Thursday, July 24, 2008

For All Mankind - #54

Since I seem to be recapitulating my life story through films included in the Criterion Collection, let me jump backward in time a bit and toss in this entry that evokes memories from my early childhood. CC #54 is a documentary, For All Mankind, an impressionistic compilation of NASA film clips created throughout the 1960s and early 70s as the space program prepared for its eventual landing and repeat visits to the Moon. I was just a month or so shy of 9 years old when Neil Armstrong bounced off the Eagle's ladder with his "one small step" quip, and I assembled plastic models of NASA rockets, getting caught up in the fantasy that someday I and millions of others would be able to travel in space to explore other planets or just float around for fun in zero gravity. I even got to see a moonlaunch in Florida when I was around 11 years old. Apollo 17 I think it was, in 1972, the same trip where I went to a very early and unfinished version of Disney World (the only time I ever got down that way, actually.)

This is one of the earliest CC DVDs that I bought and still one of my favorites. It's pretty short - only 79 minutes, but I don't think I exaggerate at all to say that this is one of the most amazing, awe-inspiring films ever made. I mean, just think about what it is that we're seeing here. Truly history in the making, an epochal achievement that makes just about all other current events that fill the headlines of our times seem pretty insignificant. It's not just about the fact, the phenomenon of space travel - though that in itself is quite cool and fun to watch on video. This film captures some of the first moments and impressions that any humans had about living off of our planet. And it does so in a narrative style that ignores the usual habits of listing dates and times, chronicling the successes and setbacks, offering up a dose of technical details and explanatory content that helps us understand and appreciate the work that went into launching a rocket that could set two guys on the moon and bring them back to Earth safely. There are other movies that do that, some in enormous detail, others with amusing and dramatic flair. But For All Mankind delivers something more personal, warmer, evocative - by taking clips from various missions and sequencing them in one brief journey that puts us in the capsule, through the blastoff, around the earth, through the void, above then on the lunar landscape and back for a real quick splashdown, filmmaker Al Reinart has given us a convenient and portable space trip that we can take just about anywhere a DVD can be played - and these days, that covers a lot of territory!

The soundtrack derives from words spoken by astronauts themselves, often in the context of interviews they made years after their spaceflight, after they've had the time to ponder and gather their thoughts on the experience. There are also nice doses of the ambient sounds of the space program - mission control, of course the thundering power of Saturn V engines (or at least, a dim echo of the actual noise those monstrous cannons made) and an amazing spacey soundtrack composed especially for the film by Brian Eno that sweetly matches the strange ethereal motions of spacecraft hovering over the oceans and clouds of Earth and the barren desolations of the Moon. There's little point in me trying to evoke the sensations created from watching the movie oneself - it's an amazing, easily digestible but endlessly profound contemplation of what spaceflight means, feels like and produces - not only in the humble, reverent and gracious musings of the astronauts themselves, but also in those of us who are able and eager to lose themselves in the fulfillment of this ancient, universal dream, of seeing what it's like up there, way above the sky.

Even though I don't even own a Blu-Ray hi-def DVD player (at this time), I'm pleased to hear that this film is one of several that will be part of Criterion's entry into the Blu-Ray format. This DVD includes footage that is pretty grainy, aged and of its era. I think that much of that look will and should be preserved. But I understand that the outer space images were often made on very excellent film stock and I'm eager to see just how crisp and clear the moonscapes will come through on the best equipment. I'm far from having that set-up myself but it's nice to know that it is going to be available soon. As for this actual disc that I already own, there are some other nice features, including a collection of old NASA rocket lift-off clips as we get to see glimpses of the earlier models that led up to the mighty Saturn V, and a narrated gallery of paintings made by astronaut Alan Bean, who gave artistic expression to his experience of space travel. I have no idea what might be added or subtracted for the re-issue. But I'm glad I have this one. It's pretty much essential viewing for anyone who has a serious interest in and appreciation of space exploration - and even if you don't, an open, attentive viewing of this film will put you in touch with the audacity, the rigor and the sheer yearning for new experience that pushed a few of our members to transcend the limitations of gravity long enough to leave our footprints on the moon.

I can't embed this video (at request of whoever posted it) but here's the link to the opening sequence. There's more on YouTube if you want to watch it on the tiny screen!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Dazed and Confused - #336

Continuing my series whereby I recap my life story through judicious selection of titles in the Criterion Collection. Dazed and Confused, in the context of this blog, could be subtitled "Children of the Ice Storm" since it takes place a few years after that movie (reviewed below) though it's set in Texas rather than Connecticut, the summer rather than late autumn, and delivers its message with a more comedic twist. Like the Ice Storm, the events depicted take place within a short time frame - here, it's May 28, 1976, the last day of school in a small town.

What we have here is a strong slice of teenage life, unsentimental, cramming in many archetypal characters that those of us who lived thru that particular slice of American culture and history easily remember and identify with. The plot is thin - will Mitch and his freshman friends get caught by the sadistic seniors with paddles and forced to endure their hazing rituals? Will star QB Randall "Pink" Floyd sign the pledge that his coach demands from him and the other players, to give up partying for the summer and live clean in preparation for the fall athletic season? Pink and Mitch are the two most obvious protagonists here but the film really comes alive because the casting of all its characters is so right on - some of the actors went on to pretty substantial careers: Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Matthew McConaughey, Joey Lauren Adams, and Renee Zellweger has a non-speaking part. But this was when they were all no-names which makes it all the more fun to see them at the beginning of their cinematic careers. Strict attention to detail gives the film about as authentic a feel as could be hoped for in a production that took place on a tight budget, 16 years after the time it was set in, by a crew forced to deal with a lot of skepticism heaped on them by nervous studio execs who thought they were getting the next American Graffiti but lamented the lack of gratuitous nudity or obvious set-piece prankish humor that they thought were keys to making a successful teen comedy.

Director/writer Richard Linklater got the funding for this after his surprise indie breakout release Slacker. He was seen as a hot new talent and this movie was his brainchild, his labor of love. The amazingly crafted DVD package gives ample evidence of just how personal this project was to him, also how idealistic he was at the beginning of what's turned out to be a pretty decent career in the film industry. The 2-disc set comes in a nice slip cover reminiscent of old Led Zeppelin albums. It has the bright decorations and random circles of Led Zeppelin III and the multiple inserts-sticking-thru-the-windows possibilities of Physical Graffiti (or the Rolling Stones' Some Girls, for that matter.) The covers and digipaks are adorned with doodles like we used to scribble on our notebooks and school papers, and there's a nice fold-out poster inside -just the kind of awesome inserts we used to be excited to find when we opened the newest Kiss albums back in the heyday of LPs as art forms. The film itself boasts one of the most successful soundtracks of the 90s, featuring vintage hits that perfectly reflect what most of us in the stoner crowd were listening to in the late spring of 1976: Aerosmith, Nugent, Kiss, Black Sabbath, Foghat, ZZ Top, Alice Cooper, Nazareth, Peter Frampton, Deep Purple... even a Bob Dylan song. (Linklater tried so hard to get Zeppelin to sell the rights but they refused, waiting instead until Cadillac came along years later and coaxed them to license "Rock and Roll" for their car ads on TV.) No pop, no disco, and this was pre-punk - the Ramones might have had their first record out by then but no one in high school was listening to them yet. In fact, it's fair to say that the summer of 76 represented a real turning point in the teenage monoculture that had developed in the wake of the Beatles and everything else that happened in the 60s. But that's not what this film is about.

Really, Dazed and Confused isn't "about" anything. There is no pivotal moral crisis or life lesson at the heart of it all - plenty of smart dialog and revealing exposition of how teens of that particular time related to each other and eyed with wariness the adult world that awaited them. I link strongly to the film because it is so close to my own experience. I was one grade ahead of the freshmen depicted here. My hazing was pretty light and I managed to avoid the worst of it - I was like Mitch's friends, who watched him get paddled from around the corner of a nearby building - my friend Paul got pelted with eggs while I ducked out behind a tree waiting for the arsenal to be unloaded before they spotted me.

But the music... the clothing... the cars... the frustrations... the boredom... the bongs! It was all put up there on screen largely as I remember it and to my eye not really "milked" for nostalgic effect but rather just intended to faithfully recreate a cultural milieu that tells so much of a story itself, allowing the conversations and movement of the actors, their cars and other props speak that much more eloquently. Here's a clip that I found on YouTube which perfectly captures the ambience of those times, as I remember them. The dudes show up to make the scene at "The Emporium," the local poolhall/pinball/foosball parlor where guys and chicks get to show off their respective skills. In Grand Rapids, it was the"Funway Freeway" that served pretty much the same purpose, that summer of '76. Check out the slightly slo-mo image of their entrance as "The Hurricane" blows in... champion of the world!

If you've seen the movie, you may be interested in knowing that the characters I most identify with are Tony, Newhouse and Slater, in about that order. I had Tony's intellect and loner instincts, Newhouse's self-absorption and Slater's craving for weed and affinity for tweaked conspiracy theories. Of course I lusted after the Shavonne's of the world (in my case, girls named Tammy, Kris and Mika come immediately to mind) but was more likely to talk with a girl like Cynthia if any at all. I was just too much of an outcast, socially speaking, to mix it up with cool girls like Simone and Michelle, and I've spent the rest of my life trying to make up for the lost time through conversational opportunities, nothing more. I got trashed in P.E. playing flag football by guys like O'Bannion, and pretty much didn't get the time of day from guys like Pink, Don or Benny. I would only associate with someone like Pickford to hand over the cash and pick up a dimebag. My step-brother Dave was pretty much the equivalent of Wooderson, especially when it came to cars and his ability to pick up chicks. And I knew well enough to give the Brunos in my world all the space they needed - I went through my schoolyard fighting phase in 5th and 6th grade and from that experience learned what I needed to do to avoid future mix-ups along those lines.

Dazed and Confused is an easy film to under-estimate and dismiss as a mere stoner flick a la Cheech and Chong, Half Baked and others of that sort. Yes, there's a lot of dope-smokin' going on but that is really just what teens were up to in those years, back when head shops operated pretty openly and some of our school teachers joked freely and casually about getting high and stuff like that. Don't make the mistake of assuming that the druggy humor and retro fashions impede the transmission of wise and poignant insights. Dazed and Confused cuts through the cloud of pot-smoke to lay down some universal messages precisely because it speaks with an authentic voice about a time and a stage of life that for better or worse continues to inform the sober, sadder age we live in today.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Ice Storm - #426

I'm continuing on this theme of the American 70's, that I started with Two-Lane Blacktop. That film came out in 1971. The Ice Storm was released in 1997 but is set in 1973, a pivotal year in American culture - the peak of the Watergate scandal and by all accounts, just a flat out weird time for most everyone who was alive at the time. Director Ang Lee, in the commentary track, notes that doing research on this movie, he spoke with many people who had distinct recollections of their lives in 1972 and 1974, but '73 just seems like a blur to them, maybe shame, maybe repressed memories, or just a scramble of confusion, a dysfunctional kind of contact buzz gone wrong.

Lee, of course, is from Taiwan and didn't live in the USA at the time, so he considers the film a kind of period piece, comparable to Sense and Sensibility, the big hit he directed immediately preceding The Ice Storm. A pivotal scene at the end of the novel on which this film was based provided the impetus for him to make it - I won't describe the scene though since it would make for quite a terrible spoiler. But given my own experience of 1973 (it was the year that my family relocated from the nicest house I ever lived in, at the peak of our material and relational prosperity in Southfield MI, to the woefully misnamed town of Pleasant Hill in the East Bay area of northern California. It was my transition from 6th grade to 7th, from upper elementary to junior high, from relative innocence to mean, nasty, angry, bitter kids from families reeling in the post-hippie backwash of various social and cultural revolutionary liberation movements. So the confusion and tumult portrayed in The Ice Storm, despite its placement in an upscale neighborhood in woodsy Connecticut, connects quite profoundly to my own blurry confused recollections from that particularly agitated, disrupted trip those of us alive at the time took around the sun.

Novelist Rick Moody wrote what I understand to be a rather scathing autobiographical novel depicting the moral vacuum created by his parents and their friends, as they indulged in various extramarital affairs, lost their bearings as authority figures and dragged their extra-baggage children along while they flailed about in search of themselves, or at least some reasonably satisfying kicks along the way. I haven't read the book, nor do I know just how big a hit it was upon release. But even though I get the sense that some of Moody's polemic has been softened a bit, the adults have been rendered just a bit more sympathetically, it still seems like an unlikely source for a big-time Hollywood production. The overall tone of the film comes across as bleak, sorrowful, heavy. A thread of humor runs through most of it, but it requires of the viewer a willingness to laugh as the world falls apart, and in the end, it's just not possible to maintain any sense of levity. Which is fine. Just not typical for what audiences come to expect from a trip to the theater, at least with the kind of star-studded cast of quality Hollywood actors assembled for the movie.

Get this roster: Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen as adult leads. Even more remarkable are the young (really, child) actors who have gone on to great success in subsequent years: Tobey McGuire, Elijah Wood, Katie Holmes and my favorite young actress of the moment, Christina Ricci (she also played Trixie in Speed Racer, and I was so pleased to see her in the recently filmed special features, where she sports her cute Trixie haircut!) Considering the collective heft of this troupe, you might even wonder why this movie didn't get more attention when it first came out. Well, there was this blockbuster production called Titanic that kind of swallowed up everything in its path, box office-wise, award-wise and "the year in cinema"-wise in 1997. But I would say The Ice Storm holds up better and has more to say to us ten years later...

The story begins with a nice prep-school conversation about Dostoevsky, existentialism and Christianity - nothing terribly profound and actually played more for comic effect as the scene progresses, but nevertheless, a nice entry into a a film that does indeed raise some deep questions about morals, ethics, social standards and how to find our bearings when so many shifts are taking place in and around us. The story revolves around two families, the Hoods and the Carvers. Mr. Hood (Kline) and Mrs. Carver (Weaver) have a thing going on, for starters. Their spouses and kids (the aforementioned young actors) all have their own problems and perspectives on what's going on, and in all fairness, the infidelity I just mentioned is not held up as the crack in the social foundation in any way - it's just one symptom of something larger, more complex, more pervasive and harder to pin down. Like the force of nature that gives the film its name, it just blows in, creating hazards, chills and interruptions beyond our control or even our understanding.

Events unfold on Thanksgiving weekend, which turns out to be the 10th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The preceding decade has of course been a time of drastic upheaval in society - social norms have been called into question and overturned. The standards of family, religion, government and community values rest on shaky foundations. The national leadership is in trouble, a seemingly interminable war continues to drain lives and treasure, the "generation gap" has created a set of young families who seem unwilling to turn to the example set by their forebears on how to raise children and manage households. The result of all this unsettledness creates a queasy feeling in the characters and in us as we can't help but see how scrambled everyone appears. The garish early 70s fashions are authentic but don't approach the level of parody or pre-fab nostalgia that other films have deliberately pursued. Ang Lee and his crew exercise admirable restraint in incorporating enough period touches to put us in the milieu without soaking us in it. The story really is timeless and I think universal in its application, though obviously many communities have not gone as far down the libertine path as New Canaan CT, as its portrayed here anyway.

What makes the movie so outstanding to me are the many fine performances that allow me to put some of my own experiences into the larger context of what was happening in our society at the time. The anguish and between-the-lines communications that take place between couples, parents and children and neighbors are simply revelatory and incredibly powerful to behold. I would think that most people who have gone through some degree of family, marital or personal crisis (and isn't that most of us?) would find multiple points of access to the struggles that each of the main characters go through. Clear heroes and villains are hard to identify here - even the kids have their creepy, unlikeable side, yet they also emerge as authentic, realized characters with a past. The filmmaking itself employs many masterful touches, from the casting, framing and lighting to the evocative soundtrack music (not the vintage 70s tunes, but rather the atmospheric compositions by Mychael Danna.) Though the plot and setting may give some a sense that this is just a tastefully produced melodrama of suburban decadence, The Ice Storm offers something more - a deeper insight into not merely American society, but the painful transitions that families of all sorts must endure as we move ever further into a future where old mores have run their course and obvious updates and improvements continue to elude us.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Two-Lane Blacktop - #414

Revving engines roar into action even before the familiar Universal Pictures logo fades from the screen and we are instantly plunged into the stream-of-consciousness milieu of Two-Lane Blacktop. This early 70s production took advantage of a unique moment in Hollywood, where at least a few studios were wlling to fund unconventional projects that appealed to the counter-culture mentality that had made Easy Rider a surprisingly lucrative hit. Like Easy Rider, T-LB is a "road movie" featuring hip, photogenic young men crossing the great American landscape on fast sets of wheels. I still haven't seen the earlier movie from start to finish yet, but I have a hunch that it won't make the same impression on me that Two-Lane has. ER, from what I have seen, is more deliberately a "message" movie, something that T-LB doesn't aspire to be at all - in fact, I think it's fair to say that the filmmaker and scriptwriter have diligently worked to scrub all didactic tendencies out of the finished production. And I am quite happy to contemplate the results.

So what happens? What we see on screen is a fascinating document of what is now an endangered, if not altogether vanished, way of life. Two young men in a souped-up 1955 Chevy race another street rod for cash, but before they can collect their winnings, cops show up and a brief chase ensues in the darkness. The chase is not played up for thrills though - the scene ends with the car driving the next day, implying that the Chevy escaped and drove thru the night. The two occupants pull into the California desert town of Needles to change out of their car's racing tires. A short while later, eating at a diner, a teenage girl hops out of a van and wordlessly climbs into the Chevy's backseat. She doesn't know these guys and I guess it's just the look of the car and her own free spirit that leads her to make that choice. The Driver and the Mechanic (that's how the two lead characters, played by musicians James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, are named in the credits) hardly take notice of her but they don't kick her out either. They just drive off, heading east.

Along the way, they pass and are passed by another car, a 1970 Pontiac GTO, driven by a character named GTO (acted by Warren Oates.) Tensions rise between the occupants of the two vehicles - they meet up at a gas station and the challenge is issued to "race for pinks." First car to Washington DC claims ownership of the other. That would seem to set the stage for a conventional racing drama, and for a stretch of the film, that expectation is fulfilled. But as the story unfolds, the suspense of who will win and who will lose the race pretty much dissipates as other things happen, which I'll try not to spoil. A mere rundown of events doesn't really come close to approximating the experience of watching a very unique cinematic expression.

The cliche surrounding T-LB is that it's an "existentialist" film and that axiom is even invoked, reluctantly, by director Monte Hellman in a documentary feature filmed in 2007, 36 years after the film was released. In many ways, it does stand as a singular experiment - the actors were given their scripts in short portions, just that day's scenes as the movie was shot in sequence as the crew (rather small by Hollywood standards) drove from city to city on the easterly route. There is no soundtrack - the only music we hear is ambient sound from car radios, people singing, restaurant stereos and so on. The dialog is terse, minimal, practically incidental - the story is told in facial expressions, images that convey the speed of vehicles, the muted subtext of conflicts and frustrations that just happen, without elaborate set-up or extended Hollywood-style exploitation. Landscapes serve as true background - fairly interesting and evocative if you look at them but like everything else in the film, they merely pass. The cinematography is excellent - shot in a widescreen, deep-focus format that gives the eye plenty to observe in foreground, background and in between. The locations, along the old U.S. Route 66, depict an America before the emergence of strip malls, coast-to-coast franchises and the generic suburbanization of regional cultures. A motley collection of oddball characters form an amusing parade over the course of nearly two hours, and of course it's impossible to watch this film and not lament the sheer impossibility of replicating the kind of journey experienced by Driver, Mechanic and GTO - they don't make cars like those anymore, gas is $4 a gallon and it's just a different era we're in. Hard to resist the nostalgic allure of the life and times depicted in Two-Lane Blacktop, even though there's a steady stream of danger, chaos and unsettledness running through the film. As for story, well there isn't really much of one. Certainly nothing that offers the kind of structure, development and resolution that movies typically offer, that many think are required for the show to make sense and be worthwhile. We enter the world as one race begins and we leave it with another race in progress, but we never learn its outcome, nor are we given any clue as to what happens to the characters after they disappear from the screen. And once you see the ending, as pure an expression of cinema as any conclusion can be, you'll understand why it just had to be left that open-ended.

So yeah, this DVD is a great entertainment value, and a film that I've enjoyed watching four times now since I got the disc last winter. It's also a splendid specimen of what makes the "Criterion treatment" about as desirable and prestigious as a film (or its fans) could hope for. Not every CC disc gets the abundance of goodies that this one did. There are several distinct phases that the Collection seems to have gone through over the years - some films (typically those released in the earlier years, late 90s and the beginning of this decade) are fairly bare-bones, only justifying the higher price tags (typically between $30 - $40 per film at full retail mark-up) due to the rarity and quality of the title. As the collection grew and expectations raised, the accompanying pamphlets, extra features on the disc and quality of artwork kept pace, until now we see extremely nice, lavish packaging accompany some of the more recent releases. T-LB is a two-disc set, and also comes with a nice illustrated booklet featuring photos, essays and information on the film. They also include a bound copy of the original screenplay (which I have only browsed so far.) It's worth having if you really want to get into the film because it offers quite a few additional scenes that were cut out of the original 3 1/2 hour running time of the first cut. (Which is not included here and presumably no longer exists) since there aren't even any deleted scenes included in the special features. And I think that this film is worth watching just for the acting - James Taylor shows a side of himself that doesn't always come through if you only know him from his soft rock hits. And Warren Oates... what a guy! What a character!

I challenge you to watch this movie... for pinks.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Young Mr. Lincoln - #320

I went ahead and picked out the oldest and most reliably "Americana" choice I could come up with for my belated Independence Day viewing, and I'm glad I did. I received Young Mr. Lincoln as a Christmas gift last year, from my mom. I put it on my list because I figured it was the kind of film she would like giving me (unlike many of the strange, weird, freaky, foreign, depressing and just plain obscure titles that Criterion generally offers in abundance.) Young Mr. Lincoln, just to be clear, is a fictionalized biography of Abraham Lincoln, produced in 1939 (same year as Gone With The Wind) by iconic American director John Ford and starring iconic American actor Henry Fonda. Just starting there, YML is about as wholesome and family friendly and folksy as probably any other film in the CC, and probably more than about 99% of all the other films available on DVD, for that matter. I mean, this film is just about perfect for any tradition-minded grade school history or high school civics class. And even though there are some historic anachronisms and clearly fictitious elements, they fit perfectly with the popular notions of what Abe Lincoln was about and how he went about his business.

About the only element of Lincoln's youthful story that came to my mind that wasn't included here was his teaching himself to read by the light of the fireplace - but that's because the film begins with him as a young adult. So he already knows how to read. But otherwise, it's all there. Here he is, making an aw-shucks speech in the most plaintive of terms, announcing his candidacy but hardly seeming to care a bit if he wins or loses - he just offers his principles to the public and if they happen to think he's worthy of their support, then he'd happily oblige to serve. But if not, it's about all the same to him. There he is, making sweet talk to his youthful sweetheart Anne Rutledge, who sadly enough died young - and after winter sets in, we see young Abe faithfully tending to her grave and consulting her parted spirit as he ponders the next step toward whatever destiny the Good Lord has in store for him.

There he is riding on horseback, in tails and stovepipe hat, getting ready to practice law, combining the wisdom of Solomon and the guilelessness of Daniel as he helps petty squabblers settle their differences. Next thing you know, it's the Fourth of July and here come the veterans of the Revolution, and the War of 1812. Followed by the traditional contests common to small frontier towns back then. Pie-tasting. Rail-splitting! Even a tug-o-war with a muddy bog in the middle to catch the poor losers. Charming scenes all, a love letter to the Republic in its youth which I'm sure struck a nostalgic chord even 70 years ago when the film was new.

But this sunny, reminiscing mood only sets the stage for more turbulent drama, as we get to see Honest Abe speak unvarnished common sense to the townsfolk, as he proceeds from being seen as a greenhorn lawyer, and an outsider, to one of the most admired and respected citizens in town.

In the heat of conflict, one of the town hooligans is stabbed to death, and a pair of virtuous brothers, just passing through town, are implicated in the killing. Abe proves his mettle, first by turning away a wild mob intent on vigilante justice:

and then later, as the court-appointed defender of the brothers, in an amusing and witty court-room scene that fills out most of the remainder of the film. Of course, Abe's instincts drew him to land on the right side of the issue, and the prairie family's trust in their lanky, moody advocate is vindicated when all is said and done. With justice now served and his worthiness to lead and inspire clearly demonstrated for all who have eyes to see, we happily see the reunited family head on west, in their covered wagon, with Abe walking along behind, to the crest of the hill, with portentous flashes of lightning in the distance, a building, intensifying rain sweeping in, and the Battle Hymn of the Republic swelling up to full volume as the show draws to its close. Wow, what a production. Sign me up for the local fife-and-drum corps! My faith in America has been rejuvenated!

So is this film... shall we say, schmaltzy? Well, some might say. In fact, I had a bit of that impression, I must admit, the first time I watched it last winter. I was glad to have it in my collection - a nice representation of historic and classic Hollywood film-making, the American mythos on film, etc. But watching it again last night, I have to say that I genuinely loved the experience and sentiments put forth by YML. Doesn't mean I won't also enjoy the more cynical, satirical bite found in a lot of other movies that take a more jaded view of our country, our culture, and what are commonly regarded as "mainstream values." The undiluted simplicity and innocence of YML was, to me, very refreshing and encouraging, even if I also could not help but note how clearly the film steered of the many injustices that were so common as to be utterly unremarkable in their absence to both filmmakers and audiences of the time. Slavery and Indian genocide were side-stepped - except for one scene when Abe mentions that his family had left Kentucky years earlier when all the slave-owning folks moved in and made it impossible for "regular folks" to find work. (An early version of white flight?) But what's the point of quibbling. This film gets a person in touch with some of the power of America's ideals and democratic vision. It's not the whole picture, and I think a lot more needs to be known and grappled with to be reasonably informed. But Young Mr. Lincoln offers essential ingredients that we should keep in mind in considering what the USA aspires to, even as we move further into the 21st century, as we contemplate the election of another tall, lanky, sense-talking young man from Illinois as our would-be president.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Celebrating the Good Ol' USA

I had intended to write something along this line before we reached the Fourth of July, but a two-day power outage made that pretty much impossible so I'm reduced to catching up with this idea a bit after the fact. My thought was to watch and review one of my Criterion DVDs featuring some essence of Americana. I will possibly do something like that tonight (watch a movie that is) but for now I'm going to just offer a few samples of what the CC (which is rightly known for featuring more foreign films than domestic) has to offer for anyone seeking insight into the American character and experience.

Here are films I own that, according to my criteria, qualify:

Armageddon - America's destiny is to save the world, and it takes a buncha ruffnecks to get it right.

For All Mankind - Forget the silly space adventures of the above movie, this is the real deal - an impressionistic montage of the NASA moonshots and the experiences of the American astronauts who went there as emissaries of humanity.

Rushmore - The essential American resistance to conformity, and the equally American determination to squash non-conformists before their malignant influence gets out of hand.

Do The Right Thing - A piercing look at the state of race relations in America on one particularly hot summer afternoon.

The Royal Tenenbaums - The agonies and ecstacies of a typically exceptional American family.

Monterey Pop - Essential documentation of the Summer of Love, a pinnacle of American creative cultural expression.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - What happened after the Summer of Love peaked out and left us Americans wallowing in its aftermath.

Slacker - Follow the roving camera as a new generation of Americans seeks to find its way forward in this seminal precursor to the independent cinema of the 90s.

Tanner '88 - Contemporary American politics as seen through this mockumentary of the 1988 Democratic presidential primary campaign (featuring numerous real-life personalities who were involved in that effort.)

Short Cuts - A hodgepodge of stories based in Los Angeles, one of America's final cultural frontiers.

Hoop Dreams - The melding of sports, poverty, competition and pressures on all levels - another amazing and true (in this case) American story set in Chicago.

Young Mr. Lincoln - American mythology at its finest, John Ford's take on the formative experiences that shaped Abraham Lincoln and prepared him for his destined role in our history.

Dazed and Confused
- The American Bicentennial seen through the bloodshot and prematurely cynical eyes of its teenagers (pretty close to how I remember it myself, actually.)

Ace in the Hole
- A prophetic glimpse at the exploitative tendencies of America's news media, produced in the early 50s but offering essential insight into what we now live with courtesy of the 24/7 cable news channels and all the other media they influence.

Two Lane Blacktop
- A great American road movie, the best of the bunch from the early 70's i.m.o.

The Ice Storm - Hold on tight and grit your teeth as the bottom drops out of American suburbia in the early 70s. Have we recovered yet?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Brazil - #51

What a wonderful phantasmagoria of a movie! I actually took a minute just now to look up the definition of "phantasmagoria" to make sure I was using that colorful word correctly, and I feel pretty confident that I am.

n., pl. -ri·as also -ries.
    1. A fantastic sequence of haphazardly associative imagery, as seen in dreams or fever.
    2. A constantly changing scene composed of numerous elements.
  1. Fantastic imagery as represented in art.
Yes. That fits!

Criterion's presentation of Brazil offers a splendid justification for why the Collection exists and how it can enhance a viewer's appreciation of the film in question. A 3-disc, director-approved Special Edition, packed in a spiffy slipcase. The main feature is on Disc One, the "final" director's cut (with fascinating commentary by Terry Gilliam) of a film originally released in 1985 despite a calculated effort to squash it's public showing in the USA by the very studio that owned its rights! This odd chain of events is spelled out in two documentaries on Disc Two, along with a rich archive of production stills, storyboards, interviews with screenwriters (including Tom Stoppard), designers and musicians. The third disc presents an alternative version of the film, the so-called "Love Conquers All" cut, put together by Universal Studios in a badly misguided attempt to make the film more commercially viable. It makes for a fascinating experience, if watched shortly after the Director's Cut, as familiar scenes are rearranged and given new contexts, leading to a happy Hollywood ending that runs completely counter to the dark, brilliant and bitingly satirical story that the filmmakers had in mind.

So... what exactly is Brazil all about? Well, watch this. It might make sense to you... or maybe not.

Let me try my hand at a plot synopsis:

The film is set "at 8:49 p.m., somewhere in the 20th century." It's an alternate reality to the one we live in, but quite closely connected. The fashions are 1940s, with technology that seems somewhat like what "the world of tomorrow" might have appeared like in that time. After a short introduction, where the theme song (where the movie gets it's name - it has nothing to do with the South American nation), things start off with a bang - quite literally, as a huge explosion rips out of nowhere and offers our first clue that we are in for a load of surprises.

It's not very clear who runs the society - some kind of centralized, overreaching network of ministries, it seems. Sam Lowry is a low-level bureaucrat working for one of them, Information Adjustment. His lot in life is humble, but he's accepting of it - his rich, preening mother has been trying to use her connections to help him advance to the more powerful but secretive Information Retrieval branch, a move he's not interested in making. He's more content to be with his colleagues and stay in the same dead end job with its low demands and manageable workload. It's a numbing, static existence but one that seems all but unavoidable. His only escape from the drudgery is a recurring dream he has of himself, flying through a cloud-swept sky, in pursuit of a beautiful woman, trapped in a floating cage and wrapped in billowing gauze who cries out his name, pleading for him to rescue her.

Around Sam's story, we see the gruesome effects of this bloated, impersonal security-state, where information is gathered and sequestered under the pretext of trying to crack down on terrorists. A simple typographical error leads to the abduction (by the government) of an innocent man, who winds up dying during interrogation. This blunder requires Sam to offer a corrective "refund" to the man's widow - a genuinely moving scene in a film where visual spectacle and subversive humor appeal more to my "smart-aleck" side than to deeper feelings of pathos for the characters involved.

In this process, Sam makes fleeting contact with the woman he's seen in his dreams, and this compels him to do whatever he can to try and find her - including making the long-avoided career change to Information Retrieval, where he can gain access to their superior ability to gather the facts on just about anyone. But this move only serves to draw Sam deeper into the web of confusion, deception and sinister control exercised by unnamed and unknown powers deep within the bowels of Ministry headquarters. As his pursuit of the woman, Jill, continues, he confronts a dreadful choice - will he join her (and the rogue, unauthorized, underground repairman Harry Tuttle) in working to actively destabilize the government (or in other words, side with the terrorists) or will he abandon his dreams and return to the conventional way of life that now seems so pale and deadening to him now in its preoccupation with social norms and conventional notions of advancement and fitting in?

OK, that's just off the top of my head, but I think it's a fair representation of how the plot unfolds, until one gets to the completely "through the looking glass" final section of the film. Even with the above revelations, I don't think I've presented any "spoilers" - this production is so abundantly loaded with inside-jokes, cross references and cunning imagery that I don't think a single viewing can really do it justice. In fact, I think more than two are probably required to get the full enjoyment that Brazil has to offer. Provided one is not looking for a conventional feel-good resolution at the end of it all.

I've been watching this film, with its portrayal of an inept bureaucracy bent on scrutinizing private records, eliminating the terrorist threat, the centralization of media and basic everyday services required for life in civilization, with our current political election campaign in mind. Clearly, there are strong connections that can be made even though the film is 23 years old. In the director's commentary, Gilliam (speaking in 1996) says that people tell him frequently that Brazil was ahead of its time and seemed to have uncanny insights into the future. He dismisses those observations, saying "it was there already when I made the movie, it's just that a lot of people didn't see it." And this was of course before 9/11 and President Bush and the Department of Homeland Security and retroactive immunity for telecoms!

Brazil, at the end of it all, wisely adopts the stance of most great art in refusing to lead our hopes toward any particular political or cultural agenda. Sam's dilemma, like our own, is not easily resolved, nor is there a particular course of action that seems trustworthy enough to follow unambiguously to a clearly better future. He's stuck between the contingencies that his real life pushes upon him and the frightening, irresistible allure of his dreams, which have to be considered among the all-time great "dream sequences" ever put forth on film.

The great fertility of imagination that went into making this movie warrants more extensive discussion than I will offer here. There are so many amazing aspects I could praise - posters and graffiti on walls, odd vehicles and gadgets of all sorts, little visual puns and jokes tucked in various corners of the screen, the weird clunky technologies employed in this world that is somewhere between retro and futuristic (be sure to check out the duct work!), the sly quotes and homages to movie classics from various genres, excellent performances by Jonathan Pryce, Robert DeNiro, Katherine Helmond, Michael Palin, Ian Holm and Kim Greist... Great special effects that really put us in another world, without the use of CGI and on some shoestring budgets, especially as the studio heads (who gave Gilliam the green-light to do the project of his dreams after the surprising success of his previous feature Time Bandits) began to clamp down on this eccentric auteur.

I suppose this film resonates so strongly with me (and many others in a highly devoted following that's developed over the years) because it embodies such a strong desire to escape the shackles of control-for-control's-sake, so often exercised by a strange consortium of power-addicts and well-meaning do-gooders (like Sam) who even though they don't necessarily intend to be agents of misery and oppression in the lives of others, wind up serving in that role simply on account of the complicity they take on in the course of doing their everyday, role-sustaining jobs in society. There are many other great, amazing, audacious films to be seen in the Criterion lineup, but this is one that, every time I watch it, leaves me with this feeling of sheer wonder that such a movie was ever really made - especially within the auspices of the modern-day Hollywood system. Clearly, they did everything within their power to keep the genie in its bottle (oh, that's a different film, I guess, or a misplaced metaphor) - but it got out, and the world is just a richer, more interesting place because of it.