“Every balcony is a poem, a chant — a muscle! But whoever lives with that extra blueprint luxury of a balcony lives on the wrong side of a cross-section, on the busy, narrative-addled side of something like an ant-farm window, a brazen architectural arrangement selling cheap peeks into the naked sideshows of the quotidian — even the grisly. Step right up! Behold! A ten story wall of solid twitching muscle!”
—-Director Guy Maddin in Paste Magazine on his short film Accidence
After watching and enjoying The Forbidden Room I was working through the selection of Guy Maddin films streaming on The Criterion Channel. And I now have a new favorite movie.
It’s a nine minute short called Accidence. It is an obvious homage to Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The entire film is a continuous take (zoomed in and out with a bit of panning) of the side of an apartment block – thirty units in all. There is a view of the balconies, some windows into the apartment interiors, and a glimpse of things moving up and down the stairs.
Ok, so it’s only nine minutes long… but you can’t watch it only once. On first viewing it is a confused ant-like cacophony of people on and off of their balconies. But as you watch it again and again, patterns emerge and a story is created. It is a story of doppelgangers, violence, families, boredom and drama. And a fuzzy white dog.
Who is the murderer? Who is the victim? Are they the same person?
I have watched it maybe forty times and will watch it many more. I still see new things. Watch the balloon for example. There is a red ghost that appears against the brick a couple of times – I think I figured out who that is.
I just respect audiences to understand that that’s what goes on in movies. I just try to make movies that respect the intelligence of the audience. Respect that they understand that the narrator is always unreliable and respect that they understand that the medium can do whatever it wants.
The last few days I’ve been perusing the depths of the streaming service from The Criterion Collection – more specifically, looking at the films that are going away at the end of July.
I have discovered a director that I had never known before – a Canadian named Guy Maddin. He makes very unusual and unique films – many of which are done in a style that looks a lot (at first glance, at least) like something made in the early part of the twentieth century – high contrast, black and white or oversaturated color, little dialog with occasional title cards…. such as that. Very odd and crazy stuff.
One film that I watched and really, really liked was The Forbidden Room. After a brief introduction from Marv, who talks about how to take a bath – the plot begins on a doomed submarine carrying a cargo of unstable explosives. There is a knock on a hatch and a woodsman is revealed – drenched in fresh water – and neither he nor the crew can figure out how or why he is there. And then things get really weird.
The structure of the movie is like a series of Russian nesting dolls. Stories inside of stories inside of stories. It is surprisingly consistent about working its way back out again.
There is even a song “The Final Derriere” from a favorite band of mine from decades ago, Sparks.
I was able to look beyond the weirdness and had a good time watching it. In the trailer above, Sight and Sound magazine said, “Has more ideas in ten minutes than most filmmakers have in their entire oeuvres.” And that is what I liked – the interesting concepts, themes, and characters come from the screen like bullets from a machine gun.
Guy Maddin has some other work on the channel that go back into the ether in a few days. Have to get crackin’.
Yesterday I had time to watch another movie on The Criterion Channel so I scrolled through the offerings and found one I wasn’t expecting. It was called Smooth Talk and was made in 1985. It was directed by Joyce Chopra and featured Laura Dern in her first starring big screen role (a year before Blue Velvet).
I have no idea how I have missed this movie over all these years. You see it is loosely (actually not all that loosely) based on one of the most crackerjack of short stories – Joyce Carol Oates’ ” Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”.
The story is based on the true story of “The Pied Piper of Tucson” – a serial killer that seduced and eventually murdered teenage girls in that desert town. Oates read the story in Life magazine (she refers to the killer as a “Tabloid Psychopath”) and then wrote the story as “Death and the Maiden.” She was especially fascinated by the fact that the Tucson teens didn’t realize this monster was a man in his 30s attempting to look young and many went along with the killings, keeping his secret.
During revision she made the story less about the killings and more about the teenage girl. The ending is ambiguous, though you get the feeling that it’s not going to end well.
I remember thinking that the story was unfilmable – it has too many phantasmagorical elements, an enigmatic conclusion, and too much inside the girl’s head. But it looks like I was wrong.
The movie follows the short story surprisingly well. Obviously, it has to expand on the story quite a bit. Rereading the story, there is a lot to it that is spread out in the first half of the film. The girl’s mother has a bigger, more nuanced part – though a lot of that may be due to the genius of Mary Kay Place. Laura Dern has the young, beautiful, flighty, 15 year old, self-obsessed, stubborn, teenager-y, Connie down perfectly. The story moved up into the 80’s where it fits better anyway, and the setting of a mall and big teen hangout hamburger stand across a busy road is dead-solid right.
But at its mid-point the story and the movie take a sudden, terrifying turn. An odd, dangerous man named Arnold Friend (A Friend) shows up in an old Gold landyacht convertible with mysterious writing on it. He proceeds to talk to Connie, left at home alone, and tries to talk her into going for a ride with him.
That is the first big difference, to me, between the story and the movie. In the story Arnold Friend is a borderline supernatural force, odd and mysterious (Is he wearing a wig? What is it with his boots? How does he know so much?). It is that character that I considered to be unfilmable. Treat Williams plays him in the movie and he is a bit too good looking and slick – though he does convey his own aura of danger and dread. I guess seeing the devil made flesh was going to be a letdown – but the movie was still interesting and harrowing.
And then, at the end, unlike the story, you find out, sort of, what happened after Connie went off for a ride with Arnold Friend. He doesn’t kill her, he brings her back. In both versions it is implicit that her going with him was an act of heroism – she went to save her family from danger. Once she returns she seems to have grown a backbone. She tells Friend firmly that she never wants to see him again and then has a reconciliation with her sister. That is not how the story is leading – but it is a valid take and an interesting, almost happy, ending.
She agrees with me on the short story being ultimately unfilmable:
“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” defines itself as allegorical in its conclusion: Death and Death’s chariot (a funky souped-up convertible) have come for the Maiden. Awakening is, in the story’s final lines, moving out into the sunlight where Arnold Friend waits:
“My sweet little blue-eyed girl,” he said in a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with [Connie’s] brown eyes but was taken up just the same by the vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him—so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it.
—a conclusion impossible to transfigure into film.
And she acknowledges the choice used in the different ending:
The writer works in a single dimension, the director works in three. I assume they are professionals to their fingertips; authorities in their medium as I am an authority (if I am) in mine. I would fiercely defend the placement of a semicolon in one of my novels but I would probably have deferred in the end to Joyce Chopra’s decision to reverse the story’s conclusion, turn it upside down, in a sense, so that the film ends not with death, not with a sleepwalker’s crossing over to her fate, but upon a scene of reconciliation, rejuvenation.
Serial killer inspires brilliant terrifying short story which is developed into a movie about a flighty young girl finding herself and her place and purpose. This is truly the best of all possible worlds.
It is a restless moment. She has kept her head lowered… to give him a chance to come closer. But he could not, for lack of courage. She turns and walks away.
—- Kar-Wai Wong, In the Mood for Love
The other day I watched Chunking Expresson my streaming Criterion Channel. The movie was not what I expected (though I’m not sure what I was expecting) but enjoyable when taken on its own terms.
Over the weekend I was able to sit down and watch another Kar-Wai Wong film, one that is possibly even more well-known than Chungking Express – In the Mood for Love.
The English title of the film comes from the Bryan Ferry song (though the song does not make an appearance in the movie – only the trailer)
The song was originally recorded in 1935, and there are many versions – this is the best:
Again, the film was unexpected – but enjoyable. Be forewarned – not much actually happens in the film, it’s definitely a movie where you sit back and let it wash over you. It is a beautiful film, with beautiful people wearing amazing costumes. It is a film of mood, of things not said, of ultimate regret.
The ending is a departure from the style (and location) of what comes before – but like the best of endings that take a turn (if not a twist) in the last few minutes, thinking about it, there is no other way it could end.
I have had a visit to Angor Wat on my bucket list for a long time. Now I really want to go there. Who knows what secrets are locked up between those ancient stones?
Also, I wish I wasn’t on a low-carb diet… I want to carry around an old dented green steel vacuum bottle full of hot noodles.
We’re all unlucky in love sometimes. When I am, I go jogging. The body loses water when you jog, so you have none left for tears.
I saw an interview with Martin Scorcese a while back where he described the Marvel movies as “Theme Park Movies.” He went on to say that if you enjoy them, good for you, but don’t let them crowd out “real” movies from the limited screen real estate.
I agree. I am superheroed out. Maybe, some day, I’ll watch another comic book movie… but right now I don’t think I could make it all the way through. Life is too short.
Yesterday I made time to sit down and watch Chungking Express – a Hong Kong comedy/drama/romcom by director Wong Kar-wai. I’m not going to write a full review, mostly because a review pretty much always contains spoilers and in my latter years I try really hard to see films spoiler-free. I want to give anyone coming to my site the same consideration.
I knew nothing about Chungking Express (for some reason, I thought it was about a train) and was very, very pleasantly surprised. It has a unique structure – it is not a theme park movie – yet it is very enjoyable and not hard to watch.
It is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite movies (the structure has some resemblance to Pulp Fiction). He has an excellent YouTube video about the film – it’s divided into two parts. You are supposed to watch the first part before seeing the film, then come back and watch the rest (though even the second half is pretty spoiler-free).
A great movie – and Tarantino does know of what he speaks.
After seeing this movie I’ll never buy a can of pineapple without looking at the expiration date… and never listen to California Dreaming the same way.
And I discovered there was a movie made when I was one year old from the book The Brothers Karamazov. I didn’t want to watch the movie until I finished the book, but I did watch the trailer.
And now that I’ve finished the book I went searching through the streaming channels and found it on Turner Movie Classics.
The movie was surprisingly good. Of course there is no way to cram an eight hundred page novel into one movie, but it was still enjoyable. The philosophical content was pretty much gone – no mention of The Grand Inquisitor or of the torture of children. What was left behind was melodrama rather than great art – but good melodrama nonetheless.
A couple of points:
Grushenka was played by the actress Maria Schell who had starred in Gervaise, the adaptation of Zola’s L’assommoir which I wrote about last year. I was disappointed in her Grushenka (probably my favorite character in the book) – her beauty was put to good use, but she grinned and hammed her way through the part. I think she missed the depth and pathos of Grushenka.
One shock when you see the trailer is that Alyosha (Alexei) (the so-called “hero” of the book) is played by an impossibly young William Shatner. It’s crazy to see Captain Kirk in a monk’s habit and haircut. Alexei is the quiet, reserved, and religious brother – not exactly Kirk material. The shocking thing is how good a job he does with the part. It is nice to see Shatner in a part where he is not chewing the scenery.
The story is concentrated on Dimitri. It’s a shame that Ivan gets such little screen time. He is in many ways the more interesting brother. But there isn’t time for more and to a great extent the more Yul Brynner the better.
And finally, the ending is completely changed. Gone is the bittersweet and ambiguous ending of the novel and in its place, a Hollywood happy ending.
A disappointment, I guess, but it is Hollywood, not a vast Russian tale of subtle philosophical ideas after all.
I was shocked how many of these I have seen – and not shocked by the fact that I liked pretty much every one that I had seen. Out of 50 there are only three that I have never watched.
On the other hand, I can think of a lot of cult movies not on this list. These are all mostly fairly mainstream. I have been well beyond this lineup – It has nothing by Gaspar Noé (I would definitely put Enter the Void on the list), no Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, The Holy Mountain), no Synecdoche, New York (have to have something by Charlie Kaufman)… I could go on.
It was very good – though very different than the book. The plot was significantly trimmed down – most of the murders were gone (only the two key homicides were left). The big set pieces were cut too, for time and also, probably for budget – the special effects cost for train wrecks and blizzards has to be enormous.
What is left is a more personal story, one of the first examples of film noir – with a femme fatale (Simone Simon – who I recognized from Cat People, filmed a few years later). A love triangle, murder, and Zola’s inherited madness make for a lively time.
Renoir’s genius is in his ability to make his characters come alive on screen. He also shows a wonderful respect for the working class folks that populate the story. Even at their worst – his characters have their reasons, they are driven by the sins of the past.
It did still have the trains, though. The plot moves along like a hot steam engine on a track. A lot of the film was done on location instead of in studio – which added a gritty realism to the story. The Criterion Channel had an interview with Peter Bogdanovich who said that the original impetus for the film was that the star, Jean Gabin, wanted to make a movie where he got to drive a train.
You killed Komoko, Smith, and sooner or later you’re gonna go up for it. Not because you killed him, because I think in a town like this, you can get away with it. But because you didn’t have guts enough to do it alone. You put your trust in guys like this – and Hector here – not the most dependable of God’s creatures. And one of these days, they’re gonna catch on that you’re playin’ ’em for a sap. And then what are ya gonna do? Peel ’em off, one by one? And in the meantime, one of ’em’s gonna crack and when they do, you’re gonna go down – but hard. ‘Cause they got somethin’ on ya, Smith. Something to use when the goin’ gets tough. And it’s gettin’ tougher every minute.
—-Bad Day at Black Rock
Does everybody nowdays do this “television hierarchy” thing? TVs used to be a major purchase – only a little less expensive than a car – and would last for years. I remember my grandfather had one of the first remote control televisions. It had a little handheld box with tuning forks in it. You would mash a button and it would hit a fork, sending out an ultrasonic sound, and the TV would hear it. Volume up and down, channel up and down, TV off, and mute. He used the mute the most – hated listening to commercials. He used to want a TV with a coin slot in the back so he could pay for shows instead of watching commercials. This wasn’t so long ago – I remember this shit. The modern galaxy of entertainment with streaming and all would blow his mind.
But back to what I was saying…. Televisions are now so inexpensive and the technology is leaping ahead, we are buying new TVs every year. And there is a hierarchy. The newest, biggest one goes into the living room, the next biggest and newest goes in the bedroom, and the third – the smallest and oldest (yet still only two years old and pretty damn big and good) goes in my office in front of my exercise bike.
So I was hooking up that TV and adding all the proper streaming services and wanted to test The Criterion Channel (my favorite) – so I shot through the menu fast and random and selected Bad Day at Black Rock – for no real reason, just as a test.
It turned out to be crackerjack and I ended up watching the whole thing.
Bad Day at Black Rock stars Spencer Tracy as a mysterious on-armed man getting off a train at a town so isolated and forlorn the train doesn’t even stop there unless it’s a special request. Black Rock seems to have only nine people or so left, and only one of them is a woman (though that woman is a young Anne Francis – which counts for a lot. I remember her from Forbidden Planet – so I guess she has experience in being the only woman in a forlorn spot). Spencer Tracy is on a mysterious mission and the townsfolk have a terrible, mysterious secret, and I won’t do any spoilers.
The film is billed as a Western and it is set in the West, right after WWII, but it is more of a Noir Thriller. Though it does have the Western theme of good guys and bad guys and the plot requires every one to choose their sides and work up the courage to stick.
Everybody is in this movie. I mentioned Spencer Tracy and Anne Francis… plus Robert Ryan, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, Lee Marvin, and Ernest Borgnine. Tracy was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the role but lost out to Ernest Borgnine, also in this film, for his role in Marty.
The first shots of the movie are of a train hurtling across a vast, empty desert. The original plan was for a shot of the train moving fast, directly at the camera. But it was too dangerous to fly a helicopter in front of an approaching train. The stunt pilot had the solution. He filmed the train as it backed away. Then they reversed and sped up the film – for the perfect opening shot.
[voiceover] One fine day… I went out with an old man. He’s studied noodles for 40 years. He was showing me the right way to eat them.
Student of ramen eating:
Master… soup first or noodles first?
First, observe the whole bowl.
Student of ramen eating:
Appreciate its gestalt. Savor the aromas. Jewels of fat glittering on the surface. Shinachiku roots shining. Seaweed slowly sinking. Spring onions floating. Concentrate on the three pork slices. They play the key role, but stay modestly hidden. First caress the surface with the chopstick tips.
Student of ramen eating:
To express affection.
Student of ramen eating:
Then poke the pork.
Student of ramen eating:
Eat the pork first?
No. Just touch it. Caress it with the chopstick tips. Gently pick it up and dip it into the soup on the right of the bowl. What’s important here is to apologize to the pork by saying “see you soon.” Finally, start eating-the noodles first. Oh, at this time, while slurping the noodles, look at the pork.
Student of ramen eating:
Eye it affectionately.
Student of ramen eating:
[voiceover] The old man bit some shinachiku root and chewed it awhile. Then he took some noodles. Still chewing noodles, he took some more shinachiku. Then he sipped some soup. Three times. He sat up, sighed, picked up one slice of pork-as if making a major decision in life-and lightly tapped it on the side of the bowl.
Student of ramen eating:
To drain it. That’s all.
A few months ago I treated myself to a new membership to The Criterion Channel – a streaming channel filled with classic, foreign, and unusual films. I used to rent videos from The Criterion Collection – back in the ancient days when movies came on little plastic disks or on long ribbons of tape – and this is even better.
And in these old days and the even older days before that… we forget how hard it was to find anything odd, unique, or rare that you wanted to watch. For most of my life I would read about works of moving picture art that I ached to watch but didn’t have a chance to.
In college I would sneak into film classes when they were screening classic films. Then when I moved to Dallas in the early 1980’s I purposefully lived in back of a repertory film venue (The Granada – now an excellent music venue) which would show two different films every night – with a “bigger” feature showing over the weekends. The day at the end of each month where the poster with next month’s showings would appear was an important event to me. I’d hang up the poster and circle the films I wanted to attend.
Then along came VHS tapes and DVDs and Blu-Rays and I searched for the more avant-guard rental shops. I would drive across town on a quest for some obscure foreign film that I had read about.
There was a Japanese film from 1985 that I wanted to see and had a hell of a time finding. It was called Tampopo and was touted as a “Ramen Western.” Finally, someone copied a disk and sent it to me. It was a lousy copy but I absolutely loved the film. The main plot, such as it is, involves a John Wayne-like truck driver and a motley group assisting a women in revitalizing her Ramen shop and in the process, making the perfect bowl of noodle soup. It is odd, revolutionary, and very funny. It is also sexy and exciting and, best of all, a classic example of food porn. Literally, food porn.
And now, there is a 2016 4K restoration from The Criterion Collection that has now showed up on the streaming channel. I was able to carve out a few minutes and sit down and watch the thing.
It was even better than I remembered. I’m not sure how, but I had forgotten how unusual the structure of the film was. It will go off and follow the story of someone that walks by the main characters on the street (although that side story is usually wrapped back in later on). There is the story of the gangster in white and his girlfriend with their food-oriented sex life which involves live prawns and cognac and other things. They have a unique and amazing way to eat a raw egg yolk.
It’s not fair for me to recommend Tampopo – if you don’t have the Criterion Channel (there is a 14 day free trial) it’s still pretty hard to find. But if it happens to come by your way, don’t miss it.