Friday, July 01, 2016

The Voluptuous Pathos of Karen Black

When Karen Black first saunters onto screen in Easy Rider (1969), playing a prostitute hired to give an evening's pleasure to the drug-dealing hippies played by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, she brings with her an intelligent wariness that immediately enriches the movie's emotional texture. She's paired with Toni Basil, and the two actresses make a striking contrast, Basil clearly playing the more experienced, hipper of the pair. Where Basil immediately settles down next to Fonda with an air of weary bemusement, Black keeps her distance from her prospective john, her entire body held in a defensive, slightly adversarial posture. Even when she sits down with Hopper and makes inelegant small talk, she makes her character's anxiety palpable, moving her foot up and down in a neurotic gesture that signals she's trying and failing to get a bead on the spastic long-hair. Black's only in the movie for about ten minutes, in a scene that culminates with an acid freakout in a graveyard, but in those minutes, she's more revealing and vulnerable than either the taciturn Fonda or the buffoonish Hopper are for the whole movie– both men remain, by design, archetypes with no past and no future, while Black writes her character's entire biography with a nervous smile and big, wide, sad eyes that remain ever alert to the menace and generosity of strange men lurking in stranger places.


Karen Black was the right actress for the wrong time, a distressingly real, jittery performer who expressed the pathos of being a woman with a larger-than-life personality in a series of movies that were mostly about the bleak romance of male angst and its inevitable causalities. The great 70s cinema of the movie brat generation represented, among other things, a masculinaztion of American movies - a decisive shift away from the Susan Hayward vehicles and Sirkian melodramas that had been the bread and butter of studio filmmaking during the classical era in favor of cinema largely about men's power and the often cataclysmic consequences of their desires. Great, charismatic, terrifically idiosyncratic actresses were too often reduced to taking the role of the dutiful wife, the girlfriend, the sexpot, etc. With her big, frizzy hair; big, bee-stung lips; and big, sad, slightly-crossed eyes, Black fit the broken bombshell mode all too well, and her career path epitomized the limitations the era placed upon actresses, but even if she remained largely marginalized, she never went unnoticed – she was too weird and seductively unsettling for that. Black had a way of creating space and meaning for the casualties of the new man's world of 1970s cinema, making audiences uncomfortably aware of the dangers of the masculine bombast and swagger that underscored the best American movies of the era.

She had the method actor's habit of theatricalizing anxiety and fantasy into a parade of tell-tale nervous tics, extemporaneous gestures that made the audience hyper-aware of her body and the fears it concealed. She also had the gift of making such inherently expressionist effects read as bracingly natural, the signs of a mind that had known travesty and grace first-hand and far beyond anything stated in the words of the script or the images on screen. This talent made her an unstable screen presence, someone who could bring a measure of balance to excessively macho movies or correct points of view that would have otherwise been chauvinistically one-sided, so that anyone who watches her instead of Jack Nicholson in Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces (1970) may find it hard to imagine how the movie could ever be misread, as it commonly is (thanks largely to the oft-excerpted-out-of-context diner scene), as a celebration of Nicholson's punk rebel persona. The first time we see her in the movie, perched on a sink, dressed in a short-skirted pink waitress outfit and putting on too much eye-liner, she's already playing the sexpot as a self-conscious way of attaining leverage over a man she regards with a mixture of awe and terror. Those big, accented eyes register every offense and wounding remark, letting the audience see that whatever her character lacks in the way of her paramour's education, she more that makes up for in her appreciation of concealed intentions and feelings. She's simultaneously a reminder that Nicholson's character is a lout and the main reason we stick with him and root for him until the end – we sense some latent integrity in him largely because Black plays everything in reaction to Nicholson's bravado, and her sensitivity to his rhythms and postures humanizes his performance, creating a sympathetic context for a turn that otherwise tends toward isolated (though impressive) grandstanding.

In a blissfully efficient genre effort like The Outfit (1973), Black created an impression of an ongoing human catastrophe that renders the cartoon violence that permeates the picture into something lethal, giving weight and darkness to a movie that might have otherwise floated away into gun-toting whimsy. Not that she couldn't have fun with her roles, as proven by her turn in Hitchcock's final film, Family Plot (1976), where she takes to the femme fatale role with a disarming camp enthusiasm. And she's one of the many performers in Altman's “Nashville” who brings a feeling of palpable desperation to her performance, taking seriously the values of a musical culture that the movie risks treating as mere shtick.

Her last appearance in a film that evoked the real weird American splendor of the best movies of New American Cinema came in Robert Altman's blatantly theatrical Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982) (in an exclusively female-centered film from one of the few superstar 70s directors to demonstrate a sustained interest in the inner-lives of women), in which she played a transgender woman who returns, after a 20 year absence, to the small Texas town that once ostracized her. Black attacked the role with a mixture of anxiety and delighted self-possession, giving integrity and feeling to conceits that otherwise threaten to come across as too facile and contrived. It's a satisfying and surprising coda to a decade mostly spent embodying feminine angst at its most dazzled and desperate.

Her big spotlight moment, however, came not in the movies, but in a detour to television, in Dan Curtis's crudely effective horror anthology shocker, Trilogy of Terror (1975), a ham-fistedly directed collection of Richard Matheson adaptations, featuring Karen Black in four different roles, that makes an impression thanks both to the elemental strength of the source material and to Black's myriad evocations of gleefully malevolent and neurotic femininity. In the most famous segment, Black battles for her life against a Zuni Fetish Doll, and while neither Curtis nor the special-effects team give her any help in making that threat appear credible on screen, as she screeches and screams across an attractively decorated high-rise apartment, she brings a miraculous integrity to the role – you believe that she believes that a stiffly mobile six-inch doll is out to fuck her up. Though the results never rise far above camp, it's at least supremely memorable (and hilarious) camp, and for all the frankly ridiculous scenes that precede it, the finale retains the power to genuinely unnerve thanks to a final image that was purportedly conceived by Black herself, and which she executed with an enthusiastic, sadistic menace that suggested a kind of disturbingly joyous liberation for an actress stuck for too long playing the victim of masculine pathologies. 

Black's final decades found her mostly starring in straight-to-video genre vehicles like Children of the Night (1991) and Auntie Lee's Meat Pies (1992), content to assume the role of cult movie royalty in films that lacked the complexity of her best work but which nevertheless offered periodic glimpses of the demonic grandeur attained in Trilogy of Terror. American cinema needed more of her eccentric intelligence, but in her all-too-brief heyday, she made the marvel of New Hollywood Cinema a messier, stranger, and more heartbreaking experience.

Originally published in 2013 at the now defunct

Sunday, August 30, 2015

RIP Wes Craven

Wes Craven's distinctive talent as a horror director - and it was ironically mistaken as a weakness by many - was his ability to make supernatural and human horrors feel like part of the fabric of everyday banality. There's a quality to the deeply unpleasant LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) where you feel like you're channel flipping back and forth between an episode of ALL IN THE FAMILY and Manson Family home movies, and as a movie born out of the experience of seeing the Vietnam War as prime time event programming, that apparent tonal disjunction is absolutely part of what makes the movie so effectively disturbing. Similarly, the sitcom banter and televisual quality of some of the early scenes in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) make the eruptions of grim, eerily impossible imagery - like Freddy Krueger sauntering down a dark alleyway with his arms stretched out eight-feet in either direction like a demonic Reed Richards, or Johnny Depp rendered into a geyser of blood gushing up from his bed sheets- all the more unsettling.
Craven had a way with actors that created a believable vibe of easygoing familiarity and warmth between his characters, a virtue more important to the success of something like SCREAM (1996) than its much-vaunted meta-horror content, and which helped NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET stand out from the stalk-n-slash crowd precisely because it was one of the few slasher movies that conveyed a genuine sense of fragile community amongst its teenage-going-on-21 denizens. Even a rather wonky mercenary effort like SHOCKER (1989) kinda works because it quietly sells Peter Berg and Michael Murphy as a somewhat estranged father and son so effectively. Most of his good movies - which also include THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977), THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991), and THE NEW NIGHTMARE (1994) - are about families and communities under siege, and they work because the human relationships in them feel well-worn and authentic, and never fall victim to the kind of insistent underlining that sacrifices characterization at the altar of theme.
After his brief grindhouse period, Craven developed a' relaxed, almost avuncular signature style that long-ago endeared SWAMP THING (1982) to me. It's a superhero comic book adaptation with a sense of low-stakes whimsy and genuine playfulness distantly removed from the urgent gargantuanism of most modern superhero movies. So here's a clip of Siskel & Ebert - not always the most reliable guides to B-movie bliss but right on the money in this instance - celebrating that film's considerable charms.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Howard Hawks in Chinatown: John Carpenter's BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA

[Originally published, in modified form, at the now-defunct]

John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China should have been a hit. Released in early July of 1986, all it had to do was dethrone The Karate Kid Part II,the biggest movie in America at the end of June. How hard could that have been, especially for a movie as grand as Carpenter's loony action-comedy? It’s practically the platonic ideal of a summer action movie. Breathlessly paced, casually weird, intelligently stoopid, and very funny, the movie does everything right. In outline, it sounds like a brilliantly calculated amalgam of just about every hit movie of the 1980s—the ersatz-Orientalist fantasy of Raider of the Lost Ark (1981), the supernatural smart-ass comedy of Ghostbusters (1984), the gun-toting working man bravado of Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), plus the martial arts of The Karate Kid (1984). But it ran into three pieces of extraordinarily bad luck. First, it was one of two movies 20thCentury Fox had to distribute and market in July of 1986. The other was James Cameron’s Aliens. Guess where the studio’s marketing muscle went. Secondly, Carpenter’s movie came out during a crowded week, squaring off against Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective, Anthony Perkins’s Psycho III, Prince’s Under the Cherry Moon, and Edward Zwick’s About Last Night…Thirdly, it turns out that Americans in 1986 couldn’t get enough of Ralph Macchio kicking people in the face, because none of those films displaced The Karate Kid II from the top of the charts (that wouldn’t happen until two weeks later when James Cameron’s juggernaut rolled into theaters).

As a result, Big Trouble in Little China became something of a film maudit, disappearing from theaters before it could find the audience that fell for it on home video and cable. Carpenter, whose career seemed to be on the ascent following the popular and critical success of 1984’s Starman, soon returned to the ranks of the minors, making the low-scale wonders Prince of Darkness (1987) and They Live (1988) over the following two years. But for such a gloriously scruffy movie as Big Trouble in Little China, its underdog status, while disappointing, seems apt, and very much part of its charm. The movie feels like a private pleasure shared between those chosen few blessed to be in the know, the antithesis of the normal summer blockbuster experience in which every hit becomes an oppressive inevitability, turning the promise of distraction into a threat. In its failure as a blockbuster, Big Trouble in Little China experienced the just afterlife for good movies done wrong—it got resurrected as a cult movie, something for alienated creeps, pale misfits, and sneering losers like me and probably you to stumble over on TV or in the fabled video store aisles of ancient and near-forgotten lore.

The film’s failure to take over the world isn’t surprising when you really pay attention to the damnable thing. It’s a movie that perversely sabotaged its own pretensions to summer movie dominance from the inside out. As Carpenter himself has noted, it’s an action movie in which the action hero star, Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), is in fact the put-upon sidekick, always a beat or three behind the action. Nineteen-eighty-six was the year of Top Gun, and as that movie ably indicates, popular ’80s cinema was all about watching winsome winners winning (or seeing a possibly psychopathic, sexually confused dwarf start WWIII, which apparently amounted to the same thing at that moment in history), while Big Trouble in Little China is all about watching Jack Burton constantly make an ass of himself while trying to save the world. He’s a bit of a slob and a loveable fuck-up who’s nevertheless allowed more than a few stray moments of heroism in what feel like some of the most gracious moments in all of John Carpenter’s often misanthropic cinema.

The film follows Burton, a truck driver, as he ventures into San Francisco and finds himself embroiled in an effort to help his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) rescue his kidnapped girlfriend from the clutches of Lo Pan (James Wong), an evil sorcerer who must marry and then murder a green-eyed girl in order to achieve immortality. Along the way Jack loses his precious truck and gains an almost-girlfriend in the form of fast-talking lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall). With the help of virtuous sorcerer Egg Shen (Beat artist turned marvelous character actor Victor Wong), Burton and company storm Lo Pan’s lair, where they attempt to save Wang Chi’s girlfriend and destroy the villain and his minions.

Throughout the movie, Jack Burton consistently appears to be in way over his head, while Wang Chi proves far more physically capable (he’s an expert martial artist) and much faster on the uptake than his friend. The film thus reverses and parodies the conventions of Hollywood genre fare old and new (think Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom [1984] and the oh-so-beloved Short Round) in which the non-white sidekick basically functions as the comic relief while perpetually playing catch-up to the more-or-less super-competent white hero. In the film’s first action set-piece, Jack Burton accompanies Wang Chi to the airport to greet Wang’s fiancée, only to square off against a gang of bandits who kidnap her. Throughout the sequence, both Burton and the audience remain in the dark about what exactly is going on, and Burton soon finds himself outmatched by the assembled thugs. We then get a great drawn-out fight scene inside an airport terminal where security seems non-existent and the attendant crowd remains curiously unfazed by the battle going on in their midst—a stone-faced refusal to panic in the face of delirium that’s indicative of the whole film’s hysterical poise. A few minutes later, Burton chases the getaway car down into a simultaneously cramped and spacious back alley (John J. Lloyd’s often ingenious production design is one of the film's secret weapons) where he finds himself in the middle of a huge gang war, wherein some of the combatants appear to possess supernatural abilities. Throughout all of this, we get maybe two sentences of exposition, and we remain as clueless and confused as Jack.

The white lead thus plays the role of a cultural outsider who constantly needs the situation explained to him, and even then remains partially in the dark (the movie was co-written by W. D. Richter, who also wrote the 1984 sci-fi cult curiosity The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, and Big Trouble in Little China shares that movie’s impish refusal to fully let the audience in on the convoluted backstory swirling around the characters). Consequently, we get a movie which treats the perspectives and abilities of its Chinatown denizens as the norm and as the accepted standard of competence while our well-meaning white hero spends most of the movie barely getting by. (All of which may help explain why the movie bombed in the year that Tom Cruise took over America and Ralph Macchio was seen as a god of martial arts.) But Jack Burton’s outsider status isn’t just a one-note joke; it’s also one way the movie approaches multiculturalism as a sort of Hawksian ideal. To even use the term multiculturalism feels slightly inappropriate here, since nothing about Big Trouble in Little China betrays the kind of white liberal self-congratulation that multicultural high-mindedness often entails. Instead, Carpenter approaches the cultural diversity of his heroic group as a professional ideal, a way of getting a job done with as little fuss and as much grace as possible, all as a way of updating the ethos epitomized by the films of classical Hollywood director Howard Hawks, whose movies provided a model for several of Carpenter’s own (Assault on Precinct 13 [1976] and Prince of Darkness were both modeled on Hawks’s Rio Bravo [1959], and The Thing [1982] was a remake/revision of Hawks’s The Thing from Another World [1951]).

In movies like Rio Bravo, Only Angels Have Wings (1939), and Air Force (1944), Hawks depicted the travails of groups of men who fought and eventually triumphed against hostile circumstances due to their shared commitment to an almost mystical notion of professionalism. In movies like Dark Star (1974), The Thing, and Prince of Darkness, Carpenter explored similar dynamics but with his groups almost invariably failing to discover any kind of shared professional ethos that might save their asses. Big Trouble in Little China is thus an unusual Carpenter movie thanks to its optimism. Rather than another portrait of tightly wound men scowling at each other while getting killed (The Thing), Carpenter shows a multiracial duo taking shared pleasure in each other’s talents (or at least each other’s good intentions) while successfully saving the day.

The movie’s finest Hawksian moment comes shortly before the film’s climactic battle in the villain’s underground lair, when Egg Shen directs the team of heroes to imbibe a mysterious potion designed to give them a mystical edge against their opponents (or as Egg Shen says, "you can see things no one else can see, do things no one else can do"). The group consists of a bunch of Chinese-American toughs plus the seemingly anomalous Burton, all swagger and flimsy tank top and John Wayne twang. Up until this moment, Burton has mostly been reacting incredulously to the absurdities erupting around him, but for all his flagrant inadequacy, Jack earns his place within the gang thanks to his devotion to his friend Wang Chi. Their relationship, rather than those between Burton and his putative love interest Gracie Law or between Wang Chi and his fiancée (who for all the dialogue she speaks, might as well be a mannequin), is the film’s most compelling. Russell and Dun consistently convey an easy rapport that gives their characters’ shared history dramatic weight. 

Their friendship achieves its apotheosis during the toasting scene before the big showdown, when the two men raise magical cocktails to each other across a shot-reverse-shot sequence that cuts between the two men’s glances and their complementarily cock-eyed ways of looking at a strange world gone suddenly stranger. In close-up, Wang Chi opens with an American military toast, “Here’s to the army and navy/And the battles they have won/Here’s to America’s colors/The colors that never run,” to which Burton soulfully replies, as only a slightly wayward student of patriotic American gentility can, “May the wings of liberty never lose a feather.” The moment plays both hip and square, all bullshit and no kidding, and the gesture’s smirking sincerity effectively brings Burton fully into the group dynamic and underscores the all-American grandeur of the team effort. Shortly thereafter, Carpenter follows up with an empyrean medium shot that crowds the ensemble into the frame as they descend down an elevator for the last stand, all the men clearly stoned out of their gourds and happily exchanging reassuringly stupid grins and goofy affirmations (Burton: "I feel kinda invincible." Wang Chi: "Me too. I’ve got a very positive feeling about this.") In its blissed-out, post-hippie kind of way, it might be the most utopian scene in all of ’80s American cinema.

The focus on the group dynamic further diminishes Burton’s heroic stature, since unlike so much popular American cinema, the movie isn’t especially interested in congratulating the hero for being heroic, and in place of the usual Hollywood movie coda where everybody gathers round and congratulates the hero on his good fortune on being so fabulous (as in Star Wars or Return of the King or, come to think of it, The Karate Kid Part II), the movie fades out on a fairly low-key celebration in a Chinese restaurant, in which Burton is merely part of the gang. Carpenter’s unwillingness to hand out gold stars to his lead gives the movie a soft landing that’s one of the film’s glories and one of the things that sets it apart from the self-aggrandizing bombast of its mid-’80s peers. In the process, he manages to put across a casually affecting vision of melting pot camaraderie.

Carpenter’s cross-cultural joke comes off so grandly partly due to Kurt Russell’s decision to spend the entire film doing the world’s best-worst John Wayne impersonation. Jack Burton doesn’t have much in the way of backstory, and in place of a biography that would inevitably water down the joke, we get iconography that comes to us through Russell’s John Wayne mannerisms. Having pretended to be Clint Eastwood for Carpemter’s Escape from New York (1981), here Russell channels the Duke as a way to create a lived-in sense of character without making too much of a fuss, exploiting the gap between the myth John Wayne invokes and the reality this affable truck driver conveys for all its worth.

We hear Jack Burton before we see him, so Russell’s “Howdy, Pilgrim” inflections become our first impression of the character. During the credits sequence, the movie cuts to a long shot of Burton’s truck rushing down the highway during a stormy afternoon, and just as the title comes up, we hear Burton say, “This is Jack Burton in the Pork Chop Express and I’m talkin’ to whoever’s listening out there,” with a slight twang that will be vaguely familiar to anyone who’s recently experienced another dark night of the soul at 4AM in the company of The Searchers (1956) or Red River (1948) or, heaven help you, McLintock!(1963). Russell’s John Wayne act ends up working beyond mere parody, since it accomplishes the exact same kind of short hand granted by great star casting. Namely, we don’t need backstory or exposition or that great snarling bugaboo named motivation because that’s supplied by all the John Wayne movies you have and haven’t seen, invoking a phantom idea about John Wayne’s faintly ridiculous swagger and vividly ridiculous grin and not ridiculous-at-all macho pathos to give us this workaday trucker who thinks he’s a cowboy come to the rescue because maybe he secretly is.

A few further words in, as the movie cuts to a close-up of Jack yammering into his CB radio, we get just about as much backstory as the movie’s ever going to give us. Burton explains, "Like I told my last wife, I said ‘Honey, I never drive faster than I can see. Besides that, it’s all in the reflexes.’" That last line proves key, as Jack uses it as a refrain spoken at crucial moments throughout the film—like during his reunion with Wang Chi, when a fumbled knife trick sends a beer bottle flying straight into Jack’s hand, and again at the film’s finale, when another knife trick allows Jack a heroic moment. It’s Burton’s mantra, and if doesn’t quite possess the poetic weight of John Wayne’s "Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness" in Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), it at least has the grace granted plain facts plainly stated. Burton’s heroism convinces precisely as an expression of animal habit, a way of getting by and acting against sound judgment that defines the character without the movie getting bogged down by the kind of ready-made kitsch pop-psych that made audiences worry about Ralph Macchio’s low self-esteem in The Karate Kid Part II: Even Further Up Your Ass and think long and hard about those hot and heady locker room glances shared between Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer in Top Gun.

Russell plays Burton as a guy who’s always playing catch-up, constantly reacting to other actors and events, forcing him off into the sidelines while he tries to figure out how to turn off a gun’s safety or fetch a knife from his boot while his friends helpfully kick all the available ass. At one point, Burton, while sitting in a wheelchair, glides down a slope toward a pit of more or less certain death, and Russell hams things up admirably, screaming, going bug-eyed, and looking legitimately terrified. But at the last moment, as the wheelchair careens over an abyss, Burton manages to deftly lift himself from the chair and avoid catastrophe. Russell maneuvers himself from buffoonery and grace with a precision that speaks well of his reflexes as an actor and gives visceral substance to his character’s airy boast about his agility . Russell’s ability to suggest both clumsiness and composure carries over to the film as whole, which possesses a kind of unassuming shambling quality that mixes somewhat unsettlingly yet effectively with Carpenter’s typically intense sense of pacing.

The whole movie shows Carpenter mixing different registers in the same cinematic gestures, as it weaves between action movie pyrotechnics and wise guy sarcasm in a manner that keeps the audience a little off-balance and more than a little nervously giddy. In his deft mixture of spectacle and comedy, Carpenter proved he was a visionary by stealing from Hark Tsui several years before everybody else starting doing it. Hong Kong movies became fashionable in the United States in the early ’90s, but in 1986 Carpenter was already paying attention to movies like Tsui’s Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1983) (a movie he specifically cites as an inspiration in his DVD audio commentary for Big Trouble in Little China) and Sammo Hung’s Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1980). The Hong Kong influence loosened up Carpenter’s style, allowing him to mix action, spectacle, and overt humor to create a shuffling yet elegant rhythm that was new to his work (Carpenter has made only one other film since—1988’s They Live—which betrays an even remotely similar sensibility).

Where Carpenter’s movies usually possess a tonal intensity that stays in one mode for the duration of the picture, Big Trouble in Little China has an emotional range that echoes Hark Tsui’s contemporaneous work, and which foreshadows the likes of John Woo’s Hard-Boiled (1992). You can spot traces of the Hong Kong exposure in the way that Carpenter moves from shock to laugh in the space of a few seconds, as when a guy gets eaten by an amusingly rubbery spider-monster in one shot and Jack Burton responds with hilarious bewilderment in the next, or during the big final battle when Burton squares off against the villain (in his most successful act of derring-do in the whole picture) with Gracie Law’s lipstick messily smeared across his lips.

In the amusingly overstuffed finale, Carpenter combines his usual Hawksian fluidity with a goofy stylistic flamboyance that was new to his work. He blends mid-air sword fighting, FX-fueled magic lightshows, and traditional martial arts fighting into a dizzying crazy-quilt whole, and the film crosscuts between different scales and modes of action—a fairly straightforward sword fighting duel between Wang Chi and his adversary plays off the near-slapstick hi-jinks of Burton and his various foes—with an economy and precision that make it perhaps the best action-oriented set piece in all of Carpenter’s films.

When seen alongside such contemporaneous Hong Kong productions as Hark Tsui's Peking Opera Blues (1986) and Siu-tung Ching’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), Big Trouble in Little China’s kinship to its Hong Kong contemporaries gives Carpenter’s stylistic choices a new coherence, and Carpenter’s multicultural mercenary flair resonates amusingly with the film’s East/West narrative collisions. It’s a giddy funhouse approach to would-be popular moviemaking that looks all the more impressive now that the Sturm und Drang follies of pictures such as The Dark Knight (2008) (to pick on a movie I don’t entirely dislike) have taught people that ambitious shouldn’t mean fun and the MCU has fostered the belief that having a good time at the movies should be an act of frantic, teeth-gnashing desperation.

In place of pretension and desperation, Big Trouble in Little China has an easy, almost intimate affability that makes it feel like an elaborate private joke shared between Carpenter, Russell, Richter, and maybe two or three other grinning fools—giving the movie an insular quality that’s either one of the film’s chief charms or limitations depending on one’s affinity for Carpenter’s cowboy-hippie-nerd sensibilities. The movie’s gang-of-friends atmosphere wasn’t an accident. The movie benefits from the work of Carpenter’s stock company, a family of regular names that pop up across his oeuvre and constitute a filmmaking clique as noble if less durable as that which accompanied John Ford from film to film. It's a kith that included Russell himself (making his fourth movie with Carpenter), but perhaps even more crucially Dean Cundey, the cinematographer whose mastery of Steadicam-engineered unease and clean wide-screen compositions pretty much defined what people think of as Carpenter’s signature visual style.

The ultimate punchline to the movie’s inside joke would have to be the Coupe de Villes, a new wave rock band Carpenter formed along with his regular assistant director Tommy Lee Wallace and Nick “the guy who played Michael Myers and looks alarmingly like Adam Sandler” Castle. The band first warrants a mention in Carpenter’s 1980 movie The Fog, in which the sexy-voiced easy listening DJ played by Adrienne Barbeau introduces an anodyne smooth jazz piece as being the handiwork of our group. By ’86, the Coup de Villes seem to have abandoned ersatz jazz in favor of overblown synth-pop—more distinctive if no more graceful. The band recorded the song’s reasonably catchy theme song, a logical extension of Carpenter’s usual duties as film scorer (here providing an interestingly nervy synth score that works in tension with some of the movie’s more lighthearted elements, and helps maintain the movie’s relentless drive even when it promises to fall apart into a great hangout movie). The group’s apotheosis came in the form of a music video which accompanied the theme song, a video that in its short duration sums up something profound and awful and joyous and embarrassing about the late-1980s.

The average summer blockbuster now constitutes a competition between hype and reality, a game which results in a pulverizing insistence that you must always have fun at all costs, or else a movie whose budget was several times the GDP of many poverty-stricken nations will have been made for naught (do you dare have that on your conscience?). Too many summer event movies treat the promise of enjoyment as a form of emotional blackmail, and it’s a style of blood sport Big Trouble in Little China fails to engage in, not due to any pretensions of innocence or claims to nobility, but thanks to an amiable inertia, a feeling that nobody involved in making the movie thought that having a good time had to be treated like a kind of fanaticism. Big Trouble in Little China is an entire movie that seems to be muttering to itself another of Jack Burton’s words-to-live-by: "What the hell..?"

Thursday, March 05, 2015

The High Art of Selling Out

[A piece written in 2011 for a now-defunct website, I was responding to what I saw as an unreasonable standard of purity when judging indie filmmakers' crossover efforts, occasioned by the tut-tut response to David Gordon Green's Your Highness, a not-very-good comedy that I liked marginally more than most critics. I've made a few minor revisions, but have mostly left the piece alone. Due to some personal upheavals, I've had to mostly step away from writing professionally (both in academia and beyond) about movies in recent years, so I haven't caught up with Green's two recent indie endeavors, Prince Avalanche & Joe, that received the same mildly supportive critical shrug that greeted Snow Angels in 2007 a respectful critical indifference that reportedly drove him to making commercial stoner comedies with his friends in the first place. Soderbergh's quasi-retirement from theatrical filmmaking makes for an interesting footnote to this piece, suggesting just how personal such idiosyncratic mainstream endeavors as Ocean's Eleven and Magic Mike really were, though the fine  TV movie Behind the Candelabra and his striking TV series, The Knick, testify to his continued ability to express himself eccentrically within the system. Linklater, meanwhile, has achieved something of a critical apotheosis in the last two years, with the one-two whammy of Before Midnight and Boyhood elevating him to pantheon status in the eyes of many critics. I've yet to catch up with Boyhood, but I did see Before Midnight, and though it's a film of considerable virtue, with moments of piercing clarity, it's also hobbled by Linklater's penchant for gawky, sentimental earnestness, so from what I've seen (including the estimable Bernie), I continue to think that the crowd-pleasing School of Rock remains his most satisfying work of the last decade or so.]

“You want to stretch—or you want to buy a house. They're all legitimate. As long as you don't try to kid yourself.” - Sidney Lumet, 2008

“I'm like a good whore, I go where I'm kicked…” – Sam Peckinpah, 197l

Sidney Lumet’s passing earlier this year marked the demise of a kind of director who is almost a dinosaur, someone who was both a workaday visionary capable of making tough, gut-punch cinema expressive of an idiosyncratic vision, and a respectable tradesman whose least personal work still betrayed evidence of high craft skillfully applied. He evoked the studio ethos of old Hollywood, the legendary 2-for-1 deal that made studio filmmaking tenable during the classical era, wherein a director got to make one for himself for every two he made for the Louis B. Mayer or Daryl F. Zanuck or Jack Warner (actually it was more like 4-for-1, and was entirely contingent on the director’s talent for making money and collecting Oscars for his studio). Of course, the genius of the system as it used to exist, and as Lumet sometimes quixotically practiced it, was that you could not always easily sort out the difference between pure sordid product and highfalutin personal testament, such were the consequences of consistent talent consistently expressed in sub-literate material over a lifetime of paying off debts. 

Whatever the gulf that existed between A Stranger Among Us and The Pawnbroker, both were Lumet movies, and over the paltry scheme of a respectable career the paycheck jobs didn't cancel out the movies that made Lumet’s reputation. In the end, it didn't balance out, because The Hill and Dog Day Afternoon and Prince of the City defined Lumet, and Family Business and Power and Gloria might as well have never existed. Of course, as long as an artist remains alive, people habitually assume that the junk provides equal counterweight to the treasures, as if A Fable matters as much as Light in August, which is why talk about selling-out and authenticity continues to carry undue weight in cinephilic chatter, especially where indie cinema is concerned. But here’s the deal: if you’re Jim Jarmusch, authenticity, and staying true to some deeply personal vision of who you are and how your craft relates to that identity matters; if you’re Eric Schaeffer or Edward Burns or Joe Swanberg, who gives a shit? In other words, what really matters is if the movies are good or if they suck, and how true a director is to some standard of purity held by himself or his audience is a matter between the director, his priest or rabbi, and his personal accountant. It’s nobody else’s goddamn business.

But whenever an indie director makes the crossover move into big ticket filmmaking, Very Concerned Persons everywhere climb atop their bell towers (or log into their twitter accounts) and bellow out accusations of ‘selling-out’ for all other VCPs to hear. Film doesn't suffer from this kind of thing to nearly the same degree that popular music does (where the habit reached its reductio ad absurdum mid-aughts when Gwen Stefani’s solo success led some to lament how she had sold out the apparently oh-so-sacred cause of mediocre third-wave ska – a charge that, if true, would seem to merit a parade rather than disapprobation), but it nevertheless persists, and perpetuates a great deal of nonsense that muddies the waters when people talk and think about movies. Take the reception of David Gordon Green’s Your Highness, a film that had the look, feel, and tempo of a cash-in, which led film critics like Roger Ebert and J.R. Jones to regret the fact that the director had forfeited his sacred virtue and become a fallen auteur, never likely to attain the admirable purity that enabled him to make movies like All the Real Girls and George Washington.

Ebert peppered his review with much hand-wringing about what could ever bring Green to make a movie as insipid as Your Highness, while Jones made his point more esoterically with a comparison to the fate of classic Hollywood director Lewis Milestone, who went from directing All Quiet on the Western Front and Of Mice and Men to the rat pack comedy Ocean’s Eleven (why going from Steinbeck to Sinatra is so clearly a downfall is beyond me, but such are the mysterious mental maneuvers of Mr. Jones). The fact that nobody particularly liked Your Highness is not in itself particularly bothersome (it is not, after all, a particularly good film); that every critic felt compelled to wag a finger at Mr. Green is. Especially when that sentiment comes with the conviction that Green will not and maybe cannot ever direct a worthwhile film again. Much like the post-War American critics who lamented the fact that John Ford returned from WWII only to make a bunch of silly cavalry Westerns rather than more movies like Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley, critical consensus seems intent on establishing the rules for defining what a David Gordon Green movie should be, rules that have every chance of blinding people to what they are.

Additionally, the caterwauling of VCPs everywhere indicates a crippling idealism that ignores economic realities. Nowhere do any of these reviews countenance the larger commercial fact that the bottom dropped out of indie filmmaking at the end of the last decade. Oh yes, there was the return of that eternal myth that the film industry was immune to the consequences of the great recession, but the myth had no more validity now than it did in 1933 (when audience attendance fell by 40%). While studio tent-pole pictures did just fine, smaller indie movies essentially saw their audience disappear, and even successes, like the precious, eager-to-please 500 Days of Summer, earned a small fraction of the gross it would have received just two years earlier. (Compare the 2009 film’s $32 million payday to the $143 million that the tonally similar Juno managed in 2007). Simply put, Green found himself in world where the audience for David Gordon Green movies – literate, shot-on-gorgeous-35mm films flavored with a strong southern, working class sensibility – no longer existed. The corp of indie filmmaking now consists of variations of loose, inarticulate, shot-on-crummy-DV slice-of-life movies about the trials and tribulations of aging urban hipsters. In other words, movies which are even more remote from Green’s oneiric, romantic sensibilities than a lavish, borderline-incoherent sword & sorcery stoner comedy.

Admittedly, the shift to big studio filmmaking puts Green, a filmmaker presumably invested in maintaining some sense of authorial identity across his films, in an awkward position, and if Your Highness at least doesn't suffer from the high-minded anonymity of something like Gus Van Sant’s Finding Forrester or Milk, it also doesn't benefit from the high-gloss goofball charm of Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight or the offhand benevolence of Richard Linklater’s The School of Rock, major league moves that clearly enriched their respective directors’ filmographies. Both directors provide aspirational models for how to make the proverbial “sell-out” gesture without alienating most indie purists, and their careers indicate just how useless alt-rock derived and Festival circuit-fueled notions of authenticity really are to modern American cinema.

Soderbergh has always framed his move to mainstream filmmaking as a redemptive gesture, after the experience of directing the moody indie crime thriller The Underneath proved profoundly alienating, and the interesting but bizarre Schizopolis indicated a creative cul-de-sac. His bigger-budgeted films, starting with Out of Sight, found him making looser, funkier movies than those that made his indie rep. The relative dynamism and spontaneity of his star-driven Hollywood films helped maintain Soderbergh’s credibility as a filmmaker with an idiosyncratic style, and the ease and frequency with which he moved back to on-the-fly, low-budget filmmaking (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience) maintained his indie bona fides. But ironically, it’s within the confines of studio filmmaking that Soderbergh has made the kind of movies that most clearly resonate with the themes and attitudes he established in the past, while in less commercial films, like Che and Bubble, his personal stamp is harder to identify.

Soderbergh has always been a behaviorist in mannerist’s clothing, and the principle benefit of moving into big-budget filmmaking was the opportunity it gave him to concentrate on star-driven cinema, and thus lead him to concentrate on the beautiful absurdities that occur when big egos are forced to navigate around each other. Like his debut film, Sex, Lies, & Videotape, the best of his big studio productions feature detailed portraits of neurotic, shallow egocentrics vying for control against one another, a dynamic that came to the fore in Out of Sight,and the three Ocean’s movies. The Ocean’s sequels are fairly clear-cut examples of house-buying pictures, there because of the money involved and because no one regretted making the first one, but the resulting products, even at their most shambolic, look for all the world like what Harlan Ellison has called honest hack work, guided by a genuine desire to entertain and without any obvious urge to condescend too egregiously to the audience.

A similar drive keeps Richard Linklater’s mainstream work honorable. Richard Linklater’s big break as a bankable filmmaker came with The School of Rock, and like Soderbergh’s Out of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven, the resulting film proved redolent of Linklater’s sensibility and tastes, particularly in its affection for characters at their most disreputable and its fondness for observing slightly strung-out personalities engaged in the thrilling business of keeping each other company. Even the remake of The Bad News Bears indicated both a consistent sensibility and a straight-up desire to entertain while cashing in, and proved consonant with the scope of Linklater’s viewpoint as expressed in his 90s films. Like Soderbergh, Linklater has moved back and forth between mainstream filmmaking and indie productions, but nothing he’s done since School of Rock has been quite as good or quite as evocative of the discrete joys of Slacker and Dazed and Confused. The indie work, from Fast Food Nation to A Scanner Darkly, betray efforts to compromise his sensibility with source material and audience expectations that prove far more limiting to his personal vision than his hypothetical desire for a fat paycheck.

Ultimately, for all its flaws, Your Highness remains an idiosyncratic film marked by its director’s influences and his stylistic signature. In its portrait of a world made in the image of a fractured fairy-tale, with fraternal rivalry and paternal affection at stake, the movie echoes 2004’s Undertow. The film’s more eccentric details, from a well-endowed and very horny Minotaur to a pedophile muppet, suggest a genuinely warped way of looking at the world. And as critic Glenn Kenny pointed out in his review, there aren’t any other stoner comedies in 2011 that reference movies by Dario Argento and Walerian Borowcyck. Your Highness, while admittedly mediocre, is still very much a film by David Gordon Green. But Green’s bound to look compromised when compared to the filmmaker who most obviously influenced his first three films (and produced his third, Undertow), Terrence Malick. Malick provides a particularly extreme model of a career based on an uncompromising commitment to a deeply personal philosophy and aesthetic, and while I find each of his films extraordinary (and let’s not forget the Malick as the ultimate ideal-of-auteurist-chastity narrative is complicated by some of his screenwriting-for-hire work in the early 70s), I also kinda wish he had made more movies over the years, and don’t think there would have been any great degradation in the prospect of Malick making additional films like Badlands, still his best work and also film that adheres most closely to standard genre conventions and the commercial expectations that shape them.

Your Highness, along with Pineapple Express, indicates that Green has no interest in being the second coming of Terrence Malick, but rather intends to pursue a career that looks a lot more like Sidney Lumet’s, thus producing a crowded filmography filled with its share of paycheck gigs and misfires, but with every third-or-fourth-or-fifth film revealing the same off-kilter, swooning strangeness that marked his early films. That means he won’t ever acquire the same kind of semi-mystical status that Malick has maintained over the years, but it also means that David Gordon Green will likely make more movies in the next ten years than Terrence Malick managed in the past forty. And given the weight of all the available evidence, I suspect that will ultimately be a good thing.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Satyajit Ray's The Big City and Charulata.

[This piece was originally published at the now-defunct website]

Satyajit Ray’s The Big City (1963) and Charulata (1964), both newly released on DVD and Blu-ray by Criterion, make a compelling case for the legendary Bengali director as one of cinema’s great feminist storytellers. Both films star the remarkable Madhabi Mukherjee as women challenged and transformed by the social and sensual pleasures of a radically unstable world, and the films depict the emotional realities of these characters’ experiences with startling acuity. They also reflect the influence of Ray’s mentor, Jean Renoir (Ray began his career as an assistant to Renoir during the filming of the latter’s 1951 masterwork, The River), by avoiding stridency or problem picture posturing in favor of a radical ambiguity that treats all perspectives with equal sympathy. Consequently, they’re also among the most perceptive movies ever made about marriage, conveying the fragility of human affection in the face of bad luck and good intentions.

Both films tell fairly straightforward stories of sheltered Bengali housewives coming into contact with the outside world, with profound consequences for themselves and their husbands. The Big City, freely adapted from a pair of short stories by Nerendranath Mitra, follows Subrata (Anil Chatterjee) and Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) Mazumdar, a lower middle-class couple suffering from financial hardships that eventually force Arati to seek employment, much to her husband’s discomfort and the overt disapproval of her conservative in-laws. She obtains a job as a door-to-door sales rep, eventually out-earning her husband, and as she experiences solidarity with her female co-workers, she discovers a new autonomy and strength of character even while her relationship with her increasingly suspicious husband becomes frayed.

Charulata, adapted from a 1901 novella by Rabindranath Tagore, covers thematically similar territory in a strictly domestic context. Set in 19th-century Kolkata, the film stars Mukherjee as the eponymous heroine, the bored wife of Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee), a liberal newspaper publisher and political activist who mostly ignores his wife as she wiles away her days reading classics of Indian literature and catching glimpses of life outside her spacious, tastefully decorated home via an omnipresent pair of opera glasses. Bhupati’s cousin, Amal (Soumitrz Chatterjee), a layabout and would-be poet, disrupts Charu’s ennui when he arrives for an extended visit. He encourages her latent literary ambitions, and eventually, their intellectual and temperamental sympathies turn amorous, as Charu awakens to the possibilities of life beyond her husband’s walls.

The Big City and Charulata don’t easily reduce to the liberal message pictures their plots suggest. The women in both films change radically as they open up to the challenges of the outside world, but they risk becoming strangers to themselves and their husbands, leaving both women simultaneously exhilarated and terrified. Ray’s films straddle the line between respect for tradition and hunger for transformation, an intellectual position he plays out in his view of marriages in which husbands and their newly transformed wives must come to recognize each other for the first time (to borrow James Agee’s felicitous description of the final image in Chaplin’s City Lights, another film about transformation and recognition). In The Big City, the moment of serendipitous rediscovery that climaxes the film echoes the transformative, if tentative, ending to Rossillini’s Journey to Italy (1954) in its depiction of two intimate strangers rescuing each other from the void, and though much of the film flirts with an Ibsen-esque literalism that bogs down the last third of the picture, the last five minutes achieve an emotional sublimity that belies all flaws. For its part, Charulata ends with an allusion to the famous final freeze frame of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (a magnanimous bow to the masterpiece directed by the man reputed to have dismissed Ray’s 1955 debut, Pather Panchali, with the remark, “I don’t want to see a movie of peasants eating with their hands”), and appropriates the desperately sad but open-ended tenor of that iconic moment to comment on its heroine’s marriage and feminine identity.

Both films’ climaxes testify to Ray’s debt to European cinema, and especially the legacy of Italian neorealism (Ray claimed the revelatory experience of seeing De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief directly inspired him to become a filmmaker). Ray appropriated neorealist conventions to cover the discrete, life-shattering dramas of domestic spaces, transplanting neorealism’s focus on the desperate lives of men out in the streets to the lives of women largely isolated from the crowd and its attendant dangers. Even The Big City keeps location shots to a minimum, focusing instead on how Arati responds to a variety of interior spaces, from her cramped apartment to her boss’s threadbare offices to the lavish homes of the well-to-do clients to whom she tries to sell sewing machines. It’s an intelligent extension of neorealism’s attention to the material pressures that shape desire and destiny, and Ray’s marriage of spartan naturalism, formal lyricism, and domestic melodrama, in Charulata in particular, presages facets of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975), and in its relatively stripped-down aesthetics and forthrightly progressive politics, The Big City exemplifies why Ray’s films served as a model for third world cinema as it would emerge over the coming decades, especially the observant, casually feminist films of the Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene.

Both discs come with usual wealth of extras, including new interviews with Madhabi Mukherjee in which she happily recalls reworking with the attentive Ray. The Big City Blu-ray includes the illuminating documentary Satyajit Ray and the Modern Woman, in which film scholar Suranjan Ganguly expounds on the feminist themes of both The Big City and Charulata (though I recommend waiting to watch it until after you’ve watched both films); Satyajit Ray, a 1974 documentary on the director that includes some fascinating footage of Ray directing scenes from The Big City; and most significantly, yet another Ray feature, The Coward (1965), a relatively minor though still impressive effort highlighted by another great performance from Mukherjee. The Charulata Blu-ray includes an archival radio interview with Ray as well as the informative documentary Adapting Tagore, which explicates the legacy of Rabindranath Tagore and explores the many literary references that pop up in the film’s dialogue. Both discs come with the requisite booklet that contains critical essays and interviews with Ray that help contextualize both films within Indian history and Ray’s oeuvre. It all amounts to the typical Criterion class act, and hopefully augurs a similarly sterling treatment of Ray’s Apu Trilogy in the near future.