Thursday, December 10, 2009

Getting Back in the Game

Every couple of months or so, I resolve to dedicate myself seriously to this blog. This resolution usually results in a small burst of activity for a week or two, followed by weeks or even months of inactivity. Partly as a result, I have no audience, no discernible reason for maintaining this blog aside from my own amusement - which as far as reasons for doing things go, ain't a bad one. So I think I'm resigning myself to the fact I have a haphazardly maintained blog kept mainly for some measure of self-amusement.
With my semester just wrapping up (with a generally terrific bunch of students) I want to try to get a couple posts in before I tackle the spring. As a way of easing back into blog writing, I thought I'd try my hands as this pretty wonderful quiz, courtesy of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. It's called "Professor Russell Johnson's 'My Ancestors Came Over on the Minnow' Thanksgiving/Christmas Movie Quiz.' It's so delightfully odd and esoteric that I feel compelled to respond.

1) Second-favorite Coen Brothers movie. Not a terribly interesting answer I'm afraid, but I got to go with No Country for Old Men, which comes in just behind Fargo in my list of favorite Coen Brother movies. A fairly conventional ranking, but then my opinion of the Coen oeuvre is fairly conventional. I like the Coen Bros. movies people usually like (my fondness for The Hudsucker Proxy being the only derivation from the norm ), and dislike the Coen Bros. movies people usually dislike (my lukewarm feelings for The Big Lebowski being the only derivation from that norm). I admire the kinds of things people usually admire about their movies - the formal precision, the pitch black wit, the knack for sharp characterization - and dislike the things people usually dislike about them - the icy sensibility, the way their wit can slide into snide satire, and the overly broad caricatures of regional types. Fargo is their warmest and most humane effort, while No Country has a clearer sense of aesthetic purpose, if only thanks to the source material. I value warmth more than purpose, thus No Country is a close second, and exists just a notch above Blood Simple in my Coen movie ranking.

2) Movie seen only on home format that you would pay to see on the biggest movie screen possible? (Question submitted by Peter Nellhaus)
Tati's Playtime, since my feelings for it have always been those of reserved admiration rather than rapture, and if the claims of Rosenbaum and other admirers are to be believed, a 70mm screening could easily change that dynamic.

3) Japan or France? (Question submitted by Bob Westal)
I assume this means which nation's cinema I value more, and I guess this might mean I flunk the quiz, because I can't answer that question. If I go with France, that means forswearing Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and what might be my favorite film of all time, Yasujio Ozu's Late Spring. If I go with Japan, that means forswearing Renoir, Truffaut, and what might be my favorite film of all time, Godard's Vivre sa Vie.

4) Favorite moment/line from a western.
Right now I'm going to say Henry Fonda leaning back in his rocking chair in My Darling Clementine, playing a balance game with a wooden beam.

5) Of all the arts the movies draw upon to become what they are, which is the most important, or the one you value most?
Well, since it's my dissertation topic, I've got to say acting. I watch movies to see Myrna Loy walk across the room, and Cary Grant hold back hysterical laughter, and Ward Bond scowl at the universe and its many disappointments. It's precisely in the effects of performance that one can feel how slightly out of control the movies can be, a entropic force destabilizing everybody who comes into contact with it.

6) Most misunderstood movie of the 2000s (The Naughties?).
Maybe Eastwood's Changeling, because I just saw it and like it a lot. The reception in the US was quite lukewarm, which just goes to show that many critics still aren't interested in looking at the images right in front of them. Sure, the script is too schematic, too redolent of the conventions of melodrama, but for the thousandth time, the plot's not the thing, the manner is, the level of feeling invested. On a shot by shot level, this is an effortlessly heartbreaking film, a movie that looks at the decay of love and hope with a eye that manages both objectivity and pity. Go back and watch those early scene between Jolie and her son. On first viewing, there's something tossed off about those moments, adding to the common mistaken impression that Eastwood is just a photographer of narrative poses. But look at those scenes in light of the ending, in light of everything we know is to come for those characters - what at first glance looks lackadaisical transforms into the crushingly tragic, and it a manner that feels blissfully tossed off rather than burdensomely telegraphed.

7) Name a filmmaker/actor/actress/film you once unashamedly loved who has fallen furthest in your esteem.
When I was ten years old, my favorite movie was Edward Scissorhands. Now, as I near thirty, I can't find it in myself to give a damn that Tim Burton is making Alice in Wonderland.

8) Herbert Lom or Patrick Macnee?
A decision that feels like a betrayal, but I have to go with Lom. Macnee can be an immensely enjoyable screen presence, a trapeze artist of an actor who glides in and out of moments with the greatest of ease. Lom is more of a tightrope walker, moving into the most conventional genre roles with a emotional commitment that finds him risking a fall into the abyss, leading you to catch your breath every few moments. For pleasure's sake, Macnee is a god, but for pity's fake, Lom is a man, and in contests of personality, I prefer men to gods.

9) Which is your least favorite David Lynch film (Submitted by Tony Dayoub)
I suspect I might feel more sympathetic to it now, but there have been times when I've hated Wild at Heart. It plays like a parody of a Lynch film, and finds him more or less in a holding pattern after Blue Velvet. Twin Peaks, the show and movie, soon found him exploring thornier emotional material, and this now looks like a tossed off lark made by Lynch as a minor prank before the overwhelming richness of Peaks. Seen again in that light, I suspect it might yield more pleasures than it did on first viewing, although I expect to still be turned off by some of the nastiness of its images and tone.

10) Gordon Willis or Conrad Hall? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)
Willis, easy. Hall prettified everything, his visual conceits too ready-made, and too ostentatious in their presentation. Willis risked obscurity to help us see more clearly.

11) Second favorite Don Siegel movie.
A tough call between Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Escape from Alcatraz (both clear runners-up to my favorite Siegel movie, the extraordinary The Lineup). Escape from Alcatraz might be one of the few perfectly made film - not a second wasted, not a detail out of place - but I've got to go for Invasion of the Body Snatchers, whose imagery remains powerfully mythic.

12) Last movie you saw on DVD/Blu-ray? In theaters?
DVD: Rushmore, which I screened this week for my class. In theaters: Inglorious Basterds.

13) Which DVD in your private collection screams hardest to be replaced by a Blu-ray? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)
A blu-ray player, along with a HD TV set, remains one of those reputed necessities of modern living I lack, but when I get one, I suspect one of my first purchases will be a blu-ray edition of Blade Runner, whose catalog of New Wave rock imagery as a vision of the future makes it one of my favorite films to just stop and stare at (it almost entirely lacks any narrative urgency, leaving only the seductive void of Ridley Scott's grimy-sexy imagery).

14) Eddie Deezen or Christopher Mintz-Plasse?
Looking up his filmography, I've seen surprisingly few Deezen films besides Grease. I've never been a fan of Grease, so Deezen has never made much an impression on me one way or another. Part of the disarming effectiveness of Superbad resulted from the warmth and awkward sweetness of many of the performances, Mintz-Plasse chief among them, so I must go with Mr. McLovin.

Actor/actress who you feel automatically elevates whatever project they
are in, or whom you would watch in virtually anything.
It's one of my life's projects to see every movie Boris Karlof was ever in, so I must go with him, although the same applies to Lugosi, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Pirce, and Lon Chaney Jr.

16) Fight Club -- yes or no?
No. Or rather yes to some of the first third or so, but once the plot really kicks in gear, it loses much of the anarchic, anything-goes charm of the opening moments, and collapses under the weight of David Fincher's overly polished images.

17) Teresa Wright or Olivia De Havilland?
De Havilland is a great actress, but I find Wright's performances in Shadow of a Doubt, Best Years of Our Lives and Pursued so absolutely note perfect that there are times when I consider her my favorite actress. De Havilland is always a pleasure, but Wright is frequently an obsession.

18) Favorite moment/line from a film noir.
Mike Hammer quotes Christina Rossetti in the bachelor pad of the gods in Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me, Deadly.

19) Best (or worst) death scene involving an obvious dummy substituting for a human or any other unsuccessful special effect(s)—see the wonderful blog Destructible Man for inspiration.
At times like these, a young man's fancy turns towards thoughts of the end of Lucio Fulci's Don't Torture the Duckling.

20) What's the least you've spent on a film and still regretted it? (Submitted by Lucas McNelly)
Saw the Jimmy Fallon/Queen Latifah comedy Taxi for free at the campus theater, and found the whole affair so thoroughly dispiriting I walked out midway through, and felt down in the dumps for the next week.

21) Van Johnson or Van Heflin?
Both tend toward the bland side of things, but must go with Van Heflin for his ineffable portrait of a death of quiet desperation in Fred Zinnemann's Act of Violence.

22) Favorite Alan Rudolph film.
Trouble in Mind, a 1985 is-it-sci-fi-is-it-noir-is-it-memorex? movie that seems to exist half a beat ahead of real life, and leaves you wondering minutes/days/years later, what the hell did I just watch?

23) Name a documentary that you believe more people should see.
Alain Resnais' Night and Fog.

24) In deference to this quiz’s professor, name a favorite film which revolves around someone becoming stranded.
Bunuel's marvelous version of Robinson Crusoe - the most deeply felt affirmation of surrealist principles ever made.

Is there a moment when your knowledge of film, or lack thereof, caused you an unusual degree of embarrassment and/or humiliation? If so, please share.
I apparently have no sense of shame when it comes to my knowledge of film, so I'll induce a qualifying incident forthwith by admitting I've never seen a single Visconti film.

26) Ann Sheridan or Geraldine Fitzgerald? (Submitted by Larry Aydlette)
Fitzgerald never made much an impression on me, while in I Was a Male War Bride, Sheridan manages to keep her head while all around her are losing theirs, so her.

Do you or any of your family members physically resemble movie actors
or other notable figures in the film world? If so, who?
My students apparently think I look like Jonah Hill. These students, over whose destinies I have some measure of control, are brave and foolhardy souls.

28) Is there a movie you have purposely avoided seeing? If so, why?
The remake of Funny Games, not just because I expected it to be unpleasant, but because I knew damn well there wouldn't be a single tonal or textural surprise in the whole thing.

29) Movie with the most palpable or otherwise effective wintry atmosphere or ambience.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller, says the man who has lived in Florida his whole life, and understands the concept of "wintry atmosphere" largely as a fantastic urban legend.

30) Gerrit Graham or Jeffrey Jones?
Graham, because I can't see Jeffrey Jones pulling off a convincing Mick Jagger impersonation.

31) The best cinematic antidote to a cultural stereotype (sexual, political, regional, whatever).
The "Japanese tourists" at the end of David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner.

32) Second favorite John Wayne movie.
A rather boring answer admittedly, but Stagecoach. The Searchers, now and forever, comes first, but Stagecoach's kineticism, and Wayne's athletic poetry, remains one of the great affirmations of cinema as the art of pure movement.

33) Favorite movie car chase.
Car chase scenes are actually a pet peeve of mine, so even some of the most highly vaunted ones annoy me. That said, one of the reasons I love the aforementioned The Lineup is the chase that climaxes the film proves not only tolerable, but inspired.

34) In the spirit of His Girl Friday, propose a gender-switched remake of a classic or not-so-classic film. (Submitted by Patrick Robbins)
A remake of Black Narcissus about a group of monks slowly going nuts in India could be intriguing.

35) Barbara Rhoades or Barbara Feldon?
My relative lack of familiarity with 70s TV schlock shows through here, since I don't know that I've seen anything with Barbara Rhoades. On the other hand, I loved Get Smart as child, and Agent 99 was surely one reason it proved a short term obsession for my pre-pubescent mind.

36) Favorite Andre De Toth movie.
Riding Shotgun, a tidy Western lacking any pretension, and with an tactical openness that lets every moment breathe in the possibilities of the backlot.

If you could take one filmmaker's entire body of work and erase it from
all time and memory, as if it had never happened, whose oeuvre would it
be? (Submitted by Tom Sutpen)
Sounds like an awfully cruel fate to visit upon someone's life work, but upon reflection, the world would surely be enriched by the removal of The Wicker Man remake from existence, and I've never understood what people saw in the incompetent imitations of Jules Feiffer that constitute the rest of his oeuvre, so Neil LaBute is merely a second rate playwright rather than third rate filmmaker in my universe.

38) Name a film you actively hated when you first encountered it, only to see it again later in life and fall in love with it.
I don't believe I've ever experienced a complete shift from hate to love. More likely, I move from deep admiration to passionate love, or mild enjoyment to strong enthusiasm. The closest I think I've come to experiencing the wide arc of reactions traced by the question is my reaction to David Lynch's Fire Walk with Me. On first viewing, I found the movie extremely frustrating, although I always loved individual scenes. On further viewings, however, the searing pain and sadness of the film seemed more manifest, and I've since come to see it as at least a near-great film.

39) Max Ophuls or Marcel Ophuls? (Submitted by Tom Sutpen)
Not really a contest, is it? Yes, The Sorrow and the Pity is one of the greatest documentaries ever made. But The Reckless Moment is one of those movies composed of nothing but fleeting gestures - perfect, little, lovely gestures, any one of which can break your heart.

In which club would you most want an active membership, the Delta Tau
Chi fraternity, the Cutters or the Warriors? And which member would you
most resemble, either physically or in personality?
The Cutters. I've not seen Breaking Away in ages, but I'm thinking Cyril in terms of temperament, though I'm not a bike rider.

41) Your favorite movie cliché.
Weird noises coming from closet. Must inspect. Carry rolling pin for protection. Slowly open closet door. Rolling pin ready to strike.Something jumps out. Narrowly avoid braining a black cat. Breathe sigh of relief. Oh, watch out - knife wielding serial killer stands right behind you. Shriek! Shriek! Shriek!

42) Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen? (Submitted by Bob Westal)
Minnelli. Singin' in the Rain is great, obviously, but Donen made some real duds, like Kiss Them For Me, where his utter lack of commitment showed in every frame. Even very bad Minnelli is interesting, and Minnelli made more great movies than Donen - Meet Me in St. Louis, The Bandwagon, The Bad and the Beautiful, Tea and Sympathy, and The Bells are Ringing to Donen's Rain, On the Town, and It's Always Fair Weather.

43) Favorite Christmas-themed horror movie or sequence.
Gremlins. A week later, a strange smell started started emanating from the chimney.

44) Favorite moment of self- or selfless sacrifice in a movie.
The final scene of Ride the High Country.

If you were the cinematic Spanish Inquisition, which movie cult (or
cult movie) would you decimate? (Submitted by Bob Westal)
The Goonies cult. I hated it when I was five, I hate it now. Love the Cyndi Lauper song, though.

46) Caroline Munro or Veronica Carlson?
Not really a choice sane man can make, but if forced, I'll go with Carlson, but only because Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed might be the greatest film to come out of Hammer Studios.

47) Favorite eye-patch wearing director. (Submitted by Patty Cozzalio)
John Ford

Favorite ambiguous movie ending. (Original somewhat ambiguous
submission---“Something about ambiguous movie endings!”-- by Jim
Emerson, who may have some inspiration of his own to offer you.)
The Awful Truth. Not extremely ambiguous admittedly, but ends with a possibility presenting itself, a mere chance of something rather a consummation. Gets at the way the pleasure of love often lies in its clumsiness.

49) In giving thanks for the movies this year, what are you most thankful for?
The fact that I obtained a copy of Jacques Rivette's L'amour fou.

50) George Kennedy or Alan North?

Kennedy, because he looks like he could be nobody in particular.