Archive for Southland Tales

Once Upon a Time in Dreamland

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2008 by dcairns

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Last night I dreamed about Star Trek. There was a big alien who communicated by twiddling his fingers like the Rock does in SOUTHLAND TALES (okay, the Rock doesn’t actually communicate by twiddling but he does twiddle, prodigiously). I think in the end Captain Kirk or whoever shut the alien in a giant pressure cooker, baked him into a pie, and ate him. It was a very unusual episode.

But I still haven’t dreamed up a way of celebrating the one-year anniversary of this blog, which falls due on December first. Suggestions welcome. When the time comes I guess I’ll probably just drink some vodka and write something.

But I do have an idea for next year: the 110th anniversary of Hitchcock’s death. There are 52 surviving Hitchcock feature films (more or less). There are 52 weeks in the year. So I’m going to blog about each film, one a week, for the whole year.

Just putting this idea out in advance in case anyone else thinks of it (and is dumb enough to do it).

Apart from being a chance to catch up on all the early Hitchcocks I haven’t had the pleasure of, it’ll add some much-needed STRUCTURE to this place. Although some weeks my posting might be only tangentially related to the Hitchcock film du semaine. We shall see.

Dreams are also on my mind as I just finished a two-part class on Sergio Leone (it would have been one-part, but the first class was interrupted, DISCRETE CHARM-style, by the arrival of five hundred students demanding the use of the lecture theatre for another subject). And there’s a theory of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA that sees the entire 1960s section as a dream: Noodles (Robert DeNiro) is lost in an opium haze, having betrayed his friends, and he fantasises a future where his best friend lived, the betrayal didn’t really happen, and everything turns out differently. This is the explanation for the film’s ending, in which Noodles is seen in the opium den again, this time grinning.

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This interp kind of bugged me at first — I don’t usually like huge chunks of narrative turning out not to have happened: there’s a sense in which you can feel cheated. But the more I’ve considered it, the more it works for me, and it explains a number of oddities in the 1960s section of the movie.

1) Deborah doesn’t age. Elizabeth McGovern turns up, thirty years on, looking just as she did in the middle section of the film. I thought at first this was because the makeup artist must have thrown down his brushes in despair upon seeing McG’s perfect, smooth countenance. He couldn’t bear to disfigure her with latex wrinkles (Leone’s massive closeups expose the artifice of the prosthetics on Fat Moe in some shots), and the unlined expanse of face gave him nothing to work with anyway. “She looks like a beautiful balloon,” Fiona remarked. But maybe this is a dream, and Noodles simply couldn’t imagine his beloved transfigured by time. “Age cannot wither her.”

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2) Forgive and forget. Deborah doesn’t mention the glaring fact that Noodles raped her, twice, at their last meeting. But then, she wouldn’t, because this is part of what Noodles is trying to forget. It would be thoughtless of her to raise the subject during his dream. Fiona gave up the film in anger at that scene, not because of the rape itself, but because DeNiro turns up at the railway station the following day to see her off. This, Fiona contested, was rather tactless of him. I have to admit she’s right. But at least we can see that the strange scene between Noodles and Deborah is how it is due to Leone’s artful evocation of dream-logic, and not because he’s a misogynist boor whose incapable of thinking his way into a female character’s head. Certainly not.

3) Plot nonsense. For DeNiro to be unaware that a friend has risen to high political office while he’s been hiding out “in the asshole of the world”, he would have had to have been quite literally hiding out “in the asshole of the world”. You can’t get a TV signal in there, you know. But this objection ceases to carry any force if we view the whole scenario as dream-hallucinations. Those things never make sense. I mean, Captain Kirk would never eat somebody.

So it’s definitely a way of looking at the film that reveals new possibilities, and so it’s a good tool to have when examining Leone’s vast and shallow epic. There is, however, as Columbo might say, one thing that still kind of bothers me…

If (as in the post-Viet Nam fantasy world of JACOB’S LADDER) the 1960s of OUATIA is a construct of the protagonist’s mind, it should not contain any references that would not be available to a character from that protagonist’s era, the ’30s. The political scandal DeNiro emerges into is explicable enough, since there was at least as much bribery and corruption in ’30s American life as in the ’60s.

Harder to explain is the frisbee that flies over DeNiro’s head at one point. I don’t think they had those in the ’30s, although the aerodynamic principles under which they operate were presumably already in force. Did Noodles, like Norville in THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, invent this hand-held flying saucer before its time? How ironic that he should try to make his way in the world through the dangerous practice of bootlegging, when he could have made a fortune marketing his plastic disk to the children of the Great Depression!

Also, when DeNiro first arrives back in ’60s New York, he hears the Beatles song “Yesterday” playing as muzak. But, unlikely as it seems, there is a reasonable explanation for this. That song, as Paul McCartney has testified, came to him in a dream. So it’s not implausible that, floating around in the dream-stuff waiting to be discovered and jotted down by a receptive songwriter, the melody should insinuate its way into the opium-vision of a fugitive 1930s gangster.

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Is it?

UPU2?

Posted in Comics, FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 1, 2008 by dcairns

SOUTHLAND TALES felt like just the kind of film I should be defending here, before I watched it. I fairly loved DONNIE DARKO, Richard Kelly’s debut feature, and although DOMINO, which he scripted, gave me a bad vibe and I didn’t see it, SOUTHLAND sounded weird and funny and crammed with STUFF, which is often the way I like my movies. Plus it’s had a chequered history and a lot of critical savaging, much of it fairly crass.

TV’s Mark Kermode, in particular, should be struck off the critic’s list for mindlessly panning the thing on The Culture Show. “It’s terrible,” he said, “Really terrible. Look, here’s a clip. See how terrible it is?” A twenty second clip aired, and charming but light-weight co-presenter Lauren Laverne nodded. “I see what you mean.” Absolutely no critical analysis was offered whatsoever. And it’s a film which certainly warrants a bit of analysis.

The task is complicated by the fact that the version of SOUTHLAND TALES released is not the original director’s cut — Kelly was forced to alter his vision in order to get it screened at all, after the initial very bad response. What I mainly found myself wondering as I watched was what was part of the original conception and what had been added or subtracted to try and streamline the film and make it, what? Commercial, appealing, comprehensible?

The re-edit certainly fails on all three scores, at least on first viewing. The confusing narrative is surprising because there’s so much exposition — for the first third the movie is ALL EXPOSITION. Most of it is provided by a voice-over, and that’s part of the problem. Without a dramatic situation to engage us, the V.O. seems to wash over, bypassing comprehension. It’s telling us exactly what’s going on, but it’s hard to focus, in part because it’s impossible to see how the narrator, a character in the “story”, knows what he’s telling us. Since he’s not involved in most of the action, his narration blurs the story rather than clarifying it.

I was reminded of David Lynch’s DUNE, with it’s many internal monologues by many characters, seemingly pasted in out of a desperate urge to make us understand. My favourite is when the hero’s mum comes in a door, sees that her son is alive, looks relieved, and then her V.O. helpfully states, “My son — lives!” The redundancy is sort of comical and almost Lynchian. Kelly’s narration-stream isn’t as goofy as that, probably because it’s been added in an attempt to normalise a very weird film.

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While Justin Timberlake delivers the verbal afterhthoughts with more gusto than Harrison Ford did in BLADE RUNNER, the result is more like the plot-summary that comes towards the end of LADY FROM SHANGHAI. As Orson Welles wanders the Crazy House, he muses on What Has Gone Before, and we pretty much miss everything he’s saying because it has nothing much to do with the imagery, which is far more interesting. Only when the words “…and I was the fall guy!” land on the image of Welles falling over are we able to register what’s being said at all. It’s not Welles’ fault, it’s the bone-heads at Columbia who forced him to add explanations at inapposite moments, just as R. Kelly has had to do.

Once the SOUTHLAND V.O. thins out and the plot, whatever it is, actually gets in motion, it starts to feel like we’re getting somewhere. Generally the bits with music feel like a movie, rather than a tape-slide presentation or a very long “Previously on Lost” montage, and I started to feel like the film could be an enjoyable experience even without my fully understanding it. I like lots of films I don’t understand. As the proceedings got more fun, I started to yearn for the original version. All the attempts at clarification seemed to make for a more boring experience.

The casting is the high point for me. I always rejoice in the gurning visage of Wallace Shawn, and it was cool to see POLTERGEIST’s Zelda Rubinstein, still looking like she’s been compressed in a car crusher. Bai Ling attempts to inject sultriness into every line reading or movement, Sarah Michelle Gellar does some good porn star acting, the Rock makes his eyes go beady and does weird nervous finger movements, and Justin Timberlake is rather good. Miranda Richardson seems to have been cast for her face rather than her acting, which is quaint as she’s a magnificent actress, one of the real power-houses. But since her costume screams “Villainess!” and that’s all her character is, she really has very little she can add.

The levitating ice-cream van at the end made me think of the flying car in Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, and it seemed clear at that point that the earlier visionary punk sci-fi masterpiece (which anticipates everything from THE X FILES to Grant Morrison’s comic book The Invisibles) was a definite influence. Interestingly, Repo Man now has a comic book sequel, just like SOUTHLAND TALES.

I also thought of the movie Guido’s making in Fellini’s EIGHT AND A HALF. “Do you like movies in which nothing happens?” The idea of a film which tries to include EVERYTHING is a perversely appealing one, even if it’s doomed to fail. In a way, all films fail — they always disappoint their makers. Kelly seems to have gone into this one believing he might never be given another job, so he had to make this film stand in for an entire filmography. Ironically, it’s such a high-profile catastrophe he’s almost certain to be offered more work by the kind of producers who like to present themselves as taming unruly talents.

“The name’s Rock. Rock Rock.”

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