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Archive for August, 2009

Another quick note here on Tarantino’s new film.

Yesterday (in conversations here with Charles Reece, with a number of interlocutors on Shadowplay and through email, with a friend) I somehow argued myself toward an interpretation of Inglourious Basterds that gets past the Frank-Miller-death-obsession that powers much of the film, and overpowered my senses at the cinema.

What I came up with is this:

[in response to my friend Angela’s claims for the movie’s ability to dramatize extreme ideological hatred in action, at the intersubjective level]

Agreed–that’s the kind of thing that can be taken either way, and perhaps I’m doing the film an injustice, Starship Troopers-style…

There’s no doubt that World War Two, both as a military and a MEDIA event, lies at the absolute bedrock of contemporary western political consciousness… I’ve got no problem with movies about movies–and you could argue that movies about World War Two movies provide the auteur with an opportunity to dynamite the (ultra-damaging) hegemonic Western metanarrative at its source.

The real question everyone should be asking about Inglourious Basterds–or about any other film that engages with media and military conflict during the 20th century–is: “Can this film destroy the motherfuckin’ History Channel?”

If you think about the Pitt character’s growing love affair with swastika-branding as a statement about America’s subsequent proclivity for doing the same thing to anyone that gets in its way, you’ve got a strong political critique on your hands. One that strikes at the heart of the country’s self-image makeover, much of which really did occur in the films (and superhero comics) made by Hollywood while the war raged on… The fact is that the Nazis came as a godsend to American ideologues–and the worst political elements in the country have been living off of the Third Reich ever since.

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Does Tarantino understand that? Maybe, maybe not… But his film does allow us to think about this issue in unusually visceral ways, so I guess that’s a good thing.

On the other hand, you have the expected fanboy defense of the film (the one that turned my stomach at the theatre–and turned me so stridently against it). As usual, the most intelligent iteration of this interpretation (anathema to me) is provided by Kirbyist/Millerist supreme Geoff Klock.

A sample from Klock’s post:

I [Geoff Klock] would like to answer a question of yours [Slate‘s Dana Stevens].

“But Tarantino’s signature nastiness and his juvenile delight in shocking the audience undercut the movie’s larger purpose. Which is what, again? Watching someone get beaten to death with a baseball bat, or having a swastika carved into their flesh in tight closeup, is sickening whether the victim is a Nazi or not. In the scenes where the bloodthirsty Basterds (one of whom is played by Eli Roth, the director of the ultra-sadistic Hostel movies and a friend of Tarantino’s) perpetrate these exploits, are we supposed to be cheering them on? Is the best way to work through the atrocities of the 20th century really to dream up ironically apt punishments for the long-dead torturers?”

Yes.

No, Geoff.

No.

Dave

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Great discussion at David Cairns’ Shadowplay.

I may have to write something on Tarantino vs. Verhoeven (with Robert Aldrich figuring heavily as a precursor–have I ever told you how much I love Vera Cruz?) very soon.

After I complete the next “Montreal Fiore,” I guess.

for now–here’s a reprint from my old blog, on the subject of Verhoeven’s ability to do what Tarantino cannot (and, I suppose, does not WANT to) do:

T-Shirt Philosophy;
or, Verhoevens To Betsy!

I’ve always prided myself upon my imperviousness to the critically commonplace, but I’ll admit that they got me this time! For thirteen years! And I would still be in the dark if visiting friends hadn’t set my sights Verhoeven-ward once again, by instigating a Starship Troopers/Total Recall double-feature over the weekend.

I got so excited about this pair (especially the glorious Heinlein ad-slap-tation) that I announced my intention to watch everything the man has done, since coming to America in the mid-’80s. “Not Showgirls though, right?” my friends inquired. Of course Showgirls! How could I skip that one? I wasn’t expecting to like it–but I did think that it would at least fit with the theory that the Dutch director’s entire career in Hollywood constitutes some kind of meta-critique of the culture the industry serves/helps to create…

Well I’m tossing that theory out the window. Forget meta-critique–the films themselves offer the purest critique you will ever see. Even purer than Motime fave Grant Morrison’s The Filth, because Verhoeven really dares to produce exploitation films that vibrate on a plane SO closely in tune with the worst in the culture that you could very easily fail to find your way into the anti-chambers (and I DO mean anti–, not antechambers, no matter what my word processor says!) they contain. And most people have done just that. Failed.

Where to start with Showgirls? Well, first off, I’d say, the All About Eve comparisons have to go. I understand them. Even considered them. But they can only lead you astray. This is NOT a critique of “ambition” or “show biz shallowness”… Those have been completely acceptable targets since the dawn of Hollywood–a part of the whole “the rich and powerful have problems of their own” strain of thought that keeps the capitalist treadmill rolling, despite the inequities it breeds.

What to compare it to then? My choices would be Robert Rossen and Abraham Polonsky’s Body and Soul (1947) and Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange (1971). The earlier film is a classic noirish expose of capitalist exploitation, as seen through the prism of the fight game, which grinds up the bodies of the poor boys it feeds upon. It features incredible performances by John Garfield and Canada Lee–both of whom would be destroyed during the “Second Red Scare”–and I love it–but I’ve always been disappointed by the popular front humanism (saintly working class mother, neighborhood solidarity, the very idea of a “soul” existing apart from an exploited “body”) that dulls its critical edge. Kubrick’s film, on the other hand, has this rep for being an ultra-cool satire that drowns the viewer in the crocodile tears which are the life’s blood of do-goodery and moral/ethical thinking. (and I suppose it IS that–but it’s ALSO an ultra-cheezy paean to the prerogative of the “sensitive artist/intellectual” that is no less sentimental than a fuckin’ Julia Cameron self-help guide).

Verhoeven’s film goes so much further than either of these predecessors. If you want a REAL comparison–you might want to check out Richard Wright’s Native Son. Think of Elizabeth Berkley’s Nomi as Bigger Thomas, and you’ll begin to see the movie aright. Shallow? Violent? Unable to tell friend from foe? Yes. Yes. Yes. Patriarchy creates its own form of lumpenproletarian.

Is the dialogue  terrible? I’m never sure what people mean when they say this. It’s not erudite? (how could it be?) It’s not realistic? (fuck off!–to paraphrase Marx–artists have done a decent job of describing reality in the past century or so–but the point is to CHANGE it) It’s not appropriate? That depends upon what you think the movie is. Reviewers are shocked by the stupid lines. “It must be nice not to have guys coming on you every night”???? That’s supposed to be heartwarming? Yes. Yes, it is. (supposed to be) And no. No it’s not. (why should it be? What resources can these people call upon in order to create that special moment that audiences seem to want?) All of the <<insert tender exchange here>> scenes in this film expose the ways in which seemingly-sophisticated viewers are looking for exactly the same things that a movie-of-the-week specializes in serving up. I happen to think that the script serves the narrative perfectly.

And what IS the narrative? Well! It’s the story of a soulless wreck of a human being who begins the film with a confused idea in her head about the way to salvation/empowerment/”a soul” and ends the film on a DIFFERENT confused route (leading out of Las Vegas) to the same never-never land. Along the way, she comes as close as she is capable of coming to two other people (her roommate and the woman she supplants in the show)–although, in both cases, this happens too late and can’t lead to anything that anyone could confuse with anything that is actually good. Like Body and Soul, Showgirls presents us with the ultimate survivor–a person who, for whatever Satan-given reason, has been granted the power to survive in ANY environment… Unlike the Rossen film however–Showgirls strips that power of all glamourous/inspirational/heartwarming qualities… John Garfield walks away from the fight game arm-in-arm with Lilli Palmer. Elizabeth Berkley makes good her escape in a cowgirl costume, holding a knife to the throat of the once-and-future dick who first brought her to Sin City–from a place, we later learn, that was worse than ANYTHING we see in the film itself… And she’s clearly headed back to the same dismal place. It’s called the world we live in. There’s nothing else. And no safe place to view it from. Verhoeven satirizes the half-smart satirists that give the genre a bad name (in my book, at any rate). Nathanael West would have loved this film. And so do I.

as you were!

Dave

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You’d never do such a thing, of course–but if you asked me to name the ultimate product of Hollywood’s Studio Age, I’d pick Lynch’s Mulholland Dr (it’s also my favourite film). If pressed to choose a movie that was actually made during the period in question, I’d have to go with one of two very late exercises in Metrocolored auteurism (both released in 1958)–Minnelli’s Some Came Running (more on that one some time soon) or Nick Ray’s Party Girl:

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There are other 1930-1960 Hollywood films that I like as much or more (Vertigo, Portrait of Jennie, Love Letters, Little Man, What Now?, Strange Cargo, Moonrise, Trouble in Paradise, The General Died at Dawn, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Front Page, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Duck Soup, Kings Row, Ruby Gentry, The Wedding Night, H.M. Pulham Esq., Curse of the Cat People, History is Made at Night, Possessed (1931), The Strange Woman, The Black Cat, Dracula, Freaks, Out of the Past, Murder, My Sweet, Sirk’s Imitation of Life, Easy Living, Scarlet Street, Alice Adams, Swing Time, It’s A Wonderful Life, The Narrow Margin, The Killers, You Only Live Once, You and Me, Meet John Doe, The Miracle Woman, Stage Door, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Sullivan’s Travels, Christmas in July, Kansas City Confidential, Fallen Angel, High Sierra, The Awful Truth, The Strawberry Blonde, The Roaring Twenties, Juarez, Dark City, Rope of Sand, The Accused, The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Talk of the Town, Thieves’ Highway, They Drive By Night, All This and Heaven Too, Dark Victory, Three Strangers, Red Dust, Mad Love, The Last Flight, Petrified Forest, Rear Window, The Maltese Falcon, Stella Dallas, Holiday, The Seventh Victim, Citizen Kane, Magnificent Ambersons, Casablanca, Three Comrades, The Shop Around the Corner, The Mortal Storm, Daisy Kenyon, Mann’s Raw Deal, Laura, Road House, Angels Over Broadway, The Lost Moment, We Are Not Alone, On the Town, Yolanda and the Thief, Meet Me in St.Louis, The Clock, Nightmare Alley, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Kiss of Death, Kiss Me Deadly, These Three, Wuthering Heights, Vera Cruz, Dodsworth, Shadow of a Doubt, Whale’s Waterloo Bridge, and Ray’s own They Live By Night, Bigger Than Life and In a Lonely Place, to name just a few), but none of them embody the best and worst of Tinseltown’s tendencies the way Party Girl does.

How so?

Well, consider the casting:

The leads? Two of the most hermetically-sealed mugs in the history of screen thesping. Just look at ’em:

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Forget “where’s Waldo?”–where’s the “humanity”? You can scan these pans from here to eternity without discovering a trace of method in their maskness. Does that make them ineffective performers? No way. As we’ll see, this is a “right face at the right time” scenario. But we’ll return to that…

Take a look at some of the key character players.

In one film, Ray gives us the ultimate avuncular psychopath (Lee J. Cobb):

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(Messers. De Niro and De Palma clearly paid attention to this one)

The ultimate sleazoid henchman (John Ireland):

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AND the ultimate pseudo-leading man (Kent Smith, in a role–the flawed crusading District Attorney– that, in many other films, would be the lead… that title’s not a knock, by the way: Smith’s ersatzness is absolutely essential to the greatness of films like Cat People and The Fountainhead):

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With that group on hand, you know you’re in for gangsterism–and you definitely get a large helping of “Early thirties Chicago” here–but refried, Ray-style (Ray-fried? Ray-ified?)… All of the elements of Party Girl are recognizable to a veteran classic film viewer, but the director puts them together in unprecedentedly odd ways. It’s a gangster film, yes–with much of its generic momentum provided by a Brando-ized (and much less successful) cousin of Scarface‘s Tony Camonte:

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but all Hoppered up with visions of loneliness/intersubjectivity-in-crisis like these:

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and Sirked way off course by a plot that’s 40% recovery-from-disability narrative:

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And while your brain is slam-dancing with that dissonance, allow me to throw Cyd Charisse’s leopard-printed gams into the mix:

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(I’m afraid Cyd activates my “male gaze” problem wherever she appears–and this film both encourages that mode AND calls it into question far more effectively than anything else she did at MGM… with many scenes, especially early on, that dramatize what the ravages of all of that ogling can do to a woman’s spirit… also note that Ray allows Charisse to look like exactly what she was in 1958–an absurdly beautiful woman in her mid-30s, NOT an ingenue)

The film actually kicks off as if it means to be a precursor of Verhoeven’s Showgirls (I suppose the weirdly off-base title must have something to do with this impression), and Charisse really shows us something (other than her celebrated grace) in these scenes. Vicki Gaye’s deadened pan is clearly shown to be a defensive formation against the forces of objectification. In a manner uniquely his own (although I suspect that Verhoeven learned a lot about how to deploy Elizabeth Berkley from this film… I’d love to know if he ever saw it), Ray skillfully transforms the actress’ limited range into a powerful gesture toward subjectivity. When you watch isolated scenes of this film, Charisse doesn’t seem to be giving any kind of a performance, but I defy you to watch it from beginning to end without finding something compelling in her progression.

Likewise, Robert Taylor’s weird passivity is exploited to wonderful effect in this film. Has there ever been a more diffident leading man? Alan Ladd is a bravura trouper, by comparison. The one thing Taylor can do is be stubborn, and Ray lets him flash this talent in EVERY scene. How would Melville’s Bartleby do as a gimpy mafia consigliere? Party Girl gives us the answer.

It does other things too.

Clydefro is right to draw our attention to Ray’s absolute belief in the personality-altering effects of romantic attraction (whether transient or lasting). NO ONE is better at showing people getting under each other’s skins. Even–or maybe even especially–these two manikins. The scene in the speakeasy, in which the pair stab through each others’ jaded worldviews with ice pick glances, could very well be the best of its type–leagues ahead of the kind of banter that is supposed to achieve the same ends in things like Hawks’ Big Sleep.

And the violence, when it comes stealing into the narrative (as in Cobb’s savage assault upon Jean Harlow’s photo; in the Capone-esque trophy scene shown above; in the glimpse of Vicki’s rommate’s suicide; in the “greatest hits” montage and in the finale) is absolutely jarring, in a way that it never, ever could be in a gangster film devoid of Charisse dance sequences and extended sojourns to special Swedish health institutes.

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All that and a happy ending too!

Godard claimed that Ray IS cinema. I don’t know about that–but Party Girl IS Hollywood Cinema.

a bientot, les amis

Dave

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Every time I look at this sign, it makes less sense.

See if you can figure out whom the persona is addressing.

wacko(courtesy of the Toronto Zoo)

more substance later in the week

Dave

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Hello–

Was away on vacation (Toronto was quite wonderful) and I’m still quite bus slagged, but I gotta keep my hand in here, right? I’m afraid the best I can offer today is a finger (the index–not the middle):

1. David Allison has returned–check out his latest foray into The Filth

2. David Cairns’ film club rolls on (Renoir-style)! I won’t miss any of these, from now on!

3. my discussion with Andre Soares (re: Cassavetes and Judy Garland) in the comments section here will soon flower into an Anagramsci post–look for it (if that’s your kind of thing)

4. and here we have Sean Collins on Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme–’nuff said

a bientot

Dave

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UPDATE! Here is the actual Film Club post.

Hello—

Just a quick note to point you in the direction of David Cairns’ new Film Club initiative, which will premiere on Monday, August 3rd.

I’m especially pleased to note that DC has chosen to kick things off with William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster.

Dieterle, as some of you may know, is one of my absolute favourites–in a class (in my mind) with Lynch, Borzage, Capra, Cassavetes, Fritz Lang, Dreyer, Powell/Pressburger, Sternberg, Vidor, Paul Thomas Anderson and very few others.

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The last time I watched the film, I had this to say about it.

That was five years ago.

I’m looking forward to another go ’round!

Hope you’ll toss your two cents into the discussion on Monday.

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a bientot!

Dave

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