Strictly From Hunger

An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Except when it isn't

"I’ve also had a nice chance to see the inner workings of that Hollywood world, which was interesting and not irrelevant, I think, to someone trying to understand American culture: this big storytelling machine, that employs some of the most talented/beautiful/energetic people in the world, and has complicated financial/corporate constraints, but still manages, sometimes, to make something wonderful and yet, on the other hand, is pretty much totally misrepresenting life on earth, except when it isn’t." — G. Saunders

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A perfect joke

Sheila: You guys think you're so cool, with your inside jokes. We've got inside jokes, too. Hey Susan, remember the green hat?
Susan: No.
Sheila: Damn you, Susan!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Trailer Treasure, Movie Trash (part 1 of a, well, probably 1-part series, but you never know)

Never trust a trailer. "It's all in the editing" is a vaguely annoying movie-talk cliché, but in the case of trailers it's absolutely apt; within those 2.5-minute collages of densely packed images and sounds, a movie can be remixed and repackaged to look and feel like damn near anything. The content of a trailer so often fails to represent the essence of its corresponding film that deciding whether or not to see a given film based on a trailer is just about the most foolhardy mistake a curious filmgoer can make. This works both ways: the arguably more common (and certainly more explicable) instance of an uninspired trailer doing a disservice to a good movie, and the more mysterious and fascinating (and, yes, disappointing) situation of an outstanding trailer raising expectations for what turns out to be a dud. What makes all of this extra-interesting is that trailers are, for all intents and purposes, authorless; that is to say, they're never credited to any particular editors or filmmakers. I don't know how much control a director has over the trailer for his/her film—I suspect not much, if any, in most cases—but since his/her name isn't on the trailer (as, indeed, no one's is), does it even matter?

Ah, heady questions. But what I'd like to share now are just a few trailers that I really loved as trailers, despite reacting in varying degrees of distaste to the films they were commissioned to advertise. Consider this post a defense of the trailer as a standalone art form, capable of great beauty, boldness, visceral and emotional and intellectual thrills, maybe even profundity—independent of its function as a commercial promotion. Another way to look at it: perhaps these disappointing movies all had the raw materials to be great, but something got screwed up along the way, and their trailers serve as the sole surviving evidence of what might have been. Needless to say (yet I'm saying it anyway; funny how it always works like that), judgments are subjective blah blah blah, and you might think these movies are awesome and that I'm being a churl or a contrarian by professing to prefer their trailers. To which all I can say is: I calls 'em like I sees 'em. Only four movies for now, recent ones, because a) the art of trailermaking has changed pretty drastically in the past decade and I think my thesis above (if I even have one) is most applicable to the trailers wrought by those changes; and b) I've simply seen way more trailers of the past several years than of the preceding century of cinema, so I'm gonna go with what I know. Maybe follow-up posts to come if I can think of more good examples of this particular phenomenon, which right now I'm sort of struggling to do, frankly. But it's late.



I Am Love (2010): The inspiration for this post. Thanks to the Siskel Center's European Union film festival, I'd seen this Italian family drama before the trailer was even released, and when I first saw the preview (attached to a print of Please Give, iirc) it put me in a state of self-doubting shock: I'd been lukewarm-at-best on the film, but the trailer was such a dazzling tour-de-force that I momentarily questioned my own judgment. After some reflection and reading, I determined that this was, in fact, a classic case of...see title of post. The film's meticulous imagery and insanely, overemphatically awesome music score are better-suited to the trailer form, where nothing needs to follow logic. Trailers can afford to be sensual feasts that make no sense, because they can hint at levels of meaning that are not, in the cussedly literal movie form, necessarily present. I Am Love and its trailer may be equally empty, but the trailer is capable of convincing us otherwise, and the movie isn't.



Pineapple Express (2008): Granted, the first half of this trailer is a standard introduce-the-characters-and-premise studio comedy preview. But as soon as "Paper Planes" kicks in (at a moment in history just before that song became the cultural equivalent of a dead metaphor), the trailer becomes a free-floating parade of pure cinema, suggesting the lyrical David Gordon Green production this movie should have been, but wasn't, despite Green's auteurial byline. The movie I'd later see was a largely dull mix of limp '80s nostalgia and already-tired Apatovian tropes, but the trailer never ceased to delight me during those middle months of 2008. When Seth Rogen leaps superheroically to attack gun-wielding thug Gary Cole in the film, it's just another banal action beat; when the same image occurs in the trailer, it's something very close to sublime. Or maybe I just really like listening to "Paper Planes."



Synecdoche, New York (2008): Just about everyone whose taste I respect loves this movie, so I know I owe it another viewing. But man, I don't want to put myself through that misery-fest again. Whatever your feelings on the film, you can't deny that the trailer is awfully misleading: it promises a warm, witty, screwy, humanist intellectual comedy in the vein of I Heart Huckabees (complete with earworm Jon Brion tune) or Charlie Kaufman's previous work. And then you sit down to see the movie and find, instead, the most singlemindedly dour and unpleasant American film (I realize these qualifiers make me sound like Rex Reed or some other completely out-of-touch asshole, but the heart hates what it hates) since, I don't know, something from the '70s, when dourness was de rigeur. Look, anyone who knows me knows that I would never dismiss a movie based on "unpleasantness," but something about Synecdoche rubbed me the wrong way, and I think a huge part of that had to do with my love of the trailer's sweetly off-kilter, aphoristic cleverness and suggestion of profound-meets-goofy humor. I know it's not fair to want this movie to be I Heart Huckabees II, but blame the lovely trailer for putting that idea in my head.



The Limits of Control (2009): Like many effective trailers, this one sort of doubles as a great short film on its own. It's got everything: splitscreen effects, quotable dialogue, and Bill Murray. As with I Am Love, the lack of literal sense only makes the trailer more attractive. But the movie's a head-scratcher if ever there was one, and I say that as a fan of pretty much everything else Jim Jarmusch has done. He's certainly allowed a whiff now and then, but it would've hurt less if the trailer hadn't been so damn cool.

Friday, June 25, 2010

From the dept. of amusing quotations

"I laughed my ass off at much of Home Alone the first time I saw it, in 1990, and nothing I can say in the aftermath of its obnoxious cultural iconography, or any perceived moral imperative to hold any Chris Columbus project in contempt, can change that." — Glenn Kenny, from his evenhanded post about Cyrus.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

PSYCHO liveblog

Few movies as famous as Hitchcock's Psycho are also as good. It was one of those rare moments of cultural harmony, as with The Beatles' mature albums and The Simpsons' 1990s run, when a ginormous, game-changing masscult phenomenon was also an artistic masterpiece. J. Hoberman gets at some of the context of that phenomenon in this piece from earlier today, which also reprints Andrew Sarris' original 1960 rave review. The occasion? Psycho turns 50 today. Younger than my parents, but older than Barack Obama.

I watched Psycho a million times on VHS as a kid, but it's been many years since I sat down and watched the whole thing—though I've certainly read many words about it in the intervening years. For this liveblog I won't be going for profundity, since, as Kim Morgan noted today, Psycho is pretty much the most over-analyzed film ever made and there's really nothing new to say about it. So this is just for giggles, the fun of re-encountering a childhood favorite that I happen to know will hold up.

00:53: Wait, Janet Leigh actually gets an "and" in the opening credits??? I guess that wasn't yet thriller-code for "certain death" in 1960. Actually, was this the first instance of an "and" for a star in the credits? I'm too lazy to look this up, but it seems plausible.

01:34: Hm, Saul Bass credited as "pictorial consultant," in addition to his credit for the titles sequence. Uh. What exactly are the duties of a pictorial consultant?

02:19: Couldn't have told you this was supposed to be set in Phoenix, AZ. Of course, this was shot on the backlot with Hitchcock's TV crew, so we don't exactly get the sparkling location photography some of his '50s films had. And do we really need to know that it's "FRIDAY, DECEMBER THE ELEVENTH"? At "TWO FORTY-THREE P.M."?

06:07: This is probably my first time watching the film in the 1.85 ratio. The shots look pretty tight...maybe too tight. I assume this was shot open matte? Has there been any AR controversy over Psycho like there has over Touch of Evil? Could be I'm just being oversensitive.

07:06: Department of stuff I didn't realize was fucked up when I was a kid: "My mother gave them to me the day of my wedding. Teddy was furious when he found out I was taking tranquilizers!" This secretary is awesome, though. If time travel were possible I'd expect to see her on the new season of Mad Men.

09:13: The rich, cowboy-behatted real-estate buyer is the real villain of this film. Seriously, Norman and his mother don't say anything as vile as this guy's "buying off unhappiness" bit. Plus, he cheats on his taxes.

12:22: Love the constant cutting to the envelope full of money in this otherwise banal Janet-Leigh-gets-her-shit-together scene. All it needs is a hissing sound effect to be the snake in the garden.

17:14: As great as Bernard Herrmann's score is, I feel like at times it's more distracting than tension-producing. Although that is probably just the perspective of someone who's seen the movie a hundred times.

24:18: This voice-over dialogue-from-the-future in the car: JL's imagination, or Hitch cluing the audience in to info she's not privy to? Pretty neat trick either way; surprising it's never really been used again.

25:40: In Vertigo, we got Jimmy Stewart driving around San Francisco from the perspective of the driver. In Psycho, we get Janet Leigh driving around California highways from the perspective of the road.

28:12: Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies.

29:52: Ha, Norman being unable to say "bathroom" is a great bit of psychosexual weirdness.

30:47: Norman's actually pretty charming at first, in a dorky way. Who wouldn't take him up on his offer of sandwiches and milk?

42:49: I think the key to Perkins' performance is that he looks more like a weird guy you went to high school with than someone who had any business toplining a Hollywood movie in 1960. And his weird, halting, naturalistic line readings, like "fals...fals...falsity." And how he switches between haunted solemnity and forced levity. Just a great, great, great performance and a really inspired bit of casting.

42:49: Just throwing this out there: Noel Black's Pretty Poison (1968) is a great, underseen movie that brilliantly capitalizes on post-Psycho audience expectations of Anthony Perkins. He co-stars with the luscious Tuesday Weld at her Tuesday Weldiest. Netflix that shit, yo.

43:42: That whole sandwich-eating scene is so riveting. I've always loved the dialogue in that scene—not just the (deservedly) famous bits like "a boy's best friend is his mother" and "we all go a little mad sometimes," but Norman's little speeches about taxidermy and mental institutions (which, duh, I now realize he has obviously spent time in). I don't know if this dialogue originates in Robert Bloch's source novel (which I haven't read but am curious about) or Joseph Stefano's screenplay; either way, it's a reminder that Hitch isn't solely responsible for the movie's enduring awesomeness.

44:19: The close-up of Norman's eye and the peephole: surely one of the most beautiful shots Hitchcock ever composed. If you stare at it for a few seconds it starts to look almost abstract. And surely 1.85 is the correct ratio for this shot.

44:19: The fact that Gus Van Sant literalized the peeping scene by having Vince Vaughn visibly jerk off represents everything wrong with the remake—with his remake specifically and with the idea of a Psycho remake. Just...no.

49:55: Supposedly the shower scene has 50 cuts and 77 different camera angles. Those numbers seem impossibly high to me, but the scene plays so beautifully that I'll credit them. The spiraling zoom out from her eyeball to her shock-suspended, sideways face is, I'd posit, the scariest image in the film. It's the picture of cold, hard death. No punches pulled. And I like how Hitch's pan from the bathroom to the big house outside includes a stopover to show the envelope of money again. Like, here's why you're dead, you poor sap.

59:55: Norman cleaning up the crime scene is a solid 10 minutes without a single word—in its own modest way, nearly as impressive a feat of "pure cinema" as the shower scene that precedes it.

Stopping for now due to tiredness and headache. Poor Vera Miles, I'm ignoring her part of the movie just like everyone else does.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Prescience

This isn't film-related, but today I started reading Richard Powers' 1995 novel Galatea 2.2 and found within its first ten pages a strikingly prescient passage about the internet, or as his narrator calls it, "the world web." After several paragraphs waxing on about the web's unprecedented wonders, the narrator explains why the bloom starts to come off the rose:

"But the longer I lurked, the sadder the holiday became. People who used the web turned strange. In public panels, they disguised their sexes, their ages, their names. They logged on to the electronic fray, adopting every violent persona but their own. They whizzed binary files at each other from across the planet, the same planet where impoverished villages looked upon a ball-point pen with wonder. The web began to seem a vast, silent stock exchange trading in ever more anonymous and hostile pen pals.

"The web was a neighborhood more efficiently lonely than the one it replaced. Its solitude was bigger and faster. When relentless intelligence finally completed its program, when the terminal drop box brought the last barefoot, abused child on line and everyone could at last say anything instantly to everyone else in existence, it seemed to me we'd still have nothing to say to each other and many more ways not to say it."

And that was fifteen years ago!!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Nicole Holofcener and Kevin Smith: A Match Made in the '90s

In a funny way, Nicole Holofcener is sort of the distaff doppelganger of Kevin Smith. (Or, if you prefer, Kevin Smith is Holofcener's evil twin.) Hear me out: they both broke into the mid-90s indie scene with lo-fi Sundance hits (Smith's Clerks in '94, Holofcener's Walking and Talking in '96) that prized chatty eloquence over any kind of visual strategy, and they both rode the wave of Sundance buzz to ongoing success as mid-level indie filmmakers with healthy cult followings and critical respect. But to look at where these two oddly parallel directors are situated in 2010 is, as they say, instructive: one of them just made her best movie yet, which opened to glowing reviews, and the other one directed-for-hire an abysmal piece of buddy-cop dreck before getting thrown off an airplane for being grotesquely obese. The box office numbers of Cop Out may mean that Smith is laughing all the way to the lipo clinic, but by any measure of integrity Holofcener has emerged victorious. Good guys (and girls) win.

Film blogger Jordan Hoffman made an important point recently when he reminded us that the Kevin Smith phenomenon was entirely a case of being in the right place at the right time. Hoffman writes: "If [Smith were] just a little younger and made his first flick in the age of video and not film, none of us would have ever heard of him. He's a lucky dude." Arguably the same is true of Holofcener. If she were ten years younger and had made Walking and Talking in the VOD/DVD/Internet era of disappearing indie distributors, it seems unlikely that her film would've made much of a splash outside the festival circuit, the kind of movie that today is picked up by IFC for a Video On Demand release and a brief run in New York before heading to DVD semi-anonymity. But starting out when she did allowed Holofcener to find a comfortable niche in film culture, making small, sharply observed character studies and giving her BFF Catherine Keener one juicy role after another. The latest and greatest of these is the new Please Give, which feels more expansive, cohesive and poignant than anything else she's done—not to mention funnier.

Woody Allen's name is popping up in some reviews, which makes sense given the film's NYC location and focus on the comic possibilities of Rich People's Problems. But there is a complexity of character, empathy of spirit, and subtlety of theme here that never really existed in Woody's world. I was particularly impressed by the contrast between Keener's character, an unhappily wealthy woman who desperately wants to shoehorn some altruism into her life to keep her gnawing guilt at bay, and Rebecca Hall's character (the real heroine of the movie), who is so casually, naturally kind that she throws the other, basically likable characters into relief as the flawed, confused fuckups that they (and we) are. And the cranky grandma is awesome.

At this point, some critics would say, the only thing that Smith and Holofcener's films have in common substantively is that they use the camera more as a tool to record performances than an expressive instrument. But I'm not sure that's actually true anymore. There are some lovely shots in Please Give, like when Hall discovers her grandmother dead and the camera holds the shot long past when most directors would cut, Hall's face registering the shock and then staring blankly at the TV, bracing herself for the sad hours to come. Or the shot in the following scene, when the grandmother's dead body dissolves away, leaving an empty chair as a visual metaphor for loss. Or the penultimate shot of the film, a shallow-focus composition with Keener and husband Oliver Platt (who is so, so wonderful) in the blurry background and their newly elated daughter in the foreground, emphasizing the daughter's shift in mood and personality. So I'm pretty much not buying the line that Holofcener pays no attention to form or visuals. Meanwhile, Kevin Smith tried to break out of his own formally apathetic comfort zone by staging the usual array of chase scenes and shootouts in Cop Out, and I guess I have to give the guy points for effort, but where he tried for dynamism he achieved only headache-inducing clunkiness. The girl you brought to the party, Kev: dance with her. And no, that girl isn't Nicole Holofcener. She's at a much better party.