Saturday, January 17, 2004
When I was a fresh college kid, folks in my dorm knew me as the guy who watched movies no one else could stand. (There's one in every crowd, I suppose.) But during those salad days I saw only one film that completely knocked my socks off -- no small feat, considering that I viewed the thing on a worn-out videocassette with bad tracking. That film, gentle reader, was Francis Ford Coppola's notorious box-office flop One From the Heart. From the opening frames, in which a blue curtain opens to reveal an oversized full moon, I was intoxicated by its beauty and sheer audacity. I don't think I've recovered yet.
First, a few sad facts: This mega-movie cost $27 million to make in 1982, when a $15 million production was considered big-budget. It lasted only two weeks in theaters, then dropped from sight, reportedly at Coppola's request. Reviewers lambasted the film, claiming that it possessed the merest wisp of a plot, and that it emphasized style over substance -- both of which were perfectly legitimate criticisms. Yet despite this initially cool reception, the film slowly gained a cult reputation as a lost masterpiece, the one that put an end to the Coppola mystique and cost him his status as an independent producer/director.
Last year, Coppola gave Heart a spit-and-polish digital restoration, so that a handful of cinemas could pick it up for a brief theatrical reissue. New Yorkers had a chance to see the film last November, but it's just arrived, stealthily, in Washington, D.C. For those of you who can't find a theater that's showing this visual marvel, don't fret: Fantoma will release a special, 2-disc DVD edition on January 27. It looks like it'll be worth the wait.
You may have heard that the setting of One From the Heart is Las Vegas, but I'm not sure that's quite true. The city of Las Vegas is a real location, after all, and the world of this film is anything but real. I'd say the setting is simply "Vegas," that imaginary twilight-and-neon dreamscape where everyone rolls the dice on life and wins. Inspired by this desert realm of happy endings, Coppola throws cash and caution to the winds, along with any sense of cinematic realism. He recreates Vegas as we might imagine it, with garish colors, gaudy lighting and gargantuan sets. The achievement is nothing short of breathtaking.
Yet cinematographer Vittorio Storaro deserves the lion's share of credit for what we finally see. Although Storaro photographed Apocalypse Now, his best, most creative work to date is in this film. Because Coppola obsessively pursued a theatrical, hyperrealistic mode of studio filmmaking, Storaro had to invent a more pictorial, less narrative technique to complement it. The result was a new style that emphasized the image not so much as a vehicle for narrative, but as a legitimate "made thing" unto itself. (It's no coincidence that One From the Heart emerged at roughly the same time as music videos.) Storaro would call this most visible of visible styles "painting with light," and it's a pretty accurate description of what happens on the screen: Vivid indigos, lime greens, pinks, yellows and reds that never existed in the natural rainbow explode in orgies of color and light.
Less than a decade later, Storaro successfully replicated this style (albeit with a more limited palette) for Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy. But the similarity between Beatty's candy-colored fantasy world and Coppola's end there. The inhabitants of Heart's neon wonderland aren't two-dimensional comic-book denizens; they're inarticulate, lonely losers with all-too-human hearts. It's almost as if Edward Hopper had invaded the realm of Busby Berkeley, infusing its rhinestone-encrusted surroundings with a quiet desperation.
The film's story, slight as it is, follows two of these ordinary people, a man and a woman, who have slowly grown tired of each other. Over a hot Fourth of July weekend, they leave each other to seek greener pastures in Vegas. Yet even as they try to escape the ties that bind, they remain connected to each other on a much deeper level. Frederic Forrest and Teri Garr portray the couple in question, and their quasi-improvisational method acting provides a fascinating counterpoint to Coppola's studio-bound visuals. Some critics have complained that their naturalism is swallowed up within the film's overpowering visual texture, but I suspect otherwise: The actors seem to anchor the film in some identifiable emotional terrain, and keep it from drifting into a hermetically sealed reverie.
They also provide the film with an implicit class critique, albeit not of a traditionally Marxist variety. After all, musical films tend not to focus on "ordinary" people. Their characters usually belong to an elite, idle class -- whether wealthy gadabouts or bohemian show folk -- whose privileged lives seem quite naturally to burst into song. Before Heart, no one had made a musical where the male lead lived in a tiny, cluttered house and worked in a junkyard. The woman's job at a travel agency is somewhat more typical, but what distinguishes her character is that in the end she remains at her old job, rather than have a wealthy dancing fool spirit her away a la Fred Astaire. In depicting these character, Coppola implies that the lives of the working class are as rich, as musical, as beautiful, gaudy and grandiose as any Fred Astaire white-telephone film could ever be. With consummate empathy, this film celebrates an extraordinary emotional life that lies just beneath the characters' seemingly humdrum surfaces. Coppola doesn't simply inform us that attention must be paid to the working class -- he shows us why.
As with Godard's Une Femme est Une Femme, One From the Heart is a deconstruction of musical comedy. The film takes its tone, style and structure from the genre, but manages to jettison most of the musical numbers and nearly all the comedy. Heart has only one dance scene -- in the middle of the film -- and although there are songs galore, the characters themselves never sing. Instead, the crooning, warbling and belting occur offscreen, as Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle provide a musical commentary on the action. (Unlike the main characters, the singers are obviously mismatched. Gayle's loud, earnest vocals don't work well with Waits's quiet, drily cool whisper. She wasn't Coppola's first choice, either: The director really wanted Bette Midler to sing opposite Waits, but for some reason Midler wasn't available.)
With all these references to Godard, surrealism, class critiques and deconstruction, I'm making this film sound much drier and more intellectual than it really is. Frankly, when I first saw this film, its ravishing images left me starry-eyed, like a young lover. I wasn't able to reflect on what I saw until about ten years later (which means this little essay has been quite a long time in the making, gentle reader). Ultimately, One From the Heart is about beauty, not brains; the film's pleasures are visceral and emotional. Yet for those who wish to look for it, there is also considerable intelligence behind the imagery -- a distinction that Heart's more recent cousins, such as Moulin Rouge! and Chicago, do not seem to share.
One From the Heart is not a great film by any means. It has plenty of flaws, some of them serious, and it won't be everyone's cup of tea. Filmgoers who dislike the unusual, the adventurous and the experimental would do well to avoid it entirely. But for those who are looking for a movie that defies all expectations and etches itself into your memory, this may be just the ticket. For better or for worse, it looks and sounds like nothing you've ever experienced.
By the way, if you happen to live in an area where you can see this movie in an actual theater, don't wait for the DVD to hit stores. One From the Heart demands to be viewed on a big screen -- and the bigger that screen, the better.
Update (1/18): The Austin Chronicle has published an excellent review of Coppola's rereleased and re-edited Heart, complete with lots of nifty technical details I didn't know. Apparently, Coppola pioneered a few techniques for this film that have since come into widespread use, most notably video editing. In the end, all the new technology simply wasn't ready for prime time, and Coppola had to make his movie the old-fashioned way. Still, his initial experiments with video helped pave the way for today's digital revolution. Click here to read the article.
Friday, January 16, 2004
Craig Stephen White, the Fred Phelps of Philadelphia, has just been convicted of soliciting oral sex from a fourteen-year-old boy. Ewww. Perhaps White thought he was doing research.
While we're at it, though, could we also offer a few prayers for the man's family? The good Reverend may have earned his comeuppance, but his wife and children will most likely pay the price. They deserve our compassion, so please keep them in your thoughts.
Update: Jamie Kirchick (whose weblog is far superior to my own) has informed me that college students throughout the Northeast -- the very souls to whom White directed his harshest diatribes -- have known of "Brother Stephen's" arrest for several months now.
Here's an article on the scandal from the venerable Yale Daily News. Money quote: "'There's a sick satisfaction that someone so preachy is so flawed,' [one student] said. 'I'm trying not to be thrilled about it.'"
I think I know how that guy feels. At any rate, when I mentioned this to a friend of mine, he gave a tiny shrug and replied, "Well, you get what you give."
What a horrifying thought.
Saul Singer offers a clear-headed analysis of Lars von Trier's film Dogville -- and convinces me that someone could actually make a good movie out of it.
Click here to read the article.
Remember those two ads at MoveOn.org which compared George W. Bush and Adolf Hitler? Well, although the Republican National Committee displayed them on the GOP website for a few days (the better to energize its base, my dear), these ads were promptly pulled from conservative circulation.
But never fear, gentle reader: I've found them. Now you can find them, too.
Luckily, there's no need to thank me; I had nothing to do with this one. The good leftists of San Francisco's Bay Area Independent Media Collective have preserved these anti-Bush relics, claiming that "[the] amazingly accurate comparison proves to be too much for wimpy Democratic front-group MoveOn.org." It hasn't been too wimpy for MoveOn.org's bankroller, billionaire George Soros, who has repeatedly claimed that America under the Bush administration resembles Hitler's Third Reich. But perhaps I digress.
Hardcore leftists clearly resent the Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League for condemning these ads, even though the organizations have kept their criticism free of partisanship (as is only fitting and proper). "The Simon Wiesenthal Center and the ADL act as if they are the sole owner of WWII history and its tyrants," say the San Francisco activists. "The atrocities of WWII are HUMAN HISTORY, and NOT some intellectual property of the loudest Jewish voice." Ja wohl, mein Herr!
But, you may object, leftists are compassionate people, with big, tolerant hearts -- or at least, that's what they keep telling us. So how could they approve such vindictive, extremist rhetoric, and then defend it with statements that border on antisemitism? Well, says the collective, "The question of taste aside, it's the meme that's important." (Translation: So what if the lyrics stink? We really like the tune.) I'll add that these ads are polished, with solid production values. As you'll soon discover, neither is the work of amateurs, and one may be very professional indeed.
Click here to view the first "Bush-is-Hitler" ad. Appropriately, it recycles footage from Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, another shameless piece of fact-twisting propaganda. Also check out the ad's final graphic, a caption that reads: "Sponsored by MoveOn.org." Now, the $64,000 question is whether the folks at MoveOn.org actually sponsored (or created) the ad. They claim, more or less, that they didn't. But if that's true, how did the spot get on their website with their imprimatur so prominently displayed? Were their lawyers asleep when this was posted?
Click here to view the second ad, which looks like a Ken Burns documentary gone terribly wrong. I think I prefer it to the first: It's somewhat more elegant, if a bit frayed at the edges. By the way, this ad does not claim to have been sponsored by MoveOn.org. Perhaps it wasn't inflammatory enough.
Finally, I have to thank the hardcore left-wingers at the Bay Area Independent Media Collective. Were it not for their tireless efforts and implacable Bush-hatred, these embarassing advertisements might have been forgotten. Now they're preserved in a public forum, so that all Americans can cringe at their extremist sentiments.
Let's give these poor, tormented saps some money. After all, they've earned it. Pretty please?
Thursday, January 15, 2004
Has anyone noticed that lately, the policies coming out of the Bush administration sound a little ... well, batshit? I know election years usually produce irresponsible legislation, but this is getting a bit much. Over the past week, we've had:
Moon Base Dubya
Here's a $170 billion dollar initiative to send a manned mission to Mars and establish a permanent base on the moon. By the way, that figure is only the Bush administration's estimate, and it seems ridiculously low. Most people who know something about space travel claim such a program would run through several trillion dollars.
Now, unless spacemen are building weapons of mass destruction on the moon, it's not clear why we would need -- or want -- a US base up there. Bush answers, "Establishing an extended human presence on the moon could vastly reduce the cost of further space exploration, making possible ever more ambitious missions." Bigger, more ambitious missions than a manned trip to Mars, which will take years to complete and won't tell us anything about the Red Planet that we haven't already learned from unmanned space probes? Just what are we getting ourselves into here?
The President, ever reassuring, tells us there may be some profit in this cockamamie scheme: "Also the moon is home to abundant resources. Its soil contains raw materials that might be harvested and processed into rocket fuel or breathable air." Yeah, and that space shuttle thingy will fly twenty-five missions a year and make money for NASA.
I can think of one very good reason for us not to establish a permanent human presence on the moon -- namely, that if the moon had any air, water, or food, we'd probably be there already. But alas, the moon is just a big rock in the middle of an inky void, so anything that human beings need to survive would have to be hauled in. (Hooray! Space truckers!) Of course, we'll have to send a massive expedition to the moon base every couple of months, just to maintain, refuel and restock it.
In short, the moon is a big money pit, and it just ain't worth the trouble.
Heterosexual readers, is your marriage going down the tubes? Well, fear not: Big Government is coming to your rescue! Bush has just proposed a 1.5 billion dollar initiative to teach heterosexual couples the basics of a healthy, happy marriage. (Gay couples, who are presumably more competent and intelligent than their unfortunate Straight counterparts, will have to make do on their own -- as they have always done.) I wonder if the government's marriage counselors will offer hands-on advice and/or demonstrations, like Monty Python did. Hope springs eternal, I suppose.
Still, before Bush passes this proposal, he needs to call it by its right name: Heterosexual Welfare.
I know it may seem absurd to object to this program on fiscal grounds, especially when there are so many more obvious and fertile grounds for objection. After all, whatever you may think of welfare programs, 1.5 billion dollars isn't very much -- at least in Washington parlance. Compared to Moon Base Dubya, this "marriage initiative" seems as modest as an after-dinner mint. But how much more bloated can the government get before it finally explodes?
Tuesday, January 13, 2004
A loyal, Christian-leftist reader weighs in on my old Matrix: Revulsions essay (which, incidentally, received a special Stupid Award for "Most Pointless Post" of 2003).
Here we go:
What's so terrible about Neo being Christlike, anyway?? What, now, Hitler's Christlike, too?? I understand and applaud your wariness of facilely messianizing political/social leaders, but, really, I think your reaction to The Matrix: Revolutions is a bit over-the-top.
I don't think I went too far, but you've convinced me that I need to clarify a few points.
The problem (which I don't think I articulated very well in the earlier post) isn't that Neo is Christlike -- he's much too vapid for that. Rather, it's that the city of Zion is based on Neo-worship. This makes it, in essence, a theocracy. It is also a terrorist collective, because Zion exists solely to destroy the decadent, postmodern "democratic" society of the matrix (as critiqued in Matrix: Reloaded).
Ironically, the fictional "Zion's" methods must be familiar to anyone currently living in Israel -- because anti-semitic Islamists employ them all the time. The random outbursts of murderous violence and urban explosions are calculated to cause the greatest panic and disruption to society. All that's missing is a cry of "Neo akhbar!" as the insurgents blow things up. In short, Revolutions implies that there's nothing wrong with democracy that we can't fix by letting everybody join some extremist group like al-Qaeda.
Furthermore, I think it was Time magazine -- yes, an unlikely source of enlightenment on anything -- that persuasively categorized M-1 & 2 as Gnostic (emphasizing secret knowledge) but M-3 as orthodoxly Christian (emphasizing faith over secret knowledge).
Far be it from me to disagree with Time, but I don't agree entirely with that analysis, either. I'll concur that the original Matrix (still a cockeyed masterpiece) was basically gnostic. With a narrative reminiscent of Plato's famous "parable of the cave," it focused on spiritual knowledge, and in the end, the film's apoliticism may have been its saving grace.
The last two Matrix movies, however, have been political. Reloaded was agnostic; it was largely devoted to tearing down the individualistic myth of The One (along with his spiritual knowledge) in favor of a more community-oriented vision. Finally, in an attempt to resolve the problem of postmodernism posed by Reloaded, Revolutions descended not into orthodox Christianity, but into outright fascism.
What's the difference, some may ask? Well, fascism deliberately fuses God and the State, with the totalitarian aim of extending authority over human belief. Christianity, on the other hand, emphasizes that the power of God is not the power of the State, and that the two ought not to be confused or conflated. This position is natural enough, considering that "the Jesus sect" was originally conceived as a reaction against Roman imperial power.
Opposition to Roman tyranny grew more adamant as the faith spread. For example, the Book of Revelation, often read (badly) as a prophecy pertaining to the end of the world, is in reality a tract against the first-century Roman practice of emperor worship. The author, John of Patmos, reminded his followers, in vivid terms, that when the State attempts to usurp the power of God, and requires the worship due only to God, it is a Christian's duty to rebel. With the inclusion of Revelation in Christian scripture, liberty of conscience became an important foundation of orthodox Christianity. Under fascism, that basic liberty is the first thing to go.
Maybe I'm a sentimentalist, but I think that "Revolutions" has been far too maligned given not only its appreciable production quality but also the moving power of its faith-based premises.
The problem isn't that the premise is faith-based; the problem lies with the premise itself. Not all faith is good faith. And faith in the State -- or worse, in some fusion of God and the State -- is very bad indeed.
But it's not yet clear to me that Neo = Stalin.
He's probably closer to Lenin, now that I think of it. Or Mao.
Or maybe Osama.
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