4/19/2007

B Movie Weekend

Depending on how you look at it, I either saw four or five movies this weekend—all but one of them on Sunday. There was somewhat of an overarching theme running through all of them; enough that I felt like a report about them could be turned into a blog post. So, here goes.

Friday night I was out til 4 AM, and couldn’t sleep when I got home because I was too wired. I ended up getting maybe 3 hours of sleep total, then had to wake up to be at work by 10 on Saturday. Because of all this, when I got home on Saturday afternoon, I crashed so hard that I didn’t wake up until after 9 PM. The house was dark, it was raining and windy outside, my roommate was out playing a show with his band, and it seemed like the perfect time to dig further into a 5 DVD boxed set of noir movies that was left behind by a former roommate when she moved out.

My selection for the night was “Asphalt Jungle”, a 1950 movie that marks one of the first appearances of Marilyn Monroe. She really wasn’t all that prominent, though—she plays the mistress of a middle-aged lawyer who is tired of his also middle-aged wife, and was in the movie for all of 10 minutes. The middle-aged lawyer is much more important, as he’s living like he has plenty of money, but is actually broke. He’s got an insecure bookie looking up to him who’s convinced he can do anything, and this bookie has a crooked cop in his pocket. He also has a couple of small-time hoodlum friends, and knows a safecracker with a young wife and baby who’s down on his luck. Into this whole mess walks a renowned German mastermind of bank and jewelry-store heists. He’s just been released from jail, and wants to pull off one last big job before heading for Mexico to retire. This convoluted cast of characters isn’t going anywhere pleasant, but that should be obvious from the outset.

The movie was directed by John Huston, who was much better known for his higher budget work, but he’s not at all ill-matched to the different requirements of a crime movie. The opening scene is an extended set piece in which one of the hoodlums, apparently fresh from knocking over a gas station or liquor store, walks around the sort of rundown neighborhood that doesn’t really even exist in most cities today, hiding behind pillars and in darkened doorways as police vehicles cruise by. Eventually, he happens upon a diner that looks just as rundown and abandoned as everything else he passes, but happens to be open, where he passes off his gun to the man behind the counter before being picked up by the police. The only extended dialogue that occurs in this scene is between the cops and the counter man, and it occurs through the distortion of a radio that the counterman has turned up on purpose. The gist of what’s being said is clear to the audience, but for the most part, you can’t actually hear any of it.

The air of confusing oppression generated by this scene holds throughout the movie, even on the rare occasions when the scene shifts to some ritzy, decadent place (either the jewelry store where the heist happens or the lawyer’s house). These characters are all muddling their way through the world without a map, and none of them seem to have any real morals. You can feel the tension, the fear generated by the fact that all of them are at the end of their respective ropes, and you sympathize with them. The criminals pulling the heist are the heroes of the movie, and you find yourself wanting them to escape, even as it becomes obvious that they can’t. This is a relentlessly downbeat movie, in which everyone’s got something to hide and no one can be trusted. Evidently the studio suffered a degree of remorse for its depiction of such an amoral universe, because the final scene has almost nothing to do with the rest of the movie, and consists of a police commissioner giving a sermon to the audience about how important the police force is in protecting the citizens of the country and making this world a safe place to live in. It’s unsurprising and almost amusing in hindsight, just adding a further reminder of how different America was 50 years ago than it is now.

The next morning I woke up at 11:15, just in time to get up, get a shower, and meet up with a friend to go see “Grindhouse”. This is the movie (or movies) that makes me unsure of how many movies I should say I saw this weekend. It’s being billed as one movie, but it’s so much more than that. Not only does it consist of two feature-length movies, it also features four fake trailers that resemble the sort of B-movie trailers that were commonplace in the 70s, and a few other minor tidbits that enhance the impression of being at a grindhouse theater during that era. The whole thing is about four hours long, which I was afraid would sorely try my patience. Nothing could be further from the truth—the entire viewing experience was a blast.

The first of the two features, Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror”, was the sort of movie that straddles the line between action and horror. There were zombies, but instead of building up their presence slowly, with scares and foreboding, the movie was incredibly fast-paced, and spent most of its length depicting bloody, pyrotechnic zombie vs. human battles. There was plenty of fighting, and plenty of outrageously over-the-top gore, but very little attempts at actual frights. This type of movie, while fun, has never appealed to me quite as much as the more true-to-form horror movies that build themselves around scares. While I enjoyed “Planet Terror”, it wasn’t mindblowing or anything.

The second movie, Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof”, was far more up my alley. It began rather slowly, by following a group of pretty young girls in their adventures around town on a slow afternoon. Eventually, they ended up at a bar, where they ran into a guy who called himself Stuntman Mike. It was at this point that the movie played a truly surprising bait-and-switch gambit, and if you don’t want it ruined for you, skip the next two paragraphs.

With over a third of the movie finished, Stuntman Mike, through the use of a “death proof” stunt car, killed all of the girls in a truly gruesome auto accident—which wasn’t really an accident at all, since he engineered the whole thing. While he’s recuperating in a hospital, we see lawmen discussing the possibility that Stuntman Mike engineered the accident on purpose, but they ultimately don’t feel that they have enough evidence, and he’s let go. This is when the movie truly gets rolling.

Now we meet our real heroes—not the original group of bar girls, but another group of four female friends, two of which are Hollywood stuntwomen in their own right. One is even portrayed by actual Hollywood stuntwoman Zoe Bell (responsible for stunts on Tarantino’s “Kill Bill”), who plays herself. Stuntman Mike is stalking this quartet, hoping for a repeat performance, but what he doesn’t realize is that this time, he’s met his match.

OK, I’ve given away enough of the plot. “Death Proof” is not the nonstop thrill ride that “Planet Terror” is, and therefore is probably a much better second half of the feature than it would be. However, I think this has led a lot of people to dismiss it unfairly, as slow or boring. It’s far from either, and what’s more, it has more of what Tarantino’s first two films led me to expect from his filmmaking than anything else he’s done since. Granted, it doesn’t have the time-shifts that dominated “Reservoir Dogs”, “Kill Bill”, and “Pulp Fiction”, but it does feature the wonderful, hilarious extended conversations that gave us so much insight into Tarantino’s characters in those first two films. Through listening to the two different groups of girls talk, the viewer forms a different impression of each, and comes to sympathize with our heroes, even as the original group reveals themselves as shallow, vain, and superficial. At first, Tarantino’s method of exposition may seem strange for a movie created as an homage to B-movies, but in the tradition of the best B-movies, it manages to subvert and transcend that aesthetic, even as it holds true to its spirit. “Death Proof” is an outstanding movie, perhaps the first truly A-list Tarantino effort since “Pulp Fiction”.

Now, you’d think that after I spent 4 hours in a movie theatre, I’d be ready to stop looking at moving images on a screen. And ordinarily, that’d be true, but “Grindhouse” had an effect on me that is exceedingly rare with modern movies—it made me want to geek out and watch more movies. My friend was feeling the same way, and when we got back to his house, I went through his extensive DVD collection and pulled out “Dirty Harry.” This movie is loved by some and hated by others, but it’s definitely the sort of movie that everyone expects you to have already seen. However, I had actually never seen it. As soon as my friend heard that, we had to watch it.

I gotta say, I was surprised. Having always heard about “Dirty Harry” within the context of 80s action movies, I was expecting that sort of thing—fast-moving, high impact, not too much intelligence. What I didn’t realize was that “Dirty Harry” was made way back in 1970. Clint Eastwood was fresh from his stint working with the incomparable Sergio Leone, and the “New Hollywood” movement was in full swing. This movement was what happened when, at the tail end of the 60s, studio heads threw up their collective hands, conceded that they were out of touch with the moviegoing public, and surrendered control to the new wave of younger directors. It resulted in a lot of iconic movies, but since there was a much bigger element of risk-taking involved in moviemaking at the time, it also resulted in a grand number of spectacular flops.

What they all had in common, though, was a greater opinion of the audience’s intelligence. Plot direction was subtle, and narration tended to be much less overt, with the audience being shown various pieces of a puzzle that they ultimately had to put together in their own head in order to follow and enjoy the movie. The fact that so many of the movies that were made in this fashion have come to be regarded as classics may say quite a lot about potential underestimation of public intelligence by the mainstream entertainment industry, but since movies like “Charlie’s Angels” also do really well, who can tell?

Anyway, I was knocked out by “Dirty Harry”, at least at first. The movie moved slowly and silently, cutting down on dialogue in favor of long, understated sequences in which everything you needed in order to understand what was going on was shown, instead of watching characters sit in a room and talk about these necessary elements (as is much more common in action movies—presumably because it can be gotten out of the way quicker, in favor of explosions, car chases, and fight scenes). A lot of these shots happened at night, too, and despite the movie’s bright Technicolor, I found myself thinking of “Asphalt Jungle” and the other 40s and 50s noir movies I’ve been watching in recent months. Since I’ve loved those movies, this was a high compliment to “Dirty Harry”. Halfway through, I found myself absolutely loving the movie.

Then, two-thirds of the way through, something happened that knocked me out of the movie in such a dramatic way that it was hard to get back into it and enjoy the final third. Those of you who’ve seen “Dirty Harry” (and at this point, I assume that’s pretty much everybody) know exactly what I’m talking about—the scene where Harry breaks into the stadium, beats up the murderer, and drags the information about the girl he buried alive out of him. Now, this didn’t bother me much at all. With the girl’s life at stake, Harry felt like it was necessary to take risks with the law in order to save her. That made perfect sense. What didn’t make sense to me was that, in the very next scene, the cops were letting him go, and ordering Harry to stop all surveillance on this guy, whom they all knew was a killer. Granted, a lot of murderers that everyone knew committed the crimes they were accused of have walked due to technicalities. That wasn’t my issue with the film. Instead, I felt like I was being lied to by the writer and director in being told that the cops would not only let a guy like this go without even trying to convict him and take him to trial, but also that they wouldn’t keep observing him. I know the history of this movie—that it was made by conservatives at a time when liberal mentalities held sway, and that to some extent the movie was intended as a propaganda piece for a more firm law-and-order mentality. That said, I feel like they overplayed their hand with this plot point, and asked the audience to accept something that was completely implausible based on everything most people know about how our law enforcement system works. The only way to put forth their point about how “we need stronger law enforcement in this country” was to depict a law enforcement system that was far weaker and softer on crime than any American law enforcement system was or ever has been.

After 10 or 15 minutes, I calmed down, and was able to enjoy the movie’s dramatic climax, but a great deal of the wind was taken out of my own personal enjoyment of “Dirty Harry” by this one particular point. I feel like the movie could very well be a classic, had the writers tried harder to keep things plausible, rather than taking the easy way out in order to hammer their point home. As it is, I can see why opinion on this movie is so sharply divided. It’s unfortunate, too, because so much of it is so well done. It could have been perfect if it weren’t for that one thing.

Even after “Dirty Harry”, we still decided to watch one more movie. This may not have been a good idea, since by this point my eyeballs were really starting to burn, but for better or for worse, that’s what happened. Fortunately, the movie we saw was very good. It was “The Conversation”, a Francis Ford Coppola movie that’s not nearly as well-remembered as his other movies of the era, such as “The Godfather”. Perhaps it’s because this one is not as epic in scope, lasting less than two hours and focusing on Gene Hackman as a surveillance specialist who tapes a conversation between two people in a public park, then becomes obsessed with what the conversation could mean. While “Dirty Harry” reflected the influence of the “New Hollywood” movement, it was still far from being part of it. However, “The Conversation” comes from right in the middle of that movement, and it’s totally obvious throughout the movie. Many of the scenes are depictions of Gene Hackman, by himself, puzzling over the conversation in question. The more of it that he hears, the more chilled and upset he becomes about it. Other than the final plot twist at the end of the movie, though, there’s very little real plot to describe. All of Hackman’s interactions with other characters in the movie exist primarily as illustrations of his own character, making it more and more obvious that his work has made him paranoid and unable to get close to any other people. Based on what’s actually occurring in his life throughout the movie, though, his paranoia seems more and more justified as things go on. At one point, around the two-thirds point, he tries to open up a bit more, and interact pleasantly with a group of people that he knows professionally. This ends up backfiring in an unpleasant manner, which turns out to have far more to do with the main plot of the movie than it might have seemed at first. All of this is put together to set up the twist at the climax of the movie, which I would be completely remiss to even hint about. Suffice it to say that it is frightening, but ultimately satisfying, and results in a truly bleak final scene. This isn’t a movie for those who want happy endings, but it is a great example of the kind of understated genius that the “New Hollywood” movement produced at its height.

After that, I went home and went to sleep. I’d seen enough movies for one weekend.

Note: I started this post on Monday, but wasn't able to finish it until today. If it seems weird to be posting about my weekend on a Thursday, that's why.

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