Monday, February 28, 2011

First Some Miscellaneous, then Kiki!!

Just kidding. And if you don't know that joke, ask Gramps, he'll remember it.

First, a bunch of Jewish Week stories that are still relevant, so you might want to check them out. The Film Society of Lincoln Center is wrapping up its annual Film Comment Selects program, which includes three shorter films by Claude Lanzmann. I talk about them here, for those who want to know what I think.

Tonight, PBS has one of their better episodes in The American Experience, a 55-minute look at the Triangle Shirt Waist Fire. If you want to know what a Tea Party-Grover Norquist America will look like, this film will answer your question. As you may recall, I wrote about it in my spring film preview for JWeek.

I have to admit that it has been many years since I watched an Oscar telecast for more than about 20 minutes, even when I've been at Oscar parties (a ritual I try to avoid for reasons that will become clear momentarily). In recent years, even with the admirable work of former Ira Voter Bill Condon (also a former Ira winner; it's not what you know . . . ) the telecast reminds me of a more benign variation on waterboarding. So you can imagine my amusement that the one Oscar-related story I wrote this year, about the makers of the short documentary "Strangers No More," inadvertently tagged the recipients of the statuette. Kirk Simon and Karen Goodman are very nice people and I'm delighted that after four previous nominations apiece, they finally have won.

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The Iras are approaching, indeed looming large in my rear-view mirror. It's sort of like being chased by Godzilla, only he has about a dozen heads (in various stages of graying and male pattern baldness, including my own unfortunately). Of course, this has engendered some fascinating exchanges among the voters and I thought I'd share one riff of my own, simply because I think it goes to some issues that will be of interest to anyone who is reading this blog.

The topic that triggered the thoughts below was a thread that veered off the road when I denounced Kick-Ass, a film that I think is deeply repellent in its attitude toward violence, towards its characters and its audience. (Not to mention that the relationship between the father and daughter is unbelievably creepy.) I began by (mis)quoting Jonathan Rosenbaum's explanation for why he didn't see the Coen brothers' True Grit. Briefly put, it grew out of his mounting distaste for violent revenge narratives. This led to a spirited debate on whether they are the driving force in most American studio films today and whether there is something inherently bad about that. Gradually, though, the ground shifted and we took up what I think is, finally, the real problem, which is the way that violence itself is handled in American studio releases. I will apologize in advance for some of the very digressive moments in this post -- I was running on no sleep for a change. (Look at the time this was posted.) But I think that some of the points I made were worth disseminating further and I'm too lazy to actually edit an e-mail.

I'm not . . . going to argue that revenge is inherently a bad thing. I think it depends on context, degree of provocation and the nature and degree of vengeance taken. But surely you can't be preparing to defend, for example, Death Wish 1 through 8 as moral exemplars? To my mind, Kick-Ass isn't much different, only more extravagantly mounted and marginally more clever.

Take revenge out of the Western and you're reduced to empire-building films and not much else. But there is a significant difference between, say, the Anthony Mann westerns in which revenge is accompanied by real suffering and -- if you've looked at Jimmy Stewart's face at the end of Winchester 73 -- doesn't buy anything like real peace of mind, and the gleeful massacres that characterize most contemporary big-budget action films.

I think what bothers me the most about Kick-Ass and its little brothers is the complete refusal to suggest that there is a price exacted for all this killing, or that the victims are -- god help us -- human beings. And they're not. These films are little more than live-action video games, right down to their design and cutting styles.

Look, there have always been anodyne action films in which the characters are about as lifelike and realistic as shooting gallery clay pigeons. Some of those movies are even good films. But I reserve the right to say, 'okay, little boys, that's enough for today.' Besides, movies in which most of the characters exist only as talking bulls-eyes are dramaturgically shit. As Budd Boetticher said, the stronger the villain, the better the movie. The evil daddy-good daddy dialectic, such as it is, of Kick-Ass is feebly played out, not the least because the evil daddy is so fucking boring.

I stepped away from the computer to go to synagogue, which was interesting and surprisingly enough, quite apposite, as you will see.

Interestingly, the guest speaker at my synagogue this evening was one of the members of the board of the New York State Defenders Association, the organization of public defender lawyers, who spoke quite eloquently about the failings of a criminal justice system that is driven mainly by a mixture of revenge and -- now that these things are more privatized -- greed. I won't try to replicate his talk, which was excellent. I merely mention it because it seemed appropriate to our own discussion. I will, however, recommend that you check out the website of another organization with which he works, Equal Justice USA, to learn about some very different paradigms for a justice system.

So, before I left, I invoked Samuel Fuller and Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher and Alfred Hitchcock. This is gonna get a little complicated, so buckle up.

What sets Mann and Fuller apart from most of their contemporaries and virtually all of today's action film directors is their insistence on their heroes' responsibility for their actions. Fuller and Mann both structure key action scenes visually on the principle that both "good" and "bad" guys must be in the frame together when violence happens; as a result, both are visually equivalent, their actions are frequently interchangeable, the hero is as culpable as the villain.

In Fuller, this temporary moral equivalence is ratcheted up by the fact that a lot of his heroes are men who have chosen to live outside of conventional society and who are, frequently, borderline nutjobs. Moreover, Fuller tends to frame his films pretty tightly, claustrophobically in fact, so that when violence happens it's like a necessary explosion and nobody is exempt from the results. Finally, a lot of Fuller's time and energy are expended in deliberately deflating the genre expectations that we bring from more conventional action films. I'm thinking of the scene in Steel Helmet where the green-as-grass lieutenant tells Neyle Morrow to get a dead GI's dogtags; needless to say, this being the Fuller universe, which bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the real world (not the reel world), the tags are booby-trapped, Morrow is blown to atoms and Gene Evans sits there muttering, "Get his dogtags. Hmmph." I think it's telling that one of the things that Fuller was pissed off at WB for when he made Merrill's Marauders was that they cut shots in which GIs inadvertently shot their own men during the heat of combat; it doesn't comform to the genre stereotype, but it's what Sam saw when he was a rifleman in WWII. The violence in Fuller is suffocating, morally and visually. I don't see that in many contemporary US studio films. (But I have seen it in Lebanon and Beaufort, two Israeli war films; guess that has something to do with having almost universal military service. And I think The Hurt Locker catches a bit of this attitude also, to its immense credit.) Additionally, Fuller frequently tries to offer his protagonists a way of sidestepping violence as a solution, or the option of reversing the effects of their violent acts -- think of the final moments of Big Red One when Marvin saves his German counterpart -- who he shot -- because the war is over. (There's also that lovely and somewhat goofy discussion between Rod Steiger and Charles Bronson of comparative theology in the middle of Run of the Arrow. Only Sam!)

In Mann, besides the single-frame action, which tends to be even more primal and feral than in Fuller, there is an enormous focus on the actual pain incurred by violence. Think of any of the Stewart westerns, particularly The Man From Laramie and The Naked Spur. These are almost Christ tales, with Stewart's protagonists receiving stigmata and trembling and whimpering from a combination of rage and pain. Actions have consequences and, as Dave Bromberg would say, 'You gotta suffer if you want to sing the blues.' I think that this, combined with the extraordinary use of locations and the perverse family units that run through these films are a bit part of why they are so powerful, so intense. But the key is the way that Mann uses Stewart (and in Man of the West, Cooper but with very subtle and fascinating variations). At the center of Stewart's screen personal is a very American duality of his persona, that folksy, laconic Will Rogers-type who, underneath, harbors a potential for near-psychotic violence. Stewart was fortunate in his career that he worked with several great directors who found different but brilliant ways of utilizing that duality, Mann, Hitchcock and Capra. . . . But the one thing that links the Mann westerns and a film like Mr. Smith is that even when he is stripped of all his defenses, is in almost unbearable pain, he will revert to his moral center, which is fundamentally at odds with the revenge motive. Yes, he kills Dutch Henry Brown at the end of Winchester 73, but when he comes back to town afterwards, he looks utterly spent, like someone who has completed the task of a lifetime and has no idea what else he has to live for. There are several moments in Bend of the River when his character stops in the middle of an act of violence, in a mixture of loss of control, shame and remorse. Think of the moment when he fights with some of the guys trying to hijack the wagon train and pulls a knife on Jack Lambert (I think it was Jack Lambert, if my memory is correct; hey, we've all wanted to pull a knife on Jack Lambert or Jack Elam, right?); and Julia Adams yells his name; he stops, his eyes bulging with a demonic fury, then looks at the knife in his hand in utter shock; the hand is shaking, he looks back at her and drops the knife with a look of shame coming over his face. For me the key moment in that film (I think it's the most underrated of the cycle, a really great film that gets less attention than The Far Country, which is an easier read, being overly schematic and didactic and talky) comes when Stewart, Arthur Kennedy and a young Rock Hudson are shooting down from a rock outcropping at a bunch of bad guys; they've cut them to ribbons and Stewart says, "That's enough." Kennedy, who is cold as ice, glares at him and barks, "Why?" Hudson, clearly uncertain what is going on, asks earnestly, "Yes, why?" Stewart says, "If I have to tell you, you'll never understand." I could go on for pages in this vein; Mann's a great and underrated director, and the moral complexity of his films is undervalued. But you get the idea.

Again, someone will have to show me a comparable action director working today, someone who puts his heroes through the Stations of the Cross not merely to fulfill an audiences blood lust (Mel Gibson, figuratively and, heh, heh, literally) but to make him question the very basis of his actions. I will readily grant that there aren't too many action stars out there today who either iconographically or talent-wise carry the weight of Stewart or Cooper or Bogart (in the Hawks films, where his moral grace is so powerful) or even DeNiro and Pacino.

I'm too tired to go into much detail about Hitchcock and Boetticher. Briefly, each of them uses alternating point-of-view to force the audience to participate in/identify with the villain. Each of them has films in which the villain is the most interesting and even attractive character in the film. I won't bother listing the Hitchcocks -- we all know them very well. I'll just mention one: Lars Thorwald in Rear Window, with his genuine anguish when he asks "Why are you doing this to me?" Boetticher's best films are structured around the contrast between his likeable rogues (Marvin, Boone, Claude Akins, Pernell Roberts and James Coburn) and the truculence of Randolph Scott. Even Scott's character frequently comes to like and even respect some of these bad guys. Of course, this arc culminates in Ray Danton's Legs Diamond, an utterly charming narcissist who will kill anyone who slows down his ascent.

Again, with the possible exception of some Alan Rickman performances, where are the great baddies of the past? That, I admit, is also a function of the way that TV changes the playing field; Carroll O'Connor was a splendid character actor who frequently got those kind of roles, then TV made him a star. But it also has to do with the complete and utter contempt that lousy filmmakers have for their characters, good, bad or in-between. I think that you can see it in the cavalier way that crap screenwriters will kill off a character for the sole reason that they need to motivate the next action setpiece.

I think there is a definite sea-change going on in the action film over, as Kevin [Baker, a long-ago Ira voter who has returned to the flock and is very astute] rightly says, the past 20-30 years. I think it's directly attributable to several factors; the success of the women's movement and the backlash that spurred, the post-9/11 paranoia, fed by a moron in the White House who thought that global politics was an episode of Wanted Dead or Alive (with apologies to McQueen and that show), a generation that has grown up on video games, particularly on violent ones. (I'm not blaming videogames for social ills or aesthetic decline; it's just that the visual aesthetic and tone of a lot of these films reflects the influence of the video game.)

I probably could throw in the effect of Jaws and the Friday the 13th/Halloween franchises is making B movies into A movies, but I don't buy that; Fuller and Mann (at Eagle-Lion) and Boetticher were making B movies. It used to be the only place you could make a really radical social statement, as opposed to the "male weepies" as someone called the problem films with their wholesale sentimentality. But I will note the increasing role of the hypermasculinized hero -- starting with Governor Arnold and continuing through Robocop and the comic-book heroes with their plasticized musculature -- and the utter disdain that these characters have for their opponents. (Robocop is the exception; clearly Verhoeven is making a satire on everything I'm complaining about, but I don't know how many of the 14-year-old boys in the audiences got that, and the sequels are just pure shit.) Personally, I'd rather never hear another stupid one-liner from an action hero after he has killed someone. (Yeah, that probably started with Connery's 007, but with Schwarzenegger it became fetishized, largely because the big lummox cannot act.) And the villains are interchangeable knock-down targets.

I will say this. Sam Raimi's Spiderman films appear to me to be a significant exception to everything I've said here. I respect Raimi, although I don't really like the Spiderman films very much. (In truth, I miss the Three Stooges dopiness of the Evil Dead trilogy; now those are live-action cartoons by design.) I also will grudgingly accept that the two Christopher Nolan Batman films don't fit into this paradigm either; I have a different set of problems with them.

Does revenge drive all of American culture? Of course not. That's not what Rosenbaum said and if I suggested he did then I inadvertently misrepresented his statement. And there is a big difference between being sick of recent manifestations of that plot mechanism and dismissing obviously great works because they have revenge at their center. Fuller and Karlson, to pick up on Damien [Bona]'s complaint, make movies in which the protagonists are damaged by their quest for vengeance, when they aren't destroyed outright ("Underworld USA" for example).

I won't claim to speak for Rosenbaum; you can look up his comments on his blog, which is well worth reading by the way. But I will speak for me: I think Kick-Ass is a deplorable film and an easy, cheap one. And in that respect it is typical of a trend in recent American action films, a trend that makes me nauseous.

Glad I got that off my chest.

Look, there are cartoon-like action films that I really enjoy. They tend to me more self-consciously comic in intent like Alan Rudolph's all-but-forgotten Roadie, with Meat Loaf as a sort of human-cannonball-in-a-cowboy-hat and Kaki Hunter (whatever happened to her?) as his very own Olive Oyl. (I suspect this latter piece of casting was just another expression of Rudolph's affinities with Robert Altman, with Hunter as a stand-in for Shelley Duvall. Or maybe Robert Duvall. Who knows?) Of course that is a much more innocent film and the violence is all slapstick. (If you want to see what happens when someone confuses slapstick comedy with real volence, see the multi-car pileup at the end of John Schlesinger's deeply repellent 1981 film Honky Tonk Freeway. There's a man who really knew how to let the air out the balloon, while sucking it out of the theater.)

The violence in Sergio Leone's movies tends to be very fast and sometimes even cartoonish, but he also knows when to slow down and make an emotional and/or moral statement, and his heroes (such as they are) are outsiders who can never be integrated into the community that will grow up in their wake. Don Siegel, the same thing.

I could go on like this for days. These are some of my favorite filmmakers and films, and I'm just warming to my subject. And since all of these guys are dead (except Rudolph, who hasn't had a feature film released since 2002), I don't get to write about them much anymore.

But sleep beckons and tomorrow is a deadline day. No, today is a deadline day. Oy.

Before you go to sleep or whatever you plan on doing next, I urge you to check out the Equal Justice USA website. Good people doing good work. If there is anywhere in American life that needs a paradigm shift more than criminal justice . . . well, it really is needed.