Just cleaning out my closet, happened to come upon the day of my life that I spent the most time in movie theaters. Talk about a misspent youth…go ahead and talk, but this journal entry was from a well-spent time when I wasn’t all that young, almost exactly ten years ago. If you’re wondering what it would be like if I wrote capsule film reviews…you might finish this still wondering, because this was after 13 hours of cinema-used braindwidth. From L.A. on August 7, 2004:
I’m not sure which is crazier: that today I saw five feature films, or that the fifth one I saw was five-and-a-half hours long.
When I wake up in the morning, I have two rentals to watch. They’ll be overdue if I don’t get to them today. Why I haven’t yet signed up for Netflix boggles the mind. I still want to believe in authoritative video stores, like the one I got these two from, Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee – a place that has 70,000 titles. But these places do have due dates, and I’m sure Netflix is in my near future.
The first movie I watch is Trouble in Paradise, from 1932, written and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. I rented it because I was looking at the titles in the National Film Registry, particularly the ones that were registered in the first couple of years, and plucking out a few I hadn’t already seen. I always think it’s funny when critics describe something as “pure ______ [director’s name]” – what is this, an old-time tonic? But this film is pure Ernst Lubitsch. Lubitsch may have been a German émigré, but he was the master of English-language dialogue – of putting darkly funny lines in movies and making them clickety-clack alongside a crackling plot. Billy Wilder learned everything he knew from Lubitsch – a fact he acknowledged with a plaque on his desk – and Cameron Crowe in turn learned everything he knew from Wilder. What I find amazing is that in 1932, less than a half-decade after sound had been introduced into motion pictures, Lubitsch had basically already perfected the witty dialogue picture. It would be as if today, four years after interactive multimedia games had been introduced, some artist had emerged with the perfect online game, destined to be played and worshiped 70 years hence. Think that’s happened?
Trouble in Paradise heartens the liberal soul, because it’s up front about class. Turns out that all my films today are about class, which is unusual. At first glance, Trouble in Paradise seems to be about a conniving lower-class woman who pretends to be a countess for the sake of social stature. She seduces a man who turns out to be Europe’s most notorious thief, and they see through each other’s ruses and fall deeply in love. They revel in their evil, and we are made to laugh at our revelry as well. The two of them “sting” a widow who has just inherited France’s most prominent parfumerie, and there are the predictable enticements and jealousies. It’s all done at the speed of breath, and we’re in and out in 81 minutes.
What I love about Lubitsch is that he’s so restless; he makes the perfect joke for whatever occasion he’s set up, but then he moves right to the next plot point. There’s no lingering. He’s right on point; the movie is all about the Depression and the shame of wealth. Lubitsch has decided (or agreed) that we don’t want to see a film about poor people in poor surroundings or rich people in rich surroundings; we need poor jokesters in rich trappings. He practically invents having your cake and eating it too, in terms of cinematic representations of class. The main guy says “prosperity is right around the corner,” the watchword of the day made humorous. I also savor Lubitsch’s use of languages besides English. The first minute of the film is all in Italian, to the point where I’m wondering if I have the wrong DVD. But when everyone starts speaking English, I get to the point where I wonder where the hell in Italy this many people would know English. When it turns out to be Venice, I’m calmed – all those epic fin-de-siecle novelists couldn’t be wrong, could they? There’s even a scene where the main woman orders a train ticket on the phone in perfect Spain Spanish – she even says “grathias.” I see American actors speaking Spanish all the time these days, but never the Queen’s Spanish, and it comes as a welcome blast of fresh air. In sum, the film is a delightful confection, and a shimmering postcard from an era of deep uncertainty.
Trouble in Paradise is over quick, so right away I pop in my other rental, hoping to have time to write today. My Darling Clementine is actually the only one of my five films of the day that isn’t explicitly about social standing – it’s the control in the experiment. My Darling Clementine is John Ford’s 1946 film about Wyatt Earp and the shootout at the O.K. Corral. Considering that this film is sometimes called the template for all Westerns that came after, and considering my deep abiding affection for history, it’s amazing that I haven’t already seen it. The DVD defaults to “Play Pre-Release Version” and I’m like, uh, is there some other version I can play? So I fish around the disc, and I get this explanation from a UCLA film archivist that this is a discovery of theirs, a rough cut from before Ford had made all the cuts that the studio requested. The guy is careful to say that this isn’t a “director’s cut,” but instead just a version with more stuff and different music, and he starts explaining what was altered. I realize the whole film is gonna be ruined for me, so I just watch the regular version. How many people do this, I wonder?
I’ve read about Earp, but I don’t have a good memory of seeing a film about him. I know I never saw what looked like an execrable Kevin Costner film, Wyatt Earp, and I don’t really remember the Val Kilmer-Kurt Russell Tombstone that well. I’m watching My Darling Clementine for historical accuracy, and of course a few liberties are taken. The movie makes it seem like Earp only became marshall of Tombstone to avenge his brother, although it does complicate that in a scene where Doc Holliday tells Earp that it seems like he (Earp) wants to clean up the whole town. The brother’s death is off by a year. Earp and Holliday seem to be fighting over a girl, which is a bit too movie-y. The fact that this girl is contrasted with a Mexican harpy – played by an unlovely white woman – seems more a sop to movie-making mores of the 1940s than fealty to the 1880s. Nobody sets a lone butte in the distance like Ford, and he sets the standard here, but inappropriately in the final half-hour. The real O.K. Corral of 1881 was surrounded by the town, stores all around, wooden sidewalks leading right to it, but here Ford presents it as a desolate outpost. Not only that, but the real shootout wasn’t there, but in the town streets. Oh well.
My first thought on finishing My Darling Clementine is, Judas Priest, how many Westerns has Henry Fonda done? Call John Wayne the Duke if you must, but Fonda has to at least be an archduke. So that’s why his daughter had unique license to deconstruct the genre with Cat Ballou – which I still have to see. Fonda is, yeah, Wyatt Earp, and as usual he barely performs – he just seems to be himself. The guy who plays Doc Holliday, Victor Mature, seems to be a 1940s version of James Spader, with the wide eyes on the statue-flat face that could turn evil at the flick of an eyebrow. If you’re wondering how Ford worked the famous song into the movie – well, he barely did. Clementine is the fair maiden, but she’s hardly an undisputed historical fact.
It’s a solid picture. I mean, John Ford, Henry Fonda, wagon wheels, how can you go wrong? Where he sacrifices history, the story seems more fluid. But Ford does nothing to help us understand why “the shootout at the OK Corral” resonated throughout the ages. Wyatt Earp, presented here as a sort of carpetbagger of revenge, remains as enigmatic a figure as ever. Maybe that’s how it ought to be – but it feels like Ford, at the height of his powers, might have wasted an opportunity.
During the film, I get a call from my friend Elza, trying to entice me into seeing Collateral, Tom Cruise’s latest I’m-authority fest. I was gonna try to get some writing done today, but it looks like that’s out. He wants to sneak into something after Tommy and Jamie, but I’ve seen everything he suggests – The Bourne Supremacy, Open Water, and Harold and Kumar, all of which were varying degrees of awesome. I meet him at the theatre, our palace of sneakability, the old (okay, fine, brand new) Burbank 16. While he’s getting our tickets, I look at the matinee. Yeah: saw this, saw that, whoa have NO desire to see that. I’m almost thinking of seeing something twice, but then I notice an ad for a film that I haven’t seen and still want to see. So we calculate our sneak, and head on in.
If Collateral had been made by anyone else but Michael Mann, he could sue for intellectual property rights infringement. I mean, this is as “pure Mann” as it gets – men being men, night, lonely streets, desolate neon – it’s…the…Mann Show! I love Cruise’s dedication to directors – it’s like he looks around at the Hollywood players that he considers artists, and then he says, “hey, we haven’t made a movie together yet, wanna do it?” and the director says to himself, uh yeah I wanna make a Tom Cruise picture to assure my fiscal stability for the next ten years, and to Cruise he goes yeah we’ll make art, and then they figure out the rest of it. In this case, part of the rest of it is heading off Cruise’s middle age at the pass, by making him grey and puffy-eyed way ahead of time. That oughtta buy him ten more years of looking younger.
The rest of the rest of it is a buddy movie/assassin movie that wants really badly to be a sort of think piece, without alienating people who never loved My Dinner With Andre. The movie has a 21st century attitude about race – Cruise and Foxx never talk about it, but at the same time, we’ve got paeans to jazz greats, Latinos pulling the strings, and an Asian dance club for the big police showdown. Yeah, it’s about class, a rare film that asks us to cheer for an adult without a likable job. But it’s more about carpe diem, as Max (Foxx) deliberates just how much shit he’ll take before blowing up. We want to root for Max, but we also want to want to root for him harder than we actually do. What I mean is that he’s such a nebbish punching bag (for a handsome black guy) that it’s hard to empathize for two whole film hours. I know this is a big step for Jamie Foxx, and Ray will be the next one, and he doesn’t hurt himself here. My issue with this film is the same one I always have with Mann, the same one that a two-hour Miami Vice episode would present – do I really care about what happens to these guys? Because of the political implications of The Insider, I did, but now we’re back to just guys being guys, and I’m glazing a little. By the way: I heard that Cruise wanted the film title changed, so as not to confuse it with Schwarzenegger’s Collateral Damage. After having seen the film, I have no idea why they kept it – nothing in the film is collateral.
Spoiler alert! In the third act, the movie takes a twist that’s more improbable than, oh I don’t know, pizza Jell-O. Well after that, something happens that has not happened since Taps: Tom Cruise dies. In a movie. Finally. He’s had so many freakin’ chances, not the least of which was The Last Samurai, but oh no he just had to live. Now does Collateral Tom die gracefully, like Kevin Spacey in L.A. Confidential? Nope. Tom needs to say a few telling last words, and then he cocks his head just so, and lets it fall. He looks like he hasn’t practiced it much. He ought to die more – the movies would get better. [Editor’s note: Edge of Tomorrow predicted!!]
So, then Elza and I sneak into The Village. We get there just in time, right before the part where cell phone noises ruin the Indian hunt. (That’s a Best Buy commercial before the film starts.) Now, The Village. You know, I’m starting to respect M. Night Shyamalan more than I did after Unbreakable. What I like is that he’s not making spook films anymore. As soon as everyone else catches on to this, I know they’re not going to give him any more money, but for now, it’s nice to see $100 million-dollar dramas. No one else in Hollywood is allowed to make dramas unless they’re obvious Oscar bait. He’s got a big old political/society class metaphor wrapped up in what only seems like another us-versus-the-outcast-freaks story, and me likey. Rock on Shyamalan!
One thing $100 million buys you is exquisitely shot film. I mean, these shots – the DP is the incomparable Roger Deakins – would make Andrew Wyeth blush with shame. This achievement is all the more impressive when you consider that the main person being photographed has pasty skin and red hair – I can tell you from plenty of experience just how hard it is to make that look good on film. Much easier to go for another shot of the tops of dead trees, vibrating in the low wind! He blends it, and it’s all of a piece. You go Nightster.
Another nice thing about money is that he can cast big actors in small roles that you think are gonna be big. You see the rail-thin edge-of-stardom Judy Greer make this big speech to Joaquin at the outset, and you figure we’ll see a lot of her. Nope. In fact, most major players are the walking wounded – Joaquin Phoenix with that hairlip, Ron Howard’s daughter who’s playing a blind girl (playing it quite well), and Adrien Brody who’s somewhat over-playing nutso. I like that everyone is so f—ed up, it’s very 19th century, now if only their teeth were all yellow. Turns out that there are reasons for this seeming error. I said it’s all of a piece. And the eventual overriding theme – William Hurt talks about how the world kneels before love – works. Just does.
That brings us to the twists, all of which make a helluva lot more sense than the big one in Collateral. I’m not one of these people who always figure out the twists, nor am I one of these people who sit there and say, hey, trying to deduce that shit detracts from why I relax and watch the movie. I’m somewhere in between, taking a few seconds to predict things but then forgetting by the next scene. God it’s hard to discuss this film without spoilers…
Spoiler alert! Who knew that Joaquin Phoenix wouldn’t even show up in the second half of the picture? Who had the thing figured out about “those we don’t speak of”? Did you still think you knew what was real when one of them showed up in the woods? Well aren’t you smart. I didn’t know. And I certainly had no friggin’ clue about the big one at the end, after she climbs over that fence. I’ve always thought that the period piece genre needed a certain kind of tweaking, and I love how Shyamalan played it. Clever. I have to admit that I want to go back and see it again, and pay more attention to the elders.
So Elza and I take our leave of each other in the lobby, and I head home. I learn later that Elza went to Harold and Kumar and Bourne Supremacy after that. Wow, a four movie day at the Burbank. But I trump him – in terms of films watched and in terms of total time on August 7th spent in a dark theatre watching celluloid. I arrive at ten to five at LACMA, to meet my pal Tom, and there we see 1900.
As we sit waiting for the picture to start, I tell him that I’m having quite the late 19th century day, what with My Darling Clementine, The Village, and the book I’m intermittently reading, “The Devil in the White City,” which is a terrific book about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Tom and I both confirm that we have lived in awe of 1900 for awhile. I confess to him that I had a few weeks, at some point during the 1980s, where I rented every single Robert DeNiro film from the 1970s, but I could never quite bring myself to touch 1900, originally released in 1976. One thing that deterred me was the fact that no video store had a subtitled version, and I hate dubbing. It turns out that there is no subtitled version, not surprising when you realize that at least half of the lines were spoken in English in the first place.
The other reason I could never rent 1900 was, of course, the length. Uh, I don’t know what video stores have, but the film Tom and I watched was 318 minutes long. That has to be the longest film I’ve ever seen. I mean, I’ve never checked out The Sorrow and the Pity. But as Tom says so well later, “I was never bored.” We always wanted to know what was going to happen next, which is really something in a film that’s longer than, say, the longest tennis match ever. It doesn’t hurt that the film is set and filmed in some of the nicest parts of Italy – if you have to spend five hours staring at one place, you could do a lot worse. It also doesn’t hurt that it comes from my personal favorite era of filmmaking, the 1970s, when the raw organic colors had the same vital authenticity as bleachy family photos.
Going in, I had never known what 1900 was about – I was thinking from the video box that young Robert DeNiro and young Gerard Depardieu got into some revolutionary trouble in 1900, maybe a sort of Doctor Zhivago. Turns out the Italian title is Novacento, which actually translates to The 1900’s, a far more apt description. Basically this is the Italian House of the Spirits, with a patrimonial line breaking the hearts and backs of three generations of workers. It starts with the same-day birth of Alberto and Olmo, who will be like the prince and the pauper, or more accurately the padrone and the hired peasant. They are probably born around 1900, and the first hour or so is them as kids, and then we see them as DeNiro and Depardieu just returned from World War I. From there, it’s fascism vs. communism through to the end of World War II – and beyond.
1900 is Bernardo Bertolucci’s follow-up to Last Tango in Paris, which made him internationally famous for humane sex on film. Bernardo doesn’t let up on the explicitness here. But one also can’t shake the feeling that considering the main actor in Last Tango – Marlon Brando – and the main actor here, Robert DeNiro, Bertolucci has decided to out-Godfather The Godfather. To tell an epic story of family and betrayal and fathers and sons and the crazy women who love them. Not that it’s only The Godfather. He combines elements of Renoir and Fellini and Antonioni just to keep you guessing. And you know what? It f–ing rocks.
My cousin once said to me that he liked how long Braveheart was, because he got more film for his eight bucks. I paid $6 for 1900, so that works out to like a dollar an hour. Not bad! Here’s the thing: you want a five-hour-eighteen-minute film to be about everything, and 1900 obliges. Sex, death, and politics loom large over all aspects. I love how in a Bertolucci film it seems like sex could break out any minute. Oh, and if you want to see Robert DeNiro in the, ah, altogether, especially when he was skinny, this is the one. There’s one particularly memorable moment when he and Depardieu are lying naked on a bed, with a whore between them, and she jerks both of them off, one with each hand. She tries to get my man Bobby D to touch Frenchie, and Bobby is into it, but Frenchie backs off. Oh it’s a scene man.
There’s also some shocking moments of violence – I mean, people were leaving the theatre. Others were just plunging their heads into their laps, waiting for it to end. I can’t tell – does that mean that Bertolucci’s tone was uneven, or that that was just the tone he was hoping for? I almost threw up at one point. Donald Sutherland picks up a cat, and you know it’s a real cat, a cat chosen because it was docile and human-loving enough to let Sutherland put it on another man’s shoulders without undue fussing. Its reward for this tameness? Sutherland grabs it back from the man, and without an edit, he straps the cat to a wall, where it howls in agony. My jaw was on the floor. The whole audience was aghast. The movie went to intermission about a minute later, with all of us shaking our heads in shock.
About four hours in, I was getting ready to tell Tom that while there were a lot of good ideas floating around in the stew, I didn’t really think that Bertolucci blended the personal and the political as well as, say, David Lean. I felt that ironically, there wasn’t enough dialogue; our leads needed a speech of intent and feeling, a la James Dean in Giant (the plot is not unlike Giant). But the last hour or so redeemed it. There’s a perfect Mediterranean scene, where everyone is ready to lynch DeNiro, but then a few people bring out a big flag, and everyone goes from let’s-be-politically-hardcore to ah-screw-it in two seconds. Bertolucci has his epic in his pocket. It’s a beautiful film that more people should see.
Films don’t give me headaches. (People are another story.) I quote Ice-T: “I sometimes wonder if these flicks had an influence on my brain/I really doubt that shit I think that I was born insane.” As I go to bed, I’m musing on how I saw five films by absolute capital-D Directors, people who are considered auteur-masters, not people like, oh I dunno, John G. Avildsen who got lucky once with Rocky. Too bad none of them are black or female. Guess we’ll get there someday.