Movie Night With Urbaniak: Shadow of a Doubt

As a break from Spielberg, and specifically as a break from 1941, Urbaniak came over and we dipped into my newly-purchased Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection (otherwise known as “The Fuzzy Box” for its fake-velour container). There was some discussion about what we should watch — should it be something I’ve seen but he hasn’t (like Frenzy or Family Plot), something he’s seen but I haven’t (like Rope), something neither of us have seen (like Topaz) or something we’ve both seen, a proven winner? “Proven Winner” seized the day and we selected 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt, with Teresa Wright as the small-town girl with romantic dreams and Joseph Cotten as her favorite uncle Charlie.

Here’s my problem with Hitchcock, and the problem is all mine and not at all Hitchcock’s. When I was in film class back in high school, they showed me Psycho first and pointed out Hitchcock’s brilliant editing, his modernist, sophisticated camera movements, his cruel, ironic detachment and his morbid black humor. This, they said, is Good Hitchcock, and I, the good little student, nodded and wrote down all that, and watched other Hitchcock movies and wisely noted where he employed his brilliant editing, his modernist, sophisticated camera movements, his cruel ironic detachment and his morbid black humor. And so, when a Hitchcock movie had a deficit of any of these things, I consigned it to a list of “Not Good” Hitchcock. I would watch a movie like Sabotage and impatiently wait for the thrilling bomb-on-the-bus sequence, because that’s what I had been taught Good Hitchcock was “about.”

So let me just take this moment to say: God damn you, you stupid fucking film teachers, why would you teach the work of a director like that?
That would be like teaching film students the Coen Bros by saying “No Country For Old Men is the Coens at their best, it’s full of silences and suspense and minimalist camera movement,” and then pity the poor hapless generation of film students who then encounter The Big Lebowski and dismiss it as a minor work because it doesn’t have any of those things.

A few years ago, I was watching North by Northwest for the fifth or sixth time and, out of the blue, I suddenly noticed something new: Eva Marie Saint is really sexy. How had this plain-as-day fact of the narrative slipped by me before? Because it had nothing to do with what I had been taught was “Good Hitchcock,” and so I had spent the scenes of Eva Marie Saint’s seduction of Cary Grant looking at, I don’t know, the rear-projection plate probably.

I even went through a long period of time where I felt that Hitchcock maybe wasn’t all he was cracked up to be, that perhaps maybe his movies were only “about” moviemaking itself, that he was just a clever technician with nothing “real” to say about humanity. I’m happy to report that I am wrong in this assessment.

What rescued Hitchcock for me? Well, you’ll never guess, but the answer is screenplay analysis. All I needed to do was set aside the brilliant editing, modernist camera movements, etc, and concentrate on the story being told through analysis of the screenplay, and Hitchcock suddenly became a completely different director. Because, after all, the screenplay is what a movie is, the director is nowhere without it, even though my film teachers, in their auteurist fervor, had taught me the exact opposite.

So Urbaniak and I watched Shadow of a Doubt and yakked about the acting. Most of the cast is very fine, and the leads are quite wonderful. Their performances are informed by the 40s style of acting, but are still rooted in an emotional truth, which is crucial for this movie to work, because let’s face it, it’s actually a very small movie, set mostly in a house in a small town (the same town The Man Who Wasn’t There is set in, although I have a hard time figuring out why the Coens made that decision). Two key performances are off, in the room’s opinion — Macdonald Carey gives an absent, vague, glib performance as a detective looking for Uncle Charlie and Urbaniak un-fave Hume Cronyn is technical, showy and didactic as the nosy neighbor (Cronyn’s role becomes much more watchable when one imagines Bob Balaban in the part instead).

Early in the movie, a black train porter walks through a train compartment and delivers a few expository lines to an offscreen Joe Cotton. Urbaniak and I noted the dignity and composure of the actor and joked that he was probably a huge figure in the black American theater, had probably played Shakespeare and was probably a leader of black American actors, but this is the only kind of role he could get in Hollywood movies. Imagine our non-surprise when it turned out our instincts were exactly correct: Clarence Muse was a polymath actor/writer/composer, activist and leader of black American actors, and almost all of his Hollywood credits involve him playing a character named Porter.

So: about that screenplay.  Charlie Newton, the protagonist of Shadow of a Doubt, is a small-town girl with big dreams.  She wants to escape the bounds of her parochial, complacent small-town life, and just in time her favorite Uncle Charlie Oakley comes to visit.  Now then: note how the protagonist of Shadow of a Doubt is, essentially, passive.  Charlie longs for excitement, but she’s not doing anything to actually leave town.  Instead, she’s going to ask her favorite uncle to come stay — “That’ll shake things up!” she bubbles.  Little does she know that Uncle Charlie is already on his way, because he’s lying low trying to escape some detectives who are trailing him.  Because Charlie’s favorite Uncle Charlie is, in fact, a serial killer, a charming rogue who likes to woo wealthy widows and then slaughter them like cattle and steal their money.

The first two acts of Shadow of a Doubt move along at a brisk clip, but there is very little explicitly “Hitchcokian” about them — no ironic detachment, no modernist camera moves, no brilliant editing.  Why?  What’s the matter, was Hitchcock not inspired?  Well, no, thanks a lot, stupid film teachers.  Shadow of a Doubt is shot the way it is (or isn’t, depending on your point of view) because it’s a very internal story about a protagonist who isn’t even in pursuit of anything.  The story is, simply, a girl who’s just nuts about a guy who she thinks is the bees knees, and who, through Act II, starts acting a little weird, to the point where she thinks maybe this wonderful guy isn’t quite so wonderful.  At the end of Act II, a mere 60 minutes into the movie, the scales fall from her eyes and she realizes the wonderful guy is the exact opposite of wonderful, and the remaining 45 minutes or so (kind of long for a third act, but not so’s you’d notice) are a suspense-ridden chess game of Uncle Charlie trying to act innocent while trying to kill Charlie, and Charlie trying to get the goods on Uncle Charlie so he’ll leave town. 

So if you’re looking for directorial brilliance, try this — make a movie about a passive protagonist, where the narrative hinges about the way she feels about a guy, shoot it all with a minimum of tricks, and have it turn out to be a riveting suspense classic.


Movie Night With Urbaniak: Amblin’, Jaws

As I’ve mentioned before, I was a fan of Spielberg from the time I caught his name at the end of an episode of Columbo, so I was primed to enjoy Jaws on its opening weekend in spite of the fact that the movie had huge buzz and everyone else in the nation was excited about seeing it as well. (I was also a fan of Night Gallery before that, much to the consternation of my older, Twilight Zone-fan brother, and remember the two episodes he directed clearly, but didn’t know he had directed them until later. Both of them are available at Youtube if you type in “night gallery eyes” and “night gallery make me laugh” — and Tom Bosley is in both of them!)

Anyway, I remember seeing Jaws opening weekend like it was yesterday. The drive to the theater, the feeling when we walked in seven minutes late (packed theater, the shot on the screen, the electricity in the room) the shrieks and laughs from the crowd. Jaws hookedthe audience in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience hooked since, except maybe Star Wars and Alien. Spielberg’s effortless command of flow, rhythm and tension jerked that crowd around like, well, like a shark jerking around young Chrissie Watkins in the first scene.

I had had the movie bug ever since The Poseidon Adventure in 1972, but Jaws hit my consciousness like an atom bomb. I was obsessed with the movie, saw it many times in the theater, bought, read and re-read the two “making of” books, cut out ads from the newspapers, bought the poster and had it up on my wall for many years, kept track of the grosses and how long it played in which theaters. Think of this: there were theaters in Chicago where Jaws played for over a year. I paid attention to the way scenes were shot and cut, wondered why some shots followed others, paid attention to the way the audience’s senses were manipulated. You could say that before Jaws I understood there was a thing called a movie, but after Jaws I understood there was a thing called making a movie.  I wrote a short story for English class about a screening of Jaws where the projector breaks in the middle of the movie and a riot ensues, and the teacher read it aloud to the class and gave me an A.

How successful was Jaws? It made over $470 million in 1975 — that’s $1.8 billion in present-day dollars. Jurassic Park, in contrast, made half that much.

I don’t know — is there a movie out there that can affect an audience like Jaws did in 1975? For that matter, is there an audience out there prepared to be affected like this by a movie again? Jaws, and Spielberg, was one of the few cultural things my father and I agreed on (Star Wars was another, and The Godfather). There’s the famous rack/zoom shot of Chief Brody on the beach, and my father took great care to explain to me that Spielberg had lifted it from Vertigo, but couldn’t believe that this kid had taken a shot that Hitchcock had used as the exclamation point of his masterpiece and essentially tossed it away for a minor Act I plot-point — even he understood that this was a serious filmmaking talent to be reckoned with.

I have a great deal to say about the script of Jaws, which I plan to do in several parts over the next week or so, with your indulgence. But to kick things off

  came over and we watched it on the big screen (which is well worth it — the 25th-anniversary DVD has a wonderful transfer) and we talked about the acting.

Urbaniak noted, first off, that the movie has some of the best extra work of all time, and I heartily agree with him. And as the first two acts of Jaws is about a man battling a society instead of a shark, that work is important. Spielberg always does well with crowd scenes for some reason (the crowd scenes in Sugarland and Close Encounters are similarly vivid) and he has an uncanny knack for casting and directing great masses of humanity, a much greater talent than, say, Cecil B. Demille, where the mass is always just that — a mass, not a collection of individuals. Spielberg’s crowds always teem with detail, contradiction and humanity. Whether it’s the out-of-town fisherman who’s never heard of a tiger shark, or Quint’s little fisherman-pal with the greasy orange hat and the dog, or the prim, dyspeptic motel-owning city council-woman, Spielberg somehow manages to find people who look and act genuine and put dozens of them in scenes and have them all interacting with each other, and I don’t know how he does it. The yahoo shark-hunting armada, the Fourth of July crowd scenes, the panics on the beaches, there isn’t a single false beat in them, and these are all hugely complicated scenes with a lot going on in them.

Take the scene on the dock where they’ve caught the tiger shark. There are a half-dozen brilliant, brilliant one-and-two-line performances in that scene, most from people uncredited. The rhythms and cutting in the scene keep going with what I’ve come to think of as a typically Spielbergian fluidity, even though only a couple of the faces on screen belong to trained movie stars. So many little moments pass by as Brody and Hooper move through the crowd, playing their own scenes, all the beats ring true, and in the middle of all this come Mrs. Kintner, the mother of the little boy killed a few scenes earlier. In one of the great one-scene performances of the decade, easily beating the one-scene performance of Beatrice Strait in Network, an actress named Lee Fierro walks into frame, with her black dress and veil, and strikes Brody on the side of his head. I’m guessing the script said that she slaps him, but she doesn’t really. She looks like she’s trying to, but her aim is off and she kind of clubs him on the ear instead. And then delivers this incredible speech about how her boy’s death is Brody’s fault and so forth. And she’s playing a mother who has just come from the funeral of her little boy but she doesn’t play the grief, instead she plays the composure. Her grief is there as a subtext, and sitting on top of her grief is her anger, but what she’s playing is a woman trying not to reveal either her grief or her anger. The results are devastating. This is the Act I climax, a crucial scene to the protagonist’s arc, and Spielberg gave it to an actress who had never appeared on screen before and, apart from being in Jaws: The Revenge, would never appear on screen again, and she knocks it out of the park.

Then there’s Robert Shaw. And given the depth and validity that every other performance in the movie delivers, it’s kind of weird to see Robert Shaw swan in halfway through the movie and give the peculiar performance he gives here. It’s a very “actory” performance, very “look ma, I’m acting,” and while he’s never less than compelling, he never feels like he’s really that guy, which I get no problem from Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss. I suppose Quint is supposed to be larger than life, that that’s the whole point of the performance, and once the movie moves out to open sea Shaw takes over the narrative and drives the conflict for the whole second half. But in my mind I keep thinking of Sterling Hayden, who played General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove and Roger Wade in The Long Goodbye and was Spielberg’s first choice to play the part. Hayden was very much like Quint, lived on a boat and wrote books about the sea, and whenever I watch Jaws these days I keep imagining Quint’s scenes as performed by Hayden. And so, as both Urbaniak and I do passable Sterling Hayden impressions, we proceeded to do just that, reading Quint’s lines as Hayden, in his gruff, slurry, side-of-the-mouth delivery — something Shaw even approximates a couple of times himself, as in: “Chief — put out the fire, will ya?”

Scheider and Dreyfuss are, of course, splendid.

Oh, and as a warm-up we also watched Amblin‘, Spielberg’s first movie, his 24-minute short that got him the Night Gallery job (it is commercially unavailable — another item courtesy of my local cool video store). I’ll write about Amblin’ shortly, but let’s just say for now that Jaws is the better movie.hitcounter

Movie Night With Urbaniak: Ben-Hur

To fans of Movie Night With

, my apologies: Urbaniak and I have been watching movies together with more or less our usual frequency, I just haven’t been writing about it so much, as I’ve been busy writing a haunted house script. Anyway, in the past couple of weeks we’ve watched Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More and New York, New York. They’re good, you should watch them. Martin Scorsese, talented guy. You heard it here first.

And I mentioned Ben-Hur in somecontext or other in a conversation with Urbaniak, and Urbaniak replied that he’d never seen it before. And I was like “Dude! You’ve never seen Ben-Hur? It’s the greatest movie ever made.” So we set aside a couple of movie nights to watch this milestone in Hollywood Bible-movie history.

To be honest, I was nervous as a kitten. I’ve been watching Ben-Hur on a regular basis since I was a child and when I got the screenwriting bug I discovered it all over again, and for you young screenwriters out there I direct you to study Ben-Hur‘s structure because it’s really awfully good. And I’m not someone who sits around watching Bible epics as a rule. But I wasn’t sure how it was going to come off to a hepcat indie-stalwart like Urbaniak. I felt like I was bringing a date home to meet the parents — would he like Hur? Generally, when Urbaniak and I sit around watching a movie together, he talks about the acting and I talk about the screenplay. Or rather, he teaches me things about the acting I wasn’t seeing before and I jabber on about scene structure and dialogue and he makes grunts of understanding.

And while the screenplay of Ben-Hur is a relentless, stakes-ever-raising plot machine, the acting, mm, the acting is a little Technicolor let’s say. So I wasn’t sure if there was going to be much in it for Urbaniak to appreciate.

When I rediscovered Ben-Hur in my 30s it blew me away so completely that I went backward and forward from The Ten Commandments to Cleopatra watching every big-screen, big-budget Technicolor Bible and/or historical epic I could find to see if maybe there were other great screenplays out there that have somehow been overshadowed by their bloated production values. Nope, turns out not. Ben-Hur, as near as I can tell, is the only one of the genre that works. All the other ones feel like pageants and spectacles, visually stunning but dramatically inert.

[A digression: one Passover weekend, I was sitting at home flipping channels on my little black-and-white TV and landed, momentarily, on The Ten Commandments. This is the ten seconds or so that happened to be on when I landed there:

(The Egyptian queen is going to get to the bottom of this whole Moses thing.)
QUEEN. (to servant, imperiously) Fetch me my chariot! I am going to Goshen!

(Dissolve to:)

(Moses’s mom and sister sit by the fire, shucking peas. We hear the sounds of horses and wooden wheels, off. Sister looks up, alarmed.)
SISTER. (to Mom) What’s that? A chariot? Here? In Goshen?

End of digression.]

Why does Ben-Hur work when all the others don’t? Well, it contains some very good filmmaking, there’s one thing it’s got going for it. It’s visually sumptuous and splendorously spectacular in an old-fashioned Hollywood way, but in many ways it’s shot in a much more modern style than, say, The Robe. And while I can easily say that it contains Charlton Heston’s best, most accomplished, most nuanced performance, the fact remains that he is still Charlton Heston — a shiny golden boy with astonishing physical presence and little noticeable acting talent. When Judah Ben-Hur feels something, there’s little guesswork on the part of the audience as to what the emotion is — Heston doesn’t “indicate” or “emote” in the ham actor sense, he practically screams whatever inner turmoil his character is experiencing. He glowers, he snarls, he beams, he contorts his body into ridiculous, kabuki-level pretzels in order to show us Judah’s anger, pride, joy or misery.

No, what makes Ben-Hur work after fifty years is, you may have already guessed, the screenplay, which does so many things right it constitutes a miniature screenwriting course all by itself. It contains one of my favorite Inciting Incidents ever, when Judah’s sister accidentally knocks a roof tile down upon an Important Roman Guy during a parade. This tiny event sets a gigantic, life-changing set of plot-points into motion, culminating in, of all things, the crucifixion of Jesus.

Hard upon this great Inciting Incident is Judah’s Gap. Judah takes the blame for his sister’s accident, thinking his wealth and friendship with the local constable will protect him and his family. What happens instead is his family is thrown in prison and he is sent to work as a slave in the galley of a Roman warship. Judah’s Gap then widens when the ship’s ranking officer, Arrias, recognizing something noble in Judah’s character, undoes his chains prior to an important battle. It widens still further when, after saving Arrias’s life, Judah is made a Roman citizen, and so on.

(By looking at a crucial moment in history through the lens of one man’s journey through its various classes and societies, Ben-Hur anticipates, improbably enough, Forrest Gump. And the intimacy of Ben-Hur‘s story-line [it’s really about only a handful of characters] set against its spectacular, cast-of-thousands background is what sets it apart from “great man” epics like Gandhi or The Greatest Story Ever Told or the aforementioned, must-to-avoid Ten Commandments. Ben-Hur is a personal story, even a private story, not a historical drama.  Like The Godfather, Part II, the story it tells is epic, and its running time is quite long, but each individual scene is a model of compactness and efficiency.)

One of the key phrases in story construction is “But There Was One Thing They Had Forgotten.” Ben-Hur is a virtual compendium of “But There Was One Thing They Had Forgotten” moments. Judah thinks his wealth and political connections will save him, but he has forgotten that the Important Roman Guy the tile fell on is his Roman friend Messala’s new boss, who has been charged with getting the Jews in line in Judea. Pilate grants Judah Roman citizenship, thinking that Judah will be overjoyed to finally be on the winning side, but he has forgotten that Judah was thrown into slavery because of the same oppressive Roman regime that Pilate represents. Judah goes to Jerusalem to see Jesus crucified, but he has forgotten that he’s actually met the guy before, when he was on his way to the Roman galleys. And so forth.

Then there’s the still-awesome chariot race, which I’ve touched on before when discussing The Phantom Menace, but for those coming in late, the upshot of the thing is that the chariot race in Ben-Hur comes after about two and a half hours of relentless plot regarding Judah’s doomed friendship with Messala, his Roman ex-friend who consigned Judah’s mother and sister to prison and is responsible for what Judah believes is their deaths. The stakes are ratcheted up to absurd heights leading up to the race until the tension is all but unbearable, and then the race itself unfurls with a brutal elegance and technical sophistication still unbeaten in cinema history. In contrast, the pod race in The Phantom Menace involves a kid we just met racing against a creature we barely know, because some people who he ran into at the junk shop need a spare part for their space ship. The race itself is a technical marvel, but to compare the two in story terms is a futile exercise.

(The recent 4-disc reissue also includes the 1925 silent version of the movie, which, although it contains some pretty silly Silent Hollywood filmmaking, is well worth watching for the chariot race, which is, in some ways, even more accomplished and startling than the 1959 version.)

The story of Ben-Hur also works, by the way, as a drama about the hubris and folly of imperialism. Funny how I never noticed that before now.

Finally, I should just say, you know, I have very little patience in my life for Christian fundamentalism. But the whole Jesus aspect of Ben-Hur works for me because the filmmakers have chosen, wisely I think, to concentrate on the philosophical and humanist aspects of the Christ message instead of the “follow me or you’re going to hell” and the “all other faiths but mine are wrong” aspects. It makes Ben-Hur a drama about a man’s spiritual awakening instead of a tract designed to frighten or cajole.

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Movie Night With Urbaniak: Inland Empire

The only things I knew about David Lynch’s Inland Empire, before sitting down to watch it with

 , was that it is a David Lynch movie, it was shot on video, it is three hours long, it has been called quite boring, and it did not enjoy a traditional studio release (in fact, it had not played anywhere near me during its patchy run last year). All of those things pointed toward a movie that could be easily dismissed as the work of an artist with not enough control imposed upon him, who has run amok with his creative energy and gotten lost in his own little aesthetic curlicues.

So it pleases me greatly to say that not only is Inland Empire a very good movie, it is also something of a breakthrough for Lynch, who succeeds in making an essentially plotless three-hour psychodrama riveting cinema.

Something about Inland Empire kept reminding me of Pinter, the oddball scenes full of oblique dialogue about mundane topics, suddenly turning fierce and weird when you least expect it. And the more I thought about it the more apt the comparison became. Pinter was looking to move theater beyond “a show” that has some kind of “meaning,” where the audience could all pat themselves on the back afterward for “getting” whatever “message” the show was trying to impart. He wanted his plays to be a kind of provocation, a deeply unsettling event that didn’t have a “meaning” beyond the absurd, terrifying actions presented on stage.

I think Lynch has accomplished something similar with Inland Empire. More so than any of his earlier movies, which eventually “make sense” after enough viewings, he seems to have finally thrown off the shackles of “meaning” and “plot” to present something like experience itself, outside of “meaning,” and have it not only work on its own aesthetic level but over a period of three hours.

While the movie was running, I kept a running tally of ideas that seemed important at the time, in the hopes of, by the end, “figuring out” what the movie was “about” and thus appearing to be a smarty-pants.

(My list reads, in part: Record, Poles, Polish whore, Rabbits TV show, Blurry video, New neighbor, Wealth, Actress, Mulholland Drive-like moviemaking, Story of little boy, If it were tomorrow, Cursed remake, Purgatory of ex-girlfriends, etc.)

But the longer the list got, the less I feltI understood, and yet I was never less than entertained and always intrigued and sometimes horrified. And I finally thought, well, maybe that’s the point, that ultimately there is no “meaning,” no final “point” to the thing, ie “Laura Dern plays Nikki Grace, an actress who gets a part in a big movie and it messes up her mind so much that she doesn’t know who she is anymore.” I mean, that statement certainly covers most of the “action” of the movie, but it doesn’t really explain anything. Nikki (if the movie is, indeed, about Nikki) goes from being an actress to being the character she’s playing in the movie she’s making, to being a lower-class woman married to a Polish man, to being a prostitute who (I think) turns out to also be the character in the movie she’s making, but the way that all this information unfolds is so poetic, mysterious and alarming that it defies not only summation but rational explanation. Why do people keep talking about how they’re “good with animals?” Why is the movie’s producer so broke that he needs to ask crew members for handouts? Who are the people dressed as rabbits and how did they get their own TV show? Who is the Polish whore crying on the bed?

Inland Empire, it seems to me, if it is “about” anything, is about identity, and how extreme emotional circumstances allow/force us to alter our identity. So the actress getting into her role may find herself becoming the character, and the character may echo back to an earlier version of that character, and that earlier version of the character may find herself in the shoes of the “real person” the character is based on, and a distressed woman watching the finished movie on TV may find herself identifying so strongly with the character the actress is playing in the movie that she may imagine herself the actress playing the role. And even this paragraph only “explains” about fifteen percent of what we actually see unfold in Inland Empire.

To put it another way, you could say that Inland Empire is a David Lynch movie for people who thought Mulholland Drive was a little too pat. It’s not that it’s impossible, necessarily, to explain what it’s about, but Lynch shifts perspectives so often and peels back so many layers of perception and possible meanings that I think, in the end, it’s folly to try to nail the damned thing down.  When the movie started, I was bracing myself for a three-hour bore, and by the end of it I thought I could probably see this movie a dozen times and not get to the bottom of it.

Nikki, and Laura Dern’s performance of the character, also reminded me of Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, who was “unstuck in time” and who spent his whole life in a state of anxiety, not knowing from moment to moment what part of his life he was going to be expected to perform.  Dern moves through the movie with a similar level of apprehension, not knowing if, the next time she goes through a door, if she’s going to be herself, the character she’s playing, one of the other characters, or a Polish prostitute, or what, until by the end of the movie she really isn’t sure who she is any more.

Now then: it’s not all peaches-n-cream. Whatever freedom Lynch seems to have found with his video camera has not resulted in a thing beautiful to behold. Which is a shame, because if nothing else, a David Lynch movie is always absolutely gorgeous. But the picture in Inland Empire is blurry and smeary, and Lynch’s shooting style has changed to the point of being almost unrecognizable. Where his scenework is usually graceful and enigmatic, here it is sometimes remarkably clumsy, even amateurish, as though he didn’t have the coverage he needed and had to steal shots from other scenes to compensate. Extreme, distorted close-ups of actors’ faces dominate, and some sections of the movie are so dark as to be essentially invisible. Those technical aspects aside, Inland Empire is a unique, powerful experience.

W.H. Macy appears, for one shot, as a TV announcer for a Hollywood talk show. I’m still puzzling over that one.

Urbaniak and I improvised the following:

LYNCH (loud, flat Midwestern twang). Bill! It’s David!
MACY (ibid). David! How the heck you doin’?
LYNCH. Great! Great! Hey listen, you know I’m doing this crazy Inland Empire thing —
MACY. Yeah, yeah Laura was telling me all about it! Sounds like a gas!
LYNCH. Well listen, I think I’ve got a part for ya!
MACY. You’re kidding! Me?
LYNCH. Yeah, whaddaya doin’ tomorrow?
MACY. Well actually, I’m traveling tomorrow for a shoot in Vanc —
LYNCH. I’m sorry Bill, I’ve got a bunch of static on this end! Can you come by Paramount around ten?
MACY. I — well —
LYNCH. It’s a great part, it’s the star part, it’s practically a second lead to Laura!
MACY. Really? Because I heard Justin —
LYNCH. Can’t hear ya, Bill! No, it’s a key role! You’re gonna steal the picture! You remember Dean in Blue Velvet? It’s like that!
MACY. Sure, he’s great in —
LYNCH. My girl here is telling me eight! Can you be at Paramount at eight instead of ten? We should be able to get you out of there by two!
MACY. Uh, sure David, sure! What — I’m sorry, do you have a script or something?
LYNCH. I’m sorry David, I’m heading into a tunnel! It’s gonna be great! Oh hey!
MACY. Uh huh?
LYNCH. You have a bow tie? Because the character wears a bow tie, and we don’t have the budget for it! Thanks a lot babe, love ya!

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Movie Night With Urbaniak: The King of Comedy


  and I are watching Melville’s late, uneven gangster movie Un Flic last week, and Alain Delon keeps reminding us of people, specifically actors in Martin Scorsese pictures. His face looks kind of like Ray Liotta, his haircut looks like DeNiro’s in King of Comedy, and at one point he puts on what appear to be Jerry Lewis‘s glasses. And Urbaniak finally just blurts out “All right, that’s it — next we have to watch King of Comedy.” He then predicts that us watching King of Comedy will consist mostly of the two of us sitting in the dark exclaiming brilliance for two hours. Which turns out to be pretty much true.

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Movie Night With Urbaniak: Army of Shadows

I’m in the middle of writing a script, so my movie-renting rate has plummeted in the past few months. Several times I’ve thought about canceling my membership at Cinefile and the other day I walked into the store intending to do so (after returning my copy of Heaven’s Gate, which I’d had for a month). But they had a copy of Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 French Resistance thriller Army of Shadows available, so I thought “Well, let’s hold off on canceling the membership for the moment.”

(What you have to understand about Cinefile is that, as the only decent video store on the west side, all the good stuff is always out. Their copy of Vanishing Point was checked out last Easter and has never returned.)

I’ve seen a couple of Melville’s movies before, Bob le Flambeur and Le Cercle Rouge, both of which I watched in my research on heist movies. There is something of Melville in Tarantino I find, with his emphasis on emotional intensity and subverting genre expectations, and his de-emphasis on plot mechanics. Although Melville’s characters don’t sit around yakking about pop-culture phenomena of the 70s.

So Urbaniak comes over, knowing less about Army of Shadows than I do, and knowing probably about as much as I do about the French Resistance, and having never seen a Melville picture before. And twenty minutes into the picture, the protagonist (at least I think he’s the protagonist) and his buddies (at least I think they’re his buddies) are in the middle of trying to figure out how to kill a betrayer and I pause the DVD to clarify some plot point or other (Melville introduces us to no one and expects us to catchup with whatever names and situations he throws at us) and Urbaniak comes out and says “In some weird way, this movie reminds me of Reservoir Dogs.”

Which is entirely apt. We’ve got a bunch of guys in a situation. The director just drops us right in, tells us nothing about what’s going on, tells us nothing about who is who, where they are going, what are the stakes, who’s against who, just drops us into the situation and lets the emotional stakes of the scene carry the drama. And the American screenwriter in the audience is racking his brain trying to figure out who is who and where are they going and who is trying to kill who and who can the protagonist trust, and it takes him a little while before he figures out that he’s working against the intent of the filmmaker. The whole point of Army of Shadows is, it turns out, putting the viewer into the same situation as the protagonist (who is a high-level Resistance member). The protagonist doesn’t know who he can trust, so neither does the viewer. The protagonist doesn’t know what’s going to be waiting for him in the next room and neither does the viewer. The protagonist doesn’t know if he can trust the guy sitting next to him, the barber shaving his neck, the man driving the car, and neither does the viewer. The result is electrifying cinema, a movie that dares you to breathe as its characters move through a shadowy twilit world of betrayals and heroism, toward an ill-defined goal and with no reward in sight.

So it turns out, not only do you not have to know much about the French Resistance to watch Army of Shadows, it’s actually a benefit. The movie has very little plot, it’s more of a series of long set pieces describing a chain of physical experiences. This is what it’s like to make friends in a concentration camp, this is what it’s like to have to kill an informer for the first time, this is what it’s like to escape from a Gestapo interrogation, this is what it’s like to bust a guy out of prison, this is what it’s like to be shoved out of a British airplane, with no preparation, in the middle of the night, over what landscape who knows. Every scene, every gesture, every noise on the soundtrack is filled with possibilities. Is there going to be a bomb in this box, or just a shirt? Is the antique dealer going to turn out to be a spy? Is it enough to get through the Gestapo at the train station, or will there be Vichy gendarmes at the Metro station as well?

Melville creates and sustains an absurd level of suspense and intrigue for a movie lasting over 2 hours, which is astonishing when you consider that the movie has very little plot and absolutely no overselling. The shooting style is as declarative and understated as possible; as Urbaniak kept noting, it’s just: “This is what it was like.” The movie doesn’t grab you by the lapels, it doesn’t show off its brilliant technique, it doesn’t dazzle you with clever writing or breathtaking visuals — it doesn’t need to. The situations are so intensely dramatic all by themselves, any more emphasis would be gilding the lily.

Another sterling transfer of a wonderful new print by the ever-reliable folks at Criterion. And for a wonderful essay on the history and background of the movie, look no further.

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Movie Night With Urbaniak: Heaven’s Gate (part 2)

“So. Now I can say I’ve seen Heaven’s Gate,” quoth

  as the credits roll.

Which is about all there is to say. I have no profound insights to add to viewing the second half of Michael Cimino’s legendary disaster. (You may read my comments on Part I here.)

The second half moves a good deal more quickly than the first, largely because its narrative is substantially more compressed, but it is no more dramatically coherent. There’s very little sense of “this happened, then this happened, and because of that, this happened” — it’s more like a series of discrete events presented in pageant form with very little to connect them dramatically. Some of the staging of these events is thoughtful and impressive, and some is not. But more importantly, not enough of it has any dramatic weight.

Example: a group of immigrants gather at the skating rink to discuss the invasion of their county by an army of hired assassins. They argue, in different languages, for a long time. Motions are presented and heatedly debated. Oratorical heroes are made and prominent citizens are shouted down. What are they saying? We don’t know — there are no subtitles. But more problematically, we’ve never met any of these people before and have no particular emotional attachment to them. It wouldn’t matter if we could understand what they are shouting if we had any idea what any of them stood for. It’s like we just walked into the middle of the movie, even though we’ve been watching closely from the beginning. There is a good deal of shouting and pushing and kissing and hugging and beating of breasts, then they all get on their horses and ride somewhere. Where are they going? We don’t know. Oh, it turns out they’re riding to where the assassins are camped out. Okay. And there’s a massive shootout. Some assassins are killed, others are not. Some immigrants are killed, others are not. None of it means anything because we don’t know who any of these people are. There doesn’t seem to be any dramatic thrust to any of the choices the director has made — the story doesn’t go anywhere.

Kris Kristofferson is the sheriff (or not — it’s unclear). He’s in love with a prostitute, who’s in love with an assassin, whose job it is to kill her. Good setup. A little melodramatic, but eminently workable. What happens in this fraught tangle of misspent love? Well, the prostitute gets raped by some cattlemen, which makes the assassin switch sides, which makes the cattlemen put their invasion on hold to go after the renegade assassin. That’s right, three hours into the movie, the cattlemen put their invasion on hold to go after a renegade assassin. The leader of the cattlemen has set the narrative into motion by forming this army of gunmen, and now, three hours later, now that the time has come for him to put his army of gunmen into action, he says “Well, wait a minute, hold your horses, what about that renegade assassin?

Has the assassin vowed to lead the immigrants in an armed resistance? No. Has he personally sworn to kill the leader of the cattlemen? No. With history and three hours of squandered narrative bearing down on him, the leader of the cattlemen decides to take a little detour on his way to destiny. The assassin and some other guys who happen to be in the cabin at the time are killed by the cattlemen. So, faced with an interesting dramatic problem regarding an unsolvable lover’s knot, the writer/director chooses to ignore his romantic plot altogether and have the characters go do something else. (For the record, the prostitute says good-bye to the sheriff and rides to be with the assassin, happens upon the shooting, barely escapes with her life, then races to town with the news of the imminent invasion — oh wait, no, that’s not what happens, no, she races to town and finds that the town already knows about the imminent invasion. Which means she didn’t have to race to town after all, because the shouting immigrants already have a plan. Let’s face it, three and a half hours into the movie, the main characters all kind of kick back and relax while a bunch of people we’ve never met before get on with blowing the shit out of each other.

Kristofferson is given the classic Western moment of the gunman who, brokenhearted, turns his back on the problem at hand and fixes to light out for the territories. Except he doesn’t. He says he’s fixin’ to, but instead he hangs around town. Then, later, unannounced and without preamble, he wanders back into the narrative and is suddenly seen acting as the leader of the immigrant forces, giving them ace military tips that, er, that get lots of immigrants massacred (okay, maybe those tips weren’t so ace after all). As I say, each of these events is presented as an individual event seemingly unconnected to anything that has happened before or since.

John Hurt, bless his heart, fares worst. He doesn’t even seem to know what he’s doing there. He drinks, he looks guilty, he barks out this or that exhortation, then dies unceremoniously in a shootout. He dominated the first 23 minutes of the movie (the scenes at Harvard) and he’s supposed to be the protagonist’s best friend, but his character and death are rendered meaningless.

As with the first half, much of the photography is stunningly beautiful, or would be if the transfer were any good, which it is, alas, not.

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Movie Night With Urbaniak: Heaven’s Gate (part 1)


  is an actor of delicate constitution who requires his beauty sleep, we were unable to watch all 219 minutes of Michael Cimino’s legendary cinematic disaster in one go — we left off at the intermission and will pick it up again soon (the promise of a DVD screener of There Will Be Blood is the carrot, watching Heaven’s Gate is the stick in this relationship).

I rushed right out to see Heaven’s Gate when it opened in 1980 in a shortened version. I had seen The Deer Hunter several times in the theater and enjoyed it quite a bit and I was anxious to see what Cimino would do with a western. I had heard all the stories about his extravagant profligacy on the set (the budget was, reportedly, over $40 million) and, being who I was, I was pulling for the director. I had heard about the disastrous screening of the long version, I had read all the terrible, terrible reviews, I knew no one was going to go see this movie, yet I was there, first screening, opening day, hoping against hope that, somehow, everyone was wrong and some kind of unique, misunderstood masterpiece awaited me.

Well, that didn’t happen, but I still couldn’t quite bring myself to hate the movie. Being a mere wisp of a 19-year-old, I did not possess the relative understanding of story structure I do now, so I couldn’t quite put my finger on why the movie didn’t work. But I could not deny that much of it was beautifully rendered, and there was something weird and mysterious about its insistence on having nothing happen for long, long stretches of movie. And that was the short version.

Now that I’m a big-deal Hollywood hotshot, it’s easy to identify the movie’s problems, although it might not have seemed that way in 1979. Basically, there is a HUGE amount of atmosphere and very little plot.

At the two-hour mark, I found I could count the total number of plot-points covered on the fingers of one hand. This is, alas, not an exaggeration.

PLOT POINT 1: Kris Kristofferson graduates from Harvard in 1870. The statement of this fact takes up an astounding 23 minutes of screen time.

PLOT POINT 2: Twenty years later, Kris is a sheriff (I think — it’s unclear and the sound mix on the DVD is perhaps the worst I’ve ever heard — ambient background thunders in the speakers while actors in the foreground murmur beyond audibility) in Wyoming, where Big Doings are going down: corporate ranchers are preparing to go to war with poor immigrant farmers. The establishment of this plot point takes us another twenty minutes.

PLOT POINT 3: Kris is in love with a French prostitute. Getting this idea across takes, I’m not kidding, 30 minutes of screen time.

PLOT POINT 4: The poor immigrants may be poor, but they sure know how to have fun. This accounts for another 30 minutes, as we watch cheerful immigrants pose for pictures, juggle, roller skate, dance, have sex, play music, sing, stage cockfights, fight and swear and grin. As Urbaniak noted, it’s like the party scene in steerage in Titanic, but expanded a half-hour.

PLOT POINT 5: Chris Walken, a hatchet-man for the corporate ranchers, is also in love with the French prostitute, and intends to sue for her hand. This accounts for the final 20 minutes of screen time before intermission.

And that’s it. Honestly.

Now compare this to, say, the plot of Raising Arizona: The protagonist robs convenience stores, goes to prison at least three times, meets and falls in love with the police officer in charge of booking him, rehabilitates himself, asks her to marry him, moves in with her, settles down, tries and fails to start a family all before the title sequence begins. If Michael Cimino had directed Raising Arizona he would have spent a half hour just examining the daily activities of the convenience-store clerk.

It’s hard to watch this movie and not feel for the studio executives in 1980 — faced with this extraordinarily slow, almost-plotless story, it’s impossible not to think “well, they could easily trim this down and have a taut little western.” And yet, if you cut out all the impressive atmosphere (and a good deal of the atmosphere is truly impressive) you would not have a “taut little western,” you would have a slack, underplotted little western. Now, there was, once upon a time, room for movies that place atmosphere over plot, but not to the ridiculous extremes taken by Heaven’s Gate. I mean, Jean-Luc Godard is Steven Spielberg compared to Michael Cimino in this regard.

And yet, for some strange reason, the movie is not “boring,” exactly. It sustains interest, partly through its dense atmosphere, partly through its peculiarity — it’s novel, and even pleasurable in a certain way, to see a big-budget movie utterly unconcerned with forward momentum. Urbaniak says that it’s interesting without being dramatic, a sentiment I echo, and add only that the scenario is dramatic it’s just very poorly structured dramatically. You’ve got a bunch of evil ranchers who are hiring an army of gunmen to wipe out a community of immigrants, that’s an excellent start for a drama. But that plot point is not announced until minute 43, and nothing is done about that struggle for another hour of screen time. Kris Kristofferson hears about the rancher’s nefarious plan and heads off to the immigrant community to, um, to do, um, well, we don’t know what exactly he plans to do, but we know he doesn’t like the ranchers so we assume he is on the side of the immigrants. So he goes pouncing off to the immigrant community and immediately spends thirty minutes horsing around with his girlfriend.

The cast is large and capable and includes many actors who went on to become big stars, so that’s always fun. Most of the acting is decent enough (there is one scene where Kris Kristofferson and John Hurt square off in a billiard room, having a “barely audible growl-off”)
and some is quite excellent. Urbaniak adores Chris Walken in this movie, an appreciation I can’t quite share — his presence seems too modern, too off-center and not of-the-time. But I bow to his superior judgment in this regard. Sam Waterston, on the other hand, is just dreadful as the main Evil Ranch Guy. He struts, preens, glares and flares his nostrils as his forces gather around him, all to remind us that this guy is Evil. It seems to me that once the screenplay identifies you as the Evil Guy, the best thing you can do is As Little As Possible.

The sound mix is, as I’ve noted, abysmal, and the transfer is substandard — probably because they had to cram a four-hour movie onto a single DVD. The production design is sumptuous and absurdly detailed, without ever clearly showing where the $40 million went. The score is an embarrassment, it sounds exactly like the first idea pitched at the initial post-production meeting.

Oh, and the haircuts — why can’t they ever get the haircuts right? All the supporting players look appropriately 19th century, but every time a lead actor strolls on, it’s 1979 again.

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A teeny bit more about The Lady Eve

Where does hyper-literate punker Elvis Costello get his vicious, intricate hyper-literacy? Why, from Preston Sturges, of course. There is a line from his 1981 song “White Knuckles” (from the album Trust) that had always baffled me, and, before Al Gore invented the internet, it was impossible to verify just what the hell he was singing, what with his strangled delivery and the clattering racket behind him. The song is about (what else) a couple with marital problems and for years I could have sworn there was a line in the bridge that went “She needs a lock, the ass needs a turn-key,” which seemed to make enough sense, even though it seemed like kind of a lame line from such a, you know, hyper-literate lyricist.

So, as The Lady Eve unspooled last night, imagine my surprise when, out of nowhere, the great Barbara Stanwyck suddenly announces, regarding Henry Fonda, “I need him like the axe needs the turkey,” which Costello adapted (slightly) to “He needs her like the axe needs a turkey.”  And yet another mystery of my youth was solved.

Is this a common phrase that Costello picked up, or was he inspired to thieve from Sturges?  A cursory Google search could unearth no other occurrence of the phrase, and I can imagine the young Costello at a revival house somewhere in London, or camped out in front of the telly, watching The Lady Eve with a pen and paper in his lap, furiously scribbling down the dense wit that flies thick and fast in Sturges’s masterpiece.

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Movie Night With Urbaniak: The Lady Eve

I will have much more to say about this landmark comedy from 1941 in connection with my forthcoming analysis of The Hudsucker Proxy, which lifts a number of scenes from it.

For now though, let me just say this: I have often lamented that our generation doesn’t quite have a Myrna Loy, but my God, we don’t have anything within miles of a Barbara Stanwyck. An actress who can play an “experienced,” conniving, manipulative grifter, give a complex, multi-layered performance, and be hysterically funny, and make us like her, and make our hearts break for her?

Of course, to discover an actress such as this, two things would need to happen: we writers would have to write a part as good as the one Stanwyck plays in The Lady Eve, and then a Hollywood studio would have to produce that script. I can see the first happening, but the second? That would involve a movie with a female protagonist, and everyone knows those don’t make money.

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