Sunday, July 8, 2012

Greed

 

If there is a patron saint for the Cinema of the Damned, it is Erich Von Stroheim.  Despite a directing career that barely spanned a decade and resulted in a mere nine films, Von Stroheim remains one of the most legendary filmmakers of the American silent era.

Also one of the most controversial.  In the course of his career, Von Stroheim would get fired from virtually every studio in Hollywood.  Heck, he even got punched out by Louis B. Mayer after making a crude comment about one of MGM's female stars.  He relished his image as the "terrible Hun" and created a mythic personality as an extremely decadent offshoot of the old Hapsburg Empire.

Of course, it was all bunk.  In truth, Von Stroheim was born without the Von to a lower-middle-class Jewish family in Vienna.  But when he started his acting career in New York during World War One, he found steady employment by posing as an American nightmare of German/Austrian behavior.  He was also really good at it.  So good in fact that his "Von" persona became his own and it took years for biographers to successfully peel away the layers of fabrication that surrounded the man.

Ironically, Von Stroheim is today best known to many viewers for his two most famous acting roles in Jean Renoir's 1937 masterpiece Grand Illusion:


and Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard.


But Von Stroheim was first and foremost a director.  He was even a visionary and combined an imposing sense of brilliance and self-destructiveness, all packaged in his own unique brand of Naturalism.  His demand for realism would extend to such details as making sure that the performers underwear would be historically correct.  In studio folklore, Von Stroheim's excessive approach resulted in the first million dollar production (Foolish Wives 1922).  In truth, it wasn't quite that costly but Universal decided that it made for good publicity.  Besides, it was close to the mark.  After all, he was basically building a complete reconstruction of Monte Carlo on the back lot.

Von Stroheim's masterpiece is Greed, his 1924 adaptation of the novel McTeague by Frank Norris.  He claimed that instead of a script, he simply filmed directly from the novel.  Actually, the movie is longer than the book as Von Stroheim added and extended scenes and chapters.

The result ran past 9 hours and MGM had a duck fit.  Von Stroheim was fired and Rex Ingram was brought in to drastically re-cut the film to a modest 2 hours running time.  Ever since, the effort to restore the movie toward its original cut has become a holy quest.

Which is why it is important to take advantage of the YouTube presentation of the 4 hour restoration of this movie.  At this point, it is the closest yet to Von Stroheim's original intentions.  Greed remains one of the major achievements of the American cinema.  An intense and harsh and brutal classic that brims with a strange primitive force. 





Friday, July 15, 2011

The President's Analyst

It's hard to know when you are ahead of your times. Just ask Theodore J. Flicker. 1967 seemed like a pretty good year for an extremely satirical film about the CIA, FBI,crazy gun culture, insane politics, race relations, and the entire concept of the Cold War as a half-bogus game.

But the movie The President's Analyst came and went with barely a whisper. Too bad. Though it is not one of the major cinematic high points of the 1960s, it is certainly one of the decade's funniest and strangely accurate reflections of the era. Besides, it also had the ironic ability to tick off J. Edgar Hoover which is a greater honor than any twenty Oscars.

 It's a pretty straight forward tale about a New York shrink (James Coburn) who is recruited by a government agent/hit man (Godfrey Cambridge) into becoming the personal analyst to the president. Along the way, Coburn has a nervous break down while fleeing from assassins sent after him by every nation on earth, goes on a hippie excursion through the Great Lakes region and finds himself getting a new patient courtesy of a KGB agent (Severn Darden) who discovers that he needs his doctor more than his country. He also has to keep one step ahead of the near midgets from the FBI who carries some of the biggest guns ever seen in the pre-Dirty Harry age.

Oh yeah, that was the part that especially ticked off J. Edgar. The bureau director in the movie is a diminutive and tightly wound borderline psycho who only hires agents who are shorter than himself and routinely issues orders in the name of the "as yet unborn." Hoover was not amused and placed the production under FBI surveillance.   

The President's Analyst plays like a Mad Magazine parody of the social turmoil of the late 1960s. The film also contains an incredibly good performance by Cambridge who remains one of the most under appreciated performers of the period. Cambridge had originally been a dramatic actor who turned to stand up comedy as his "day job" and is able to smoothly shift between farce and seriousness without ever batting an eye. Also on display in a brief role is the young William Daniels whose skill at theater of absurdity is in full force as a liberal who will put away his guns as soon as the conservatives surrender their weapons.

As a director, Flicker is occasionally clumsy with his transition cuts and the movie has a slightly uneven sense of pacing. But Flicker was, most likely, the only filmmaker around who could follow his own crazy logic. The result is brash, often hysterically accurate, and one of the few movies that can match the warped humor of something like Dr. Strangelove.

Besides, this flick is also the definitive cinematic statement about the phone company. In some ways, the ending is more accurate now than it was then.







Thursday, March 3, 2011

O. C. and Stiggs

A friend once told me that he had seen this movie six times and still couldn't decide if it was any good.  Actually, he wasn't even quite sure what it was even about.  In all honestly, he wasn't even certain if he had actually seen it.  I just thought he was being difficult until the third time I watched O. C. and Stiggs and realized that I was having the same reaction.

 So it is definitely not a film for someone who is looking for a quick and easy story.  Or even for people seeking clear cut characters and obvious motivations.  Heck, it's not even for folks wanting some simple sex and violence.  It's less a movie and more of a photographic hit off of a joint.  Maybe.  Originally intended (at least by the producers) to be a smart-ass teenage sex comedy, O. C. and Stiggs is low on the sex, extremely high on a very off-center sense of satire and off-beat observations, strikingly nonlinear and exceptionally weird in its tribute to the fleeting pursuit of happiness against the arid landscape of Arizona.

 This was director Robert Altman's last commercial mainstream film before he bolted to Paris for his long state of exile from Hollywood.  Made in 1985 and given an extremely limited (and belated) release in 1987, the movie can be partly viewed as Altman's final flipping of the bird to the American studio system.  Ironically, O. C. and Stiggs was produced by MGM, the same studio that Altman aggravated years earlier with his production of Brewster McCloud (an even more odd ball fantasy that shares many features in common with O. C. and Stiggs).

 Loosely adapted from a series of stories published in the National Lampoon, O. C. and Stiggs follows the strangely meandering exploits of two Arizona teenagers who have dedicated their lives to outrageously annoying their Republican neighbor (Paul Dooley), buying liquor from their favorite wino (Melvin Van Peebles) and routinely relaying their experiences by phone to their favorite African dictator whose private number they inexplicably have on speed dial.  Meanwhile, they make periodic visits to the area's craziest Vietnam vet (Dennis Hopper parodying his role from Apocalypse Now) who lives in his bunker out in the desert, waiting for the next surprise attack from the Vietcong.  There is also some odd sub plot involving the mysterious death of a local mechanic named Bugs Bunny and his slutty wife who may (or may not) be acting out a few riffs from a James Cain novel.

 None of these plot lines are really connected to each other and Altman is totally uninterested in making such connections.  Instead, he has adopted an open ended and very free flowing narrative (somewhat like he did in Nashville) and the viewer either accepts it or not.  Unlike the original stories, the movie invokes a more sympathetic and oddly gentle approach (to some of the characters) despite its own warped sensibility (and warp more than twisted may be the right word).  At its best, the film is less a gross-out than a supreme weird-out as it seesaws between an amused engagement and a total WTF mindset.



 So if you are in the mood for an excessive dose of hip irony, check it out.  Just don't get too carried away trying to figure it out.  Even the experts are still baffled.  By my fourth viewing, I only knew that I think maybe I kind of like this flick but have no clues why.

 Just remember what Hooper tells the kids when they question him about being in Vietnam.  "Was I really in Vietnam?  Does Ho Chi Minh eat Rice Krispies?"

 Say no more.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

My Name Is Bruce

Some people are born to greatness and some people will never have to worry about that issue.  Bruce Campbell will never have to worry.

Oh sure, he is a cult legend.  Campbell is the king of the modern B movie.  He is the heir to the throne of Dick Miller.  But most of all, Campbell could use a real job.  As he demonstrates in My Name Is Bruce, monster hunting just ain't all it's cracked up to be.

This crude, lewd, and oddly endearing horror/comedy is Campbell's back-handed tribute to his own bogus legend.  The whole movie plays like a dinner theater crew's recreation of Plan Nine From Outer Space as it staggers (and so does the heavy drinking Campbell) through a screwy yarn that might have been written down on the back of cocktail napkins.

While working on another crappy straight-to-video production, Campbell is kidnapped by a neo-goth fan and finds himself stuck in the town of Gold Lick (population 399 and dropping fast).  Seems that some local teenagers have accidentally brought to life the Chinese god Guan-Di and Guan-Di is not a happy camper.  He is determined to slaughter everyone in sight for the century old death of 100 Chinese workers in a cave in..  Since Campbell is a little slow on the draw, he assumes that the whole thing is a birthday joke being staged by his lousy agent (Ted Raimi in one of several roles).  Besides, he is hoping to get lucky with his fan's lonely mother.

Largely made for hardcore Bruce Campbell fans, everything bad said about My Name Is Bruce is basically true.  The movie is as cheap looking as the booze Campbell keeps sneaking while preparing for the "hunt."  The script is almost as stupid as the type of films it is poking fun at.  The general acting level covers a range from A to...well, A.

But if you get the movie on a DVD and watch it with a good pizza and several beers, well, it actually moves along as a pretty OK fun flick.  Heck, I am actually looking forward to the sequel.

Besides, Bruce Campbell does not need greatness.  He is his own kind of guy.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Big Lebowski

OK, there is sometimes no predicting anything and sometimes, stuff just simply happens.

That is probably the best way to describe the strange journey of The Big Lebowski as it progressed from a quick box office death in 1998 to its current status as a modern cult classic. Quirky and unpredictable, The Big Lebowski moves about with a strangely focused sense of rambling narrative order. Along the way, the movie succeeds in turning bowling into a central metaphor for life and reminds us all that a good rug is hard to find (and keep).

The plot of The Big Lebowski is the shaggiest shaggy dog story ever conceived, playing like a lost tale by Raymond Chandler as re-written by Hunter S. Thompson on a whimsical day. Beginning with the Dude (Jeff Bridges finally discovering his perfect persona as the coolest loser in all of LA) being mistaken by thugs for the other Lebowski (the rich guy with the same name), the movie quickly discovers its major motif when the nitwit knee-breakers demonstrate just how pissed off they are by ruining Dude's rug (the one that ties both the room and movie all together).

Convinced by his bowling mates (John Goodman and Steve Buscemi) that the rich Lebowski owes him for a new rug, the Dude sets off on a quest that runs lazy circles around missing wives, rich pornographers, German Nihilists, and some of the more bizarre moments of male behavior traits.

Which may explain the original hostility this movie encountered from critics in 1998. Mostly, American film critics are pretty much a white male club of geeky guys who spend more time cloistered in dark rooms than even mushrooms. By in large, they hated this film. On the other hand, the film picked up a noticeable female following, despite being anything but a "chick flick."

When I finally saw the film (in 1999), I realized that the movie was sort of mocking an odd collection of distinctly innate male behavior patterns. My own reaction was something along the line of "OK, so is this, like, you know, a problem?" That is probably the real secret of the film's success. Somewhere, some how, it is directly hitting at a subconscious world that is extremely masculine and completely half-nutty. Sort of a man's man movie that isn't exactly for the average guy even while locating itself in a manly world minus all of the self-justifying heroic stuff.

Instead, we have the Dude who stumbles through a messy life by staying focused on his rug and the ever elusive prospect of the upcoming bowling championship, both of which are threatened by his pal Walter's (Goodman) sense of rigid rules, unfocused temper, and destructive sense of helpfulness. The movie kind of functions as an anti-buddy-buddy film and the Dude and Walter seems united primarily by their mutual need to defeat the Jesus (John Turturro) at the final game that never exactly happens.

Along the way, The Big Lebowski unloads enough Freudian symbols to send Freud himself running out of the theater (I never knew that bowling was so erotic). It also keeps peppering the tale with weird references to the Gulf War and David Huddleston, as the rich Lebowski, delivers a hoot of a parody of Dick Cheney.

It's a modern classic, kind of. It may even be one of the finest films yet made by the Coen brothers. It can take several viewings before you even get a clue as to what is going on.

And just remember one of the most important things we learn: "This is not Vietnam. There are rules in bowling."




Sunday, July 12, 2009

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid


When this film first came out in 1973, I despised it. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid came across as a narrative mess of excessive shoot outs virtually playing like a parody of the worst aspects of a bloody Sam Peckinpah epic.

But over the years, several things changed. Several versions of the movie would appear on video approaching Peckinpah's original intentions. It became obvious that the rumors of studio sabotage against the movie was not only true, but they actually butchered the film into nonsensical shreds. All the scenes in which the themes of the movie took place had been cut and only the gunfights remained, reducing Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to the level of a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

I also found myself reading more of the actual history of the Lincoln County Range War and the events surrounding Billy the Kid. In many regards, this is one of the more factual of the many movies based of these events (with some of the violence actually toned down a bit). Even the mythic embellishments in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid are minor additions that suits Peckinpah's themes.

More importantly, I became a middle aged man. Suddenly, the themes of a life betrayed (Garrett's more than Billy's) began to hit hard with a somber sense of poetic irony. For Peckinpah, Billy the Kid was simply an idealized figure of youth (the pure outlaw with his own moral code). The real tragic figure was Pat Garrett, the aging outlaw-turned-sheriff. In the film, he insists that times has changed and that he is simply adapting to the new West. By the end of the film, he has killed and betrayed virtually everyone close to him and has no one left to shoot but his own besotted reflection in the mirror.

OK, in reality Pat Garrett was a pure bred son of a bitch who seemingly had no problems betraying any body at any time at any place. He was also one of the first union-busters of the old West. It was guys like Garrett who succeeded in making Billy the Kid look so damn noble.

As Garrett, James Coburn delivers one of his finest performances as a spiritual deadbeat whose moral hypocrisy is almost as great as his increasingly violent and drunken state of denial. Since the movie bookends the narrative with Garrett's own murder, the futility of Garrett's actions are front and center. The real subject of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is about all the foolish ways a person can sometimes lie to himself in a vain attempt to make himself look good.

Along with The Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is one of Peckinpah's genuine master pieces. But you have to see it in the director's cut (actually, there are several, each one of which is superior to the theatrical release). Aside from engaging in an open war with his producer and studio during the making of the film, Peckinpah was also sinking fast into the booze and drug haze that would plague the rest of his career. The anger and angst that would fuel the violent poetry of The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid would soon turn into the addict delusions and unfocused rages of Cross of Iron (his last interesting movie). The remainder of his films quickly became a load of half-baked gibberish.

Oh yeah, then there is the soundtrack score by Bob Dylan. The music is fantastic. His acting appearance, uhhh, not quite so fantastic.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Winter Kills


Some films are damned by nature like an ugly child, malnourished and abandoned. Other movies earn their damnation the old fashion way, they work for it. The 1979 production of Winter Kills is an example of the latter. The movie's mix of intense paranoia, Kennedy-conspiracy theories, and outrageous deadpan ironies resulted in a black satire darker than a moonless night. Odd thing, the film is also a hoot to watch - at least it is once you are clued into the joke.

Freely adapted from the novel by Richard (The Manchurian Candidate) Condon, Winter Kills presents some of the greatest bits from various Kennedy conspiracy theories. Beginning with the bizarre opening as the late President Kegan's younger half-brother (Jeff Bridges) is confronted with the dying confession of the second gun to the assassination 19 years earlier in Philadelphia, Winter Kills precedes on a wild and star-studded meander through the American political subconscious.

As Bridges' character finds himself compelled to follow one weird lead after another, he finds himself stumbling through the scandals of his own family as well as a secret political culture that is running out of control. All the while, he is dogged by a mysterious series of murders that is seemingly preceded by the appearance of a young girl and child on a bicycle, popping gum in time to the gun shots. He is egged on by his own father (John Huston in a performance that delivers new meaning to the phrase “filthy old money”) even though the investigation is bound to unlock family secrets that old man Kegan has previously killed to suppress.

Long rumored to have been railroaded by the Kennedy family during its production and release (which is actually true - check out the best article documenting this case in the March 11, 1985 edition of the London Times), Winter Kills also has the particular distinction of going through several studios during its filming, having two producers who were financing the movie with drug trade money (one of them went to prison and the other ended up with the gun, not the cannoli), and a final release that was so low key even the theater owners didn't know it was playing. I only saw the film during its brief release because I had already seen everything else that was playing.

At times, the surreal humor of Winter Kills veers close to being a Mad magazine parody. But the movie also has a strange melancholia that at the oddest moments touches a sentimental nerve. Basically, we all know that the Kennedy assassination was a conspiracy. Heck, it doesn't even require a mastermind to narrow the list down to the overwhelmingly obvious suspects. The Warren Report, and all of the rest of the official denial, is just a load of horse hockey (something that even Lyndon Johnston stated in private conversations). But this act of public murder and phony denial has been the underpinning to contemporary American history. And to be honest, the denial sort of makes us all co-conspirators.