Sunday, August 20, 2006

People Like Frank

After reading David Foster Wallace's essay on Lynch, "David Lynch Keeps His Head," a week or so ago, I'd been jonesing to watch Blue Velvet (1986) again. When I first saw it a few years ago I thought it was a really good movie, but I didn't like it as much as Mulholland Drive or Eraserhead or anything else of his that I'd seen. It wasn't out there enough for me, not "Lynchian" enough, too narrative. This viewing has me me jumping on the "Blue Velvet is his masterpiece" bandwagon.

Since I'm on that David Foster Wallace tip, let me start by saying that the whole "seedy underbelly" take on Blue Velvet may well be a mistake on the part of a lot of the critics that spout it. Evil, and I think we can refer to Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) as a pure distillation of evil, is not something that lies underneath the surface of society, or more appropriately humanity, but rather runs parallel with it, is embedded within it. I mention DFW because this is one of the main points about the film that he makes in his essay and I don't wanna be a rip-off. I'd like to think I would have reached that conclusion on my own even if I hadn't read his take on it before watching the film for what is arguably the first time, but I'm citing my sources because I'm a good school-going kid with the fear of expulsion in my heart. I say "first time watching it" because at the time I first saw it, I think I was tired, I wasn't paying much attention. Me and my friend were talking a lot, too. Anyway, the only things I really remembered from it were fragments of scenes. Mainly stuff I thought was funny like "FUCK THAT SHIT! PABST BLUE RIBBON!"

That's the thing about Blue Velvet that isn't mentioned too often, in favor of discussing how disturbing it is: it is funny at times. Moreso, Frank is funny. It's an alarming thing. Maybe it speaks volumes about me more than anything else, but the line where he calls Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) "tits" is something that elicited a chuckle from me. As did, and maybe this is really messed up on my part, "Baby wants to fuck!" I find it funny that in the context of this movie something as offensive as that is not offensive to me on the level that I fault the film for it. That is to say, it's an offensive thing, but it's an offensive thing that an offensive character is doing, something that results in making it sort of inoffensive and even funny. Meanwhile, I watched Stanley Donen's musical, Funny Face, last night and found myself getting greatly offended by its blissful anti-intellectualism and misogyny. I guess an offense that's meant to offend in order to further the plot or character is occasionally not personally offensive, although Roger Ebert doesn't seem to think so, at least when it comes to this film. I'm straying. The big thing here is Frank is an entertaining character, although he often veers from being entertaining to being terrifying, something that I think partially reflects what Lynch is trying to say about the capability for evil in people.

A couple times in the movie we see people watching suspense films, and they're always about to witness a murder in the film, which we never see. I think part of Lynch's agenda here is to demonstrate how perfectly nice people can take pleasure in acts of violence, even if they're just pretend. That's simple, but it's later reflected in the way that Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) allows himself to become violent when he eventually has sex with Dorothy and she begs him to hit her. He has the urge for violence in him and so does she. He discovers his limit later in the film when he is forced to kill Frank and finds himself genuinely horrified by it. He isn't Frank, but there are elements of him inside. That's why the question "Why are there people like Frank" more or less gets answered later by Frank himself: "You are like me." And of course, as DFW notes, he's looking directly in the camera when he says this. We are like him.

I outlined the logical identification with Frank/evil running parallel with humanity stuff earlier on in this post. The way that these things are communicated in the film is pretty interesting. Jeffrey is an identifiable nice guy, who we the audience associate with. Lots of subjective POV stuff to really demonstrate how in his head we are. So as Jeffrey starts his transformation, his dive into evil, we are with him, a part of him. We are now starting to feel it. This is when Frank goes from the monster we see in the closet to the funny psychopath we see at Ben's place. We are entertained by him, we think he's kinda funny, and then he turns into a monster again. That's when the fear comes back and the balance is established. Jeffrey is somewhat restored back to lightness, but after his initial release of violence, he appears to have taken some of that darker side of him to heart. He keeps it with him. When his grandmother keeps asking him about the bruises on his face, despite his repeated protests, he jokingly threatens to hit her.

At first I thought that when Frank inevitably dies at the end, Jeffrey, by the law of entropy or something, would turn even worse to balance it all out. I'm glad that didn't happen. The evil was confronted, but it's not gone, though it's not all consuming either. Sandy's (Laura Dern) metaphor for love, the robin, appears at the happy ending of the film and it is holding a writhing insect in its mouth. I think that sums things up pretty perfectly.

I guess that's why I like this movie. In its simplicity, it becomes very complex. Initially, as I said earlier, I didn't like this movie as much as Lynch's other stuff because it wasn't weird enough or abstract enough. It defied my expectations in that sense. I don't know if I believe what I'm about to type, but it occurred to me and I had it noted as a thing to touch upon, so I'll at least throw it out there. Blue Velvet's effectiveness, as opposed to that of Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, is that in its more straight-forward, traditionally narrative approach it manages to still retain many of the characteristics that make Lynch's films so enjoyable, while also resulting, oddly enough, in the communication of more abstract ideas. The story is so taut that the themes swimming through it become much more loose and fluid, so in a sense the ratio of ideas to story in this film is reversed in relation to his others. Eraserhead is so out there and filled with abstract images and scenes that by the end of it, all I can really glean from the film is that it's about the dread of becoming a parent. The narrative is obscured, resulting in the ideas becoming rather concrete. Blue Velvet's story is very straight-forward, resulting in the themes and ideas being explored becoming more abstract and difficult to place. Like I said, I'm not sure if I entirely buy this. I do believe that this movie has more going on under the hood than some of his others, but that could just as easily be attributed not to this arbitrary "story to idea ratio" that I cooked up, but to the fact that those appear to be more visual and textural explorations while this film is more of a thematic one. Regardless, I think there's a lot to be said about this film, and I feel as if I've greatly simplified the stuff I set out to talk about when I initially started typing this post up. In conclusion,

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

July in Review

This has really turned into a month in review blog as of late. I go home in seven days and I won't have much to do then but watch movies, so we'll see how things go when that happens. I've really been enjoying myself a lot this summer, which I've dubbed my last as a kid. My last summer break. I graduate at the end of this year and then I'll probably be trying to make a living forthwith, so I've been a little preoccupied with going out with friends and seeing a city I probably won't come back to after I leave it soon. I've enjoyed my time in New Orleans. Here's July.

Chinatown, Roman Polanski. [A] july 2nd 2006.
[This was the second time I've seen this film, and I'm not entirely certain I've got every little bit of the water divergence plot down. I watched this with a few people and certain bits were talked over, but everyone seemed to really like it and one of them said they were gonna buy it post-haste, so I felt pretty good about the whole thing. I may well watch it again later this week. I just watched this and I'm currently reading The Long Goodbye and I just broke down and bought the Altman version of it, which I love. I feel pretty steeped in this whole old-school detective genre, although it's notable that the two movies cited are new-school throwbacks to it, especially considering how infatuated I've been with Brick since I saw it in the theater, but I've always dug the aesthetic. I remember even when I was in elementary school writing little short stories, very inspired by that hardboiled Chandler-esque feel. I hadn't watched or read any of the source material yet, but when I read them to my class, they all had fun with them. It's become such a part of our cultural vernacular that you don't actually need to be actively familiar with any of it to "get" it. It flips me out that kids' shows will reference all sorts of stuff that goes totally over their audience's heads, but do it so effectively that they actually become familiarized with these genre archetypes without any actual exposure to them whatsoever. That has nothing to do with this awesome movie, though. It's awesome.]

The Amityville Horror, Stuart Rosenberg. [F] july 4th 2006.
[This movie sucks. I can't comprehend the level of ineptitude that would result in a movie coming together so shoddily. The climax, the height of tension in the film goes something like this: The house is going nuts and maybe the dad is crazy too. He's got an axe and the mother has locked the kids and herself in the bathroom upstairs. He chops the door down because they won't let him in, and he tells them he would never hurt them. They run down the stairs to the main hall, but the walls are bleeding so the stairs are slippery. They slip on the stairs a little bit, but they reach the front door, which promptly shuts. The mother can't open the door, so the dad says let me try and he jiggles the handle a bit and then they get out. They start driving away, but they forgot the dog and the dad says forget the dog and they continue driving away. Then he goes back, gets the dog and nearly drowns in a pool of something that looks like tar but is allegedly the mouth of hell. The dog helps him out. He tries the jiggle the handle escape again, but this time the door really won't open so he smashes a window and climbs out through there. This movie is ridiculous. It should not be called The Amityville Horror, it should be called The Amityville Mildly Unpleasant.]

The Wind Will Carry Us, Abbas Kiarostami. [A-] july 11th 2006.
[I saw Taste of Cherry a while back and dug it a whole lot. I'm a sucker for the sort of austere, restrained filmmaking that Kiarostami has apparently made his calling card, and I look forward to seeing his other films. This film is much more enigmatic than Taste of Cherry, though. Some of the less obvious elements of the film threw me off so much that I wasn't certain whether I had missed something or not. I appreciate that about it, though, and recognize it as an integral part of the film's sensibility. I dig this guy's work a lot, so far.]

Children of Heaven, Majid Majidi. [B] july 13th 2006.
[A really sweet-natured film that I think borders on schmaltziness a little too often for its own good. Still worth checking out, though.]

Sharks 3D, Jean-Jacques Mantello. [F] july 15th 2006.
[I went to the aquarium. This was awful. I enjoyed this far more than any awful movie I've ever seen. I'd never really done the 3D movie thing before, but I found myself, after my eyes stopped hurting/adjusting, being really taken by the whole thing. There were some incredible moments, where a close-up of a shark, combined with the 3D effect made the shark a very tactile thing, the texture of its hide became something very real and fascinating to stare at. The narration of this movie was obnoxious and not at all informative, the music was terrible and the constant "sound effects underlining visually stunning moments," like wind chimes when schools of fish parted, really pissed me off. The attempts at humor were embarassing and the movie failed completely at its stated goal. If you want to get people to feel empathy for these creatures that you call misunderstood and unfairly maligned, then you don't play terrifying music and talk solely about how much it could eviscerate you when you finally get around to showing it. It's just common sense. Honestly, I don't want much. Something that's like Discovery Channel quality that teaches me some stuff and shows me a bunch of neat stuff in 3D would basically have been perfect for me. Instead, a turd.]

The Apartment, Billy Wilder. [A] july 19th 2006.
[My problem has been this: I used to have this insatiable appetite for films. Anytime I'd watch movies, if I thought I had an opportunity. Of late, I've been fetishizing the experience, demanding that I set aside the proper slot of time, that the room is pitch black, that I am completely alone and guaranteed no distractions, and it is very rare, especially in a roommate situation, to find these circumstances. Today, out of frustration, I just said "fuck it" and put this movie on. I've had it out from Netflix for like a month. It's one of the saddest movies I may have ever seen. Jack Lemmon was wonderful, the movie was great. I think I might put on another movie. I really love the ornateness of this film. It's not The Leopard or anything like that, but even in the most mundane places, like an office building or a Chinese restaurant, Wilder manages to find a way to make the place look not busy, but somehow more interesting and perhaps more complicated than it truly is. The film is occasionally peppered with moments of cinephilic recognition that I really like, too. A clip of Stagecoach plays on the television while Lemmon's character eats dinner.

During a particularly tense scene all the sound drops out except for the old-timey music that, with the editing, evokes almost immediately a tense scene in a silent film. It moves into the next scene so smoothly afterwards that this brief foray into an entirely different sort of sensibility doesn't feel at all jarring. This film is so masterfully put together that it's tough to not be taken in by it. It feels effortless. While watching it I felt frustrated by the fact that more "entertainment" films can't manage this level of sophistication and trust in their audience's intelligence on a more regular basis.]

The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman. [A-] july 20th 2006.
[One of my favorite moments in this film comes about a third of the way in. By this point the theme song of the film has been featured often enough that it can truly be considered omnipresent enough for this joke to work, but Marlowe goes into a bar that apparently doubles as a sort of office for him and a guy starts playing and singing the theme while he's on the phone with a potential client. Lacking a pencil to write the address down, he interrupts the singer and says "Hey, buddy, got something to write with?" It's such a wry little moment, the character interrupting the artifice of the film to keep it going, like maybe the world we're watching at the present is going on in spite of us and, while most of the other characters in the film are intent on entertaining us, Marlowe couldn't give less of a shit, he just wants to get another job.

I guess one of the main tenets of the film is that this decidedly 40's-based, hard-boiled gumshoe has been transplanted into a new era, the 70's, and that part of the fun is watching him interact with the world around him while maintaining the values he has from a previous time. "Rip Van Marlowe" is the cute name Altman gives it. I feel kind of dumb, because I never picked up on it until I had it explained to me by the filmmaker, but I guess my thing is that I don't find it that unbelievable that a man like Marlowe could exist in this world. One of the defining traits of an interesting hero has always seemingly been that he has an otherliness that separates him from the rest of the characters in a film. He could probably function just as well today as he could have in the 1800's. I just don't see how deeply rooted his character is in the 40's.

Anyway. This movie's really just a joy to watch and I think a lot of that has to do with the endless charm that Elliot Gould plays Marlowe with. It's an interesting take on the character that I think is a pretty big departure from the Marlowe in Chandler's novel, but a great characterization. He imbues the entire movie with an irresistible charm that makes it impossible to dislike.]

Brick, Rian Johnson. [A-] july 22nd 2006.
[I saw this just before it came out in the theater and it totally blew me away. Since then, I've been jonesing to see it again, but could never bring myself to go twice when there were plenty of other movies out I hadn't seen. Well a DVD rip is making its rounds and I couldn't wait the extra couple weeks for the proper release, so I've got this to placate me till that Tuesday rolls around. Unfortunately, the revisit didn't hit as hard as the firs time. I attribute that largely to interruptions. This is a movie that benefits largely from being allowed to do its work on you from beginning to end without stop. The mood it establishes within the first 20 minutes needs to be retained. I guess this can be said for all movies, but I think it had a direct impact on my enjoyment of it today.

The central schtick of the movie, the hard-boiled noir dialogue in the mouths of high school students, never particularly bothered me. I kinda feel bad referring to it as a "schtick," also. The fact is, if I hadn't known going into the viewing that this was a conceit of the film, I probably wouldn't have caught on for the first 30-40 minutes; that's how taken I feel I am with this movie. A couple things didn't work as well for me this time around, the jump cuts bothered me occasionally and some of the jokes weren't as effective as they could have been, but the film as a whole is such a fun, inventive thing that I can't really complain about much. The sound in this movie is unbelievable, too. Really, one of the most creative movies I'v seen in a while and easily my favorite from this year.]

The Player, Robert Altman. [A] july 25th 2006.
[I'm a sucker for these Hollywood insider type things. They almost invariably scare the shit out of me, but I dig 'em. This one I think has more going on with it than most, though. I've been reading around and it seems like a lot of folks I respect have written about how this is a shallow criticism of the industry, as much an exercise in narcissism as it is an indictment, and I can see where that's coming from, but I'm impressed by Altman's approach. This isn't a conventional Hollywood film, it's got too many of Altman's stylistic quirks, but it's conventional enough to function equally as a straight entertainment picture as it can an art film. One of the things that blows me away about Orson Welle's Touch of Evil is that, as good as the 1997 re-edit is, it's not the film he wanted to make. When Welles was shown the studio's version of the film, he went home and sent them a 60 page memo within a day, detailing all the things he'd change to make the movie better. He didn't ask them to use his original cut or to make modifications to the film that would turn it back to his vision, he sent them suggestions on how to make THEIR version of his film better. They ignored them and the movie wasn't all too good and then, using that memo, Walter Murch re-edited the film in 1997 and now it's awesome.

Well anyway, it doesn't seem like Altman's trying to convince Hollywood to make McCabe and Mrs. Miller here, he's just trying to show them how to make a good thriller without insulting their audience's intelligence. I don't think it's a coincidence that the box office figures of Fatal Attraction are discussed at one point in this film.]

Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson. [B+] july 27th 2006.
[I put this on for kicks because I'd been jonesing to see it again for a while. It might be my least favorite of PT Anderson's movies, but it's fun for a while. By the same token, I'm not wild about Goodfellas, either. The film's got great moments, I especially love John C. Reilly's character, but as an overall film it doesn't have a whole lot going for it. It's virtuoso filmmaking paired with halfhearted storytelling, and that can only carry you so far, especially within the span of two and a half hours. Still, it's obvious everyone involved had a great time making it and sometimes that level of enthusiasm alone can be very infectious.]

Manhattan, Woody Allen. [B+] july 28th 2006.
[Yeah, the whole dude dating a 17 year old thing is pretty creepy, but I really like this movie. For some reason I always want to put it next to Annie Hall and I always say that I like it more. It seems like a lot of people pair the two together, which I don't actually get when I think about it. It's like pairing Shadows and Fog and Crimes and Misdemeanors. No need. Anyway, I like this movie but I'm not prepared to say much more than that. Partially because this is the one blurb I'm writing today, August 8th, instead of today, the day I saw the film. Actually I wrote Boogie Nights today, too.]

Miami Vice, Michael Mann. [B-] july 30th 2006.
[This is from an e-mail I sent a friend. Robocop 1.3 on our rating scale equates to the B- you see here: Saw Miami Vice tonight. Robocop 1.3, which is disappointing. Someone needs to tell Michael Mann to listen to a band other than Audioslave. Also, it could have been retitled Dicks: The Movie and been totally accurate. Still, I liked it. It's fucking aggressive with its machismo, but I think it successfully modernises the notion of masculinity in such a way that the concept remains pure, while still managing to remain functional in this Modern World. In other words, men are still men and women are still women, but no one is really subjugated, if that even makes sense. It's somewhat responsible, even if it slips from time to time.

Also, Mann is the only guy that has really successfully gotten me excited about the possibility for video to look really nice. I really think that as the technology is refined it will grow to make film irrelevant, which bums me out to a degree, just because I appreciate the tactile nature of working with film. Video's a lot more ephemeral and easy to get by trial and error. To an extent, who cares how you get to the end product if it's great, but there's something kinda nice about a dude that knows what he's doing working. You still need an eye with video, but you can go in flying blind and as long as you watch enough movies you can make a competent one as long as you're honest about what it is you're working with, I think. Just ctrl/apple+z until it looks like Scorsese. Take these opinions with a grain of salt. Sometimes I like to ramble just to think things through. There might be some validity to it, but it reeks of elitism, and I'm for the people, promise.]

See you next month. Hopefully sooner.