Saturday, December 11, 2004

Capsule reviews: Tarnation, Stage Beauty, Team America: World Police, Motorcycle Diaries, De-Lovely

Tarnation: If Jonathan Caouette met Augusten Burroughs, would they stand around discussing whose childhood was more screwed up? Caouette's avant-garde documentary Tarnation has garnered considerable praise from A.O. Scott and Roger Ebert, the high priests of cinema. I'll confess I can't quite understand why.

Tarnation skims the surface of a compelling story, but with all its frantic montage and stylistic gimmickery, the emotional payoffs never quite materialize as they should. The result feels strangely second-hand and derivative, like a student film project run amuck. Caouette is obviously influenced by underground cinema of the '60s, '70s and early '80s, alternately suggesting Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, and Liquid Sky director Slava Tsukerman (with just a bit of The Rocky Horror Picture Show thrown in). A few still images, briefly inserted into the action, resemble Francis Bacon's tortured S&M paintings. To be fair, Caouette acknowledges most of these debts: The problem is that he never transcends them.

Stage Beauty: Richard Eyre's film has been compared to Shakespeare in Love, the dullest so-called comedy ever to take home a Best Picture Oscar. Both Stage and Shakespeare chide the theater for being insufficiently heterosexual, and neither film manages to evoke its time period convincingly. But while Shakespeare takes its inspiration from those Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney "Let's put on a show" musicals, Stage Beauty comes across as a kinky, Restoration-era retelling of All About Eve. Of course, with a cross-dressing bisexual actor (Billy Crudup) in the Margo Channing role, and an all-American nice girl (Claire Danes) in place of Eve Harrington, the film manages to raise a few sexual possibilities unavailable to Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

Stage Beauty is at its best when it revels in backstage shenanigans and bitchy dialogue, and at its worst when it tries to explore "serious" sexual politics. Hugh Bonneville and Rupert Everett steal the show as Samuel Pepys and Charles II, respectively.

Team America: World Police: At first glance, a puppet film from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone about terrorism doesn't sound especially promising, and the chaotic production schedule (one song was allegedly added to the end credits less than a week before the deadline) didn't inspire confidence. We shouldn't have worried: This is brilliant filmmaking. Check out the "Montage" song (lifted from South Park but more appropriate here), a puppet tryst with more kinky positions than the Kama Sutra, and a closing monologue comparing the War on Terror to anal sex. If Team America doesn't get our culture warriors' panties in a great big wad, nothing will.

With imperfect takes (a mechanical vomit unit sputters and gasps as if it were a tapped-out keg of beer), deliberately unconvincing puppetry (with clearly visible strings), silly sets (check out the Chinese takeout boxes around Kim Jong-Il's palace), and a laser-like focus on the intersection of politics and pop culture, this film exposes the ideology of Hollywood from every angle, sending up Jerry Bruckheimer's jingoism and Michael Moore's anti-Americanism. Bertoldt Brecht may have written about verfremdungseffekt, but this film puts it into practice.

Diarios de Motocicleta: If Nazism had not been crushed during World War II, would American urbanites be flocking to a German film celebrating Hitler's formative years? I'm asking this question because Walter Salles's Motorcycle Diaries takes a hagiographic view of another murderous sociopath -- Communist poster-boy Che Guevara -- and aside from a few outraged pundits no one is so much as batting an eye. Shouldn't someone be taking to the streets in protest?

There's probably a good movie to be made about the young Guevara, but this isn't it: It's episodic, and rambling, and generally pointless if you don't buy into the Guevara mythos. Baby-faced Gael Garcia Bernal (of Y Tu Mama Tambien fame) plays Che, but doesn't make an impression; Rodrigo de la Serna fares marginally better as the Sancho Panza-esque Alberto Granado. Luckily, the cinematography is nice -- as always, the Andes mountains photograph beautifully -- and the sepia-tinted tableaus (mostly at the end of the film) suggest the photojournalism of Walker Evans. According to the end credits, the film was partially shot in Cuba (with a crew of film students, apparently), which raises the following question: Did executive producer Robert Redford violate U.S. trade restrictions by financing this film?

De-Lovely: As a director, Irwin Winkler is known mostly for sappy melodramas (Life as a House) and ham-handed social dramas (Guilty by Suspicion). One might expect De-Lovely, Winkler's biopic of composer Cole Porter, to be more de-risible than de-licious. But the film is a major surprise, a terrific postmodern souffle with lavish production numbers, stylized storytelling, and a fascinating premise. It may be the best American musical film since Fosse's All That Jazz

Performances range from serviceable to Oscar-worthy: Kevin Kline carries the film as Porter, while Ashley Judd shines as long-suffering wife Linda. A bevy of stage veterans (Jonathan Pryce, John Barrowman) and pop crooners (Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello) keep the music and dance flowing, like a fever dream from the Great White Way. With so many disparate elements, the film is naturally uneven. But like the little girl with the little curl, when it's good it's very, very good. De-Lovely comes to DVD on December 21: Rent or buy, but by all means see it.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Language and the Western: Boetticher's Comanche Station and Hathaway's True Grit

Back when I was a leftist, a feminist, and an unwashed grad-student type, I enjoyed nothing more than an essay from Jane Tompkins. She wrote a bang-up piece on Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin that almost singlehandedly lifted the book from the dustbin of minstrel-show history to the forefront of feminist studies. Probably her most provocative book is West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, which attempts to explain the entire Western genre -- in filmic and literary form -- through a set of reductive and rather simpleminded gender-fundamentalist filters. It's too easy to say that the book as a whole is a sublimated treatment of her divorce from Stanley Fish, though Tompkins does depict her ex-husband as the quintessence of unsympathizing (and therefore unsympathetic) masculinity. In the book's most notorious chapter, about a visit to the Buffalo Bill Museum (in Cody, Wyoming), Tompkins's grievances against her ex-husband blend into her more general grievances against the Western, which in turn feed into a widening complaint against American masculinity -- and, tacitly, The Patriarchy. The chapter makes for a crackling personal essay, whatever its scholarly deficiencies might be.

There's some truth and a good of exaggeration in Tompkins's account of the Western. But I'm planning to take issue with Tompkins's most interesting claim, that "the Western is antilanguage." Tompkins notes that the Western hero values deeds above words, to the point that he seems to obliterate all linguistic communication in his wake: Once he passes, there is nothing left to say. I suppose this is true if one is speaking about Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Gary Cooper's laconic sheriff in the static, overrated High Noon, or perhaps Eastwood's "Man with No Name." But Ethan Edwards is really an anti-hero, High Noon is more pretentious political allegory than bona fide Western, and in his masterpiece The Outlaw Josey Wales, Eastwood would allow his "Man with No Name" to enter the domestic and diplomatic spheres, with uncommon success.

The Western has a conflicted relationship with the spoken word, to be sure, but it still seems to value it. If John Wayne attacks the foundations of language and civilization in The Searchers ("I'd appreciate it, ma'am, if you'd get to the point"), he seems to uphold them all the more in a film like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Terry Teachout has found a major example of the importance of Western language in a scene from Henry Hathaway's True Grit, in which an important exchange is lifted almost word-for-word from the original Charles Portis novel:

This is the big scene in the film of True Grit—the one everybody remembers—and if you've seen it, you'll realize that Marguerite Roberts, who wrote the screenplay, lifted the dialogue straight from the novel. I’m not saying it's more effective on paper. Once you’ve seen it on the screen, with John Wayne and Robert Duvall staring one another down across a clearing, you can’t imagine it any other way. But it’s not the pictures you remember: it's the words. And while Wayne and Duvall speak them with exquisite appropriateness, they wouldn’t have had anything to say had Portis not written those exact words in the first place.

The exchange, of course, is the one that ends with a cry from Rooster Cogburn (played by John Wayne, naturally): "Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!" In this case, the language performs a function similar to the traditional parley before battle: It gets the adversaries' adrenaline pumping before they go forth and kill each other. But it also suggests that Tompkins's dichotomy of language vs. action may be a bit oversimplified: The film's duel of words between Wayne and Duvall lends meaning to the showdown -- which is staged, absurdly enough, like a medieval jousting tournament, as the two gallop across open terrain to meet each other in combat d'armes. In the manner of Arthurian romance, language and action become interdependent rather than oppositional: Speech and action are blended to form the speech act.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the most famously laconic Western hero, Randolph Scott. Scott's Ranown westerns with Budd Boetticher are considered masterpieces of minimalism, yet they also possess some intricate wordplay and verbal gamesmanship. The action of The Tall T -- unreleased on DVD, alas, and only occasionally aired in a pan-and-scan version on cable -- depends on Scott's ability to manipulate a group of villains who hold him hostage: He uses language to weaken their bonds of solidarity. Guns merely finish the job, once his victory -- or rather, escape -- is assured.

In Comanche Station (occasionally aired on Turner Classic Movies), Scott's verbal dexterity suggests Rogerian psychoanalysis. Again, his character finds himself in a hostage situation. Cody Brennan faces a band of outlaws who plan to kill not only him, but also the woman he rescues from Indian captivity. When the outlaws attempt to talk with Brennan, he responds with simple questions ("Ain't it?" "No?" "For what?") that draw them ever deeper into their own labyrinthine self-justifications.

This strategy proves most effective on the weak-willed Dobie (played by Richard Rust), who feels conflicted about his criminal activity. When Dobie's best friend is killed in a surprise Comanche attack, Brennan wastes no time in seizing the opportunity:

DOBIE: Saddle and a shirt. That's all Frank had. Sure ain't much.
BRENNAN: Sure ain't.
DOBIE: Wasn't his fault, though.
DOBIE: No. He never knew anything but the wild side.
BRENNAN: Man can cross over anytime he's a mind to.
DOBIE: It ain't that easy. It ain't that easy at all.
BRENNAN: How old are you, Dobie?
DOBIE: I don't know. Young.
BRENNAN: Family know you're running loose in this country, do they?
DOBIE: No, sir.
BRENNAN: You'll end up on a rope, Dobie. You know that.
DOBIE: Yes, sir.

During this dialogue, Brennan stands, his legs slightly apart and his gaze firmly fixed on Dobie, while Dobie sits submissively on the ground. It's an oblique allusion to the psychiatrist's couch, and the dynamic of this scene echoes classic Freudian psychotherapy. Estranged from "family," Dobie desperately craves reassurance from "a man that matters," reassurance that Brennan as therapist (and hostage) simultaneously proffers and withholds. Yet Dobie's willingness to desert his outlaw comrades earns him what he most craves: not merely a straight answer from Brennan, but an offer of companionship. "A man gets tired being all the time alone," Brennan states, dropping the role of therapist and espousing the role of good father. We never know if the offer is sincere, or another of Brennan's mind games, because Dobie never accepts.

In the final showdown of Comanche Station -- when Brennan finally confronts the outlaw leader Ben Lane -- words are more important than guns. Brennan actually gets the "drop" on Lane fairly quickly, and Brennan ends up pointing his gun squarely at Lane's back. Although Lane is clearly cornered and out of options, he is determined to try the last. He attempts to play a psychological game with Brennan, but because he lacks Brennan's gravitas and psychological insight, he fails utterly:

LANE: Don't seem right we can't work this out with words, Cody. Hadn't been for me, you'd be in the ground in that canyon back where the Comanche jumped you, remember?
BRENNAN: I remember.
LANE: I figured you would.
BRENNAN: Drop the gun.
LANE: If I spin and do you, I'll get the woman, Cody.
BRENNAN: I wouldn't try.
LANE: Got to. Come too far to turn back now.
BRENNAN [pleading]: Don't do it, Ben.

Lane utters the same critique of the Western that Tompkins makes throughout West of Everything -- namely, that it "don't seem right we can't work this out with words." Yet the process of dialogue and discussion is vital to Comanche Station; it goes on, in one form or another, for nearly the entire film. Brennan's persistent questioning wears down his outlaw adversaries, guaranteeing his safe escape long before he actually takes up arms against them. So the film's final gunplay feels unsuspenseful, a mere formality: It's something the hero and villain do not because their basic conflict hasn't been fully resolved (it has been, and Brennan is the clear winner), but because, in Lane's words, they've "come too far to turn back now."

Perhaps Scott's characters in the Ranown Westerns are laconic because they are so often compelled to use language as a weapon. They understand that a well-placed word can be every bit as effective in stopping an adversary as a bullet to the chest, and as Brennan does with Lane and Dobie, they frequently turn their adversaries' loquaciousness against them. Given the films' awareness of the power of language, we shouldn't be suprised to find that, like Cody Brennan, the heroes of Boetticher Westerns are deeply self-conscious about what they say and how they say it.

Language is vital to the Western, though Tompkins is right to note that it never becomes the nonviolent, "feminine" alternative to active, masculine violence -- save in the final scene of Red River, when a tongue-lashing from Joanne Dru prompts hypermasculine father John Wayne to reconcile with slightly effeminate son Montgomery Clift (one of the most disappointing climaxes in cinema history, by the way). Tompkins wishes that language could be an authentic female principle which opposes violence and allows for the triumph of feminine reason over masculine force. There's a good deal of gender-role fundamentalism in her analysis, and Tompkins seems chagrined at the end to find no greater insight than the old axiom that boys will be boys and girls will be girls -- as if gender-role fundamentalism could ever reach a different conclusion.

Yet Westerns are not as simple as their critics would make them. Judging from these admittedly minor examples, I suspect that as a cinematic genre, the Western might integrate language and action more thoroughly -- and successfully -- than most other types of filmic narrative. In this stark terrain, where civilization is ostensibly absent (even though its artifacts are everywhere), characters have little to do but fight and talk to each other. They do both in abundance.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

While I was out ...

I just returned to Charlottesville from nearly two weeks with my family in Arkansas. During that time, I had no connection to the Internet whatsoever. Naturally, all my e-mail went unanswered, piling up in my mailbox -- and in a few cases, bouncing back to the sender. I'll be in town for a few weeks, then back to Arkansas for Christmas holidays (which I will try to keep brief). Meanwhile, here are a few posts you can expect to find here over the next week:

1. A Visit to the Clinton Library. Over Thanksgiving weekend, I visited the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. And took notes. Find out what the mainstream media isn't telling you about what may be the most blatantly biased museum in the country. (Update at 11: Someone suggested that I submit this piece for legitimate publication. If and when this article shows up somewhere else, I'll furnish a link on this blog.)

2. Branson, Missouri: When the World Isn't Looking. Ever wonder how fundamentalist Christians behave when they don't think anyone else is looking? I went to Branson, Missouri, and found out.

3. The Polar Express and the Cult of Santa Claus. My Stupid Dog gets religion, Hollywood style!

4. The Seamy Side of Christmas. Last week I saw When Angels Come to Town, a heartwarming Christmas movie-of-the-week about two angels (one played by Peter Falk) who teach a small group of unhappy capitalists how to steal other people's property -- thus inspiring a rant about how Christmas promotes some rather destructive values.

This stuff, in addition to a plethora of film and drama reviews, should keep my pen busy for a while. Here's hoping you enjoy it, gentle readers.

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