Monday, September 30, 2013

Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (Charles Burnett, 2003)

The Passion of Nat Turner

Charles Burnett's documentary Nat Turner: a Troublesome Property deals with the slave who rose up and, with fellow slaves, murdered his way across the nearby Virginian countryside (the documentary opens with a re-enactment of the first few killings--of Turner sneaking into a bedroom and hacking child, husband, and wife to death with an ax). It's about knowing so little of the actual historical figure and, as a result, of the wildly different interpretations people have had of his legend, across different ages--to Abolitionists he was a freedom fighter, to Pro-Slavery whites a terrifying bogeyman, to '60s civil rights protesters an early prototype of Malcolm X (by any means necessary).

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Grandmaster (Wong Kar Wai)

Once upon a time in China

Watching this one wants to ask: why would Wong Kar Wai want to do a film on Yip Kai-man (also known as Ip Man)--the famed martial-arts master who taught Wing Chun to Bruce Lee--in the first place? 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

You're Next (Adam Wingard); The Man With Two Brains (Carl Reiner); Act of Love (Anatole Litvak); The Man with the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger)

(WARNING: plot twists and surprises in the films may and often are revealed in the course of discussion)

What next?
Adam Wingard's You're Next is a nasty, fairly well-made house-invasion flick, with the added kick of animal masks for that extra dose of surrealism. Wingard is a horror veteran, and knows how to stage shocks and suspense as well as anyone out there, maybe a little better than most; if he still cuts too fast and shoves his camera too closely at the action for my taste--well, we're not talking high standards for the genre as a whole here, especially nowadays.

A bigger problem in my book are the characters, mostly repulsive upper-class types blessed with faintly amusing dialogue (you find your entertainment where you can) and a level of sadism that suggests twisted motives behind their cruelty--which sadly isn't the case; turns out the driving force behind the murders is good ole-fashioned greed. All this--the elaborate planning, the archaic weaponry, the serene animal masks (single best detail in the whole picture)--just for daddy's money? Really? Couldn't they just have purchased assault rifles from the nearest gun shop and stormed the house? At the very least, couldn't the writer develop the contrast in class and background between the movie's Addams Family and the she-Rambo (whose father is, conveniently, a survivalist) acting as the movie's putative champion? At one point things begin looking interesting when sex is offered on a bed next to a dead relative's body--but the offer is swiftly rejected. We're fucked up, but not that fucked apparently (and unfortunately). 

As for that ending: I suppose the writers were trying to make a metaphysical point--that we're all killers or become killers given the right circumstance, or that we're pawns played by an infinitely more cunning chess master--but by then I was just waiting for the end credits to roll. The finale pretty much came out of nowhere, connected with nothing, and apparently isn't meant to be anything more than a cheap punchline to the picture.

Unfair to use another film to bash the one you're discussing but Michael Haneke's Funny Games is so much better at playing the same game it isn't even funny. Haneke doesn't so much avoid as completely drop any pretense of making a horror movie--no fast cutting, no tilted camera (which glides with stately aplomb through the large if low-key home), no waiting for night to start twisting one's nerves into little knots, only a smooth deadpan which intensifies the horror. He operates on the more interesting proposition that psychological suffering is crueler and harder to watch than any mere crossbow bolt to the skull.

I pretty much realized the movie wasn't going to be all that when I saw "YOU'RE NEXT" painted with blood in sloppy giggling-psychopath handwriting, all over the bedroom wall. Aside from the corniness of announcing the title of the picture, the sheer conventionality of the cliche was overwhelming: couldn't the handwriting be neater at least, perhaps in cursive? The threat was a blatant promise of standard-issue horror cliches to come; sadly, the filmmakers deliver. 

Cerveau en gelee

Once upon a time, long before he started remaking the Pink Panther films to disastrous effect, Steve Martin (especially in collaboration with Carl Reiner) was a one-of-a-kind wonder, and while my favorite might be the comically complex and surprisingly coherent All of Me, not far behind and coming fast up the ladder of regard is the demented The Man with Two Brains. Suppose I still love the former--watching Steve Martin argue with the Lily Tomlin side of him is an indispensable pleasure--but the latter is Martin and Reiner at their unfettered undiluted best, without the benefit (or limitation) of a conventionally structured script. Mad scientists depicted by mad filmmakers--what more can anyone ask?  

It's unexpectedly erotic, with the faithless Dolores (Kathleen Turner) in the habit of driving her neurosurgeon husband Dr. Hfuhruhurr (extended running gag where various people mispronounce his name) wild by not sleeping with him--roughly the first half of the film is about building up a massive case of blue balls, and the film is all the sexier for it. Turner was fresh off the success of Body Heat where I felt her femme fatale newcomer (it was her debut feature film role) was stilted and stiff, more focused on looking good onscreen with little to no clothes on than she was on delivering a sensual performance (hint: it's more important to relax than focus). Comedy seems to release something inside her; she's more assured here, more playful, a tease rather than a tart (though we get plenty evidence of the latter), and for single sexiest image in the film--or most of '80s cinema for that matter--it's hard to think of anything more potent than Turner's eyes aglow with the thrill of power as she leaves Martin hard up--literally--and throbbing with sexual frustration.

Also helps that Michael Chapman--Rainer Werner Fassbinder's old collaborator--handles the camerawork. Reiner (Carl) is no visual stylist, and comedy as a genre rarely if ever pays lip service to the art of cinematography (look at the entire career of Mel Brooks, or--arguably--Woody Allen), but with the not inconsiderable help of Chapman the film achieves a darkly handsome subterranean ambiance, adds conviction (and an unholy Gothic grandeur) to the film's mad-scientist shenanigans, lends credence to the possibility that the doctor is mad, maybe dangerous. 

Just check the above still: Martin is surrounded by jars of brains--a staple for the genre--only here the brains float in what seem like various enticing flavors of phosphorescent Kool-Aid, from Purple Passion Grape to Bubble-Gum Pink to Certified Cherry; one is almost tempted to tilt a jar lid, stick in a flexible drinking straw, and sip.

Perhaps most surprising of all is how sweet-natured the film turns out to be: Dr. Hfuhruhurr meets Anne Uumellmaehaye (voice of Sissy Spacek) and it isn't just that their surnames somehow feel appropriate together, Anne also happens to be a brain in a jar, which of course is catnip to a brain surgeon. From a perfectly incarnated if faithless wife the doctor learns the true value of facial beauty (basically not much more than the silicon it's built on); he finds himself falling for a woman who's all mind, literally transcending the limitations of flesh. We feel the force of his delight at discovering how every detail of her fits neatly into the sharp edges of his eccentric if essentially gentle character; we're charmed at how neatly a bizarrely comic horror-movie plot premise is deftly pretzeled to insert a bizarrely apt romantic-comedy plot twist (added bonus: hilarious commentary on the shoddy construction of modern apartment dwellings). We're conquered, seduced by these lovers; we feel (swoon, pine, fear) for them almost as much as they feel (swoon, pine, fear) for each other. 

Love you long time

Anatole Litvak had a varied career ranging from costumed films (Mayerling, Anastasia) to harrowing dramas (The Snake Pit) to noir thrillers (Sorry, Wrong Number). Act of Love is a lesser-known work, a wartime melodrama about a homeless French girl (Dany Robin) stranded in Paris without papers, forced to pretend that an American GI (Kirk Douglas) is her husband. Robin gives a fine understated performance as a naive girl trapped in a sordid situation--reacting to fellow Frenchmen leering at her and her 'husband,' her face registering every humiliating moment quietly yet indelibly, like rice paper on a barroom floor. Douglas is Douglas, a straight-shootin' soldier who plays bitter and cynical when the script demands it but is ultimately sincere in his declaration of marriage (of course fate decrees otherwise); he's at his best I think years later, as a lounge lizard in a south-of-France seaport--more thoughtful, more conscious of the burden of memory, and of possibly having exchanged roles with the girl he once loved.

Litvak's camera is stylish as ever, and delivers various memorable flourishes: a riff on the marriage scene in Citizen Kane where various French folk give their thoughts on the American occupation before a whirling camera; a harrowing point-of-view shot of a disillusioned Frenchman wielding a sharp knife. The tragic finale (with stories of this sort the finale has to be tragic) is delivered with graceful simplicity: the camera stands at a corner and gazes at the people going to and fro, running and missing their various fateful appointments with destiny.   

Monkey do

Otto Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm has a gorgeous title, its protagonist a beautifully intimidating name; no wonder Frank Sinatra wanted the role, would probably have killed for the role (for all we know he did). 

Admittedly the film pales in comparison to Nelson Algren's dark novel; admittedly what was shocking in the '50s--the necktie looped tight round the arm, the slim syringe--seems mild today; admittedly the film is regarded nowadays as more a historically important curio than an artistically significant film, mostly for breaking the Hollywood taboo on onscreen drug use.

But is it still relevant? Does it still have the power to startle, at least unsettle? 

I think so. Drug movies like Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream draw on an arsenal of pyrotechnic effects, from giant close-ups to shock cuts to time lapse to slow motion, to suggest the diabolically distorting nature of drug use; all Man needs is Preminger's classically oriented eye, Elmer Bernstein's music, and Sinatra. 

Sinatra owns Frankie Machine; that's him onscreen, or as much of him as careful research and a volatile acting talent untainted by formal training can muster. The sweat on Sinatra's brow and upper lip when he's shooting up could have been sprayed there for all I know but he makes you believe he squeezed them out through sheer effort; the dilated eyes are simple to achieve, but when co-star Kim Novak lights a match and shoves it at his face the sight can still make the flesh crawl, like finding maggots writhing beneath an upturned stone.

As for the clearly studio-constructed apartment and street sets--I submit to you that they are (intentionally or not) Preminger's most cunning effect, his way of suggesting the city of Chicago is a flimsy extension of Frankie's fevered mind, row upon row of balsa and plywood piled high and ready to fold at the slightest shove. Do the apartment, the very streets seem unreal? They do to Frankie--nothing is solid, nothing registers, nothing matters to him save that needle in his arm. 

And Sinatra pushes past everything as if propelled by Preminger's  camera (barely making it through before everything round him collapses), his progress marked by Bernstein's hot jazz score (performed by Shorty Rogers and His Giants). He approaches Louie (Darren McGavin, decades before taking up nightstalking), who throws coy looks; follows the dealer to an apartment; watches shivering as the spoon packet and so forth are (like an elaborate dinner setting) meticulously laid out. Preminger's camera rushes up to Sinatra's face as his jaw slackens and his pupils flare wide, brass horns blaring heedless triumph; it's a hell of a high, one even the unlikely happy ending (arguably a fantasy like the rest of Chicago, who's to say it isn't?) can't quite squelch, a monkey that--as Louie puts it--you can't quite pull off your back.


Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Frederik Pohl: Nov. 26, 1919—Sept. 2, 2013

Frederik Pohl: Nov. 26, 1919 - Sept. 2, 2013

I grew up reading him.

No, that doesn't quite describe how it went. I grew into what I am reading him. What science can do, what its consequences; how man can use--and misuse--science, how this affects him; how one can write about science, in ways both creative and psychologically incisive. Pohl showed many of the possibilities, and showed an effortless mastery of them in the process. 

Kingsley Amis called him "the most consistently able writer science fiction, in its modern form, has yet produced." Not perhaps high praise--he doesn't call him a genius, a producer of great work--but when you see the breadth, variety and depth of that work, perhaps it's accurate: he's consistent, he's prolific, and across that range he's incredibly able.

The Locus article I linked to above will give an idea of the size of that career--not just writer but editor and blogger and all-around man of letters. All I knew when I first read his classic short story "The Midas Plague" was that I'd found a writer capable of evoking a near-unimaginable world, of unlimited wealth and almost ceaseless consuming to the point of nausea, where cheap and tasty products rolled down conveyor belts at an unimaginable rate and you're constantly pressured to use, watch, enjoy, eat, eat, eat.

Then again, maybe that world isn't so unimaginable anymore.

"The Midas Plague" is a broad cartoon, if an unsettlingly convincing one; "The Day After the Day the Martians Came" showed a subtler Pohl, demonstrating how even as momentous an event as an alien encounter will inevitably be reduced (consumed?) by human culture into a series of racist (specist?) jokes, into banal contempt and condescension. 

Try as much as I can, I can't remember much of The Space Merchants, Pohl and longtime collaborator C.M. Kornbluth's classic satire where corporate advertisers and not governments run the world. Advertising is deceitful (imagine that!) and omnipresent, corporate espionage a game as dangerous as any cold war. I know it's an important novel, but it failed to make an emotional connection; I suppose I need to read it again.

I do remember the lesser-known Gladiator-at-Law--not just an eerily prescient treatise on Law and Big Business but a frighteningly vivid depiction of poverty. As when he describes an old woman working a makeshift restaurant in the devastated area of Belly Rave (nee Belle Reve):

Outside, Norvell asked shyly what in the world the old woman thought she was doing for a living.

"It's simple," said Shep. "She gets her rations and trades them for
firewood. She uses the wood to heat water—for coffee, or bouillon, or tea, or whatever. She trades the water for rations. She keeps hoping that some day she'll come out ahead on the deal. She never has."


Shep didn't speak for a long minute as they sauntered along in the
afternoon sun. At last he said, "No offense. But it's easy to see you're a come-lately, Bligh- Why does she do it? Because it makes her feel like a human being."


"But hell. It makes her feel as though she were master of her fate,
captain of her soul. It's hard to starve to death in Belly Rave, but in a bad week she comes close to it. She thinks she's a Rockefeller or a Weeks in miniature. Risking her capital in the hope, of gain. Well, she is! What if she always loses? She's doing something—not just sitting and waiting for the ration day to roll around again. You've heard of hell?"

Norvell nodded. Like practically everybody else he was a member of the Reformed Rationalist Church of the Inchoate Principle, but hell had been mentioned in sermons now and then.

"Well, if a man who said that hell is a perpetual holiday was right, then this is it. Belly Rave, mister. Belly Rave."

Hope in the face of despair, and a kind of urban poetry. That was pretty much it; I was hooked on Pohl.

Most people who've heard of Pohl (if they have heard of Pohl; nowadays people read Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and any number of Star Wars novels) would have heard of Gateway, his Nebula and Hugo Award-winning novel about enterprising prospectors who climb aboard unknown alien ships and risk life and limb and more, taking these ships to unknown destinations for possible profit, or death, or worse. 

Even more fascinating than the premise was the way the novel was written, as a series of short episodes, bulletins, announcements, price lists--

Direct from the Lost Tunnels of Venus!
Rare Religious Objects
Priceless Gems Once Worn by the Secret Race
Astounding Scientific Discoveries
Special Discount for
Scientific Parties and Students
Now for the first time at popular prices
Adults, $2.50
Children, $1.00
Delbert Guyne, Ph.D., D.D., Proprietor

--letters, even computer source code, giving us a fragmentary view of the world that eventually comes together into a fascinatingly complex whole. The first line of the book: "My name is Robinette Broadhead, in spite of which I am male" not just introduces the protagonist but puts front and center his sexual ambivalence; the often funny bouts with his computer analyst Sigfried explore not just aspects of his persona but also the plot, which revolves around a traumatic event in Robin's past.

A sample:

Sigfrid is a pretty smart machine, but sometimes I can't figure out what's wrong with him. He's always asking me to tell him my dreams. Then sometimes I come in all aglow with some dream I'm positive he's going to love, a big-red-apple-for-the-teacher kind of dream, full of penis symbols and fetishism and guilt hang-ups, and he disappoints me. He takes off on some crazy track that has nothing at all to do with it. I tell him the whole thing, and then he sits and clicks and whirs and buzzes for a while -- he doesn't really, but I fantasize that while I'm waiting -- and then he says:

"Let's go back to something different, Rob. I'm interested in some of the things you've said about the woman, Gelle-Klara Moynlin."

I say, "Sigfrid, you're off on a wild-goose chase again."

"I don't think so, Rob."

"But that dream! My God, don't you see how important it is? What about the mother figure in it?"

"What about letting me do my job, Rob?"

"Do I have a choice?" I say, feeling sulky.

"You always have a choice, Rob, but I would like very much to quote to you something you said a while ago." And he stops, and I hear my own voice coming out of somewhere in his tapes. I am saying:

"Sigfrid, there's an intensity of pain and guilt and misery there that I just can't handle."

He waits for me to say something.

After a moment I do. "That's a nice recording," I acknowledge, "but I'd rather talk about the way my mother fixation comes out in my dream."

"I think it would be more productive to explore this other matter, Rob. It is possible they're related."

"Really?" I am all warmed up to discuss this theoretical possibility in a detached and philosophical way, but he beats me to the punch:

"The last conversation you had with Klara, Rob. Please tell me what you feel about it."

"I've told you." I am not enjoying this at all, it is such a waste of time, and I make sure he knows it by the tone of my voice and the tenseness of my body against the restraining straps. "It was even worse than with my mother."

"I know you'd rather switch to talking about your mother, Rob, but please don't, right now. Tell me about that time with Klara. What are you feeling about it at this minute?"

I try to think it out honestly. After all, I can do that much. I don't actually have to say it. But all I can find to say is, "Not much."

After a little wait he says, "Is that all, 'not much'?"

"That's it. Not much." Not much on the surface, anyway. I do remember how I was feeling at the time. I open up that memory, very cautiously, to see what it was like. Going down into that blue mist. Seeing the dim ghost star for the first time. Talking to Klara on the radio, while Dane is whispering in my ear. . . . I close it up again.

"It all hurts, a lot, Sigfrid," I say conversationally. Sometimes I try to fool him by saying emotionally loaded things in the tone you might use to order a cup of coffee, but I don't think it works. Sigfrid listens to volume and overtones, but he also listens to breathing and pauses, as well as the sense of the words. He is extremely smart, considering how stupid he is.

A cat and mouse game they're playing; Pohl points up the chase-and-be-chased element with a repetitive, even circular motif, Robin's contemptuous assessment of Sigfrid's intelligence. He teases us with vague hints of the nature of the trauma (going down; blue mist; dim ghost star) but mostly we're dealing with Robin's feelings of hostility at having his insides probed, like an exposed nerve in a decayed tooth or (more pertinently I think) a rectum shivering in the chill clinic air. Sigfrid is blandly soothing in the best HAL 9000 manner but unlike Kubrick's computer (arguably the best, wittiest character the filmmaker ever put onscreen) he is not to be deterred; he parries and fences with Robin relentlessly until he has coaxed the patient into giving up yet another painfully won nugget of detail (of course Sigfried already knows what happened; the trick is getting Robin to talk about it). You get the sense that when Sigfrid finally uncovers the trauma is when the novel arrives at its (possibly harrowing) climax. 

Of all cyborg films, TV shows and stories, arguably the most convincing I know is Pohl's Man Plus, not just for the sheer wealth of scientific detail about the chemical, biological and technological elements that go into the making of a cyborg fit for survival on Mars, but the at times horrific physiological and psychological changes wrought on Roger Torroway, the man being transformed, possibly the most chilling of which is reflected in this excerpt:

“I was worried about sex," he went on. "But you know what, Sulie? It's like being told I can't have any caviar for the next couple years. I don't even like caviar. And when you come right down to it, I don't want sex right now. I supposed you punched that into the computer? 'Cut down sex drive, increase euphoria'? Anyway, it finally penetrated my little brain that I was just making trouble for myself, worrying about whether I could get along without something I really didn't want. It's a reflection of what I think other people think I should want.”

A perfectly reasoned-out, totally mature rationale for chastity? God forbid! And yet Pohl manages to make it a natural development, even a happy one for Roger...

Arguably the most fascinating aspect of the whole operation are the mediation circuits being developed for Roger. His previous incarnation died of a stroke; the stress of TMI (too much information) burst a blood vessel in his brain. Roger has computer circuits simplifying the flow of images and data to him, and this creates bias in his view of the world; Pohl ultimately pulls back to demonstrate that this--the introduction of bias--is a meta thing, not just a problem specific to Roger, and we're left shuddering, wondering: who might be interpreting our data for us? And why?

Gateway is generally considered Pohl's masterpiece and it's an intense, moving work, but in Man Plus--as in all of the very best science fiction--Pohl seems to have asked the most interesting questions: what makes us human? More than human? More, is the need for bias in the information flow inevitable, even desirable? Who creates bias for us, and who creates bias for them in turn? Pohl probes into the nature of not just art (of an individual's creative introduction of bias) but communication itself, which apparently is every bit as slippery and relativistic as the rest of space and time. 

As for that most fascinating element in science fiction, the human response in the face of technological change--what does Roger Torroway do when he finds control of his senses suddenly and catastrophically taken away from him? He struggles to regain control; that, and he yells for help. It's the best he can do, feeble as it may sound, the best anyone can do when you come to think about it.