in search of moebius…

The legendary comics illustrator Jean “Moebius” Giraud died this weekend.  His influence on the world of pop culture can’t be overstated.  Even if you’ve never seen any of his artwork in Métal Hurlant magazine (Heavy Metal in the States) or anywhere else, you’ve probably seen his graphic design work in such as films as Alien (the spacesuits worn by the crew of the Nostromo), Tron (concept artist), The Abyss (concept artist), and The Fifth Element (designer).  Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (my favorite science fiction film) is heavily indebted to Moebius as well: the crazily busy cityscape was inspired by the one from the classic story “The Long Tomorrow,” a collaboration between Moebius and American screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (who would later write Alien).

There’s a great little documentary about Moebius from a few years back, Moebius Redux: A Life in Pictures aka In Search of Moebius, that aired on the BBC and that I’ve included below.  Great stuff for anyone with even a passing interest in this stuff.

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.

flagpole and me

Just a quick update… I will be posting some substantial stuff very soon though.

I’m now reviewing movies for the fine Athens, Georgia publication Flagpole, a free newsweekly that’s just about damn everywhere in town.  I’m very happy to be a contributor to the paper and I hope to be writing for them for a long time.  For you out-of-towners, you can read the paper and my reviews online tooMy first review was for the documentary Senna, chronicling the life of famed Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, who died in a crash in 1994.  I have no interest in automobiles and thought the movie was fantastic, so that should tell you something.  And this week I reviewed actress Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut Higher Ground.  Next week I’ll be looking at either Drive, The Future (Miranda July’s return to the screen), and/or Beats, Rhymes and Life, a documentary about the influential hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest.  I haven’t decided which one yet.

I’d love to see some of you over at the Flagpole web site leaving comments…  wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

some of my favorite things #8: patricia arquette

I almost got fired for this woman.

It was sometime during the summer of 1993 and I was working at an independent video store in Northwest Portland.  It was a great job and I worked there for years.  Of course, one of the perks was that we’d get free passes to see movies every now and then.  I lucked out and was given one for two to see True Romance at the Lloyd Center Cinemas.  The catch, though, was that I couldn’t leave work early to see it.  I got off at 7:00.  The movie started at 7:30.  I had to race out, jump on a #15 bus and ride it downtown, then bolt onto the MAX and ride that across the river to the cinema, then try to get a seat.  No way was I going to get in that screening on time and I had to see this movie.

It was based on a Quentin Tarantino script, the first release after Reservoir Dogs, and a year or so before Pulp Fiction shook the film world.  It had a great cast and it co-starred the lovely Patricia Arquette, who I’d had a crush on since seeing her in that third Nightmare on Elm Street movie.  We’re roughly the same age (I think she’s a year older) and I was smitten.  I was going to get into that fucking movie.

I left about ten minutes early.  I got in.  I loved the movie.  And I almost got fired the next day when I slunk into the store and was given a serious reprimand by the co-owner who had checked up on me.  I apologized… sincerely… and was grateful to still have my cool job.

But it was all worth it.  She was worth it.

It’s Arquette’s birthday today and she is definitely one of my favorite things when it comes to modern actors.  I don’t like everything she does–she’s woefully miscast in John Boorman’s screechingly earnest Beyond Rangoon–and she doesn’t have a lot of dramatic range.  But so what?  She made for a perfect cinematic dream girl for this movie-mad American male during the 1990s.  And she’s still lovely.

David Lynch obviously thought she made for the perfect object of unobtainable desire in his superbly creepy and sexy 1997 neo-noir Lost Highway, my favorite of his movies.  Playing duel roles in it, duel symbols of a sometimes frightening female sexual power, Arquette entered that rarefied realm of ultimate noir siren.  A siren worth risking it all for.

And like all great cinematic sirens, particularly of the noir variety, she is forever out of reach.

But that’s what repeat viewing was intended for.

… only one colossus: alexander revisited (2007)

Oliver Stone’s Alexander, released in 2004, is an easy movie to mock, let alone hate—it’s long, it’s about some king dude who lived, uh, lived a long time ago and like killed a bunch of people or something, and all of the actors talk in funny accents that aren’t American.  Oh, and the lead dude, he’s gay.  I think.  In fact, the whole movie is about gay people.  And that loudmouthed liberal Oliver Stone made it.  It’s stupid.  How do I know?  Well, I’ve never actually seen it.

A lot of people in the U.S. never saw it.  Before the movie plopped into theaters, rumors had already leaked that it was bad in that special way only bloated self-indulgent Hollywood studio projects can be.  There were also plenty of outraged citizens that were upset because Stone was going to portray the mighty Alexander as bisexual, which he was, and then a whole other group was mad because he wasn’t going to be bisexual enough.  It was also supposed to be boring, the worst cinematic sin of them all.  I’d initially wanted to see it, especially on the big screen, but I chickened out.  I’d wait for it to come out on DVD.  Also, at that time, I didn’t particularly like Colin Farrell or Angelina Jolie.  I still don’t care for La Jolie, although I’ve changed my mind about Farrell after he appeared in Terrence Malick’s The New World.  That lad’s got some acting chops after all.

I never did see the theatrical version of Alexander on DVD.  I took the leap sometime later when the second version of the film, the “director’s cut,” was released on disc.  You can scrupulously check Wikipedia if I’m right, but I think Stone lopped off 20 minutes from the theatrical version then added ten new minutes of footage or so.  I wanted to like it and approached it with an open mind, but so much of it felt off.  The varying acting styles were jarring, the pacing lead-footed, and the Freudian psychoanalyzing simplistic.  I was impressed with its scope, its grandness, and with Stone’s ambition in presenting his subject in such complex, deeply flawed terms.  But it just wasn’t very good, was it?

For some reason I checked the movie out again when Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut was released on DVD in 2007.  This was the longer, “road show” version of the movie, which added 30 minutes of new footage.  But more importantly, the movie was significantly re-edited and restructured.  This third, radically altered version was like watching an entirely different movie in many ways.  I sort of loved it, albeit the love one has for a crazy friend or ex-lover.  It’s not particular healthy, but what can I do?  I’m sort of a loose one when it comes to historical epics.  I realize that for an otherwise respectable, educated middle-aged American male, that’s akin to admitting you still like heavy metal or the band Rush.  Some would argue, that’s it’s just a step up from still living in your parents’ basement or storing your urine in large water cooler bottles and hiding it in your closet.  But I can’t take it back now, can I?  I dig epics, particularly set in ancient times.

Is there any cinematic genre more stylistically cumbersome or old fashioned than the historical epic?  It’s a genre steeped in the past, rooted in images of military might, and even in the best productions, despite grandiose scenes of well-staged battles and carnage, there are moments padded with sometimes excruciating sequences of old white guys standing around pontificating about the death of empire or conspiring to wage war against other nations.  That’s a huge generalization, of course, and perhaps unfair since there are a whole lot of movies of this ilk—I’m thinking of the Italian peplum genre from the 1960s, usually focusing on the heroic exploits of Hercules or Machiste or Samson—whose production values were so piss poor they couldn’t even pull off convincing action sequences, although they were still entertaining in many ways.  But at its best, the genre could do wonders, cinematically speaking.  I’m thinking here of Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire and El Cid; Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus; Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Kagemusha, and Ran; William Wyler’s Ben-Hur; The 300 Spartans; the Taylor and Burton fiasco Cleopatra, that nevertheless has many extraordinary moments; and on and on.  And then there are the neo-epics, like Braveheart, Gladiator, Troy, and the like.  None of the latter ones are brilliant, but all of them have moments of great emotional power and melodramatic allure.

Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut may be the best of the newer crop.  I can feel you running away from your computer, if you haven’t already, but it’s true.  It’s still flawed, although many of the missteps of the earlier versions have now been corrected—pacing most of all—and despite its longer running time, it flows much easier, and dare I say, it’s even relaxed.  For me, there are always going to be campy excesses that simply don’t appeal—Jolie’s performance, for example.  However, a certain level of kitsch and melodrama are simply things one must put up with when watching historical epics of this kind.  It’s part of the territory, at least in the productions coming from the West.  As a fan, you learn to ignore it or revel in it.

Stone’s aggressively muscular style and penchant for hallucinatory visuals makes him perfectly suited for this genre.  I’m surprised it took him so long to embrace it.  But he embraced it with his characteristic gusto.  And while it’s not great cinema, it is a fascinating and intelligent failure that is far more interesting to me than any number of slick, impersonal Hollywood productions from the last decade.  Alexander Revisited may come wrapped in the guise of big budget entertainment, but it’s as personal as any so-called mumblecore toss-off and as politically resonant as any of the many anti-Bush documentaries that came out over the last decade.  While it’s certainly debatable whether one should glorify a butcher, however charismatic they perhaps were, as Stone does here, I do appreciate his (along with his fellow co-screenwriters Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis) intricate and sometimes contradictory appraisal of Alexander.  The movie is about the myth-making of Alexander as much as it is about the conqueror himself.  Also, Stone, quite simply, has the guts to risk playing the fool.  And I can’t help but admire that in a filmmaker.

So what’s with all the rambling about a movie much of the American critical establishment didn’t get and that audiences over here rejected outright?[1] Because I’m not alone in my appreciation of the movie.  Earlier this week I came across a blog post–written back in March–by Dennis Cozzalio at the nifty Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule on Alexander Revisited‘s first theatrical screening at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.  Cozzalio also conducted an interview with director Oliver Stone, which offers plenty to ponder.  I don’t always link to other blogs here, but it was a nice surprise to see this movie given some proper attention after its initial beat down.  It’s a movie worthy of reappraisal and hopefully that theatrical screening won’t be the first and last we see of it.

[1] It did well overseas and on video, hence the multiple versions released.