Movie diary, 9/22/08-10/03/08
So hey, last night I saw John Cassavetes's "Shadows". I hadn't seen any other Cassavetes before besides a failed attempt to watch "The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie" about 5 years ago. I made it through about a half-hour. It was NOT what I expected. This time, after seeing that and "A Decade Under The Influence", I was a bit more prepared for what I was getting into, and I really enjoyed the movie. It was filmed in New York City in 1959, and considering that I've been kind of geeking out about mid-20th century American cities in general lately, and NYC in particular, I found that to be awesome. I expected the movie to have a loose narrative, and it did, but soon I'd picked up on the basic plot: Hugh, Benny and Lelia are three siblings who live together in an apartment in some low rent bohemian neighborhood (which no doubt is a million dollar condo now). Hugh is obviously black, so I assumed that the black and white filming either made Benny and Lelia look whiter than they were or that some unorthodox casting decisions were made, because the two of them sure look white. But anyway, the three of them are all trying to make it in the creative arts in some way or another. Hugh is a jazz singer who used to have more of a career than he has now, and at the beginning of the movie, has to take a gig introducing a line of chorus girls, which he's frustrated about. Benny is a jazz musician who seems frustrated with his day to day life and spends most of the film vacillating between sullenness and violent anger. Lelia is the youngest, at 20, and I'm pretty sure she's still in college (it's never made that clear). She isn't quite sure who she wants to be in life, and spends a lot of the movie trying to decide which of several potential suitors she's interested in.
I liked all of the scenes in the movie for the most part, although I sometimes felt that the interaction between Lelia and some of her beaux were a bit overstated and unrealistic. Benny's plotline was my favorite, and I especially enjoyed the final scene he was in, in which he seemed to have a bit of an epiphany. I won't say more than that so I don't ruin anything for anyone who hasn't seen it. Oh, and the music for most of the movie was done by Charles Mingus, so that totally rules, as do the shots of characters walking around 50s era NYC. I love stuff like that, and was totally geeking out on it.
The thing that kind of blew my mind was at the very end, and I sort of feel bad mentioning it, even though it's probably common knowledge to anyone who knows much about Cassavetes' work and therefore shouldn't really be a spoiler. So I guess you can skip the rest of this paragraph if you want, but I have to mention it because it profoundly affected my take on the movie. The final credit, at the very end of the movie, says "The film you just saw was an improvisation." As soon as I saw that, my opinion of the movie changed greatly. The scenes with Lelia and her boyfriends that seemed a bit contrived at points were improvised, as were the rest of the scenes in the film. I'd never even had a clue. That really impressed me--the fact that the actors were making up what to say as they went along and it came out so very well in so much of the movie makes it a much bigger achievement than I'd originally thought, and made me much more inclined to forgive any overacting.
By the way, looking at the IMDB page, I find an interesting thing--the main thrust of this film's plot is apparently intended to be race, and interracial relationships. I thought the character of Tony, who sleeps with Lelia at one point and then later shows up to her apartment and makes a scene, was just a creepy guy that she got involved with when she shouldn't have, but the IMDB comments make me think that either Cassavetes was much more subtle in making this film than I'd been looking for him to be, or that I'm just dense and missed a level of subtext entirely. The idea that Lelia was passing for white went right by me, and I'm honestly still not sure that's what was going on. I'm just as confused by the idea that Benny was going through his moodiness due to being confused about where he fit in racially. I just figured it was a general sense of frustration that motivated his actions, not anything about race, specifically. So am I just dense? Or could my missing all these elements of the plot have to do with a combination of my initial confusion over what race the actress playing Lelia was, and the fact that attitudes towards race have changed a lot in this country since this movie was made 50 years ago? I really don't know.
"Shadows" was a very interesting viewing experience for me, and the fact that I was left with so many questions after it was over only makes it moreso.
I've seen three movies in the past two days. I'm gonna break them up into different posts.
First, the night before last, I saw "Bullitt". It took me a bit by surprise. Everything I'd ever heard about it made me think that it was just an awesome action movie. People always talk about the awesome car chase, how Steve McQueen is tough as nails, etc. All of this stuff is true, but what surprised me was that the movie had other levels to it. I think it's pretty easy for people to take it simply as an action movie and ignore the other levels, which is probably why it's considered an action classic, but I definitely noticed the other stuff. And I feel I'm going to have to get into spoilers in order to fully explain my reaction to the movie, so if you haven't seen "Bullitt" and don't want it ruined for you, stop reading right here. I'm assuming most people have, though, so I don't feel too bad revealing things about its plot.
OK, "Bullitt" begins with Steve McQueen, in the title role as a police lieutenant, being given the responsibility to guard a high-profile mob witness for a federal trial that's happening as soon as the weekend is over. The witness compromises the protection Bullitt and his fellow cops are giving him, and as a result, he and another cop get shot. The witness makes it through most of the night but ends up dying, and Bullitt hides the evidence of this in order to stop the prosecutor who was relying on the witness from interfering with his investigation into what really happens. This is when the whole big car chase scene happens, and at the end of it, Bullitt has thrashed his awesome 69 Boss Mustang, chasing bad guys through the streets of San Francisco in a black 69 Dodge Charger. This scene was every bit as incredible as I'd been led to believe by years of discussion, by the way, and there was a featurette on the DVD that discussed how Steve McQueen did his own stunt driving, which was even more impressive. So yeah, after that, Bullitt has no car and he has to go down to San Diego to see about a lead. He ends up getting a ride from his girlfriend, whom we've encountered a few times already during the course of the film. When Bullitt gets to San Diego and discovers a grisly murder, his girlfriend stumbles upon the scene, sees him reacting as if he's completely desensitized to it, and they end up getting in a fight about his lack of response to such a thing. Now, I was thinking as this scene happened that I wasn't sure what place it really had in the film, and I'm sure a lot of action-movie fans over the years have felt the same way. But by the end of the movie, it proved not only to add layers to the flim but also to be essential to its underlying theme. The climactic scene of the movie involves Bullitt, having figured out that the witness he and his people were originally protecting was a ringer, tracking down the real witness at the airport, where he's attempting to flee the country. The prosecuting attorney, played in a brilliant display of sanctimonious pretension by Robert Vaughn, has been on his ass through the last half of the film, once he found out that the original witness was killed. Now, though, Bullitt is vindicated, and his superior detective work has paid off for both himself and the prosecutor. But when Bullitt tries to stop the witness from boarding the plane, the guy leads him on a chase across occupied runways--Bullitt nearly gets hit by a plane--before finally engaging in a shootout in the terminal that ends with Bullitt brutally shooting the witness. As the scene ends, he stands over the witness's dead body, looking enraged, like he wants to empty his gun into the guy even though the guy is obviously dead. So now, despite all his efforts, the witness has ended up dead anyway. It's understandable why it had to go down that way, but you can tell that Bullitt is in big trouble with his superiors.
There's one more scene in the movie, and this was the one that hit me the hardest. It shows Bullitt getting home, early the next morning, when his girlfriend is still asleep. He looks in at her, sleeping peacefully, and then walks into his bathroom, splashes water on his face, and looks like he's about to cry. The camera cuts back to a long, silent final shot of his gun, sitting on the hall table. I thought this was a brilliant way to end the movie. In an incredibly subtle way, one that might be missed by a lot of fans who just want to see guns and cars, the film introduces an idea of conflict and uncertainty, an idea that all of the violence that fills the life of a guy like Bullitt does take its toll, just like his girlfriend said. The final scene shows that he himself is finally starting to realize it, and leaves the viewer wondering whether he'll be able to go back to his job after this has all happened. While I was watching this movie, it reminded me at a lot of points of "Dirty Harry", another stark, quiet action film from the end of the 60s that seemed to be influenced by things like spaghetti westerns and noir films and not just a standard action movie. However, I think the ultimate theme and sensibility of "Bullitt" is all but completely opposed to that of "Dirty Harry". "Dirty Harry" is a conservative vision of law and order, and presents the idea that sometimes laws just get in the way of justice. "Bullitt" is a movie about the way law enforcement becomes indistinguishable, after a while, from mindless violence, and how hard it can be to retain one's humanity in the face of such a thing. "Bullitt", in the end, seems to carry a liberal message. I don't know if this was McQueen's vision, or that of the writers or directors, but that's what I took from it, and for that reason, I would have to say that it's far superior to "Dirty Harry", a movie I had trouble liking.
Yesterday I saw two movies. The first was "Invasion Of the Body Snatchers", the second version from 1978 starring Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy. I enjoyed it while I was watching it, definitely, but upon further consideration I feel that the film has a few flaws. I'd never seen the original version, though I have read the book, and I liked it a lot. I'm glad that this version of the film chose to preserve my favorite scene in the book, where a woman talks about her husband being different from how he was before, and mentions a scar that used to be on his neck, at which time someone says, "So it was gone?" And she says, "No, it's still there!" I love that bit; Jack Finney is brilliant. Anyway, this movie changed the locale from a sleepy little town to San Francisco and as such rendered the attack of the pods much more fraught with negative potential--one can imagine that, once they take over an entire large city, spreading over the world is much easier than it would be from the position of having taken over a tiny rural town. And I feel that a lot of what happens in the city is well done, and has a foreboding tone of creeping terror that works particularly well. What's unfortunate, first of all, is that Jeff Goldblum's character is such an element of chaos in the otherwise orderly proceeding of the movie. He never makes any sense at any point that he's onscreen, and while I like Goldblum as an actor, I think he could have been far better used. Also, some of the sexual relationships depicted in the movie seemed extremely unrealistic. I have to give Leonard Nimoy credit for making me believe in him as someone other than Spock--his constant typecasting seems somewhat unjustified based on his performance in this movie. Really, I just think this movie should have been cut down a bit. Reduce it from 2 hours to 90 mins, streamline the relationship between Donald Sutherland and the superb Brooke Adams so that it's a bit less confusing, and rewrite Goldblum's character. The action/horror stuff works, so it's just the incidentals of character development that I really think need improvement here. And for the record, it's a solid movie that's different enough from the source material to be worth seeing even for those who love the original movie or (like me) the book.
I never did write about "Easy Money", which I saw... a week ago? Something like that. Maybe because it's so hard to write about. It doesn't really make much sense, honestly. Sure, I can explain the plot to you in a sentence--like this one: Rodney Dangerfield plays a drunken slob with a super-rich mother in law; said mother-in-law kicks the bucket and writes a provision into her will that Dangerfield and his wife will inherit all her dough if Dangerfield can clean up his act and lose some weight within a year. Typical cheesy 80s movie comedy, right? Well, sorta. The thing is that there's a lot of other stuff going on besides that plot--which, once it gets rolling, sort of falls apart under scrutiny anyway. And it falls apart COMPLETELY when you see how they end it. But that's OK, because maybe 1/3 of the movie, at most, has jack shit to do with the plot in the first place. There were four writers on this film, including P.J. O'Rourke and Dangerfield himself, and a lot of it just seems like Dangerfield and his straight man, a pre-mob-film Joe Pesci, running around doing stupid shit. There's also this whole other plot thread about Dangerfield's screamingly hot daughter (Jennifer Jason Leigh) getting married and then freaking out about sex and leaving her husband, and the husband trying to get her back, and all of that doesn't make any sense either. Really, this is the type of movie I suppose one should watch when one is too fucked up on mind-altering substances of whatever sort to follow any sort of plot. Then one could, I suppose, enjoy this movie as the string of unconnected slapstick/absurdist jokes that it pretty much is. I enjoyed it well enough, but I couldn't believe just how little of a plot it had. The friend of mine that I saw it with said it was his favorite Dangerfield movie, but I gotta say I still think "Caddyshack" and "Back To School" are better. Wouldn't really seek this one out again.
The night before last, I saw "Hannah Takes The Stairs". People were leading me to believe that it was a third Andrew Bujalski film, but really he's just in the movie. The director is Joe Swanberg, and writing credits were given to not only Swanberg but also everyone with a speaking role in the film. So it had something like a dozen writers. I'm not sure if this means that each character came up with their own dialogue or if they came up with the storyline as a group, or what. Either way, it had that same sort of loose narrative as the Bujalski films I've seen, and a lot of the conversations that were captured in the movie seemed pretty insignificant, although they eventually added up to something. Basically, it's a movie about Hannah, a twentysomething college graduate working in a film production office, who doesn't seem to know what she wants out of life. She starts the movie with a boyfriend, but it's pretty obvious to the viewer that things aren't going that well with the boyfriend anymore, at least in her mind, and they break up pretty quickly. From there, she starts to engage in relationship type behaviors with a sequence of other boys in her life, mostly coworkers. It seems like she always gets excited about each new boy who falls for her, but soon, the reality of a relationship intrudes and she becomes focused on the hard parts of maintaining a relationship, at which point she generally loses interest and moves on to some other boy. She can't seem to maintain relationships beyond the honeymoon phase. There's definitely a point where she seems to realize this, and gets into a conversation with a boy about it. However, the conversation ends with her crying, the boy trying to console her, and this turning into making out. The film ends with no real resolution, and you, the viewer, feel like Hannah's story will continue on in this way for at least a while longer.
I don't really feel bad about outlining the plot this way, because this movie isn't really about the plot. It's the kind of movie where you could know exactly what's going to happen and it's still worth watching because the real point of it is capturing the personalities and the reactions of the characters to what happens over the course of the film. Personally, I could relate a lot to Hannah's underlying issues with relationships, even if I don't have the same sort of behavior patterns in my life, at all. It is hard to deal with attractions to people once they move beyond the hypothetical, and there are lots of little details in the process of negotiating two people's lives around each other than can suddenly become huge and all consuming in one's mind. Ultimately, the point of the movie is the way that Hannah deals with this, and the way the people around her deal with her decisions. There's a part in the movie where she tells a boy that has a crush on her that "I tend to leave destruction in my wake", and it's true. At the same time she seems really bothered by this, she also seems to have no idea how to change it.
I feel like this movie could have been really well done or a total trainwreck, with no middle ground. That seems to be the case with Bujalski's films and with any that are made in a similar style--which "Hannah Takes The Stairs" is, so maybe that's why people told me it was a Bujalski film. The cinema verite techniques used by the director work really well for me, and I like the way the scenes seem sometimes to shift from meaningless small talk to sudden outbreaks of very serious conversation. It feels real. None of these transitions ever seem forced, and in a lot of parts, "Hannah Takes The Stairs" seems a lot more like real life than most movies I've seen over the course of my life. The fact that this is the case and it is at the same time a quite enjoyable cinematic experience is pretty damn impressive if you ask me.