Archive for James Gunn

A Delicate Operation

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2018 by dcairns

I considered following up VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET with BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, since Orangey the cat who plays Cat (typecasting) in that film has appeared in two of our sci-fi season (in the important roles of Butch and Josephine) but in the end I opted for a Gore Vidal farrago theme and we ran MYRA BRECKINRIDGE. This seemed apt as we had just watched THE DANISH GIRL. Of the two, MYRA BRECKINRIDGE probably is the more sensitive and accurate portrayal of the trans experience.

That’s not quite true or fair. THE DANISH GIRL has pretty design and is deadly dull as drama. We didn’t believe real people lived in these rooms and we didn’t meet any real people. Alicia Vikander comes closest to human life. Fiona had read both the novel and, not satisfied with that, the source memoir. I guess the movie wanted to tell an inspirational trans story, and so omitted the highly dysfunctional, dependant relationship Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe had with her surgeon (in reality, more than one doctor, combined into one characterless cypher in the film). We aren’t told that the doctor was attempting to implant ovaries and a uterus, something that could never have worked and wasn’t particularly sensible or necessary anyway. It WAS the first sex change op, so they didn’t know what they were doing. But had nobody already discovered that you couldn’t chop bits off one person and stick them on another and expect it to work?

The movie invents a scene where Lili is beaten up by transphobes, a desperate attempt to create some tension. That’s a terrible bit of writing, because it not only didn’t happen, it doesn’t lead anywhere. It’s just a cheap attempt to upset us. Fiona remembers a much stronger and more nuanced scene in the memoir where Lili meets a businesswoman who is horrified by her simpering mannerisms and scolds her for thinking this is how women are. The first TERF? Eddie Redmayne, accurately I suppose, IS really simpering, and such a scene would have been immensely liberating for those of us tired of his one-note performance.

MYRA BRECKINRIDGE is so farcical it mainly deserves a free pass on all its inaccuracies and insensitivities. It’s pretty far removed from reality and it’s being deliberately crass — a defense that might work for James Gunn — sick humour depends on our shared recognition that something is beyond the pale. If you accept that, where you draw the line becomes a very delicate operation, depending on what you take the joker’s attitude to be. Most of Gunn’s jokes were really unfunny, which doesn’t help his cause. But you can see he’s trying to shock, albeit for no particular reason. Contrast with the joke that sank, or more or less sank, Milo Iannopolis, which merely confirmed that he doesn’t care about anything he says. It probably offended the squarer part of his rightwing base, who had liked the idea of having a gay ally so they could claim they weren’t homophobic, just because it explicitly referred to same-sex sex acts. These guys do not like to think about those things. The fact that it was a joke about child abuse was more or less an alibi for their disgust.

MYRA’s big set-piece is the rape of a straight man, something I’m a bit uncomfortable with. It IS a reversal of the norm and it IS subverting patriarchal assumptions, but men getting raped has quite often been treated as comedic (can I back that up? WHERE’S POPPA? and TRADING PLACES, with its randy gorilla, come to mind) which is about men distancing themselves from it, “proving” it can’t happen to them because it only happens to ridiculous comedy men. That’s surely not what Gore Vidal had in mind, but I think Michael Sarne, the film’s adapter/director, did not have such a nuanced worldview.

Sarne, a decent actor, had made the appalling JOANNA in 1968, one of the worst things that ever happened, and then pitched MYRA to 20th Century Fox, claiming he’d had the perfect idea of how to film the unfilmable. This idea was, basically, It Was All A Dream. This plays out in a somewhat intriguing way in the movie, but is nevertheless pretty lame. I don’t blame Sarne, but I do blame Richard Zanuck for being impressed at all. This is 1970, where all the major studios knew was that they didn’t know what the young audience wanted. The same year they made BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. One obvious connection being the involvement of film critics: Roger Ebert as co-writer on the Russ Meyer phantasmagoria, Rex Reed as co-star in MYRA.

The idea of Myra’s male self, Myron (Reed) following her around as a vision only she can see (like the faux-Bogart in PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM), sometimes taking her place for a moment (like Jason Miller in EXORCIST III) is quite a good and cinematic one — would that THE DANISH GIRL had a single narrative idea to lift it from the mundane. And Reed, though a little lacking in variety in his distant, acidulous manner, is fairly effective. The real stars are of course Raquel Welch, who has some stunning moments of campery; top-billed Mae West, who isn’t embarrassing at all (unlike in SEXTETTE), proving that there ARE third acts in American lives, and they’re like the first and second acts only dirtier and a little slower; and Calvin Lockhart, who’s swishy turn gets many of the best laughs in the first and best half, but who unaccountably vanishes from the story midway like King Lear’s Fool or VERTIGO’s Midge.

Mae, who once dressed as the Statue of Liberty, here puts me in mind of the end of PLANET OF THE APES: a magnificent ruin. Her once-great blues voice is now a husky croak, but she can still sell a song by sheer force of personality. Cinematographer Richard Moore, acquired by Huston for a couple of late follies, is unable to get light into those lacquered eyes, so it’s not always clear if Mae is really in there or phoning it in from some spangly pre-code afterlife, but she still, on some level, has it.

All the casting is good, and all of it is almost cruelly apt. John Huston seems perfectly happy to emphasise his physical grotesquerie — his cowboy walk, as “Buck Loner,” is hilarious. As a silicone construct, Raquel is absurdly apt, and the Brad & Janet figures she corrupts, Roger Herren and Farah Fawcett, project precisely the required vapidity (Raquel’s regal delivery of “She is mentally retarded,” marks her as some kind of comedy genius). I’ll give Sarne credit for some of this because he’s an actor, though more of the kitchen sink school himself. The performances in JOANNA are appalling, and the better tha actor the worse they are, with Donald Sutherland soaring far, far beneath the rest.

Clearly somebody decided the film was in need of rescuing and editor Danford B. Greene, fresh from MASH, is the one who played Galahad, reshuffling scenes for pace rather than narrative logic and splicing in snippets from Fox’s back catalogue to rupture the flow with celebrity cameos and joke Freudian symbolism. Given Myra’s cinephilia, that may always have been part of Sarne’s scheme — it works like gangbusters, until you stop being surprised, and finds the only acceptable use for Laurel & Hardy’s dispiriting Fox features.

Also featuring Harry Mudd, Mr. Magoo, Og Oggilby, Baron Latos, Phoebe Dinsmore and Magnum, P.I.

And 36 views of the Chateau Marmont.

Sarne didn’t direct again for twenty-three years, and when he did, he adapted a punk novel, The Punk, written in 1977 by a fourteen-year-old. In 1993, this must have seemed not exactly up-to-the-minute stuff. Did Sarne realise he was making a period piece?

As for Vidal, he argued strongly that the writer is the true creative force on a film. When William Boyd made the same case, someone rather unkindly pointed out that with his credits, a safer argument would be that the writer was entirely blameless, a minor component in an infernal machine. But Vidal wasn’t in any sense in charge here, and his vision wasn’t being faithfully followed (though Sarne probably hewed closer to the trail than any Hollywood hack at the time would’ve).

What can we learn from MYRA? “Don’t try to be Fellini when you’re an idiot” seems like a good general principle. On the other hand, Sarne’s ludicrous ambition resulted in probably the best film he ever made, and it’s never not highly watchable. It’s the kind of farrago I’m glad exists, like the even more shapeless and obnoxious CANDY.

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LATE IT WAS, HOW LATE

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2017 by dcairns

Regular Late Show participant Matthew David Wilder is a screenwriter (Paul Schrader’s DOG EAT DOG) and director, but I first became aware of him as one of the few people using reviews on the early IMDb as vehicles for actual ideas. Here he is on the way we live now, in these late days ~

HOW LATE IT WAS, HOW LATE

by Matthew Wilder

I’ve noticed a little nervous squinch—that tiny pulse at the far left side of my left eyeball—that usually comes from too much caffeine. It starts annoying me because I shuttle in a most annoyed way from close-up-vision glasses to far-off-distance glasses. Right now, as I feel the squinch, I am shifting from close-up glasses to far-off glasses as the monitor I am looking at is now a little bit farther than it is close. The picture I am staring at is Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc, a movie I shot in July that features, in almost every frame, a great but only moderately well-known actress named Nicole LaLiberte, best known as the femme fatale we assumed would be around for a long time in Twin Peaks: The Return, but who was dispatched with terrifying swiftness by the Bad Agent Cooper.

The genius of the scene is that David Lynch and Mark Frost have Nicole’s character repeatedly ask, within the same scene, “Are you gonna kill me?” to which Bad Coop says “Yes…” There is something terrifyingly childlike about that notion of re-asking a terrifying question and hoping to get a different answer. Eventually Bad Coop makes good on his yeses.

The squinch keeps pulsing as I look at a scene of Nicole’s character being waterboarded.

In our picture, Nicole is Joan of Arc, an alt-right Christian militia terrorist who blows up federal buildings because her voices have told her to take back America for Jesus Christ. As a result of her purity of purpose and her virginal character, she has the same kind of supporters Trump has, but more. She owns a good fifty percent of the populace. Even people who disagree with her politics respect her self-sacrificing and rigidly uncompromising vision.

In the scene, Joan says “I don’t, and can’t, know what is in their hearts.” We have dropped in a version of the line that sounds more Middle American and less precise, like “I doand, and cand, know what is in their hearts.”

As the doand and cand are about to go in, a little ting, like a coin falling in a cup, lands on my phone, and I see an email has arrived. It’s from a film festival in Texas, asking “a number of people who think a lot about movies” to answer the question “Is cinema over?”

A few moments before “Is cinema over?” landed in my lap, some other events came to me by phone. The Republicans passed a tax bill generally considered a wild looting of the Treasury by many sane, centrist people, a giant redistribution of money upward that involved such gleeful moments as lobbyists writing in special dispensations for special friends in pen during the sleepover party at which the Senate passed the bill.

In the same moment I discover that a host of National Public Radio, someone I’ve never heard of before, is being fired for “inappropriate behavior,” one of which is signing an email “xoxo.” The portrait of this gentleman depicts him looking somewhat enfeebled in a wheelchair, which somehow—is this intentional or just my interpretation?—scores as “See? We’re gettin’ ‘em ALL!” rather than “Isn’t this just too sad?”

Joan’s head is seen on a sort of dentist’s-chair-cum-surgical-table-cum-torture-device. Her head is down low and her feet, out of frame, are up high, as if she were lying on an upended seesaw. Are you gonna kill me? ……Yes.. I look at the phone again, which gives me evidence from a friend of people piling on Richard Brody’s attack on Woody Allen’s character in a review of Wonder Wheel. The Texas question sticks with me: Is cinema over?

Immediately there is an attempt to evade the question. Over what? is one way. What difference would it make if it were over or not? is another. But the intention is clear. We know what the guy who wrote this question was thinking. Is “cinema”—that thing where people gather in an operahouse-like setting (which runs the gamut all the way from majestic to degraded) to see moving pictures, together, historically on celluloid, in a communal experience of laughing or crying or being bored together—over? As in dead.

I pull out my notebook. The page I am about to write on is full of little mispronouncements in our picture’s dialogue. You said you wanted to meet with a spiritual advisuh. Some of them are crossed out, done, some of them persist. Next to them, on the next page, I write Is cinema done? and under that EXAMPLES OF NOT DONE.

Here is a pause.

I think of all the things I have enjoyed in recent times in that big room with people I don’t know in it, and most of them are rather effete, culturally anodyne art objects. Frederick Wiseman reflecting on the good deeds done by idealistic public servants. Bruno Dumont making a kind of comedy so broad it becomes a meditation on the nature of comedy itself.

Stuff someone could write a long, thoughtful article about. But how about cinema itself, invader of the unconscious ¹. Something that hits us on a gut level, as Woody Allen once said, the thing that appeals not to our ideas but to our emotions and senses. Is that still around? I searched the hard drive of my brain for recent examples and could only find one.

I scratched on the page:

guardians vol. 2

It is a commonplace in Los Angeles that everything in movies is story story story, but, as anyone who has seen studio movies in the last 20-odd years knows, that’s not really the case. The story is pro forma, usually a somewhat banged-up and disfigured version of a very generic story (the Boston critic Sean Burns made a delightful case for JUSTICE LEAGUE as an almost exact reworking of THE AVENGERS, somewhat like Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO, a reworking that got away scot-free because no one could remember the plot of THE AVENGERS enough to see the similarities). The picture that stands out as the most cinematic, in the old-fashioned sense of “pure cinema,” a perfect storm of camera movement, staging, editing, color, sound and score, is James Gunn’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2, and it’s maybe six months since I’ve seen the picture and I can barely remember what it’s about—except that Kurt Russell is a godlike figure who wants Chris Pratt to join the family business, to accept a bear hug from him, to shape up and start doing things like his old man…Except, of course, we discover that the ever-lovable Kurt is not, in fact, an example of lovable old-school manhood but turns out to be a diabolical villain.

Turns out to be. I look at a text from yesterday. I asked a girl who used to work with Garrison Keillor, “Did he ever do anything to you?” I recall her never having a bad word to say about him. She was the only cutie under 50 in his vicinity during the tapings of the show; if he did something, she must’ve known about it. The response I get to the text is “Do I know u? Think u got the wrong #, ”

I write underneath GUARDIANS the following phrases: SHANG-A-LANG + LAKE SHORE DRIVE.

What’s cinematic in GUARDIANS is that the director, James Gunn, somehow got the global commercial juggernaut of Marvel to sign on to a movie about a motley crew of humans and creatures whose universe is lit up in the fluorescent psychedelia of a Gaspar Noe movie, and whose whiz-bang action set pieces are all scored to…nearly forgotten AM-radio hits.

Here is the key to what’s powerful here. It is tiresome, albeit sometimes funny, to repurpose overfamiliar pop songs—see John Lithgow coming down the escalator to some cheesy Barry Manilow in DADDY’S HOME 2. But what is truly powerful—what is the excavation—is when something you’ve almost entirely forgotten comes zooming back in the form of a physically exhilarating set piece: see the tour of alien worlds scored to Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah’s “Lake Shore Drive” in GUARDIANS 2.

Hold on a second—the words don’t fit the mouth. I doand. And cand. Know what is in their hearts. I ask the editor to hit pause. He was born in 1993. “Can I ask you something? Do you remember the song ‘Lake Shore Drive’ in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2?” This chap loves STAR WARS movies—I think he wears a different hoodie with a Sith on it every day—but second to that really digs Marvel movies. He doesn’t, so I play it:

“Ring a bell?”

“Nah, not really.”

“Does it work, though?”

“Oh my God! It’s genius!”

I find this often. Young kids respond to Led Zeppelin or Stevie Nicks as if it had just come out yesterday. No baggage attached to it—they just like it more than the Autotuned things they are offered today. I think there is a certain extra something, however, that comes from being aware of the craziness of that admixture of Liberace twinkling piano, folk-rock shuck ‘n’ jive, and reference to “comin’ on by on LSD” that makes its placement in a 2017 corporate product all the more endearingly insane.

I stare at the notebook. Guardians 2 SHANG-A-LANG + LAKE SHORE DRIVE. Well, there must be something more to it, right? That is “cinema.” It’s just a bunch of ricocheting, highly digitized, extremely artificial-looking set pieces scored to earwormy ditties that remind me of grade school in the Gerald Ford era?

“Can’t we get one of these ‘doand’s to fit with where her mouth opens?”

“I’ve tried all of them,” the PHANTOM MENACE fan says, “but they’re all too late. She’s slower on the ‘doand’ version than when she’s saying ‘don’t.’”

We go back to the earlier, cleaner, nicer, hard-T sound of don’t.

I try to find more reasons for this movie I vividly but only partially remember, reasons other than fleeting euphoric moments in which all the elements of cinema harmonize to make something that crashes into every one of your pleasure centers—but I can’t find any more.

“Matthew, I think I’ve run out of don’ts.”

Someone texts me that there was supposedly a mass shooting at a “You Will Not Replace Us” rally near Roy Moore’s home in Alabama, but it was some fake news.

I find out that a grad-school professor of mine has nine women complaining against him. It’s always nine.

I’d try to make the words fit again, but it’s too late.

You may press me to know what my people are planning, but I can tell you I have no answer. I don’t and can’t know what is in their hearts.

(1). The night after this encounter with “Is cinema done?” I saw Edgar Ulmer’s THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN at the Echo Park Film Center, a room filled with seemingly flammable stacks of super-8 film. An abject, Skid Row invisible-man movie, with one interesting exception. The scientist in it—not a mad one, but the other archetypal kind, the kindly Mitteleuropa Einstein-accented genius who is extorted by evil men to do evil things—we discover cracked, spiritually, because he was forced to do experiments in an Auschwitz-like camp on women with masks on their faces; and, of course, he discovered that one of them was his own wife. At the end, he tells the no-account roughneck whom he has invisibilized that he is to be “a sacrifice,” a Judas goat for the atomic age. Somehow it is as if, in the script form, the real concerns of the artist Ulmer leaked onto the screen. In other words, it’s as if Ulmer’s movie excavated his own unconscious without his being aware of it—a kind of naïve Lynch-ism. (While watching TRANSPARENT I was also at all moments half thinking of the stormy exit from the theatre of a recent ex-friend, at one time the about-to-be editor of JOAN, who came to watch a series of tortured shorts by international arthouse directors, then left in a huff when the tawdry TRANSPARENT come on.)