natural born losers: bust, slide, and the max

Musicians regularly get together and jam.  It’s not always serious.  Sometimes it’s just jazzing about, goofing off, making shit up while still searching for a note, a thread, a pathway to something viable.  Actors do the same thing through improvisation.  Comedians too.

Writers, however, are rarely thought of as improvisers in the same way.  The obvious difference is that writing is a solitary vocation and they’re usually not open to input from family, friends, and colleagues until well into revision stage.  To put it bluntly, most writers simply don’t play well with others.

Collaboration still occurs between writers though.  I’ve always wondered how those things work when two hot-shot novelists get together.  Do they sit in the same cramped room together bashing the keys?  Does one type while the other dictates, then they switch roles at the end of every chapter?

I figure what ever way crime writers Ken Bruen and Jason Starr managed the practicality of writing their Max & Angela trilogy, they sure as hell had a great time doing it.  All three Hard Case Crime mass market paperbacks–Bust, published in 2006; Slide, published in 2007; The Max, published in 2008–feel like two writers having a laugh.  It feels like a lark and I haven’t giggled so hard reading in a long time.  The humor, though, is dark.  This is caustic stuff, but always hilarious.

“Max was barely listening to the rabbi’s eulogy, but when he realized that everyone was breaking down in tears, he knew he had to show some reaction.”

Bust is the most traditionally noir of the three.  It introduces our two anti-heroes–schlubby middle-aged businessman Max Fisher and his busty unqualified assistant and mistress Angela Petrakos–and digs a hole deep for the both of them.  Neither one of them is smart, to put it nicely, and part of the diabolical fun of the novel is watching these two overconfident idiots get themselves into terrible situations and… get into worse situations.

Max wants to knock off his wife.  He hires a sketchy Irishman with mangled lips (they were cut with a broken bottle) named Popeye to do the deed.  Popeye claims to be a professional killer, that’s why Angela brought him to Max in the first place.  It should go off without a hitch, but hardly anything goes right and when Max’s wife is horribly murdered it sets off a chain of misfortune that would make the Coen brothers’ heads spin.

Novels like Bust, including the rest of the series, are essentially perverse reads.  The comedy arises from events that are truly terrible–beatings, murder, kidnapping, and a whole lot of other nasty business.  The worse it gets and the farther Max and Angela descend into the pit, the funnier it is.  Max is the worst offender of the two.  He’s arrogant, delusional, and sociopathic.  He’s one loathsome character, but he’s also funny because he’s completely clueless about how bad he really is.  And as we move through the subsequent books, Max gives into those negative characteristics even more.  Angela, a half-Irish-half-Greek American bombshell, is horrible in a whole different way.  She’s certainly amoral, dumb, and gold-digging.  But I think her worst trait is her horrible taste in men.  When it comes to hooking-up, the woman would bed a rock if she thought she could squeeze some gold out of it.

“Max’s big problem was, despite all he’d been through over the past few months, his ego was all there.  He might’ve looked like a cesspool on the outside, but inside, he was still the same happening, suave, debonair, hip Max Fisher he’d always been.”

Slide picks up a year after the events in Bust.  Max aka The M.A.X. is now a “big time” coke dealer living in a Manhattan penthouse apartment with his new mistress Felicia (a stripper Max pays to be with him) and his in-house sushi chef.  He’s living the American Dream, or so he believes.  Maybe he’s just watched Scarface too many times.  Angela has fled to Ireland, her ancestral homeland, in hopes of riding the Celtic Tiger to wealth and fame.  But the economic boom has flat-lined and she gets mixed up with an American culture-loving Irish serial killer named Slide, who originally intended to kidnap and murder Angela when she accosted him on a Dublin street.  He quickly feels that she’s a kindred spirit and Angela, as per her usual routine with bad men, gets stuck with another loser… albeit a very scary, fucked up one.

I missed not having Max and Angela interact like they did in the first novel, but I thoroughly appreciate that Bruen and Starr don’t repeat themselves.  No fun in that.  And while Bust was undoubtedly a comedic book, it still very much adhered to noir tropes in a straightforward manner.  Slide‘s plot is looser.  It feels like a free-for-all at times… not that there’s anything wrong with that.  It feels like two writers jamming.

I don’t know how Bruen and Starr actually divided the work load, but you get the feeling that each one tried to set up the other one with improbable (and hilarious) plot complications and then said, “Now, try to get out of that one!”  It feels improvisatory to some degree.  If you go in looking for a ruthlessly plotted suspense tale, you may throw down the book in frustration.  It is suspenseful and quite the page-turner, but this is even more of a lark, and an outrageous one at that.  The transformation of Max into The M.A.X. is indeed a sight to behold.

“You got The M.A.X., you don’t need nothin’ else, dig?”

If The Max was a song, it would be turned to 11.  This is one hysterically over-the-top book and slightly better than the second one because it amps everything up to an even more ridiculous level.  This kind of far-fetched plotting is understandably not for everyone.  And The Max is really out there: The M.A.X. is now in prison, Attica, and reality is crashing down on him hard.  Angela is now in Greece, her other ancestral homeland (Ireland didn’t work out too well), and trying to live the high life with no money.  She gets involved with a suave grifting Englishman, Sebastian, who comes from money but doesn’t have any, and the two set off a domino effect of mayhem that will travel halfway ’round the world and end up intersecting with Max at Attica.  Toss in a desperate midlist crime writer who wants to write a biography of Max, plenty of crime genre/writing biz in-jokes, loads of politically incorrect humor, and you’ve got yourself another Hard Case winner.

All noir fiction straddles a line between humor and horror, tragedy and comedy.  If the existential odds are stacked up too high against our poor sap protagonist, a writer runs the risk of alienating their reader, pushing them too far.  There’s only so much trouble a character (and a reader) can take.  Maybe the size of one’s ego determines how far you can shove them closer to the void.  Max–who is oblivious in the first book but turns into a monstrous caricature by the second one and insanely destructive by the third–is unlike any fictional character I’ve ever run across.  At times he comes across like a sociopathic Elmer Fudd… a cartoon character with malicious intent who thinks he’s Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, or Al Pacino in DePalma’s Scarface remake.  The latter comes up a lot in Slide, since Max watches it all the time and tries to pattern his gangsta-lite persona on Pacino to become the de facto King of New York.

Or so he imagines.

If there’s one major theme running through these novels, it’s self-delusion… of characters not being able to see themselves clearly, of being unable to deal with reality truthfully.  For all of the gratuitous violence and extreme situations Bruen and Starr wallow in, they are completely insightful about this negative trait in us.  Everyone is capable of self-delusion.  I couldn’t help, however, seeing this as an exaggerated (because everything in these books is cranked up really high) examination of a specific strain of American self-delusion.  If the last ten years has taught us anything (you did learn this lesson, right?), it’s that American exceptionalism is a fantasy.  You can believe all you want that Americans are inherently different from everyone else in the world.  But that kind of destructive thinking only works so long and only within the borders of fortress America.  Go out into the world–and I’m not even talking the “exotic” Third World–and try acting like a know-it-all exceptional American.  Try it.  See how far it gets you on your crusade to win friends and influence people.

Max and Angela are American self-delusion personified.  Max adopts personas (badly) throughout the books–loving husband, good boss, ladies’ man, murderer, drug kingpin, gangsta, convict, genius.  He is incapable of being authentic, incapable of being what he truly is.  The frighteningly funny depth of his psychosis is brilliantly shown in how he reacts in the aftermath of his wife’s murder.  He eventually convinces himself that he didn’t hire Popeye and that he was the real victim of the whole affair, not his dead wife.  Max was the one suffering.

Angela’s delusions are more normal… for what it’s worth.  She’s dumb as hell, but she’s aggressive about living the good life.  Unfortunately, she’s not very good at attaining what she wants.  But damn if she doesn’t keep trying.  That’s what you call a real American can-do spirit!  Which is not a bad thing, mind you.  She’s a survivor, no doubt about it.

These are not sympathetic characters.  They don’t need to be.  The only thing that matters in fiction is that the characters are engaging.  Noir has always traded on that… not catering to good taste or offering up vanilla protagonists for fear of alienating readers/viewers.  The only moral or decent characters in this book–less than a handful–end up either dead or ineffectual… as it should be when we’re talking noir.

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flagpole movie pick: a dangerous method

There’s a lot to like in David Cronenberg’s latest movie A Dangerous Method.  But I miss the monstrous metaphors that he usually employs in his work.  He’s one of our most original and disturbing filmmakers after all and excels when venturing into territory  where no one else dares to tread.  You can read my full review in this week’s issue of Flagpole.

down the lost highway: my video tribute

Patricia Arquette as Alice... turning heads.

Sex, and the fear of sex, is the prime mover in David Lynch’s movies.  It squirms within the crawl spaces of narrative, frequently uprooting the melodrama with a riot of wanting, thumping, howling fucking.  Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and Mulholland Drive, all overflow with images of lurid, nasty, sweaty, animalistic sex.  Lynch frequently—sometimes within the same movie—feeds the overheated Puritan beast as well.  The plunge into the sleaze is typically rooted in the moralism of conservative Neverlandism.  This old-fashioned American boy wants his pussy (depictions of sex and lust are always thoroughly hetero-driven) as much as he wants his cherry pie and cup of joe.  It’s just that the sweet howl of fucking is accompanied with the wag of moralism.  For whatever reason, Lynch can’t turn off to turn on.

Lost Highway isn’t entirely free of the moral gaze—e.g. Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) are each sexually obsessed with Renee Madison (Patricia Arquette) and Alice Wakefield (Patricia Arquette), though the intensity of her sexuality simultaneously destroys each man as well.  They fear her.  Attraction/repulsion eroticism has claimed many a drifter, conman, rube in film noir.  The genre is piled high with the limp bodies of broken men who stupidly believed they could covet the unattainable, then tried to murder what they couldn’t capture.  Written by Lynch and writer Barry Gifford (they also worked on Wild at Heart together, another sex and violence-soaked trip through the pulp hinterlands), Lost Highway amplifies sexual obsession to an aggressive, intoxicating level.  The movie’s dark descent into noir-soaked depravity is aggressively carnal, relishing with fetishistic detail the unraveling of men to their overheated ids.  Contemporary American commercial cinema has long had a problem with depictions of adult sex on screen.  Puerile teenage sex comedies, like Porky’s and American Pie, are okay, but any filmmaker over the last decade who wants to have two adults fucking on screen in a non-comedic context is going to run into problems from the studio, the ratings board, and/or the public.  It’s probably best for a director to just have a man bash in a woman’s head or slash her wide open, spilling her guts across the screen, than risk box office receipts because a little wholesome fucking was shown instead.

Sex in Lost Highway is defiantly lurid and influenced by images of pornography.  There’s nothing really new here in this Lynch/Gifford neon-lit wasteland of corruption that hasn’t flowed through countless film noir tales before.  But it is more graphic and overt about what was really generating beneath the banal plot details.  Like Vertigo, Bad Timing, and David Cronenberg’s Crash, Lost Highway isn’t shy about what’s really motivating its characters.  It revels in the graphicness of lust and violence, the engine that motors the best pulp fiction.

The setting of Lost Highway is Los Angeles, the city of sun, sparkle, and manufactured dreams.  It’s also an industry town of nightmares and desolation.  The two movie industries that run it are mainstream commercial features and pornography.  The city is a dead sprawl where unfulfilled desires nestle alongside insatiable ambitions; where the evidence of heartbreak and hopelessness stains the bedroom walls of scuzzy motels and palatial mansions alike.  For every wish granted, there are a thousand promises broken.  Los Angeles is the land where melodrama and tragedy intermingle; where comedy and horror cling to each other so savagely it’s difficult to distinguish between the two.

Lynch and Gifford know this world well, and in Lost Highway they chart this attractive/repulsive nightscape with the precision of longtime residents… or, at least, veteran moviegoers and readers.  The City of Angels is a place heightened to a delirious pitch while simultaneously grounded in the meat and bone and blood and impulses that are all too human.  In Lynchville, metaphor and concrete physical reality have always been entwined.  It’s no coincidence that Lost Highway begins and ends with the image of a car racing down a ribbon of asphalt… a Möbius strip that will become more explicitly metaphorical and concrete as the narrative unwinds.  As with most all of Lynch’s work, however, the real strength of his storytelling has nothing to do with the mechanics of plot or character.  It’s how he tells the story, how he constructs a mood, how he generates images and sensations that we’ve never seen before.

Though many viewers love to pick apart what things mean in Lynch’s work, trying to decipher the symbols and dream imagery as if it’s a code that can be solved, implying that there’s one way to read each movie, I’ve never found his work to be cerebral at all, at least not in a way that Godard is cerebral or Resnais, Rohmer, and Haneke are.  Lynch is intentionally cryptic, but the work to me has always provoked thoroughly emotional responses.  Anything beyond that is an afterthought.

Lost Highway gets under my skin.  In the screenplay to it and in its press materials, Lynch and Gifford refer to the movie as a “21st-century noir horror film.”  It is and it isn’t… certainly not traditional genre fare.  Horror isn’t a real genre anyway, as critic and author Douglas E. Winter pointed out in his introduction to the anthology Prime Evil, and I whole-heartedly agree with him.  Horror is an emotion, a feeling that transcends the parameters of genre.  It’s not like the Western or science fiction or the mystery.  Lost Highway does effectively mix horror with mystery with the absurd, something that Lynch has always done, but here he goes farther off the edge into the great weird unknown.  The movie is suffocating at times.  Fear and paranoia fester in every frame and Lynch rarely dilutes it with humor.  There is comedy in it—the scene of mobster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia) lecturing the tailgater while beating his brains out is hilarious wish-fulfillment—but the darkness of the movie overwhelms all… as it should.

I love much of Lynch’s work, though this is the one that hypnotizes me the most.  I’m lost within its spell from the first moment.  I’ve written about my longtime crush on Patricia Arquette before.  She’s never been better or more appealing than here, though like her role in True Romance, she’s an idealized male fantasy.  But unlike True Romance, Lynch and Gifford are aware of how fragile and destructive that allure is… how it binds and obliterates the male characters too weak to resist her.  Her sexual appeal masks a great nothingness.  Underneath the façade, Renee/Alice is a crude, uninteresting woman.  Nothing shakes off the spell more than seeing Alice stand next to Pete, who has just murdered her sleazy old lover Andy (Michael Massee), and mutters “wow” with the detached air of a Southern California-baked Valley Girl… or a sociopath.

Nevertheless, Renee/Alice is a hard one to resist… the ultimate femme fatale.  The movie stands alongside Vertigo, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, and Bad Timing as the ultimate fetishistic take on sexual obsession.  Below is my uncensored video tribute to the movie.  PLAY IT LOUD!

my top ten movies of 2011

Better late than never…

The major reason it took me so long to finally compile my own list was that so many of the major releases (the critically acclaimed ones) took until 2012 to reach Athens.  So there.

I need to make some qualifications to the following list.  They are listed in order, Hugo and The Guard were the most fun I had at the movies all year, the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce would make the very top of my list but I cut it out because it’s cheating, Drive almost made my #10 spot but not even its seductive style could make me forgive its stupidity, and the greatest movies I watched all year were older titles.  I’m no movie crank always yearning for the good old days.  It was a pretty good year for cinema, but nothing I watched in 2011 was as good as revisiting Rio Bravo or Only Angels Have Wings or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or seeing The Big Sleep on the big screen for the first time.  But there were moments in Hugo, The Tree of Life, and Mysteries of Lisbon that made me think and see movies in a new way.  They altered in their own distinctive ways my perceptions of what the medium was still capable of.  That’s pretty great and you really can’t ask for anything more special than that.

Also, the most overrated movie of 2011 is Lars von Trier’s MelancholiaYou can read my original Flagpole review here.

Now… onward!

1.  Hugo–dir: Martin Scorsese; cast:  Ben Kingsley, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moritz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jude Law.

Martin Scorsese surprised everyone and directed a 3D kids movie.  To say too much about the plot would ruin the many surprises in it, but Hugo is essentially a glorious fantasy, a mystery, and a lovingly heartfelt, moving tribute to the motion picture and the power of storytelling itself.  What it’s not is a simpleminded nostalgia trip.  Scorsese honors the past and somehow accomplishes it without coming off as reactionary.  He and his fellow craftspeople utilize today’s most advanced cinematic tools and techniques to conjure up a Paris and a time that never existed quite like this.  I can’t stand the way the majority of modern films use the 3D process.  This film, however, is a wonderful example of the spatial and visual possibilities it offers a filmmaker with a true artistic sense.  Pure joy this was.

2.  The Guard–dir: John Michael McDonagh; cast: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, David Wilmot, Fionnula Flanagan, Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong.

“You know, I can’t tell if you’re really motherfucking dumb or really motherfucking smart.”

I don’t think I enjoyed myself more at a movie all year than when I watched director/writer John Michael McDonagh’s feature debut.  Like his brother, playwright and film director Martin, McDonagh has a deft way with dialogue, he’s equipped with a savage wit, and he incisively knows how to undercut stereotypes and clichés with a casually detonated word or by capturing an actor’s spot on reaction shot.  This is breezy and riotously funny stuff.  It’s almost too laid-back for its own good, however, which offsets how brilliant much of it is.  It’s one part ’80s buddy cop movie, mixed with the gritty hilarity of crime writers like Elmore Leonard, Charles Willeford, and Joe Lansdale, and outfitted in the balls-out stylization of a vintage spaghetti Western movie, The Guard makes for one twisted and anarchic concoction.  There were undoubtedly more ambitious movies released in 2011 (The Tree of Life; Melancholia; Margaret), so if you’re looking to figure out the mysteries of the universe and your not-so-important place in it, you might want to move on.  If you’re looking for some laughs and a lot of heart, though, and want something far removed from the humorless angst plentiful in so many other movies right now, The Guard may be your man or… eh, film.

3.  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy–dir: Tomas Alfredson; cast: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch.

Set in the early 1970s, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy deals with the intricate inner workings of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service a.k.a. the Circus and the hunt for a possible Soviet mole within its highest rank.  The film, directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), is a meticulously paced thriller that generates a wealth of tension through the slow accretion of significant dramatic details, plunging us into a maze of cryptic information curated by offices of silently suffering agents of moral relativism.  We live in a country where the lies running the engines of politics aren’t even hidden any longer and foreign policy is always reduced to clear black and white, good guy/bad guy scenarios straight out of a John Wayne B-Western, so the impact (and irony) of the moral betrayal on spy George Smiley (Oldman) may feel alien to many viewers looking for a decisive narrative throughline.  This is a rich, rewarding movie if you’re patient.  It’s stubbornly antithetical to the current fashion in high concept, easily digested commercial cinema, and I loved it even more for that.  Oldman’s slow-burn of a performance is one of his finest too… a perfect example of less-is-more acting.

4.  The Tree of Life–dir: Terrence Malick; cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, God.

Malick’s overwhelmingly ambitious coming-of-age drama is simultaneously poignant, intimate, profound, mystifying, frustrating, bewildering, sublime, ridiculous, warm, and cosmic.  From its performances—Pitt as the domineering father, Chastain as the benevolent mother, and McCracken as the wide-eyed son caught in the middle between fierce instinct and transcendent compassion—to its extraordinary cinematography courtesy Emmanuel Lubezki and Alexandre Desplat’s majestic score, The Tree of Life was a big budget experimental film in the guise of a Hollywood production.  You’ve certainly never seen anything like it.  Is it the masterpiece many of us expected?  No, I don’t think so.  But what does that matter?  This is nevertheless a major film… thoughtful, brave, emotional, and it contains some absolutely beautiful, haunting moments.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film so successfully convey how memories move us through the currents of time.  That Pitt and Chastain effectively gave depth to roles that were basically archetypes, is nothing short of a miracle.

5.   Mysteries of Lisbon–dir: Raoul Ruiz; cast: Adriano Luz, Maria João Bastos, Ricardo Pereira, Clotilde Hesme, José Afonso Pimentel.

A glorious, enigmatic historical epic from the late Ruiz.  The movie is filled with seductive surprises and part of the pure enjoyment of it all is to not know where Ruiz is leading us. The journey, however, is brilliantly unfurled and incorporates straight melodrama, the evocation of Borgesian dream imagery and absurdist irony into its multi-layered pattern. It’s sumptuously filmed, but also subtly playful in a manner that will surprise viewers expecting yet another dry period piece. Watching Mysteries of Lisbon, it becomes increasingly clear that the best way to fully appreciate its enigmatic power is to just let go and disappear into this sprawling yet meticulously constructed masterwork.  We are all fiction!

6.   Hanna–dir: Joe Wright; cast: Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Eric Bana, Tom Hollander, Olivia Williams, Jason Flemying.

A head-tripping exercise in style and action.  Films from Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan regularly indulge in expanding the grammar of action sequences with fast cutting, inventive blocking, and by daring to betray the laws of physics.  This isn’t always a good thing, since the more a director strays from physical or emotional authenticity, the more likely we are to disengage from the material.  A truly imaginative director like Takashi Miike can keep us connected because he’s so over-the-top we can’t believe what we’re seeing.  He’s unique.  Director Joe Wright, who was previously not known for delving into action, doesn’t embrace the outlandish like Miike does, but he is committed to the pleasures of far-fetched melodrama and he has a keen visual sense that makes this movie pop in all the right ways.  In telling his tale of a teenage girl, Hanna (Ronan), trained to be a lethal killer by her father (Bana), an ex-CIA agent, Wright always keeps things grounded in the human despite the pulp premise.  At times it reminded me of a mash-up of anime, fairy tales, comic books, and Sergio Leone.  That’s a must-see in my book.

7.  Road to Nowhere–dir: Monte Hellman; cast: Cliff De Young, Waylon Payne, Shannyn Sossamon, Tygh Runyan, Dominique Swain.

In Road to Nowhere–director Monte Hellman’s first feature film in 21 years–the destination at the end of the plot doesn’t matter.  To expect some sort of emotional or intellectual epiphany–a moment of dramatic clarity—at the finale of its 121-minute running time will only bring unneeded anguish on you.  That is not to suggest, however, that the film doesn’t reward the patient, adventurous viewer along the way.  The dark mysteries running through the film are as perplexing and seductive as anything you’ll encounter in a David Lynch work like Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive.  But in an age where subtlety and ambiguity are verboten from the majority of American commercial films—even ones with arty pretensions—Hellman’s return may be a trip many filmgoers may not be willing to take.  Which is unfortunate, considering Hellman has long been one of our most original directors working.  Written by Steven Gaydos, a Variety writer and long-time collaborator with Hellman, the film immediately plunges us into its narrative subterfuge when a blogger (Dominique Swain) pops in a DVD called Road to Nowhere, a mystery film directed by Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) about a real-life criminal case involving murder, embezzlement, and a missing woman.  Haven’s film stars a mysterious actress named Laurel (Shannyn Sossamon), who actually may be the real missing woman, and he immediately falls for her in proper doomed romantic fashion.  Toss in a sleazy but determined insurance investigator (Waylon Payne) pursuing Laurel and questions about identity and the relationship between truth and fiction, and one could easily expect a modern, existentialist-flavored film noir.  But melodrama, even of the noirish variety, is not the film’s ultimate concern.  The more philosophical aspects are its focus, however, and as each character finds themselves tangled in their own fictions, we become lost in the existential wilderness ourselves.  Being entangled in an unsolvable mystery such as this, though, never felt so satisfying.

8.  Meek’s Cutoff–dir: Kelly Reichardt; cast: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Zoe Kazan, Will Patton.

This minimalist Western, set and shot in the high desert of Eastern Oregon, is further proof how sturdy yet malleable this old genre still is for an imaginative filmmaker like Reichardt.  Critics and moviegoers keep writing the Western off… hell, they did that decades ago.  But every few years significant Westerns are released.  In the last few years we’ve had The Claim, Tears of the Black Tiger, The Missing, Blueberry aka Renegade, Dead Birds, Brokeback Mountain, The Proposition, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 3:10 to Yuma, Seraphim Falls, There Will Be Blood, Appaloosa, The Good, the Bad,the Weird, True Grit, and many more.  Doesn’t sound like a genre on its last legs to me.  Looks pretty damn durable.  There’s not a lot of action in Meek’s Cutoff.  It’s not a plot-oriented movie.  There’s plenty of suspense, however, and the moral quandary that the characters are mired in is deep and thought-provoking.

9.  The Artist–dir: Michel Hazanavicius; cast: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, Penelope Ann Miller, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Uggie.

This is a wonderful, funny, and poignant tribute to the silent film era and it’s a splendid entertainment.  I even loved the damn dog

10.  Attack the Block–dir: Joe Cornish; cast John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Nick Frost, Leeon Jones, Luke Treadaway.

Much like District 9 from a few years ago, this science fiction/comedy/action hybrid came out of seemingly nowhere and impressed me with its ingenuity, wit, and a playfulness that is largely missing from the majority of big budget Hollywood product.  This is the antithesis of everything the Hollywood studios are doing right now—it’s largely character-driven, it’s an ensemble piece structured around a bunch of unknown actors, and the leads are unlikeable for the most part.  At first.  This is a homage to the sort of picture John Carpenter made in his heyday of the late ’70s and ’80s, as well as a subversion of the kind of movie Spielberg made during the same period.  White suburban youths were frequently visited by sweet-natured aliens in Spielberg movies (and in the work of his imitators) or allowed to go on some sort of fantastical adventure.  Cornish takes that idea and flips it on its head.  What would happen if the aliens landed in inner city London and encountered a bunch of amoral toughs instead? And the aliens and youths weren’t cuddly either.  Believe it!

Honorable Mentions:

Mildred Pierce

Young Adult

Martha Marcy May Marlene

The Future

Senna

Le Havre

Contagion

Higher Ground

Take Shelter

Carnage

Drive

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Films I Haven’t Seen Yet But That May Have Made the Cut:

The Descendants

Margaret

The Turin Horse

Midnight in Paris

A Separation

We Need to Talk About Kevin

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

ten alternative romantic movies for valentine’s day

I don’t hate Valentine’s Day… it’s just never meant much to me.  Luckily, I’ve never been with anyone romantically who seems to care about it either, so there’s never been a moment of embarrassment or shame if and when the subject comes up.  No offense if you enjoy the day, it’s just not a “holiday” that means anything to me.  Perhaps if I worked in the greeting card or chocolate candy industries I’d change my mind.  Or maybe if I was a Chaucer scholar I’d care a little more.

That doesn’t mean I’m not a romantic, however.  I love a good romantic comedy… it’s just that so many modern versions of this perfectly good sub-genre are lousy, cynical, uninspired, and neither remotely romantic or funny.  Yet, people still flock to the latest Kate Hudson cinematic swill or to Sandra Bullock’s latest hate-fest.

So what is a jaded, frustrated, screwball comedy-loving cinephile to do?  Well, luckily there are still plenty of older movies to revisit or watch for the first time.  The following is my top ten list of favorite romantic movies.  Some are thoroughly within the romantic comedy sub-genre and some aren’t.  They all deal with love in some manner, though, and I think they’re insightful about the wicked, wicked ways of romance.

These are numbered, but they’re not in order.  I’m listing them in the order they popped into my head… which means something, I guess.

1.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

To know love is to know heartbreak as well.  Director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman brilliantly capture both states of being here in this tale about two lovers–played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet–who decide to erase each other from one another’s memory via a clinic that offers the procedure.  Despite its fanciful premise, there’s not a false moment in this modern masterpiece.  In this scene, Joel (Carrey) revisits the house on Montauk that became a significant memory for him and Clementine (Winslet).  But the memory is now dissolving and Clementine with it.

2.  The Awful Truth (1937)

One of my favorite screwball comedies.  A wealthy married couple, Jerry (Cary Grant) and Lucy (Irene Dunne) Warriner, divorce and try to ruin each other’s love life in the aftermath. Dunne and Grant are perfectly matched in this comedic romp and Ralph Bellamy as the Oklahoma hick who tries to swoon Lucy off her giddy feet practically steals the show.  The entire movie is silly, sophisticated, and nevertheless insightful about the ways of marriage.  The ending is brilliant.  The above clip is the beginning of the film.

3.  The Lady Eve (1941)

Rich boy snake expert/explorer Charles Poncefort Pike (Henry Fonda) becomes the target for beautiful grifter Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) while on a sea cruise.  He’s no match for her thorough working over.  Another favorite screwball comedy, this time  written and directed by Preston Sturges, and a sexy one at that.

4.  Lost in Translation (2003)

The restless heart is not restricted to any particular age or gender.  Recent college graduate Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) accompanies her rock photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) to Tokyo while he’s on assignment.  While staying at the Park Hyatt, Charlotte meets Bob Harris (Bill Murray), an actor past his creative prime and dissatisfied with his marriage… just like her.  The two establish an intimate, intense bond.  Sensitive, observant, and emotionally rich, Lost in Translation is as good as it gets.

5.  The Fly (1986)

Boy meets girl.  Boy turns into a half-human-half-fly-hybrid monster.  Girl still loves him.  The romance is unconventional and tragic.  I never promised that all of these love stories would end well.

6.  They Live By Night (1949)

Director Nicholas Ray, a poet of doomed romanticism, here focuses on the lives of two young lovers, escaped convict Bowie (Farley Granger) and innocent Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell). They’re on the run out in the big, bad black-hearted world.  The odds are against them.  It’ll rip your heart out.

7.  In the Mood for Love (2000)

“He remembers those vanished years…

Two married neighbors, played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, begin a friendship when they discover their spouses are having an affair.  Much like the friendship in Lost in Translation, sometimes the most intense romantic relationships aren’t overtly sexual.  It doesn’t mean there isn’t passion though.  Wong Kar Wai’s masterpiece is so feverish with longing it borders on the surreal.  The ending, which is what I’ve posted, is one of the great heartbreaking finales in cinema as far as I’m concerned. 

8.  The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

If you’re familiar with Jacques Demy’s film, with music by Michel Legrand, then you know it’s a fucking masterpiece.  Yes, love will tear you apart.  This is the big separation moment.  Only the French could get away with something so deliriously tragic and make it feel so good.  Lola, Demy’s earlier film in this loose trilogy, and the later The Young Girls of Rochefort are equally brilliant.

9.  Wild at Heart (1990)

This is David Lynch at volume 11-grotesque, surreal, jarring, ultraviolent, and a whole lotta sexy.  Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) are on the run, overheated, and deeply in love.  This demonic world tries its best to smother their love, but these two crazy, amoral kids are untouchable.  Sometimes Wild at Heart works for me… other times not so much.  But isn’t that like love itself?  You can’t sustain that heat all the time.

10.  Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Last but certainly not least… this is probably my favorite movie on this list.  It’s a romantic comedy for misfits and for people who think they hate romantic comedies.  I’m not an Adam Sandler fan at all, but he’s brilliant in this, as is the always lovely Emily Watson.  Yes, it’s dark at times, but it’s also joyful in a way that’s completely intoxicating.  This is pure cinematic perfection.  And as soon as I finish typing this, I’m going to rewatch it.  Jon Brion’s score adds so much to the film too, and the inclusion of Harry Nilsson’s song “He Needs Me” from Altman’s film Popeye is inspired.

worse things waiting: hard rain falling

Maybe it’s just me, but I think with each passing year it becomes more and more difficult to discover a new favorite book (it goes for movies as well).  You know, the kind of book that immediately gets under your skin and seeps into your DNA.  It happens, but not like it did when I was younger when my taste was still being shaped.  My taste is still changing, I guess, but not like it did when I was in my formative years.  I’m more confident in what I like now and certain in what I hate.  I know what I like and try to stay away from things I don’t in other words.  Life is short and there’s no time to waste exploring the movies of Larry the Cable Guy or the novels of Chuck Palahniuk.

But this blog post isn’t about what I hate.  It’s about what I love.  I’ve fallen in love with the late Don Carpenter.  Well, that’s not exactly right.  I’ve fallen in love with Carpenter’s first novel, Hard Rain Falling, originally published in 1966.  The book isn’t long (it runs only 308 pages), but it feels epic in its modest way.  It feels like a personal epic, charting the life of a petty criminal named Jack Levitt as he roams the pool halls of Portland, Oregon (my hometown) in the late 1940s to his time in San Francisco and prison in the 1950s to his post-prison years in Frisco where he marries a wealthy woman and tries to go straight.  That’s its basic plot.  The novel’s misfit characters, its seedy setting, and the cleanness of Carpenter’s otherwise muscular prose would make for the prime ingredients of a crime novel.  But as writer George Pelecanos points out in his fine introduction to the New York Review Books edition, this isn’t a crime novel although it partly deals with criminals and their milieu.

The real dramatic weight of the book, however, is about male bonding and the struggle of standing tall when the weight of the world aims to crush you.  It’s about existing at the bottom of it all.  It’s about realizing you’re fucked but that you still have to get on with it every goddamn day.  So you try to have a good time while the seconds tick down.  Because whether you’re a rich man or a poor man, a law-abiding citizen or a thief, a God-fearing man or a non-believer—you’re going to die.  Everything you once believed in, everything you ever accomplished, everything you ever dreamed of doing, won’t matter in the end.  That’s so obvious it’s simplistic and stupid of me to even focus on it, but every day most of us live our lives in denial of that simple fact.  It’s understandable why most of us don’t fixate on it every day.  We have jobs, families, loved ones, and obligations to focus on.  To contemplate too much on the impermanence of our lives would be morbid and selfish and unhealthy.

Carpenter paints a harsh world for his characters.  Hard Rain Falling deals with the same thematic elements that noir writers like Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis, and James M. Cain regularly dealt with.  Carpenter, though, isn’t interested in tying the narrative to melodrama, which was something noir writers routinely did.  I rather enjoy melodrama and there’s nothing wrong with a writer going for outsized emotion if it’s handled with commitment.  But that’s not this book.  This is a page-turner in its way, though it’s a character-driven one and plot is always incidental to the emotional momentum built up from what happens to Jack throughout the book.  At the heart of this story is, surprisingly enough, a love story between Jack and a black pool hustler named Billy Lancing.  The two first meet in Portland at a pool hall and there’s plenty of racial tension in those scenes.  They are not fast friends.  Years go by and both men go through their own significant struggles in life.  They both wind up at San Quentin Prison, become cell mates, and eventually lovers.  It’s powerful stuff… and emotional.  Their relationship, which peaks roughly halfway through the book, nevertheless underlies everything Jack does afterward when he’s back on the outside trying to keep his shit together in San Francisco.  The final act of the book almost feels far-fetched… melodramatic.  Jack the pauper and ex-con falls into the realm of the fast-living moneyed, and he scrambles to hang on when he becomes romantically involved with a quick-witted beautiful rich woman.  What started as a naturalistic post-World War II novel thoroughly in the hard-boiled tradition segues into a picaresque tale with a subtle absurdest edge as it cruises into the 1960s.

There’s no sentimentality here, no melodrama to distance us from the pain.  There’s nothing false to comfort us along the way.  There’s no bullshit. Carpenter isn’t Woolrich or Goodis or any of the other noir writers that when at their best turned being on the skids into dark poetry.  Carpenter eschews any pretense toward doomed romanticism, instead writing about his losers and bums and criminals with clear-eyed realism.  There’s a real tenderness running through the novel, however, particularly in the second half.  Underneath the book’s hard exterior, underneath the toughness of its prose, underneath its snarl, is an insight and sensitivity that haunted me long after I finished it.

It’s wise about the world.  It’s wise about people like us.  And I can already tell this one won’t be too far from my grasp no matter where I end up in the world.

That’s a damn good feeling to have.  Let’s hope that the NYRB will republish more of Carpenter’s work.  It’s too vital and honest to be forgotten.