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

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.

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.