Book Learnin’: COUSIN BETTE

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A noble family is foredoomed to disintegration. It is not the fatalism of chance or divine misfortune, but the fatalism of money and social circumstance, the ample vicissitudes of which assemble under General Balzac’s prosaic command. Naturally, Baron de Hulot has a fatal character flaw that initiates his family’s downfall (a womanizing cad, this one), but this flaw seeps into the economic circuitry of Paris – detailed via intermittent disquisitions on the nature of the arts trade, the bankruptcy of the city government, gentrification – until he and his family are swallowed whole by its manifold repercussions. There is a relish in studiously observing the gradations of this social decline, but the tragedy sharply stings – for while the Baron surely deserves his fate, his family shares heavily in the suffering. He is guilty and justly sentenced; his wife, Adeline, is martyrdom incarnate.

Cousin Bette is literary realism at its zenith. This is no plodding accumulation of irrelevant details designed to test the reader’s stamina and desperately court his admiration. To paraphrase Gore Vidal, whom I have been reading rather obsessively for the past few months, a meticulously rendered backdrop with no foregrounded action is merely ornamental and to no purpose at all. Balzac’s portraiture reaches for great ideas, and while he is clearly reactionary – nostalgia abounds for Church and monarchy – there is a reason he earned the esteem of Marx and Engels. The author harbors a tremendous respect for material reality, even if his moral takeaways are at times dispiriting (albeit, magnificently written).

Edification and creative sprawl are the names of the game, here. Read Cousin Bette, savor it, and say a prayer of thanksgiving that Balzac was uniquely prolific – there is so much more of the feast to unfurl!

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Death to Film Crit: Jacques Tourneur’s NIGHTFALL

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Nightfall | Columbia | Jacques Tourneur | 1957

This 1957 noir masterpiece by Jacques Tourneur stars Aldo Ray as a man fleeing a private investigator and Anne Bancroft as the barroom acquaintance who agrees to help him. Ray’s past is revealed gradually in a series of flashbacks, which are intercut with the couple’s flight and the investigator’s pursuit; by developing each narrative in a parallel space or time, Tourneur movingly articulates the theme of a character trapped by his history. The images have a smooth, almost liquid quality, the high-contrast lighting of most noirs replaced by a delicate lyricism that takes the natural world as the norm. Tourneur links this naturalism to Ray’s growing observational skills (“I know where every shadow falls,” he says), but it also contrasts with the story’s acute paranoia. ~ Fred Camper, The Chicago Reader

Fred Camper, ladies and gentlemen, one of those bridge trolls of cinephilia who writes in that blocky, formulaic style that treats film analysis as a series of automated inputs and outputs. Input: Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Output: masterpiece. Nightfall! Dinky mid-fifties Columbia noir par excellence, which might have been just as easily directed by Lewis Allen or Richard Quine. ‘Masterpiece’ is the most turgid word in film writing, bandied about as frivolously as a Parisian aristocrat’s mistress, and declared a priori as if by divine writ. It’s a word that should be as far from a critic’s vocabulary as ‘guilty’ from a judge’s mouth, submitted only after all evidence has been marshalled and thoroughly scrutinized. But writing, as with legal proceedings, is a grueling, time-intensive endeavor – if done well. And most film critics are nothing if not lazy. Pounce on the judgmental superlative first, then retrofit the evidence accordingly — that is what Camper has done here.

The plot summary, first off, is faulty. The private investigator is indeed pursuing Ray, but unbeknownst to Ray, who is actually trying to evade a couple of nefarious bank robbers. Mere pedantry, you allege? This isn’t a finer historical detail in Reds, you numbskull, but the synoptic bedrock of a 75-minute noir quickie. How do you fuck that up? Let us proceed. Camper applauds Tourneur for “developing each narrative in a parallel space or time,” by which I assume he means cross-cutting, one of the remedial building blocks of filmmaking. ‘Parallel’ here is meaningless. The flashbacks, the investigator’s pursuit, and Ray’s burgeoning romance with Bancroft, all of these converge to a fixed point. That fixed point? The climax! Again: storytelling 101. Camper, for his part, must have flunked geometry 101, as the defining characteristic of parallel lines is that they do not converge. But are the ‘spaces’ parallel? I don’t know what this is supposed to mean. Camper doesn’t either. The film is set in lots of ‘spaces,’ just like practically every movie ever made, and whether they are parallel or perpendicular or circumferential, I do not think he nor anyone else can say.

“Tourneur movingly articulates the theme of a character trapped by his history.” This is a gussied up way of saying that this is the umpteenth noir that uses fatalism to drive the narrative. And ‘history?’ The story proceeds from a chance encounter between an everyman and some sinister crooks. It’s a random act of fate used to drive a breezy crime thriller. There is nothing unique or multi-dimensional to Ray’s character, his interiority, his behavior, his ‘history,’ that sets the course of his doom-laden journey. Camper makes it sound like Out of the Past Redux, when in reality it’s a goofy David Goodis adaptation in which fashion model Anne Bancroft bemoans that married men aren’t interested in her and in which Aldo Ray uses ESP to track her down to her apartment after the zillionth escape from the clumsiest captors on planet Earth. There’s also Bancroft becoming the obligatory mouthpiece for ‘going to the cops’ and using America’s legal infrastructure to get out of a jam (the most perplexing thing about this movie is its repeated insistence that the Bancroft character is a paragon of naivete). I dunno, folks, from my vantage point it’s all pretty hackneyed and silly, albeit entertaining stuff. But Camper goes on.

“The images have a smooth, almost liquid quality, the high-contrast lighting of most noirs replaced by a delicate lyricism that takes the natural world as the norm.” In what universe is ‘high-contrast lighting’ the inverse, converse, obverse, or reverse of ‘delicate lyricism?’ What Camper is trying to say here is that 40s-Siodmak expressionism is bold and/or crude, where Tourneur strikes at something more naturalistic and/or impressionistic. It’s a reductive dichotomy and overwhelmingly false. Tourneur’s film looks like a ton of mid-fifties noirs, particularly those made at Columbia, and it is no more ‘delicate’ or ‘lyrical’ than, say, Phil Karlson’s 5 Against the House. And if you want to watch a film with an actual liquid quality, might I suggest Million Dollar Mermaid?

Not sure if this is the Rio Bravado comeback post you’ve been waiting for, but I needed to get this out of my system, folks. This blog is a military outpost in the war against bad film writing, and the Campers of the world must be thoroughly skewered if progress is to be made in this campaign. But more writing will be coming down the pike, my friends! Till next time.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS? GREAT MOVIE!

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Great Expectations | David Lean | 1946

I’ve long been inoculated with inadvertent propaganda – tiptoe conditioning – an accumulation of phony polemics and forced positioning and graph paper systematization. The subject, as always, is movies. Dichotomies rule in film discourse – auteurs vs. hired hacks, Hollywood vs. the arthouse, White Elephant vs. Termite Art (Farber, if ye only knew how legions of shortcut intellects would blunt the edge of your once seminal essay, now as hollow as a gutted pumpkin, as desiccated as Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones), The Tradition of Quality vs …. y’know, the one that’s supposed to be good. Cinephiles are born secretaries whose viewing histories are filing cabinets, everything neatly ordered and numerically assigned to its appropriate compartment.

David Lean’s Great Expectations is smothered in such checkbox calculus before you even sit down to view it. To condense the red flags as best I can: Dickens isn’t cool. British cinema isn’t cool. ‘Canonized Classics’ that only get a shoutout from Roger Ebert but none of the cooler cats in online film crit aren’t cool. The jury is still out on whether David Lean is cool…somehow. So, you know, it’s not a cool movie, and Tradition of Quality looms large before you’ve gotten past the title. It’s apparently not as fun as gazing into the abyss of self-delusion to alchemize Chaplin’s King in New York from garbage into gold, or to acquire the Letterboxd merit badge of proudly advocating for the work of Paul W.S. Anderson.

So yeah, I’ll admit it, I de-prioritized this.  And now having seen it, I’m not proud of that fact! As it’s a fleet-footed masterpiece that, with cartographic diligence, gerrymanders the source text so as to carve out those slivers of novelistic real estate most primed for cinematic treatment. But it also makes a great deal of those minor-key scenes which most readily suggest or imply the sections of the novel unfit to be explicitly rendered – or, to put it another way, it makes purchase of those summits that at least afford a view of the proverbial woods outside the screenwriter’s limited price range (I’m thinking of the one incursion into Wemmick’s home, for starters). Alas, so many images in that novel, lovely for what they are, but quickly lost on me as I read ahead. I was in it to ascend the bildungsroman staircase, not to stop and admire the furnishings. The film does not skimp on the novel’s steady momentum – on the contrary! – but, equipped as it is to carry you onward so that ye may rest your weary feet, it then allows you to turn your head, look out the passenger window and really absorb the novel’s imagery as it was meant to be absorbed! The environs are less constructed than archaeologically unearthed and meticulously restored. Pictorial details, fleeting in Dickens, are magnified. The chiaroscuro marshlands, the gothic vertices of the Havisham mansion, the daily grind of 19th century London that sees Pip’s comings and goings as but a strand of a larger web of urban activity – this is, as they say, the good stuff.

No scene is insisted upon – each encounter or conversation or confrontation is a narrative parabola in miniature, and once the momentum sputters for even an instant, it’s on to the next episode. Similarly, no bout of voice-over exposition, employed like everything else in service of narrative velocity, breaches the terms of its contract. Cinematic time – that hifalutin Deleuzean construct that clings like a barnacle to discussions of Akerman or Resnais – is applicable here. This is a 2-hour movie that seems at once half and double its length. It races by without at all compromising its uncanny conveyance of the novel’s elongated scope, of Pip’s having come as far as he has by closing time. It’s a seaworthy vessel, not unlike that which plays such an electrifying part in the film’s climax – a dense, hulking leviathan that, once set in motion upon the water, sails along with swiftness and with grace. Cinema, I submit for just this occasion, is a form of imaginative seafaring! And Captain Lean, I applaud the work of you and your crew!

Brownin’ Around: NATIONAL VELVET

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National Velvet | MGM | Clarence Brown | 1944

Clarence Brown has done it again! Putative schlock, which you’d think to be etched into the DNA of a story you can’t imagine in any other than a most saccharine channel. And it’s saccharine, sure, but more sugarcane than corn syrup. It’s what Meet Me in St. Louis achieved the same year: real, serious, honest-to-god sentimentality that perhaps bludgeons for effect at some times (and why not?), but then also subtly proceeds from nuances of character and direction, rarefied strains of pathos it takes a committed craftsman to distill. The family dynamic here depicted is a marvel unto itself – Donald Crisp and Anne Revere dabble in mock sternness, wisps of idiosyncratic warmth, and a kind of practiced marital sparring that has calcified into a reserved, playful wit lovingly passed around (the dialogue seems to waltz at times!). The would-be storybook didacticism of childhood faith and dreams-come-true is buttressed by a real literary treatment, mostly courtesy of Revere, whose every uttered word is a tonic for the soul. Choices are made with regard to color (a prose poem could be devoted to the way the color green is used here – captured in scenic saturated glory for the on-location shots and studio-lit to a twinkling emerald for some of the evening-set interiors) and production design (how the California-constructed town of Sewels comes to embody a rural England of the ripest imagination, I’ll never quite understand) that should justify the Hollywood studio apparatus to one and all! Even the world-cinema enthusiasts who treat Old Hollywood with a condescending shamefacedness, as some necessary evil from which was spawned their preferred ‘edgier’ or ‘artsier’ or ‘transgressive’ fare. All that stuff is fine, but movie magic of this caliber it is, quite frankly, not! I wish you all a love worthy of young Velvet’s for her cherished Pie! Until next time, Bravado Bros!

In Defense of Davies

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Sometimes there is edification in misery. Drenched in melancholy and nostalgia, the films of Terence Davies neither wallow in the former nor fawn over the latter. Each qualifies the other. Stifling repression unlocks the inner life of the mind – society is imprisoning, pervasive; art is transfiguring, fleeting. But only hand-in-hand does either make any kind of existential sense. For if we were all liberated tomorrow, then we would have no need to retreat. There would be no solace in private rooms, no need to smuggle into song our otherwise inexpressible feelings, no use for movie-house or concert hall escapism – for what is there to be escaped?

Oh the fools who believe that Davies is drunk on nostalgic sentimentality! A few sips, if that, for such a reserved ascetic! And even then, the stomach sickness is acute. Have ye not seen Sunset Song? Honeymoons are hangovers for this gentle cynic! The most rapturous love curdles overnight! Everything that’s worth a damn has an expiration date on it – and Davies tasks himself with beautifying these privileged moments before they go bad (and they will go bad). Art is a coping mechanism, then. A little too clinical a thought? Nay! Art for art’s sake is the real hopeless nihilism – the cinephile snake devouring its own tail. Art for Davies is a means of survival, the last bulwark against worldly corrosion. There’s honest-to-god utility there.

I can’t say this gels entirely with my worldview or experiences or vision of the future – I’m way more optimistic! But that is an optimism born of a certain privilege, a privilege denied to Mr. Davies, the same privilege that allows people like me to throw themselves into artistic consumption at the expense of Actually Living Life. And if Davies’ movies are instructive to me, it’s in endowing art with Real Life Importance, not as a dilettante hobby, not as a vacuous exercise in checklist completism, but something to turn to in trying times for a rarefied experience. You numb yourself to that possibility when you have no day-to-day life experience for the music you listen to or the books you read or the movies you watch to inform or inflect or amplify. If you’re listening to songs about love without searching for the genuine article, if you’re gleaning moral insights from literature without practicing them day to day, if you’re gulping down movies like alcohol – as an intoxicating end in itself – then congratulations! You’ll never know what it means to be really and truly transported by this stuff, you gluttonous shut-in!

I don’t mean to be so harsh. All I know is that I first saw Distant Voices, Still Lives in college, during a deep depression, and its depiction of people sublimating their misery to larger communal rituals, of isolation dissolving into singsong, shot instantly like some chemical into my brain. My sunken heart rose to the surface, my fear of forever friendlessness was forgotten. Because here were people facing the same despair (worse, really, much worse, but it’s all relative and we’re all in the muck together – why split hairs about it?), enjoying what they had in the lovely little ways they knew how. It gave me hope! Real applicable hope! Actionable hope! Not just a pleasant palliative to take my mind off my troubles. Nay, to quote the bard (Harry Nilsson), I was thinking about my troubles, only my thoughts were pierced by the roseate light of Davies’ vision of the world – a world that is emphatically not perfect (on the contrary: cruel, evil, unfeeling, unthinking), but that affords pockets of perfection, of beauty, of love, of feeling, to even its most downtrodden inhabitants. Onward and upward my friends!

ON CINEMA, AT THE CINEMA: An Appreciation

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Cultural production posits a caste system based on creative ownership. Studios, producers, writers, directors, and distributors share ownership of a particular media franchise or phenomenon, while anything brought to it by the lowly audience is spewed out on the lower rungs of fan fiction, message boards, and Facebook groups. It can be fun to re-edit, mutilate, or expand an established fictional universe, but your customized, personalized creation will never be admitted into canon or given serious consideration by the creators of that series. Meanwhile legions of fans wait with bated breath for clues, confirmations, cryptic announcements, canonical addendums emanating from the vaunted lips or twitter feeds of the J.K. Rowlings and Joss Whedons of the world. The flow of imaginative traffic remains uni-directional – from lauded world-renowned talents to ordinary viewers/readers/consumers.

Bypass the implicit classism of this sketchily conceived relationship and you get at something more insidious. The obsessed-over sanctity of franchise-embedded fictional universes always yields diminishing returns. These branded fictions are milked for all their rigorously calculated profit potential, world-building becomes a matter of empty accumulation of meaningless miscellany long after the thematic or storytelling value of the original work has run its course, and every variant of the Klingon-speaking fan is manipulatively kept on the hook awaiting opportunistic market-mandated movie announcements and product launches. Meanwhile, the Art and Entertainment that initially formed the crux of one’s relationship with the fiction has withered and died, and you’ve scarcely noticed because capitalism has devised a formica facsimile in its place. As a one-time obsessive of The Simpsons – to my mind one of the greatest works of modern art – I know this from experience. When you’ve gotten to the point of buying episode guides, following Al Jean’s press releases, and downloading freemium smartphone apps for their tangential relationship to something you once loved for being a radical, subversive, living and breathing work of art, then you’ve lost your way, and we all know who is to blame.

So that’s fan culture in a nutshell, as I see it. But there is one fictional universe a few years under construction that, out of some mad Joycean ambition, has emerged as a never-ending text, wildly at odds with all notions of officialdom, with a fanbase that has been freely conscripted as co-conspirators in its creation. This would be Tim Heidecker’s and Gregg Turkington’s On Cinema at the Cinema, a psychodramatic epic played out on a few meager sets, based on the endlessly regenerative joke of the two lead characters’ mutually abusive but tragically codependent relationship. No matter what strange detours it takes or outlandish permutations it experiences, the show is based on a foundational, sitcom-style bit: these guys hate each other, but, deep down, they have no one else.

From this simple, straightforward dynamic, a universe emerges that is Tolkeinesque in its lore, Pynchonian in its densely free-associative sprawl, and ambiguously metatextual in a way far closer to Abbas Kiarostami’s mysteriously interstitial docu-fictions than Charlie Kaufman’s more easily processed self-reflexive puzzle-boxes. It’s also, I’d say, not unlike the films of Jacques Rivette for its splintered, collaborative, freewheeling process of self-creation.

But don’t worry, fellas, I’m not as far up my own ass as you might think! I know that name-drop-heavy academese can bludgeon a work into unrecognizable submission. I know that, above all else, On Cinema is authentically, instinctively hilarious and creative without any conscious aping of hifalutin arthouse precedents or striving for some larger significance. But, obnoxious shithead of a critic that I am, I can’t help but allege that, naturally and miraculously, it achieves what it doesn’t even need to strive for. Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington, across all of their work, strike me as radical artists by nature. But perhaps even more so than Awesome Show, Neil Hamburger in all of his incarnations, and their brilliant work for Rick Alverson, On Cinema is a work of staggering genius, even if that genius can only thrive so long as it remains hopelessly obscure.

So, yeah, how to take this voluminous unwieldy multi-platform Work Of Art and, uh, break it down so I can get any kind of handle on what I’m trying to say about it? With something like On Cinema, you can only really – to use a medical analogy – scrape off a few cells for microscopic scrutiny so as to make more general inferences about the organism as a whole. The things that I cherish about On Cinema are manifold, and I’m gonna list out only a few as briefly as possible:

1) The blurring of Tim/Gregg the On Cinema characters and Tim/Gregg as Actual people. This isn’t a Stephen Colbert playing-himself-as-a-character approach, as Tim and Gregg are really and truly embodying fully fleshed out characters of novelistic depth, abundant in rightfully stigmatized (but all too scarily human) personality traits in a way that is micro-attuned to the nuances of habitual gestures, bodily tics, speech patterns, and the most throwaway behaviorisms (i.e. this ain’t just comedy, this is capital-A Acting…and yeah, I’d say it’s Oscar-worthy) while also allowing these three-dimensional creations to recklessly, in some sense bravely overlap with their own non-fictional identities. It is in some sense obvious where the demarcation line is between Actual Tim and On Cinema Tim, but there is always the occasional enigma. I tend to believe that On Cinema Tim’s evaluations of various 6 Bag Cinemas jingle submissions are likely reflective of the extent to which Actual Tim is impressed by the fan-generated content that he, both in- and out-of-character, happily solicits.

Gregg, meanwhile, is clearly channeling or amplifying certain aspects of his Actual self – it comes down through the ol’ grapevine that he is an avid vinyl collector and old Hollywood enthusiast. And his characterization of his On Cinema doppelganger is so scarily accurate, inasmuch as we’ve all known (or have sometimes even been) people like that (you can find any number of them on Youtube, especially within the subgenre of basement-dwelling DVD hoarders who creepily pornograph their meaningless collections to likeminded whack jobs), that it can sometimes bypass comedy altogether and enter into hyperrealistic portraiture. But given that Actual Gregg has always hewn to the punk ethos of burying himself in transgressive personae (The Zip Code Rapists, Neil Hamburger), it is extremely fucking difficult to get a handle on Who This Guy Even Actually Is. Such mysteries crop up with staggering regularity in On Cinema.

2) ‘Behind-the-scenes’ takes on entirely new dimensions. Sketch comedy has long profited by show-biz send-ups wherein celebrities, sportscasters, pundits – whoever it may be – can’t help but air out their dirty laundry in an entertainment context (talk shows, radio broadcasts, etc.) where scripted talking points and stiff-necked professionalism are the unspoken law of the land. On Cinema takes this concept to an extreme I don’t think anyone imagined possible. For all of the richness of On Cinema, the plenitude of events and subplots that transpire within this universe – motorcycle accidents, Hawaiian vacations, infanticides by neglect, movie theater fires, rock shows in Dubai – these are all largely depicted off-camera. What’s on camera is just two guys on the same fucking set every single week, trying to do their shitty movie review show, the only real exceptions being the Oscar Specials (which function as special, bravura editions of the main show) and Decker episodes (a spin-off). Either way, we only technically inhabit an extremely limited low-budget space when we engage with On Cinema. And yet the show’s genius is in conjuring an entire fucked-up universe that exists forever outside the nominal scope of the show. Or, to put it another way, it stimulates the viewers’ imagination in a radically compelling way, with Gregg and Tim knowing exactly what microcosmic details to leave in and what large-scale narrative cataclysms to leave out. It is storytelling of the highest order – a multi-volume novel in which a throwaway tweet might function as an entire chapter.

This on-camera/off-camera dynamic might warrant an essay unto itself. Tim’s various maladies – the blood clots in his brain, his acupuncture-needled face, his bandaged, burnt-to-a-crisp hands, and now his rotting skin and protruding skull – are effects (rendered via the gnarliest make-up and costume jobs) from which we are forced to intuit the even more grisly off-screen causes. These continual lapses into what I suppose can only be called body horror are representative of the series’ extraordinary bathos, by which I mean the characters’ utterly mangled sense of priority. One of Tim’s most essential character traits is his short fuse, and yet he only blows his top selectively – usually if Gregg or Mark or another perceived underling is undermining his authority. By outlandish contrast he takes all of his life-threatening ailments in incredible stride, usually addressing them via the most nonchalant top-of-the-show “so this is what’s going on with me” announcements.

3) Uh, The Supporting Cast. Because of this aforementioned limited scope, we don’t see members of Dekkar’s audience, or patrons of the Victorville Film Center. In fact, we aren’t really privy to ordinary humanity – it’s as if it doesn’t exist. Ayaka and Sally Kellerman are the extent of female representation in this man-cave alter-verse. Axiom, Manuel and the rest of Dekkar are totems of the most hollowed-out rock-god culture. Mark and Gregg are charisma cavities, and what to even make of Dr. San, Chef John Lennard, James fucking Dean? None of these are ‘real people,’ except for the fact that they kinda are. The various ‘actors’ inhabiting these roles clearly aren’t chosen for their acting ability, but for something intrinsic to themselves, and the extent to which some of these people are ‘in’ on the joke is subject for extensive debate (if you’re enough of a sleuth, go down the rabbit hole of investigating the ‘real’ Axiom and see what conclusions you can draw).

And, furthermore, what would a general humanity even look like in this universe? We know from our vantage point as fans to laugh at Tim’s fat middle-aged attempts to be a rock god, or Gregg’s reverential attitude toward Michael Keaton movies, but we also take this to its logical endpoint, relishing the idea of a world wherein the VFC is playing restorations of garbage 80s movies to packed houses and Tim is performing at popular EDM festivals all across the country. So while we’re only witness to a cast of carefully selected freaks and weirdos, we (‘we’ meaning The On Cinema Family) can only view them as the shadows on the wall of Plato’s Cave standing in for an even more warped general viewership. If these people are successful – if ‘Empty Bottle’ is the number one download in America, if Decker is exerting a limitless influence over Hollywood, if Joe Estevez is of America’s most esteemed actors – then who is the fictional audience that is fueling all this success?

4) WE ARE. We are fueling this success. We are a dually engaged viewership who, on one level, watches On Cinema as a work of brilliant transgressive comedy, while, on another level, doubling as the fictional audience that is referred to time and time again on the show. The nameless masses who are downloading Dekkar’s hits, writing partisan fan-mail (you know, the Timheads vs. Greggheads), seeking to get involved in the 6 Bag Cinema franchise, driving up Decker’s ratings, going to see Ant-Man, etc. on top of etc. To bring this bad boy of an essay full circle, it needs to be addressed that On Cinema is the antithesis to aforementioned closed-loop fan communities that seem to dominate popular culture. On Cinema does not exist without Tim and Gregg’s trust in our intelligence, our creativity, our ability to tune into their wavelength.

I used the term ‘regenerative’ earlier in this essay, and this is more or less what I mean. For all their shading and nuances as finely wrought characters, Tim and Gregg are ultimately proffering up two extremely simpleminded ways of viewing the world. It’s the old jock vs. nerd canard taken to a crazed extreme. Tim is a sponge freely absorbing all of the douchiest sub-cultures in America – middle-American libertarians, image-conscious classic rock fanatics, alternative medicine devotees, EDM bass heads, fine-dining hipsters with money to blow and ‘enhanced’ food palettes to satiate — and this list will probably never exhaust itself so long as 1) these subcultures still continue to exist in this stupid country and 2) the bitterly but infectiously satirical spirit of On Cinema lives on. Meanwhile, Gregg’s perpetual reliving of the 80s and 90s, masquerading his nostalgia as Film Expertise, his relentlessly clichéd soundbite approach to evaluating motion pictures, his stubborn analog fetishism, and his single-minded insistence that movies are The Only Thing That Matters (meaning a total lack of interest in sex, an inability to grasp the indecency of insisting on CGI talking animals in a Holocaust movie, and his recently established indifference to the prospect of Tim’s suicide [after all, Heath Ledger did the same thing!]) – all of this is its own paradoxically comprehensive simplemindedness, an idiocy that is so nuanced that it can be explored to the end of time, so long as Hollywood keeps churning out garbage (it will) and (again) the bitterly but infectiously satirical spirit of On Cinema lives on.

And when I say ‘the spirit’ of On Cinema, I mean the fact that so much of the universe exists outside of the official, ABSO-produced, Adult Swim-distributed show. It exists on Twitter, on Facebook, in casual conversation, anywhere that fans are creatively engaging with it. This isn’t secondary, tertiary, or in any way supplementary material. This is what literally powers the show, not economically but CREATIVELY. On Cinema is not a barricaded world of sleek production values and big stars that we worship from afar. It intakes all the gangrenous refuse of American Culture, the cultural product we consume (and how and why we consume it), and vomits it up as comedy. And because the rest of us are wallowing in the same filth, we are freely invited to join in this regurgitative process. Tim and Gregg are not heaven’s gatekeepers, but the hosts of a house party in hell to which all are admitted, so long as we acknowledge that life as it is lived in this country – defined by pop culture, reflected in Hollywood blockbusters, set to the tune of derivative prog rock, corralled into hiveminded fandoms, role-modeled according to the fratbro mentality of right-wing action heroes, and discontinued as a result of serial neglect – is nothing if not a kind of perdition unto itself. But as long as we’re able to recognize it together and collaborate in the satirical process, then at least we’ll die laughing, our teeth flecked with kernels, and hopefully a popcorn classic playing somewhere in the background.

Evisceration Station: BEETLEJUICE

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Beetlejuice | Tim Burton | 1988

Arsenic and Old Lace cryogenically frozen, thawed out in the 80s – Cary Grant has degraded into Alec Baldwin, Raymond Massey upgraded to Michael Keaton, and the hack comedy has made a noble if futile (/impossible) stab at deteriorating even further. Riddle me this: if normativity is lunacy, but if lunacy is normalized, and if thin sheets of plexiglass ‘camp’ soldered on to a Reagan-friendly wireframe are the far gone postmodernist’s suboptimal substitute for subversion of suburbia, and if 1980s Hollywood is a black hole of so-cozy-it’s-asphyxiating astro-turf auto-nostalgia (phew) insidiously manufactured with disregard for the genuine article,* and if Catherine O’Hara’s genius is met with no rejoinder from a stuffed-animal cast and falls on the deaf ears of a multiplex crowd and just wastefully wafts away into the atmosphere with no one perceptive or talented or worthy enough to even hope to harness or intensify or even bottle it (leaving it at the level of firefly ephemera, when it should blaze about as once it did on a certain sketch comedy show that reigned over the netherworld of late-late-night comedy many moons ago…), then what are we left with? Utter meaninglessness masquerading as the cinematic equivalent of a dimestore knickknack, prompting a marginally less meaningless exercise in strangulation-by-language, as only a lowly loaf of mystery meat is capable of administering. The thrashing I just gave this shitfest is too good for it. 😦

*Nostalgia (as defined by mystery meat, with some assistance from Terence Davies and Marcel Proust): the arbitrary sediment of lived experience that inexplicably, indefatigably rises to the surface of one’s memory — memory being the one thing that cannot be replenished at will or furiously bartered for or selectively destocked or customized according to our whims — such that whatever glints through its landfill of undrainable sewage can be nought but really and truly and purely and eternally treasured. To attempt to mass produce a generalized, commercially appealing on-demand nostalgia is the closest thing in our culture to a Faustian tampering with the cosmic order of things, and this particular cafeteria item emphatically rejects it!

The Mann I Love: DEVIL’S DOORWAY

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Devil’s Doorway | MGM | Anthony Mann | 1950

Anthony Mann made Devil’s Doorway under the same studio supervisors that oversaw his own Border Incident from the year before, as well as countless other envelope-pushing dramas – Stars in My Crown, The Bad and the Beautiful, Act of Violence, The Asphalt Jungle, Intruder in the Dust, The Red Badge of Courage. This was MGM under Dore Schary — vaguely liberal, slightly somber, a trek to the crumbly underworld of Culver City. The worst of these Schary-fostered movies channeled the white liberal do-gooderism that Darryl Zanuck was riding into the ground over at Fox. But the best were downright transgressive. If so much of MGM’s output under Louis B. Mayer could be symbolized by a parade-float Andy Hardy — sentimentality too factory farmed to even appear homespun, too pastry-fluff weightless for even a facsimile of flesh-and-blood reality — then a movie like Father of the Bride was the anchor clamped around ol’ Mickey’s marshmallow ankle, dragging the whole fantasyland enterprise back to Earth’s anxiety-charged postwar surface.

Devil’s Doorway is one of the unsung masterpieces of this fertile period of Cinematic Excellence, an Anthony Mann classic that seems to have slipped through the auteurist cracks. People are more likely to rhapsodize about The Glenn Miller Story — it’s Mann/Stewart collaboration after all! — than to treat this as anything more than Mann ‘warming up’ for his later, greater achievements. But how much greater are they? I’d take Devil’s Doorway over Bend of the River, God’s Little Acre, Men in War, The Far Country, and a helluva lot more. Just because Mann churned out at least three other great works in 1950 alone does not mean he wasn’t perfectly capable of a fourth.

So, get this. Robert Taylor is an Indian back from the Civil War, ready for well-deserved peace and quiet (the movie doesn’t just pay lip-service to pacifism – Taylor has plenty of room to articulate his desire to live harmoniously with all peoples and tend to his land). Louis Calhern is the grim specter of latent nativist evil — a sickly lawyer out West for the climate who gradually morphs into a proto-Judge Holden. Paula Raymond is the middling voice of the ‘let’s not be too reckless’ liberal — sympathetic to Taylor, but ultimately beholden to the racist homesteader laws. Sidenote: each character has a goddamn beautiful Western name — Lance Poole, Verne Coolan, Orrie Masters.

The movie begins at a reasonable scale for an eighty-minute Western — soldier returns to town, where some things are the same (Edgar Buchanan and other old friends reminisce over drinks) and others are different (a sharp tone of bigotry pervades the dusty air). Taylor is ostensibly in a good place — I mean, Jesus, the guy just won the Medal of Honor for his wartime service. But it isn’t long before racism becomes the (literal, figurative) law of the land. Old friends hope to shirk the label of Indian-lover in cowardly obeisance to the emerging right-wing order. It’s a cowardice with a very familiar stench — HUAC contemporaneously, but there’s also a tinge of The Mortal Storm’s domino-effect fascism. It’s this idea that interracial (inter-ideological, by extension?) camaraderie only lasts as long as the rallying cry of the right is in abeyance. But when it thunders (visually literalized to perfection, goddammit John Alton…), it has a way of exposing your ‘friends’ for who they really are — beleaguered backstabbing cretins. Unlike High Noon’s facile misanthropy — people are only cowards insofar as Gary Cooper can emerge as lonesome hero against a gestalt of crestfallen defeat — Devil’s Doorway gets at the honest-to-god ubiquity of moral cowardice. These people are otherwise perfectly ‘brave’ by traditional standards, quick to fight for a plot of land and for the well-being of their livestock. They’re just clinging to bigotry’s mast, more afraid of being accused of disloyalty to the ivory herd than they are to die.

The film is clearly pro-Taylor and anti-townspeople. But when Paula Raymond shows up, the film flirts with rearranging this dynamic for the worse, with Taylor and townspeople representing opposite but equally wrongheaded extremes and Raymond harnessing the objectivity of ‘the law’ to impart enlightenment to victim and victimizer alike. But nah, Mann neutralizes Schary’s milquetoast sermonizing instincts: Raymond is not his mouthpiece. But she is still part of the larger complexity, at times under the spell of law but at others privy to real moral sense – she is sympathetic in noting that the livelihoods of the would-be homesteaders are in jeopardy. But Taylor is sympathetic, righteous, and a few other things besides when he insists, “But do they have the right?” He is (I like to assume, but how can one be sure?) fine to share the fruits of his vast property so long as it’s his to share. But it’s not. Hence, his straightforward resolve: he and his people will not be erased, and if that resolution comes at the cost of a few sheep, then that’s not a problem.

So from the flint-rock of personalized emotions and tragic omens — wounded pride, incremental betrayal, a death in the family — Mann finally strikes at a Shakespearean eruption of epic violence, the only solution to a problem that the law fails (no, refuses) to solve (the anti-legalistic bent of the film is one of its greatest qualities). And God Almighty, it looks and feels like trench warfare (again, hats off to Alton). From a guy riding home from the war, Searchers-style, to the encroaching threat of actual genocide — that’s the escalated trajectory of this endlessly nervy Western. Run-of-the-mill prejudice is more or less equated to Calhern’s blood-curdling incarnation of diffident evil, and the liberal pretense of a fair trial is viewed as no different from an actual lynching. All of these are pathways to Native American erasure. Some are just a bit more polite than others.

It is this series of equivalencies that subsumes an initial bid for complexity into Taylor’s righteous fuck-everything fury. When you and your persecuted people stand the risk of being wiped off the face of the Earth and out of the annals of history, there’s no room to compromise, to take the path of least resistance. Compromise is teased in one glorious moment — a hard axial cut into Taylor’s and Raymond’s lips on the trembling precipice of a kiss — before Taylor backs away: “A hundred years from now it might have worked.” Sure, miscegenation was not going to happen in a 1950 Western. But Mann and screenwriter Guy Trosper play a game of inversion. The romance is unconsummated on Taylor’s terms. He’s calling the shots. He’s not going to compromise, because he’s not such a dope as to believe that Love is more important than the legacy of his tribe. And so Taylor dies and the film is classical tragedy at its best. It’s no wonder Mann made The Furies at about the exact same time.

So what’s, uh, wrong with the film? Besides Robert Taylor in red-face? I don’t really see anything. And speaking of Robert Tyalor in red-face, should that really deter anyone from what is otherwise a stone-cold masterpiece? I mean, I know Taylor wasn’t a great actor, but I think his stolid professionalism is what the part needs. Striving for nuanced, actorly greatness in this role would probably amount to some weird retrograde transracial posturing. Taylor’s just playing it straight. Before too long you don’t even notice the face paint. Western heroic archetypes may have been fashioned with white people in mind, but they ultimately proved more expansive than their makers counted on. Boring ol’ Robert Taylor as a righteous Indian fits comfortably in that mold. It’s a bit off-putting. But it’s also kind of harmonious.

Color Me Depressed

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Howdy folks. Too much time has transpired since my last missive. No resource is more abundant, none quicker to slide through your fingers than Time, like the Ozymandian sands that flood the Western landscape of my cinema-drenched brain. That brain took a beating these last few months. I won’t bore you with too many of the details. Let’s just say that I’ve spent my life ingesting cultural product at a high velocity, absorbing plot points and conflicts and feelings and ideas and abstractions as the remote experiences of fictional characters, all while cozied up in my middle class whitebread problem-free linear-careerism where none of those things really had to be viscerally experienced. But, y’know, they do have to be experienced – the storm-door of your mind won’t stay bolted shut forever – and as of last October I experienced them with a vengeance. I held existentialism in the palm of my hand and felt its melon-rind texture, while depression chained me to the ocean floor and the water pressure asphyxiated all sense of happiness and stability and day-to-day perceptual neutrality. It was pretty fucked.

During this time, movies lost their luster. I mean, what’s the point? “Ah yes, another movie under my belt! My Allan Dwan expertise is through the roof! This is important and totally of value to my mental health!” How to prioritize the kinda consumption I’d built so much of my life on when actually grappling with what finally felt like Reality for the first time in my fucking life? But my aversion to cinema was also Fear of Cinema. It would be self-deception to frame the issue in terms of cinephile self-loathing – whereby watching movies is frivolous, for shut-ins, and all that rigmarole – and ignore the harsher truth engraving the underside of the coin. That being that actually engaging with cinema – where it’s not for checklist cred or mired in ally-watch offhandedness or fossil fuel for hobby-horse habituation – is impossibly stimulating. Depression destocked the armory of my mind, leaving it volatile, vulnerable, like an untended herd of cattle at the onset of a thunderstorm. And if I let cinema into my head – really and truly into it, where its equal parts nebulous and expressive appendages could burrow into my scarily impressionable brain – then what kind of chemical reaction might ensue? Or, to strip my prose of its floridity a bit, would I lose my mind? Would I get terrifying ideas, make frightful associations, exacerbate my depression, lose my grip on the reality I really and truly and desperately needed to reclaim?

That question is not a rhetorical one, and I’ll leave it unanswered for now.

So here’s another: what of other artistic pursuits? It’s interesting. Listening to certain music was a downright terrifying prospect, but literature attained that height of therapeutic serenity advertised by all evangelical bibliophiles. Like existentialism and depression, this too was made tangible – picture a Scandinavian hot spring, the way sunlight glints like crystal on a liquid blanket of aquamarine, and how it feels to lean your head back and stare up at the sky to refresh your numbingly straight-ahead perceptual default. And the books I read! ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens, that perennial classic, gave me real perspective, reminded me that my growing pains and uncertainties and anxieties are not exclusive to me as an individual (duh) nor (more revelatory) to the century that spawned me (the fear of being exceptional is a big part of all this, as are the travails of being emotionally sensitive, neither of which I feel capable of exploring at length right now but both of which were assuaged by the original Chuck D at the height of his powers!). ‘The Great American Novel’ by Philip Roth gave me a pleasure I never thought I’d experience again (Alliteration alleviates all ailments! Who knew?), and Joan Didion gave me the itch to return to essayin’ (you are reading the result!).

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But no book was more important than ‘Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements’ by Bob Mehr. My critical faculties are gonna fail me here….Well, look. It’s this meticulously researched tome about the band that epitomized working class Middle American depression. It’s a book about music, but it’s more about alcoholism, bipolar disorder, abusive relationships, self-destruction, the fear of success, and, uh, a lot of harrowing shit. And, I mean, you read those words and they’re just words and maybe even the stuff you expect to get out of biographies generally. Sordid backstories illustrating the dark side of success. Yeah yeah yeah, we know. But I guess the setup/punchline of great famous figure –> fucked up in some hidden unexpected curiosity-piquing buy-this-book kinda way isn’t really a factor here. Cuz Bob Mehr respects that The Replacements aren’t Great Figures, so much as a bunch of fuckups who fortuitously banded together and happened to make great, indelible, borderline primitivist musical illustrations of what it means to be a Minneapolis street urchin with no aspirations. And it’s a testament to who they were as human beings that as they became successful by any objective metric they could still attest to a fundamental aspirationlessness without giving off a whiff of hypocrisy.

If anything, the despair is the core of the story and the music practically incidental. I would recommend this to people who don’t care for music. Just think of a band as a family unit and read it like it’s Eugene O’Neill, except a rock bio. And if you’re depressed like me, then it’s empathy-as-heroin. Like obviously I Feel For These People, but their problems are not pornographed so that I could get off on any “well at least my life isn’t that fucked up” satisfaction. Nor is it some false hope that perhaps I might wield my depression in service of some great artistic achievement the way they managed to.  It’s more like: for better and for worse, the depressing aspects of human experience that produced this band have also produced me at this scary juncture in my life. No potential success is gonna redeem or cure me and no amount of despair is gonna keep me from putting one foot in front of the other and slumming through the days ahead, even if I gotta turn to substance abuse to cope.

And, well, I haven’t had to do that! Life is pretty good. I have friends, I have antidepressants, I have a therapist…and I have books! And music! And even movies! To come full circle, I did end up watching a movie, a life-changing one. And I really and truly engaged with it, at the risk of overloading my battered brain with strange new stimuli. The Landlord by Hal Ashby (listen to the commentary folks!) deconstructs the ways in which certain people (guilty as charged) compartmentalize and commodify the experiences of others, such that self-definition is a patronizing matter of measuring oneself by another’s yardstick – other people are means to an end, and that end is existential tourism. And the glorious genius of this movie is that it somehow avoids compartmentalizing and commodifying the kind of privileged fucks (again, raises hand) who are so guilty of same. And so human experience really does take on a liberating nebulousness, an ineffable empathetic mist whereby the streams of many consciences commingle.

Which is kinda the ideal?

Right?

Wigwam Watches: DOUBLE MCNICHOLS ON THE DIME!

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Just the Way You Are | Édouard Molinaro | 1984
The Forgotten One | Phillip Badger | 1989

This week the Victorville Film Archive is parlaying its magnificent Dreyfussfest with a mini-Kristy McNichols retrospective, in one shes a troubled soul aching for love from John Locke and in the others she’s like a crippled flautist (?) but in both she’s STELLAR!!! Hers was a star that only could have shone in the 80s. And it did friends, it did…

This theater continues to suck. I hate Palmdale. I’m so sad and lonely. Starry eyes, starry eyes forever will be miiiiiine…