Ferdy on Films, etc.

Film reviews and commentary, random thoughts on the world around us, blatant promotion of favorite charities, and other ponderables.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt (2004)
Director: Margaret Brown

Music documentary is a specialized and difficult film genre in which to dabble. In most cases, the music is the most interesting aspect of the musician or group being profiled. The music documentarian, therefore, essentially has two choices—make a concert film that puts the music and the musician’s magnetic persona center stage or choose a subject with such an interesting life or at such an interesting juncture in history that the visual experience will at least equal the experience of simply listening to a CD.

Among the successes of the genre are Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (1978), which records the last live concert of The Band; the Maysles brothers’ Gimme Shelter (1970), about the Rolling Stones’ disastrous concert at Altamont, California; Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970); and Sam Jones’ I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (2002), about the recording of Wilco’s fourth album. Each of these documentaries covered a live experience, which gave the directors the advantage of being able to react to events as they unfolded.

Even when a director must rely primarily on archival footage, the results can be inspired. Bob Smeaton’s Festival Express (2003), about the rock festival train that brought Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, and other top performers to cities across Canada in 1970, benefited from great candid films of the time and a sense of fun about the experience Smeaton was able to capture. Smeaton certainly got lucky by having an abundance of source material from which to choose. Margaret Brown, on the other hand, set herself the challenge of documenting the life of a musician who had cult status even in his own lifetime and is almost unknown today. The pickings must have been a lot slimmer for her.

Brown took filmed concert footage, archival photos and home movies, and live interviews with Van Zandt’s contemporaries and loved ones, and presented them in a sometimes interesting, sometimes tricked-up visual display. Brown explains her finished product in this way in her director’s note:

“Guy (Clark, a close friend of Van Zandt’s) told me that Townes’ songs work because of negative space. It’s the holes you leave, he said. I wanted Be Here to Love Me to work in the same way—not by spelling out every detail of his life, but by presenting details that are often more telling than dates or facts. By juxtaposing voiceover with performance, traveling in time to present effect before cause, and letting the audience make up their own mind about whether Townes’ decision to drop his family and most trappings of normal life to ‘get a guitar and go’ was worth it, I felt that this would create a more emotionally true film.”

The fact that this statement of purpose is so pretentious and presumptuous regarding the value of dates, facts, and the audience's right to decide whether Van Zandt’s choices were worth it (To whom? Townes? His wives and children? Music?) shows that even Brown recognizes that her film doesn’t really work. It is unnecessarily vague when a few title cards or voiceovers with basic information would have been enlightening without ruining the creative flow. Worst of all, by failing to get closer to the heart of Van Zandt, Be Here to Love Me ends up sullying his legacy with tragic artist clichés that never abate.

Who was Townes Van Zandt? I’d never heard of him. The official website of Be There to Love Me quotes Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth about Townes: “He’s not really a country singer, you wouldn’t call him a blues artist, he’s not quite a folk singer, he doesn’t exactly write pop songs, so what is he? He does not fit neatly into a category, and to me, that is what sets him apart as a great artist.” I found that the concise description from my sweetie, a 54-year-old ex-hippie, said it all: “He was the Woody Guthrie of my generation.” Indeed, Van Zandt's life and work bear a strong likeness to Guthrie's.

Van Zandt was a troubled alcoholic and polydrug abuser (glue was his first high) from a well-to-do Forth Worth, Texas, family who had the gifts of poetry and music. He was influenced by Lightnin’ Hopkins and Bob Dylan and combined a folk-bluesy style with serious lyrics to create songs and performances that touched listeners deeply. Perhaps his best-known song is “Pancho & Lefty,” recorded by Emmylou Harris and made into a music video and top single by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Van Zandt died in 1997 at the age of 52, leaving behind three children, three wives, and a lot of great songs that are seldom played today.

The film concentrates on the more grisly aspects of his life. He dropped off the porch of a four-story building supposedly to experience the sensation of falling. His parents, worried about his suicidal inclinations, allowed doctors to apply insulin shock treatments to him for three months that wiped out his childhood memories. He married a traditional girl who was shocked when the first song he wrote after they were married was “Waiting to Die.” “Here I was, a 20-year-old newlywed thinking he’d come out with a love song for me,” Jeanene said. Brown did not think it was important to mention how long they were married, when they divorced and why, and how many of Townes' children were hers. We are just left with the information that he was gone on the road a lot, and that was probably the reason she got fed up. I learned from other sources that it took her 16 years to call it quits.

We get the idea that Van Zandt wasn’t much fun to be around from his son J.T. and his second wife Cindy. A six-year-old J.T. apparently begged to return to Jeanene from a two-week trip to see Townes he had been looking forward to tremendously. Cindy, when asked in archival footage what it was like to live with Townes, got a grim look on her face and said that it sucked. She laughed immediately and changed her tune, but the truth was already out.

His best friend Guy Clark said Townes was always hitting on his wife Susanna. Clark, still a hard-living musician almost certainly drunk during the film's interviews, was probably a major contributor to Van Zandt’s sobriety problems through mere association. Other enablers were Kevin and Harold Eggers, record producers who didn’t do much to advance Van Zandt’s career and seem as messed up as he was. Renowned music producer John Lomax III was ready to take on Van Zandt, but Townes messed that up.

So what are we left with? Some nice footage of Townes singing some great songs. Some stars, like Emmylou and Willie, paying tribute to Van Zandt’s music while not really seeming to know anything about him. Some intimates whose affection for Townes doesn’t really connect with us.

The only people in the film who really moved me were Van Zandt’s children. J.T., the oldest, seems to have come to terms with his father, though he doesn’t buy the idea that artists need to give up everyone for their art. Teenaged Will seems eternally sad and haunted. Young Katie Belle sings to her father’s records as her only living legacy of him.

I’m glad I saw this movie because it gave me a taste of a musician whose work has the touch of genius. I could have been spared the troubled artist line this film bangs home like a two-year hangover; it does not make the life of Townes Van Zandt interesting, but rather just another train wreck from the world of music. l

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926)
Director: Harry Edwards

In the pantheon of silent film clowns led by the Big Three--Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd--Harry Langdon is barely remembered. Yet in his time, his popularity was equal to the Big Three, and he made some timeless classics. He was the first silent clown to whom I was drawn when I first started watching shorts from this bygone era on a PBS series called "The Toy that Grew Up." I was instantly captivated by his babyfaced sweetness as he negotiated peril after peril to reach his happy ending.

Langdon, a major vaudeville star, first made an impact on the silver screen in Mack Sennett shorts as the innocent man-child character created for him by Frank Capra, then a writer. This character went straight to the hear
ts of moviegoing audiences and propelled Langdon to stardom. He formed his own production company and inked a six-picture deal with First National. The three features he created with Capra under this deal, including Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, rival the best of the films of the Big Three.

In Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, Langdon plays Harry Logan, the son of a broken-down cobbler named Amos Logan (Alec B. Francis) who is on the verge of eviction from his shop. He can't compete with Burton Shoes, a corporation whose nationwide billboard campaign is driving independent shoemakers out of business. Even as Amos finagles an extra three months' occupancy out of his landlord and sends Harry off to raise the rent money, John Burton (Edwards Davis) is unveiling a new publicity stunt to cement his stranglehold on the American market. He has invited champion race walkers from all over the world to compete for a $25,000 prize by walking across the United States wearing Burton Shoes.

As the contestants assemble at Burton's East Coast factory, Harry unwittingly is drawn into the race by the imperious world champion Nick Kargas (Tom Murray), who commandeers Harry to carry his luggage.
Burton's daughter Betty (Joan Crawford), whose image on the popular billboard has won Harry's heart, sees Kargas heap abuse on Harry. She brings Harry the shoes and jersey he needs to enter the race and urges him to compete, promising him a date in California at the end of the walk. A thoroughly smitten Harry signs on.

Among the wonderful bits in this energetically paced film is the double-take Harry does when he turns away from the image of Betty he has been mooning over only to see the real Betty, dressed exactly as she is on the billboard, trying to catch his attention. He becomes incredibly shy, running away from her, then coming close again, then running away. He acts like a 3-year-old boy. We should be annoyed with him, but we aren't. Langdon is so sincerely bashful that he charms us as well as Betty. And anyone who has the heavy-browed, Mommie Dearest picture of Joan Crawford in their head will find her unrecognizable as the beautiful, sympathetic ingenue who falls for Harry in this picture.

Another charming comic scene has a farmer complain to two police officers that someone is stealing his fruit. Of course, it is Harry, who has fruit stains all over his face and a bag of fruit bulging under his oversized jersey. As he tries to evade exposure as the thief, he moves the fruit behind him. This allows the head of a chicken he also has filched to poke through a hole in the jersey. I was helpless with laughter as Harry tries to hide the curious chicken. When next we see Harry, he is working on a chain gang. Don't ask about the illogic of this turn of events within the context of the race--the gags in this sequence are just too good.

One gag that equals Harold Lloyd's seemingly death-defying stunts occurs when Harry tries to outrun some policemen who are trying to return him to the chain gang from which he has escaped. He runs through a flock of sheep and scales a fence that is built right at the edge of a cliff. As he lowers himself over the fence, his jersey gets caught on a nail. He frees the material, only to find his belt hooked as well. As he starts to unbuckle the belt, he chances to look behind him at the sheer drop below. He gingerly rebuckles his belt, pulls a hammer from his voluminous pants, pulls nails out the fence, and nails his sweater to the wood. Of course, as he pulls nails out, he is disassembling the fence, and ends up tobaggoning down the side of the cliff to safety. The scene is hilarious and thrilling in the same way as Lloyd's high-wire stunts.

Naturally, Harry wins the race and Betty. The final sequence of the film is the capper to Harry's man-child persona. The now married and prosperous Harry and Betty look in on their baby. Of course, it is Langdon dressed in a bonnet and playing in a cradle. His impersonation is perfect, from the quick tears to the awkward playing with his own hands. This scene shows the true power of the character Harry Langdon perfected. Although his career went into decline through some bad choices, causing him to fade from view in the decades that followed, Langdon was a noble clown who deserves to be discovered by a whole new audience. l

Monday, July 17, 2006

The War Tapes (2006)
Director: Deborah Scranton

Are you old enough to remember when the humble home movie was something middle-class families carted out to get unwanted guests out of their homes for the evening? All one had to do was pull out that 8mm or 16mm reel-to-reel and thread up the trip to Tampa and wait for those lingering dinner guests to scan the room for their belongings and fake a yawn. Times have changed.

Today, digital imaging using small, affordable equipment has put movie making in the hands of people from all walks of life who never would have thought to point and shoot before. It has also brought a new level of intimacy, revelation, and creativity to film that is well worth paying to see. In the case of The War Tapes, the digital video images captured by three National Guardsmen from New Hampshire during their one-year tour of duty in Iraq give a you-are-there experience of real war unlike other accounts we've seen. We aren’t just getting the action footage that most of us think of as war. We’re also watching our soldiers risk their lives guarding trucks filled with sewage from private construction sites, and traffic accidents, and racial slurs. These previously unseen sights of war are perhaps the most jarring part of this remarkable documentary.

Mike Moriarity, Zack Bazzi, and Steve Pink are the principal subjects/cinematographers of The War Tapes. Moriarity is a 34-year-old family man who is deeply patriotic and was profoundly affected by the 9/11 bombing of the World Trade Towers, which he visited and filmed. He expressed his willingness to be put on active duty only if the Guard would send him to Iraq. Bazzi is in his mid 20s, born in Lebanon and brought to the United States at the age of 8 as a war refugee. He was regular Army for four years before joining the Guard after discharge. Although he is from the Middle East and speaks fluent Arabic, he seems rueful of and a bit detached from the politics on either side. He considers himself a professional soldier and likes being a leader and doing his job well. Pink is in his mid 20s. He signed up for the Guard impulsively and isn’t happy about going to Iraq. We experience him as much through a diary he keeps and letters he writes as we do through the lens of his camera.

We learn that the Guards get two days of training a month and watch them go about their maneuvers in a forest clearing in a somewhat amateurish manner. Even if you didn’t know about the controversy over calling the Guard up to active duty overseas (they are intended as a domestic force), you’d have to wonder if this type and amount of training is enough.

We meet Moriarity’s wife and two small children, Bazzi’s mother, and Pink’s girlfriend and learn a bit about each of the men’s lives and backgrounds. We watch them board the plane for Iraq, land, and get oriented to their new home. Camp Anaconda is a tent community for new arrivals that is constantly shelled by the Iraqi insurgency. None of the men spends much time filming it. They prefer to show us the roads they travel day in and day out guarding convoys of trucks belonging to KBR/Halliburton and the blood of their fallen comrades. We get an account of the alphabet-soup dangers the men face, including IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and VBIEDs (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, a.k.a., car bombs). The Guards speed past motorists, donkey carts, and Iraqis on foot, yelling for them to get out of the way. It looks dangerous for everyone, and eventually, an Iraqi girl is struck and cut in half by a humvee in the dark as she runs into the road. This incident haunts Pink, in particular.

We hear a lot of explosions and return gunfire from the humvees. Burning cars and spidered glass in the humvees are common sights. Moriarity takes us to a military vehicle graveyard, poignantly paying tribute to the men and women who died in them. “That was someone’s father or mother, husband or wife.” He’s a gentle soul at heart who seems more and more saddened by what he sees and the lies he hears coming from the news media and politicians. When President Bush declares an end to major fighting, he wonders what part of the war Bush is looking at.

Bazzi lays bare the prejudice of the American troops. He says they call Iraqis “Hadjis.” The term is respectful among Muslims, denoting a man who has made his pilgrimage to Mecca. “I don’t think they (the Americans) mean it as a term of respect, though,” Bazzi rather pointlessly says.

The most intense sequence in the film is an assault on Fallujah, with house-to-house searches for insurgents that leave the unit’s CO shot. After the battle, Pink returns to film some of the enemy dead and tells a story of a dog that was eating a body. One of the unit commanders ordered the men to get the dog away from the body or to shoot it. “I wasn’t briefed on how to shoot a dog,” says Pink. “Good for him. I hope he filled his belly.”

In the sequence shot by director Scranton after the men return from their tour, Bazzi says, “Everyone makes money off war. I got paid to fight. I made money. KBR made money. The guys who make the yellow ribbons all over the place made money.” He also says he loves being a soldier and has reenlisted in the Guard. Pink, the most emotionally stoic of the men, looks physically deranged and is refusing any treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Instead, he cynically takes out his rage and anxiety on KBR/Halliburton. Moriarity has PTSD and carpal tunnel syndrome from his tour, and is receiving treatment at the VA. He still feels that the mission to bring democracy to the Iraqis is a noble one, but one that is not actually being executed. The bottom line for these men is that the war is being fought for money, particulary KBR and Vice President Cheney.

The people who know and love these men say they were changed by their time in Iraq. I would not have known that just from watching the film. Aside from appearing traumatized or shut down to varying degrees, each of the men seems to have a fairly consistent relationship to the world—the adventure-seeking soldier, the troubled guy who can’t get his act together, the family man who will do his best every day. How much their war experiences end up interfering with their life's trajectory is anyone’s guess. Pink could very well end up a suicide, and Moriarity could wind up on disability—neither appealing outcomes. Bazzi, pursuing a bachelor's degree, is the only one who seems to be doing what he intended to do.

What this important document does is give us the war on the ground as it was lived by three men, their families at home, and the people in Iraq who surrounded them. Their film choices are unique and personal, not mitigated by the imperatives of telling a particular story in a particular way or being able to bring the film to market. Of course, Scranton shaped these choices, but with Kartemquin’s Steve James (Hoop Dreams) behind her as producer and editor, I feel confident of the fidelity of the film to the men who shot it. I will think about this one for a long, long time.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Director: Ang Lee

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)
Director: Tommy Lee Jones

By Roderick Heath

The Modern Western has racked up enough films to be considered a defined and important genre. There have always been Westerns set in contemporary times, such as George Stevens’ Giant (1956), but this genre truly arrived—with its themes of man against society, of nature and humanity intermingling or failing to, of deromanticising a mythic scene—in the early ‘60s, with a small cannonade of pictures. These films included John Huston and Arthur Miller’s The Misfits, David Miller and Dalton Trumbo’s Lonely Are The Brave, and Martin Ritt’s Hud, based not too coincidentally on Brokeback Mountain scriptwriter Larry McMurtry’s novel Horseman, Pass By. The Modern Western is a dusty, disillusioned genre about men and, occasionally, women, who survive on the myths of the past and who often would make excellent heroes for those tales, but find themselves eternally alienated and often destroyed by the tawdriness of modern life. There is no longer the sheer nobility and almost religious awe that attended the commencement of the cattle drive in Red River in the lives of men like Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar. Today they’re spotty, hopeless young men stuck with the stink of sheep-shit and toxoplasmosis, hardly able to scrape together a living unless they get lucky enough to marry the boss’ daughter. In truth, of course, that was what life was like for the pioneer cowboys, too, but that’s neither here nor there, when John Wayne is more potent a force than any real westerner.

Brokeback Mountain and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada are the two latest examples of the form, the appeal of which includes the inordinate amount of grit allowed in paying attention to the lives of working-class people while giving passing nods to the gods of cinema legend. Both films are driven by an intense male bond—in one case, a bond that has bloomed into a proper love affair—and observe the moral and emotional consequences of that bond. Another theme of the Modern Western, inevitably, is culture shift. In Modern Westerns, the heroes are tugged at and tempted by the pull of changing cultural winds even whilst they try their best to preserve themselves in an old cultural skin. Both films essentially exist within the same environment, where nature is predominant rather than repressed, where civilization has petered out in shabbily built buildings through which the wind whistles, and society is almost sparse enough for people to get away with living by their own rules. Almost.

As in another recent Modern Western, Billy Bob Thornton’s underrated All The Pretty Horses, Three Burials is about the divide between the United States and Mexico, of the temptation of outsider gringos to find their identities in the romantic poverty of Mexico. Tommy Lee Jones’ aging cowboy Pete Perkins takes it upon himself, like a true western hero, to fulfill an unanswered plea for justice. The method he uses is not a varmint shooting, but a primal process of penitence inflicted on the callow, foolish, violent border guard Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), who has killed accidentally Pete’s amigo, the illegal immigrant baquero Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cadillo).

These characters inhabit a sterile, impermanent Texas town where Mike and his wife Lou Ann (January Jones) have moved from Cleveland and where they were a popular, pretty couple. In the film’s first half, the various characters are explored in layered, time-hopping style. Without the distracting buzz of suburban life, Mike’s emotional vacuity and gross sexuality are thrown into high contrast. Mike takes out his frustration on the illegals he captures. Lou Ann, increasingly alienated and excruciatingly bored, is pulled into friendship with waitress Rachel (Melissa Leo), who lives a cheerfully your-cheatin’-heart lifestyle, having affairs with Pete and local sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam) under the nose of her diner-owner husband. Lou Ann ends up spending mot of her time with Melquiades, and it is a pure coincidence that Pete guns down Melquiades whilst on patrol.

The first “burial”’ is the shallow grave Pete gives Melquiades on a mountain. The second is the one the authorities give him when his body is disinterred by coyotes. With only rumours as to what happened spread by the border guards, and Belmont’s insistence that Melquiades was “only a wetback,” Pete abandons his reticence in favour of kidnapping Mike, forcing him to dig up Melquiades’ corpse, and then proceeding, with the border guards in hot pursuit (and Belmont’s comic disinterest), to cross the border to give Melquiades—and maybe Mike—a proper burial.

Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is as classic a westerner as Pete Perkins. Tall, rangy, stiff-mouthed, painfully reserved, the redeeming aspects of his life are his one true love, Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhall), and, much later, his daughter Alma Jr. (Kate Mara). In between are an eternity of pain caused by confused and gut-wrenching relationships with the one man and several women in his life. Ennis, orphaned in his adolescence, finds his identity crystallised during the months he and fellow teenaged ranch-hand Jack tended sheep on the eponymous slab of wind-washed granite. When both are prematurely exiled from the existence that seems redolent of a Greek mythic idyll, they accept their surface identities within the strict machismo order of modern Midwest America.

Jack tries to live up to the macho reputation of his bullrider father, then marries dashing horse girl Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway) and does his best to wriggle his way up the social pole. Ennis marries Alma de Beers (Michelle Williams) and has kids by her, but can never give up either his desire for the simple freedom of range work or for the adolescent warmth of his love for Jack. Their snatched interludes together on fishing trips, tolerated to a certain extent by their wives, offer fleeting and ultimately dissatisfying tranquility. Both men are transfigured by their sexuality, but where for Ennis it is a vital emotion he seeks, for Jack it’s both more complex and also more typical; carefully compartmentalising, he sleeps with Mexican male hookers and keeps on the lookout for another partner who will adapt to his part-time vision of love. Ennis lives in justified fear of frontier morality, which eventually claims Jack.

Both films are remarkably rich tapestries that extend well beyond the specifics of their plot to take in an almost epic, yet expressively minimalist vision of whole cultures in a state of flux, and the people within them in a state of crisis. Although Pete and Melquiades are not homosexual—though it’s easy to imagine Pete as Ennis, 20 years after the end of Brokeback—their bond, as well as Jack and Ennis’, demand almost mystical commitment to notions beyond the visible, or even factual. For Ennis, it is to accept permanent emotional exile: our last vision of him, a reverse of the end of The Searchers, is gazing out on an eternal plain whilst living with dreams and memories in his shabby trailer. For Pete, it is to reject his country, his livelihood, even his sanity, to give Melquiades a true resting place, and extract from a man with no terms of reference beyond bad daytime soaps and suburban plasticity a true contrition.

It’s ironic, perhaps, that Brokeback Mountain, concentrating as it does on a gay romance, offers its most biting and memorable moments in observing the men’s heterosexual lives—the kitchen confrontation where Alma, having left Ennis, lets slip her simmering loathing of him and Jack sets Ennis off like Krakatoa, is one of the most convincing moments of marital spite ever filmed. Similarly, when Ennis spurns vibrant barmaid Cassie (Linda Cardellini) and apologises, “Sorry, I can’t have been too much fun,” she responds in anguish, “Dammit, Ennis, girls don’t fall in love with fun,” I suspect a lot more men than the bisexual cowboys of this world might recognise themselves. The film follows Annie Proulx’s majestic novella very closely, ironically weakening when it adds some potentially nifty ideas of its own, especially Lureen. Lureen’s status as a gender-crosser in her own right, a champion rodeo rider who boldly seduces and screws Jack, demanded more depth and time and strikes sparks off the film’s later portrait of her as an icy homestead princess. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a messier, less compressed tale, and overdoes its early portrayal of Mike Norton’s baseness, but then Three Burials has an edge of wryly surreal comedy and deliberate morality tale at its heart, not the lightly poetic realism and heart-dulling tragedy of Brokeback Mountain.

Ang Lee is a great filmmaker, but has yet to make a genuinely great film. His work on Brokeback is as meticulous and measured as always, almost too much so. It is often so over-posed in its desolate beauty as to look like the world’s first animated Andrew Wyeth painting, and his feeling for the West is never quite convincingly raw. Since the warm inclusiveness of his early films, a frost has gilded Lee’s heart, and he finally seems to mistake emotional stinginess for detachment. This attitude accounts for my lingering dissatisfaction with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ride With The Devil, The Ice Storm, and his work on Brokeback Mountain, which is finally a triumph more for the actors and screenwriters (McMurtry and Diana Ossana), than of Lee’s Oscar-winning turn.

In comparison, Tommy Lee Jones’ work on Three Burials is much less refined and skilled, particularly some clumsy scene interchanges where music starts blaring without reason and static camera set-ups. Yet Jones knows his subject more truly, and at his best, he captures with almost surreal intensity his locale and characters, particularly when he gets to the Mexican side of the border, and Pete lounges drunkenly in a cantina that’s ancient but with modern appliances. Guillermo Arriaga’s screenplay is as humane and fine-threaded as his work for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and retains two of his singular qualities: his love of moral fable and his tendency to go on too long.

A part of me wanted to see—unlikely as it was—Sam Peckinpah make Brokeback Mountain, and Three Burials gives hints of what that might have looked like. For Peckinpah, that blood and dust and hot leather would have reeked with urgency, whilst Brokeback smells only of far-off snow. Brokeback Mountain is still a remarkably haunting and intense experience. Three Burials is a less fine but more pleasurable experience, its moments of urgent humanity and its jolts of wry humour sit happily in the memory. Both films are spotted with great performances up front and in the background from Pepper, Leo, and Levon Helm in Three Burials, and from Ledger, down to Williams, Hathaway, Cardellini, even a small shot of cheer from scene-stealer Anna Faris (whose dingbat starlet was one of Lost In Translation’s memorable elements), in Brokeback. Beyond this, Three Burials confirms the beauty of human beings, where Brokeback, for all the pseudo-political arguments the mass-media and commentators tried to extrapolate from its tale, actually states a thesis that living is agony, no matter your caste and character. l

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Don Juan (1926)
Director: Alan Crosland

This year will see several champagne corks fly to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the introduction of Vitaphone to the American moviegoing public. On July 26, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) plans to present the Vitaphone Corporation’s complete sound-on-disk program at the Linwood Dunn Theatre in Hollywood just as it occurred in 1926 at the Warner Theater in New York City.

Warner Brothers' premiere of the Vitaphone process, for which Don Juan was the centerpiece, made a small noise compared with the thunderous response when it released The Jazz Singer (also directed by Crosland) in 1927, allowing millions to hear vaudeville's megastar Al Jolson sing out from the flat screen. Nonetheless, the use of a record synchronized to actions on the movie screen got a very respectable launch with the John Barrymore vehicle Don Juan and several short subjects. Subscribers to Turner Classic Movies got a sneak preview this weekend when TCM presented the first program AMPAS will offer later this month.

This tale of the legendary ladies' man begins in his childhood. A five-year-old Don Juan plays happily with his father Don Jose (John Barrymore) and mother Donna Isobel (Jane Winton) in their castle in Seville, Spain, before Don Jose must leave on a trip. After he rides away, Donna Isobel waves her lover in from the garden. Unfortunately, the trip was a ruse designed to capture Donna Isobel in flagrante. The lover hides in an opening in the thick castle walls, and Donna Isobel plays dumb as her husband calls some men in to finish repairing the wall. Donna Isobel's anxiety grows until the last stone is replaced, sealing her lover alive in the wall. She flings herself at the wall and pleads with Don Jose to spare him. Instead, in a heartbroken rage, he sends her away as little Don Juan cries out for her.

Don Jose goes on to live a life of debauchery, never keeping company with a woman for more than a couple of months. He is teaching his growing boy (a radiant Freddie Bartholomew look-alike named Philippe de Lacy) never to give his heart to any woman. During a banquet, Don Jose spurns the attentions of his current paramour Donna Elvira (Helena D'Algy) for a new love. In a jealous rage, she stabs him through the heart. In his dying breath, he muses to Don Juan that the circle of woman is finally complete, "birth, disillusionment, death."

The movie fast-forwards to Rome, where the grown Don Juan (Barrymore) has taken up residence and built a reputation as a womanizer. He attracts the attention of the reigning Borgia family, particularly Lucrezia (Estelle Taylor), who believes her enormous political power and, of course, irresistible looks and grace, will see her triumph over the Don where all other women have failed. She invites him to a soiree to which the rival Orsini family members Duke Della Varnese (Josef Swickard) and his daughter Adriana (Mary Astor) have been invited on behalf of a smitten friend of the Borgias, Count Giano Donati (Montagu Love). Don Juan, like Donati, is drawn to Adriana's virtue, and he makes an enemy of the Borgias by rejecting Lucrezia to pursue Adriana. Love has its trials, of course, including a massive sword fight and imprisonment for the Don and torture for Adriana. But Hollywood being what it is, true love triumphs over power and a bad upbringing.

Aside from an overwrought third act and Hollywood ending, this film has a great deal to recommend it. Alan Crosland directs his cast with a deft hand, muting even the most florid scenes by keeping their emotions real and their gesticulations to a minimum. Barrymore is especially good as Don Jose--his fury at his betrayal terrifying to watch even through the distance of time and celluloid. I've seen a number of films in which people are buried alive, but this film's is the most horrifying in my experience, with effective crosscutting between the terrified Donna Isobel, murderous Don Jose, smirking manservant Leandro (John Roche), and efficient servants doing their deadly work.

The Roman home of Don Juan is a setting for a great short comedy within the film. Pedrillo (Willard Louis) is a jovial co-conspirator in Don Juan's amorous shenanigans. He keeps two ladies waiting for the tardy Don by telling each exactly and identically what they want to hear, "You are his only love." A camera lingers on a closed door, the stand-in for the man behind it as he makes love to a third woman. The timing of the actors and editing is perfect so that despite the predictability of the scene, we can't help but be charmed.

Barrymore, at age 44 and the worse for wear from his acute alcoholism, does not cut a particularly alluring figure. He looks haggard, particularly in profile, making him somewhat unconvincing as the supreme lover of women. Yet he attacks his action sequences with relish and energy and projects the superior air of a man who would defy Lucrezia Borgia, known today mainly for her penchant for poisoning her foes. Small delights for the classic movie fan include appearances by the future Charlie Chan, Warner Oland, as Lucrezia's brother Caesar and Myrna Loy as her maidservant Mai.

Despite being a Vitaphone film, Don Juan does not use the process to produce dialogue. Instead, Vitaphone was used to sync a film score perfomed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. It is one of the finest scores I've ever heard for a silent movie and well deserving of recognition.

I watched two of the shorts that accompanied the first Vitaphone presentation, one of the New York Philharmonic playing and the other a hilarious "commercial" for the new sound process by none other than an ill-at-ease Will Hays, the author of the infamous Production Code that brought censorship to the movies. These novelties were mere icing on the cake for a terrific debut sound film. Seek them and the other shorts out if you can, but definitely try to get your hands around a copy of Don Juan. This piece of film history is a cracking good film to the core. l

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Silver City (2004)
Director: John Sayles

Today, on the 230th birthday of the great experiment in democracy known as the United States of America, I thought John Sayles’ state of the union address, Silver City, would be an appropriate film to review. I’m not a big fan of Sayles, whose films often seem like well-intentioned misfires. With this political satire, however, he shows that he can be an inspired cinematic force given the right motivation.

Silver City is a real place, but in this film it is a dream—a development for the well-heeled built on the slag heap of a silver mine closed down by federal regulators for safety and pollution violations. The developer is Senator Judson Pilager (Michael Murphy), a man with a well-known record of failed enterprises, including his son Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper), who is running to be the governor of Colorado. It is during the filming of a campaign commercial designed to show Dickie to be environmentally friendly that the movie begins.

Dickie’s campaign manager Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss) is rehearsing Dickie on one phrase he keeps getting wrong. Dickie is not the brightest bulb in the marquee. In fact, he bears a rather strong resemblance to someone currently taking up space in the Oval Office. When Dickie finally gets the line right, the commercial moves forward. On cue, Dickie casts a fishing line into a lake. When Raven yells cut, Dickie tries to retrieve the line, but he has landed something. As he reels the line in, a human hand breaks the surface of the water. Raven instantly closes down the set and moves the shoot to an alternate location. He suspects a conspiracy to label Dickie as the candidate “who landed a stiff” in the lake to reduce him to an also-ran novelty.

Raven engages a detective agency run by Senator Pilager’s wife Grace Seymour (Mary Kay Place) to intimidate three suspects in the supposed conspiracy. Grace reluctantly assigns the job to Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston), a former newspaper reporter who went to work for her after he was set up to make a false accusation in a story and dismissed from his paper. Danny is a natural investigator, but he’s still a dreamer. Grace fears he will not be up to the goon work this important client wants done.

And so he is not. When he approaches the first suspected saboteur Cliff Castleton (Miguel Ferrer), a right-wing talk radio host, Danny’s “you’re being watched” sounds more like “nice shirt” than a threat. Castleton spits his venom, challenging Raven and Pilager to come and get him. Sayles reveals this Rush Limbaugh knock-off to be an angry bully more than spoiling for a fight. Anyone will do.

Dickie’s sister Maddy is another suspect. She is a dope-smoking Olympic hopeful in archery with a mixed-race son whose conception when Maddy was a teenager upset her father’s political ambitions. When Danny approaches her, she shoots an arrow alongside his head and otherwise acts like the hostile loose cannon she is—or pretends to be. She seduces Danny and then kicks him out. Later we will see her aiming at a target that has her brother’s picture on it.

It is when Danny approaches his last suspect, Casey Lyle (Ralph Waite), that he finds out what really happened to the corpse on the end of Dickie’s fishing line. Lyle, a former federal regulator who went up against ruthless business mogul Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson) over the Silver City site, tells a tale of buried toxins invading the watershed. Danny attempts to get the truth out through another former reporter, Mitch Paine (Tim Roth), who runs a website dedicated to exposing conservative corruption.

Sayles has fun playing with his stereotypes. Sheriff Joe Skaggs (Joe Gammon), who is investigating the death of the floating Mexican, is all gruff frontier lawman who shows his scorn for the sissified slickers around him at every opportunity, beginning by insulting the hook on Dickie Pilager’s line. He says the hook couldn’t catch anything (although clearly it has), but as a prop, it wasn’t meant to.

Benteen rides with Dickie through open land (“We’ll make a cowboy out of you yet!”), patting himself vigorously on the back for being a man of vision. He sees money on that land but is blind to the priceless natural vista that he could never create on his own. A view won’t make Benteen rich, and he sneers at the tree huggers. Skaggs and Benteen—indeed, most of the characters in this film—are misguided in their superior attitudes that actually reflect total self-absorption. His arrow aims true at these deserving targets.

He is way off the mark, however, in setting up the central romance between Danny and Nora Allardyce (Maria Bello), a reporter who disloyally did not quit the paper after Danny was dismissed. Nora ended their very serious affair and is now involved with a professional middleman (Billy Zane) whom she intends to marry. This mismatch makes no sense except as a desperate run to the opposite side of the room, away from anyone like Danny. She paints Danny as the Antichrist, but she also declares that he was the love of her life. Sayles perhaps was aiming for something like the Julie Christie/Warren Beatty romance in Shampoo, but Huston and Bello have no chemistry at all, and the dialogue he saddled Bello with is weak and unmotivated.

Sayles is such a humanist that he finds a heart in all but the most ridiculous of his characters. This is both a strength and a weakness in this film and in his film-making in general. It’s hard to pull off the biting satire Silver City aspires to be, as well as the serious social commentary of such films as Casa de los babys, with vaguely focused characters about whom Sayles wants us to care. His murder mystery is so convoluted that it got tedious to follow. He includes one kind-of action scene that ends up being a fizzle—action just isn’t his strong suit. His characters’ names are a bit too obvious. Nonetheless, Silver City succeeds as few films have in presenting the essence of our national scene today and in suggesting how poisonous that scene has become. You owe it to your country to see this film! l