Death Proof) hosts a little documentary on the Dirty Harry series where he paces the movies’ San Francisco locations and gingerly tries to provide the viewer with some social and cinematic history so that we can place Harry Callahan in his proper perspective as we watch the movie.
So urbaniak and I have been watching some of the classic John Ford-John Wayne movies. We started with The Searchers, because everyone does, and then moved to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, then Fort Apache. The result: Urbaniak feels that this Wayne guy could really be going places. "He’s my new favorite actor," quoth the thespian, who apparently had never really sat down and watched a John Wayne movie before. Not even True Grit.
urbaniak and I are in the middle of a little John Ford – John Wayne retrospective. Last Thursday we watched The Searchers (because it’s out now on a spectacular blu-ray transfer) and tonight it was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. (We’ve just finished a little "30s Gangster Movie" retrospective, having watched Scarface, The Roaring Twenties and Little Caesar all in a row, with The Public Enemy still waiting in its shrinkwrap.)
urbaniak and I have an ongoing game, where we try to draw parallels between actors of one generation and another. Certain "types" are always needed for one kind of narrative or another, and so it stands to reason that Cary Grant gets re-born as George Clooney, Robert Redford gets re-born as Brad Pitt, Steve McQueen gets re-born as Daniel Craig, and so forth.
The sad thing is that some actors are never re-born. I’ve searched for decades and not found a replacement for Myrna Loy, or Carole Lombard, or Gene Kelly.
I’ve been on a bit of a Steve McQueen kick here at chez Wadpaw: a couple of weeks ago urbaniak and I watched the 1968 Thomas Crown Affair and the other night I finally got around to the 1958 Blob.
One of the chief pleasures of The Blob is to watch Steve McQueen before he really became Steve McQueen. He’s still susceptible to direction, and tries to "help" scenes along by adding gestures and expressions for emphasis. Luckily, he learned to stop doing that really fast. The camera loves to look at him, and the less he does the more power he has as a performer. Urbaniak and I spent a portion of Bullitt comparing him to leading men of our time: who among our contemporaries possesses McQueen’s seemingly effortless magnetism and composure? Who today is as comfortable in his skin as McQueen is here?
came over last night, ostensibly to watch Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (United 93 had made him curious). Over burritos from Taco Plus (surely the best burritos on the west side) he told me about his experiences shooting his guest shot on Without a Trace and I told him of my adventures wading in the dark, scary waters of the 4chan message boards.
Unfortunately, the DVD of All the President’s Men I have dates back to the dawn of the digital age, and it became quickly apparent that it was a crappy transfer of an unrestored print, dark and muddy. About ten minutes in, I mentioned that I would go to the DVD store and get a remastered copy of the movie, and Urbaniak leaped in and said that he’d much rather do that than continue watching it now — watching movies on a high-definition projector on a nine-foot screen has turned both of us into frightful DVD snobs.
With both World Trade Center and All the President’s Men scotched, Urbaniak said “Hey, what about that low-budget science-fiction movie you were raving about?” I had, indeed, raved about Primer in the past, modestly touting it as one of the most incredible movies ever made. I hadn’t watched it in a few years (I saw it once in the theater, and probably three or four times on DVD) and was also eager to see how it would look on my big system. As much as I had praised it to Urbaniak, he assured me that I had not hyped it enough. The movie is flat-out unbelievable — a sheer delight and a heart-stopping sci-fi thriller from beginning to end, albeit in ways utterly unexpected and unpredictable.
First, there’s the fact that it was shot for, they say, $7000. Now, anyone who’s ever made a movie will tell you that $7000 gets you exactly nothing. For $7000, everyone is working for free and you make the movie on weekends in your living room. By all rights, a $7000 movie should look like utter crap, have non-actors giving non-performances and a script by a writer so untalented he couldn’t get any money to shoot it. None of this happens with Primer — it looks great, the script is one of the best I’ve ever seen shot and the performances are uniformly excellent — but, I mean, really, really excellent.
As far as I can tell, Shane Carruth, who wrote and directed the movie (and stars in it, and edited it, and scored it, and designed its production and sound) is an ex-engineer of some sort who used what is, apparently, his extensive understanding of technical matters to concoct this story of a couple of guys who are working on some kind of project in their garage and who accidentally discover a new application for their invention. What Wikipedia doesn’t tell you is that the guy is a born filmmaker.
When I hear “low-budget independent first feature,” you know what I think of? I think of Clerks, a movie with a loose concept and a rough shooting style that requires the logorrheic charm of its writing and the attitude of its cast to hold an audience’s attention. That ain’t Primer. Primer has a brilliant concept, finely-crafted writing that, on every level, commands attention, exudes authority and confidence, filmmaking that crackles with tension and vivid, ultra-natural performances from actors and non-actors alike.
Scenes are written without the slightest consideration of “inviting the audience in,” and cut to the bone of comprehension. The movie is about a bunch of wonks deeply involved in their world of engineering, and their conversations are full of — almost consist entirely of — long strings of technical terms as they debate this or that application of various mechanical processes. This decision creates incredible tension in the early scenes as the viewer struggles to keep up with the story, and also serves the dramatic purposes of the narrative, which is, essentially, about a start-up technical enterprise that goes bad. The characters, in some scenes, might as well be speaking in a foreign language, and so the viewer is forced to follow the non-verbal cues of the scenes closely — who is angry with whom, who no longer trusts whom, who is hiding what from whom, who is doing what behind who’s back.
This is not merely excellent genre writing, this is screenwriting of the highest order. This should be the goal of every ambitious screenwriter — to present moments of detailed, impeccably observed, unadorned, uninflected human interaction, and the camera happens to be there in the room at the time. It’s one of the hardest things to do, but Primer does it over and over again, in a narrative that relentlessly escalates into higher and higher realms of speculative fiction.
But that’s just for starters. On top of being a screenwriter of the first rank, Carruth also knows, somehow, right out of the box, where to put the camera, how to cut a scene together for maximum tension and surprise, how to place actors in the frame, how to coax subtle, lived-in performances from his cast, how to design and dress sets, how to effectively score a scene, and how to act. It all feels ridiculously “real,” which serves to make its fantastical narrative that much more creepy and suspenseful.
On the other hand, I’ve watched it four or five times now and am only now beginning to understand what the hell actually happens in it — this is a narrative so full of impressive twists and mind-bending concepts that it makes Mulholland Dr. look like Flipper. And it’s all presented in the most subtle, least melodramatic form possible — go for a handful of popcorn and you could easily miss one or two key plot points. Carruth insists that the information is all there in the movie for people to figure out, and since he’s obviously about ten times smarter than me I’m sure that’s true. The nice thing about Primer is that its scene-by-scene filmmaking is so enjoyable (and its running time so brief) that it easily invites — no, cheerfully demands — multiple viewings.
It’s been some while since
Anyway, United 93 is a swell movie — if you don’t mind holding your breath for two hours. It is about as well-executed as a movie like this — a real-life social drama about highly-charged events of recent history — could be. The writing, shooting, editing and acting are all excellent, creating a suffocating, well-nigh unbearable sense of dread and horror.
I saw United 93 on its opening weekend at the Arclight in Hollywood. The screen was huge, the sound was enveloping, the gritty, naturalistic drama overwhelming. The crowd, while not huge, was large enough. As the movie began, I began to get a sinking feeling — I realized that I had bought a ticket for a ride I didn’t really want to be on. As the drama intensified and intensified, it got to the point where I felt physically ill and short of breath. The movie was too well-made and too compelling to walk out of, but around the time the first plane hit the World Trade Center I suddenly remembered that I didn’t have a good time that day, and wondered about the wisdom of buying a ticket to experience that fear, horror, uncertainty and dread again. Plus, the bulk of the audience in the theater came, apparently, to see those fucking Arabs get it — when the final confrontation occurs in the closing minutes of the movie, there were plenty of shouts of “Kill those bastards!” in the theater.
The ensuing years have given me a little distance on the movie. It is a marvel of execution and feels unbearably “real.” (Paul Greengrass, in his shooting style, makes Costa-Gavras look like Stanley Kramer.) It is, structurally, a sophisticated supsense thriller, almost a heist movie with an ensemble cast. Suspense thriller? I should say it’s essentially a non-stop, 111-minute supense sequence. There is not a single moment of breathing room, no letup of suspense, only a steadily-escalating dread and horror that ends in a chaotic exclamation point.
It has all the elements of a crime melodrama. There are the terrorists, who are trying to execute their crime of crashing the plane into the Capitol building, there are the “cops,” the various air-traffic-control folk we see throughout who are trying to “solve the case” in a thicket of conflicting information and bureaucratic snafus (Urbaniak said he expected, and wanted, Walter Matthau to show up and just, you know, deal with things), and there are the passengers, the vigilantes who, pushed to their limit, finally take the law into their own hands. Hell, it’s practically The Dark Knight in that regard.
The suspense of Act I is: oh no, will the terrorists hijack the plane before their cover is blown by the other planes hitting the World Trade Center? There is a runway delay before takeoff, there are the pre-hijacking jitters of the lead terrorist, uncertainty hangs in the air. Weirdly, it puts us into the terrorists’ shoes: we sit there, squirming, ready to scream “Hijack the goddamned plane already, you assholes!” anything to break the steadily-ratcheting tension. The suspense of Act II is: oh no, will the military figure out what’s going on and cut through its red tape before the plane reaches the Capitol? The suspense of Act III is: will the passengers figure out what’s going on, make their stand and save the day?
In the end, the criminals don’t pull of the big job, the vigilantes succeed only in stopping the criminals, and the detectives don’t know there’s even a case until everyone’s dead. There’s a 21st-century lesson in there somewhere.
The filmmakers, with very few exceptions, avoid sentiment, but still, even though I know the ending when I start the movie, there is a moment mid-way through when I suddenly realize “oh shit — all these people are going to die,” and feel weird about even watching it any more. It’s the whole “how does this qualify as ‘entertainment’” question, the same one I have while watching Schindler’s List. When you watch a Holocaust drama, dammit, you want to see Nazi atrocities, and if those atrocities are elided or prettified, you feel short-changed — they didn’t give me full bang for my Holocaust-drama dollar. Similarly, in a 9/11 drama, dammit, you want to see those planes crash. What else would you be watching the movie for?
(It is indicative of, well, something, that when the second plane hit the WTC, the first thought in every American’s mind was not “oh the humanity” but “my God, it’s just like a movie.”)
It has been quite some time since
ventured over to my house to watch a movie on the big screen, and last night we didn’t even have a plan. He suggested Raiders of the Lost Ark, which turns out to have been absconded by my son for a trip to San Francisco, I suggested Primer, which is a fantastic movie that Urbaniak had never seen. Urbaniak was keen to watch a big, splashy Hollywood movie and somehow we settled on Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which was new to Urbaniak.
I will, of course, post a thorough analysis of War of the Worlds in due time. I think it is top-drawer Spielberg, as technically accomplished as any of his spectacles and as important in its way as Jaws or Saving Private Ryan.
There is a moment toward the end of Act II when the dad, played by Tom Cruise, leads his family through a riverside town on the way to a ferry, amid a sea of refugees. The crowd stops for a railroad crossing and waits patiently as the train passes through. When the crossing gate goes up, they resume their trek to the river. Why is this moment important? Well, for starters, the train passing through town is on fire. It rockets through the center of town and the crowd, who has seen plenty of weird stuff in the past 24 hours, pays no attention to it. No one comments, no one even gives it a second look. There are no Spielbergian shots of awe-struck common-folk gazing in wonder or fear. A flaming train rocketing through the center of a riverside New Jersey town is, by the end of Act II of War of the Worlds, the least interesting thing in the world.
I hadn’t noticed this before, but Urbaniak picked up on it right away — War of the Worlds is, in part, about a population’s reaction to wartime and the total breakdown of a society. We paused the DVD here and stopped to consider the allegory of War of the Worlds, and its limitations. On the one hand, the movie invokes 9/11 and its horrors, but on the other hand it suggests that 9/11 was not the disaster the media presented it as. Urbaniak remembered that, on 9/11, he had, of all things, a dentist appointment, and rode his bike uptown to keep it, witnessing on the way New Yorkers going about their days, relaxing in Central Park, laughing and socializing in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center. Quite apart from signaling a breakdown of society, the collapse of the World Trade Center made people in New York extra polite to one another — I don’t remember a single cross word being spoken in New York for weeks afterward. (Elsewhere, of course, it was a different story, as conservatives everywhere seized on the destruction of the World Trade Center as a tool to press their agenda of hate and fear.) I’ve been paying pretty close attention to Spielberg’s themes lately, but it was Urbaniak who noted that War of the Worlds is linked to, of all things 1941, as a portrait of a society that uses a threat of invasion as an excuse to indulge in a number of examples of inappropriate behavior.
So if War of the Worlds is an allegory, who are the humans and who are the aliens? A straight-ahead reading suggests that the humans are decent, working-class Americans and the aliens are the creepy, unknowable members of whatever International Islamic Jihad conservatives would have us believe waits and plots to take over the US (through their Manchurian Candidate Obama, of course — how sneaky, how diabolically clever, to have your inside man have the middle name “Hussein” — excellent work, International Islamic Jihad!) Read this way, the movie suggests that the Jihad may attack America, and they may try to turn us all into Muslims, but ultimately they will fail and die — because we’re American, damn it, and our blood is poison to them. In this reading, the mini-drama in the basement of the country house pits Decent Blue-Stater Tom Cruise against Rabid Red-Stater Tim Robbins in the battle of how best to respond to the threat.
But another way to read the movie is that the humans in War of the Worlds are the Iraqis and the aliens are the American Army. It’s the Americans who invaded a country for no good reason, destroying the societal fabric and the physical infrastructure, provoking a civil war between factions of the population. In this reading, Cruise becomes the Regular Iraqi Citizen and Robbins becomes the Wild-Eyed Insurgent. In both readings, the regular-man protagonist becomes increasingly radicalized as the threat comes closer and closer to destroying the only social structure that matters — the family.
A third way to read the movie, of course, is that the humans are the United States and the aliens are the Neo-Conservatives, who have been lying in wait for many years, waiting for their chance to pounce and take over the world, eliminating all their competition for the sake of total dominance, turning the population into quivering masses or digesting them outright. In this reading, the movie turns prophetic, suggesting that the hubris of the Neo-Conservatives and their “Permanent Republican Majority” is as ridiculous a notion as the English empire that inspired H.G. Wells to write the novel in the first place, the Nazis who inspired Orson Welles’s version of the story, or the Communist Menace who inspired the 1953 George Pal version.
It was a real pleasure for me, at this juncture of my Spielberg analysis, with Always under my belt and Hook looming in the wings, to fast-forward briefly to 21st-century Spielberg, who beats the pants off early-90s Spielberg in every conceivable way, not least in the skill of his casting and work with crowds. Not to mention the paradigm-shift of his shooting style, which I peg to Schindler’s List, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.