Thursday, September 29, 2011

Talus, Or Scree

I sat down for an interview with Patrick Culliton and Jay Varner, the gents behind the web-phenom Talus, Or Scree. After a little curtain raising with Varner's visit to Civil War battlefield, the podcast proper starts. We have a pretty good talk about film noir, Hell On Church Street, and Encyclopedia Brown.

(Warning: this podcast explains explicit language. And cackling jackassery.)

Go check it out and give it a listen here.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Higher Ground (2011)

Growing up in the Ozarks, I spent a lot of time at a religious campground run by my aunt and uncle. It was a 68-acre compound sprawled over the side of a mountain, and my family--my parents, brothers, and me--moved there for a brief period in 1989. I roamed over those hills and prayed among the trees, trying to get up early enough to read my Bible as the sun broke over the waterfall near our cabin. This period of piety and devotion did not last very long. I liked sleeping in too much. I also found that I liked reading Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker more than I liked reading the Bible. Within a year, my parents moved us into a house in a (relatively) nearby town--apparently I wasn't the only one who wasn't cut out to be a full-time missionary--but all through high school I still spent a lot of time out at the camp. In the summers, I was sent to their Boys Work Camp--a getaway for Christian boys that replaced water sports and pubescent sexual exploration with the edifying effects of labor and Bible Study. So while I never copped a feel at a summer camp, I did build a rock wall and read all four Gospels (I'm kind of a Gospel of Mark man, I think). The name of the camp, incidentally, was Higher Ground.

I was reminded of my time at the camp as I watched Vera Farmiga's new film HIGHER GROUND. Adapted from the memoir "This Dark World" by Carolyn S. Biggs, the film tells the story of Corine (played by Farmiga) a quirky young woman coming of age in the seventies who gives her life to Jesus after a near fatal accident. Together with her husband Ethan (Joshua Leonard) she joins an unnamed Protestant church run by Pastor Bill (Norbert Leo Butz) and his steely faced wife, Sister Deborah (Barbara Tuttle). For a while, the church seems to have every answer worth having to every question worth asking. As the years roll on, however, Corine begins to feel stifled, hemmed in by the patriarchal condescension of Pastor Bill and suffocated by the The-Lord-Wants-Me-To-Tell-You-How-Awful-You-Are helpfulness of Sister Deborah. Ethan, nice guy and devoted Christian husband that he is, can't figure out why Corine grows more and more distant. He tries to understand, but the only answer for Corine's unhappiness seems to be that God isn't good enough for her. She wants books and art and worldly friends. She wants more. But how can you want more than God?

Because HIGHER GROUND is a film about a woman's loss of faith (if 'loss' is quite the right word), it will strike many believers as something of an attack on that faith. I don't really think it is, though. It certainly judges the male-centric view of the faith and finds the church lacking in intellectual rigor, but it also plays fair with the congregation's sense of community and the way in which a belief in God's love can be as real as the love of one's own family.

The church in this film seems patterned after the Jesus Movement churches that sprung up in the later 60's and early 70's as an outgrowth of the hippie scene on the west coast. The great strength of Christianity, of course, has always been its malleability. This was the genius of the Apostle Paul, who foresaw (or, depending on how you look at such things, was granted the vision) that the story of Jesus would reach across the globe and translate well to different cultures. The Hippie Jesus that came out of the 60's was only the latest incarnation of the Son of God at the time. It's always worth remembering that black civil rights workers in the 50's who cited the words of Jesus as inspiration were opposed by racist white preachers doing the same. Or to use a different example, I once attended an exhibition at the National Gallery showing religious paintings and sculptures from Spain during the 17th century. Odd, I noticed, how much the Jesus in this art looked like a Conquistador from the 16th century. Every culture in every era remakes Jesus in its own image. Farmiga's film does a good job of showing a side of the Jesus Movement that most people are unfamiliar with, at least outside of the lyrics to "Spirit In The Sky." This film is a Jesus Freak version of Ibsen's A Doll's House.

As a debut, HIGHER GROUND shows Farmiga to be talented director.
This is a smart, often funny, very moving film. It's also a fairly flawed film, unfortunately. Major plot strands are left dangling. Corine's relationship with an earthy fellow believer (played by a luminous Dagmara Dominczyk) becomes the heart of the film's middle section but then, after a devastating development, is more or less abandoned. Likewise, the relationship between Corine's parents (played wonderfully by John Hawkes and Donna Murphey) feels like it's either too much or too little. Ditto Corine's relationship with her heathen sister. I'm not suggesting that every little storyline has to be tidied up, but the film is episodic and disjointed to such an extent that the overall power of the story is diminished.

Despite these flaws, HIGHER GROUND is still an impressive piece of work,
the rare film that addresses matters of faith head on. It reminds us how influenced we are by the rooms we find ourselves in, how quickly and easily our perception of the world is shaped by the people who surround us. "For where two or three are gathered together in my name" Jesus told his disciples "there I am in the midst of them." That statement, Corine learns, is one she does not have the faith to accept.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Drive (2011)

James Sallis's 2005 novella DRIVE is a stripped down, minimalist story about a stunt driver who acts as a freelance wheelman for crews pulling heists in and around Los Angeles. Sallis's clipped prose is not simply as sharp and polished as a switchblade, it's also working in the service of a narrative that is nonlinear and elliptical. This is not minimalism in the vein of Cain or Carver; it feels more like a hardboiled narrative poem written by someone with too much caffeine in his system. It's easy to understand why the book was such a hit in Europe, especially in France where noir appreciation was born.

Which brings us to Nicolas Winding Refn's new adaptation of DRIVE starring Ryan Gosling as the unnamed driver (simply called Driver in the book). Refn and his screenwriter Hossein Amini have changed a lot, streamlining the story by condensing the action while also adding supporting characters to flesh things out. This film is, in fact, a very loose adaptation of the novel. What the filmmakers have kept and captured perfectly from Sallis is the central character's isolation and self-possession (captured perfectly by Gosling, an actor whose aura of autonomy is his defining characteristic). Driver is a man of large silences punctuated only by brief bursts of utilitarian dialog. "If I drive for you," he informs a would-be partner "you give me a time and a place. I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes I'm yours no matter what."

We're introduced to his skills in a breathless opening scene in which Driver ferries two stick-up men away from a robbery while outrunning--and outwitting--a police dragnet. It's a fantastic set piece that establishes this man at the height of his power in the only arena he knows. A smart and exciting way to set up the film, it's also something of a high-speed lament for the general decline we've seen in the quality of chase scenes over the last fifteen years or so. Refn understands that a great chase scene is part race and part chess match.

Into Driver's isolated world comes a young woman named Irene (Carey Mulligan) with a sweet son named Benicio (Kaden Leos). Irene's husband, Standard (Oscar Issac) is in jail, and she and the boy are obviously lonely. She and Driver start to see each other--if not romantically, then emotionally intimate at least. It's hard to say what passes between them because they say so little to each other. In her sweet faced way, Irene is as quiet as Driver. The most touching scene in the film comes after Irene has put Benicio to bed. She and Driver say goodnight and their eyes lock and stay locked and they both smile at the warmth they generate together.

Then Standard comes home from the joint. He's better than we might expect. There is a tense moment when he first meets Driver and suspects, without ever quite saying anything, that something might have happened between his wife and this man, but he makes a kind of tentative piece with it, even inviting Driver over of dinner. Besides, Standard has bigger problems to worry about. There some guys from prison who want some money he owes them. They're willing to let him work it off pulling a heist. Driver, instantly and correctly, sizes up Standard for the heist and finds him lacking. Fearing for Irene and the boy, he offers his services for free.

This being noir, things turn to shit but quick. Of the plot complications from here on out, the less said the better. It will do to say that the last hour of the film grows increasingly violent as Driver navigates a maze of lowlifes and gangsters, battling would-be assassins and sniffing out double-crosses, all in an effort to protect Irene and Benicio.

The film is an odd mix of styles. On one hand, it maintains the less-said-the-better approach of the book. Our two main characters spend most of the film acting with their eyes. Since Gosling and Mulligan are two of our best and most expressive actors (no one in movies right now has a better smile than Carey Mulligan), the film can allow its center to be still and quiet. On the margins, however, it gives us a rich supporting gallery of verbose blowhards like Driver's mentor Shannon (Bryan Cranston), and the shady businessman Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his even shadier partner Nino (Ron Perlman). These guys never shut up, unreeling long profanity-rich speeches. And while the film itself feels in some ways like a seventies-era Steve McQueen car flick, it is scored like an early eighties Michael Mann movie (and the titles are MIAMI VICE pastel pink).

Spiritually, if not stylistically, it is a brother to Anton Corbijn's THE AMERICAN (released this time last year) which starred George Clooney as a near-silent assassin living in Europe. Both films take American genre pieces (the hitman flick and the heist flick), peel them of their genre trappings, and reinterpret them through a sensibility that places the character at the forefront. One can't help but think of something like BOB LE FLAMBEUR. Jean-Pierre Melville would, I think, have been proud to make a movie like DRIVE.

Ultimately, however, DRIVE is its own film. It's neither ashamed of nor beholden to its genre roots, but neither does it seem awed by any arthouse predecessor. It's an original creation, brooding and fast, hyper-violent and touchingly romantic. It's a hell of a movie.

*One quibble: after you see the film, please explain to me why Driver dons the weird movie mask when he goes to take care of Nino. It's a great visual, but logically it doesn't make any sense to me.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Mickey Rooney Goes To Hell

In the forties, Mickey Rooney was the biggest (albeit the shortest) movie star in America. His massive success as MGM's perky All-American teenager Andy Hardy financed a decade of booze, racehorses, and beautiful women.

Then the fifties hit him like a bomb. His films tanked and his life fell apart. Where's a guy to turn when his luck runs out? Well, film noir, of course.

Read my essay on the surprisingly impressive--and largely unknown--noir career of Mickey Rooney, excerpted in its entirety here from the new issue of NOIR CITY.

After you read it, check out the website of the Film Noir Foundation and think about joining the fight to save lost noirs.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Condemned by Jo Pagano (1947)

To understand THE CONDEMNED, Jo Pagano’s strange hybrid of social commentary novel and gritty pulp, a little background is in order. Born in 1906, Pagano was the youngest son of Italian immigrants who came to Colorado at the turn of the century so Pagano’s father could work as a miner. Jo quickly figured out that writing stories beat the hell out of swinging a pickax, and by the thirties he had started selling stories to magazines like THE ATLANTIC, SCRIBNERS, READER’S DIGEST, and YALE REVIEW. He moved to Hollywood, and by the late thirties, he was working at RKO Pictures.

Around this time Pagano became friends with the novelist William Faulkner. The great writer was in Hollywood doing script rewrites for Howard Hawks, but he spent most of his days chasing girls and getting shitfaced with other scribblers. At the time, Faulkner’s work was little read outside highbrow literary circles, but Pagano was already a devoted fan. Because Pagano could match the Mississippian drink for drink, the two men became fast friends. Faulkner became Pagano’s literary mentor and took special care to warn him about the hazards of selling out to Hollywood. Talent, Faulkner believed, couldn’t survive the compromises one had to make with the studios. He told Pagano simply, “Jo, you have got to get out of this town.”

In the midst of this tutelage with Faulkner, Pagano published his third book, THE CONDEMNED, in 1947. The novel was based on the true story of Thomas Harold Thurmond and John M. Holmes, who in 1933 had abducted and murdered a wealthy man named Brooke Hart. After the killers were apprehended and confessed to the crime, thousands of angry people descended on the Santa Clara County jail in San Jose, dragged the men from their cells, and hanged them from two trees across the street.

Pagano changed the names and turned the story into a serious crime drama. The central conflict is that of Howard Tyler, an everyman living in postwar California. He can’t find work to support his family, so he takes a job as getaway driver for a small time crook, and big time psycho, named Jerry Slocum. This decision turns out to be a catastrophic mistake because soon Jerry has decided that he and Howard need to move up the criminal ladder to kidnapping.

Neither of Pagano’s previous books—both of which were affectionate evocations of family life among Italian Americans—would have prepared a reader for THE CONDEMNED. This novel is a serious literary attempt to deal with Hart’s murder and the subsequent lynching of Thurmond and Holmes. As such, it marks a sharp departure from his previous books in terms of both focus and tone. It is also something of a swing for the fences in terms of style. It bears unmistakable Faulknerian touches such as shifting perspectives, shocking violence, and buried psychosexual motivations, but it also owes a debt to Steinbeck’s social consciousness. It was Pagano’s attempt to write a great, important novel. After its initial printing in hardback failed to bring literary glory, however, the book was radically abridged and repackaged as pulp (a process that would continue for years: Zenith Books re-released the book in 1958 under the title DIE SCREAMING).

The book isn’t entirely successful. Pagano’s weakness as a writer was preachiness. He gives us the character of Dr. Simone, an Italian professor who functions as the film’s moral and intellectual color commentator. This character mouths all of the appropriate leftist horror at the American financial and judicial systems. Moralizing in noir usually comes in the form of boring authoritarians espousing a rightwing point of view, but Dr. Simone’s sermons prove that preaching doesn’t work any better when it comes from the left. In many ways, the abridgement makes for a better read. It focuses more on the central story of the killers—in particular on Howard Tyler’s terrible guilt. After all, the key tension in the story is Howard’s gnawing sense of his own culpability, the tortured humanity of a normal man who fumbles into theft and murder and then watches in horror as his life falls apart.

Soon, Pagano accepted the job of adapting the book into a screenplay for producer Robert Stillman. The resulting film that Pagano and director Cy Endfield delivered, THE SOUND OF FURY, was a masterpiece, a dark and serious look at American society in the post-war era. Endfield rightly seized on Pagano’s strongest material and brought it to the front of the film. He also kept Pagano’s strong supporting cast of characters: crazy homme fatale Jerry Slocum, the careless newspaperman Gil Stanton, and Hazel, the odd young woman who exposes Howard to the police.

The film met with great opposition, with theater managers across the country catching flack for running such an “anti-American” picture at the outset of the Korean War. The film was re-titled TRY AND GET ME! and peddled around as a genre piece (much as the book had been), but it quickly sank into obscurity.

Stubbornly, the film lived on, and as film geeks rediscovered it, its reputation grew. It is now in line for a major restoration by the Film Noir Foundation. Pagano’s novel doesn’t have the same reputation that film the does, but this strange and beguiling work is well worth seeking out.