Sunday, November 11, 2018

FULL METAL JACKET (Stanley Kubrick, 1987, USA)


“I look inside myself and see my heart is black
I see my red door and it has been painted black
Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts
It’s not easy facin’ up when your whole world is black”
-Paint It, Black (The Rolling Stones)
 
 
The malleable cores of young men are cloaked in metal, their soft hearts made hard to kill, their whole world painted black. Director Stanley Kubrick is not concerned with an authentic representation of the Vietnam War; he purposely disassembles genre conventions and recreates a violent parable that reflects the interior conflict of soldiers with use of hyperrealism and grotesque pathos. This dissociative identity of the film’s structure is apparent from the opening sequence where we see military recruits being shorn like sheep: instead of Jimmy Hendrix or CCR underscoring the scenario we get Johnny Wright! The use of popular music is a viscous counterpoint to the action, indirectly creating a vertiginous sense of confusion and puzzlement, a purposeful aural dichotomy that is subliminally meant to heighten anxiety and deconstruct expectations.

Kubrick splits the film in two, from Paris Island to the crowded streets of Vietnam with an effective fade to black. While at Paris island, Gunnery Sgt. Hartman begins his campaign of dehumanization and habilitation, the recruits castrated by their absurd patriarch who holds complete dominion over them. These boys are relegated to caricatures, their actual names forgotten (or never revealed), and by Christening them Hartman molds them into weapons of flesh and bone. Their juvenile fantasies are replaced by strict discipline barked from a rabid dog, and while losing their individuality they are either subsumed into the larger organism…or self-destruct.

JUMP CUT: Vietnam and our protagonist Joker and his buddy Rafterman, reporters for Stars and Stripes whose half-truths and fairy tales are fodder for grunts. The Film has no driving narrative force, there is no intrinsic goal or destination: it is only a scrapbook of deathly scenarios, a burlesque of Thanatos. Kubrick dresses the dioramas in fiery detail that are haunted by the ghosts of young men, the poetic dialogue carrying its own ghastly rhythm of the damned. The grunts hump their way through Hue city and Joker is finally baptized in blood and guts, his morality anaesthetized. Finally, grim silhouettes stalk the Perfume River inhaling its decaying aroma, chanting the theme song to The Mickey Mouse Club: they have regressed into adolescent fantasies and childhood memories in order to retain their sanity. But they have learned one important truth: The dead know only one thing…it is better to be alive.

Final Grade: (A+)


Sunday, September 23, 2018

THE DEER HUNTER (Michael Cimino, 1978, USA)


Michael’s life of absolute control is no longer a sure thing, the Divine Eros of one shot corrupted into a chaotic ugly maxim of pure chance. Director Michael Cimino camouflages the virtual subtext of homo-eroticism beneath a mythological journey into war. THE DEER HUNTER isn't a polemic about America’s involvement in Vietnam: it is tragic love story between Michael and his best friend Nick.
Here in the heart of blue-collar America, a sextet of men are birthed in the furnace of steel factories and orthodox religion, Russian Americans who pledge allegiance to the flag and each other, united under bonds of friendship, honor and love. Cimino begins the film by introducing the men shrouded in flames and molten steel, hidden beneath a thick outer shell of protective clothing. He cuts to the locker room where they undress in chaotic displays of machismo and sexually charged behavior. The first intelligible words are spoken by Nick, who cracks wise with a heterosexual pun: Did you hear about the happy Roman? Answer: Gladiator (or phonetically: glad-he-ate-her). Stan primps himself in the mirror to no avail as Nick jokes once again. It soon becomes evident that Michael is the quiet but headstrong leader of the group as the others defer to him.
Cimino uses a cloistered small town setting to explore unspoken emotional issues about men as the protagonists become a microcosm of manhood. His camera focuses upon Michael and Nick often, cutting to close-up, following their furtive glances and shared expressions. This intimacy between these two cohorts is not shared by any other character including Linda, the woman who stands between them (and yet doesn't separate them). Though Nick proposes seemingly off-the-cuff to Linda at Steven’s wedding, there is no indication that the two of them have a sexual relationship. Michael and Nick still live together and are drifting apart as Nick states, “I’m not into One Shot anymore”. He seems to want something more…but what? I believe the subtext reveals that he wants a physical relationship with Michael, not the suffering (from his point of view) Platonic love that has been offered.
This is read by the films editing patterns, showing the two of them close without showing them together. It’s a subtle message that Cimino offers and one hidden beneath this aura of righteous brotherhood. Is Michael attracted also to Linda? Or does he see her as an obstacle? If the latter, it explains his awkward behavior with her during the wedding sequence. Even Stan, who is rather homely and judges his own manhood by the women he keeps, calls Michael out of the closet. Michael responds with a seething anger and the enigmatic, “This is this”. Well, things are what they are: we don’t always get to decide what we want to be.
Cimino doesn't seem interested in the complex character of Linda but uses her to contrast Michael and Nick’s relationship. When Michael returns home she states quite plainly that she was hoping Nick was along. Both she and Michael miss Nick dearly and their eventual copulation doesn't bring them closer to each other…it brings them each closer to Nick’s memory. Cimino also isn't interested in the politics of Vietnam. He purposely doesn't utilize any overt imagery or music such as drug use, rock’ n roll, or protests; he even depicts Michael’s (and even the “Fuck it” Green Beret from the reception) return as peaceful and accepted (though psychologically damaged). This counterpoint to counterculture is interesting and purposeful so as not to distract from his true intentions: Cimino did not set out to make a documentary of the conflict or an anti-war film. Michael, Nick and Steven even enlist…they aren't drafted. Cimino has created the antithesis to APOCALYPSE NOW. The closest he gets is in the first Vietnam sequence when a Vietnamese soldier throws a grenade into a dugout full of women and children. Michael kills him with a flame-thrower for this needlessly cruel act and the imagery ties in with Clairton and the hellish steel mills. But even this scene is ambiguous: is the soldier North or South Vietnamese? Where the US troops defending the village or attacking it? Cimino doesn't answer and only poses the madding subversive image, and one that yields different interpretations.
THE DEER HUNTER is not a true film of the Vietnam War nor is it meant to be. It is allegory and metaphor, utilizing the VC captors as the pressure to examine the end result of this band of brothers: coal into diamond. If the film is considered to make a statement about the war, then the enemy is an obscene stereotype. If however, one considers the film as myth, these dimensionless characters are treated only a means for the protagonist’s ends. This Russian roulette is a grim corruption of the beauty of Michael’s one shot: he’s the one who forces the others to play. They survive the game and Vietnam by pure chance. Steel is strong but once broken it needs to be re-forged.
Nick is separated from Michael and Steven and stays behind in country. It’s important to note that Nick never knows what happens to his friends: he’s whisked away by helicopter while they fall into the murky river, potentially dead or captured. Cimino doesn't mention this fact directly but infers it through editing. If Nick believes Michael is dead, why go back home? He cannot even bring himself to call Linda and hangs up before the connection is made. We see the same photograph of Linda in both his and Michael’s wallet but to what purpose? They both love her but for different reasons. Cimino also never mentions the promise that a naked and drunk Michael swore the night before their departure to the Army: “Don’t leave me behind Michael. Don’t leave me”, Nick says. And Michael doesn't leave him.
The final roulette scene is tragic in a few different ways. It’s tragic on the surface because Nick fails to escape the chaos of Vietnam, the adrenaline of the game, the addiction to pure chance. In this way Nick is a victim to circumstances. But the rip-current is strong, the subtext drowning, as the tragedy is intensified by Michael’s refusal to acknowledge Nick’s unconditional love for him. Michael begs for him to come home and when Michael says, “You’re my friend”, Nick spits in his face. Friendship is not enough now. As Michael puts his own life on the line to prove his devotion it almost works, but he makes the mistake of mentioning one shot, alluding to an unchanging future of frustration for Nick. Is this a suicide? Is it Nick saying, “I’ll show you who is in control”? “Fuck it” indeed.
Michael’s love for Nick is Platonic, a selfish love that helps him understand the world, make sense of it, to see the beauty in the hunt as addictive and religious. Nick is the catalyst for this but it seems that Nick wants more: he wants physical love. So, when Michael returns and Nick is still lost, he cannot kill the deer. Now it is only suffering and death he sees because beauty is lost to him. His vision occluded, he must find Nick to find the cure. This relationship is only heightened by the hell storm of war, and Linda tiptoes between the two of them, wanting Nick (and never having slept with him) and being with Michael because it reminds her of Nick.
As the friends finally gather for Nick’s wake, they spontaneously sing America the Beautiful, to acknowledge their loss, to find something grandeur to say. I don’t believe this is meant to be ironic or a statement about the war, any more than the preceding 2+ hours was a statement about the war. It is merely a spontaneous recital to acknowledge beauty and loss of Nick to whom they toast. Cimino freezes upon this toast and then cuts to a photograph of Nick, giving us the pulse of the film before it dies gently into that good night.

Final Grade: (A+) 

Saturday, September 1, 2018

DELIVERANCE (John Boorman, 1972, USA)


Mankind’s primal instincts lurk just below the dark mirrored surface of the mind, the animal only temporarily suppressed by Reason and the trappings of civilization. Four men confront Nature and must face the tumultuous rapids and violent confrontation with their bastard brothers; their modern tools only a crutch because they must rely on their Will to Live (and each other) to survive. As modernity clashes with anachronism, like Neanderthal witnessing the extinction of Cro-Magnon, DELIVERANCE is an allegory concerning the contempt that these disparate primates feel for one another and the violent outcome when intelligence is consumed by aggression, when Law and Order breaks down and the only rule is survival. Director John Boorman deftly adapts James Dickey’s novel about three city men and their guide who wish to spend a weekend canoeing on the Cahulawassee River before it is dammed, men who wish to connect with Nature peacefully on their terms, but end up battling the wild deep water, violent natives, and their own insecurities.

Vilmos Zsigmond's lush cinematography projects the illusion of a journey into the wild where civilization is but a dream and anarchy reigns. Boorman creates iconic imagery such as the dueling banjos between Floyd and the craven-eyed boy, and the squealing sexual assault as Bobby wallows in the mud, dominated and unmanned. The anxious feeling of prey being stalked with raptor-like precision is ambiguous; we only experience it from the protagonist’s perspective, and Floyd’s death is never fully explained though it’s interesting that he is the lone dissenter in the democratic vote to bury the dead rapist. Another allusion to this battle between the present and past could be seen in the tools themselves: the wooden canoe breaks apart while the man-made aluminum canoe holds together and takes them safely home. It's also depicted in the weapon that saves their lives: the modern firearm has been replaced by the Stone Age bow and arrow. 

This precarious balance is maintained on the rocky slope, as the bluish sunset casts it ominous shadow over Ed, and he murders the man who is stalking them. In a nerve-wracking moment, Ed’s hands shake and he cannot bring himself to kill, flashback to another scene when he lost the nerve to kill a doe, lacking the essential component to play Lewis' game. But does he kill an innocent man? This is a film concerning decisions and their life-long consequences. The survivors never find the answer and are left to face their nightmares, fearing that the past will resurface like a bloated hand breaking the tepid surface of a lake, making one final accusation.

Final Grade: (A)

Monday, August 6, 2018

HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR (Alain Resnais, 1959, France/Japan)



Two desperate lovers become entwined and inseparable like twisted steel and melted concrete blocks, unforgettable remnants of Hiroshima’s explosive fate. Director Alain Resnais’ narrative is a complex design of flashbacks and gruesome stock footage of the Allied destruction, utilizing a female voice-over that is often contradicted. An eerie score irradiates the film, creating tension and a vague emotional unease between these disparate characters whose flesh has melded into one.


Lui is a Japanese architect who is married with a family but he has become suddenly obsessed with a French woman: an actress who has a small part in a documentary on Hiroshima. As she narrates the film’s beginning, she is subsumed by her role, speaking as if she were present during the droning doom of the Enola Gay but Lui keeps reminding her that she wasn’t. Resnais doesn’t spare the audience the horrible images and effects of war and does so without condemnation or acclamation...the judgment is ours alone. We soon learn that Lui’s parents were vaporized on that beautiful August day, and Elle begins to open up about her past in German occupied France.

This is an allegorical love story whose outcome is doomed to fail as she begins to unburden herself with the painful memories of the death of her true love: a Nazi soldier. After the Liberation, she is castigated and shaven, flung carelessly into a basement prison for her traitorous desires towards the enemy, though she only saw love and devotion towards this man. Lui’s obsession grows deeper like toxic roots drawing water from a poisoned well, and we wonder if he is willing to give up his family, and Elle hers. We experience her young life through flashbacks, and in one powerful jump cut we see Lui sleeping and his hand twitch, and for an instance we see a dead soldier’s bloody face and last trembling gasp. HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR is a love story that can only end in the dissolution of the nuclear family, its atomic power destructive and all consuming.

FINAL GRADE: (A+)



Friday, June 29, 2018

HARLAN ELLISON: DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH (Erik Nelson, 2007, USA)


Ellison’s prose incisors are weapons that shred his adversaries, giving voice to his vociferous condemnation of stupidity and vapid fandom: a shrill cry from a man with a mouth who must scream. Erik Nelson’s documentary gives us a rare insight into Harlan Ellison’s wonderland though he doesn’t pretend to understand what makes the Ticktockman tick: Nelson remains virtually invisible and lets Ellison run the show. This is not fanboy adoration where Nelson bends over at the altar of Ellison, offering his orifice for deific recognition.

There are a few eloquent friends and peers such as Neil Gaiman, Robin Williams and Dan Simmons who share their stories and dangerous visions, but basically Ellison talks about himself and his life. We see brief clips of past interviews from the Today Show and Tom Snyder, and see the angry young man has not disappeared from the visage of the elderly grandmaster: he is still fueled by pugnacity, a wraith of wrathfulness. But there are tender moments when Ellison’s shtick dissolves and the real man emerges unguarded, an intelligent and remarkable man who is as human as you and me…only more so. But it’s his words that count, literally, millions of them through the years and awards that are to become his legacy.

This documentary should convince you to pick up copies of not only his fiction but also his non-fiction and essay collections, which are too numerous to name here. After the feature is over, let Harlan read a few stories to you in his own idiom, then watch the dialogue between him and Neil Gaiman while they eat pizza, making you a silent partner in their friendly interaction. Buy the books, read the books, Harlan is not a number, his life is his own: you might learn something from him. But if you can’t figure it out, I’ll give you the answer: Naomi Campbell.

FINAL GRADE: (B+)


Wednesday, June 27, 2018

JOE STRUMMER: THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN (Julien Temple, 2006, UK)



Not nearly as good as the documentary WESTWAY TO THE WORLD but a personal and insightful documentary about one of the most intelligent and passionate rock ‘n roll artists of our times. Strummer's friends and peers share their intimate stories around a campfire and Julian Temple intersperses this dialogue with home movies and archival Clash footage. His London Calling radio program is used as a voice-over narrative transition to show his multi-faceted love for language and music.


Maybe the only way to truly understand someone (or get as close as possible) is through their creative outlet and expression; in this way, we understand Joe Strummer more through his musical influences than his own voice! This is not your typical “talking head’ documentary; it flows without introduction, a fluid dialogue from one person to the next. What more can be said about Joe Strummer? He was a great musician and a socially conscious songwriter whose raw six-string voice continues to echo long after his death.


The state of current rock music saddens me so maybe the next Zack de la Rocha or Joe Strummer is just around the corner. I wish more were said of his last album STREETCORE because I think it his greatest achievement since the final Clash record. Bono said what made him angry was that the Clash should still be making music. I disagree. I’m afraid they would be dinosaurs like U2 or THE ROLLING STONES and a mere shadow of their glory days, bands that have nothing important to say anymore and just churn out the same drivel. Like a supernova, we had them for a short period of time. 


FINAL GRADE: (B)



Sunday, June 24, 2018

BILLY BUDD (Peter Ustinov, 1962, UK)

 
 

Billy Budd is a flower not yet fully bloomed, weeded-out by the cruel injustice of a rigid Rule Of Law that suppresses morality and appeal. Peter Ustinov deftly adapts the great Herman Melville novella, a story of the harsh life amongst England’s warships and the tyranny of maritime Martial Law.

The angelic Billy Budd is pressed into service, leaving behind him THE RIGHTS OF MAN and venturing towards his cruel fate aboard the AVENGER. But Billy is so damn innocent and likeable that he adapts easily to his new life, and earns friendship and respect of the crew, including the Captain. But the sadistic Claggart can’t stomach Billy’s na├»ve presence. Billy is a man so tender that he doesn’t even despise Claggart and peers beneath the veneer of tyrannical pugilism to see a lonely and empty vessel.

Peter Ustinov films in glorious black and white Cinemascope, this wide-screen cinematography utilized in the tight quarters and confines of the tall ship. The period detail and set designs are amazingly realistic, with characters often framed amid the deep focus of the claustrophobic interiors or vast calm sea. This wide-angle photography creates a subtext that makes the characters seems smaller than the story, which diminishes human life in contrast to the narrative’s morality. Terence Stamp is wonderful as the baby-faced Budd, his shock of hair and gentle attitude an untainted human template. But the stuttering youngster lashes out when confronted by the bold-faced lies of Claggart…and becomes victim to Martial Law. Even the Captain and his staff don’t want to hang Billy, that they understand the circumstances of the assault, but they are held captive to the unwavering Law that demands execution without appeal.

What is Law without individual Justice? Fascism.

FINAL GRADE: (A+)

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

IT'S ALIVE (Larry Cohen 1973, USA)


Frank Davis fathers a genetic mutation whose killer instincts lead it directly from the cradle to the grave. As the creature’s creator Frank feels akin to Dr. Frankenstein and carries the moral obligation of stopping the gruesome deaths, knowing he must be the one to destroy the beast to find his own salvation and, more importantly, be accepted back into mainstream society. Director Larry Cohen appeals to the pregnant fear that gestates deep within our social consciousness: modern apprehensions concerning prescription drugs and pollution, their effects upon developing fetus’ and even a woman’s right to choose. Cohen also dissects the nuclear family unit, as the Patriarch commits infanticide, the one who carries the responsibility of creating this monster (or thinks he does), while the wife is relegated to the periphery of the story. Cohen focuses upon Frank’s emotional isolation and keeps the wife drugged and restrained: the man can handle the problem while the woman is unable to cope with the stress.

Cohen upsets the typical cinematic convention of “pregnant-mom-rushed-to-hospital” by allowing the first act to move slowly: the man isn’t a bumbling idiot and they talk and take their time, dully arriving at their destination. As Frank awaits the introduction of his second child, Cohen offers exposition spiked with humor through dialogue and a running gag in the waiting room. He crosscuts these scenes with a bored doctor who practically berates the lost Lenore (a Poe allusion?) and demands she push harder. He then cuts back to Frank and the other fathers before showing a nurse stumble through the doors and collapse in a bloody heap. Frank then bursts into the delivery room and we see a frightful apocalypse: the medical staff has been mutilated and Lenore is screaming about her baby. The scene is over-the-top and borders on camp, the blood looks like congealed Jell-O, but the actors bring it back down to Earth.

Bernard Herrmann’s score relies on innuendo and subtly to underline the horror, and seeps into the narrative with a time-released precision. Cohen uses point-of-view double exposure to show the world from the monster child’s perspective, utilizing low angle and quick editing techniques. He smartly refuses to show the creature in a full medium shot, only offering glimpses and extreme close-ups of the Rick Baker puppet…which is for the best because it looks rather silly.


Eventually, Frank must take control and hunt down his progeny, and armed with a police rifle he stalks the sewers in search of the newborn. But seen through a father’s eyes the killer becomes nothing more than a scared and hungry baby, and he takes it in a blanket to comfort. This would have been the interesting and complex ending; instead, Cohen goes for the visceral thrill and static declaration…another has been born in Seattle.

Final Grade: (C)

Friday, June 8, 2018

SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1959)


Violet Venable is a manipulatively violent and venerable Matriarch, a woman shattered by the grief of her dead son; a faceless man consumed by his own dire obsessions. Catherine Holly is the man’s cousin, witness to some horrid event that has left her emotionally paralyzed, engulfed by repressed memories and locked away in an asylum where she must face her religious tormentors…as well as her own inner demons. Into this predatory environment stumbles Dr. “Sugar”, a scientist on the cutting edge of a new psychiatric treatment called a Lobotomy: if he can cure Catherine, then Ms. Venable will donate a million dollars to his failing Institution. But the sweet Doctor isn’t convinced of Catherine’s mental illness and he must make a moral decision between possibly destroying one woman to help hundreds others.

Director Joseph Mankiewicz is able to transform this verbose screenplay into a visually exciting drama with tight framing, extreme close-ups and deep focus photography, utilizing themes of predation and death such as the Venus Flytrap, a grim statue of the Reaper, and even the name of his Institution…Lion’s View Asylum. Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor eat-up the screen with undeniable tension while Montgomery Clift deftly plays the part of mediator trapped between these two deadly rivals.

The final act comes together in a flashback as Catherine releases the truth in a damning torrent: she and her Aunt where only pawns in a game of pederasty, and her Aunt could not live with this awful confession. Mankiewicz films the frisson of the chase scored by a clanging metal dirge, as Catherine’s cousin (whose face is never revealed) races towards his doom where neither money nor borrowed sexual favors can save him. A skeletal woman robed in black and the scythe of death descends upon her memory…while those he victimized eat her cousin alive. Through this catharsis Catherine is saved while Violet descends into unknown depths of despair and anxiety, and ascends upon her throne towards her final resting place.

FINAL GRADE: (B)

Sunday, April 22, 2018

MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988, Japan)


A whimsical tale of childlike imagination about a young girl and her baby sister: siblings who fear the death of their mother while learning to commune with nature. Director Hayao Miyazaki’s creation is imbued with the vital spirit of symbiosis as human beings destroy the world and forget that they are an integer of nature’s elemental algorithm.

Set in the late 1950s, Satsuki and tiny Mei move into a dilapidated farmhouse in a small farming community to be closer to their mother, who is sick and in the hospital. This taps the quicksilver anxiety of all children who fear the death of a parent, especially a subtext concerning radiation poisoning in a country still suffering from nuclear fallout: their parents must have been children themselves during the war. One day the energetic Mei falls through the rabbit hole and into the lair of a forest troll, the spiritual protector that resides within an ancient Camphor tree. She names him Totoro and his gentle furry mass wobbles and yawns playfully, and the other smaller wood sprites seem more scared of this little girl than she of them! Soon her big sister Satsuki meets Totoro at a bus stop and gives him a gift, an umbrella to shelter him from the rain. In a beautiful scene, Totoro becomes enamored with the sound of raindrops tapping upon the taught fabric and shivers with excitement before catching his Catbus to some unknown destination.

The sisters are the only ones privileged to see the forest spirits, and even their father pays tribute at a withered shrine; another example of how distant humanity has grown from its roots. Miyazaki’s wonderful imagery tickles the imagination, from a ritualistic dance under the twinkling stars and a ride upon a magical top, to the many-legged tour-de-force of a Cheshire bus. But a letter causes the girls alarm when their mother cannot return home from the hospital, and little Mei becomes lost amid the fields and swamps while tying to find her mother and give her a stalk of corn…because she picked it herself. One frightening scene is fundamental to create frisson: a pink sandal floats ominously upon a lake while the village elders search for her body with bamboo sticks. Satsuki pleads for help and Totoro sends for the Catbus and all ends happily ever after; her mother is going to be fine, the family reunited, and live in harmony with nature.

Final Grade: (A+)