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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tony and Natalie in 1964

Still one of my all-time favorite movie couples...we just don't have anything like them on the screen anymore.
I thought I was going to meet Tony Curtis a couple of years back, as he was scheduled to appear at an Elvis conference I was attending in Memphis. Sadly some health issues prevented it, but he was kind enough to call the event and we were thrilled to hear his voice on the phone wishing us well and sharing his memories of the young singer that he inspired so much in the fifties. Tony Curtis was the real deal, an unforgettable force on the screen...and he lived a life! I'm sad but I'm thankful as he left such an incredible legacy. Bravo Tony Curtis...Viva Tony Curtis!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Vintage Frankfort Postcards

Vintage Frankfort Photographs: Liberty Hall

Vintage Frankfort Ads

Sally Menke: R.I.P.

I am absolutely shocked to hear the terrible news that the amazing Sally Menke has passed awayat the age of just 56 years old. Menke was, simply put, one of modern cinema's greatest assets and one of the best editors on the planet. To say the films of Quentin Tarantino wouldn't have been the same without her cutting skills is an understatement. Menke lent her extraordinary and inventive cutting skills to all of Tarantino's films (including Jackie Brown, which is one of the most beautifully edited works I have ever seen) as well as pictures by Oliver Stone and Billy Bob Thornton. This is tragic news and I offer my best to her friends, family and colleagues.

The Hidden Cinema of Jean Rollin: La Griffe D’Horus (1990)

Among the most intriguing abandoned projects of Jean Rollin’s career is the proposed television production La Griffe D’Horus, a half-hour script Rollin had fashioned on pulp detective Harry Dickson. Sadly, due to the inability to get funding or find a home for the project, the only thing that survives for La Griffe D’Horus was a rough under three minute shot-on-video test that can now be seen on the German edition of The Grapes of Death as an extra. Rollin recounted the frustrating journey of the project to Peter Blumenstock in the pages of Video Watchdog and Virgins and Vampires:

“One day, a guy named Gerard Dole called me up and asked for a meeting. He said that he was a specialist on famous pulp-detective Harry Dickson and that he had also written a collection of related stories called The New Adventures of Harry Dickson…We approached Channel 1, and they were interested, but they said they would have to buy the rights to the character first. The problem was, the original stories were written by Jean Ray, and the film rights were absolutely impossible to get; the more recent ones were written by anonymous writers, which makes the matter equally difficult.
We found a small publisher…but the first thing out of their mouth was ‘Jean Rollin will never touch Harry Dickson as long as we live!’ They HATED me!”

Rollin called the extremely short surviving footage of La Griffe D’Horus more of a ‘screen-test’ than anything else and told Blumenstock that it was shot quickly in ‘one afternoon’ with Harry Dickson expert and book-cover designer Jean-Michel Nicollet starring.

Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs expand a bit on the story in Immoral Tales by writing that the footage compiled actually equaled ’22 minutes’, but that longer version has not appeared to my knowledge. They also noted that the short film was very much in the spirit of Rollin’s original works, as it shot with a, “group of friends, enthusiasts and non-professionals.” Noting that La Griffe D’Horus was just, “one in a long series of disappointments that the 1980’s brought to Rollin”, Tohill and Tombs description of the lost project reminds us that it could have been a really special work that could have helped Rollin in the roughest section of his career. Thankfully a rebirth was on the way…

A Report on Jean Rollin's Le Masque de la Méduse

My friend Christian was kind enough to send me these links he posted over at Psychovision regarding Rollin's new film Le Masque de la Méduse. These links are in French but contain many enticing stills from Rollin's new film as well as photos from a recent retrospective. Here is the report on the film and here is the one on the Retrospective. Thanks to Christian for supplying these and for offering the exciting news that Rollin is indeed already hard at work on his next project!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Notes on my Favorite Films (Year By Year) Topper (1937)

Freewheeling couple George and Marion Kerby really like to mix it up. Life is a never ending party for the Kerby’s as they burn the candle at both ends on a nightly and daily basis, but the party ends when they are killed in a auto-accident…or does it? Proving not even death can stop their madcap ways; the Kirby’s come back as two prankster ghosts who set their sites on an uptight president of bank, that they held stock in, named Cosmo Topper.
Topper, scripted by Jack Jevne, Eric Hatch and Eddie Moran from a novel by Thorne Smith, is the hilarious and chaotic supernatural tale from underrated comic director Norman Z. McLeod. Originally released in 1937 to immediate critical and popular success, Topper can still stake a claim as being one of the flat out funniest and most purely entertaining works of the American depression era. It’s also one of the best ghost stories and it’s no wonder that the material has been visited so many times in the decades since it first played to packed houses across the country.

Like the characters he celebrated in many of his works, novelist Thorne Smith was a heavy drinking free-spirit and lover of life who tragically passed away just a couple of years after turning forty in 1934. The Maryland born Smith had been kicking around the literary world since the late teens with very little notoriety but he hit pay-dirt in 1926 with the publication of Topper, a work that would cement his reputation as one of the finest supernatural comic writers in the country. Many works followed the success of the book and eventual film version of Topper but only 1941’s The Passionate Witch (the inspiration for I Married a Witch, Bell Book and Candle and Bewitched) came close to matching its success. McLeod’s film version of Smith’s side-splitting book thankfully more than did justice to the original very-fine source material.
Prolific director McLeod might not have had any Oscars on his shelf, and his name never became as synonymous with comedy as Lubitsch or McCarey, but he was an absolute master at the kind of breezy (if sometimes chaotic) American comedies that populated the thirties and forties. Michigan born McLeod worked with everyone from The Marx Brothers to Hope and Crosby in his career that spanned five decades, but few of his popular works could match the quite daffy and joyously subversive Topper, a work which champions individuality and personal happiness over conformity and corporate greed at every turn.

With McLeod’s breezy direction, the uncredited but fine music of Marvin Hatley, the beautiful black and white cinematography of Norbert Brodine and the innovative Robert Fulton conceived special-effects, Topper would have been an at least partial success no matter who had been put on the screen, but the superlative cast gathered for the film transformed it into a comedic masterpiece of timing, innovation and originality.
In all seriousness you could have taken Cary Grant and Constance Bennett in 1937 and filmed them for 90 minutes staring at each other in front of a plain white wall and it would have been a film overflowing with style, wit and vivacity. You put the two of them in a sharply written work with a winning supporting cast and top of the line crew and you have absolute cinematic magic. The team of Grant and Bennett are eye-popping in how utterly fabulous they are as the irrepressible but charming Kirbys. They are gorgeous, funny, charismatic and oh so freaking sophisticated, even playing such an anarchistic pair. The often undervalued Bennett is especially endearing as Marion Kerby and its hard to take your eyes off her all these years later, even though she is often standing next to one of the most perfect leading men in Hollywood history.
Topper is far from just a two person show as McLeod and crew were blessed with one of the best supporting casts of the period, including scene-stealing Roland Young as the title character and Billie Burke as his wife. Also popping up are Alan Mowbray, Hedda Hopper and in a blink and miss early cameo, Lana Turner. The whole cast just has a real fall into place feel about them, making Topper one of the most wonderfully realized and executed films of 1937.

Topper would snag two Oscar nominations in 1937, including one for Young’s supporting turn and it would prove popular enough to inspire a couple of (ill-conceived) sequels, a television series and a TV-movie. None of these came close to measuring up to the original and the rumored upcoming Steve Martin remake will no doubt fail to capture the magic either. Topper would enter into some unfortunate infamy when it was the first major film colorized back in 1985, an absolutely disastrous release that should be avoided at all costs. The film has sadly slipped into the public domain, which makes tracking it down easy enough, but more often than not the quality of its presentation is sadly lacking. How I wish Criterion would get a hold of this and grant it the deserved place it deserves on home video.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Criterion's Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence Out Tuesday

Just a quick note concerning the fact that Tuesday marks the release of Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence on DVD and Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection. This remarkable film starring David Bowie and Takeshi Kitano was unfairly critically maligned at the time of its release so this new release is an important one. Here are the Criterion's specs (taken from their site) for the discs:

New, restored high-definition master (with DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition)

The Oshima Gang, a 1983 making-of featurette

New video interviews with producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, actor Tom Conti, and actor-composer Ryuichi Sakamoto

Hasten Slowly, an hour-long 1996 documentary about author Laurens van der Post, whose autobiographical novel was the basis for the film

Original theatrical trailer

New and improved English subtitle translation

PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Chuck Stephens and reprinted interviews with director Nagisa Oshima and actor Takeshi Kitano

Paul Thomas Anderson Film Poll Results

Here are the results for the Paul Thomas Anderson Film Poll. This turned out to be the most popular poll I have ever hosted here, so thanks to all that voted. Thanks again also to all that participated in the Blogathon and visited here throughout September. Here are your pics for your favorite P.T.A. films:

1. There Will be Blood: 88 Votes

2. Magnolia: 75 Votes

3. Boogie Nights 70 Votes

4. Punch-Drunk Love 62 Votes

5. Hard Eight 25 Votes

For those curious, here are my personal favorites:

1. Boogie Nights

2. Magnolia

3. Punch-Drunk Love

4. Hard Eight

5. There Will be Blood

The recent news that Anderson has had to put his upcoming film, The Master, on hold has been depressing to say the least. It has also made for a sobering look at the sorry state of the American film in 2010. One wonders if a film like Magnolia could have even been funded and released right now. I have all the faith in the world that Paul will eventually get The Master made, I am just sorry that it is obviously going to a major battle for him. I have no problem stating that I think Paul Thomas Anderson is THE Great American filmmaker of his generation and the fact they he is having trouble getting his next project off the ground is absolutely infuriating.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Paul Thomas Anderson Blogathon: Brandon Colvin on Magnolia

***I first met Brandon Colvin about four years ago in a film theory class at Western Kentucky University. While our writing styles were different and our tastes sometimes clashed, Brandon and I immediately recognized ourselves as kindred-spirits both absolutely drunk on everything cinema-related. One of the first things we bonded on was our love for the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, so it seems fitting that my blogathon should be closed by this magnificent new piece by Brandon on Magnolia. Brandon, who is one of Out 1's main contributors, is a writer of extreme intelligence and this very thoughtful piece on Magnolia's place as a melodrama shows this clearly. It's a really special article and I think a perfect closer for this blogathon. Thanks to Brandon for writing such a challenging ode to one of modern cinema's greatest films and for allowing me to premiere it here.***

Magnolia’s Metaphysical Melodrama
Brandon Colvin

I first saw Magnolia (1999), Paul Thomas Anderson’s 3-hour masterpiece of meta-melodrama, at the tender age of 14. Lugging home two VHS tapes containing the movie, I was unaware of the formative impact the film would have on my understanding of cinema. I watched the film three times during that initial three day rental period, and I’ve seen it at least twice each year since. Every viewing serves as a reminder of the narrative virtuosity and unfettered emotion that first knocked me on my ass in a year that offered many video store treasures: Solaris (Soderbergh, 2002), Donnie Darko (Kelly, 2001), Punch-Drunk Love (Anderson, 2002), and Adaptation. (Jonze, 2002). Magnolia, however, towers above these foundational pillars of my cinephilia, primarily because it almost single-handedly taught me a very valuable skill – how to understand and appreciate the melodramatic mode of cinematic storytelling.

The source of Magnolia’s instructiveness towards the end of accepting melodrama lies in its relentless self-awareness as well as its sheer bravery, complimentary traits that support the film’s two-fold method of demonstrating the emotive capabilities of melodrama. This method is realized in the way Magnolia first presents itself as a self-conscious exemplar of post-modern insecurity only to explode that trepidation with unhinged histrionics and full-throttle excess in the form of cosmic coincidences and unabashed artificiality.

The fact that Magnolia begins in the post-modern mode before diving into extravagance is indicative of PTA’s awareness of his primary audience – educated adults attuned to the conventions of “art” or “indie” cinema and the attendant “grittiness” or “realism” of such film practices (my younger self included). Throughout the film’s first few hours, Anderson is covering his bases, so to speak, anticipating possible criticisms by co-opting them into a series of strategically self-reflexive moves – moves which allow him to nip certain objections to implausibility and assumptions of “realism” in the bud in an attempt to open up the skeptical viewer to a different type of storytelling: the melodramatic.

The first of these post-modern gestures, the film’s six-minute, Ricky Jay-narrated prologue, essentially serves the rhetorical function of addressing and invalidating the audience’s potential skeptical prejudices against chance, coincidence, and melodrama as reliable narrative tools for gaining insight into the human condition. Reality is depicted as unquestionably containing the incredible chance occurrences described in the prologue’s three vignettes: the Green-Berry-Hill murder, the scuba diver and the gambler, and the failed suicide-cum-homicide of Sydney Barringer. The vignettes point to something beyond happenstance, something which Anderson seeks to investigate through his film’s engagement with causality and artifice. As Ricky Jay’s narrator comments on Sydney Barringer’s death, “This is not just ‘something that happens.’ This cannot be just ‘one of those things.’ This, please, cannot be that. And, for what I would like to say, I can’t. This was not just a matter of chance. These strange things happen all the time.” In this way, the prologue provides an immediate, ready-made defense of Magnolia’s commitment to the coincidental and the fantastic as the centerpieces of its narrative structure: “these strange things happen all the time.” Through the prologue and its suggestive narration, PTA preemptively strikes, perhaps out of fear that a modern audience will reject his seemingly naïve immersion in the ostentatious.

This almost neurotic need to justify Magnolia’s deliberately fanciful approach pervades the film’s first few hours in the form of self-referentiality and, ultimately, self-defense. During the stunning post-title montage (cut to Aimee Mann’s rendition of “One”), which introduces the audience to Magnolia’s numerous intertwined characters, this self-consciousness is prominent in the form of omnipresent screens and ornately orchestrated cross-cutting, both of which throw the viewer, almost apologetically, into an overt awareness of the film’s constructedness. The shift to slight self-parody comes soon afterward, when Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman) realizes he must track down Earl Partridge’s (Jason Robards) son, Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise) in order to satisfy the dying man’s final wish. In a wide shot, Phil stands by Earl’s eventual deathbed. As Phil mentally develops his plan of action, Wagner’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” swells, Mickey-Mousing his banal movements while also forming a sound-bridge to Frank Mackey’s infamous “Respect the Cock” speech. The joke is an intertextual one, mockingly comparing Phil’s moment of realization with the epic images of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – the cultural counterpart to Wagner’s composition. PTA seems to be self-consciously poking fun at the balls-to-the-wall ambition behind Magnolia here, placing his film alongside Kubrick’s in a way that highlights the potential silliness of his own hubris. Once again, Anderson is beating his critics to the punch by demonstrating his self-awareness, winking at the skeptics, saying, “I know, I know, but just keep watching.” Similar moments of meta-commentary (even mockery) occur throughout the film, such as when Earl’s wife, the drug addicted Linda (Julianne Moore) exclaims, “This is so fucked up and over-the-top” or when Earl himself acknowledges his hackneyed situation, apologizing to Phil for how pathetic and clichéd his “whole man on a bed” circumstance is. A certain insecurity suffuses these moments, an admittance of deviance from “art” or “indie” cinema’s realistic grounding; Anderson appears to be hesitant, but he is simply earning a sort of credibility by demonstrating his self-consciousness.

The fact that these intentionally archetypal gestures populate Magnolia’s plot is most directly addressed and defended during a scene in which Phil Parma pleads for assistance in finding Frank while telephoning an employee of Frank’s company. Anderson’s awareness of his audience’s possible skepticism is once again on display, as Phil remarks, “I know this sounds silly. And I know I might sound ridiculous, like this is the scene in the movie where the guy is trying to get a hold of the long lost son, ya know. But this is that scene. This is that scene. And I think they have those scenes in movies because they’re true, because they really happen. And, ya gotta believe me, this is really happening.” Anderson returns to the qualification that the seemingly grandiose events of his film happen all the time, that the syrupy, fantastic clichés are rooted in reality, but perhaps not “realism.” Phil’s remarks take up the self-conscious line of argument introduced by the narrator in the prologue and present the key for understanding Magnolia’s subsequent departure from rationality – that such implausible, artificial events are in movies because they actually have a correlation with reality, with lived experience. Indeed, interrogating and interpreting the nature of this correlation is what leads Magnolia to its eventual eruption of cosmic histrionics.

The film truly leaves behind its tentative relationship to the coincidence and obvious artifice that comprise it at the 139-minute mark, when the startling “Wise Up” sequence begins. Here, perhaps as well, is the point at which PTA feels the skeptical viewer will have been fully convinced to accept (or at least play along with) the type of narrative leaps found in Magnolia’s final hour – leaps that take it far away from any concept of “realism.” The scene begins with Claudia Gator (Melora Walters) snorting a line of cocaine while ostensibly listening to an Aimee Mann song on her record player; Mann’s music flows throughout the film, blurring diegetic boundaries in numerous instances (and giving credence to the film’s claim to melodrama), but nowhere is it as remarkable as in this show-stopping shot sequence. As Claudia listens, she begins singing along sullenly, continuing for a few bars before, surprisingly, Anderson cuts to Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) singing along as well, followed by Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), Phil and Earl, Linda, Frank, then Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman). Of course, they can’t all be listening to the same song at the same time. It is diegetically impossible. What Anderson does here, however, is to impose an extra-diegetic linkage system that unites the characters around a common emotion – sorrowful resignation, as indicated by the song’s lyrical content (“It’s not going to stop / so just give up”). All of this is deliberately artificial, yet convincing in an emotional sense. The emotional, perhaps even spiritual or existential, content of the scene blatantly supersedes any obligation to “realism” or legible causation or continuous temporality; indeed, time seems to stand still for the scene’s duration. This emotional resonance is uniquely powerful as a direct result of Anderson’s willingness to suspend “realism” in favor of artifice and contrivance. With the “Wise Up” scene, PTA lays the groundwork for his eventual masterstroke, providing an expressionistic model of melodramatic storytelling in which emotional intensity overrides rationality and plausibility as a narrative imperative.

The correlation between reality and melodrama, between what “really happens” and what cinema represents, then, is one of emotion, of feeling, according to Anderson’s film. Melodrama externalizes the most intense interior states (as in the “Wise Up” scene), dramatizing passions and beliefs individuals are perhaps too timid or isolated or self-conscious to express – whether they be romantic, violent, or even metaphysical. The progress of Magnolia’s carefully arranged self-presentation – from insecurity to justification to excess – mirrors this process of externalization, providing a cautious arc toward extravagant artifice that is careful to keep the reluctant spectator (which certainly included my teenage self) credulous and interested.

Magnolia’s full melodramatic externalization of its emotional core, of course, famously comes in the form of a rather curious bit of precipitation – a narrative gambit of Biblical proportions. I speak of the millions of frogs which cascade over Magnolia’s San Fernando Valley during its concluding half-hour, washing over the landscape and characters at the precise point that the weight of coincidence, of unmitigated sorrow, of hopelessness, of tears and sins, of all the film’s building melodrama becomes unbearable, and the film must climb to newer heights of expressive intensity. The raining frogs are, appropriately, Magnolia’s signature image, representing one of the bravest creative choices in the history of narrative cinema, a moment of melodrama in its most abstracted, virtually transcendent form. It is a scene of celestial histrionics, of the unbelievable; yet, it is also the truest, most sincere, most profound scene in Anderson’s entire filmography (which includes it as one of the greatest world cinema has had to offer in the past two decades). It is also, particularly upon initial viewing, mystifying, and its significance as an expressionistically melodramatic explosion, one that exemplifies the pulverizing power of excess and emotion flying in the face of “realism,” is best explained by answering the perplexed Phil Parma’s stammering question upon witnessing the meteorological marvel, “How are there frogs falling from the sky?”

Most basically, Phil’s question is a metaphysical one, pondering how the basic laws of reality appear to have been transgressed and contradicted. In this light, the term deus ex machina seems particularly apt (the god in question being PTA). With the falling frogs, Anderson employs a deus ex machina to a deliberate end (rather than demonstrating the laziness typically ascribed to the use of such overt narrative intervention), one which elucidates the melodramatic ethos of Magnolia by aligning the film’s entire universe with its core emotional concerns – perhaps the ultimate form of expressionism. Indeed, the spiritual overtones of the sequence (look for references to Exodus 8:2 throughout the film) point to a certain transcendence-seeking impulse often associated with profound emotion, an impulse Anderson is happy to indulge by emphasizing the act of forgiveness (Christian connotations abound). A specifically cosmic variety of forgiveness is the source from which the frogs fall in Magnolia, whether that source is an implied deity/metaphysical force or simply the writer-director (the god of the narrative machine). It is a forgiveness from outside, one which deliberately pushes people together, saves them from themselves, and retracts their seemingly deserved punishments. It is a narrative leap predicated on emotion and sympathy – that of the filmmaker, and, perhaps, the audience, for the characters; however, the leap is also motivated by the emotion and desire for redemption buried in the most intense interiorities of the characters themselves. Overflowing with these swirling sentiments, Magnolia’s surge into unfettered melodrama seems somewhat inevitable – fated, one might say, not just “one of those things.”

But the falling frogs are still more complex. As the scene concludes, the audience is presented with the same sort of defense of the fantastic and coincidental as earlier in the film. A close up of the corner of a painting’s frame in Claudia’s apartment reveals a strip of paper reading “but it did happen” and, while watching the frogs rain from within the confines of his school library, Stanley mutters, “This is something that happens.” In this new, metaphysically provocative context, however, the previously self-conscious move of rhetorical defensiveness becomes something different. Rather than suggesting the actuality of the fantastic (“these things happen all the time”) as a method of justification and reliability, Magnolia now points to the unbelievable wonder of actuality, offering a phenomenon that demonstrates the shockingly strange qualities of real occurrences. (Raining frogs actually occur in nature. Seriously, look it up.) Ultimately, the recurrence of the “this happens” motif results in an underscoring of the relevance of melodrama to our lived experience. The most outlandish moment has a relatable root in reality, even if that root is essentially emotional. It is all startlingly reminiscent of one of the most memorable scenes of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s aforementioned Adaptation., in which Robert McKee (Brian Cox) berates Charlie (Nicolas Cage) after the later remarks that he wants to make a movie in which nothing happens, as in life, to which Robert responds:

Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day. There's genocide, war, corruption. Every fucking day, somewhere in the world, somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else. Every fucking day, someone, somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love, people lose it. For Christ's sake, a child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church. Someone goes hungry. Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman. If you can't find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don't know crap about life! And why the FUCK are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie? I don't have any use for it! I don't have any bloody use for it!

Like Adaptation., Magnolia is a film at odds with itself regarding its post-modern and melodramatic tendencies. Magnolia, however, is decidedly more committed to the latter, demonstrating the truth of McKee’s powerful objection by extracting and externalizing the power and intensity of world that frequently seems banal. The world, Magnolia suggests, is vital, dynamic, and beyond our ken – its full expression requiring a narrative mode imbued with the cataclysmic, the extravagant, the super real, in other words, the melodramatic.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Paul Thomas Anderson Blogathon: Derek Hill on There Will Be Blood

***Hopefully Derek Hill won't need any introductions to my readers here but just in case...Derek is the author of one of the great modern books on cinema, Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood's Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists and Dreamers: An Excursion Into the American New Wave, and the author of the terrific blog Detours. Derek is one of my favorite writers on the planet, my friend and now co-conspirator (as I was honored to have some of my work appear in a book he was featured in as well). I am honored to present this brand new and powerful new piece on There Will be Blood that Derek wrote specifically for our blogathon and it's a real doozy...overflowing with the same passion, fire and intelligence that all of Derek's work contains. So, enough of my the article!***

There Will Be Blood: Into the Void
Derek Hill

“They were sold out. Fought and died down there in that desert and then they were sold out by their own country. “
--Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West

“America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.”
--Naked Lunch

"Property, the whole fucking thing is about property."
--The Thin Red Line

Seeing There Will Be Blood in the theatre for the first time was a revelation. Nestled in my seat, the lights lowered, the auditorium filling with light as a wash of strings threaded into my ears... a bleached landscape appeared that could have been today, 200 years ago, or at the beginning of time. Visually and aurally I was immediately reminded of Kubrick and Ligetti respectively... 2001: A Space Odyssey. Daniel Day-Lewis methodically wielding the pick-axe in the confines of the earth, searching for silver within the rock but finding evidence of oil instead, snapped me back to the present... the past? It was hypnotic. And when this silent creature fell to his certain doom down to the depths of the mine shaft, but somehow clawing his way back to life with a broken leg and across the cracked earth of the desert floor to... to what? So that he could make sure his claim of oil was certified. I was stunned and hooked. The opening 15 minutes are extraordinary in that no dialogue is spoken--a perfectly hypnotic synthesis of sound and vision that is the most riveting pure cinema that Anderson has ever directed. When we do first hear voices, it comes in the guise of a rational sounding business offer. It’s a con. And we are seduced. The rest of the film continues at this same brilliant artistry. Though as it went on, I realized that this was no straight period film, no mere historical Western. This was a horror film—an apocalyptic American fable that could have only been birthed with such savagery during the devolution of the Bush reign when big business and religious mania entwined to make global policy.

Each generation gets the monster it deserves. The Depression era received King King. The Atomic Age got Godzilla. The 1980s saw a mob of faceless, personality-vacant slasher killers dominate the screens. And the 1990s saw the rise of intellectually brilliant sociopaths like Hannibal Lecter charm audiences. In the Bush era--an age of rampant stupidity, greed, open political corruption, illegal wars, and religious/political demagoguery—we get Daniel Plainview.

It’s debatable whether Plainview is actually worse than the religious hypocrite Eli Sunday, his nemesis and moral reflection. He is a con man and a murderer after all. But he is honest with himself, unlike Sunday who will be revealed as a fraud in the end and pay for his pretensions with his own blood. Plainview is nevertheless a hulking monster of a character. As personified by Daniel Day-Lewis, Plainview slopes powerfully through every scene he is in with a domineering physicality both horrifying and entrancing. This is a truly great actor at work. But like all classic monsters, we can never console ourselves that we are watching something purely inhuman. The best horror films are never consoling or entirely escapist. They reveal and force us to explore our darker natures while always reminding us that the line between us and them is not always as clear as we’d like. For what’s more human than unbridled ambition, alcoholism, madness, thievery, and murder as a solution to vexing problems? As strong and resilient as Plainview is, he is also tragically weak and deluded.

It’s a brilliant, dare I say masterful performance. There is genius in Day-Lewis that is extraordinary to watch—a mix of gruff charisma, nuance, aggressive theatricality, and complete verisimilitude to his character. It was also fitting that Day-Lewis seemed to be evoking the vocal cadence and slightly stooped posture of director John Huston for the role, although in interviews the notoriously private actor claims to have not done so intentionally. Regardless, Huston makes for a proper template for Plainview. Huston was a charmer on screen and off, but also bullying, rebellious, intimidating, and fearless--attributes that could describe Plainview as well. All one has to do is remember Huston’s turn as the real estate tycoon Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s masterpiece Chinatown, a character who charms his way through the film until he can no longer hide the sickness inside. When Cross slowly wraps his gargantuan arms around his granddaughter/daughter at the film’s conclusion, his mammoth hand shielding her eyes from the site of her mother’s corpse, we are repulsed because there is no recourse for morality or justice. The “bad guy” gets away with it and we feel helpless because the movies, which usually protects us from the truth of matters, has betrayed us in a whole different way. There is no punishment for the wicked, no moral recompense for the innocent, no reassurance or comfort for the audience. It’s a vile, thoroughly nightmarish cinematic moment and unforgettable.

Plainview moves to the same satanic rhythms as Cross, and Paul Thomas Anderson strives to deliver a killing blow at the end of his film to match that of Polanski. That Anderson doesn’t quite pull it off doesn’t lessen the film’s overall impact for me. Plainview’s murder of the hypocrite evangelist Eli Sunday, played by Paul Dano, is ludicrous in its blackly comedic grotesquery. But in the film’s headlong plunge into the black hole of Plainview’s madness, perhaps it’s an inevitable finale for a character who symbolizes America at its worst and most ruthlessly pragmatic, much as Cross did and Charles Foster Kane/Orson Welles did before that. To look into the eyes of these men is to see the architects of the United States and... perhaps the agents of its destruction as well. Perhaps Anderson had been right to end the film on such an acidic, incomprehensibly absurd note after all. When the center can no longer hold... there’s always laughter.

I left the theatre shaken, but excited. Anderson evoked the time period with exquisite realism, and with his editor Dylan Tichenor, allowed us ample breathing space to think, to let our eyes explore the frame in a manner I haven’t experienced in a major American commercial film since Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line or The New World. It was exhausting, but an experience I wanted to have again.

It would be months before I got a chance to see the film once more. By that time, I was living in a small, rural village in Ireland and the poison of Bush’s America felt a bit more distant, although with the 2008 elections looming and practically every Irishman wanting to talk about them, the bad aftertaste was still heavy. And that beastly shadow of Plainview’s stretched far as well. He had crept inside me like no other fictional character in recent memory. Seeing it for the second time was an even more challenging experience for me. Yes, Plainview seemed to personify the ruthlessness and delirium at the heart of the so-called American Dream. Though this second time around his humanity oozed out more as well—the tenderness he displays to his son H.W., the way he laughs and plays with him, and even confides in him as a trusted business confidant. But Plainview’s destruction is also embedded in his relationship with H.W. For me, the moment comes not in the red herring of him “abandoning” the boy on the train—Plainview is clearly troubled by doing it--but when he leaves his son, who has been seriously injured during a well explosion, in the tent and goes to stand guard at the well to watch the flames rage into the night. Plainview seems to step into the void at that moment, never to return. He is majestically satanic, prideful, and intoxicated by the dream of vast wealth that will soon be his knowing that “there’s a whole ocean of oil under our feet! No one can get at it except for me.” It is in front of the red furnace that he has forsaken his humanity. He is weak. And in return for all of that wealth he will be rewarded with alcoholism, wrath, sloth, and madness. “I have a competition in me,” Plainview states at one point. “I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.” If that’s not humanity and contemporary America at its most raw, vile, and tragic, then I don’t know what else is.

Paul Thomas Anderson Blogathon: Michael Cusumano on There Will Be Blood

***This fairly new piece on There Will be Blood was submitted to me by a writer named Michael Cusumano, who runs a blog called Serious Film. Based in Brooklyn, Michael obviously has some wonderful taste in film, literature and music, as seen on his profile page, and I am looking forward to discovering more of his work. Thanks to him for submitting yet another insightful piece, which notes connections between Daniel Plainview and Charles Foster Kane, on Anderson's most acclaimed work.***

Great Shots: There Will Be Blood
Michael Cusumano

Daniel Plainview lingers in the mind long after most other characters have shrank from memory. Like that other famous fictional tycoon, Charles Foster Kane, he is a character at once straightforward and mysterious. Both men proceed from youth to reclusive old age with a monomaniacal fixation on obtaining wealth and power. If anything, Plainview is more obsessed - Kane had this life thrust upon him as a child, whereas Plainview chose the path himself, personally clawing it from the Earth. But what are they thinking? Do they have second thoughts, considering the closer they get to their goals the more they lose the capacity for happiness? If Kane had Rosebud, one word to sum up all the innocence and subsequent happiness he lost on his way to gripping that snow globe on his lonely deathbed, what does Plainview have?

Unlike Kane, there is no youthful blush of idealism for Daniel Plainview from which we can trace his decline into corruption. Plainview is already completely Plainview when we meet him - totally isolated, locked in a struggle to extract his riches from the land. Nor will there be any round-up of friends and colleagues to comb through their memories once Daniel Plainview dies, regardless of any enigmatic last words he might leave behind. His closest associate, Fletcher, means nothing to him in the end, and is unceremoniously dropped from the movie the moment he is no longer relevant (I always find it a bit sad how his last words in the film question whether he's being pushed aside, and then - poof - he's gone). The two who would no doubt have some great tales to tell about Daniel, Eli Sunday and Daniel's "brother" Henry, are destroyed by him. He leaves behind no noticeable love affairs, at time appearing borderline asexual, romantic love just one more repulsively human thing to keep at a distance.

The only connection of any real depth he forms is that he makes with his "son" H.W., and it is there we catch glimpses of the man beneath the industrialist machine. After the events of the movie, H.W. would no doubt be glad to go his whole life without ever again discussing the man who raised him, although it already tells most of the story that all the people listed as Daniel's family members have quote marks around their titles. It is no accident that Eli is desperately claiming to be family right before Daniel caves in his skull.

Daniel Plainview is a man who in dire need of both giving and receiving human affection, of experiencing the unconditional love of a child for his father. By the end of his life he's warped his mind by solitude and alcohol to the point he can convince himself and H.W. that not only does he not love his adopted son, but he never did, and was only using him as a sales prop, "a sweet face to buy land" as PT Anderson memorable puts it. He says it with such frightening conviction that we in the audience almost believe it as well, that is until we think back on shots like the one above. It's then we can see the full scope of the man's demons. There is no faking the love Plainview has for his child in that moment. It's the loss of the emotion felt here that makes the famous baptism histrionics feel true, rather than gratuitous scenery chewing.

Robert Elswit won a well-deserved Oscar for There Will Be Blood's cinematography. It was the culmination of a brilliant run of work that includes such beautifully shot films as Good Night, and Good Luck and Michael Clayton. If the story of Blood echoes Citizen Kane, the photography recalls Kubrick, specifically 2001: A Space Odyssey. The alien feel and texture of the landscape most resembles 2001's scenes on the surface of the moon, and it's a testament to Elswit and PT Anderson that even the intimate shots like the one above, of people and faces, reverberate with the same grandeur as the shots of gushers and mountains.

If I picked this shot out of so many memorable images from the film, it's because it's moments like this that let visual poetry approach the ideas that the film never broaches verbally, although Daniel's "I see the worst in people" monologue comes closest. We see father and son drenched in oil, with Daniel doing his best to pour love and care to his adopted son to no avail. H.W. is turned away from him, oblivious to his father's efforts. That H.W. loses his hearing is just salt in the wound, mocking his most earnest attempt to care for somebody else.

This is no mere "bastard in a basket." This was his son, only by the time his son gave him what he needed there was not enough of a man left to receive it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Paul Thomas Anderson Blogathon: Bryce Wilson on Magnolia

***Here we have another excellent new piece on Magnolia. This one comes from Bryce Wilson, the author of the terrific Things That Don't Suck blog. Any piece that begins with a song lyric by Aimee Mann gets an automatic thumbs up in my book, but thankfully the whole article is very moving as well. Bryce calls Magnolia one of his favorite films towards the end of this and I share that feeling, so I am happy to present another tribute to this glorious work.***

Bryce Wilson

"Please don’t work your stuff/ Because I’ve got problems enough"
-Aimee Mann-

What a lonely and sad movie Magnolia is. But how tender. Magnolia is a film that remains underestimated until it’s watched again. People remember it, but in parts not in whole. It’s the show stoppers, and Magnolia is made up of nearly nothing but, that remain in the mind, the mini film about coincidence that opens the movie, Tom Cruises uber misogynistic rants and the transcendent "Wise Up" scene, where every character in the film takes a moment to sing along to anthem of repeated mistakes.

But what perhaps is not remembered is the film’s bruising melancholy. The way it plays less like a movie sometimes and more of a collage of human misery, chronicling its characters despair, and the way they ache for something more. It’s a movie about the mess we make of our lives, and the terrible hurt we carry with us to be something better, to be something good.

The film follows a day in the life of a group of misanthropes, failures, and wasted prodigies across LA, whose lives have reached a point of no return. It portrays it’s character’s yearnings and failings with a compassion and lack of judgement that’s nearly saint like. The characters of Magnolia fail, unable to overcome the sins of their fathers, unable to shrug off the horrid burden the future holds for them, unable to forgive themselves for what they have done and what has been done to them, and most of all what they have become. All held together by Aimee Mann’s desperate score.

But if Magnolia was merely a documentation of human ugliness it would hardly be worth mentioning, let alone seeing. It would be a Todd Solonz movie. What makes Magnolia a masterpiece and what makes PT Anderson an artist is the way it captures people striving to become decent and how hard it is to do that simple thing. Like the similarly inclined Johnathon Frazen, Anderson knows that miserabilism is not enough. So many films are so timid and Magnolia is a bold movie. Bold not merely in its scope and ambition, but in it’s honesty. Character’s say what they are feeling, without bothering with subterfuge. When in the closing moments one of the characters protests through a broken blood filled mouth “That he has love.” It’s not the lack of artiface we’re concerned about, but the desperate raw nerved pain behind it.

The film has two characters a nurse and cop who go through their lives struggling to do good. They can’t help everyone in the movie, there are simply too many who need their help. But the ones they can aid, they do, and the relief they give is as sustaining as CPR to someone who has stopped breathing. For so accurately depicting the weight of guilt and sin, and the way simple kindness can lift that weight, Magnolia is one of my favorite movies. It’s a film that takes you into the darkest reaches of the human heart and soul, and then takes the terrible weight from your shoulders with a simple perfect smile.

Paul Thomas Anderson Blogathon: Bill Ryan on Hard Eight

***I was really hoping we would get another article on Hard Eight before the Blogathon ended, so I was thrilled when Bill Ryan, author of the wonderfully titled The Kind of Face You Hate, sent me this excellent new look at the film. Bill celebrates the incredible Philip Baker Hall, an actor who should be celebrated on a daily basis, in this piece and I think it's a wonderful addition to our Blogathon.***

The Collection Project: You are Big Time!
Bill Ryan

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight is not exactly a young man’s film, but in some ways it is very much a young man’s screenplay. In the DVD commentary track, Anderson talks about struggling with the script almost from the start, and saying the way for him to bust through that is to put two characters in a room and get them talking. This method resulted in Hard Eight’s wonderful opening, with John (John C. Reilly) and Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) sitting in a Reno, NV diner, over coffee and cigarettes, the mysterious Sydney offering to help the sad-sack John – who’s just come from Vegas after failing to win enough money at blackjack to pay for his mother’s funeral – avoid becoming a homeless Reno reject.

As I say, this is a great scene, highlighting Reilly’s effortless comic abilities, and Anderson’s considerable gift for dialogue. It also subtly clues you into the fact that the only reason Hard Eight exists at all is because Philip Baker Hall is an actor who is alive now on this planet. Though I had, by the time Hard Eight came out on video and I was able to see it for the first time, seen Hall in Altman’s Secret Honor (as well as – and this is not insignificant – the episode of Seinfeld where Hall plays the library cop), Hall’s work in Anderson’s debut feature was still a revelation for me. Sydney is one of my favorite film characters, certainly of modern times, and Hall gives what I consider one of the great screen performances. From the beginning of the film, you know just enough about Sydney to be fascinated by him, and to admire him (so fascinating that Hard Eight is one of the films from my burgeoning movie geek years that I got my dad to watch. This sort of thing didn't always work out too well, but after watching the film I remember my dad telling me that he didn't like it at first, but the further along he got, the more he thought, to paraphrase the line he most often quoted from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, "Who is this guy??"). Sydney’s a remarkably decent person, decent in a very old-fashioned way, who appears to know more than anybody else how to get buy in towns like Reno and Vegas, and it’s this knowledge he’s offering to John. But there’s a very sharp edge to him as well, shown first when the knuckleheaded John (who is nevertheless expressing some understandable paranoia) reacts to Sydney’s offer of help by saying he’s not gay, so if Sydney’s looking for some boy hooker, he can forget it. Sydney’s response is to say no, that’s not what I’m after, and this is the last time I’m going to offer my help.

At various points throughout the film, Sydney is shown to be quietly angered and frustrated by any person or encounter that proves to him that basic civility and manners are evaporating, though his only recourse seems to be to make sure those values remain intact within himself, as well as, to the extent he’s able to control such things, John. A sticking point for Sydney is John’s friendship with Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), a flashy, loud-mouthed, low-rent dickhead who works security at one of the casinos. When Sydney and Jimmy first meet, Sydney is playing Kino by himself when John and Jimmy come by. As they do, Jimmy uses his outside voice to comment on the physical attributes of their departing waitress. When Sydney quietly objects to this behavior, Jimmy condescendingly explains that these waitresses not only enjoy such compliments, but they’re all whores anyway. To which Sydney says, “I just don’t want it coming from my table.” It’s possibly my favorite line from the movie, delivered by Hall in a way that somehow mixes civility, exasperation, and a kind of suppressed danger.

To counteract, among other reasons, John’s friendship with the loathed Jimmy, Sydney constructs an introduction between John and Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), one of those waitresses Jimmy was talking about. Clementine is typical Reno damaged goods, a nice young girl, lost, or close to being lost, to a life of being a waitress as a cover for really being a hooker. Paltrow is very good here, but it’s around the time of her introduction that Anderson’s writing methods, and his youth, start to show their negative influence. Shortly after Clementine and John first make googly eyes at each other, John calls Sydney in the middle of the night, begging for help. When Sydney arrives at the motel room where John told him they’d be, Sydney finds a terrified John, a tearful, weirdly angry and withdrawn Clementine, and another man, unconscious and bleeding on the bed. That man is or was one of Clementine’s clients, but for some reason he refused to pay her for services rendered, so she or John or both of them knocked him out, tied him to the bed, and called the guy’s wife, demanding Clementine’s fee as ransom.

This is, we can all agree, a very stupid thing to have done, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that the long scene that follows, in which Sydney announces how stupid this is, and alternately offers the best practical advice he can and refuses to help at all, feels exactly like a scene that Anderson had no map for when he began, but he kept writing it until he’d found the exit. I’ve mentioned that Anderson is an enormously gifted writer of dialogue, but if screenwriters ever put together audition reels of their best writing, Anderson should leave this bit off. All you really get here is characters saying something, and then a minute later shouting out the same question or statement or insult, slightly reworded, or, if things have gotten really tense, one character will say “Fuck you!”, and then another character will say “Fuck you!”, or words to that effect.

I criticize with love, though, because I feel like I know what he was going through. In my own humble way, of course, and I’m in no way trying to associate myself with Anderson, but I don’t think anyone who has tried their hand at fiction, either in script form or prose, doesn’t know what it’s like to hit a dead end in your story that you simply try to write your way through. It’s like a car being stuck in the mud, and you keep the wheels spinning in the hopes that something will grip. Sometimes it do, sometimes it don’t, and this scene from Hard Eight don’t. At the very least it should have been tightened up, if not ditched outright and completely rethought. But the good news is that the narrative goal of that scene (the scene has other things on its mind, to do with character, which I suppose are more or less accomplished, however clumsily) is simply to find a reason for John and Clementine to get the hell out of Reno and leave Sydney alone with Jimmy, thereby setting up Hard Eight’s brilliant final stretch. In that stretch, which I won’t describe in detail, you find out why Sydney went out of his way to help John, a stranger at the film’s beginning, and while that explanation might be a bit too neat in terms of cause and effect, Sydney remains a largely mysterious figure by the end. Less mythic, perhaps, but still mysterious, and, in any case, Hard Eight, while by no stretch Anderson’s best work, does contain my favorite last shot (or shots) out of any of his films, and those shots would have no weight, or wit, if Sydney’s myth hadn’t been shattered.

Moon in the Gutter (Month By Month)

BLOG CREATED, EDITED and WRITTEN BY JEREMY RICHEY: Began in DEC 2006. The written content of all posts (excepting quotes from reviews, books, other publications) COPYRIGHT JEREMY RICHEY.