Thursday, December 23, 2010
Back in 1999, I worked at a used bookshop in Little Rock. I was stacking books one day when Charles Portis, the author of TRUE GRIT, walked in. He was a semi-regular in our store who usually came in accompanied by Dee Brown, the elderly author of BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE. Although the ninety-year old Mr. Brown was a jovial and natural raconteur, Mr. Portis, in his sixties at the time, was always quiet and reserved. The day he came in alone he was in search of a movie guide with a good selection of Westerns. I showed him what we had and apologized for the slim pickings. "These are a little old," I said. "Might not have much new stuff in them."
He shrugged. "Aw, I don't much like the new stuff, anyway."
I wonder what he'll make of the new adaptation of his most famous novel. The book--a masterpiece of American fiction--was, of course, adapted once before by director Henry Hathaway. At the time, the film was greeted as a turning point for star John Wayne and seen as a demystification of his screen image. This was supposed to be Wayne all roughed up, not quite as heroic as we were used to seeing him. All due respect to Hathaway (a fine director whose best work is probably the noir KISS OF DEATH), the hype around TRUE GRIT was always a bit overstated. It's an entertaining film, but Wayne was only playing a slightly more eccentric version of the sexless authoritarian figures he'd been playing in Westerns since he aged out of leading man roles in the sixties.
The new film, written and directed by the invaluable Coen brothers, hews closer than the previous film to the novel in tone and plot. The story is told by a 14-year old girl named Mattie Ross from Yell county, Arkansas who strikes out to track down her father's murderer. She enlists the help of a one-eyed, whiskey-swilling federal marshal named Rooster Cogburn, and the two are joined on their journey by a loquacious Texas Ranger named La Boeuf.
The Coens haven't been completely faithful to the book--for instance, they've added a strange new sequence involving a hanged man and a fellow wearing a bear's head for a hat--but their love of Portis's novel, especially its rich language, is palpable. In most Westerns, even in most great Westerns, there's no attempt made to try and replicate the sound of speech from the 1800s. One of the pleasures of Portis's novel, however, is the way the characters--Mattie, in particular--have a speech pattern that blends rural slang and formalized speech patterns. It's at once coarser and classier than the way most of us speak now. Since one of the real gifts of the brothers Coen is their ability to mine the regional verbal gold of an ever expanding swath of America--think FARGO, RAISING ARIZONA, A SERIOUS MAN--they are especially suited to the task of bringing Portis's language to the screen. Although it takes a few minutes to get used to lack the lack of contractions, the result is a kind of distinctive rural poetry.
The film, like so much of the Coens' best work, is an ensemble piece: Jeff Bridges makes for a surly and capable Rooster Cogburn, a man whose lack of grace is made up for by his abundance of...well, grit. Matt Damon is all kinds of wonderful as the self-important La Boeuf--it's nice to see the star, so often cast as the laconic outsider, utilizing his comic chops. Barry Pepper and Josh Brolin play the kinds of bad guys we never see in movies anymore: nasty characters who are nevertheless recognizably human. And spearheading this gang of misfits is young Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross. A 14-year old from California, Steinfeld seems to slip effortlessly into the skin of a preternaturally mature girl from 19th century Arkansas. More to the point, she's able to convey Mattie's essential quality, what Ethan Coen calls "the unflinching, four-square Protestant thing that defines the character." The actress is too pretty for the role, but when she sets her jaw and stares down the men of violence surrounding her, you believe her.
In the end, it's best to keep in mind that TRUE GRIT is the story of an old woman (a self-described "spinster") looking back on her moment of triumph. The smartest move the Coens make here (and they make almost exclusively good moves) is to keep the frame story in place. The film's opening shot begins as a murky haze that slowly clarifies into the image of Mattie's dead father. This is Mattie looking back through time and distance. When we rejoin her at the end of the film, she is old and malformed by her adventure, but she is who she is, the kind of headstrong character who deserves the title of "peculiar." That peculiar woman is who comes across in the pages of the novel, and that's who comes across here.
I hope Portis approves.
For more on Portis read here.
Saturday, December 18, 2010
The internet has been a godsend to the legacy of Orson Welles, allowing for the accelerated development of the community of fanatics devoted to his work. The leader in all things Welles is Wellesnet.com, a meeting ground for the truly obsessive. It's latest post is a reprint of Andrew Sarris's spot-on criticism of "Raising Kane" Pauline Kael's abominable hatch job on Welles. Read it here.
The site also has a page on Facebook which contains an unbeatable collection of photos, stills, and posters. Recently they posted this scene that Orson Welles cut out of his 1962 masterpiece The Trial. The sound has been lost to us, unfortunately, but some titles have been added to approximate the script. It's a fascinating glimpse of Welles's process. A constant experimenter, he wrote and shot this scene only to cut it out after the film had already premiered. This is evidence, as Welles once told Peter Bogdanovich, that he hated to watch his own films because he always had the urge to tinker with them.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
The new issue of the Noir City Sentinel is now available. As usual, it's packed full of great articles and photos. First, a little horn-tooting: this issue features my essay "All Kinds of Women: The Lesbian Presence in Film Noir" a 3,000 word examination of lesbian representation in noir from the classic period onward. The whole issue is pretty great: it features Don Malcolm on true crime noir; profiles on Lizabeth Scott, Edward G. Robinson, and Richard Conte; and an insightful reappraisal of ON THE WATERFRONT by Vince Keenan. It has exciting information on the latest preservation efforts of the Film Noir Foundation (good news for fans of the brilliant THE SOUND OF FURY), and much much more.
Below is the opening of my article:
There are no lesbians in classic film noir, and the reason for this is quite simple. Lesbians didn’t exist back then. Well, they didn’t officially exist. Sure, there were places in L.A. that catered to the all-girl set, upscale nightclubs like Tess’s Café Internationale and middle-class bars like the If Club and the Paradise Club. Actresses such as Margaret Lindsay (SCARLETT STREET), Ona Munson (THE RED HOUSE), and Patsy Kelly (THE NAKED KISS) either lived openly with their partners or carried on affairs with other women while hidden behind “lavender marriages” to gay men. And rumors swirled about big name stars like Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Stanwyck, and Lizabeth Scott. On the nation’s screens, however, lesbians didn’t even rate the kind of offensive portrayals accorded to other minorities. According to the Hays Code, absolutely no manner of “sex perversion” was permitted onscreen—a rule so ironclad that not even the implication of homosexuality was permissible. In the culture at large, moreover, homosexuality was rarely if ever spoken about in the open. It wasn’t that people were in the closet—it’s that the closet wasn’t even supposed to exist.
So there are no lesbians in noir. Implications, however, are funny things…Click here to get The Sentinel
Sunday, December 5, 2010
I have a new essay up at Mulholland Books that examines Robert Mitchum's propensity for getting gutshot by beautiful women. I look at this martyr's tale as told by three different, but terrifically talented, directors: Jacques Tourneur, John Farrow, and Otto Preminger.
During his long stint in Noirville, Robert Mitchum played everything from upright heroes to the nastiest of villains, but first and foremost he was the definitive sap. More than any other actor, Mitchum created the pivotal figure of the lovesick antihero with tragic taste in women. We find the core aspects of this persona in three films he made at RKO between 1947 and 1953: Out of the Past, Where Danger Lives, and Angel Face. These films feature the actor in strikingly similar scenarios which develop and resolve in parallel fashion.Keep reading...
Friday, December 3, 2010
Most bad movies aren't bad in any special way. The business of filmmaking has always been a high dollar risk venture, so most films try to duplicate past successes. This is why your average FAILURE TO LAUNCH* is a bland confection of recycled materials, the cinematic equivalent of fast food--the same old shit on a new bun. In other words, they're bad in a mass produced way.
And then there's THE ROOM, a movie so horrible it achieves a kind of greatness. It is part of the genre of so-bad-it's-good films that reaches back to Claudio Fragasso's TROLL 2 and, further, to the godfather of godawfulness, Ed Wood, director of PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE. Like those films, THE ROOM is the work of an auteur. This would-be chamber drama was produced, written, and directed by Tommy Wiseau and stars Wiseau as Johnny, a San Francisco bank employee with a European accent of indeterminate origin. He's engaged to marry the villainous Lisa, but Lisa is bored by their life together and decides to seduce Johnny's best friend, Mark.
That's pretty much it for the main plot, but the film is chocked full to bursting with tossed-off, immediately abandoned subplots. There's a one-scene-long subplot involving a drug dealer, followed not long after by a one-scene-long subplot about Lisa's faked pregnancy. And then there's the truly weird moments--like one character's casual revelation that she's dying of breast cancer...a matter never mentioned again in the film.
THE ROOM plays like it's been made by people who've never seen a movie before. Someone must have told Wiseau that you point a camera at people while they pretend to have conversations, and that's what happens here. Sorta. The acting in this movie isn't just bad, it's supernaturally horrible. As both a writer and an actor, Wiseau has only a glancing command of English ("Lisa has been teasing me, and we didn't make love in a while" and "Everybody betray me!"). Meanwhile, the main set looks like the background of an infomercial, shots drift in and out of focus for no reason, and scenes play as if they were edited at random.
Best (or worst) of all: scattered throughout the film, like little time bombs, are four sex scenes that should be shown to high school students as advertisements for abstinence.
The movie is, in a word, hilarious. And, see, this is where THE ROOM finds its dimwitted grandeur. Your average Hollywood craptacular is made with proficiency and skill and soul-crushing banality. Wiseau's magnum opus, however, is never bland. There's not a single uninteresting scene in this movie. Every scene is bizarrely, uniquely terrible in some way.
For instance, my favorite subplot involves Denny, the freakish man-child who lives in the same building as Johnny. We're told that Denny is like Johnny's son, but it's unclear a) how old Denny is (he looks to be in his mid-twenties but acts like he's about fourteen), and b) where Denny lives. He sneaks into Johnny's apartment to watch Johnny and Lisa roll around on the bed. This leads to a pillow fight, followed by Denny's departure and the harrowing descent of Johnny and Lisa into one of the film's gorge-raising depictions of human coitus. Later, Denny is threatened by a drug dealer, and still later, he confesses to Johnny that he's in love with Lisa (which, needless to say, is yet another subplot abandoned posthaste).
The thing is, all this adds up to a unified whole. THE ROOM may want to be SEX, LIES and VIDEOTAPE, but its real antecedent is Ed Wood's GLEN OR GLENDA, another drama that was morphed into a comedy by the sheer passionate ineptitude of its creator. And to give credit where credit is due, THE ROOM is one of the funniest movies I've ever seen, as funny in its way as anything by Woody Allen, Peter Bogdanovich, or the Coen brothers. See it with someone you love, or better yet, see it with a lot of people. The film has become a "cult sensation" and seeing it this past weekend at The Shadowbox Community Microcinema in Roanoke, VA, I was struck by its power on an audience. Yelling at the screen, calling out lines of dialog, applauding after the sex scenes--the crowd loved it with a fervor we usually reserve for great works of pop art.
Watch some clips here.
*my thanks to my buddy Erin Wommack for providing the name of a shitty Matthew McConaughey movie when I needed one.