Film Journal 1998

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September 20, 1998

"A bad idea, lamely executed by an individual obviously afflicted with limited intelligence, limited wit, laziness, and some kind of emotional instability. The quality of the world increases slightly by the long-needed ablation of this dead tissue."

-Skate Grayling (editor)

Previous entries:

April 14, 1998: Mean Streets, Days of Heaven, Foreign Land, Madadayo, The Thin Man, Men With Guns
March 11, 1998: The Big Lebowski, The Sea Hawk, Nil by Mouth, Gummo, Last Hurrah for Chivalry
March 11, 1998: Introduction

March 11, 1998 (1)

Long-anticipated, long-delayed, Eric C. Johnson's so-called "Film Journal" finally makes its debut. Unfortunately, I can't really say it was worth the wait. I'd hoped Johnson would actually have something to say about film, given the sheer quantity and variety of things he sees, but I'm afraid the only real subject of his lazy, shambling, solipsistic "commentary" is, of course, himself.

Born just weeks before the Eagle landed, Johnson has, to date, lead a singularly unremarkable existence, locked away in various institutions -- Alan B. Shepard High School, where he somehow graduated first in his class (musta bribed somebody); the California Institute of Technology, aka Caltech, where he "earned" a BS in Engineering and Applied Science; Northwestern University, where he "earned" an MS in Mechanical Engineering; and, in what surely is a joke, though it does reveal the limits of his horizon, Alan B. Shepard High School again, where he has the gall to believe he is responsible for educating the next generation (God help us!) -- which perhaps explains, though does excuse, his lack of any real insight into the human condition.

Based on what I've read so far, why he thinks anyone might be interested in the gibberish he spews out -- lacking in structure, lacking in focus -- is beyond me.

Editor's Note: I spoke with Eric C. Johnson on the phone this evening -- unfortunately not in time for him to formulate a publishable response to the above -- and he said that he is outraged, and has never heard such a vicious attack directed his way before. He assures me that he will develop a coherent reply to this, one that fully details his true intentions. He didn't say when, though.

March 11, 1998 (2)

On The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen, 1998) [Sony Crestwood, 3/6/98]: I'm trying to figure out whether I should be offended. The habitual refrain, or rather one habitual refrain, of Coen detractors is how contemptuous the Brothers are of their audience. I've never bought into that, and, in fact, consider myself a big fan, eagerly awaiting each new confection. The Big Lebowski seems determined to put me in my place.

The only previous Coen feature I'd been less-than-enthusiastic about was Miller's Crossing, which on first viewing (on video) left me rather cold. My problem with that film was that it simply felt like an emotionally empty exercise in style; I felt no commitment on the Coens' part to the material other than the ways in which it could be used to construct a "cool shot". (This, of course, is the argument used against the Coens' entire oeuvre by their detractors.) A recent (theatrical) re-viewing of MC did not entirely allay those feelings, but did move the film from the "actively dislike" list to the "mildly positive" list.

The Big Lebowski poses far greater problems to enjoyment than Miller's Crossing ever did. This time it seems more obvious than ever that the Coens have no real interest in their plot; if anything it seems like they're deliberately trying to alienate anyone who *does* care. Easily the most chaotic of their screenplays, Lebowski whips through a scattershot series of noir-related scenarios involving a mistaken identity and a ludicrous kidnapping scheme. The film features an endless parade of more-strident-than-usual, often unfunny caricatures: a bitchy, feminist artist (Julianne Moore); a bunch of wacky German nihilists (Peter Stormare et al.); a selfish, manipulative millionaire (David Huddleston); a friend of the bitchy, feminist artist (David Thewlis); etc., etc., etc. Sometimes the over-the-top characterizations are genuinely funny (e.g., John Turturro as a Hispanic bowler named Jesus), but are completely unrelated to anything else in the movie. Other cameo appearances are virtually wasted (e.g., Ben Gazzara) or are indecipherable (e.g., Sam Elliott as a strange cowboy figure who narrates the movie). And the plot? Here, there, everywhere.

So all this sounds like I hated The Big Lebowski, right? I've come to my sense in regards to the Coens, and realize I've been had all these years? Nope. I guess I'm just a sucker for something they're offering, because despite feeling genuinely annoyed from time-to-time, on balance I was still very entertained by the movie. Most of my annoyance is centered on the characters -- note: the central characters played by Jeff Bridges and John Goodman (wonderful) are far more palatable -- whereas the lazy, shambling (gotcha) approach to narrative (a reflection perhaps of Bridges' character) actually became rather appealing to me. At the risk of damaging my credibility (and so early in the game, mind you), I'd go so far as to say the Coens have created "a masterpiece that subverts audience expectations." Either that or they're just jerking my chain.

On The Sea Hawk (Michael Curtiz, 1940) [Music Box, 3/7/98]: Reasonably entertaining swashbuckler starring Errol Flynn, though I found the talky scenes set in Elizabeth I's court strangely more interesting than the actual swashbuckling. Flora Robson's Elizabeth is a major plus. (Note: The print only ran 108 minutes. Maltin gives the running time as 127 minutes and warns of shorter versions. However, it was an excellent print, and featured a switch from black-and-white to sepia for the Panamanian sequence and then back again on the return to the Old World.)

On Nil by Mouth (Gary Oldman, 1997) [Music Box, 3/7/98]: In short: been there, done that. Gary Oldman, an actor of considerable talent, makes a competent directing debut with a relatively seamless style -- it calls to mind aspects of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach -- that makes it easy to forget that this should be yet-another-debut-film-by-an-actor-turned-director. He also has the benefit of working with a very strong cast here, highlighted by Ray Winstone and Kathy Burke, though everyone else does an equally admirable job. But unfortunately, the film is a bit of a disappointment in its choice of subject matter -- Oldman also wrote the screenplay -- which is yet-another-story-of-a-dysfunctional2-family: physically-abusive husband, long-suffering wife, heroin-addicted brother, etc. I can't deny that there are several powerful scenes in the film, but they're powerful in easy, familiar ways (e.g., a woman getting the shit kicked out of her by her husband was just as "powerful" in Once Were Warriors). I saw a film during the 1994 Chicago International Film Festival by Michael Winterbottom called Family (actually, a two-hour reduction of a four-hour TV mini-series) that did a much better job in similar territory. I recall it being perhaps even more harrowing, because it didn't have to rely solely, tiresomely, on a depressingly bleak mood for over two hours the way Oldman's film does. Nil by Mouth may show Oldman's promise as a director, but I'll be curious as to what other types of material he can explore with that potential.

On Gummo (Harmony Korine, 1997) [Facets, 3/7/98]: I was prepared for the worst. Heading into town on a wave of revulsion -- Janet Maslin and Jonathan Rosenbaum called it the worst movie of 1997; Marc Caro in the Chicago Tribune gave it the dreaded "zero stars"; Mike D'Angelo, former classmate of Korine, vehemently warned me away the night before -- Gummo seemed to offer a suitable way for a die-hard masochist to spend 90 minutes. Of course, I'd been expecting the film for ages, as months prior to its opening at Facets Multimedia, the trailer -- something of a masterpiece (far more interesting, really, than the film itself) -- played at Pipers Alley. But all of those wonderful reviews coming out of New York inspired Fine Line Features to pretty much abort their distribution plans for the film. Enter Charles Coleman, film programmer at Facets, and a few phone calls later we Chicagoans have the opportunity, better late than never, to debase ourselves by watching this piece of trash. Or so I expected. But, alas, like many such reputations, Gummo's notoriety is largely undeserved; it's actually an interesting and eminently worthwhile (if undeniably imperfect) film.

I hadn't really cared too much for the Korine-scripted Kids (directed by Larry Clark). There was something phony about it: superficially "shocking", yet relying on well-worn sentimentality for its so-called impact. Gummo wisely eschews this sentimentality, and leaves ultimate judgment for the viewer. Virtually plotless, the film consists of a series of vignettes set in a small Ohio town that was devastated years before by a tornado (an underdeveloped conceit), and centers on the town's aimless, frequently-unsupervised youth population. Naturally, we're not in Kansas anymore (though, of course, one of Korine's points is that Kansas, as opposed to "Kansas," is probably just the same; the film was shot in Tennessee, not Ohio). There are a few main "characters" floating throughout the proceedings (a pair of cat-killing boys; a wandering, accordion-playing kid in pink bunny ears; a group of sisters who lose their cat [uh-oh]), but many of the people on screen appear only briefly. Most of the negative reviews I've seen on the film have commented on the "freak show" nature of the people we meet, but for the most part I disagree. However, there are times when Korine does cross, or appears to cross, the line into tastelessness; a scene in which a father sexually exploits his retarded daughter is undeniably uncomfortable. It's not always easy to tell if Korine is *merely* trying to shock, and therein lies the film's main limitation. Clearly made by a talented kid who has a lot of maturing left to do, the film (which stylistically tends toward the experimental, using a variety of film stock and video) is only partially convincing as a document of a generation. Nevertheless, the parts of the film that do work, work quite well. Particularly effective is the relationship between one of the young cat-killers (Jacob Reynolds, one of the more bizarre-looking kids I've seen) and his mother (played by Linda Manz).

On Last Hurrah for Chivalry (John Woo, 1978) [Film Center, 3/7/98]: Early HK John Woo in the supernatural swordplay genre. A tale of revenge, and surprise betrayals, it's mildly amusing, but otherwise inconsequential. The homoerotic camaraderie between the two male leads is in full bloom, however.

April 14, 1998

On /Mean Streets/ (Martin Scorsese, 1973) [Music Box, 3/14/98]: The face of film-buffery-cum-filmmaking 25 years ago. Scorsese energetically presents Harvey Keitel struggling to be a saint, serving as self-appointed protector to Robert De Niro's loose cannon. The rock-n-roll soundtrack, the kinetic camerawork, the stunning slow-motion shots, the eruptions of violence...all of these Scorsese has refined and advanced over the course of the years, but they're still pretty damn effective in this, his first really major movie. I still think the second half suffers from occasionally sluggish pacing -- each of the three times I've seen the film, this being the first theatrically, it's felt somewhat too long -- but that a mostly minor quibble.

On Foreign Land (Walter Salles/Daniela Thomas, 1995) [Facets, 3/14/98]: An elderly woman in Brazil dreams of taking her indifferent son Paco on a journey to her homeland in Spain. She dies, of course, at which point Paco feels the need to fulfill his mother's wish. He finds the opportunity to cross the Atlantic by serving as a courier for what is, of course, a smuggling operation. This business takes him to Portugal where he meets up with Alex, the young, beautiful woman (of course) whose story has been told in parallel to his up to this point in the movie. Her boyfriend, a singer/drug addict, has been conveniently eliminated, of course -- à la Paco's mother -- presumably to make her sexually available to our hero when the time comes. Paco and Alex treat other indifferently and/or fight until they eventually have an epiphany which "motivates," I guess, the completely gratuitous sex scene near the end when they're being chased (by the bad guy who hired Paco in the first place) as per the usual variety of standard, thriller-related plot mechanics. To be fair, I should point out that the film is chock-full of political/social/economic commentary. The mother's death, for example, is motivated by her shock at the 1990 Presidential decree -- that is, the decree by the first elected leader of Brazil after 30 years of military dictatorship -- placing severe, ridiculous restrictions on savings accounts (basically amounting to virtual confiscation of the money). Paco's journey, then, is meant to reflect the similar escape of many young Brazilians in the social chaos following the decree. There are also perfectly valid issues in the Portugal scenes such as racism, as well as concepts of "home" and "foreignness", etc. Unfortunately, the film, shot stylistically in black-and-white, is so thoroughly tedious in its thriller narrative, I really didn't care.

On Eve's Bayou (Kasi Lemmons, 1997) [Harlem Corners, 3/15/98]: See next entry (coming...?)

On /Days of Heaven/ (Terrence Malick, 1978) [Music Box, 3/21/98]: I've never been quite as gonzo over Malick as most film buffs seem to be, though I do admire both of his films to date rather highly (see also Badlands below). Strangely, the single best experience I've had so far with Malick's work was my first encounter with Days of Heaven. I say "strangely" because that particular viewing was on pan-and-scan video (or maybe "live" off American Movie Classics). And Malick's films mostly definitely are not ones that should be viewed on video! Still, in my three viewings since then (once again on video, letterboxed, and twice theatrically at the Music Box), I have been unable to entirely recapture that blown-away feeling that marked my first viewing. What's irritating is that I can't figure out why. Lyrical, poetic, visually stunning, musically stunning, brilliantly narrated by Linda Manz...the film is extremely impressive and I recommend it highly. Still, it seems more a case of extreme admiration than of passionate love.

On Fireworks (Takeshi Kitano, 1997) [Music Box, 3/21/98]: See next entry (coming...?)

On Madadayo (Akira Kurosawa, 1993) [Facets, 3/21/98]: If you object on principle to the very idea of sentimentality in movies, then Madadayo -- a 134-minute film of which not less than 134 minutes are purely sentimental in nature -- is definitely not for you. The film is basically a non-stop valediction of a teacher, loved by virtually everybody across the generations, who resigns his post in order to devote himself full-time to writing. In the decades that follow, he is attended to by his former students through every hardship, now matter how trivial. Kurosawa's latest film, made in 1993, and only just making its way to Chicago (and not through any kind of proper distribution, mind you, but by special arrangement with some Japanese cultural entity or whatever), is the type of film which shouldn't work at all. However, while Madadayo is certainly a long way from prime Kurosawa, its single-mindedness becomes oddly affecting, and within its own narrowly defined limits it achieves a measure of success. While unrepentantly sentimental, it rarely descends into the truly saccharine. (The closest to unbearable the film gets is during an extended sequence in which the teacher loses his cat, and there it's mainly a case of the acting not being up-to-snuff.) It may not be a masterpiece, but if does turn out to be Kurosawa's last film, it's a respectable effort, and a reasonably apt coda to his career.

On /The Thin Man/ (W.S. Van Dyke, 1934) [Music Box, 3/28/98]: Ah, the chemistry between Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy)... Even perpetually sloshed, they seem an ideal married couple. The mysteries in the series aren't half-bad either...

On Men With Guns (John Sayles, 1997) [Music Box, 3/28/98]: A naïve doctor in some Latin American country experiences a political awakening when he sets out to find his former students, only to find they've all been murdered either by Army soldiers or by the guerillas the soldiers are fighting. Along this Blood Red Road, he picks up a handful of companions -- an orphaned, "street-smart" boy; a wounded soldier; a tormented priest; a young woman, the victim of rape by soldiers -- each looking for some form of personal salvation and/or peace. Together they search for an Emerald City that may or may not exist, and which, in any case, is unlikely to have even a Man Behind the Curtain to provide any answers. Perfectly familiar and generally unexciting, Sayles' film nevertheless flows smoothly, even satisfyingly, along a well-worn path toward its predestined conclusion. The few bumps along the way are provided by several unnecessary, comic intrusions by some American tourists (one of which is played by Mandy Patinkin).