Tuesday, February 28, 2006


I’m not sure there’s a lot left to be said that hasn’t already been covered in the papers and by other bloggers regarding the deaths this past week of of Don Knotts, Darren McGavin and Dennis Weaver, but I feel the need to say something anyway. I feel the need to at least acknowledge their place in the foundation of my own awareness, growing up immersed in the relatively new medium of television, an awareness of those certain personalities and faces that stood out amongst the sea of personalities and faces transmitted into my childhood living room, even in pre-cable days when just the two channels we had in rural Oregon felt like a bounty.

But those two channels carried Gunsmoke, The Andy Griffith Show and, later, Dan Curtis’s original TV movie The Night Stalker. Weaver’s Chester Goode and Knotts’s Barney Fife were both iconic and exaggerated comic portraits of the kind of folks I grew up around in my small town—friendly, doggedly enthusiastic, and in Fife’s case, desperate for a bit of respect, responsibility, big-city validation. Knotts’s characterization is truly one for the ages, and he was lucky enough to find himself in a splendid setting—Mayberry and The Andy Griffith Show-- that seems as good-natured and complete a portrait of small-town life, TV fantasy division, as anyone might ever need. Indeed, Griffith and Leave It to Beaver are two of the only shows from the period that fulfill the requirements of that fantasy vision, of viewer nostalgia, and of a high quality of television comedy-- that is, the shows are genuinely funny and remain so, some 50 years after they first aired. In the case of Griffith, that is due in no small measure to the exasperation, the bug-eyed tension, and the very sweet soul of Barney Fife. (I loved him too in The Incredible Mr. Limpet and, perhaps my favorite Don Knotts movie, The Shakiest Gun in the West. In fact, I remember actually wanting to be Don Knotts in that movie, if only for the occasional opportunity to bump up against the lovely Barbara Rhoades.)

Weaver, like Knotts, seemed to always be on the tube when I switched it on. I used to get him mixed up, when I was very young, with comedian Charley Weaver, so that may account for some of his seeming ubiquity. (And, believe it or not, I used to own this toy when I was about three years old—my, how standards have changed!) Gunsmoke was a weekly ritual for our family, but I knew Chester Goode mostly from syndicated repeats—by the time I was a regular prime-time viewer Chester had moved on, replaced by Ken “Festus” Curtis. But Weaver still made an impression on me in those repeats, as a character and an actor—I can always remember thinking I could imaging liking him in real life. (This was one of the first stirrings, I think, of the concept of respect in my tiny little head.) But, of course, Weaver made his biggest impression on those of my generation in Steven Spielberg’s landmark TV-movie Duel, a mean bastard of an efficient, terrifying thriller in which Weaver’s ineffectual protagonist (on a road trip we’re led to believe may be at least in part inspired by a desire to escape a badgering wife at home) is tormented by a truck driver (never seen) and driven (literally) into a primal state of self-defense during some of the whitest-knuckle suspense sequences seen up to that time (1971). It remains a standard bearer for TV movies and theatrical films, many which have tried, and failed, to match its unique temperament and technique. But while Spielberg has gotten the lion’s share of credit for the movie’s success, it may be late now but just as necessary to acknowledge the perfectly pitched, weaselly sort of everyman quality that Weaver, who relished the character’s fear and paranoia, brought to the table.

And then there was that other TV movie starring Darren McGavin. As Carl Kolchak, doggedly insistent newspaper reporter who tracked down both The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler in two record-breaking TV movies (before moving on with the character to a disappointingly undercooked ad short-lived series), McGavin brought a new shading of world-weary cynicism to the standard horror film protagonist. Skeptical at every turn, the fun to be had in between bone-chilling scares (at least in the first movie) was in seeing Kolchak’s cynicism slowly stripped away, to watch him becoming a true believer in the bared fangs and sinister seductive power of Barry Atwater’s elusive vampire. Of course, once that cynicism had fallen away, the second movie (and the series) became less fun because Kolchak was already predisposed to believe the most outlandish explanations for the shocking events that seemed to follow him around wherever he went. But there was always McGavin’s exasperation at his boss, Simon Oakland, at Oakland’s refusal to accept Kolchak’s wild stories, which both actors milked for as much comedy as possible, usually with success. And the way he wore that rumpled khaki suit and straw hat, you just knew he was a TV icon in the making. (McGavin has a small role in David Lean’s 1955 romance set in Venice called Summertime, starring Katherine Hepburn and Rosanno Brazzi, and there’s a shot of him waiting for his wife to board a gondola that made me rub my eyes—he’s wearing an almost perfect match of Kolchak’s uniform, sans hat, and I suddenly feared that a giant sea serpent might rise out of the canal and swallow him whole.) But McGavin was almost as memorable as Ralphie’s forever-swearing (in beautifully rendered mock cusses) dad in Bob Clark’s rumpled and hilarious A Christmas Story-- his symphony of obscenity inspired by poor Ralphie spilling a hub cap full of lug nuts into the snow while trying to help Dad change a tire is as gaspingly funny as anything I saw on a movie screen in the beleaguered ‘80s.

A friend of mine commented to me the other day that it’s strange, being of a certain baby boomer age, to see these people we grew up with on TV starting to reach old age and death. It’s different than seeing the old guard of movie stars, whom we perceive as being from a different age, passing on. And it’s different too from seeing people like John Belushi and River Phoenix, who passed away too young from excesses of lifestyle to which we might not all be able to relate. Folks like Knotts, Weaver and McGavin were three faces who we literally grew up watching, seeing them grow older in much the same way we might watch an uncle or a grandparent age. I think we can forgive ourselves, then, our lapses into a certain sentimentality, our feelings of sadness that men whom we never really knew, men who gave us Barney Fife, Chester Goode and Carl Kolchak, are no longer with us.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

OFF-SEASON?! WHAT OFF-SEASON?! Chronicles of a Southern California Drive-in Winter

A great perk of living in Southern California (and those of you who know me know I’m perfectly serious here) is the fact that there is no drive-in off-season. And when you’re surrounded by great drive-ins like the Mission Tiki, the Vineland, the Rubidoux and the Van Buren, every day can hold a little bit of summer (even if you have to bundle up against the occasional 38-degree desert night). Couple that with the fact that the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society has, like a baseball team with a whole lot of money, had a very interesting off-season (the metaphor breaks down here very quickly, as SoCalDIMS actually has no money) and you get some idea of why I’m chattering on excitedly about hitting the drive-ins in the relatively frigid months of January and February.

One of the things SoCalDIMS has been up to, besides meeting at local drive-ins once a month to beef up signatures for our e-mail list and raise awareness of the extent to which drive-ins are still thriving in Southern California (and the ones that are here are thriving, believe me), is helping, in whatever way we can, to prepare for the upcoming 50th anniversary celebration being planned for August out at the Mission Tiki. Not a lot of details are available for general distribution at this time, but I can say that what is being bandied about is pretty damn exciting, and if the folks at DeAnza (the company that owns and operates the MT) have their way, we’re in for a hell of a party—a real dusk-to-dawn affair—come August.

Teri Oldknow, who is heading up the organization of the big event, is a real treat, a wildly enthusiastic film fan with a really sharp head for what can work in a situation like this one. When SoCalDIMS member Sal Gomez and I met with her and DeAnza film buyer Frank Huttinger in January to discuss ideas for the big night, we bandied about terrific prospects and possibilities for a couple of hours and came away from the meeting wishing that we’d wake up the next morning and find that it was suddenly August, just so we could roll right up to the Mission Tiki box office that very day and take that jazzed feeling we were riding right into the big event itself. It’s nice to know that someone heading up a big drive-in 50th anniversary is well versed in film, particularly the variety of popular and exploitation fare that graced drive-ins in their heyday (Teri dropped references to Jack Hill and Samuel Z. Arkoff with delight) and that that person isn’t a bullshit artist, that she actually knows of what she speaks and can deliver the goods-- she’s the one largely responsible for swinging the wildly popular Drive-invasions at the Starlight Drive-in in Atlanta. There are a lot of other exciting prospects attached to the Mission Tiki’s 50th Anniversary celebration, and as they get firmed up I’ll be sure to keep you updated and informed. I can tell you this much, however—circle August 5 on your calendar now and keep it clear.

SoCalDIMS has also been keeping a close eye on developments at the Vineland Drive-in in City of Industry. When our group formed this past July, the Mission Tiki was the only drive-in that was fully Technalight operational, meaning that the super-clear illumination system was installed on all four projectors on site. We visited the Van Buren in August, and not long after that we were informed that DeAnza would be installing Technalight on all three screens there, which it has since done. And now the Rubidoux is Technalight complete as well. The Vineland, the only operational drive-in in Los Angeles County, was now the only ozoner in the immediate Southern California area still operating on the old school system. Sal had struck up a friendship with Juan Gonzalez, manager of the Vineland, and facilitated our group communicating to Pacific Theaters, through Juan, the merits of Technalight for the Vineland, which also celebrated its 50th anniversary this past summer. After some footwork by Sal, and a whole lot of effort by Juan, the Vineland’s first Technalight illumination system was installed in mid-December, and it looks spectacular (King Kong was the first movie to jump off the screen in Technalight there). SoCalDIMS made it back out to the Vineland last month to help Juan celebrate the Technalight revolution going on there, and we had a wonderful time, as usual, visiting with this genuinely affable and likable man who so loves the world of the drive-in and its history and isn’t afraid to say so.
Vineland Nights: SoCalDIMS member Sal Gomez, Me, Vineland manager/projectionist Juan Gonzalez, and SoCalDIMS member Kathy Beyers

We also got to meet a lot more people and sign them up for our cause, including Entertainment Weekly writer Chris Willman, a huge drive-in fan who was out with his family (as was I) to take in Hoodwinked. What’s interesting about seeing Technalight at the Vineland is that right now there’s a perfect chance to do a side-by-side comparison with the way things used to be. The screen showing Hoodwinked was perfectly serviceable in terms of illumination—perhaps due to the bright color palate of the computer-animated film—but all I had to do look to the left at screen #2, which was showing the dark-hued vampire thriller Underworld: Evolution to see just how much brighter, how much more vivid and clear a movie presented in Technalight can be. Even from a full lot away, it was perfectly obvious how much better that movie looked than the movie we were watching, from about four rows in front of our screen. The nice thing is, apparently Pacific Theaters representatives also a little comparing in the month since Technalight premiered at the Vineland, because Juan was able to tell us, with not just a little bit of excitement in his voice, than Pacific has decided to pony up for Technalight on the remaining three screens there. If all goes well, the Vineland will be completely Technalight operational by the inaugural weekends of the summer drive-in season. That means that whereas only four drive-in screens in Southern California were equipped with Technalight in mid-summer 2005, by mid-summer 2006 there will be 14 screens on which to enjoy spectacularly bright drive-in projection the likes of which we could only dream about at the drive-ins of our youth. Every single drive-in screen in Southern California will look crystal-clear and bright—the last real barrier separating the quality of drive-ins and indoor cinemas (at twice the price, not including snacks) will have been effectively eliminated. That is incredible news indeed, and news we could have never anticipated when the first meeting of the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society convened last summer.

To close out February, SoCalDIMS is headed out to the Rubidoux Drive-in in Riverside tonight-- sorry for the short notice—for our very first meeting there. If you’re a drive-in fan and have yet to join us on one of our excursions, I really urge you to come on out, stop by the snack bar and chew the fat with us for a while, and of course take in for a double feature under the Riverside County stars, beneath a Technalight screen that rivals those stars in brightness, if not beauty. This is the joy of a Southern California winter-- that we can gather in these open-air cathedrals of popular cinema year round. Add to that the fact that the drive-ins are themselves, every one, are of such high quality, thanks to conscientious and creative individuals like Juan Gonzalez at the Vineland, Frank Huttinger and Teri Oldknow of DeAnza, the mighty Jeff Thurman at the Mission Tiki, and Ron Bacon at the Rubidoux, whose acquaintance we look forward to making just a few short hours from now, and it becomes exceedingly clear that there are some very tangible blessings for film fans to be counted here. And as winter becomes spring, and spring becomes summer, it’s gonna be a lot of fun counting them with my good friends in the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society and all the rest of you who have kept the drive-in flame burning for a whole new generation to discover and come to hold dear.

A putrified post-script: My buddies Steve and Paul joined me on a 38-degree night (along with friends Haruka and Max Straight, not pictured) for a Sunday evening of fun and frolic at the Mission Tiki in mid-January. The double feature-- Hostel and Saw II. (Now you see where the fun and frolic comes in, right?) But the fun wasn't restricted to the silver screen, no! Mere seconds after this picture was taken, Steve, long-renowned for his gifts in the fine art of distributing the most foul flatulence imaginable (followed by an endearing cry of "There's nothin' on it!") let fly an epic blast worthy of the Scatology Hall of Fame. In the crisp, cold, open air, mind you, and from a distance of at least ten feet between either Paul or I and the, um, point of origin, it was dense and powerful enough to send us both bolting around the back side of my van in search of some leaking sulphur, or perhaps some rotten trash, which would surely cleanse our violated olfactory systems with a smell surely far less offensive than what Steve had just introduced to our little drive-in party. I'm sorry. I don't know why I felt compelled to tell that little story, except perhaps to illustrate yet another advantage of the drive-in-- if you're enjoying a movie at an indoor theater and somebody delivers something on the order of Steve's very thoughtful gift, there's nowhere to run, and you've probably got others sitting on either side of you, blocking the route to fresh, unpolluted air. But at the drive-in, you can do what Paul and I did-- you can run like hell and hope you live to tell your grandkids about the Man Who Pooed Too Much. Thanks for the memories, Steve!

Friday, February 24, 2006


From D.W. Griffith's The Hunt for Dishonest Abe, the film he would have made instead of Birth of a Nation: "I ain't no president; I's a darkie!"

The Confederate States of America, a new film by Kansas University history professor Kevin Willmott, is making the rounds right now, and the reliable word is that, though it might take a little research to find out where it’s playing and a little effort to get there (it’s gonna be a little harder to seek out C.S.A. than, say, Date Movie or Running Scared), it will most likely be worth the research and effort. Blogger friend Robert Hubbard (he of (mim-uh-zeen) & other loss leaders, out of Topeka, Kansas)has been a good source of information and updates regarding C.S.A. and other locally produced films. He'ss been enthusiastic about the C.S.A. project for quite some time now and has posted a complete list of upcoming play dates from around the country on his site (you can find them on the movie’s official Web site too). He also points the way to an article regarding Willmott’s next project, a biography of Wilt Chamberlain.

Elsewhere, the film review site Rotten Tomatoes reveals that a whole lot of other film critics are catching up with Hubbard’s enthusiasm too, including Ty Burr (the Boston Globe), Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly), J. Hoberman (The Village Voice), Mick La Salle (the San Francisco Chronicle), Kenneth Turan (The Los Angeles Times) and Stephen Whitty (the Newark Star-Ledger). Manohla Dargis (The New York Times) is perhaps the highest-profile naysayer, unless you include Armond White at The New York Press, who dropped a less-than-subtle hint of what he thought of the film into the middle of his pan of Lars von Trier’s Manderlay:

Manderlay is so ignorant of authentic American behavior that the calculated outrageousness of its premise is dull rather than scandalous. Its story would have to be convincing to be insulting (like the unholy jumble of history and flippancy in the recently released mockumentary CSA which posits what America would be like had the South won the Civil War—a lunacy worthy of von Trier).”

One wonders if the infamous contrarian White might have got wind of what fellow New York Press critic Matt Zoller Seitz thought of the film and decided upon a preemptive strike, for in the following week’s edition Seitz gave the film a rave:

“It’s like Jean-Luc Godard directing a screenplay by Dave Chappelle. It succeeds simultaneously as a comedy, a historical epic, an experimental feature, a send-up of PBS-cable documentary clichés, a dense and intricate work of speculative fiction, an inquiry into the terrifying arbitrariness of human events, a primer in how to achieve brilliance on a budget of nickels and dimes and a film editing achievement (by Sean Blake and David Bramley) in the same weight-class as Zelig, JFK and Fahrenheit 9/11…”

(Meanwhile, in the same issue White was making space to write a welcome and thoughtful consideration of Final Destination 3, which sounded almost as if White thought it was the first in the series, instead of the third.)

But rave reviews or not, C.S.A. looks to take a provocative premise—what would our country be like if the South won the Civil War?—and run with it, and if it only turns out to be half as complicated and funny and rewarding as Seitz and the others seem to think, then perhaps a little footwork on the part of the viewing public might just be worth it. And not that it’s an either-or situation, but I know I’d rather see C.S.A. than Date Movie.

(The Confederate States of America opened today (Friday) in downtown Los Angeles at Laemmle's Grande Four and at the Academy in Pasadena. It also opened today (Friday) at the Roxie in San Francisco, Brian!)

(This post was updated 2/25/06 at 2:22 p.m. A couple of facts were initially reported incorrectly and have been fixed. Thanks, Robert!)

Thursday, February 23, 2006


(NOTE: This is part two of my personal retrospective on the films of Robert Altman, in honor of the director's 81st birthday and his upcoming honorary Oscar, to be presented during the telecast of the Academy Awards on March 5. You can access part 1 of this article by scrolling down this page or by clicking here.)


Before we get revved up again, I'd like to pass along a couple of other items recommended for further research that are appropriate for this stage of the game.

First, there's a detailed and engrossing article over at 24 Lies at Second by Robert Cumbow entitled "Altman and Coppola in the '70s: Power to the People" which looks at perhaps the two most emblematic figures in what has become widely thought of as the last great creative period of American filmmaking.

Anyone interested in Altman's biography, his working methods and detailed history of the production of his films have a couple of good sources available-- Patrick McGilligan's warts-and-all portrait Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff and Jan Stuart's detailed look at the making of the director's most acclaimed film, The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman's Masterpiece.

A worthwhile critical appraisal of the director's work can be found in Robert Self's book Robert Altman's Subliminal Reality. And David Sterritt offers Robert Altman: Interviews as part of his "Conversations with Filmmakers" series. And the BBC Four offers some brief audio clips of interviews that are worth a quick listen. For that matter, Altman is one of the few modern directors of stature (Scorsese is probably the only other one) who has produced consistently worthwhile audio commentaries on many of the DVDs of his films, and they are perhaps the best source of information film-to-film to be obtained directly from the filmmaker. Some of the best include track on the DVD releases of Nashville, Dr. T and the Women, Short Cuts, Secret Honor, California Split and, if you can find them, the laserdisc editions of The Player and Thieves Like Us.

And perhaps most impressive is Ray Sawhill's perceptive reconsideration of Nashville, published in Salon in 2000, on the occasion of the movie's 25th anniversary and its first release on DVD.


Finally, Matt Zoller Seitz has thrown down the gauntlet and proposed an Altman Weekend Blog-a-Thon to coincide with the director's career honor at the Academy Awards the weekend after next. Bloggers who are interested in participating will write about any film or other fascinating aspect of the director's career and post on Friday, March 3 or since, as Matt says, "the Altman spirit demands keeping things loose," anytime over the weekend before the Academy Awards ceremony will do. This should be a lot of fun, both to write and to collect up and read in the afterglow of the Oscars. Reading all the individual, idiosyncratic takes on this great director's career should do wonders toward offsetting any bad taste left in the mouth by upsetting upsets, embarrassing exhibitions on the part of out-of-control winners, or, perhaps, a not-so-shining performance of your own in the office Oscar pool. Remember, next weekend isn't Oscar Weekend, it's Altman Weekend-- get ready for it.

(And in the all-inclusive, democratic community spirit of the director's films, anyone who is without a blog of their own but would like to contribute a piece to the Altman Weekend Blog-a-Thon is more than welcome to submit their pieces to me via e-mail for publication alongside my own article next Friday, March 3. I encourage your submissions and look forward to reading them, along with everyone else's, next weekend.)


Robert Altman hit a career high in terms of the critical reception of Nashville. Of course neither his admirers, his collaborators nor he himself would have any idea this was the case as it was happening, nor would any of them have any way of knowing that the director was about to embark on the phase of his career that most would term as his most creatively trying and challenging. Indeed, Altman proceeded along his career path taking each obstacle as it came, not seeming to care much about his vexed box-office record or betraying much worry about creative methods and inspiration. The way most of Altman's films feel, particularly those of the period from 1976 through the mid '90s, seem to be pretty much the way they were conceived and executed-- still in a very loose, intuitive, collaborative manner, yet with an increasing sense of being hermetically sealed off from the industry wihin which they circulated, and with decreasing concern for connecting with a mass audience. By the first few months of 1980, he had, for all intents and purposes, given up that pursuit altogether.

BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS, or SITTING BULL'S HISTORY LESSON (1976) In the wake of my disastrous initiation into the world of Robert Altman at that screening of Nashville in 1975, let's just say I wasn't the ideal audience for the director's follow-up feature. Yet, because my hometown theater, the Alger, booked it, probably figuring it might hold some appeal to local viewers who still held westerns in high regard (and boy, would those unsuspecting folks have had a surprise coming to them if they took the bait), and because there would be no other movie in town for a whole week, there I was, on opening night of the movie's five-day engagement, bored to frustration. Yet even then I recognized a kernel of what Altman was up to right from the get-go-- Buffalo Bill featured the most elaborate example yet of one of Altman's signature moments, the self-consciously attention-grabbing opening credit sequence that announced the movie as a movie and at the same time hinted at the film's ultimate inquiry into the tissue of lies that compose the entertainer's (and the filmmaker's) bag of tricks, and by extension (through Buffalo Bill's interactions with Sitting Bull) those of a certain manifest destiny-inclined world power celebrating its bicentennial in the year the film came out. It took me another 10 years to revisit the movie and realize I hadn't given it anywhere near a fair shake. And in the years since it's initial release its reputation hasn't grown much, even within the community of Altman devotees, beyond its status as a signifier of expectations raised by the triumph of Nashville that ultimately went unfulfilled. But the movie has expanded in my mind much further beyond that narrow perception, and as I think about it now I realize that it is the movie I'm gravitating toward as the Altman Weekend Blog-a-Thon draws ever nearer. Stay tuned. (By the way, the Buffalo Bill one sheet pictured is my favorite from all Altman's films, and one of the few one-sheets that I actually own-- I procured it from that Alger Theater run in 1976.)

3 WOMEN (1977) If Thieves Like Us planted the suspicion that Shelley Duvall might just be my favorite actress, Altman's insinuatingly sinister, gossamer dreamscape confirmed it. Altman tended to feature Duvall in roles that required her to expose herself to an uncomfortable degree through harsh or sometimes inexplicable behavior, and her Millie Lamoreaux here is initially likable but increasingly, insistently pathetic, a performance of real daring in terms of flirting with creating a character cut so close to the bone as to be painful, one who tears the audience between wanting to see Duvall at work and wanting to turn away from the agonizing level to which the actress lays herself bare. And that she creates such a realistic, nuanced performance within Altman's diaphanously realized and haunted canvas of splintered personality dream logic is perhaps the ultimate testament to her achievement here. 3 Women (the other two are Sissy Spacek, as Millie's roommate Pinky, and Janice Rule as a mysterious, pregnant woman who paints eerie murals on the bottom of a swimming pool) finds Altman dabbling again in the psychological gamesmanship of Images, but this time he's unmoored himself from the reliance on literal symbolism-- the images invoked and inspired by the titular females' shifting, interchanging personalities are slippery, intangible, frighteningly suggestive yet elusive. However, you never get the sense that Altman is playing the "whatever-you-think-it-means-is-what-it-means" shell game. In fact, you can sense the director himself trying to grapple with the implications of the imagery he's processed here (some of which, according to legend, originated in one of Altman's own dreams).

A WEDDING (1978) Or, 48 Outlines of Characters In Search of a Movie. A Wedding finds Altman self-consciously revisiting the narrative strategy of Nashville (which itself was an expansion upon the groundwork initially laid in Brewster McCloud, a film that could just as easily have been called Houston) and upping the ante, doubling the amount of balls he attempts to juggle. The scenario (the reception following the Chicago society wedding between corrupt old money and the grotesquely nouveau riche) would seem to justify the experiment, and the movie's on-the-fly construction is admirable. But it's a movie seriously leached of the element of high spirits that helped keep Nashville soaring. Instead, A Wedding skirts a joyless diagrammatic approach that finds time for the humiliating of almost every one of its 48 "characters" (they seem to me more like nicely dressed chess pieces on a board seriously near being upended) in the name of bitterly funny social observation. Where Nashville was breezy yet down-to-earth, intricate yet liberating and free-associative, A Wedding just seem overstuffed and overly determinate. Even so, there are wonderful performances, which seemed even better when I revisited the movie late last year-- I treasure the unmoored cadences of Nina Van Pallandt's drug-addicted mother of the groom, especially after she gets high and the actress's normally muted, unactressy line readings really take off to Slurrrrsssvillle; and Vittorio Gassman, as the father of the groom, who has lived a life of indentured servitude to the racist family matriarch ever since his own wedding and who, upon discovery of the matriarch's death, suddenly finds himself free-- his reunion with a long-lost brother, whose presence he fears will violate the terms of his servitude (before he has realized he's no longer bound) is a hilarious comic explosion of anger and flustered reconciliation; and, of course, Lillian Gish as the matriarch, who opens the film, speaks briefly, then promptly dies, but whose poisonous spirit hangs over the entire proceeding (for good and bad, I think)-- Altman honors Gish in the way he frames her character in a window at the onset, the then still-living patron saint of the history of cinema, but he never finds a way to honor her through the processional of his own film.

QUINTET (1979) If you would have asked me two years ago what film of Robert Altman's I held in least regard, I would have said Quintet, which remains the nadir of Altman's puzzle-picture trilogy (Images and 3 Women being the other, more successful pieces). It's a suffocatingly lugubrious chunk of heavy-handed sci-fi allegory set in a frozen future wasteland and built on the characters' all-consuming obsession with a backgammon-like game, played to the death and overseen by the phonetically maddening Fernando Rey, the rules of which remain as mysterious to us at the end of the film as they were when it started. But the defiantly esoteric, visually irritating Quintet (the entire film, already rather fuzzily rendered by cinematographer Jean Boffety, is decorated with a Vaseline smudge around the edges of the frame) has been supplanted at the bottom of the barrel-- the actual bearer of Least Regarded Altman Film in my estimation may come as a surprise to some, as it is generally thought of as a brilliant piece of work, and I will leave it to be revealed at the appropriate time. The movie's humorless pretense is in no way redeemed, but it is leavened somewhat by an unintentionally hilarious scene between Rey, Bibi Andersson and Vittorio Gassman (who here burns through the good will he generated in A Wedding) in which they debate the fatal implications of the game. Gassman and Andersson are seated on either side of the freshly killed corpse of Nina Van Pallandt, who stares lifelessly ahead with a spike sticking through her head while these European stars gnaw hopelessly on the clunky English dialogue supplied by Frank Barhydt and their director. Meanwhile, star Paul Newman presides over the film with appropriate dourness, a blue-eyed deer caught in the headlights. SLIFR reader That Little Round-Headed Boy asked me recently if there was an Altman film that I found too unbearable to sit all the way through. My answer was no, I've never walked out on an Altman film. But I can remember the cold and rainy Sunday afternoon when Blaaagh and I sat in a cavernous (and empty) movie palace in downtown Eugene and endured Quintet for the first time. I know both of us wanted to bolt, but we stayed to the bitter (and I do mean bitter) end.

A PERFECT COUPLE (1979) I remember very little of this light, somewhat odd romantic comedy starring Paul Dooley and Marta Heflin, apart from it being structured around the performances of a rock band with a rather overwrought name (something in the neighborhood of Takin' It to the Streets) whose front man was none other than Ted "Jesus Christ" Neeley. But the opportunity to revisit it again is on the immediate horizon-- it's being released in DVD box package with Quintet, M*A*S*H, A Wedding (all of which, by the way, bear the stamp of the subtitles and closed-captions created by myself and SLIFR readers Thom McGregor and the Mysterious Adrian Betamax). And if you're feeling adventurous, you could venture to win that box set by visiting Aaron at Cinephiliac and keeping your "Eyes on the Prize". (Be warned, though: you'll be in direct competition with me, and as of week #1 anyway I'm doing pretty well.) An interesting bit of A Perfect Couple trivia courtesy of IMDb: the role of Sheila Shea was originally written for Sandy Dennis. But Dooley was seriously allergic to cats, and cat-lover Dennis would come to the script readings with up to five cats in tow, causing Dooley at one point to be hospitalized. As a result, screenwriter Allan Nichols refashioned the role from an earth mother type to the young singer/groupie played eventually played by Heflin.

H*E*A*L*T*H (1980) Altman again revisits the cacophonous, multi-character canvas of Nashville (and, rather too strenuously and self-consciously, the acronymic nomenclature of M*A*S*H) for this bizarre comedy centered around a political battle staged during a convention of health food entrepreneurs. The effectiveness (or lack thereof) of its attempt to engage in irreverent political allegory on the eve of the Reagan era was pretty much lost, either through the movie's torturously delayed premiere (it was basically dumped by 20th Century Fox as unreleaseable, which added somewhat to its briefly enjoyed reputation as a buried treasure) or its own overly tangled narrative web. The movie mixes high and low comedy in a distinctly Altmanesque style that is very reminiscent of the similarly messy (and, I think, underrated) Pret-a-Porter, and as a result it is the very essence of "hit-and-miss," but it's also one I've longed to return to for quite a while. Fox Movie Channel trots it out occasionally; unfortunately, the print shown there (at least when it showed up last month) was irritatingly cropped and derived from a less-than-satisfactory transfer, so I opted out in the hopes that the current mining of Altman's late '70s Fox period would result in a DVD somewhere in the near future. Whatever the circumstances under which I next see H*E*A*L*T*H, I can be sure they will not resemble those of my first encounter with this orphaned Altman oddity. In 1981, fresh out of college, where I spent a third of my senior year immersed in the Altman canon, I drove seven hours from my hometown in Southern Oregon to meet Blaaagh in Portland, where H*E*A*L*T*H was playing an exclusive limited engagement at the Cinema 21 theater. Ah, the unfettered enthusiasm of youth!

POPEYE (1980) The experience of making this movie, under the aegis of producer/bully/bullshit artist extraordinaire Robert Evans, and its ultimate lukewarm reception (with the attendant unearned reputation as a artistic and financial bomb) would finally drive Altman, the iconoclast's iconoclast, from the prescribed madness of Hollywood conservatism and into the wilderness of independent filmmaking as it existed in the days when John Sayles was still fresh off of Return of the Seacaucus Seven and the world had not yet heard of Jim Jarmusch or Spike Lee. Few had the desire, when Popeye was released during Christmas 1980, to look at it apart from the stories generated from its troubled production with anything resembling objectivity (or better yet, intelligent subjectivity). And it has yet to be revisited and reassessed in any satisfying way (which makes me look forward even more to That Little Round-Headed Boy's Altman Weekend Blog-a-Thon entry on it next week). For me, Popeye was and is a marvel of set design and pioneering use of cinematography--I always drift back in my mind to that seaside Maltese village where the characters of the movie live, flattened so expressively by the long lenses of Giuseppe Rotunno's camera into the first real attempts to emulate a cartoon universe in three dimensions. And again, my unabashed awe for the unpretentious talent of Shelley Duvall continued here-- if anyone was ever born to align with a particular cartoon character, it was Duvall and her embodiment of Olive Oyl in a performance that I genuinely felt deserved the Oscar that year (she even outdid her own supremely empathetic work in The Shining from that past summer). But Altman's sensibility was also well suited to the material, despite the insistence of everyone from Evans to the emerging magpie reporting of fledging infotainment shows like Entertainment Tonight that he and Popeye were a strange mismatch (they certainly fit better than Ang Lee and the Incredible Hulk). Altman's propensity for the function of community, in the way he builds the inside of his Panavision frame, and in the generous way he approaches the relentless presence of the multitude of characters (including Williams as the titular sailor and the endearing manner in which he mutters his way through the movie) expands Popeye beyond the limited perspective of the typical blockbuster, and that's probably one of the things that got it in trouble with critics and with audiences. For the next 12 years (in what could only in retrospect be anything more than a coincidence, approximately the length of the Reagan-Bush era) Altman would find himself frozen out of the Hollywood that he so openly eschewed, the formula-driven, blockbuster-addicted system that now openly acknowledged that it had no idea what to do with this one-of-a-kind artist. It would be a journey that would return Altman to the fundamentals of filmmaking (filtered, of course, through his own unique sensibility) and ultimately set the stage for this iconoclast's second run at the Hollywood establishment.

Next: Altman in the dark forest of the '80s, and his (brief) return to Hollywood glory in the '90s.


I'd like to take a moment to second some remarks made by Flickhead regarding the lasting effect of Pauline Kael and the pleasures to be had from reading her criticism. He writes, in his latest post:

"If it weren’t for her, I seriously doubt that I’d be writing at all: this blog entry, this blog, my website…anything. Kael showed me that personality and opinion needn’t be stifled by rules or popular opinion. As someone with aspirations of being a writer, reading her work was perhaps the most liberating and educational experience I’ve ever had."

This is certainly true for me as well. When I first picked up a copy of Reeling in the Koobdooga (read it backwards) Bookstore in Eugene, Oregon in 1977, I was aware of who Pauline Kael was. I'd seen her name blurbed in some movie newspaper ads and actually saw her appear sometime in the early '70s as a guest on The Mike Douglas Show, of all things. But that night, thumbing through the film section, I was just looking for some easy reading and thought this might be the way to go. Funny how life-changing experiences spring themselves on you, isn't it? Kael shook my perceptions and presumptions to their foundations. (And I had quite a few presumptions, being a fairly snotty, emboldened college freshman who was sure he knew pretty much everything there was to know already, especially about movies.) She addicted me to her writing and her ability to make me re-view (that is, re-see) the movie through her eyes. It's a measure of just how good she is that I've probably read (and reread) most of her pieces on individual films more often than I've actually seen the works in question. And I, like Flickhead, largely credit her with the inspiration for trying to forge ahead, in my own voice, with the challenge of writing perceptively and entertainingly about film, or about anything else, for that matter.

I never met Pauline Kael; I never communicated with her; I never heard her speak in person, only on some recordings of her Pacifica radio show that I obtained 15 or so years ago. But she still connects to me through her writing, even that which dates back the furthest, constantly challenging me to think independently, to argue with her stubborn persuasiveness, to express my own responses. But now, thanks to the gatekeepers at If Charlie Parker Were A Gunslinger, we can all listen to a nearly hour-long MP3 recording of Kael speaking circa 1963, which means that Andrew Sarris and "Circles and Squares" are front and center on the list of topics. This is a rare and wonderful opportunity to actually hear one of the great film critics just as she was beginning to climb to the heights of her profession. Thanks to Tom Sutpen and Stephen Cooke for making it available, and to Pauline Kael for leaving a body of work still worth experiencing after all these years.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

OOH! I WET 'EM! Monty Python Returns to PBS

Back in the days before instant gratification, before TiVo and iPods and DVD box sets and DirecTV and MP3s and instant downloading of music and movies, one often had to put forth some measure of effort—sometimes physical effort—in order to get oneself in the position to watch one’s favorite TV program. Those were the days when you and I, two or more of the great unwashed, charter members of the Global Village, were yoked to the TV schedule—you were home in front of the tube at 9:00 on Wednesday night, by God, if you wanted to see this week’s episode of Baretta, and if you missed it, well, too bad. Maybe there would be a late-season repeat, and maybe not. This type of world-weary tale will certainly become my generation’s equivalent of walking ten miles, to and from school, in a snowstorm, wearing only perforated shoes and a thin, thin jacket and carrying 10-12 heavy textbooks without a book bag—“You know, you spoiled brat,” I’ll put forth halfheartedly from my wheelchair, “when I was a kid I had to seek out my entertainment—it didn’t come to me whenever I wanted it just by waving some magic wand.” “It’s not a wand, Grandpa, it’s a digital wireless mouse with scanning capability and 240 gigs of memory,” my grandchild will say, barely looking up from the holographic Smell-o-Vision electro-shock action booming and crackling from his/her Playstation XXV.

Or perhaps I’ll just trot out an old Monty Python routine and really watch the storm clouds of confusion gather over his/her spiky little head—“We used to have to get up 7:00 at night, half an hour before we went to bed, eat a lump of dry poison, work 280 hours down mill, and when we got home our dad would slice us in two with a bread knife and dance upon our graves singing ‘Alleluia.’” Why, when I was a freshman in college in 1977, Monty Python’s Flying Circus had already been a phenomenon on PBS stations across the country for almost three years, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail was already a entrenched part of the lexicon of laughs of any self-respecting college student (“What… is your favorite color?”). And yet it was with a hardened bunker mentality that I would tromp down to the TV room every night at around 10:15 or so, where a large group of students would be gathered watching Starsky and Hutch or Barnaby Jones or some other such offering. I would spend the next 45 minutes leading to the top of the hour dropping none-too-subtle hints that Monty Python was coming up at 11:00, if anybody’s interested, it’s really great, you know, haveyoueverseenit, blahblahblah. Mind you, for one as shy and unassuming as I was at the time, taking such measures with a group I really didn’t know at all meant that I really wanted to see this show and was willing to endure all manner of humiliation and degradation (by humiliation and degradation, of course I mean speaking up in front of strangers and risking their disapproval) to ensure that I did. Most of the time the group was cool about me walking up and changing the channel as the credits on Barnaby Jones started to flash past, and I could settle in knowing that no one was gonna leap up and switch over to a rerun of I Love Lucy. But there were also those nights when some joker would tolerate about 63 seconds of Python, stand up, grumble some variation on “What the fuck is this shit?” and then twist the dial forcefully to one of a variety of nose-picking local news anchors, or perhaps the ever-present I Love Lucy rerun. This kind of crude majority-rules environment made seeking out the silliest and more esoteric comedy show on TV much more stressful than it ever should have been, and believe me, if I’d had the option back then of downloading Python off the Internet every night and watching it back in the comfort and privacy of my own cracker-box dorm room, don’t think for a second I wouldn’t have done just that. (Just don’t tell my snotty, video-hypnotized grandchild I said that, all right?)

Now, years later, you can go to a Web site to get your fix. Or perhaps you bought the entire run of the show on DVD, like I did? Or one of the many special editions of each of the Python movies that are also available on DVD? (I like this one.) But even with all this convenient packaging of all the great Python material (oh, wait, I almost forgot—have you got this?! I do!), there is something special on the horizon. If your eyes light up at the thought of a confection called Crunchy Frog, or if you’ve ever wanted to have the nickname “Two Sheds,” or if you salivate at the prospect of the new production by the Batley Townswomen’s Guild (their re-enactment of the Battle of Pearl Harbor was a smash hit), or if the sight of an earnest archaeologist breaking into song (“Today/I hear the robins sing/Today…”) makes you feel like you’re going to go insane with glee, then you’ll want to check in with your PBS affiliate’s local listings to find out when you can see the first two installments of Monty Python’s Personal Best, a six-part series of reminiscences, favorite bits and even some new material, one part given over to each of the members of Monty Python with which they spin their own personal history of the troupe and its highlights. (Graham Chapman, dead since 1988, has graciously given over his chapter to be compiled by the other remaining members.) The Los Angeles PBS affiliate, KCET, kicks off Monty Python’s Personal Best tonight with the Eric Idle segment (9:00 p.m.) and follows at 10:00 p.m. with the Graham Chapman tribute. The subsequent four installments will air over the next two Wednesday nights, March 1 and March 8. (Los Angeles Times staff writer Robert Lloyd checked in this past Sunday with an excellent article detailing some additional background on the history and impact of Monty Python’s Flying Circus that is well worth reading.)

If, for some reason, you miss any of the episodes, I have it on good authority that they will be available in just a few weeks time on DVD. But for some reason I feel like making the time, if I can possibly do it, to see these specials as they spill out over the free air waves, just like we used to do it back in the good old days when we had to stand up and fight drunken hordes of indifferent dorm residents just so we could take a half-hour off in order to laugh about the Larch (“Number 38—the Larch!”) or a romantic restaurant setting that spirals into hysteria, aneurysms and suicide all because of a dirty fork. Hope you enjoy the show.

Raymond Luxury Yacht (pronounced “Yatch-t”)

P.S. Dennis would like to know, What's your favorite Monty Python sketch or moment?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


On the day (Feb. 20) which it was reported that new James Bond Daniel Craig got his teeth knocked out for his art, and mere days after it was announced that Eva Green, familiar to those who saw Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven and/or Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers, will be the enticing Vesper Lynd in the upcoming 007 thriller Casino Royale, British newspaper The Guardian has published a brief but amusing Bond quiz that won't hold you over until the movie is released, but it might just inspire a rental or two to keep the flame burning. I scored 10 out of a possible 15, a respectable score, I suppose, and one that generated this comment from the wiseacre quizmaster:

"Although wounded, out of breath and slightly confused, you still managed to halt the bomb detonator with half a second to go, steal the secret code and cop off. However, a bit too close for comfort, 007? "

Try your luck and then register your score in the comments section. The first one to score a perfect 15 (we're on the honor system here, folks) will win the ultimate prize: the undying respect of his or her fellow contestants. (Sorry, but the Broccoli estate wouldn't part with Oddjob's bowler, otherwise I would have gladly handed that over to the winner.)

(Thanks to Anne Thompson at The Hollywood Reporter's Risky Biz blog for the link.)

Monday, February 20, 2006


I was first exposed to the work of Robert Altman, whose 81st birthday it is today, at around age four or five, and I, of course, had no idea I had been exposed at all. Altman, who rose from the world of Kansas City industrial filmmaking to direct episodic television in the mid 1950s and the 1960s, was responsible for some of the episodes of Gunsmoke, Bonanza and Combat! that I soaked up during those formative years. Though he fought the networks regarding the style and content of the episodes of the shows that he directed, it's probable that in retrospect only Combat!, with its eye and ear for the verisimilitude of wartime engagement and focus on the camaraderie of the men under the direct command of Lt. Gil Hanley (Rick Jason) and Sgt. Vince Saunders (Vic Morrow), stands much of a chance of bearing anything of Robert Altman's recognizable stamp. But by the time I was 10 years old I was already on my way toward kindling a voracious appetite for movies, and I was well aware of a movie called M*A*S*H, with its strange two-legged, helmeted peace sign ad campaign.

M*A*S*H was perhaps my first "movie crush," that is, a movie I obsessed over through the movie pages of the Portland Oregonian and occasionally, if the local Rexall drugstore received their Sunday copies on time, The San Francisco Chronicle, with no real prospect, at such a young age, of ever seeing it during its theatrical run (other movie crushes I would eventually develop included Clockwork Orange, The French Connection, Straw Dogs and The Godfather). It was through that obsession with every detail, every piece of information I could glean from newspapers and magazines regarding M*A*S*H, that I became familiar with the name Pauline Kael, whose rave review was regularly blurbed in M*A*S*H's print ads. It's also how I came to know the name Robert Altman, and because of his association with this movie he automatically, in my mind, became a director worth following. My hometown movie palace, the Alger, played both the R-rated original release and the slightly edited PG re-release of the film, but I missed them both. I don't think I ever actually saw M*A*S*H in any form until it aired on CBS sometime around 1974, when I was 14 years old-- it premiered on a Friday night, and I deemed the event important enough to warrant skipping out on performing in the high school pep band at a football game in order to stay home and see it. (I would discover, come Monday morning, that my band instructor did not share myenthusiasm for the movie or my decision.) And unless my memory is failing me, I don't believe the Alger played another Altman film after M*A*S*H, including McCabe and Mrs. Miller, until Nashville. I still knew about them all, however, thanks to the Portland and San Francisco movie pages. Yet it would fall to my college days to catch up with pre-1975 Altman and begin to understand why he would become, and remain to this day, such an important figure in my development as a reasonably intelligent and demanding viewer of film.

This year, one of the only compelling reasons for me to keep an eye on the Academy Awards will be the awarding of an honorary Oscar to Robert Altman. It's going to be one of those "thanks for the memories" kind of affairs, honoring a director who, by all rights, should already have at least three or four of the statuettes with his name etched on them, and who is generally perceived as heading into the darkening twilight of his career. Insurance questions abounded on the set of his latest (and some speculate perhaps his last) film, A Prairie Home Companion, and kindred spirit Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia) was a constant presence on the set, just in case the 80-year-old director for some reason could not carry on. And whenever a film luminary is the recipient of this kind of honor, it's kind of hard to miss the underlying subtext: you might be gone a month from now, so you'd better accept the Academy honor while you can. Undoubtedly, the irony of such a warm and public embrace by the same Hollywood establishment that couldn't have been more indifferent to him as the praise for Nashville curdled into the insulated "failures" of Buffalo Bill and the Indians and 3 Women, will not be lost on the director, who has been known to cherish a bitter irony or two over his long career. (For a quick lesson in our changing times, just try to imagine an studio executive in 2006 having box office expectations of any kind for a movie like Nashville.) But as Altman himself has said of his impending honor, in a way this kind of Oscar is more befitting a director who always claimed to love his most wayward children best (Brewster McCloud, A Wedding) and who might honestly rather have an award that encompassed both the wayward and the celebrated, the great (Nashville, California Split, The Long Goodbye), the good (The Player) and the ghastly (Quintet, A Perfect Couple). For Altman, it will undoubtedly be a night of mixed emotions-- reflection on and acknowledgment of a great career, mixed with a kind of nonchalance straight out of his dalliance with Raymond Chandler ("It's okay with me.")

To celebrate this great director's birthday and upcoming honor, I wanted to gather some brief recollections and comments on each of Altman's films that I've seen together with a couple of excellent links to other posts and articles that will hopefully round out this tribute in a more satisfying way. I point you first to Terrence Rafferty's overview of the director's career from this morning's New York Times. Rafferty paints a vivid portrait of why Altman mattered in the early '70s, why he continued to matter in the dark days of the '80s even when his output was scaled down and much more difficult to seek out, and why he continues to matter, to directors who cite him as an influence, and to audiences who may not even be aware of how his experiments in multiple storylines and overlapping dialogue have influenced (to the good and the bad) the direction of film and television storytelling, from Hill Street Blues through ER and beyond. The folks at IFCTV Blog filed a report from the Berlin Film Festival last week rounding up the general reaction to A Prairie Home Companion. And finally, a link to the Berlin Film Festival site where you can watch streaming video of the arrival of Altman and cast members on the red carpet, as well as the Prairie Home Companion press conference.

And now, some brief thoughts of my own on each of Altman's films (thanks to Edward Copeland for the inspiration):

M*A*S*H (1970) The sanctimonious sitcom was already two years old by the time I finally caught up with a CBS-sanitized version of Altman's biggest hit. It was one of many Altman films that I wouldn't see unexpurgated, or at all, until my college days, and it's always been one with which I've had a love/hate (or love/dislike) relationship. I've always loved its shaggy improvisatory aesthetic and its caustic humor, but that causticity here often merges with a progressive's particular brand of intolerance-- here, for spiritual belief, whether sincerely or hypocritically undertaken, or for anyone else who doesn't knuckle under to the iconoclastic impulses of its main antiheroes, Trapper John and Hawkeye. M*A*S*H is a hilarious, maddening movie that proves stubborn intolerance is not the exclusive province of the self-righteous right, that social and political liberals can be boors and bullies too.

BREWSTER McCLOUD (1970) A bizarre and effervescent freedom-through-flight fantasy that sealed some of Altman's stylistic tropes and even prefigured some of the thematic concerns (as well as visual and aural ones) that would flower in Nashville. I first saw this in a 16mm anamorphic print that was squeezed into a 1.33 aspect ratio, rendering the already fanciful movie a funhouse version of itself, and despite this visual bastardization I still loved it. To this day I cannot see Rene Auberjoinois in anything without thinking of him slowly mutating into an ostrich-like creature over the course of this movie. Where's the DVD, MGM/Sony?

McCABE AND MRS. MILLER (1971) My first encounter with this allegedly visually beautiful movie came on late-night TV somewhere around 1979. My second run at it came about a year later, in anamorphic 16mm (this time unsqueezed to at least an approximation of 2.35), in an echo-y university lecture hall. Now you see why I say "allegedly visually beautiful," because I still don't feel like I've ever had a satisfying look at this movie. And I can't really say I've heard it either. As for why I haven't yet rented the allegedly beautiful DVD, I have no excuse. I pledge to do so before the end of this year, because my diaphanous, amorphous impressions of this movie, already a fairly diaphanous work itself, need to be unified, pulled together, understood. It's one of the only great movies I've seen that's so ethereal and unformed in my memory it's in danger of evaporating.

IMAGES (1972) The first of Altman's art puzzle movies, which would come to greatest expression with 3 Women and then explode with Quintet two years later. I remember virtually nothing substantial about this movie, having seen it only once 26 years ago, except that I found its tinkling crystal visual motif annoying (this from a film student who was usually far too easily seduced by similarly obvious visual ideas used by other directors). I remember vague dread looking out at English landscapes shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, and bearish Hugh Millais coming to some sort of grisly end. Again, there's absolutely no excuse for my having not revisited this movie. See my pledge re McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

THE LONG GOODBYE (1973) Being unable to speak as much for McCabe as yet, this is, in my estimation, Altman's first masterpiece, a lyrical, cynical, sentimental, hip and in some circles blasphemous updating of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. Elliot Gould, his star already on the wane, would come, through this one performance, to some kind of lasting cinematic impression through the refashioning of Hollywood icons (both Marlowe and Bogie) that would counteract his dwindling counterculture credibility and box-office stature. Finally, Altman's free-floating sensibility finds perfect expression in this funky and live, scrupulously moral revisionist tribute to Chandler's sun-baked mean streets. In 1993 I was privileged to hear Altman speak (when moderator Michael Wilmington would let him get a word in edgewise, that is) before a screening of this film at UCLA. Afterward, I spoke briefly to the director and was able to express my appreciation for what his films, particularly this one and Nashville, have meant to me over the years. He was gracious, even though he had probably heard similar sentiments far too many times for them to hold much real meaning for him anymore, and I sensed he was grateful I wasn't shoving a script at him or trying to engage him in some impromptu critical debate. He signed an old copy of Films In Review and that was that-- the conclusion to one of the great move-going experiences of my life.

THIEVES LIKE US (1974) Up until seeing this film, my most vivid impressions of Shelley Duvall were those multicolored knee socks and the gold wig she wore in Nashville, and the unforgettable moment when she bends over a railing, vomits, and then plants an open-mouthed smacker on Bud Cort in Brewster McCloud. It was seeing her in this evocative, observant drama that made me decide she was, for a time, my favorite actress. This is a movie even someone unconvinced of Altman's stature as a film artist could find revealing, moving, evocative, powerful. Once again, time for another screening. I'm beginning to think this upcoming Altman Oscar is going to set me on a path of rediscovery of some of real treasures in the coming year, and this is definitely one of them. Another masterpiece.

CALIFORNIA SPLIT (1974) Like M*A*S*H, I got my first exposure to this underrated classic (dare it say it-- masterpiece number three?) via the ABC Sunday Night Movie, and that was it, for about 20 years. It was even skipped over in the Altman retrospective my film professor assembled during my senior year at Oregon, due to some lame rental snafu. I didn't see it again until my wife and I caught up with it on a double feature with The Parallax View at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art about 10 years ago, and it bowled me over with its nonchalant, shambling air of desperation and compulsion, and the huckster's comedy that it wrung out of both. Elliot Gould and George Segal amplify the kind of glancing humor that was by now a hallmark of Altman's signature style into a brilliantly downbeat buddy comedy. And the sonic experimentalism of Altman's previous films came to true fruition on California Split's pioneering multi-track stereo soundtrack, which allowed Altman the freedom to manipulate the levels of overlapping conversation for the first time, highlighting what he wanted you hear in what might before have been just a roomful of wallah and ambient noise.

NASHVILLE (1975) Nashville was the first Robert Altman film I ever saw in a theater, and for three of four years afterward it was emblematic of the kind of cinema my friends and I actively disregarded-- that is, anything that didn't resemble the typical Hollywood product. But while subsequent exposure to other Altman films during those three or four years (Buffalo Bill and the Indians, 3 Women, A Wedding, Quintet) didn't exactly soften me to the director's approach, they did at least provide me with some context beyond what I'd been able to glean from my limited exposure to network versions of M*A*S*H and California Split. Sometime in 1979 I felt compelled to see Nashville again, and I came away with a completely different experience, one of unabashed enthusiasm that I can explain only by saying that I simply wasn't ready, at 15 years of age, to see Nashville, for it to be my first real experience with a Robert Altman film. And, to paraphrase an oft-quoted cafe owner, it was the start of a beautiful, sometimes frustrating, always worthwhile friendship with the director's movies. By the time I next encountered Nashville, as part of a university class devoted to the director's work, I was so excited to see it again that I took in all three of the available screenings to students of the class-- one at 7:00 a.m., another at 1:00 p.m., and a final one with the whole class at 7:00 p.m. By the end of that day I was as exhilarated and exhausted as I'd ever been because of an encounter with a single film, and my mind was buzzing with connections to styles and other art forms that I'd never thought to make before. My collegiate experience with Nashville, I think it can truly be said, was a crucial key to my understanding of what films could really be, what they could do, and to some extent what they couldn't do as well. For 25 years Nashville remained, unquestioningly, my favorite film, and if it no longer holds the top rank, it only misses by one or two spots. It's a revolutionary collage of American dreams and destruction that quite nearly created a whole new sense of how community could be looked at in a film. And it is, quintessentially, what I think of when I think of a Robert Altman film.

(Next: Altman in the shadow of Nashville, the dark forest of the '80s, and his return to prominence in the '90s.)

Thursday, February 16, 2006


Well, I don't know about anyone else, but I know where I'm going to be on Saturday, March 4-- in Lakewood, California, that's where, sipping white Russians and deconstructing the screenwriting style of one Arthur Digby Sellers (You know... Branded? "All but one man died there at Bitter Creek"?) with as many no-accounts and Coen-heads as can fit into the Cal Bowl in Lakewood for the 7th Annual Lebowski Fest West, celebrating all things substantial and tangential to the Coen Brothers brilliant 1998 comedy The Big Lebowski. (Yes, even this.) There's a pre-party at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood the night before, but clearly the place to be is gonna be the Cal Bowl on Saturday night. Of course, there are always rumors about celebrities from the movie attending, and this year is no different, but if you're gonna get all excited about maybe tipping a sarsaparilla with Sam Elliot, trading photography stories with Jeff Bridges, pitching a script to Philip Seymour Hoffman, or getting your toenails painted by Tara Reid, you'd best scale your expectations down a bit. Jeff "the Dude" Dowd and Peter Exline, the real-life inspirations for the Dude and Walter, will be appearing at the Knitting Factory, and it's reasonable to think they might find their way down to Lakewood as well (although I'm not sure I could handle sharing a lane with the real Walter Sobchak.) And the good folks at Lebowski Fest 2006 have confirmed appearances by Jim Hoosier (Liam, the Jesus's teammate), Robin Jones (sullen Ralph's checkout girl), bowling technical consultant Barry Asher and even Edie McClurg, who had not one thing to do with The Big Lebowski, but who is a tremendously good sport and loads of fun and who has given up her Saturday evening to spend it with a bunch of drunken film fans who may or may not even know who she is.
(Maybe I'll throw her a curve and ask her about Brian De Palma and Carrie-- "Edie, do you ever lay awake at night regretting having treated Sissy Spacek so badly?")

This event sold out faster than you could toss a marmot into a bathtub last year, so if you're a fan of the film, or perhaps just a very interested, very brave sociologist who can't get a date for March 4, you might want to consider getting your tickets now. I'll be there dressed as Walter (if I can find my hunting vest) to my pal Stoogeking's Dude, and we're hoping to drag a few likeminded travelers to tumble with the tumblin' tumbleweeds right alongside us that night. Remember, you can say what you like about the tenets of Lebowski Fest 2006, but at least it's an ethos. Come see the ethos get tipsy, drop 15-pound bowling balls on their tender feet, and luxuriate in a bowling alley full of fellow Lebowski-heads on that very special night in Lakewood March 4.

Yet another bit of Lebowskiana: Here's some tomfoolery by way of GreenCine Daily called Sizing Up Lebowski, a peek inside the LebowskiFest phenomenon. You may want to take a look at this before buying your tickets, especially if your favorite Coen Brothers movie is The Ladykillers...


(Original post Thursday 2/16 10:51 p.m. UPDATED 2/19/2006 9:05 p.m.)

I doubt it'll come as a surprise to any regular readers of SLIFR that I have a jones to see Final Destination 3. I was pretty enthusiastic about the first installment, directed by James Wong, from a script by Wong and Glen Morgan (both veterans of The X-Files). But I absolutely flipped for the even more convoluted and gleefully gory Final Destination 2, which was my first exposure to the superb action director David R. Ellis, who has since gone on to direct Cellular, from Larry Cohen's exceedingly clever script, and the upcoming Snakes on a Plane, perhaps the highest must-see high concept movie I can recall since the dawning of the new century. Wong and Morgan return for part 3, and the absolutely venomous reviews the movie has drawn hold almost deterrence value to me at all. However, Ed Gonzalez, film critic for Slant magazine, has posted a very well written dismissal of the new film, and within it he discusses, and links to, one of the most intelligent write-ups in favor of Final Destination 3, submitted by one of my favorite critics to read these days, Walter Chaw of Film Freak Central (which, by the way, sports a blog well worth checking out). As I try to find room this weekend in between screenings of Brokeback Mountain and The New World to get myself to a late show of FD3, I'll read Gonzalez and Chaw again, two fine writers who are probably the only ones so far who have written anything worth reading about the Final Destination movies and their place among the imagery in the cracked mirror that America uses to look at itself.

UPDATED 2/19/2006 9:05 p.m.

WHOOPS, YOU MISSED ME: FD3's scattershot approach

Well, I wish I could report that the enthusiasm I had for the first two installments of the Final Destination series has carried over into the third installment, but, alas, Final Destination 3 is just not the well-oiled Rube Goldberg deathtrap part 1, and especially part 2, led me to expect. The problem I had with the film didn't derive entirely from its failure as a portrait of or a treatise on post 9/11 fear experienced as a mass loss of control, even though I do think its attempt to engage this theme was half-baked. And the movie's attempt to bolster this theme by utilizing a photograph of a plane's shadow crossing the face of the World Trade Center as part of our heroine's evidence that Death often provides clever clues to its plans before carrying them out is not only "extraordinarily inappropriate" (Walter Chaw) but also grossly insensitive, especially in this context. Whether its understood to be a picture taken days before 9/11, or a chance shot of the shadow appearing just before the actual crash, the picture doesn't lend itself to the movie's logic as to Death's methods, and it's harshly gratuitous considering director-writer James Wong (and cowriter-producer Glen Morgan) uses it only to goose the cheap thrill factor and not to expand the theme meaningfully (see Ed Gonzalez for a solid and reasonable theory as to why this attachment to 9/11 doesn't make any sense for this series). Chaw also mentions the movie's flirtation with another interesting theme, the value of ignorance when discussing matters of mortality and impending death, and makes reference to similar concerns in Saw II, where I think the idea is more interestingly and fully played out.

My biggest disappointment with Final Destination 3, however, derives from its near incompetence when it comes to diagramming the set-ups and the pinballing machinations of Death's ever-elaborate contrivances for taking out the various straw boys and girls of the cast (unlike the first two parts, adults, either as authority figures or potential victims, are virtually nonexistent here.) Final Destination 2 distinguished itself in this regard-- David R. Ellis' lean directorial style made the movie seem almost more an action thriller at times than a horror film, but there was always a precise understanding of how each piece of the fatal puzzle, however outlandishly contrived, was falling into place, which made the outrageously gruesome "payoffs" that much more ghastly and funny. I still have a vivid picture in my mind of the spectacular auto accident that sets FD2 in motion, and the intricate (and patient) set-up for the sequence in that same film when the doper kid is trisected by a flying section of barbed-wire fence-- the ingenious use of CGI allows us to see the result, a Warner Bros. cartoon death joke staged with spraying blood and sliding entrails, and puts the "ping!" in this particularly crystalline bit of action choreography. None of the fatally convoluted machinations in Final Destination 3 have this kind of clarity. They're all indifferently staged, with a scattershot logic and visual clutter and, surprisingly, a lack of concern for simple follow-the-bouncing-ball purposefulness-- the way these scenes are edited together suggests to me impatience on the part of the filmmakers, as if they just wanted to press on to the big red spray of viscera at the end and didn't really much care how they got us there (Wong's staging of the signature sequences in the first film were much more alive, crackling, often literally, with electricity and dread-- was he just bored this time around?) One sequence, at a fast-food drive-thru, depends entirely on a garbage truck backing up perpendicular across a busy street, pinning our hapless victims from all sides-- there are cars in front of and behind them-- and there is absolutely no explanation offered why this truck is suddenly performing this irrational driving maneuver. (My theory: lazy screenwriting.) Chaw finds value in the movie roasting (again, in one instance, literally) the Breakfast Club stereotypes that populate its cast, but these familiar teen-movie characters seem like a pretty tired satirical target and lend the movie a generic quality that FD2, with its mixture of ages and races and backgrounds that made up the roster on Death's scorecard, avoids (FD2's coarse teen stereotypes don't make it through the initial disaster.) Despite a winning performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the control freak yearbook photographer who spends the movie looking for that big loophole in Death's design, Final Destination 3 ends up feeling too disengaged and indifferent, not only to our capacity for on-screen violence (which it engages, with unmemorable results), but also with the legacy of its own cleverly jerry-rigged conceits.

Monday, February 13, 2006


The last encounter I had with anyone here in Los Angeles involving race or cultural diversity came while helping out in my daughter’s kindergarten class last week. I called her name and attached to it the appellative “-chan,” a familiar term of endearment in the Japanese language (my daughter is half Japanese). My daughter’s teacher looked up at me and asked me what I said. I repeated it, and she told me, with some delight, that in Armenian there is a similar appellative, used in exactly the same way, pronounced “-jan.” It was a pleasant exchange, an unexpected connection between two cultures and peoples I’d always assumed were about as far apart as two cultures and peoples could get. There was no tension, no unease, no anger bubbling just under the surface that eventually exploded in ugly epithets and violence. It was a simple, everyday occurrence, the sort for which there is simply no room in Paul Haggis’ widely admired, overwrought, fatally didactic and schematic, frequently absurd after-school special entitled Crash.

I’m not naïve enough to suggest that racial tension in the most segregated city in America is outside of my experience—if it ever was before (and it wasn’t), in the post Rodney King-O.J. Simpson era it is impossible to live in Los Angeles and not be aware of the kind of cultural divisions that often seem to be tearing the city apart from the inside out. But it’s just as naïve, self-serving and dramatically shortsighted to set up an entire movie populated by people who function only to embody all the various elements of bigotry and prejudice and intolerance which make up Haggis’ cobbled-together thesis, the bottom line of which seems to be, “Racism is wrong, and we are all capable of it.” A radical idea on which to construct a big, important social melodrama, or a safe platitude around which to twist and turn a convoluted narrative based on a specious metaphor designed to ensure everyone who leaves the theater will be convinced they’ve seen something significant and soul-changing? When a morose detective played by Don Cheadle opines, not five minutes into the film, about Los Angelenos, “We’re always behind this metal and glass. It’s the sense of touch. I think we miss that sense of touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something”—and, yes, he’s just gotten into a fender-bender—I felt like shutting the film down, because I could feel Haggis already clobbering me on the head, insisting that I understand that he’s serious, dammit.

Haggis’ strategy is to alternate between the stories of 15 or 20 different characters as they literally and figuratively crash into each other over the course of the movie, and since none of them have any inner lives, all any of them ever talks about are hot-button issues of race and intolerance. Haggis writes scene after scene of position-paper dialogue masking as conversation, and after a very short while you begin to realize that these 15-20 characters must be the only citizenry in Los Angeles, because they keep stumbling over—I’m sorry, crashing into each other in ridiculous coincidence after ridiculous coincidence. The racist cop (Matt Dillon) who feels up the wife (Thandie Newton) of a black TV director (Terrence Howard) at a traffic stop saves her from a fiery car accident the next day. The same black carjackers (Larenz Tate and the representatively named rapper-actor Ludacris, who likes to argue about hip-hop culture and black-on-black crime and being stereotyped by whites between jobs) who steal an SUV belonging to the district attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his shrew of a wife (Sandra Bullock) later jack the SUV of the above-mentioned TV director, leading to a patently absurd scene in a which the ex-partner of the racist cop (Ryan Phillippe), after a lengthy chase down residential streets, convinces the rest of the pursuing officers to let him off with a warning. The cops have mistakenly assumed that the director, because he’s black, has done something wrong-- he’s really been trying to wrest control of the vehicle from Ludacris, who hides in the front seat, undiscovered, while Phillippe engineers Howard’s release. Later, Phillippe, a good liberal, will gun down one of these same carjackers due to a knee-jerk response based on the man’s race. The dead car thief turns out to be the brother of another major character, and on and on and on.

Those who would defend Crash might dismiss these constant coincidental meetings as thematically relevant, and the interlocking stories as parables. This might be a way of suggesting that even though they are filmed “realistically” and we are meant to take Crash as a portrait ripped fresh and bleeding from the streets-- The Way We Live Now!-- they don’t really have to be believable in a dramatic sense because they exist primarily to teach us something. (That “whooshing” sound is the wind going right out of my sails.) Unfortunately, those stories don’t really interlock so much as, yes, crash together, due largely to Haggis’ ham-fisted mise-en-scene, his tin ear and the movie’s flaccid, predictable editorial rhythms (You may ask yourself, for example, why we're not allowed to see a scene between Newton and Howard where he expresses his concern that she almost lost her life in a car accident. It’s not there because Haggis isn’t interested in these people as people, only in terms of how they flesh out his thesis—much more important to see the scene where Howard stands up to the Man and regains his dignity, even if it is one of the most unbelievable scenes in the entire movie.) The film is rigged to produce a response to premises-- racism is wrong, all of us have the capacity to change-- with which most of the film’s viewers probably already agree, and the zeal with which people have taken to this movie might make others who end up less impressed think that to reject the movie’s clunky drama-turgid-cal arguments is tantamount to siding with the devil of intolerance. I’d call it standing up for cogent, clearheaded analysis and vivid storytelling.
Haggis’ movie has drawn comparison with other life-in-L.A. mosaics like Alan Rudolph’s fuzzy, unfocused Welcome to L.A., Robert Altman’s misguided and condescending Short Cuts and, the cream of the crop, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, which found ever more interesting ways to spin characters that resembled real human beings through a visually arresting narrative that hit on its own concerns in a fluidly charged way quite the opposite of how Crash throttles its big issues to the ground. Anderson, in Magnolia recognizes that one aspect of an issue or a person does not constitute that whole person, and he creates a visual/aural tapestry that, seen whole, is reflective of a sensibility based on dramatic and emotional truth, of searching for the connections that people make and following them in order to find out where they go, not because you’ve already decided where they’re headed and what they mean (if anything). At the top of this particular hill must be Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown, probably the best example of this kind of mapping of the ways in which people touch and influence and enhance and destroy each other’s lives, often without ever knowing it, all as a condition, a symptom, of living life in modern, racially and culturally integrated cities. What’s intriguing, as a matter of comparison not only with Crash but with the other films as well, is how Haneke charts the movement of his characters. Where Altman or Rudolph or Anderson or Haggis might insist that the constant bumping up against each other within the framework of the urban world they portray is where their films derive, or at least begin to extrapolate their meaning, Haneke sees it in precisely the opposite terms.

Code Unknown, well described in the opening credits as “a collection of incomplete tales of several journeys,” begins with a brief episode in which a group of deaf children attempt to interpret a visual representation of an emotion (“Alone,” “Hiding Place,” “Sad”). This sequence is followed immediately with a single long take that will handily encompass the characters who will, in varying degrees, inform the rest of the film. The camera glides laterally along a Parisian street as we observe a young man, Jean (Alexandre Hamidi), catch up to a young woman, an actress named Anne (Juliette Binoche) who is his older brother’s girlfriend. Jean expresses frustration about having to live with his father on their farm, for which his father expects him to eventually assume responsibility. Anne discourages the idea of Jean moving into the apartment she shares with Jean’s brother, but offers to let him rest there for the afternoon while she is out and gives him the pass code so that he can enter the building. (This is the film’s only explicit reference to a code, unknown or otherwise, and it’s enough to set up a fertile metaphor that the movie will bring to fruition in various incidental ways.) After parting with Anne, Jean walks the street, unsure of where to go, and in a burst of frustration hurls a crumpled sandwich bag into the lap of a woman (who we will later know as Maria, played by Luminata Gheorghiu) who sits begging for change near a storefront. The act is witnessed by Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), a teacher of deaf students, who confronts Jean and demands he return and apologize to the woman. The police are quickly called, Anne reappears on the scene, and it’s not long before the police have (inaccurately) assessed the situation and Amadou has been arrested for attacking Jean. As a result of this one encounter, Amadou will spend time in jail (where, we find out later, he was beaten), Jean will sullenly retreat to his father’s farm, Maria will be deported to Romania when it is discovered she is in France illegally, and Anne proceeds on to a series of film auditions.
Rather than tracing his characters in a pattern like an interconnected web, taking them from the outside in toward an all-encompassing event or series of events that will tend to define them, Haneke, in Code Unknown approaches this central narrative event as if it were the point of impact on a shattered windshield, a center of pulverized glass, and follows the myriad ways in which these people fan out along the cracks toward experiences and destinations that may have been set in motion by that event but may also bear no real relationship to it. It is down these fractured, unpredictable paths that Haneke sets his characters, a strategy which sets the film itself up as a series of fragments, individual scenes not connected by conventional film grammar (dissolves, shock cutting, graphic continuity, etc.) that often begin and end abruptly, either just a moment or two into the significant action, or just a beat or two behind the completion of a thought or an action, separated by a brief moment of darkness. The director often refuses to make the connections between emerging characters and those we’ve already met clear—it may be a minute or two, or more, before we can adequately suss out who this new person is in relation to Jean, or Anne, or Amadou, or other more tangential characters. (At one point Anne is seen attending a funeral, and the moment when the realization hits as to who is being buried is devastating, in large part due to the offhanded way we’ve been made aware of this character’s presence earlier in the film.) Within that period of time when we’re assessing these connections, we’ve been taking in information about the environment and the different ways we’re allowed to see those characters that accrue and augment our understanding. There’s a striking scene, reminiscent of similar visual strategies Haneke uses in Cache, in which Anne is seen addressing an unseen man on a videotape—she becomes increasingly distraught, as it is becomes clear she’s been trapped in a room where she will be killed for the man’s entertainment, and only gradually, while watching Binoche’s magnificent face register an agonizing array of emotion, do we realize she’s auditioning for a suspense thriller.

Race is significant in Code Unknown, too, but the way Haneke integrates the reality of social relations into the mosaic of the film’s “narrative” boldly suggests, as Crash does not, that the viewer may have actually done some independent thinking on the subject before coming upon this film, and thus may be capable of filling in the spaces between glances and body language and intonation, allowing the story to tell itself so much more eloquently. When the police arrive on the scene and begin questioning Jean and Amadou, there’s an immediate resignation on Amadou’s part, a slight recessive quality in his body language, even as he remains confrontational, which says, “I know what’s coming, but I need you to hear me anyway.” Paul Haggis might have had Amadou begin haranguing the officers, Ludacris-style, about how a nigga always gets treated this way, immediately curdling the subtleties at work in the scene into hopeless grandstanding. It’s there in the eyes of the officers too, who must assert their authority while holding their physicality, and their disdain for Amadou as an assertive black man, in check for fear of creating a potentially more volatile situation. Haggis would have made sure Amadou’s girlfriend (who turns out to be white) was also present, so one of the officers could grope her in front of him, thus adding another series of humiliations onto the already loaded scenario.

But what may be even more important about the way Haneke plays the race card is the way that, when the matter of race does shift to the foreground, it may still not be the most significant element being discussed in the scene. Haneke doesn’t dilute the power of any scene by overemphasis, and certainly the one scene in Code Unknown that could be read as an explicit statement on race relations in an integrated city like Paris could just as easily be read, minute to minute, as a bitter comment on class, economics, sexual aggression, sex-based power or simple urban stress. On a Metro ride after a day of looping dialogue for an upcoming film, Anne is confronted by two young men, one of whom, unprovoked, zeroes in on her and begins haranguing her, accusing Anne of disregarding him based on his “common” status (he reveals after a few moments that he is an Arab). Anne quietly endures his increasingly aggressive and suggestive comments, but at the first opportunity she moves down to the end of the car to an empty seat. The young man follows her, sits next to her and continues his campaign of rage, while an older man sitting directly across the row stares straight ahead, clearly disgusted by the young man’s actions but unwilling to get in the middle of the confrontation. Finally, the young man spits in Anne’s face and begins to walk away, and the older man blocks his way and tells him, in Arabic, that he considers the young man an embarrassment. The hostility leaches out of the young man’s posture as he stands staring at the older man for an uncomfortable moment. He then passes out of the frame and presumably heads for the exit. Haneke’s camera holds on the older man, who has returned to his seat, and Anne, who is wiping her face with a handkerchief and trying to maintain her composure. The scene has been quiet just long enough that when the young man, from out of frame, makes a shocking, loud noise before leaving the train car meant only to unnerve both of them, it succeeds all too well. Anne’s reserve has been shattered, and she explodes in tearful sobs, through which she thanks the older man, who, we might guess, has been witness to this kind of behavior before.
The scene is a brilliant tour de force from Binoche, who creates high point after high point like this throughout the film. In a career full of exceptional performances, this is the very best work I’ve ever seen from her. But it’s Haneke’s triumph as well, as the scene turns out to be the emotional climax of the film, and a more powerful, elliptical way of summing up and addressing the concerns of the entire picture I couldn't imagine— the way the electricity of all these interwoven connections fires on the nerve endings of these characters to create meaning through experience, shared or isolated-- without breaking the code the picture has established for itself and allowing it to slop over into purplish melodrama (like another film I could name). The only thing that keeps me from unreservedly declaring Code Unknown a masterpiece is that it is the first encounter I’ve had with the work of Michael Haneke, and I like to have a little more familiarity, a little more context to drawn upon before bestowing such a judgment. But whether I can declare it a masterpiece or not, it certainly does seem to me the apex of this kind of investigation into the way that people cross amongst each other, how cultures seep into one another, are informed by one another, and how people live and exist and flail and love and create a sense of responsibility, of community, and how some (like Maria) are left out of that picture altogether even as they drift among its signposts. Haneke avoids the kind of haughty disregard for his own characters that crippled Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. (The disastrous decision to excise the Northwest from the stories of Raymond Carver from which Altman stitched his film together, as if to say what was most important about Carver was not his poetry but his plots, did the director no favors either.) And he eschews P.T. Anderson’s penchant for visual overstatement (which I tend not to mind, if it results in a sequence as brilliantly inexplicable and unsettling as Magnolia’s rain of frogs). Haneke can, however, tie an entire disparate bundle of feelings, experiences and implications together with a touch as glancing and moving as the way he ends Code Unknown. A simple shot of a multiracial group of children and adults playing African drums at an outdoor festival, the sound of which carries over and accompanies a kind of visual coda-- Maria, who has returned to Paris, only to find herself homeless and without work again, attempts to land on the same storefront step she was on when we first met her, but is chased off; Anne emerges from the subway and makes her way to the front door of her apartment; her boyfriend, a war photographer, who disappeared without notice to Kabul, reappears, attempts to enter the apartment building but finds the pass code has changed and, upon attempting a phone call, that her phone number has as well; and a final return to a deaf child perhaps interpreting a series of events or other emotions like the ones considered at the beginning of the film, all in body and sign language, for some of us yet another code unknown.


The Code Unknown Blog-a-Thon continues with great pieces on the movie available at the following links:

Aaron at Cinephiliac
David at Drifting
Dipanjan at Dipanjan's Random Muses
Eric at When Canses Were Classeled
Filmbrain at Like Anna Karina's Sweater
Matt at Esoteric Rabbit
Michael at CultureSpace
Michael Guillen at The Evening Class
Zach at Elusive Lucidity

Girish may have a more recently updated list of participating bloggers available on his post, but I will try to keep this list as current as possible.


(A final note: the domestic Kino Video DVD release of Code Unknown may be one of the worst-looking DVDs of a major film I've ever encountered. For a side-by-side comparison of the Kino region 1 disc and the Artificial Eye region 2 disc-- the difference is shocking-- as well as a detailed explanation as to why the Kino disc looks the way it does, visit our friends at DVD Beaver and see for yourself. It's the best argument for purchasing an all-region DVD player-- which I recently did-- I've seen yet.)