Sunday, February 28, 2010


Stanley Donen’s 1963 romantic thriller (or perhaps “thrilling romance” might be more apt) is a great heap of cinematic pleasures, be they visual or verbal. The well-twisted plot—involving a murdered husband, false identities, stolen money, and a mystery killer—is amusing, occasionally silly, and mostly just a platform for some deliciously deadpan bantering between Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant, two old pros of the form just casually batting words back and forth across scenic Paris. Hepburn even gets away with asking the question that has surely haunted Grant his entire career when she points at his cleft chin and asks, “How do you shave in there?” (He changes the subject, of course—some tricks of the trade best left to the imagination, I suppose.)

You can get away with a lot simply by daring to say it out loud. Unlike other films that pair a graying male lead with a pert young lady, Charade doesn’t let the matter lie unacknowledged, but instead uses the age difference to sweeten up the tart dialogue. There can be something uncomfortable about watching a film where a beautiful young starlet throws herself at a man old enough to be her father, or even in some cases, grandfather. Who wants to sit through another fantasy of aging masculine entitlement? Not I. But Donen just turns his performers loose and lets them chop the age difference to bits in their rapid crossfire exchanges (Hepburn: “I’m not fifteen,” to which Grant replies, “Well, that’s your trouble. You’re too old for me.”).

And while I’m piling on praise for the performances, I should note that this film makes excellent use of Walter Matthau’s disarming schlubbiness. His funniest moment might be the scene where he receives a call from Hepburn while inexplicably doing squats, and carries on the entire conversation bobbing up and down. The film gamely plays along and simply follows his distracting movement, making the scene that much more ridiculous. Donen’s camera, it seems, is as deadpan as any of his leads.

Not all of the performances are quite as successful—George Kennedy as a growling pseudo–James Bond villain with a hook for a hand is almost too much, and his cartoonish co-conspirators are hardly much better—but a piece of filmmaking as deft and smart as Charade is hard to trip up. Even potentially distracting choices, like Donen’s decision to mix rear projection scenes with actual Parisian locations, work to the advantage of the film’s knowing artificiality. This may be a self-aware film, but it’s certainly not a self-conscious one.

In a rather elegant way, Donen depicts the early stages of a relationship when two strangers attempt to build some sense of trust and connection. You slowly peel away the layers of identities you have built up around yourself, until at last you can reveal your true self—or perhaps selves, I should say, since these made-up identities are just as much a part of who we are. It’s only through acknowledging such artifice that the film finds its emotional plausibility. Or rather, in classical Hollywood style, the shortest path to the truth is through lies.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Police, Adjective

Sometimes, while watching a film, I will find moments that seem to suck the heat from the room and leave the audience chilled to the bone. Let’s call them frost-bite moments—stinging scenes of cold control and brutal insight. Police, Adjective, a sharp new film from Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu, contains two such moments, although both are so unlikely that you probably won’t even notice the mercury dropping.

The first of these shuddering epiphanies comes, surprisingly, while the camera simply scans over a hand-written report, slowly passing over the words so that the audience can read the entire document. By all reasonable standards, this is the very opposite of drama.

Yet there is something startling in the stark clarity of the report, drawn up by a young police officer named Cristi (Dragos Bucur, a fine performance, the police officer as lackluster student, prepared for a scolding and refusing to cringe when it comes). The events described within make up the first portion of the film, where we watch Cristi watch three teenagers through a series of mundane moments, all filmed with an exacting patience. Quite frankly, these scenes are dull—so dull, in fact, that it’s shocking to realize this quiet day contains a crime that could net one of the teens a minimum of three and a half years in prison.

That crime is supplying pot (not selling, you’ll note, but simply passing around a joint). Even as Cristi performs his job dutifully, the prospect of sending a harmless teenager to prison for an outdated law that he feels will change in a few years bothers his conscience. That’s the shock of the report—mild actions reduced to their barest legalities. The blunt language of the police report turns the restrained naturalism of the opening scenes on its head, using our own detachment and disinterest against us. The words incriminate whereas the actions appear innocuous.

The second chill comes at the end of the film, during the incredible dictionary reading scene (yes, that’s right). When Cristi argues against convicting one of the teens—by offering up another possible target, and then finally flat-out refusing to take part in a sting operation—his captain brings in a dictionary and demands that the young man read aloud the definition for a variety of words, among them “conscience,” “law,” and “police.” (Amusingly, when Cristi begins to read the definition for “police state,” the captain cuts him off, dismissively explaining that every state is supported by the police, making the term meaningless—and infinitely more horrifying, I might add.)

What makes the scene so disturbing is seeing Cristi broken down by the smooth authoritarian manner of the police captain, played by the brilliant Vlad Ivanov (who seems well on his way to becoming the international face of the Romanian New Wave at this point, especially with showcase roles like this one). Similar to his performance as the abortionist who demands a harsh fee in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Ivanov portrays power at its most forceful and intractable. With that quiet, controlled voice of his, he gives the impression of someone who speaks softer the angrier he gets—definitely not someone you want to fuck with. He commands the scene from the start, and whereas he violated bodies in the earlier film, here he violates minds—calmly assuring the helpless police officer that he does not know his conscience, right and wrong, even his own self.

In an interview with CinemaScope magazine, Porumboiu says that he sees Romania as “a kind of a post-communist society without liberal values: it’s like you left a place and you don’t know where you’re going.” This lack of identity informs the film as much as its preoccupation with Orwellian manipulations of language, which is how the young officer’s moral quandaries are obliterated, leaving him a pliable tool of the police apparatus. If his conscience bothers him still, he has no way to express it anymore. Unable to define his language, Cristi is unable to define himself: you are what you speak.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Crazies (1973)

The ideal way to experience George Romero’s 1973 film The Crazies would be projected onto the side of a building in the middle of a riot, tear gas obscuring the already murky picture while distant gunfire blends into the soundtrack and you snack on popcorn roasted over the burning husk of a Honda Civic.

Failing that, I’ll settle for the worn-down print I saw the other night, the sound blaring in my ear the entire time like a fire alarm. The theatre was packed with horror fans and the lobby with beer, making for a soused, ecstatic crowd that laughed loud at every joke and even louder at everything serious. Glass bottles periodically rolled down the sloped concrete floor of the theatre. Several fans dressed for the occasion like the film’s military personnel—white coveralls and gas masks as per regulations, although the guy who held together the torn seat of his outfit with yellow caution tape probably would have been chewed out by his sergeant and sent to clean the latrines.

In other words, mind yourself, because the army is not your friend (as one character in the film helpfully sneers). Most zombie horrors have an ambivalent attitude towards the military—and this siege horror-farce is certainly a missing link in Romero’s great chain of zombie movies—but rarely do any of these other films employ such a savagely anti-militaristic tone. (Perhaps the timing of this film, coming as it does near the end of the Vietnam War, has something to do with its rage.) Typically, the threat of the army competes with the undead menace, but rarely does it supersede the danger of being devoured by zombies.

However, the zombie stand-ins in The Crazies—people driven to violent mania by Trixie, a biological weapon seemingly named for a particularly venereal prostitute in a cheap hard-boiled novel—tend to recede into the background, while the military threat takes precedence. After Trixie infects the populace of Evans City, the military essentially invades the small town. It becomes unclear if the ensuing violence is the result of the disease or people simply resisting martial law. Force breeds resistance; oppression is a violence that begets itself.

Not that us civilian types are spared in Romero’s acidic film. More than anything, The Crazies is a riot against the tyranny of good taste. There’s an unstable, anything-goes-quality here that’s enforced by Romero’s jittery, often hilarious montages. During one gonzo bit of weirdness, he cross-cuts between someone idly tapping chimes in an abandoned house while in another room a father forcibly deflowers his daughter. The somber sound contrasts with the violence and depravity, lending the moment an air of ritual that makes it even more surreal (to say nothing of gag inducing).

There’s a wealth of acerbic details grounding the film’s bizarre images. When soldiers wearing gas masks storm into a house to quarantine the residents, one pauses to steal a fishing rod off a rack on the wall. When a stab-happy grandmother goes after a soldier with her knitting needles, the man crawls away trailing yarn. As political and military leaders debate the fate of Evans City, our attention is drawn not by the high-stakes discussion, but rather by the orange one of the generals is conspicuously peeling (later scenes show the men digging into some sandwiches, the prospect of nuking a small town apparently not enough to put them off their lunch). These pointed details always bring us back to earth, even as the film flies off into stranger and stranger realms—call it the Romero touch, that little offhand curlicue that personalizes even throwaway characters. And given the goriness of the film, there are a lot of characters to be thrown away here.

Considering the antic frenzy he’s aiming for, Romero probably would have been delighted to see his film’s volatile atmosphere spilling onto the pockmarked theatre floor like so many spilt beer bottles. This satire is strictly of the scorched-earth variety, and no one should be allowed to feel aloof from its escalating hysteria. The Crazies is a dizzying pleasure, as contagious as any disease. It’s a Molotov cocktail thrown at parked cars. Bring some popcorn and watch it burn.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


Imagine a three-hour epic family saga, spanning years and roaming from the snowy, mountainous backwoods of Argentina to the debauched port towns of all Europe, complete with flashbacks and chuck-up-your-soul soliloquies and sobbing I-love-you-yet-I-hate-you arguments and everything else under the sun. Hold this imaginary film in your head for a moment, just to understand the weight of the thing. Careful not to drop it on your foot. It’s heavy.

Now whittle it down to a lean 90 minutes. Take away the exotic locales. Remove every passionate outburst. Cut away the flashbacks that flesh out the characters. Finally, take away nearly every scene that directly expresses some sort of plot point. Now sit back and admire your handiwork—feel it float in your hand like a balloon, it’s that light—you’ve created a film much like Lisandro Alonso’s Liverpool.

Once you cut away most of the exposition and spectacle from a film, you’re left with mostly just interstitial moments, the little snippets of life that typically glue together scenes—a bit of small talk, a short walk from one place to another. True, this type of melancholy minimalism is an art-film cliché by this point. How many so-called serious artists do we need exploring the mechanics of loneliness, filming people eating alone and folding laundry and then staring sorrowfully at the horizon while they contemplate the howling void in their heart? I love this mopey shit, but when someone botches it I feel like running out of the theatre and renting some Michael Bay (to borrow a line from Warren Zevon, sometimes I’d rather feel bad than feel nothing at all). The downside of minimalism comes when the absence of drama is a pose hiding the absence of ideas.

But when done well—and make no mistake, Alonso does this kind of thing very well—the somber, restrained tone opens up into a richly suggestive experience. Little moments evoke wide possibilities, while each terse, flat conversation hides depths waiting to be explored by attentive viewers. Liverpool is a subtle beauty, difficult to grasp, almost impossible to describe. It may be technically accurate to describe a mirror's surface as reflective, but that doesn't really capture what you see, does it?

Consider the slender premise. Farrel, who works on a commercial freighter, takes shore leave at a port in Argentina in order to visit the little village where his family still lives. He wants to see if his mother is still alive, he explains to the captain. Riding on the back of logging trucks, trudging through snowy forests, Farrel reaches his old hometown a stranger. No one recognizes him. When he peers into his old home, he sees a strange young woman. Rather than knock on the door, he drinks himself into a stupor (his most constant companion in the film is a bottle of vodka, which returns his faith by seemingly never running empty).

After passing out overnight in a neighbour’s shed, Farrel is brought inside to warm up and reunite with him family. His father is unimpressed, admonishing his son for returning. “Nobody knows you now,” he says while his son remains silent. Later, the father offers a more cryptic rebuke. “Is this the sort of legacy you would leave for me?”

Perhaps that legacy refers to simple-minded Analia, the strange young woman, who appears to be Farrel’s daughter, born shortly after he left the village (her conception possibly being what provoked him to leave in the first place). But this is no teary-eyed reunion or saccharine ode to redemption. None of the characters openly acknowledge their familial bonds, leaving the drama in a suspended state. Even when Farrel briefly meets with his ill mother, it’s unclear whether or not she recognizes her own son. Lamely, he repeats his name over and over, while she refuses to acknowledge it, her only nod to maternal concern her repeated insistence that his hands must be cold. Everything is unspoken and unresolved, until Farrel finally leaves the village once again, while the camera lingers on a little longer to capture something of the sorrowful, quiet lives of his family.

Each low-key moment contains a wealth of information. A typical exchange—in the canteen while the radio plays, “Do you like the music?” one man asks Analia, who blankly replies “Yes” and then leaves—can open up a whole set of possibilities. That innocuous conversation contains an astounding amount of detail: a clumsy flirtation, Analia’s refusal of pleasure, the poverty of social life in the village, her fraught position as a rare young woman in a largely male environment. Drained of gloss and distractions, the film allows these moments to blossom in the viewer’s imagination. (“Show, don’t tell” is the traditional yardstick of storytelling, but this barely qualifies as either, making it all the more remarkable when the scene still manages to signify.)

Conversation, action, and incident are muted or excised altogether, allowing every unassuming shot in the film to take on great suggestive power. Farrel sits in a restaurant, isolated in a single shot while a baby at some other table off screen begins to cry. Later, as the man sits alone in the back of a strip club, we watch the shadow on the wall behind him, a ghost writhing in ecstasy. Both shots seem inconsequential, even pointless when we first see them, but the isolated details slowly accumulate meaning, alluding to what Farrel has abandoned and what haunts him still.

The surface of the film seems so barren, but as you dig down you find a tangled mess of roots, a fertile world beneath the dead land. This may not be a traditional narrative, but as a collection of tangible moments Liverpool acquires a remarkable emotional force. In the film’s extraordinary final shot, Analia holds in her hands a gift from her father—a plastic keychain that says “Liverpool.” She turns the gaudy trinket over and over in her hand, like a blind woman trying to understand the word through touch.

The keychain is rife with possibilities, both as a token of connection between father and daughter and between isolated Argentine village and bustling English port city. The world shrinks in that moment, even though it seems no less lonely for its diminution. This feels like an alien language infiltrating the remote village, a moment of connection rendered in an incomprehensible tongue. In that three-hour family saga, such an elusive, fragile emotion would die in a torrent of light and sound. In Alonso’s delicate film, it is the entire world.

Monday, February 1, 2010

O Lucky Man

The Ballad of Mr. Spalding

Gloria Rowe, the chief of public relations, asks me to smile and I feel sick to my stomach and my arm twitches like I’m about to have a seizure. I smile like I’m about to vomit on her and I think I just might, but they let me sit back down, thank god.

I’m supposed to be selling coffee and I hate coffee. You have to believe in it, they tell me. I believe in it, alright. I believe drinking coffee makes me feel like someone has taken a little stone and placed it right on top of my heart. I believe it makes me pee too much and I believe it tastes like someone burned down a wheat field and then watered down some of the scorched dirt and put it in front of me in a dirty little mug with a picture of a cat in a cowboy hat saying, Gonna rope me some doggies. Now smile.

Goddamn. It’s not enough to be good at your job. You have to believe in it, love it with all your heart or else they know and they damn you for it. Like that Mick Travis. He smiles and glad-hands and fucks Mrs. Rowe (they try to be sly but we know all about it, public relations, ha-ha) and gets a plum sales territory and everyone applauds the smiling, glad-handing, fucking bastard.

I get fired of course, and I can’t do a damn thing—no benefits, no severance pay—because I signed a paper when I started that said they could do whatever they wanted to me and I had to accept it.

Things look bad for a while, but one of my friends gets me a job with this Professor Millar, doing some sort of life saving, world changing work at this hospital. Now, I’m no doctor, but I can wear a white coat like nobody’s business. Give me the part, chief. I’ll do my best. Now smile.

It’s alright at first, except that they do terrible things there, like putting the heads of men onto the bodies of sheep—bad, stringy wool, all you’ll get there, I tell them but they don’t listen because I’m not supposed to talk that much. And when Travis shows up, smiling all the while, I feel a bit of satisfaction at watching that cheery jerk wheeled off to be cut up like a little greasy sausage. But I feel a bit guilty too—how are we saving the world exactly, with these stupid dead-end experiments, mass graves in the backyard, no officer, I don’t recall seeing that hitchhiker, I don’t know who says I picked him up, never saw him in my life.

No, I’m glad when Travis escapes, and I sneak out in the confusion too. I’d love to tell the police or the newspapers, but there’s a piece of paper in the hospital with my name on it that won’t let me do a damn thing without sinking myself too. It says I accept full culpability for the actions of the clinic and knowingly took part in everything that happened there. What can I say? I couldn’t get the job without putting my name to that form. I thought they were just collecting blood. It seemed like a harmless thing to sign.

So I spend the next few years looking for work, finding little or none, climbing my way to the bottom. I do my best to smile, but at this point I’ve seen too much to grin like that empty-headed ninny, Travis. Who knows where he is now? High up in some glass tower, no doubt, dining with millionaires and presidents, no doubt, while I’m down here scratching for pennies in the pavement like a starving chicken pecking in the dust.

It’s probably around five years later when I see him again, out on the east end, preaching some nonsense to the Salvation Army minister. He doesn’t even recognize me. People are good if you just give them a chance, he argues, so I take his wallet. Pity we aren’t all innocent like you, eh, Mick?

But I can’t shake the bastard. You can’t keep this kid down. I’m drinking with my friends by the barrels one night, warming ourselves with a bit of liquid fire, you know, and who should appear but Mick Travis, lugging a big old tub of soup for us poor, downtrodden souls. How kind, how generous—should we drop to our knees and kiss his dirty socks? Another phony soup-kitchen saint. We tell him what he can do with his filthy charity, while he tells us we’re all part of the brotherhood of man, some shit about dignity, how we’re the only truth and all that exists. Well, no shit. I could have told him I existed. He just never bothered to ask.

We rough him up and send him on his way with an east-end kiss (that’s dropping a barrel on the face, for you genteel country-estate types). Time to get back to the business of dying and being poor without all the bloody tourists around.

A few days later and I spot some guy carrying a sign like he’s warning us of the apocalypse, except instead of The End is Nigh this one says Movie Auditions. Judgment day either way, but at least a movie part would pay some.

When I hear what the movie’s going to be about, I start to get excited. At last, I think, here’s my chance—this movie they’re making, there’s bound to be a part in it for me. For one thing, I’ve got a very photogenic face, according to my mother. I look like I should be in the background of every picture, she says, my mom, and I can tell you that’s a compliment by her standards.

So I go to the auditions and the place is packed to the gills, and we’re in some empty warehouse late at night like we’re smuggling drugs or something, except it’s a bit like a party and no one is worried that the cops are going to show up because we have a permit. I know I can get the part. This story is Mick Travis’ life, and I know Mick Travis’ life better than he does. I’ve watched this movie my whole life and I can recite the lines from memory before they're even written. But Travis shows up (bastard), and he sits in front of me and looks back at me, stares me right in the eye, and I feel his wallet in my pocket start to glow like it’s radioactive, but the bastard still doesn’t recognize me and turns away.

And then they call him up, and he’s got the part already, I know it. He argues when they tell him to smile, why smile, what for, just do it, they tell him, but why, he whines. So the director smacks him on the head with the script (no mild tap, either—this thing’s three hours long) and then the idiot finally smiles. And obviously he gets the part because the best parts always go to the idiot who smiles.

But then the casting agent comes along with his clipboard. Says, have I got the part for you. Not big, just a few lines, but it’s your life, do you want it? He holds out a contract and hands me a pen.

I think of a cabinet somewhere with all those papers with my name on them, like a great catalogue of all my sins alphabetized for easy reference, all the lies I’ve ever told, because my name means nothing and I sign it all the same. It’s not easy being everyman; sometimes it’s hard enough being just a man. Of course I sign. Now smile.