MMM: Let The Right Godzilla Under The Simple Sea

James here with Movie Music Monday!

Three pieces from random sources today.  They’re all somber in tone.  I gravitated in that direction, so here we are.

Oh, boy.  The ending of Ishiro Honda’s classic ‘Gojira’, scored by Akira Ifakube.  Serious stuff.

Ah, ‘Blood Simple’.  Chilling neo-noir.  The Coen Brothers’ first feature — if I recall correctly — and their first collaboration with Carter Burwell, who showed just as much skill as his creative partners.  This is a very Carpenteresque theme.

Now here’s something somber for you. Johan Söderqvist’s theme for ‘Let The Right One In’ is beautiful. That’s all.

Classic Review: F For Fake

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  An excellent film — a sort of metadocumentary — that exposes its own artifice and the relationship between truth and trust.

Review:  In the 1973 film ‘F For Fake’, over 88 minutes cinematic genius Orson Welles examines the nature of art in a filmic form not quite documentary and not quite fiction.   It’s proof that the peculiar magic of the medium is not restricted to the categories dreamed up by marketing departments.  ‘F For Fake’ is a truly self-aware film.  It doesn’t merely acknowledge its artifice in a humorous, superficial way; it turns itself inside out.  It is edited in such a way as to obfuscate our attempts to sort out truth and fiction.  It’s like a photograph of a flower-pot hiding its very subject immediately behind it.  For us viewers at Mr. Welles’ mercy, the question is, when are we looking at the proverbial flower-pot?

Orson Welles is brazen and beguiling as he guides us through the twisted tale of an infamous art forger and his equally infamous biographer.  Throughout the story, he weaves in a bizarre fiction and chases rabbits down their trails.  Mr. Welles promises to tell us the truth whilst declaiming himself as a charlatan akin to his subjects.  Welles in his own estimation is untrustworthy, but we believe him anyway, and that is precisely his point!

While he’s at it, he subtly explores sexuality’s use as a deceptive device, through two sequences in which a beautiful woman distracts us from the ideas at play.  He seems to suggest that physical beauty is often used by filmmakers to divert our attention from both flaws and substantive content.  That’s consistent with how often sex appeal determines casting, particularly in works of a shallower nature.  It wouldn’t be enough to say that this is just good business.  Even if it has become second nature, these techniques are a kind of sleight-of-hand.  The plot could disappear into a deep hole, but your basic instincts might not let you notice.  And, for a storyteller more intent on complexity, using human desires to his or her advantage is a simple and effective way to get an audience’s attention while they work past the mind’s more intricate defenses.

In a film-craft sense, ‘F For Fake’ is really brilliant, with rapid cuts, repetitions, and instantly evocative imagery creating a captivating kaleidoscope.  For those of us in the post-MTV world who have to endure and sometimes enjoy the films of Michael Bay and others like him, it’s positively redeeming to see prototypes of postmodern techniques used so meaningfully.  Paired and contrasted with the classic techniques of ‘Citizen Kane’, it’s perhaps the ultimate example of Orson Welles’ range and influence.

‘F For Fake’ revolves around a simple premise: What we believe is true relies on who we believe is trustworthy.  It is a reminder that those we call experts — such as the art dealers defrauded by Elmyr de Hory — also rely on other people for estimates of the truth.  Considering that a painting mimicking an original may trick even the finest eye, what then is an original’s value?  Isn’t it possible to derive the same pleasure from an original and a fake?  If a duped museum believes that a clever fake is the genuine article, and displays it under this pretense, would the viewers in effect be seeing an original, or even the original by proxy?

The film challenges the notion that art’s virtue is in the truth of itself.  Art, genuine or forgery, is properly measured by how well it convinces us.  Aristotle observed, in reference to theatrical art, that (and the emphasis is mine) “A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious, and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself . . . with incidents arousing pity and terror, with which to accomplish its purgation of these emotions.”  In short, it’s a noble deception by which we hope to accomplish an emotional change in those who, for at least a little time, choose to believe it.  As in the case of a painting, a film’s communicated truth is in its emotional effect on the viewer.

One hopes that a filmmaker is responsible and doesn’t betray our confidence by convincing us of ignoble things; but what is there to stop them?  My hope as a filmmaker and a critic is to be an honest charlatan.  I’d like to echo Mr. Welles, who in this magic act says, “What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I’m afraid the pompous word for that is ‘art’.”

NR: The Sci-Fi Ghetto

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

It’s painfully predictable that I would comment on the Oscar nominations (find them all here), but I’m going to do it anyway.  My interest, though, is in one particular issue that continues to torture nerds, geeks, otaku of certain colors, and anybody with an interest in fair play.  It’s the aptly named sci-fi ghetto.

This is the stigma associated with science fiction and fantasy works of all kinds that often prevents them from being taken seriously by most critics.  As enlightened critic Andrew Gordon points out, “…certain film genres are read as ‘less fictional’ (Westerns, gangster, and war films) and others as ‘more fictional’ (the musical, horror, and fantasy).” [1] It’s a skewed understanding of fiction and, sadly, a prevalent attitude.  Ursula Le Guin found that, in America, the cultural mindset is “to repress their imagination, to reject it as something childish or effeminate, unprofitable, and probably sinful”, which she ties to “our Puritanism”. [2] Many great movies are ignored at the Oscars as a result.  They tend to get technical awards, but Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, etc. are reserved for “higher” movies.  After all, who needs that juvenile, unsophisticated, fast food genre junk?

Oh… Oh, that’s right, okay.

A really good example of the cultural dissonance between what the Oscars deign to honor and what the public actually appreciates is in the case of the 55th Academy Awards, where ‘Gandhi’ beat ‘E.T.’ for Best Picture.  Richard Attenborough, the director of ‘Gandhi’, said “I was certain that not only would E.T. win, but that it should win. It was inventive, powerful, [and] wonderful. I make more mundane movies.” [3] By quoting this I am not implying that historical dramas are all “mundane”, but that a movie’s emotional power transcends its trappings.  There’s no reason a sci-fi, fantasy, or (to add a veggie to this stew) an animated film should be disregarded because its subject or narrative style is distinctly different from so-called “less fictional” works.  Either it’s good or it isn’t.

While ‘Inception’ and ‘Toy Story 3’ were given nominations this year, there’s little hope of them winning, for the reasons I gave above.  I’m inclined to believe that ‘The Social Network’ will win for being a topical, up-to-date film, even over other dramas like ‘The King’s Speech’.  I’m not sure that it’s the year’s best picture, but I don’t believe that I’m qualified to make that judgment.  I don’t believe the Academy is either, for that matter.  The difficulty I have with the Academy’s pending decision is that ‘Inception’ and ‘Toy Story 3’s loss due to critical snobbery is a foregone conclusion.  I’d love to be proven wrong.

MMM: You Only Live On Her Majesty’s Daylights Twice

James here with Movie Music Monday!

Standing before you guilty of loving James Bond movies, I present in my defense three (or so) classic pieces from composer John Barry, who scored the series’ majority until ‘The Living Daylights’.  I hope they can convince you to be lenient in your sentencing.

‘You Only Live Twice’, with its screenplay by Roald Dahl, bizarre hijinks, and Bond made up ambiguously Asian, is one of the chief reasons I was brought before this honorable court.  To offset its awesome British badness, I offer this gorgeous instrumental of its famous theme song.

George Lazenby was a great Bond, I think.  ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ was pretty darn entertaining, which is why I chose this video to illustrate this point and hopefully rebuff some of my accusers, your honor.

I confess!  Timothy Dalton’s underrated turn as James Bond turned out my favorite of the series, ‘The Living Daylights’.  You might as well haul in the chair right now and fry me.  This medley of the main themes as performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic sums up its musical appeal.  Now, where’s the priest and my last meal?  Can I get chocolate chip cookies for that?

Classic Review: Once Upon A Time In The West

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★★★

Summary:  Highly underrated, but a sure-fire masterpiece of a Western.

Review:  At some point in the latter half of the 90’s, I remember flipping through channels on the television before landing on Turner Classic Movies.  I didn’t know the movie they were showing, but I could tell by the dress and terrain that it had to be a Western.  As it happened, I had come in on one of the greatest Western finales ever shot.  The driving music, the stark imagery, the shootout (the Western climax is always a shootout, it seems).  As a child no older than eight, I was amazed and speechless.  Afterword I ran upstairs to my father, who I knew liked Westerns, and, describing the scene best I could, asked him what the name of the movie was.  He told me it was ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’.  As it turns out, he missed the mark but hit the tree.

The movie I saw that day was Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, the last “real” Western from the man behind the famous ‘Dollars’ Trilogy, of which ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’ was the final installment.  I have to give my Dad credit for being close given my description as an inarticulate child.  Certainly, ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ bears many of Leone’s spaghetti western trademarks (epic showdowns, nameless anti-heroes, operatic music from the legendary Ennio Morricone, and gritty violence).  And yet, looking a littler deeper, this film is actually a horse of a much different color.

The fundamental difference between ‘West’ and Leone’s earlier films is that, where as the ‘Dollars’ trilogy was a bit quirky and slightly ridiculous (a tone that works well for those movies, mind you) ‘West’ goes for a grander, dramatic approach.  It’s very serious in a way Leone’s prior films hadn’t been.  The story is as dark as any Western has ever been, a dark tale of greed, murder, and revenge; and yet it also celebrates the vibrancy, grandeur, and surprising complexity of the American West and its people.  The West was, in many ways, the last “final frontier” for civilization.  It was an untamed land, filled with danger and peril, and devoid of law and order.  On the other hand it was a rugged and pure place, devoid of the corruptions of the modern world.  One of the films themes, the coming of the railroad and thus, civilization, shows beautifully this conflict and tradeoff between the arrival of civilized-order and the loss of wild-innocence.

This theme of the dying west dovetails strangely well with the change in the Western film industry at the time of the film’s 1968 release.  Up to that point, Westerns had been relative juggernauts, both on television and film, despite their lack of historical accuracy and often-insensitive depictions of Native Americans and Mexicans.  By the late sixties, an increase in ethno-history, civil rights, and historical accuracy had begun to take their toll on the Classic Western’s credibility.  By the seventies, classic television Westerns went off the air, and Revisionist Westerns pictures, much more somber and realistic, were taking precedent at the box office.  These new approaches were intriguing and involving, and many of these Revisionist Westerns are outstanding films.  However, they do lack the pure, undiluted spirit of the earlier films.  In the West as well as in Western Films, a simple and pure world was traded for something less straightforward and less innocent.

Back to ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, this film is one of the last to celebrate the Classic Western style, ironically directed by a man who was accused of ruining it with his earlier works.  The key to the Classic Western was the central theme of men, lone warriors, standing against something larger than themselves, the vast, untamed West.  Westerns are about the enduring human spirit against danger and evil.  ‘Once Upon a Time in The West’‘s multi-layered tale of a stranger seeking retribution, a cold-blooded killer, an outlaw framed for murder, and a widow caught in the crossfire shows the many ways this spirit is tested and eventually overcomes.  Thematically, this is one of the most powerful films, let alone Westerns, ever filmed.

In addition to the story, the actors in this film are just plain awesome, as is the music.  Henry Fonda as the film’s villain was a surprisingly brilliant casting choice, as was Jason Robards (a very under-appreciated actor) as a bandit with a heart of gold.  Charles Bronson adopts a role similar to the Man With No Name as a nameless, driven gunfighter, and he pulls it off well.  Claudia Cardinale, an Italian actress not too well-known in the States, delivers an especially moving performance as Jill, a widow who finds herself at the forefront of the film’s bloody tale.

Ennio Morricone has always been one of the best film composers ever, and, in no exaggeration, this is his best film score. His combination of electric guitars, harmonicas, operatic screaming and classical orchestration has never sounded more perfect than in this film. His ability to move from delicacy to driving power is nothing short of amazing. This score, worth owning independent of the film, is truly a masterpiece and adds brilliantly to this already stellar film.

‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ is nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s combination of story, acting, music, and style make it one of the best Westerns ever made and a wonderfully cathartic piece of story-telling. Though initially overlooked when first released, this film has grabbed people’s attention overtime, much the way it did for me as a child, and it is now revered as a classic. It’s worth watching for anyone who claims to be a fan of Westerns. I’m so very glad I was watching television that day…

Classic Review: The Trial (1962)

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A deep, brilliant classic and a potent humanistic antidote to exploitative horror films.


Review:  I have a bit of a beef with horror as a cinematic genre.  It’s typically immature at best and outright revolting at worst, with some blessed exceptions.  Like run-of-the-mill, thoughtless action films, there’s a noticeable separation between the filmmakers and the ethical subtleties of the material; it’s not so much about telling a story as it is about extravagance and extremes, which demands a pushed envelope with every new film.  The filmmakers shrug off concerns about content in favor of impact and, of course, money.  It’s why the standard Hollywood horror film of today continues to devolve into aptly named “torture porn“, the final expression of exploitative ethics.

Now what does this rant have to do with Orson Welles’ under-appreciated masterpiece ‘The Trial’?  In short, this adaptation of Franz Kafka‘s novel is the antithesis of torture porn.  What that degraded form of horror says about the human condition, ‘The Trial’ says the opposite.  And yes, ‘The Trial’ is fundamentally a horror picture, at least in my opinion.  It is surrealistic, nightmarish and psychologically potent.  I had a similar gut reaction when I saw ‘Night Of The Living Dead’.  It is unique, which is more than I can say for most films.  Even today, after over forty years of film history have gone by, it’s only aged like a fine wine, becoming a richer and more profound experience that’s quite difficult to replicate.  Orson Welles’ direction is superb, as per his rep, and it’s packed with fine performances, particularly that of Anthony Perkins in the lead role.

And now, to explore the film’s story, I’ll continue my initial critique.  So what is torture porn’s — and by extension most postmodern horror’s — philosophy?  It’s the withering of human dignity in the face of unspeakable evil, usually embodied in one or a few figures.  It’s utterly vampiric, destroying souls and bodies in the quest for pleasure by the monster at a given film’s center, vicariously experienced — and here’s the real horror — by the audience.  We’re taught to identify with the vicars of decay.  Now, in the other corner is the ‘The Trial’, combining Kafka’s and Welles’ ideas, and its philosophy is the exact opposite.  The lone figure with whom we identify in this universally human nightmare is Josef K., the man accused of an unknown crime, a man who may not be innocent but is sure he is not guilty.  He is an avatar of our consciousness in a lucid dream, running from monsters masked by the faces of lawyers and little girls.  ‘The Trial’ is our subconscious rebellion against the weight of an impersonal cosmic law that offers no explanations and no access to its logic.  Pointedly, the antagonist is the very Advocate assigned to defend Josef.

So in what direct way is ‘The Trial’ opposed to torture porn?  The roles reverse.  The unsympathetic Court, the many, torments Josef K., the one, but he resists them to the last with unapologetic, humanistic ferocity.  ‘The Trial’ is bleak, but instructive, giving meaning to our nightmares upon waking.  We know what the monsters are — original sin manifested — and it equips us with self-knowledge to destroy them.  Torture porn, however, seeks to empower us at the cost of our empathy.  There’s no instruction, no moment of waking from that nightmare.  The films dehumanize the many victims and moralize the one monster’s actions, making it possible for warped minds to sympathize with it.  Vicariously, we become the monster.

But of course, ‘The Trial’ is much more than horror, and deserving of review beyond this contrast.  ‘The Trial’ has much to say about religion, law, politics, sexuality, and cinema itself.  It begs for in-depth analysis.  I plan to give it just that in due time.

Reportedly, Orson Welles considered this the best of his whole celebrated filmography.  It’s a shame that it’s been so often ignored by cinephiles and the critical community.  It’s wonderful stuff.

MMM: The Day The Earth Had Vertigo In The Taxi

James here with Movie Music Monday!

I love Bernard Herrmann.  There’s not much more I can say.  I do find it a little odd that he decided to change his physical form and become John Williams, but different strokes for different super-intelligent alien entities, I suppose.

‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ is a classic film, but for me the most impressive aspect will always be the music.  This piece, which helps the film segue along from overture and titles to the flying saucer’s approach, is unforgettable.

I know I’m a stodgy old coot for saying this, but in my learned opinion, composers these days tend to horribly fail at writing music that evokes a specific film.  Never mind that films from earlier eras and their attached composers had the same general problems — that would undermine my premise and prevent me from ranting uselessly.  Like the previous track, this is unforgettable stuff, truly iconic.  Is it derived from previous material?  Yes.  Does it get away with it by elevating the raw material?  Yes.

For a film about psychopathy, ‘Taxi Driver’ has one chill score.  This is classic Americanus Urbanus.  It’s what we called jazz, baby.

Classic Review: Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers

Stars: ★★☆☆

Summary:  Silly, heedless, jingoistic and naïve, this classic invasion flick is great throwback fun.

Review:  I grew up on the B’s.  I adored — and still do — the mostly unintentional laughs and geeky excitement conjured up by the sci-fi kitsch of yore, those pictures which defied common sense and budgetary limits with heedless abandon.  My special love was for Toho Ltd.’s ‘Godzilla’ series, but I’d devour anything else.  Recently I’ve had a bit of a B-movie reawakening.  In pursuit of my next cheesy sci-fi meal, I queued up ‘Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers‘ in Netflix on DVD, having admired a creepy edit of the trailer on an overplayed VHS tape in my youth.

Made at the height of UFO hysteria with the substantial plus of effects wizard Ray Harryhausen’s iconic touch, the film arrived at just the right time, capitalizing on public fears while affirming the official faith in the U.S. Military and science at large.  This was the era when space travel was a wild, exciting frontier that most people didn’t know a lick about and promised variants of the sort of phantom dangers that had terrified explorers sailing off the map centuries before.  Nowadays, it seems the American public has grown terribly cynical about the enterprise, and there isn’t that juvenile mix of fear and enthusiasm that accompanied those tentative steps beyond our sphere.

‘Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers’ totally lacks the cynicism and self-awareness that marks today’s cream-of-the-crop science fiction, in part due to its exploitive nature and otherwise attributable to naiveté.  The film’s attitude, in essence, is: “Gee, aren’t rockets cool?  And America, too, God bless her?  And her fine fighting men and those brilliant scientists!  Why, even the flying saucers are cool, and I kind of pity those poor aliens and their burned-out world.  It’s a shame we have to quickly abandon diplomacy and annihilate the last of their race without visible remorse… Gee, isn’t Joan Taylor pretty?  And those American monuments, too?  But I sure did like seeing them built in miniature and blown up!  Hurray for Hollywood!”  You can see why I love this stuff.

Its many humorous philosophical, narrative, and cinematographical flaws aside, ‘Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers’ has lots of great little moments.  Harryhausen’s effects are wonderful and fun, setting the standard for Hollywood spaceships and aliens for years to come, and some of his shots are so nice, they show them twice.  The leads do their best with a silly script and, despite not being terribly memorable on their own, keep the movie watchable when there isn’t an expensive effect or stock footage on-screen.  The most hilarious aspect of the film is the black comedy inherit in how the script treats the aliens, who are actually pretty reasonable and sympathetic before they start trying to destroy the world, which, by the way, they promised not to do and explained in detail why it would be monumentally stupid.  The aliens are just there to get blown up, however, and to prove how damned resourceful America is.  The rest of the world doesn’t visibly contribute at all to the effort to, you know, save the world.  They just trust the States, I guess.  Anyway, the aliens are refugees, and sure they try to take the planet, but at least they want to talk about it first.   When they are soundly defeated, Joan Taylor’s character hilariously wonders if they will ever return, even though the aliens made it quite clear they were the last of their entire species.  So despite the massive loss for humanity’s collective conscience (not to mention science), the nameless aliens die en masse, everybody shrugs and goes to the beach.

‘Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers’ is among the very best in B-movie buttered popcorn guilty pleasures.  For the classic sci-fi fan, this is essential viewing.  Bring your savvy friends.

NR: Cultural Inception

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

The subject today is the role film plays in changing popular perceptions and cultural norms, piggy-backing off an article in the LA Times about the evolving portrayals of women in cinema.  It’s a fascinating piece and I suggest you read it.

In essence, the article says that the richness of the characterizations found in a new wave of female protagonists denotes a cultural shift, partially necessitated by filmmakers attempting to establish broad audiences.  I would suggest that it isn’t merely an economic consideration.  How filmmakers think about the sexes has changed due to more liberal education and the trails blazed by previous storytellers.  They’re also kicking the ball in a different direction, not merely imitating their forebears.  Although sexism and egregious hyper-sexualization continue to permeate Hollywood portrayals of women, the next generation of filmmakers have the ability to curb these problems considerably in favor of a fair, realistic norm.  They’ll do this simply by doing their jobs.

In Christopher Nolan’s phenomenal ‘Inception’, the team works together to plant an idea in a subject’s dreams, the titular process that mirrors the science of narrative cinema.  The audience, like the subject, gets carried along for an emotional journey in a world based on its own logic.  The magic trick of celluloid is in getting the audience to accept the filmmakers’ philosophical propositions without realizing the process is taking place, at least until the audience “wakes up” upon leaving the theater or turning off the video player.  Cinema is the longstanding practice of cultural inception.  The influential filmmaker chews the cud and breaks her/his ideas down into the simplest emotional concepts, then constructs a narrative out of the raw material.  The narrative itself is a meditation, the gradual awakening to a new idea vicariously experienced through characters.

Now, the trouble is, filmmakers should hold themselves responsible — and if they won’t do it, the critics should — for the ideas that they unintentionally propagate.  Unlike the film ‘Inception’, where the titular process is profoundly difficult due to the mind’s natural defenses, cultural inception via cinema is sometimes frighteningly easy.  Even in something as common and base as a simple shoot ’em up action-adventure story, the filmmaker can perform inception.  A popcorn thriller can promote sexism, knee-jerk violence, and brainless jingoism while all the filmmaker usually wants is to photograph explosions and attractive people.  Because the Hollywood system relies on the kinds of movies that maximize cashflow, the studio system will reflect the negative aspects of culture by giving people what they want.  Say a popcorn thriller with bad philosophy earns a hundred million dollars.  Then a dozen retreads will spawn and the negativity will not only remain, but spread.

This act of cultural “inception”, trying to radically change gender portrayals in cinema and thus society’s basic assumptions about the sexes, must be deliberately, intelligently handled by filmmakers in every genre.  While its true that money is Hollywood’s bread, butter, and gasoline, the opportunities to speak strongly to issues philosophic, political, and even religious are not rare.  Conscientious storytellers must seize the day and make sure that when audiences sit down, they are emotionally moved in the right direction.  Resorting to heavy-handed preaching isn’t the answer.  They must make great movies.

MMM: Desert Chase, E.T., The Dark Knight

James here with Movie Music Monday!

Three rousing pieces today as a counterpoint to last week’s subdued direction.

‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ is one of my favorite films of all time.  John Williams, the modern-day maestro, composed a landmark score for this beauty.  This piece, which follows Indiana Jones through the Egyptian desert as he fights Nazis to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant from a truck, hits every visual beat perfectly, and I can envision almost every moment of the iconic scene in my head as it plays.  Check out that climatic brass explosion!

Yes, even more John Williams, from ‘E.T. The Extra Terrestrial’, which I have yet to review.  This end credits piece is, well, rousing.  And tear-jerking.  Pretty much perfect.

Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard may not have the iconic, classy reputation of John Williams, but their score for ‘The Dark Knight’ has some great moments.  In particular this track, accompanying Batman’s willful, messianic transformation from hero to scapegoat.  A beautiful, cathartic piece filled with energy, angst, and hope.