Some thoughts on Shine a Light

Shine a Light presents such a dazzling, complex array of signifiers that it can be an overwhelming, even exhausting viewing experience. It is also, of course, a very well-shot concert movie documenting a show by a very good rock-n-roll band. So there’s that. Either way it’s worth the $11.

First there is the fact of the Rolling Stones. They’re not just old at this point, they’re really quite old. Like, painful-to-look-at old. You watch them shambling around before the show, greeting dignitaries and dickering about details, creases and canyons in their decrepit faces, and you want to turn away in embarrassment. They don’t just look too old to be playing rock-n-roll, they look too old to leave the house. Then they launch into “Jumping Jack Flash” and, in the space of a guitar riff and a dance move, your embarrassment transmutes into awe. They’re simply flabbergasting to watch. Mick Jagger works harder in any given five minutes on stage than I have in thirty years. And he is propelled forward by Charlie Watts, who works just as hard and receives not half the credit. This band ran out of things to prove about ten thousand shows ago, and yet there they are, still doing it, still blowing away any and all comers. I cannot imagine a performer alive who could watch this band perform and not feel like they had frittered away their life with cautious half-measures. Of performers of their generation still out there, only Bob Dylan has better songs and a comparable list of hits, but he, to my knowledge, has never danced a step in his life and has certainly never succeed in keeping an ensemble of this quality together.

I’m going to come right out and say that the Rolling Stones are, right now, the best they’ve ever been. I don’t know how they pulled that trick off, but that’s what’s happened. Songs that, by all rights, should have been hung out to dry thirty years ago not only sound better than ever, they feel more lived in and more authentic.

“Authenticity”, of course, is the thing that’s haunted the Rolling Stones since the beginning. When they were in their twenties, it was embarrassing to watch them play the blues. They were obviously enthusiasts, but the language of the songs was not theirs — it belonged to another generation. They looked like kids dressing up in their parents’ clothes. Then, as the 60s moved on, they injected more pop and psychedelic elements into their work, and their take on the blues became more ironic, almost a goof. No one believed that Mick Jagger could get no satisfaction, nor could they realistically be expected to believe that he was born in a crossfire hurricane. By augmenting their worship of the blues with a hip, ironic stance (and some pretty damn good songwriting) the Rolling Stones made the blues go pop. In the 70s their sophistication grew to the point where they could meet the blues head-on, fusing pop and the blues into a powerful new form that could include everything from “Brown Sugar” to “Tumbling Dice” to “Angie” to “Beast of Burden.” This era is where the Stones connected with the world and made their mark. As the 80s marched onward, the Stones seemed a little desperate to “keep up,” to remain hip. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it much more embarrassing to watch Mick simper and strut through the 1983 video for “She Was Hot” than to watch any of the moves he pulls in Shine a Light.

(The 80s, it should be noted, beginning as they did with the murder of John Lennon, weren’t good for any 60s act, and the Stones records from that decade hold up better than those of any of their contemporaries, Dirty Work included.)

Anyway, here we are in 2008 and somehow all those layers of irony that the Stones piled on top of the blues have been transformed, through time and experience, into something like authenticity. And in the process of witnessing this, both through decades of listening to the Stones and watching Shine a Light, I find myself questioning the whole idea of authenticity itself.

Take a song like “Far Away Eyes.” This is a goof on country songs, openly disparaging and sarcastic, if lovingly so. I don’t think it would ever become a genuine country hit for anyone, and yet, somehow, over time, its central message, that there is such a thing as a companion whom you can always depend on despite your faults, seems more genuine than it did in 1977. Watching Shine a Light, with a 62-year-old Jagger shouting his way through the song, suddenly the song took on a different meaning for me. Tying together the bleary, worse-for-wear floozy of the chorus with the cynical gospel radio station of the verses, out of nowhere, makes dramatic sense. The narrator prays to the radio station that tells him the Lord is always by his side for a girl who will always be by his side. And perhaps the girl is the Lord, and perhaps the narrator is merely forging the same sex-and-God link that singers (and preachers) have hammered at for a century. Of course, we never find out if the narrator’s prayer is answered — Mick Jagger’s career is, after all, built on unanswered prayers.

Or take “Shine a Light” itself — how could Mick Jagger, ultra cynical, ultra-calculating, jet-set rock star, mean this lyric of humility and redemption? On Exile on Main St., “Shine a Light” feels arch, almost cruel — it’s one thing to make fun of country music, but why pick on gospel? And yet in the context of Shine a Light, “Shine a Light” comes off as, impossibly, genuine and heartfelt. What changed, apart from the singer acquiring the years and wisdom it would take to sing such a lyric?

(Or maybe Scorsese includes the song as a pun — the show, after all, is set at the Beacon Theater.)

So I find myself thinking about the blues and this whole notion of authenticity. Who is to say, at the end of the day, that an ironic goof on the blues form, by a bunch of English guys barely in their thirties, is a less “authentic” presentation of the blues than, say, Robert Johnson?

(Notions of authenticity and authority run throughout Shine a Light, I think intentionally so.  The Stones bring on Jack White, whom I find very authentic if not very authoritative, at least not standing next to Mick Jagger, Buddy Guy, whom I find authoritative but not especially authentic, and Christian Aquilara, who is technically proficient but neither authoritative nor authentic.)

And while we’re on the subject of Robert Johnson, there’s this: I read an article a while back about how Robert Johnson, composer of “Hellhound On My Tail,” did not only sing the blues. There is evidence, the article said, that Johnson preferred to play standards and show tunes in his live sets, but played the blues because, well, that was what was popular at the time.

This takes nothing away from the achievements of Robert Johnson, but the article blew my mind. If Robert Johnson — Robert Johnson — was not sincere, did not “mean it,” was merely performing what the marketplace demanded, was not “authentic,” then who is? And what, then, is the difference between “Stop Breaking Down Blues” and “Honky Tonk Women?” How is one “authentic” and one a cynical goof calculated to exploit the marketplace?

I very much enjoyed seeing the Rolling Stones live a while back, from the other side of a baseball stadium — they didn’t just put on a show, they presented an argument for how life can be lived. But Shine a Light both confirmed my suspicions and shattered (sorry) my preconceptions. The Rolling Stones, somehow, now command the kind of respect and authority they used to confer upon elder bluesmen. The fact that they can accomplish this and remain a stunning, thrilling live act is something indeed.


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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The Departed casting notes

The Departed, on top of being riveting entertainment and superlative filmmaking, offers an excellent opportunity to look at the casting process and how the right actors can really help to get across the ideas of the movie.  Each actor brings a wealth of associations with them to help raise the tension of the narrative and the expectations of the audience.

MATT DAMON, we know, was already a genius Boston guy in Good Will Hunting, so we not only buy his accent, but we know he’s really smart.  Plus, he played both Jason Bourne and Tom Ripley so we know he’s good at lying to people and can kill with a cold heart.

LEONARDO DiCAPRIO we know was in Catch Me if You Can so we know he’s good at fooling people, and he was in Gangs of New York so we know he can take care of himself in gangland, and he was in Titanic so we know that he’s operating under a terrible burden of guilt and shame.  Kidding.  Sort of.  But you know, ever since then he’s kept scrunching up his brow and looking really pissed off, never more so than here, where regret and anxiety waft off of him in waves.

JACK NICHOLSON is more sui generis.  He carries so much baggage with him that he presents a case all by himself.  No one comes within striking distance of Nicholson’s work in Hollywood today, especially since Brando died.  He shows up and you pay attention.  From Jake Gittes to Randall McMurphy to Jack Torrance to The Joker, he’s a steamroller of associations and innuendo.

MARK WAHLBERG we know is tough from The Perfect Storm and Three Kings, but we know he’s vulnerable too from those same roles.  So we know he can hold his own against the stars in the short run, but we don’t know if he can go the distance.

MARTIN SHEEN we know is tough because he killed Marlon Brando, but he was also President Bartlett so we know he’s wise and fair.  (This part, I’ve heard, was originally supposed to go to DeNiro, which would have lent a lot more surprise and tension to those scenes.  Martin Sheen killed Marlon Brando, but he kvetched a lot about it beforehand and he struck him from behind when it came down to it.  DeNiro would take your head off like swatting a fly and not even stick around long enough to watch your corpse drop to the ground.)

we saw stand up to Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast, so we know he’s tough (they put a scar on his face for extra toughness), but we also saw that he ultimately lost that battle to Sir Ben so we know things can’t end well for him.

VERA FARMIGA we’ve never seen before so we don’t know what the hell she’s gonna do.

ANTHONY ANDERSON we know was in Kangaroo Jack so we know that he’s capable of doing anything.

ALEC BALDWIN we saw chew out Al Pacino in Glengarry Glen Ross and pull the rug out from under Leonardo in The Aviator.  We saw him bomb Tokyo in Pearl Harbor, bomb Vietnam in Path to War and boss imaginary trains around in Thomas and the Magic Railroad.  He boned Kim Basinger in The Getaway and Teri Hatcher in Heaven’s Prisoners.  Alec’s no chump, he can take care of himself.  Unless the bear from The Edge comes around, then he’s screwed.

KEVIN CORRIGAN plays fuckups and losers.  I mean that as a compliment.

The Departed, explained to a 5-year-old

left: DiCaprio and Nicholson, by Scorsese.  right: Plastic Man and Hawkgirl, by Sam.

The movie, plus previews, plus travel, is three hours long, so my wife and I don’t get home until 11:15.  Sam (the 5-year-old in question) has been left with an untested babysitter.  He is still awake, and delighted to see me as I take him back to bed.  My wife and I are still kind of buzzed from the movie, which is a feast.

Sam: How was the movie?
Dad: It was great!
Sam: What was it about?
Dad: It’s, it’s for grown-ups, dude.  Time for bed.
Sam: But what was it about?
Dad: It was about gangsters and policemen.  Cops and robbers.  Good guys and bad guys.
Sam: But what happened?
Dad: Sam, it is, currently, three and a half hours past your bedtime.
(Dad can feel that his buzz from the movie is transferring directly to his son, who is picking up on the vibe.  And, since the movie is also about fathers and sons — real and metaphorical — it’s hard for Dad to break it off.)
Sam: But what happened in the movie?
Dad: Well.  (beat)  There are the police, right?  And they’re the good guys.  And then there are the gangsters, they’re the bad guys.  Right?
Sam: Sure.  And they wear different outfits.
Dad: That they do.  That they do.
(Dad is stunned by this logistical leap from his son.  They do, in fact, wear different outfits, but probably not in the way that Sam is thinking.  Sam has, for his part, spent the evening watching Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman, which also features gangsters, so he knows all about gangsters.)
Dad: Okay.  So the police want to get the gangsters, so they send a policeman dressed up as a gangster to go spy on the gangsters.
Sam: Okay.
Dad: Now: at the same time, the gangsters, they want to know if the police are going to catch them, so they dress one of their guys up like a policeman to go spy on the police.  So the police have a spy with the gangsters and the gangsters have a spy with the police.
(Sam’s look is drifting into incomprehension.  Dad should probably let it do so.  But his status as a storyteller is at stake.  He seeks clarity.)
Dad: It’s like, let’s say, the Joker wants to spy on Batman.  So he gets one of his guys and dresses him up like Robin and sends him over to spy on the Batcave.  Meanwhile, Batman, without knowing what the Joker is doing, takes that ridiculous outfit off of Robin and dresses him up like one of the Joker’s guys and sends him to go spy on the Joker.  And so through the whole movie you’re worried about whether both guys are going to get caught.
(Comprehension achieved.  Sam’s face swims with the sudden illumination of possibilities.)
Sam: Wow.  So what happens?
Dad: Well, what happens is that everybody gets into a whole heap of trouble.
Sam: Yeah, but what happens?
Dad: I’ll tell you what.  It’s a great movie, and you can see it when you’re older.  Like, when you’re a teenager.  Hey, how about you and me go out for a milkshake?


PS. I’ve read a couple of reviews that complain about Jack Nicholson’s performance in this movie.  Or worse, they sort of sniff in disdain about some imaginary unhinged, undisciplined “crazy Jack” performance instead of a measured, finely observed characterization.  As though they’re disappointed by seeing the greatest movie star of our time, and one of the greatest of all time, give a performance equal to the character’s importance in the story.  I have no patience with these people.  The acting in the movie (and the casting I might add) is uniformly excellent. In a time with few movie stars, here is a movie filled with movie stars, from the leads down to some blindsiding supporting roles, all doing really great work with a kind of energy I can’t remember seeing before, like they’re all eager to show us what they’ve got. hit counter html code

Mean Streets

Know what I hate?

Woman comes home from the grocery store. Bag full of groceries. Has a conversation on the steps. There’s a bit of action involving the bag of groceries.

The grocery bag looks like it’s six weeks old. Looks like it’s been through a dozen rehearsals and takes. It’s all worn and torn and crumpled. Doesn’t look like she came in from the store, looks like she’s a crazy lady who carries the same bag of groceries around for months.

Otherwise, pretty good movie.
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The Aviator

Martin Scorsese often complains about the limitations of genre, but as I look over his filmography, I’m struck at the number of his movies that could be classified as one genre or another. He has a number of gangster movies, all very different, two religious epics, two sports pictures (my local video store inexplicably puts The Color of Money in “Action”), a couple of costume dramas (I count Gangs of New York as a gangster costume drama, although it’s closer to a historical epic in structure), a thriller, a comedy, and now a Hollywood Biopic.

I mentioned watching The Aviator to a female friend of mine today and she said “Is that the one about the guy who, you know, follows his dream?” And it occurred to me that, well, all Hollywood Biopics are about a Guy who Follows His Dream. I mean, honestly, who would spend $100 million on a 3-hour movie about a guy who doesn’t follow his dreams? Usually, now that I think of it, the guy Follows His Dream but it brings him nothing but grief, and he often dies before his time.

Howard Hughes, of course, didn’t die before his time, but he did the next best thing in biopic terms, which was to have a Bizarre Medical Condition.

TE Lawrence was obsessed with the desert, Gandhi wanted to free India from imperialism, Schindler wanted to save them Jews, and Howard Hughes, according to The Aviator, was obsessed with building airplanes.

Scorsese’s Howard Hughes is obsessed with his airplanes, so we also become obsessed with his airplanes. He cares about the rivets, so we care about the rivets. He gets excited climbing into the cockpit to test a new plane, so we do too. And when he starts falling apart, we feel bad for him, we feel that something has been tragically lost. Scorsese has made the story of one of the 20th century’s most peculiar men into something oddly universal. How did he do that?

I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say that only Martin Scorsese could make a movie about a billionaire industrialist playboy and have him come off as a shy, awkward, hard-working, underappreciated outsider.

How did he do that? I would say that he did that by strongly identifying with his protagonist. But how does one identify with Howard Hughes?

Well, I have a little meaningless pocket guide that served as my way through the movie.

Howard Hughes loves planes. Martin Scorsese loves film. (This link is underscored in the first half-hour of the film, where Hughes is shown actually making a movie about planes, in fact actually making a movie in a plane.)
Scorsese presents Hughes as an outsider because that’s what he makes movies about. His movies about societies are always about the outsider who can’t quite make it inside that society, who’s always on the edge, looking in the window, not quite able to understand the way things are done. Even his gangster movies have outsider protagonists; Henry Hill in Goodfellas is Irish, Ace in Casino is Jewish. My dimestore-psychology theory is that Scorsese makes movies about outsiders because even though he was an Italian/American living in Little Italy, he was too small and too sickly to ever fit into that world; the outsider’s POV is the only way he understands things.

So Howard Hughes is presented not as a wealthy captain of industry, but as a misfit loner who bucks the system. He’s an outsider in Hollywood (even though his movies are hits and he’s dating every actress in town), an outsider in aviation (even though he owns a major airline and has expensive military contracts), and an outsider in the human condition (because of his mental problems).

Like Scorsese and his movies, Hughes sweats the details with his airplanes. He knows everything about the engineering of his planes and he knows everyone’s job better than they do. He wants the rivets flush because it will make a difference in the way the plane flies. He’s presented with ten different steering wheels and none of them are quite right.

Hughes Aircraft was a stunning success, but Scorsese only shows the failures. There are two scenes of Hughes actually crashing in his own planes. One is harmless and he walks away from it, the other is horrific and he is crippled for life. In real life, these crashes were mere hiccups in the production of those planes, but in the movie we never see either plane again, as if they never went into production.

I get the feeling that Scorsese is equating Hughes’s crashes with his own crashes. The H-1, for instance, is the plane that beat the air-speed record, but crashed in a beet field. That could be a metaphor for Raging Bull, a movie repeatedly voted as one of the 10 best of all time, yet unwatched in its first release. The XF-11, the crash that crippled Hughes, could be King of Comedy, the movie that put Scorsese in the directoral doghouse for a decade. The Spruce Goose, years in the making, the plane that Hughes finally flew to save his reputation (the flight serves as the climax of the movie) could be The Last Temptation of Christ, the movie Scorsese fought to make for years but finally got off the ground.

The OCD stuff, well, I was going to say that it’s analogous to Scorsese’s asthma, but that’s glib. I was also going to say that instead of OCD, Scorsese has his Catholic Guilt, but I don’t see Scorsese as being crippled by anything these days. Maybe it’s his work ethic, the way that his work kept him from having close relationships in the early part of his life (says the guy who just read a book of interviews with him).

Leonardo DiCaprio, who doesn’t seem to look much like Hughes, does a great job of getting across Hughes’s strengths, so when we see him be weak we feel it. Cate Blanchett utterly vanishes in her portrayal of Katherine Hepburn. Man, what a performance. You look at her and look at her, and you know it’s not Katherine Hepburn, in fact it doesn’t even look that much like Katherine Hepburn, but the fact is that, even in the most intimate scenes, you don’t see Cate Blanchette either. There is some kind of actress up there, playing the role of Katherine Hepburn.

I dare not think too much about what this means, but Scorsese’s Jesus shows up half-way through the movie as an oily, fish-faced scandal-monger.
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Cape Fear

Back when this movie came out in 1991, I was rehearsing a play with an actor who was a fellow cineaste. I came to rehearsal one afternoon and mentioned that I had just gone to see Cape Fear, and my cineaste friend gave me a look like I had just spent the day at a Three Stooges festival. He felt like Scorsese had not just betrayed his gift, but had made a movie that was boring, silly and unimportant.

Since then, I’ve seen Cape Fear at least ten times and never fail to get more out of it.

Last night I went to see the new remake of Slither. I liked it okay, but then I came home and put on Cape Fear. It’s silly and counterproductive to compare the work of a master operating at the height of his powers with the biggest budget of his career to the first film by a guy who wants nothing more than to gross us out, but Scorsese’s direction in Cape Fear, like Kubrick’s in The Shining, serves as a reminder of how gripping and transcendent genre filmmaking can be. There is barely an ordinary shot in the entire movie. Scorsese charges common shots with jolting electricity. A door closes, a car drives away, a man walks into a room, Scorsese finds ways to make all of these rote pieces of expository action crackle with intensity.

Both Cape Fear and The Shining feature, shall we say, larger-than-life lead performances. Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Shining is so peculiar and over-the-top, I went back and forth on it for years before accepting it as an integral part of the film. But De Niro in Cape Fear got to me immediately. His Max Cady is a palpable entity, monstrous yet still human. On the surface, with his loud, ugly clothes and ridiculous cigar, he’s nothing but an inbred yahoo. But when you get to know him, he’s got all kinds of hidden resources and powers.

That’s important, because one of the themes of Cape Fear is: who is “better,” the successful family man with the suburban mansion, or the lowlife scumbag rapist/murderer? That sounds like a stupid question, and yet Cape Fear brings it vividly to life. As De Niro slowly but surely gets the better of Nick Nolte and his family, we begin to feel our self-righteousness slip away until we don’t know what’s right or wrong any more, we just know that we don’t want to be raped and murdered.

After De Niro attempts to seduce Juliette Lewis, she defends him to Nolte by saying that he was just “trying to make a connection with me.” That sends Nolte into a rage, shouting “There will never be any connection between you and Max Cady!” Nolte (and the rest of affluent society) has spent his whole life building up walls of protection between himself and people whom he considers “lesser” than him.

Max Cady has spent a lot of time improving himself in prison. He’s lost weight, built up his muscles, learned to read and has ultimately gotten a law degree. So we could say that Sam Bowden “saved” him, gave him the motive to improve his condition. But Max wouldn’t have been in prison in the first place if Bowden hadn’t “done the right thing” by putting him there. And what is he doing, now that his condition is improved? He’s using all his new-found powers to destroy Sam Bowden.

It’s not about how Max brings Sam “down to his level,” it’s about how Sam was always on Max’s level, but had convinced himself otherwise. That’s why the film begins with hair-splitting legal niceties, but ends with two guys hitting each other with rocks on a muddy shore.

I don’t know why this theme fascinates me, but it does. The idea of the “good man” locked in combat with the “bad man” until we don’t know which is which any more. Or the “bad man” wearing the “good man” down until the “good man” isn’t “good” any more. Mamet’s Oleanna has a similar effect: a student calls her teacher a monster, seemingly out of nowhere, and he gets angrier and angrier until he finally becomes the thing he keeps insisting he is not.

Max Cady says at one point that he’s going to force Sam Bowden to make a commitment, just as Sam forced Max to make a commitment by putting him in prison. This line stuck out at me today, because Max isn’t saying that he’s going to kill Sam. He’s saying that Sam is going to kill him. Max is telling Sam that this isn’t going to end until Sam has lost his family and is put in prison. Why will Sam be put in prison? For killing Max Cady. Sam will kill Max because Max will rape and murder Sam’s wife and daughter. In his way, Max is offering himself up as a sacrifice. He’s made it his life’s work to put Sam Bowden in prison, and he’s got every single step in the plan worked out from the very beginning.

One of the reasons the theme of this movie appeals to me is that a friend of mine is currently involved in a lawsuit with a man who, for reasons best understood by himself, has decided to make my friend’s life a living hell. He’s got money and resources and a very large axe to grind, and he’s not going to stop until my friend’s life is ruined. In normal life, I’m sure this man goes about his life, charms his friends and takes care of whatever family he may have, and would never merit more than a passing glance from a passer-by. It’s only when one examines him closely, or is the victim of one of his electronic missives, that one realizes what a dangerous, unstable psychopath the man is. Just as Max Cady is an ordinary, even faintly ridiculous figure on the outside but seethes and roils with hatred, jealousy and rage on the inside, this man uses his intelligence and resources to do nothing but destroy and spread hatred in the world. Like Max Cady, he knows how the law works and how to use it to his advantage. He has an incredible talent for getting under people’s skin and drawing out parts of themselves they would prefer never see.

I guess one could say that lawsuits, like the phone company and the internet, are there to bring people together.
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The Color of Money

Long ago, in the mists of time, Some Guy came up with a thing called the “Auteur Theory” of film. The “author” of a film, he said, is the director, that the director cannot help but put a personal stamp on every film he or she makes, regardless of his or her personal connection to the material. This theory insists that, regardless of film being an incredibly collaborrative medium, the director is the sole author of the finished artifact.

This was a radical theory for its time, at least in America. According to Hollywood, the author of a film is whoever found the money to finance the production. That’s why the Oscar for Best Picture usually goes to someone you’ve never heard of.

The Oscar goes to the producer because Hollywood was not built by Auteur Theorists, or even Auteurs. It was built by Show People out to make a buck. The Studio made a movie, not Some Director. The Studio created a brand, beat filmable scripts out of ink-stained wretches, assigned stars to be in them and directors to shoot them. The director is the “author” of a film? That would have certainly been news to Irving Thalberg, to Louis B. Mayer, to freaking David O. Selznik.

Now then:

The Auteur Theory is very useful if your job is film analysis. But the marketplace has its own demands.

Why do people, let’s say Americans, go to see a movie? This is a question that is becoming more and more pertinent in today’s market, where tickets cost $11, popcorn and soda cost $10, gas costs $3, parking costs another $3, and who knows what else your date will ask for. What will induce Americans to leave their homes and go to a movie theater, when excellent entertainment awaits them in every corner of their homes on their computer screens, sattellite TVs, DVD players and X-Boxes?

One answer to that is Spectacle. Give an audience something in the movie theater that they cannot see at home. Give them More. Big pictures, broad themes, lots of Stuff, sophisticated special effects, grandiose and complex action sequences, famous faces, big drama, emotional punch.

By this reasoning, Peter Jackson’s King Kong should have been the biggest hit in the history of time. But it wasn’t. Why not?

Well, I think the Auteur Theory has finally caught up with mainstream American audiences. I think that what people want, increasingly, from a film is a personal vision, an authorial voice, if you will. I think that as films become less and less about “going out to the movies” and more like Something You Own, like a book, people will gravitate more towards filmmakers of strong personal vision and will become less interested in Studio Programmers, movies that are made to fill a production pipeline, not because anybody actually feels passion about any of them. I go into people’s houses (I’m not a burglar, they invite me) and what I see are things like an entire shelf of films by Tim Burton or David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick.

There was a great story in The Onion a few years ago, the thrust of which was that a potential girlfriend turned into a one-night stand after she woke up in a guy’s house in the morning and saw his DVD collection. The joke was not that his collection consisted of animal torture videos or anything; the joke was that his collection consisted solely of movies like Joe Somebody and Hart’s War and The 6th Day, corporate place-fillers with no theme or personal point of view. The girl in question says “I mean, I can’t believe I actually went to bed with someone who one day walked into a video store and said “Hello, I’d like to purchase a copy of The Legend of Bagger Vance.”

Point is, the Movie Business is rapidly becoming the DVD Business. And if you Buy a movie the way an earlier generation Bought books, movies by voices you love, trust and admire, voices that intrigue, seduce and enthrall you will be the movies you buy.

Anyway, enough of that.

The Color of Money is one of Martin Scorsese’s least personal, least discussed and most underrated movies. At the time it came out, I didn’t even see it in the theater because it had the whiff of “a job” about it. When I first saw it on video, probably in 1991, it still didn’t do that much for me because it wasn’t very clearly “about” Scorsese, who very much interests me as an Auteur. It seemed very much a Star Vehicle for Paul Newman. You can tell when a movie is a Star Vehicle when a supporting role is played by the hottest movie star in the world, in this case the young Tom Cruise, who had just come off Top Gun.

One of the pleasures of the movie is watching Cruise, easily the most intensely focused, controlled actor alive, play someone who is out of control, unfocused and green. Usually in the Tom Cruise Movie, Tom plays the Cocky Young _____ Who Takes A Fall and Becomes a Better _____. In this movie, he’s a pool hustler, so he plays a Cocky Young Pool Hustler, but because he’s in a supporting role, we miss the scene where he Takes A Fall and move on to the part where he Becomes A Better Pool Hustler, but it turns out, in the end, that That Isn’t Good Enough. Because, well, because it’s Not His Movie.

The DVD of The Color of Money, I’d like to note, has a substantially better transfer than my old DVD of Goodfellas. I know Goodfellas has been remastered recently, but I cannot otherwise account for this discrepancy.

The Color of Money deals with Pool Sharks, which are a type of con man, which automatically puts this movie into Mamet-land, bars and pool halls and hotel rooms, where men “play” each other and everyone has a hidden agenda. And there are a number of reveals and reversals in the movie that are certainly worthy of Mamet. But the script, by Richard Price, has a depth and subtlety of character that Mamet’s screenplays don’t really seem interested in, along with a corresponding charity toward both his characters and his audience. Mamet often seems mainly interested in tricking the audience; he’s more witholding, colder, more cynical. (The comparison isn’t that unfair. Both Mamet and Price wrote excellent comeback vehicles for Paul Newman [Mamet was nominated for an Oscar for The Verdict.] For some reason, I believe Richard Price’s climactic scene of redemption and Mamet’s seems forced to me.)

The power struggle between Newman and Cruise (and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) is palpable and engaging without ever being underlined and overstated. The thrust of Newman’s character arc is that he goes from saying that excellence is good for taking people’s money from them to saying that excellence has a value in and of itself. In Mamet’s version, it would turn out that Newman, we learn, was playing Cruise all along, or vice versa, whichever would make us feel more cynical. Well, that’s life.

On a technical end, I don’t know if anyone has counted, but a good alternate title for the picture could be 101 Exciting Ways to Shoot a Billiard Ball.

A young man named Forrest Whittaker shows up as a rival hustler, and Bill Cobbs will meet up with Newman in a few years, playing the Magical Negro in The Hudsucker Proxy.

SPOILER ALERT: The Color of Money, we finally learn in a surprise twist, is “green.”
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The Last Temptation of Christ

By total coincidence, my Palm Sunday choice of entertainment is Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film of The Last Temptation of Christ.

I was in the audience opening night at the Ziegfeld in New York. To get into the theater, you had to walk past Christian fundamentalist protestors, waving signs and shouting epithets.

The movie, back then, seemed heartfelt but a little weird. It was weird to be a Downtown New York hipster and see Willem Dafoe playing Jesus. It was weird to hear Judas talk with a tough-guy Brooklyn accent behind his big putty nose, see fellow Downtown hipster John Lurie play an apostle, see Harry Dean Stanton play Paul. It was weird to see Mary Magdelene naked, having sex, it was weird to hear stories you’ve memorized in Jacobean English be translated into contemporary American English. It seemed a little arch, a little self-conscious, a little too 80s. It seemed a little long, a little confusing, occasionally obvious, occasionally very very strange.

Repeated viewings takes all the weirdness away, turns them into mere stylistic choices. Bold choices, but secondary to the script and the story, as it should be, as it must be. Now the movie seems like a very important, deeply moving human drama about the divine in all of us. In fact, I’ll go further than that; if this movie had been around when I was a kid, I might actually believe in the story of Jesus now. Scorsese’s Jesus is approachable, human, confused, upset, doubtful and given to temptation. Hey, that’s me! But, “Owl Creek Bridge”-like, he wakes up from his dream and presses on, knows that the divine is possible when you realize that life isn’t the most important thing in the world.

I am also struck by the similarities between Jesus and another Willem Dafoe character, Norman Osborne.

Both characters hear voices. Jesus hears God, Norman hears the Green Goblin.
Both come with signiture identifying props. Jesus has a cross and nails, Norman has a glider and hand grenades.
Jesus is a simple carpenter who becomes a powerful savior, Norman is a simple arms manufacturer who becomes a powerful villain.
Jesus is betrayed by Judas and killed by the Romans, Norman is betrayed by the board of Oscorp and is killed by Spider-Man.
Both Jesus and Norman are scorned and mocked as crazy people.
Both Jesus and Norman are buff and ripped.
Both of their stories were written by great Jewish writers.
Norman is tempted by a mask, Jesus is tempted by Satan, who wears many masks.
Jesus has a scene with David Bowie, Norman has a scene with Macy Gray.

The Lord works in mysterious ways.
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