Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Simon (1980, Brickman)

Alan Arkin is such an inward-oriented actor that all comedy in Simon (1980) happens around, not because of him. And that’s bad news, since there’s precious little in director Marshall Brickman’s screenplay that wouldn’t rely on our amusement (or endearment) with its main character’s small-minded folly.

Arkin plays professor Simon Mendelssohn: a lug of a scientist, whose theories may sound complex, but would never strike you as bright. He spews them out as if he was ranting about his favorite baseball team in a barber’s chair. Arkin can be very loud in this movie, but he doesn’t let himself any flights of fancy or ignition – his mad scientist is a complete square.

Simon becomes reprogrammed to genetically resemble an extra-terrestrial, and then slips away from the controlling team of scientists that conceived the idea (they’re a wacky bunch and the best reason to see the movie – Wallace Shawn and Max Wright come off as a pair of self-amused dorks; a joy to watch!).

Since the film is visually comatose, we’re condemned to picking up bits and pieces of amusing lines, concepts and actors’ turns. It comes as no surprise that Madeline Kahn should stand out as a sexy, over-educated scientist who talks about death to turn Simon on. Her appearance is the high point of the movie. What dominates most of it, though, is fanciful satire on dumbing effects of TV, reeking of the kind of stand-up-skit dialogue I find irritating each time it makes its way into a movie: be it Brickman’s, or Allen’s, or anyone else’s. There are some zingers that sound best when thrown from the stage; they sound awfully contrived when the writer hacks them into a supposed exchange between characters. Simon, alas, relies on them almost entirely.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Polly Perverse Strikes Again!" (1986, Sallitt)

For a long time now, I wanted to share some thoughts about Polly Perverse Strikes Again! (1986), the first feature film by Dan Sallitt, whose Honeymoon (1998) and All the Ships at Sea (2004) I admire greatly. I find Polly Perverse… an admirable work and I regret I wasn’t able to include it in the retrospective of Dan’s work I co-organized in October 2008.

Compared to Sallitt’s other two features – each crowded with characters able and willing to communicate their grievances as calmly as possible – Polly Perverse… flaunts an almost Fullerian opening: the yet-to-be-named Theresa (Dawn Wildsmith), all aflutter with uninhibited rage, kicks at a closed door and shouts insults to an unseen man (later credited as “Scumbag behind the door”). Therese’s rage isn’t rooted in anything but itself – and that powerful expression of emotion sets the main theme of the movie, which will have to do with repression, inhibition and denial (neither of them judged necessarily pejoratively).

The movie’s premise is shaped to resemble screwball comedies of 1930s and 1940s: it deals with a sexually overactive Theresa coming back into the life of a successful L.A. photographer, Nick (S.A. Griffin) – against his will (or in a perfect response to it, depending on how you look at the matter). Since Nick last knew Theresa, 10 years prior, he’s settled down with Arliss (Strawn Bovee), a paragon of quiet efficiency. He went domestic: when Theresa calls him up for the first time after her coming to L.A., he’s doing chores (chopping cabbage with a big knife: a neat metaphor for his self-imposed castration). With the extra stress of a possible promotion at work, he’s almost a copy of David (Cary Grant) from Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938). The main difference lies in that he’s not a virgin. In fact, it’s Theresa who says at one point he was too much for her to handle. Still, within the world of this movie, he’s the straight guy tempted by a kook to join her world of unrestrained id – and in those terms Polly Perverse… is as screwball as Lady Eve (1941).

Theresa is a kook, all right. She’s also a lowlife (she looks a little bit like Depardieu’s Loulou [1980]) and a sexual predator who even chooses Nick’s girlfriend for her prey. Theresa is as inevitable part of Nick’s life as he’ll ever resent it. In fact, she seems less a force of nature per se, than a force of Nick’s sexual appetite unleashed – it’s funny that Jonathan Demme should make Something Wild (1986) the very same year Sallitt made his debut; the two movies correspond beautifully.

As far as the social status within Sallitt’s oeuvre goes, Theresa is closest to Edith Meeks’ Virginia as we see her at the end of All the Ships at Sea: wearing an unbuttoned leather jacket, she too is willing to get on the road by any means possible. (Theresa takes a bus, Virginia hitchhikes). She’s free, but she’s also restless – if Virginia was seeking consolation and order, Theresa resents them and she never says “sorry” or “thank you” (Virginia’s last act we saw her make towards her sister was thanking her for childhood companionship). She’s humbled only once, and even then not by a fellow human, but by an ATM machine (“It won’t give me more than two hundred dollars…”).

I think Polly…’s biggest area of success is the complex portrayal of Arliss, as played by the beautiful Strawn Bovee ( I met her last year; she hardly even aged!). It takes Sallitt less than two minutes of her initial screen presence to establish the notion of how many things she’s good at; of how many things she embodies, represents, and/or enacts. When we first see her, she’s composed in her pajamas, combing her hair and looking nothing short of a model in a bed sheet ad. Then she succeeds in coaxing Nick to have sex with her, even though he’s not particularly willing (she achieves her goal simply by looking at him). The next morning, she’s listening to some classical music as she prepares to jog – wearing a complete jogging gear that would make her fit to star in yet another ad, just as she is. Before she leaves the bedroom, she remembers to remind Nick of a leaking faucet.

All this is merely shown; Sallitt won’t draw our attention to any of it until late in the movie, when Nick complains that Arliss is great at anything she does at any given moment (as opposed to Theresa, who’s “sex all the time”). In fact, Nick’s profession makes it plausible for him to be with Arliss: she’s a perfect model for any “ad” thrown her way by everyday necessities (in the course of the film she types, cooks, reads books – while Nick stays comically impassive, almost in a torpor: at one point Arliss throws a book at him to get a reaction from him; she fails).

Arliss’s view of Theresa shifts more than ours: she goes from saying: “She has to be a kind of nut!” to openly resenting her and then, finally, she gives her a ride and (in the movie’s brilliant closing scene) invites her to play a game of cards with Nick and herself.

This is the only Sallitt movie in which he tries and succeeds in directing comedy: the scene where Theresa invites herself into Nick and Arliss’s place is a wonderful crossover of Mother and the Whore (1973) and The Awful Truth (1937). Arliss’s strain to remain civil is physically visible, and Nick’s even more of a slob in this scene than he was before: he’s the most comical presence in the movie and even though I had some reservations about S.A. Griffin performance when it was supposed to convey rage, here he is spot-on.

Since I mentioned Griffin: I have some other problems with the film, too. Some elements seem to me either misplaced or simply unnecessary: is Nick’s fervor in establishing whether a movie theater shows a film “in a proper ratio” all his own, or simply Sallitt’s…? (I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the auteurist opening credit, stating that the film was “Directed and Written by”, with the traditional order reversed.). Also, the first scene set at David’s workplace didn’t convey any real sense of locale to me: the characters seemed to be detached from it and it didn’t really relate to the way they moved around. In that respect, I think the workplace scenes in Honeymoon (and, as far as a church can be considered a workplace for a priest, in All the Ships at Sea) were much more successful.

Still, I like that movie a lot; wish it was shown more often.


NOTE: I wish I watched the movie from a better source material : the old VHS I own thanks to a friend John Surface has some dialogue utterly inaudible (the exchange I most regret not hearing in its entirety comes in the ATM scene: it has a cameo by no other than Blake Lucas and I wished I heard better what he says to Theresa).

Saturday, September 12, 2009

"Inglourious Basterds" (2009, Tarantino)

A lot more than words gets misspelled in Inglourious Basterds (2009), Quentin Tarantino’s revenge fantasy, which has Adolf Hitler and all of his key cronies killed – in what must count as the most immoral cinematic set-piece since Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1934). (It’s no less exciting to watch, too.) The movie is so funny and clever it gives you a moral sugar rush: you relish in the massacre of the Nazis the same way they were just seen relishing in a war propaganda flick – and yet you don’t see how much you end up reminding of them. The camera looks down at the boiling crowd of burning bodies and makes you a cheering accomplice – Tarantino ducks all moral quandaries by conveniently removing the only two characters we cared for from the burning theater. It’s a new level of moral trickery, even more dubious than the sadistic finale of The Dirty Dozen (1967) – here, no one stands any chance of escaping or fighting back.

What Tarantino displays in this film is the same quality we fear so much in its arch-villain, Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), the multilingual smoothtalker who shifts allegiances as swiftly as he does accents. He’s nicknamed the Jew Hunter, but he’s not even truly anti-Semitic: he represents not so much evil, but skill itself – skill that may be put to any use and serve any given end: including all the deadliest ones. Ironically, Landa does not serve as an example of what’s wrong with this movie – to the contrary. By removing all human quality from him, and having Landa perform his murderous ballet throughout, the movie becomes almost abstract in its treatment of characters. And that’s Tarantino’s theme: his major contribution to movie art lies in recognizing characters’ right to subvert the story being told about themselves. Note how slowly the plot of Inglourious Basterds develops: each step takes Tarantino 20 minutes to make. Before a plot point is being realized, the characters take all the time in the world to talk, to joke, to swagger through a scene without any respect for its dramatic needs. I find it startling that filmmaker as slow and celebratory as Tarantino enjoys so great a success among the action-flick fans (in that respect, he’s the greatest disciple of Sergio Leone there ever was).

Morally, the movie is unacceptable. Cinematically, it’s brilliant, personal and extremely idiosyncratic filmmaking that I welcome and salute. Just like in real life: some bastards you cannot help but love.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

"Janosik: A True Story" (2009, Holland, Adamik)

I can imagine Janosik: A True Story (2009) playing much better in the Slovakian language version than in the Polish one I saw; not only because the latter is dubbed rather clumsily. The problem is that the whole movie – the way it was shot and cut – seems to have been designed to preemptively conceal the dubbing process. We rarely see the lips of anyone speaking move: the way two-shots are structured here, we focus more often on the listening party. A whole arsenal of techniques is engaged: cutting away from the speaking actor, obstructing the camera’s view of his or her lips, or simply having him or her leave the frame while the line is still being delivered. The results are disastrous: the movie is as detached from its own characters as R.W. Fassbinder could only have dreamt to make his own. Janosik… doesn’t give the actors any space whatsoever, so we are left with a collection of half-baked performances that (even if they had taken place) didn’t interest Holland and Adamik enough to welcome them in their movie. Michał Żebrowski is the only one who got lucky and not only gives a good performance, but also has it filmed and delivered by the filmmakers for us to see.

The main part of Janosik (the Slovakian Robin Hood known in this parts of Europe to every child), was given to a Slovakian actor Václav Jirácek, which might have been a good casting choice, but in the light of what I just wrote it’s hardly relevant. At least, Jirácek has an insolent grin and a swaggering walk: that alone carries a couple of scenes. But he wasn’t directed enough: he has no breeziness to him, even though one (rather successful) scene has him literally flying over Tatra mountains. His adventures are ordeals for him and us: there is no cunning to them, no thrill, no spunk. Robbing people for fun has never looked so much like a chore: there is no glee in Janosik’s eyes, no fun at cutting the rich down to size. Jirácek is no match for Marek Perepeczko, who played the part in a Polish TV series in the 1970s. Perepeczko was a burly, beefy guy with a blond mane to his scalp – no great actor, mind you, but one who got the humor of the part and was playing it with an appropriate mix of irony and excitement. Jirácek comes off mostly as a wimp, because he doesn’t know how to relish in mischief.

The only ambition the film seems to have at least partially fulfilled lies in sexualizing the Janosik legend. Sex scenes are plentiful, and they even managed to work up a couple of bourgeois ladies sitting behind me to hiss: “What filth!”, twice. I welcome the attempt, but the truth is that 80% of the sex is filmed in such an ugly, unimaginative way, I was left slightly embarrassed. The scene in which Janosik’s lover blows tiny bubbles of saliva into his mouth had a great premise – it could have shown how people turn their bodies into shared sandbox toys in the sexual act – but the way it plays out, it’s joyless – we don’t care for those people enough to get excited at their spontaneous erotic games.

A sad and excruciating experience, Janosik… marks a low point in both Adamik’s and Holland’s careers – and since I value their other respective movies greatly, I cannot but wait for them to start working each on her own again.