when you have to shoot… shoot… don’t talk: eli wallach

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Character actor Eli Wallach turns 97 years old today. I’ve said it for years that he’s right at the top of my list of people to have dinner with, because he’s a brilliant raconteur and you know the evening would be filled with entertaining stories. He’s long been a favorite and it’s difficult picking just one brilliant performance by him. I love so many of his scene-stealing roles in various movies: Baby Doll (his first feature), The Lineup (a nifty crime movie), The Magnificent Seven (one of the great first scenes), The Misfits, Lord Jim, and more recently in his memorable small role in The Ghost Writer.

He’ll always be Tuco to me, however. Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (Wallach plays “the Ugly”) is epic stuff, rich in visual texture and sublime in aural majesty. Like all of Leone’s movies, what makes them brilliant is the direction and the score by Ennio Morricone. Acting is always subservient to that. That doesn’t mean great performances can’t be seen in these movies. All three of the leads in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly are fantastic and Wallach in particular gives a ferociously entertaining performance.

There’s a little Tuco in all of us.

To celebrate this man’s latest birthday, here’s one of the final scenes in the movie, showing Tuco running through the cemetery looking for the grave of Arch Stanton… where the gold awaits. It’s a deliriously operatic moment and a fitting prologue to the violent showdown, which can be seen directly below it.

Happy birthday, Mr. Wallach.

some of my favorite things #9: something wild (1986)

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“You sure you know what you’re doing?”

“No.”

It’s dangerous revisiting a movie you loved in your youth, but haven’t seen since then. If you’re prone to wallowing in the effluvia of solipsistic nostalgia, you may convince yourself that you can recapture the experience. The movie may be the same, but you aren’t. You can’t return to that original moment when you were first seduced.

One of my favorite movies from the 1980s was Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild. When it came out in 1986, it was a refreshing alternative to pretty much everything else playing and it confirmed that Melanie Griffith was the “It girl” at that time. The movie also resurrected Demme’s career (which had run aground with Swing Shift a few years earlier) and gave us the showstopping feature film debut of Ray Liotta. It was a modest work, but it snapped and never wore out its welcome.

Something Wild–a mix of screwball comedy and crime–was sexy, stylistically hip and contemporary, and its tonal shift at the halfway point was startling at the time. When Liotta makes his first appearance at the school reunion sequence about an hour into the movie, we plunge down the narrative rabbit hole for good. It’s an invigorating feeling because the shift from neo-screwball comedy to the darker, violent material is so seamless. The movie wasn’t static in that first half. Demme and screenwriter E. Max Frye have been testing our footing continuously in little ways. Lulu (Griffith) comes on strong in the early scenes, like an earthy boozy dream girl, yet a softer more introspective side to her personality comes out when she arrives at her mother’s place. Jeff Daniels plays Charles, the ultimate vanilla rich yuppie, a character we should automatically hate, especially after viewing him duck out of a New York City diner without paying his bill in the first scene. What’s remarkable about the way Daniels plays the character and how he’s written, is that Charles is a rather likeable guy. He’s weak and adrift though. One of the great ways Demme and Frye convey this is by never having Charles drive in the first half. He’s always in the passenger seat. Only when he’s forced to take control of his destiny and chase down Ray (Liotta) and Lulu, does he get behind the wheel and take charge. It’s a sort of cinematic shorthand, showing us instead of telling, and it displays Demme’s visual literacy.

I have a weakness for the yuppie in hell storyline, which was quite prevalent back in the 1980s. Risky Business, Into the Night, After Hours, and Blue Velvet all delivered variations on that theme and I loved them all. Something Wild was the most unique for me, however, because Lulu never stayed a cliché. She never remained trapped in one persona or viewed only through Charles or Ray’s eyes. She never remained the fetishistic dream girl and that was significant then… maybe even more so now. She comes on like an uninhibited femme fatale you wanted to run away with, but there’s so much more to her than that. She not your dream girl. She belongs to herself.

Looking at the movie again last night (watching the Criterion Blu-ray), I was struck by how vibrant and fresh it still felt. It was even better than I remembered it being. Here are a few notes from this latest viewing:

1. Demme remarkably never condescends to his characters… or the audience. Whether we’re watching the early scenes of gritty, funky New York City, watching Charles and Lulu on the road playfully interacting with colorful characters, or watching Lulu awkwardly banter with old friends and acquaintances at the school reunion, Demme never cruelly mocks his characters. There’s real warmth in these scenes. It’s Capraesque by way of the Lower East Side, though free of the camp distance that Lynch employed in Blue Velvet with his view of small-town life.

2. The movie looks and feels like authentic America… not Hollywood America. This being a road movie too, we get many shots, courtesy of cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, of open rural spaces, rickety motels, greasy spoon diners, and tourist traps. That’s not exactly fresh for movies, but Demme captures these locales with his characteristically light touch. Certain places, such as the squalid motel where Ray is staying, exude menace, but for the most part Demme keeps it low key. Compare these scenes with Scorsese’s hyperrealism in After Hours. Demme comes off as downright mannered in comparison. We also get a racially mixed America and one were elderly people actually exist and mingle with younger people. Demme’s codified America has vitality and is a telling contrast to the muscle-bound, paranoid, and psychotic Reagan-era fantasies that were the norm at the multiplex at that time.

3. Something Wild does have a dark side. Once Ray memorably appears at the reunion, the cracks begin to appear in the American dream. Liotta is a force of nature here–physical, charming, impulsive, dangerous. Intelligence flickers behind those icy blues eyes, but it’s reptilian. While prodding a clueless Charles about how he met Lulu/Audrey, he feigns camaraderie and amps up the laughter, lulling Charles into a false sense of male bonding. Ray is really laughing at Charles and setting him up for a beating. Perhaps the violence in Something Wild doesn’t have quite the same ferocity it did that first viewing, but it’s still vicious and Liotta’s performance remains threatening as much as it is captivating.

4. The use of color. Having previously only seen the movie on cable television and VHS tape, the look of it never really worked its way into me. The Criterion Blu-ray revealed a completely new aesthetic layer. Demme, Fujimoto, and the set/art/costume departments crowd the frame with hot colors in that first half, then dramatically strip it down for the second. I don’t usually think of Demme as a boldly visual director, but he’s intelligent and nuanced. When he moves the camera in a striking way, it’s for a good reason. Pay attention.

5. The music. This has one of the best soundtracks of its era. “Wozani Mahipi” by South African group The Mahotella Queens, “Someone Like You” by The Knitters, and the substantial contribution from The Feelies during the high school reunion scenes all made big impressions. But the soundtrack as a whole is just great in how it’s utilized. Demme does give a nod to visually showing characters listening to music in their cars, the motel room, or in a liquor store. It’s realistically used, but the songs also color our impressions of who Lulu and the other characters are.

6. Last but not least, there’s sex. Characters fuck in Something Wild and it’s playful, slightly naughty, and served up refreshingly guilt-free. Lulu is obviously a sexual magnet, but Ray is as well, albeit in a more threatening way. When he preys on the naive gift shop girl, who is underage, it feels dangerous… but you also feel her excitement and attraction to the wolf. The scene also gives us a glimpse of how the now wise Audrey (Lulu’s real name) must have felt when she first encountered Ray years ago.

This one is coming to the desert island. For me, Jonathan Demme was never better than here.

happy birthday, clint: army of one

I had no idea I hadn’t blogged since March. I honestly just stepped away from the computer. The house is obviously bigger than I thought. I will do a proper post soon, but since it’s the birthday of one of the great (still living) movie stars, I thought I’d celebrate with a couple of videos from two of Eastwood’s best movies.

I watched Kelly’s Heroes earlier in the week. It’s not a movie I ever cared about. Friends have tried getting me to reassess it, but I’ve been stubborn. I really didn’t like it the last time I struggled through it around 1999 or so.

What an idiot I was. I saw it with new eyes and for my money it’s one of the most entertaining of the later World War II movies. The director, Brian G. Hutton, directed the fabulous Where Eagles Dare, starring Eastwood and Richard Burton, and that one has always been one of my favorite war movies. But Kelly’s Heroes was too anachronistic and silly for me. Like I said, however, I was an idiot. It is very much the things I chastised it for being… so what? That’s why it’s fun. It’s also great because of the cast and it’s well-directed. War movies post-Saving Private Ryan tend to be serious, serious, serious affairs. Real war is certainly grim and depressing. But not every war movie has to be. At least, not all of the time. The video below is the original trailer.

And when I think of Eastwood, I think of Westerns. My favorite of the Eastwood oaters (excluding the Leone ones) is The Outlaw Josey Wales, released in 1976. I was seven years old when it came out and I saw it in the theater. It made quite an impression on me and I’ve watched it numerous times since and its hold hasn’t weakened. The book it’s based on, Gone to Texas, is very good too. The video below is the original trailer. I may just have to re-watch the movie this weekend.

great crack-ups #3

True love is a beautiful thing.  It’s beautiful because it’s rare… certainly not as common as Hollywood movies would have you think.  Despite that fact, the Hollywood studios have always sold that lie to the public and we eat it up because we want to believe that it’s true, we want to believe that out there in the cold, dark world there’s someone special waiting for us, and that romance is indeed possible.

You believe it.  I believe it.  We have to because the alternative is too painful to deal with.  No one wants to be lonely.  We all want to believe that Cary Grant or Irene Dunne is somewhere out there, although the older you get the more you realize that the romantic ideal, especially if you’re a misfit, just doesn’t happen like it does in the movies.

It never has.

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s deliriously romantic 2003 film Punch-Drunk Love, matters of the heart are as intoxicating as anything you’ll find in a vintage screwball comedy or its modern variation, but it’s a whole lot more scary, bewildering, and weird too.  Although on its surface the film is as outrageous and absurd as the most fantastical musical, it’s also… realistic in ways these kinds of movies never are.  It externalizes what we feel internally when we hover over the abyss that is true romance… it dares to plunge us into the wildness of pure drunken emotion.  And it warmly allows its two completely dysfunctional oddball lead characters a chance to shine in roles usually reserved for the personality-free mannequins that uniformly sleepwalk through these kinds of parts.

Punch-Drunk Love is a romantic comedy for people who know movies like this are bullshit.

Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), a Southern California businessman specializing in cheap novelty items, is the kind of guy who doesn’t get a lot of excitement in his life.  He doesn’t want a lot of excitement in his life.  He’s a businessman and a professional.  That doesn’t mean he isn’t bored, however, or that he doesn’t yearn to meet that certain special someone.

He’s just a normal guy.

But Barry isn’t “normal.”  None of us really are.  Not like those people on television or in the movies.  If you are, or you think you are, then there’s something probably wrong with you.  Hidden.  It means that underneath the façade is a raging weirdo.  It means… you’re not comfortable in your real skin.

You’d never think that some people were weirdos underneath.  But they are.  Unlike Barry, Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) is socially more adept and she hides her inner freak better.  She’s shy, though once you get to know her, once she allows you to get a little closer, her laughter and the way she smiles and the way she looks at you and the way she listens to you and the way she talks really gets under your skin.

She’s infectious.

And though that word… “infectious”… connotes joy as well as unpleasantness, Barry tries not to focus on the negative.  It’s a bad habit… something he does too much.  Because he’s lonely… because when he’s alone he realizes that he may be alone forever… that he’ll never find real love.  And when he’s lonely, which is most of the time, he does stupid things like call phone sex lines and tries to get to know the woman on the other end.  He does desperate things like trying to make friends with the lonely woman on the other end.  She is lonely, right?  If she wasn’t, why would she be working the phone line?

Luckily, Barry met Lena… a real person… a real opportunity… something real removed from the time wasted talking on the phone sex line.

Loneliness is the farthest thing from either of their minds tonight.  For the first time in a long while, neither Barry or Lena feel so alone.  For the first time in a long time, Barry and Lena both feel like they’re making a real connection with someone else.

It feels good.

It feels special.

It feels like the best thing ever.

It feels like something is blooming…

But things start to go haywire when Lena asks Barry about the “hammer incident”… a story she heard from one of his sisters.

Barry isn’t amused to be reminded about the hammer.

Not now.

Not like this.

Not from her.

Everything was going so well…

Maybe there’s still a way out of this though.

Maybe this terrible feeling will end soon.

Then everything will go back to normal.

Maybe they can then go back to having a great time.

Then they can believe again that love is possible and that it was the right thing to take a chance…

Instead of feeling like you’re all alone standing along the edge of the cliff… scrambling to hold on…

While the bloom that was once love…

Turns to rage within.

Maybe there’s still a chance to turn it back to something good.

Maybe he can fight his way out.

Or perhaps they should go to a different restaurant instead and try all over again.

The food wasn’t good here anyway.

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!