Mar 22, 2010

I don’t know why, but for some reason, film-buffs of every age feel compelled to continue the decades old debate:  Who’s funnier:  Charles Chaplin or Buster Keaton? 

There’s only one answer to this question: Who cares?  However, since I am nothing if not opinioned, I must weigh in on behalf of The Great Stone Face, Joseph “Buster” Keaton.


For this essay, I have chosen to compare and contrast Chaplin’s 1921 feature The Kid with Buster Keaton’s 1928 feature Steamboat Bill, Jr. 

At its core, Chaplin’s The Kid is a purely Dickensian tale of poverty, despair and, ultimately, life’s strange twists and turns.  Wherein Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. clearly models itself on the classic Mark Twain paradigm of a young man coming into his own, surrounded by paddle boats and nature itself, human or otherwise.  Chaplin’s link to Dickens clearly was born in his upbringing as a young English relative-orphan. Keaton, on the other hand, born in Kansas and forced to travel and live by his wits, led an almost Huckleberryian existence. 

This distinction between the two great clowns matters little, as I have a sneaking suspicion that you, Mr. Fjelstul, really don’t read these papers in the first place.  Instead, you probably just sit at home on a broken sofa, eating chicken out of a bucket, drinking your gin from a souvenir mug you got on a trip you took with your ex-wife to Carlsbad Caverns.  In which case, I will now stretch and fill until I reach the necessary minimum of 300 hundred words.  I still have a little ways to go.  I’m at 271 right about now.  Nope.  Now I’m at 280.  This is so easy to get extra points.  My favorite ice cream is Rocky Road.  296.  And now I’m done.

 
 

Mar 19, 2010

Film snobs, and I count myself as one of them, harshly poo-poo the Capra-esque populism of Robert Zemeckis’ faux biography, Forrest Gump.  Or as I commonly refer to it “Pablumist Dump”. 

However, as an exercise designed to obtain a deeper understanding of the commonalty of the American Entertainment Experience, I have taken it upon myself in this paper to argue the exact opposite point of view:  That the Tom Hanks tour-de-force is, in fact, the greatest motion picture of the last two decades.  Excluding, of course, any of the American-made ouvre featuring Mr. Jackie P. Chan.  But I digress.

What other picture in recent history has managed to gleefully bridge the gap between half a century of the American Experience and the heart-warming, romantic tale of a wizened half-wit and his charming, drug-addled girlfriend (who soon dies of AIDS, but not before leaving the dummy with a son to raise all by himself)?  This concept, not to mention that last sentence, is quite an accomplishment. 

Throw in a free-thinking feather, the time-honored sport of ping-pong, and a ubiquitous box of “choc-o-lahts” and you have a movie capable of launching a restaurant franchise, where the only way to obtain your waiter’s attention is by waving a placard in his face that reads “Run, Forrest, Run”.  Huzzah! 

Clearly, I have failed in this exercise to expand my thinking.  Perhaps I’m just a smiley-faced moron in a Seersucker suit talking about his Mama to strangers on a bench.  Or perhaps I just have a little something called taste.   

 
 

Mar 18, 2010

I didn’t go to see Inglorious Basterds because I’m a lifelong, card-carrying member of the Christoph Waltz Fan Club.  Nor did I go to see Jackie Brown because I needed the Hepburn and Tracy-esque patter of Pam Grier and Robert Forester.  When I pay to see a Quentin Tarantino movie, I pay to see one thing: Quentin Tarantino. 

Those who know me might immediately assume I’d be a ‘nattering nay-bob of nega-Tarantinovism’ (kudos to you, Mr. Agnew).  But pegging me thusly fails to take into account my utter appreciation for our current cult of celebrity.  The Tarantinos, The Spike Lees, The Kevin Smiths… they aren’t selling you specific stories, per se; moreover they’re selling a brand.  Namely, themselves.  It’s what both P.T. Barnum and P.T. Anderson both knew:  There is a sucker born every minute and they’ll pay top dollar to see a thumb-sized man or a torrential rainstorm of frogs.

As I look forward to my future as an artist, I take note of Tarantino et al, as they peddle their personalities as much, if not more, than their pictures. 

Maybe one day, a million movie-goers will go to the ticket window and slap down their money to see the latest Marshall Gregson Joynt, not because of what’s on the screen, but because they just want to spend a little bit more time with me. 

 
 

Mar 11, 2010

After a recent late-night viewing of Five Easy Pieces (Director: Bob Rafelson, Screeplay: Carol Eastman (as Adrian Joyce), from a Story by: Carol Eastman (as Adrian Joyce) and Bob Rafelson), I found myself wondering why we as a public were so fond and forgiving of the non-traditional beauty so present during a tiny window of time more commonly referred to as the 1970’s.

Picture, if you will, the actress Karen Black with her giant mane of curly hair and her “quizzical” eyes smiling at you from that lantern jaw and dimpled cheeks.  No one can deny her unique sensuality and steamy desirability.  But could Ms. Black be a leading lady today?  Would we still root for the gun-toting Mrs. Smith if Angelina Jolie was suddenly institutionalized and needed to be replaced by a young Karen Black?  Would we still be as titillated if Karen Black stepped in for either Scarlett Johanssen or Penelope Cruz in Woody Allen’s tour-de-farce Vicki Christina Barcelona?  I’m guessing if we asked Javier Bardem, his answer, in broken English, would be a definitive “No!”

So what is it about the films of the 70’s that allowed the unconventional beauty of a Karen Black, or the idiosyncratic adorability of a Sally Field, the oddball, kinetic exuberance of a Liza Minelli, or the peculiar urban maw of a Barbara Streisand to be awarded the status of sex-symbol?  And why did it end?

After some careful thought, I came to this conclusion:  The world has become a less interesting place since we put a movie star in the White House and a more dashing, youthful Andrew Jackson on the twenty dollar bill.  American beauty has become more and more conventional and there’s no hope for the future, as, in only a matter of years, a beauty queen from Alaska will most certainly replace fat, bald Benjamin Franklin on the hundred dollar bill. 

 
 

Mar 4, 2010

So much today has been made of the so-called “Cougar Phenomenon” (older woman/younger man), put forth as some brilliant new cultural concept that pretends to define “where we are as a civilization”. 

But forty years before Courtney Cox moved to Cougartown and the Ladies of Wisteria Lane gave us a neighborhood of “Mothers We’d Like to F”, a genius by the name of Mike Nichols, aided by the wit and razor-sharp satire of one Henry Zuckerman, better known as Buck Henry, gave us the gift of The Graduate.  In this timeless snapshot of a changing America, Mr. Nichols and his scribe, Zuckerman, shined a spotlight on male and female sexual politics that could only have been illuminated post the birth of Feminism. 

Benjamin Braddock represents our nascent adolescent male culture, struggling to come to terms with a female culture eager to seduce him with a raised, panty-hose clad leg and a bottle of Scotch.  Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.

Our modern habitué is to surreptitiously pillage and injest that which has come before, chew and repurpose it, then spit the mealy cud back out, proclaiming it as a shiny, new idea. 

There are no new ideas.  Only new ways to crap out old ones.  A special nod to Murray Hamilton, who turns in an excellent performance as the cuckolded Mr. Robinson.  

 
 

Mar 3, 2010

By now, it’s de rigueur to site Orson Welles 1941 masterwork Citizen Kane as “the greatest movie ever made”.  But how many of us, the author of this paper included, have recited this meme without ever taking a moment to ask the hard question:  Is the movie really that good, or have we just been told it’s that good for so long we’re all afraid to step out of line and go against the grain?

Is the mystery of “Rosebud” enough of a hook to hang such an epic examination of an American Machiavelli?  Do we ever really believe that a twenty-five year old Welles is actually the aged titular Citizen?  Is the helmer’s technical wizardry and use of camera truly groundbreaking as so many posit, or a mere retread of some of the visual slyness Keaton captured himself in Sherlock, Jr. some seventeen years previous?

I, for one, love Citizen Kane.  What ignorant cretin doesn’t?  I just pose the question.  For extra credit.

 
 

Feb 18, 2010

After a recent viewing of The Godfather trilogy from start to finish, from the haunting opening strains of Carmine Copolla’s haunting theme, to the closing moments as Michael Corleone keels over and topples out of frame with an Arte Johnson panache, a question of national importance sprang into my mind:  What in the name of all that is holy happened to Al Pacino?! 

There was a time in film history, somewhere around The Panic in Needle Park and Dog Day Afternoon when a young man, born Alfredo James Pacino, owned the screen with a quiet intensity that was measured, honest and magnetic.  We forgave him missteps like Author, Author and Frankie and Johnny, holding out hope for another Bobby Deerfield or Serpico

Instead, he sent us Scent of a Woman, where his bombastic, blinded Lieutenant Frank Slade hoo’d and ha’d his way into our hearts.  Sadly, Alfredo J. Pacino would never return to a little thing called subtlety ever again.  For this, he received accolades and his only Academy Award, causing him to make the career ending mistake of believing that he was being rewarded for ham-fisted mugging and gravelly-voiced shouting.  He was not.  He was being honored for his work in Straw Dogs and a few movies starring Dustin Hoffman who people often mistake as the Good Sir Pacino.

Here’s an offer you shouldn’t refuse, Al:  A DVD of every performance you gave up until 1992.