Thursday, October 29, 2009

Let the Wild Rumpus Start

The following column is reprinted from the November issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem neccessary to leave out):

Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel

I’m certainly not the first film nitcrit to draw on the parallels between the equally transfixing effects of being entranced by a first class movie as a full blown adult and the initial deep boned reaction upon hearing or reading a childhood tale as a dreamy youngster. The raw materials of story-telling, visualization, and self-projections of imagination can prompt the most primal of feelings, synthesizing images unburdened by freedom of the artist, creator, or interpreter. Yup, movies hit the gut and stay in the head like the very stories that enchanted one as open-eyed child, and movie pundits have always referred to certain imaginative filmmakers as perpetual teenagers, aging children, or petulant adults with a lifetime case of the Peter Pan syndrome.

So it comes as no surprise that three of the more intriguing contempo American directors have chosen to utilize their respective celluloid techniques and convert some classic, or at least neo-classic, children’s tales into full blown movies. The one surprise is that same three have finished movies that are virtually finding the big screens simultaneously. One could make an easy argument that Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, and Spike Bonze are movie-movie kindred spirits, all of them sporting an overall archness in their approaches, all of them drawn upon a variable understated tone of humor, and certainly all of them are undeniably devoted to providing a differentiating visual latticework in each of their cinematic efforts. Tim Burton’s version of Lewis Carroll’s estimable Alice in Wonderland is due in theaters in early 2010, Wes Anderson’s got-to-be-droll version of Roald Dahl’s much loved Fantastic Mr. Fox hits the screens in November, while Spike Jonze’s expanded take on Maurice Sendak’s unforgettable 1963 book Where the Wild Things Are is in current release. If the latter is any indication, this may signal a very welcome cinematic trend.

It’s difficult to recall another film that so effectively captures the raw-nerved landscape of emotion and physical energy, of the ever-burgeoning states of sexual and psychological awareness of pre-adolescence. Where the Wild Things Are opening sequences—with a hand held camera holding close to nine-year-old Max (newcomer Max Records) as he bounds through his house and yard, bursting with anger, imagination, and a flinty loneliness—create a heady and immediate impact. It’s a vividly detailed depiction of collapsing innocence and childhood awkwardness and somehow ineffably faithful to Sendak’s tone and style.
Yet, it’s a strange tease too, when Max, as in the Sendak book, finds his way to the mysterious island inhabited by the Wild Things (which takes up the bulk of the movie’s time), Jonze goes into a deceivingly languorous mode, and his film becomes a seductive fable propelled by sideways glances, mumbled enunciation, ambling inaction, and hanging emotions. The island’s very make-up leaves behind Sendak’s earthy backgrounds, as it contains a vast desert, hulking crags of mountainous rock, and an autumnal forest alive with growth, although the whole of it drips with melancholy. Kiddie time? Not exactly. About kiddie time? Exactly.

Sendak’s book was made up of 338 words and 18 illustrations in its entirety. Jonze and co-scenarist, novelist Dave Eggers have smartly elected to flesh out the original tale, all the while keeping close to the author’s spare and subtle depiction of Max as Freudian childking. The creatures, a combination of puppeteering and computerized facial expressions are still recognizable from Sendak’s pages, although given names and distinct personalities by Jonze and Eggers, and also given voice by some select name actors with Chris Cooper as the recalcitrant Douglas, Catherine O’Hara as the puckish Judith, Forest Whitaker as the low key Ira, Paul Dano as the ever wounded Alexander, Lauren Ambrose as the feisty KW, and a pitch perfect James Gandofini as Max’s doppelganger Carol.

Jonze has managed to paint an impeccably textured cinematic fable, both sweet and sour, about the inherent implosion of childhood, with vivid brushstrokes given to the inflated traumas and tongue-tying complications of growing up, a just about perfect reinterpretation of Sendak’s modern classic that’s part idyll, part nightmare, part real, part fantasy, all of it with a subtle emotional underpinning. The presence of the always stellar Catherine Keener as Max’s put-upon mom is another exquisite touch, as is the neatly off-center score by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Carter Burwell. As we all know, Max’s pursuit, his self-inflicted adventure, his expressive search for self-control, ends with a return to a simple but deeply satisfying hot meal and the eternal nurturing of quintessential motherhood, and that’s just enough to probably bring a tear to the eyes of Sendak, Freud, even Walt Disney, and certainly myself.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Second Look

Movies, like most pop art, tend to require repeated viewings, often simply to confirm the pleasures derived from the initial viewing, occasionally to douse an overtly passionate reaction caused by a singular performance, a nerve-tingling subject, a hypnotizing theme or maybe just pure directorial panache, and once in a while to somehow enrich or deepen the film going experience by gleaming a deeper meaning or a more penetrating misc-en-scene then an initial viewing may evoke.

Being a huge believer in Clint Eastwood’s directorial acumen, and a sucker for any film about the ever mystical Los Angeles (either past or present, especially past), I recently rewatched his Angeline Jolie hosanna and impeccably burnished period piece Changeling, and essentially saw it in a whole different light.

Back in December of 2008 I opined, among other things, that the movie was sinfully old-fashioned and terminally flawed:
“Jolie plays the one truly virtuous character, and Eastwood trails her like a golden-haloed heroine of some long ago silent film parable. Jolie in period costume is a truly iconic sight, and she delivers a delicate, even comely performance. The problem is the 78-year-old director’s classicist tendencies--the movie unfolds with a stately, methodical tone and proceeds with his assured feel for cinematic storytelling-- but ultimately it never bears down and scratches the surfaces beneath the readily apparent emotional and moral concerns.
It still doesn’t prevent Jolie’s single minded performance from becoming repetitive rather than enriched by the expanded canvas. One hates to damn Eastwood, as fine a working contempo director today, with faint praise, yet Changeling is more admirable than affecting, more contained than disturbing, more passive than passionate. It’s an old-fashioned movie that just about rises above its own mawkishness and inherent stolidity. Rare as it, maybe Eastwood the filmmaker has crafted a well-made offering that is essentially a misfire--a sharply drawn shell that too firmly covers up its raw entrails. Jolie’s much vaunted turnabout doesn’t crack the shell either; it’s far too gilded without an iota of the rawness and grit the framework seems to call for.”

Watching the film unfold again, I was equally impressed with Eastwood’s overall package--the set direction, Tom Stern’s cinematography, the smoothly flowing nuts-and-bolts story telling. Yet, the overall stolidity of the movie didn’t bug me again, and where I originally saw a jumble of an historical cautionary tale, a feminist ballad, a gothic chiller, and an open-ended mystery, I now see a purposefully (even defiantly) old school star vehicle, a movie solely devoted to the primordial gaze, a movie shaped around a long lost centerpiece: The Hollywood Heroine.

The inherent irony that as a macho a figure as Eastwood (his reputation as a filmmaker still skewers that way, part fact, part illusion drawn far too much from his on screen acting persona) would overtly machinate a “woman’s picture”, one worthy of such acknowledged masters of the genre as George Cukor or Josef Von Sternberg, is a major obfuscation. Still, a close examination of Eastwood’s progression as a director reveals him to be an ever maturing classicist, obviously steeped in a Hollywood of the past that he was never part of, as the studio system was dissolving during his early leap into stardom.

Changeling ain’t all about Eve, it’s all about Angelina, and Eastwood’s lens is as devoted to her as the gilded cameras of the once-upon-a- time dream factory that smoothly fetishized the faces of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, or Marlene Dietrich. Eastwood continually spotlights her lanky frame, her bee-stung lips, her inexplicable exoticism without sexualizing her, seemingly half of her lengthy screen time is spent with a natty hat half obscuring her delicate features. One can’t help but think of Garbo, and what Roland Barthes infamously postulated: “Garbo’s face represents this fragile moment when the cinema is about to draw an existential from an essential beauty, when the archetype leans towards the fascination of mortal faces, when the clarity of flesh as essence yields its place to a lyricism of Woman.”

Is the movie worthy of such a high-minded exegesis? Maybe not, it’s still not a one-of-a-kinder. Still, it remains a fascinating intermeshing of a highly developed directorial vision and a strong, iconic actress, and it stands as a fully formed and thoroughly intentional cinematic throwback, both a paean and a link to a type of well-made, populist American filmmaking that has long ceased to exist.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Cop with a Hat, a Tommy Gun, and Lee Marvin's Eyes

Until 1965’s Cat Ballou, the indomitable Lee Marvin was yet another working actor, flitting from the big screen to the small, making appearances (usually as a toughie, baddie, or at the very least, a character with heavy attitude) in such standard TV fare as The Virginian, The Untouchables, or Bonanza, and also popping up in meaty stuff like The Twilight Zone, Combat and Route 66, among others. Lee and his eyes also held down a starring role for 117 episodes (1957-1960) in a bare bones cop show, M Squad, finally available on DVD.

M Squad (which was directly parodied in The Naked Gun) featured Marvin as Detective Lt. Frank Ballinger, a dry-as-toast and tougher-than-leather copper navigating through the mean streets of Chicago. Disappointingly, the black and white half hour episodes are neither taunt nor sharp, and mostly without a hint of noir. Directed by a batch of familiar TV helmsmen (Virgil W. Vogel, Bernard L. Kowalski, Don’s Taylor and Medford), the shows aren’t exactly turgid either, bumped up a little bit by Marvin’s laconic voice-overs and his tough guy sway. (Outside of maybe Lancaster and Mitchum, two other poetic macho man, was there ever quite a sonorous prole voice like Marvin's?)

Some claim that the series was original in its depiction of TV violence and it did indeed sport a fantastic theme song, and a cool opening, a jizzy jazzy score throughout each episode, a nuts and bolts procedural panache, legit Chicago location shooting, and, of course Marvin.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Pain Don't Hurt

The following column is reprinted from the October issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem neccessary to leave out):

Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel

The recently late, not-so-great Patrick Swayze was easily among the most earnest of actors, a toned-up, adult Boy Scout with a modified mullet, a near perfect dancer’s ass, a model’s toothy smile, and the perpetual air of an aiming-to-please golden retriever. His career was a strange one, filled with cheesy box office hitaramas, grade C actioneers, confectionary TV mini-series, topped off with a bold splash of truly awful movies. Not without legit and sincere fans, he’ll be remembered for his athletic grace, his easy sincerity, and his low key yet pretty coyness

Not me though, I’ll remember him chiefly for two very specific film maven credentials, the first being his steady and often awe-inspiring run of exquisitely named movie characters. Think about it: He was Darrel Curtis in The Outsiders (’83), Jed in Red Dawn (’84), Johnny Castle in Dirty Dancing (’87), Sam Wheat in Ghost (’90), and, oh yes sir, Bodhi in Point Break (’91), and, uh-huh, Vida in To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (’95). With character monikers as resplendent as that, the acting stuff was gloriously secondary.

Lest we forget, Swayze also played another one- name figure, a lead role that perpetually resounds by simply uttering (in a quiet, but oh-so-tough, monotone) the eternally poetic sobriquet, Dalton. His second, towering forget-me-not credential is his nonpareil portrait of Dalton, the Zen/magisterial/mystical/ultra-masculine/mythical Wandering Bouncer in one of the baddest of all contempo bad movies, 1989’s Road House.

Although there have been some adventuresome film nitcrits willing to offer up theories that Road House (helmed by the you-couldn’t make-this-up Rowdy Herrington) is a subversive tone poem bent on undercutting the very blueprint of the exceptionally macho action film (evidenced by a co-writing credit of a female, Hilary Henkin, later responsible for Romeo is Bleeding and Wag the Dog), or, in direct contrast, an overt cinematic ballad of plainspoken homoerotic worship (evident in Swayze’s ever balletic fighting moves, or the camera’s continually adoring shots of his aforementioned rump), I will continue to celebrate Road House as a masterfully terrible movie, one that holds the viewer in a horrified hypnotic sway.

Road House centers around Swayze’s Dalton, entering a one horse town in order to preserve the sanctity of the holy Double Deuce, the iconic road house of the title. Dalton, tooling around in a Mercedes convertible and proudly holding a Ph.D. in philosophy from NYU, is a warrior-Buddha, and apparently makes quite the living straightening out juke joints and dive bars throughout our wary nation. Steeped in the wisdom of the Far East, ably to stitch his own gaping knife wounds, he possesses all the Big Answers, and seemingly glides through the air while performing bare-chested tai chi, old school face pummeling, and modern day throat-ripping fu. He turns down sex from the long-legged and big haired women that drool on him in between drinks, literally tosses out dirty bartenders and knocks out petulant customers, and probably cleans the bathrooms stalls hourly with his own ever luxuriant locks. He is forever poised, unshakable, Wyatt Earp with a doctorate, and he even brushes his teeth with a powerfully abiding sense of harminiousness.
When in doubt he calls upon Wade Garret (acting dynamo Sam Elliot), his mentor and the former A#1 Wandering Bouncer, while also seeking tenderness and stand-up sex with Doc (the dual-expressional Kelly Lynch), who happens to be, yup, the town doctor, while simultaneously waging war with criminal kingpin Brad Wesley (melting method man Ben Gazzara). (The screenwriters have subtly tagged everyone with cowpoke handles.) The town is an Edward Hopper painting made up of a car dealership, a general store, the bar, no visible police presence, a lake, and, shades of Samuel Beckett, two houses sitting across it and in full view of each other, the metaphoric ranches of the avenging Dalton and the villainous (and oldie-singing) Wesley.

No fervently rotten movie comes up without eminently quotable dialogue, and Road House is awash in pearly cinematic wisdoms:

“I want you to be nice until it’s time not to be nice.”
“That dog won’t hunt”
“Pain don’t hurt”
“Nobody wins a fight”
“I don’t fly…too dangerous”
“It’s my way or the highway”
“That gal has entirely too many brains to have an ass like that”

There’s absolutely nothing funny about pancreatic cancer, and I just have to believe that neither Johnny Castle or Sam Wheat, or even the Bodhi would approve of movie buffs either laughing or crying about the early passing of La Swayze. Do a Dalton instead, steering steely into the home screen, the later at night the better, the fiercer the gaze, the more controlled the movement, the sharper the mind, the better, and slip full away into another viewing of the immortal Road House, so very bad that it almost transcends itself. RIP Patrick Swayze, 1952-2009.