Classic Review: High Plains Drifter

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary:  A daring, somber film that employs Hitchcock-style storytelling and continues Clint Eastwood’s darker revision of the West.

Review:  For those of you who have seen the classic 1952 western ‘High Noon’, you will recall that its hero, a sheriff played by Gary Cooper, defeats four bandits in a small town but subsequently leaves it, presumably forever.  The reason for his departure was that the townspeople themselves did not support the sheriff in his efforts.  Though he pleaded with them for help to fight these men, they backed out of it, and left him to defend the town alone.  And so the Sheriff leaves in anger and disappointment at those who were not willing to help themselves.

The reason I mention this is because this is an early example of the de-glorification of the West.  The spirit of the pioneers, traditionally portrayed as courageous and humble, is instead shown as cowardly and, by extension, selfish.  By failing to stand up against the antagonists of the film, the town folk in ‘High Noon’ become quasi-antagonistic themselves.  It’s a more complex, albeit sadder spirit for westerns, and it must have been a surprise to people in 1952.  ‘High Plains Drifter’ in 1973, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, takes this vision one step further.

The opening of the film appears normal enough.  After the credits, accompanied by some notably eerie music, a stranger (Eastwood) wanders into the dusty western town of Lago and is immediately confronted by three loud-mouthed gunmen who threaten to kill him.  Of course this is a Clint Eastwood movie, and a quick shoot-out silences them forever.  The town then petitions the stranger to stay and defend them against three more outlaws who were arrested in the town some time earlier but are soon to be released from prison.  After much convincing, he agrees.

Much like ‘High Noon’, the people of Lago are spineless.  Even with guns in their hands, loaded and pointed at the outlaws as they ride into town, not one of them has the conviction to shoot.  Unlike the people of ‘High Noon’, however, the people of Lago are not just cowardly.  They also harbor a terrible secret, a gruesome murder for which the whole town, driven by greed, is guilty.

It is the total destruction of the Classic Western Spirit that Eastwood explores in this movie.  What was suggested two decades earlier as cowardliness is now realized in 1973 as spineless avarice.  Absent here are the hardworking, courageous, and noble people whom we’ve come to expect from the West.  Gone is the glorification of Manifest Destiny.  Gone is the belief that the settlers brought morality and true civilization to the wilderness.  Clint Eastwood dares to show the dark side of the pioneers: settlers too afraid to do what is right and selfish enough to break any law of God or Man.  Here is a world where the people themselves are their own worst enemies.

Clint Eastwood took his already-then fabled Man With No Name character to a new, dark depth in this film.  In addition to his gruff attitude and fast draw, there’s something strangely mysterious about him.  He has a ghost-like quality; something quasi-supernatural.  The climactic showdown at the end, in which only his silhouette is seen, only adds to this mystery.  He’s not simply a stranger anymore; He’s something more.  A force of nature itself; a roaring tempest guided only by the winds, exacting vengeance where he sees fit, be it on outlaws or the town folk.  Never before and never since have Eastwood’s nameless drifters held such power and wonder simultaneously.

Simply put this is an excellently executed film.  It feels truly original and, though somber, is wonderfully engrossing. The film’s inherent darkness and great mystery, as well as a key twist at the end, are evocative of Hitchcock’s work.  If Alfred Hitchcock had ever been in an ominous sort of mood, he might have made a film like ‘High Plains Drifter’.

In short, ‘High Plains Drifter’ is another great Western from a man who was famous for reinventing them.  At times is suffers from being a bit too intense, but overall it’s fine craftsmanship shines through to the end.  This is one of the grittiest, most somber Westerns ever made, but if you can handle it, it’s worth a watch.

Not-So-Classic Review: The Room (2003)

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ☆☆☆☆ (That’s zero, folks)

Summary:  Ouch!  This movie is so bad it physically hurt me!

Review:  I recently attended a screening of ‘The Room’ at Indiana University, followed by a question and answer from its producer, director, writer, and star, Tommy Wiseau.  For those of you who don’t know, ‘The Room’ has been critically deplored as one of the worst films ever made, although this same notoriety has given it a massive cult following; a following that, unfortunately, I am contributing to by reviewing it.  Oh well, no choice now but to dive in and look over this pathetic excuse for a movie.

To understand ‘The Room’ you must first understand its creator.  That is, IF you can understand him, as Mr. Wiseau, who claims he’s American, speaks in a strange accent I’ve never heard before.  Watered down French perhaps?  It’s hard to tell, as coupled with his accent he also mumbles, slurs his words, and shows little more than a basic grasp of English in general.  In short, he is woefully inarticulate.  What business he had writing a movie in English, to say nothing of overseeing its complete production, is beyond me.

Even without viewing the screenplay, I could tell it was a joke.  Awful dialogue and plot holes big enough to drive a truck through.  Less than half of anybody’s lines in this movie are relevant; the rest is either ridiculous, filler, or contradictory. But it goes beyond just bad dialogue and inconsistency.  The film’s very premise, a dark romantic comedy, is filled with so many clichés that, even if everybody’s lines and the plot holes were fixed, this would still be a horribly generic movie.  It seems as though Mr. Wiseau pulled out every trope he could think of and just stuck them in here.  The tragic lead actor, the cheating girlfriend, the best friend of the lead who steals his woman, the kid caught up with a drug dealer, and so much more.  Oh, and have I mentioned the love scenes yet?  Yes, there’s gratuitous sex in this film too.  In fact there are seven (count ‘em seven!) different scenes; each of them way too long, going way too far, and being, frankly, mundane as they come.  I made fun of Mr. Wiseau’s speaking earlier, but this goes beyond a simple misunderstanding of English.  This man did not have an original thought in his head when he wrote this.  Granted, no one is ever truly original, but this is just flat-out pathetic and lazy.

Now you might think that this film is all Tommy Wiseau’s fault, but bad movies of this magnitude can only be the result of a collaborative effort.  ‘The Room’ stars the sorriest bunch of would-be actors I’ve ever seen.  Their paper-thin performances have to be seen to be believed.  Granted, I know the script was hardly deserving of good acting, but I have to believe that, with so many struggling performers in the world, those who get parts have to at least try.  But no, not here.  Blank expressions, monotonous delivery, and lack of any perceivable emotion run amok like a plague.  Amazingly though, even compared to the other actors, Tommy Wiseau is still under-qualified to act in this film.  His speech, which doesn’t improve when he acts, is just ridiculous and dismal, and there is no time when he seems convincing.  Supposedly he took drama classes before making this film.  He should’ve gotten his money back.

And then there’s the cinematography.  The cameraman was certainly apathetic and possibly inebriated when he shot this film.  Apart from nothing striking or interesting about the shots, there are way too many random pans of San Francisco, including several across the San Francisco Bridge.  Why?  Who knows?  For example, a scene will take place at the central house, the film will cut to a pan across the city, and then it will cut right back to the house.  Again, why?  What was the point?

Interestingly enough, the music in this film is the one thing that is passable.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s mediocre as mediocre can be, but its corny piano tracks and obscure hip-hop songs are tolerable, if only barely.  It’s sad that lukewarm music seems okay in this movie, but it certainly feels like a breath of fresh air.

So what is the final verdict on ‘The Room’?  It fails.  It fails so hard it almost seems impossible.  It is the one film that does nothing right, and I mean nothing.  There is not one aspect of this film that’s done well.  Even similarly derided films, like ‘Battlefield Earth’ or ‘Batman and Robin’ at least had premises and visuals that would hold you over for a bit, but ‘The Room’ doesn’t even have that going for it.  This film is boring at best and unbearable at worst.  Granted, many have found humor within the awfulness of ‘The Room’.  Tommy Wiseau, even, has rebranded it as a black comedy.  Certainly, some scenes and lines are funny, but that doesn’t save this film.  Some movies are legitimately so bad that they’re great, but this film is just so bad that it’s, well, bad.

The true importance of ‘The Room’ is this: to show the world everything NOT to do when making a movie.  Never half-ass a script, never think that “generic” is okay, never hire bad actors, and never hire a bad crew.  Filmmakers, take those lessons to your grave.  Most importantly, never just assume anything when making a film.  ‘The Room’s greatest flaw is its creator’s arrogance, a man who managed to raise a whopping six-million for this film, had only minimal experience making movies, and just thought he could create a decent picture.  I hate to kick a feller when he’s down, but if you filmmakers out there take anything away from ‘The Room’, don’t repeat Wiseau’s mistake; please show some humility, and always, always, always give a damn.

MMM: So Long! I Will Carry Time

James here with Movie Music Monday!

These three pieces are from my favorite cinematic moments of 2010, those exaltant, transcendant scenes that make me cry buckets, even just hearing the music.  It’s what it’s all about.

The Coen brothers manage some of the best endings possible.  They leave me hanging, in a good way.  This isn’t quite the ending of ‘True Grit’ — but it’s the final scene between Mattie and Rooster, and certainly the defining moment.

This ending cannot help but leave an impression.  It’s joyous, mysterious, and appropriately dreamlike.  I stole this song for my short film ‘Point A’.  Then again, I pretty much stole the whole score from ‘Inception’ for its purposes.

‘Toy Story’, with its third and best installment yet, has achieved cinematic apotheosis.  Randy Newman’s score is a big part of this.

Patrick’s Top Five Random Music Moments in Film

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

In most films that aren’t musicals, the music is meant to bolster the action in a scene and add weight to it; occasionally though, there are moments in movies in which the music happens to be so powerful that it completely overwhelms the scene itself, and thus, the tail wags the dog.  These moments in which the action bolsters the music (and not the other way around) often come out of the blue and have little to no bearing on the plot, but they sure are entertaining.  Anyways, here’s my pick for the top five “Random Music Moments” in film.

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ — ‘Wayne’s World’

Chances are if you’re a guy, more than once you’ve been in a car with your buddies, music blaring, singing along to your favorite tunes. 1992’s ‘Wayne’s World’ celebrates this beautifully as they perform a cappella to the latter half of Queen’s grandiose epic while driving through suburban Chicago.

‘Johnny B. Goode’ — ‘Back to the Future’

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ox1pkvNHZko (Embedding disabled; I don’t know why – The Editor)

80’s teenager Marty McFly gets sent back through time to the 50’s and must help his parents fall in love, save his own existence, and find a way to get back to the future, but not before picking up the electric guitar and jamming to an old rock and roll staple.

‘Dueling Banjos’ — ‘Deliverance’

A chance encounter sparks an impromptu banjo-guitar duel between an inbred hillbilly and a southern city-boy; and people have never looked the same way at the banjo since.

‘Descent into Mystery’ — ‘Batman’

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGAKYVGuPqE&hd=1 (Embedding disabled; what the frak? – The Editor)

Tim Burton’s music here is so sweeping, dark, and epic that you almost forget that Batman is just driving back home with his girlfriend.  It ties with the title track for the best part of this amazing score.

‘Ecstasy of Gold’ — ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2PwpOmjAu1M (Embedding disabled; where is the logic in this? – The Editor)

The bandit Tuco, aka “The Ugly” has come across a thousand-grave-strong cemetery with a fortune buried in just one of them.  So he spends the next three minutes running through it, looking for the name of that single grave, accompanied by some of the most lively, dramatic, and powerful music of composer Ennio Morricone’s career.  This piece is so awesome and enduring, in fact, that Metallica has used it to open up their concerts for the past twenty-five years.

 

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.

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.