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Saturday
Jan012005

THAT'S GREAT* THAT SUCKS - THE BEST FILMS OF 2004

Uma Thurman and Gordon Liu in Miramax Films’ Kill Bill: Vol. 2. Photo © 2004 Copyright Miramax Films.

1) Kill Bill: Vol. 2: Tarantino 101

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 was the most expensive, intelligent, graceful, bemusing, thoughtful, loving, referential, thematic, and fully realized music video ever made. Is it a bad thing, when our most innovative director makes a two-and-a-half-hour music video? Well, it’s better than our best music-video directors trying to make movies. None of them have Tarantino’s grasp of, never mind ardor for, plot structure, pacing, character development, shot selection, narrative cutting, or cinema history. Music videos teach directors about the startling image, the evocative moment, the antinarrative cut, how to generate momentum without a story, and innovative camera moves/special effects; Tarantino has all these wired. But videos also teach directors to worship their own cockroachlike attention spans. Tarantino spins a story over the long haul, for good or ill.

If Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is a music video, then Vol. 2 is most expensive, intelligent, graceful, bemusing, thoughtful, loving, referential, thematic, and fully realized mix-tape. Its virtues are the virtues of the mix-tape: the hipster-geek’s evangelism, perfectionism, and obsession with telling minutiae; the connoisseur’s ecstasy in the face of that perfect segue; the thief-turned-composer’s understanding of how the fifth song (or scene) resonates with the twentieth and vice versa; how the mix-master’s glee lures us into the narrative of the mix and, when it becomes too apparent, pushes us into a colder, less involved appreciation. That glee also makes the mix-tape easy to dismiss as a collection of someone else’s ideas without seeing the originality that links them.

Situationist Guy Debord called Godard “a child of Marx and Coca-Cola.” No matter how much Asian martial-arts Tarantino cannibalizes, he remains a child of Godard and Sergio Leone. Like Leone, he’s obsessed with visual form and willfully slow pacing and shows—in his own idiom—great stylistic rigor. Like Godard, Tarantino adores color, camera movement, mocking his own movie, cinematic references, and abrupt shifts in tone or pace. Like both, Tarantino loves to watch film, he loves to hear film spool through the camera, he loves the images it produces: you can feel how enthralled he is with shooting throughout Kill Bill. And, like Godard, Tarantino doesn’t give a fuck, and will toss his rigorous style overboard in one second for a joke, a violent effect, or to amuse himself at our expense.

Tarantino’s the only man on the planet to elicit human, believable performances from Uma Thurman, Pam Grier, and David Carradine, so clearly he’s a genius with actors. The disappointments are, of course, his eighth-grade sense of what constitutes transgression and the curious fact that his pictures have no metaphorical depth. Not visually, not in the narrative, not in the characters’ situations. All that style and not a molecule of content (music videos rear their ugly head). Yet so many images and moments that linger so strongly.

2) Hero

Hey—remember back in July I wrote that “Zhang’s an artist and his only true mode of expression is sincerity”? You don’t? Good. Because the opulent, aggressive emptiness of House of Flying Daggers proves me so wrong. Still, Hero merges wire-fighting special effects and visual metaphor, high and low, mechanics and poetry, like no other picture, ever. Since Zhang’s now riding the dumb-ass blockbuster train down a one-way track, I suggest we all DVD-up on Hero and savor.

Photo © 2004 Touchstone Pictures.

3) The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou: Tiny Zen Conceits

Wes Anderson is a mannerist and a formalist; he’s one arch dude. His archness is literary—it’s an authorial voice. This makes him not much of a cinematician. His primary visual orientation is the tableau. As befits aWASPy upper-class southerner, Anderson’s tableaux are (William) Egglestonian. And, like William Eggleston,  Anderson’s primary gift is for capturing the essence, and using that essence to comment on the absurd social context of the object, the moment, the person, the location, or the gestalt he’s just captured the essence of.

When Anderson shoots Bill Murray’s condomlike red ski hat, that hat becomes the platonic ideal of all red hats, a ridiculous vanity, a commentary on branding, a little joke on Bill’s character and a tiny nudge-nudge wink-wink to the audience. That we don’t know why we’re being nudged nor what to make of the wink only underscores the quote marks Anderson puts around almost everything. Shining through all this mockery and mannerism is a tenderness that appeared only fitfully in The Royal Tenenbaums. This tenderness is Life Aquatic’s saving grace.

Pedro Almodovar is the one filmmaker in my life whose work I just don’t get. I can’t tell a good Almodovar film from a bad one, and I can’t suss what he’s after. But I do feel a saint’s compassion, an overflowing love of all humans in all their misshapen humanity. Neither Tarantino nor Zhang seem vested in compassion, particularly. But Anderson, for all his quote marks, seems driven by it, and emotional generosity, the yin to his intellectual astringency’s yang, makes his work profound. Anderson’s compassion for middle age resonates so much more fiercely than, say, Martin Scorsese’s wet dreams of monied, gilded youth gone wrong.

Anderson and Tarantino are singular, original visual stylists, who somehow get the backing to do what they want. As Tarantino always seems to go too far at some point, as he wants to break his own spell, so Anderson’s style is a constant pushme-pullyou. The story takes us over, the style pushes us away. Is this a trend or something? None of the best movies this year were wholly sincere (well, the Ramones movie, maybe). Those that strived the hardest for sincerity (like The Aviator) left us more on the outside looking in than all this supposedly alienating mannerism.

Anderson’s high-wire act remains aloft on the strength of his extraordinary taste in music and the (absurdist) delicacy with which he deploys it. So much soothing sweetness emerges from David Bowie gently sung in Portuguese. But Anderson, as in Tenenbaums, shatters his hypnotic hold with one spectacularly wrong song at a critical plot turn. He turns self-indulgent and show-offy when WASPunderstatement was required. His bad judgment’s off-putting in the moment but makes the film more accessible, somehow less of a shiny, perfect object. And you have to love a picture that cops the closing credit sequence from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai and casts Bud Cort (Harold and Maude, Brewster McCloud) as a “Bond Company Stooge.”

4) The Incredibles

This was the year I—and most of my cinema-aware friends—finally gave up. We quit going to big Hollywood movies and quit believing anything good anyone had to say about them. Which kept me out of The Incredibles until a rainy day in Miami Beach with nothing else in the theatre. It’s such a relief to come out of any blockbuster feeling that you weren’t egregiously insulted every minute. And that relief seems to confuse some critics into thinking a movie’s worthy when it merely isn’t vile. But The Incredibles hasn’t a single dead spot, is charming, astonishingly unstupid, makes no vapid plays for hip cred, and is cast with resonant awareness for the emotions of the story. Plus, all the urban landscapes, cars, and homes come straight out of Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle and the beach from Doctor No.

5) Zatoichi

Beat Takeshi the neo-classicist. Who more unlikely or better suited for the role?

(See Meyer, “Two Lone Swordsmen,” Rail, July 2004.)

6) Enduring Love

That rarest thing, an unembroidered, accurate adaptation, perfectly cast (Samantha Morton, Rhys Ifans, and Daniel Craig), true in tone, pacing, context, valence, and—with Ian McEwan’s novels, this is no easy feat—creepiness. Accurate adaptations of McEwan are so resoundingly creepy they drive away the attention they deserve (cf. Paul Schrader’s disturbing and criminally underseen The Comfort of Strangers). McEwan specializes in those moments when politeness, especially English politeness, leads to doom—when holding the proper form blinds his characters to the lethal urgency of civilization going bye-bye. As with Tarantino and Anderson, director Roger Michell’s visual style draws attention to itself but still expresses the emotions of each scene with old-school cinematic discipline. Even though all three films are modernist and self-referential, their visual approach nourishes the narrative; the motivation for every edit and every shot lies in the story.

7) End of the Century – The Story of the Ramones

There’s only one problem with that Metallica documentary everyone thinks is so great: it’s about Metallica. Despite an inescapable crudity—the Ramones prove not exactly genius monosyllabs, there’s little contemporaneous footage of the early days and not nearly enough Joey—here is the true arc of lived-out rock and roll: Nerd-dom, alienation, practicing in one’s room, inspiration, honing a style, commercial acceptance of a sort, endless brutal routine, crippling, incessant mutual loathing…death. Who knew Dee-Dee was a fount of deranged common sense or Johnny such a pig?

8) The Manchurian Candidate

Wit, political satire, commentary on the pervasiveness of TV’s preference for high-tech extravaganza over reportage, and one blindingly awful performance/hopeless miscasting at the core (Kimberly Elise as Denzel Washington’s kind-of girlfriend). Director Jonathan Demme prefers an old-fashioned post-Beat notion of hipsterdom. He likes that little hipster wink at the genre conventions he gleefully undermines. Maybe he proved a hair too hip for the room.

Meryl Streep follows Demme’s lead and creates one of the most believably (avec hipster winking) sinister moms since Leopoldine Konstantin in Alfred Hitchcock’sNotorious. And not even Leopoldine, for all her infantilizing of her adult son, could make your testicles ascend like Meryl leaning over greedily to blow her boy. It’s some shameless shit.

Demme turns incongruously against his own aesthetic for the final third, slipping into Brian De Palma-land while sacrificing if not exactly realism, then narrative credibility. Even so, why did this subversive, stylish gem tank? All that yak about the original omits one key fact: it wasn’t that good. The original was over-the-top madness, with a visual style more Twilight Zone 1950s TV than worthy piece o’ film history. Demme kept the anarchy and found a consistently intelligent visual approach. Maybe nobody wanted to see Denzel helpless and confused, never mind wielding an assassin’s rifle. Good on Denzel for so going against his brand.

9) Maria Full of Grace

 Ice Cube called Boyz in the Hood “an after-school special with cussin’.” Well,Maria is a really, really good after-school special with cussin’. Its apparent cultural authenticity overcomes the necessarily schematic plot, and the sense of a society coming undone lingers despite the almost happy ending.

10) Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring

Only one season too long.

*Thank you: The Shemps

Friday
Nov012002

Blue Crush: The Higher Horror of the Whiteness

THE HIGHER HORROR OF THE WHITENESS

Or

How  Blue crush sanctifies the blonde

 In the wake of XXX and SIGNS and even GOLDMEMBER, most folks I know who’ve seen BLUE CRUSH are saying: well, it's not that moronic. They’re relieved to have been only a little insulted. I think they ended up not-so-insulted the same way I did: by ignoring the plot, which I expected to be an excuse to parade hardbodies.  But, I was wrong.

BLUE CRUSH proved to be the Bizarro BAYWATCH. BAYWATCH purports to be about life-saving but, as we all know, concerns itself more concretely with showcasing that ass. BLUE CRUSH markets itself as a movie all about the ass, but, at its core, the film pursues transcendence. It’s difficult to be insulted by a clear appreciation for the quest to transcend  (especially when the aforementioned ass appears in abundance). And ain't nothing as transcendent as big wave surfing.

The surfing footage is, as surfers say, epic and the style will seem familiar to fans of home-rental, hardcore 16mm/digivideo surf-movies. But visuals like these have never been attempted in 35mm. The director's properly enthralled by the terrifying sensuality of the sport, and the force of will required to excel. It's a singular will, that surfer's will, requiring that balls-to-the-wall courage and a psychopath’s disdain for consequences merge with cosmic Zen in-the-momentness and attention to the ever-changing nuances of the consistently lethal natural world. The key surfer's ambition is to use the body (never the brain) & Zen & courage to Nail The Moment with understated grace in the face of instant death. This gives even the stupidest surfer a certain spiritual awareness and/or one-ness of self.

That helps BLUE CRUSH conceals its deeply insulting nature, as does the film’s deeply concealed cunning. The girls of BLUE CRUSH espouse and live not only sisterhood, but self-actualization and mutual support and anti-commercialism and non-competitiveness -- about waves and success and guys, like, constantly. Almost as constantly as they peel out of their clothes for no narrative reason while making sure to lift arms and breasts way up in the air and thrust out -- while simultaneously rotating --their smallish rounded booties in the tiniest, lowest-slung, most ass-crack molded, pudenda-shaping, hoochie-short bikini bottoms in the contemporary cinematic universe. And this is not a complaint: I prefer that my jiggle-interest espouse worthy politics. It makes my lust less embarrassing. Even though, weirdly, either the blatancy of their display or the poignancy of such shoddily camouflaged body-exploitation cynicism kept me from actually experiencing lust. My experience was more like: "Look at the abs on that girl!" That is, more of a stunned amazement that consumer culture always finds a way to ratchet up the ante and keep us over-stimulated dupes, uh, stimulated. And my objective appreciation (nay, wonder) never trickled down from the front of my brain to the back.

Or lower..

I thought BLUE CRUSH would be TOP GUN for girls or DIRTY DANCING with surfing. In fact, it’s even simpler than that. On plot alone, BLUE CRUSH is a gender-transposed Wallace Beery wrestling picture, a sports-based personal-growth melodrama of the kind Hollywood’s been making since sound. The astonishing surf-photography --  and the seeking transcendence held therein -- raises the non-plot moments to a higher and more memorable level, but the demands of the plot hold sway. And however desperately the story tries to distract us, the point of the plot seems to be another long-standing Hollywood tradition: The Sanctification of the Blonde.

In pursuit of that Sanctification, BLUE CRUSH avoids certain tropes with disarming no-explanation straightforwardness. After a day of teaching the Himbo love-interest to surf, our Blonde Goddess heroine agrees to go up to his hotel room. She's feels ambivalent in the elevator, and my testicles were tightening into a big cringe in anticipation of the horrors of the obligatory pre-love-scene sprightly chatter to come. Amazingly, there was none: no excuses for the fact that, without preamble, they were just going  to do it. They'd spent a nice day together, they found each other hot, she came upstairs to fuck him and everybody knew it but me, the remnants of another age of movie expectations. Gooey fuck-justifications went out with The Real World, apparently. My testicles relaxed.

Tellingly, though, the himbo lures The Blonde up to his room in by promising to pay her for his surf lessons (he knows she’s broke). He slaps a thousand bucks cash into her hand and then lays a big wet one on her. She melts and he reaches for the tie-string of her bikini. It’s always so much schmoover to pay up front…

The Real World looms large over BLUE CRUSH in its emotive and dialogue style. Blondie cannot act; she never looks ridiculous or embarrassed like the generations of beach jigglers who preceded her. She has genuine self-possession (she is, after all, a beautiful young upper-crust New England horse-jumping blonde) and almost no range. She can smirk, look intense or kind of giggle with a really soul-scarring falseness. (My soul, or what’s left of it, I mean, not hers.) Her giggling seems intended to suggest nervousness at expressing her true hidden depths. And that makes her stumbling attempts at replicating human emotion generate all the more compassion. … So she and her comrades speak in an amped-up horribly ersatz naturalism, like the dialogue in any Cameron Crowe picture or the self-conscious for-the-camera sincerities of The Real World.

Since every plot situation reeks of disingenuousness and necessity, the director seeks to lessens our sense of watching pre-ordained wheels turn by aiming for an elusive teen-conversational veracity between the sistahs. He fails, but the other two girls in this posse are so compelling, lovely and competent that their attempts to play out the cheesy Real World neo-realist style make their scenes moving for reasons I’m pretty certain the director never contemplated. And as you watch the two girls -- who were carefully chosen for their non-pin-downable but unmistakable Other-ethnicity (one seems a Jersey ChicanaRican; the other a Chinese/Hawaiian/Polynesian mongrel with the air of a budding NYC model slumming) -- it seems at first ridiculous, and then entirely intentional, that these more intriguing characters/actresses find themselves relentlessly sucking hind tit, stardom-wise.

Every ethnic in the picture exists only to validate a different aspect of the Blonde Goddess, and to confirm that despite her apparent physical perfection and her throwaway arrogance regarding its effects, she got soul.  This is key because no white hero can be heroic without soul – then they’d just be white. You know, like Kevin Costner. And not only does this superior being got soul, she’s also beloved (or obsessed over) by her inferiors. BLUE CRUSH is a universe of ethnics misunderstanding, underestimating, yearning for just one more little slice of, envying, supporting, deifying, inspiring and/or sublimating their own life & desires in deference to the one representative of the oppressor culture. It’s no accident that Blondie’s sole equal – the only man she could love -- is a Norse God from the Mainland, whose naiveté  and absence of street smarts (which = an utter lack of soul) is proof of his racial purity. And thus, his suitability.

The Norse God passes a key ordeal by learning to surf. The next ordeal occurs when he surfs a local’s spot and is confronted by one of the Yearning Ethnics, a putative Hawaiian local (who sure looks like he went to Little Neck High). The local fights the Norseman because he encroached on taboo ground, but also because The Norseman now possesses what the Yearning Ethnic threw away: the goddess’ love. The sight of the Yearner now embarrasses the Blonde, because he represents an unseemly episode of Fucking Down. And he knows it. The ethnic’s resentment of the Norse God, while played as teenage jealousy, is pure, straight-up class loathing. And the end of the film, the Yearning Ethnic chases another white girl (though her blatant cleavage marks her as lower class and so more likely to throw the Yearner a lil’ somethin’ somethin’). Seeking upward mobility by association, the Yearner forces the Norseman to pose in a friendly photo. The Norseman looks acutely uncomfortable at participating in this piece of class betrayal.

The American International Pictures beach blanket Annette Funiciello surf movies of the early ‘60’s utilized surfing as a backdrop. Surfing was the air the characters breathed, never the focus of their desires, and when the plot ground to a halt, someone was sure to run in and yell: Surf’s up! Everyone would drop what they were doing and go surf.

 In BLUE CRUSH, when events slow down, it’s time for a Minstrel Show. And what better minstrels than two jolly fat black men? The only black men in the film play oafs, boobs, clowns who mock their own bodies, revel in their own disgusting habits and seem to be channeling classic Stepin Fetchit. We first meet one jolly fat black man via a tour of his hotel room, which proves a chamber of anti-bourgeois grossness: puke on the floor, rubbers on the ceiling, pee on the seat, food in the bed, etc. We meet the man himself when the Blonde publicly humiliates him by dangling the rubber in front of his face; she’s the Plantation Mistress scolding the slave for expressing his sexual desire. In his very next scene, the jolly fat black man shakes his bootie in a skirt, demonstrating  the castrating power of the Blonde. Later of course, his willingness to play the clown (which demonstrates that he is a harmless black man) and to surf (which proves his class/race aspirations) allows him to confer upon the Goddess his soulful approval. How? He slaps her five, proving that The Blonde grokked the mysterious black code, and thus, has soul. It’s actually a hundred times more unbearable than this description.

But as much as the jolly fat man suffers, the ChicanaRican suffers more. Her role is the most thankless. She not only constantly encourages Blondie at the expense of her own ambitions, but has to play a scene genuflecting before the family-videotaped image of The Blonde as an itty-bitty six year-old surfer girl. “ I wished I could be you,” says the ChicanaRican wistfully, as the lithe blond limbs and straight blonde hair fly before the waves on the grainy screen. No shit, honey. You and everybody else watching at the mall.

The ChicanaRican, who has the acting chops to back up her charisma, serves as the Blonde’s Tonto, ducking her head with embarrassment at her desire to be the Blonde’s equal while trying to shame the Blonde into accepting the gifts and responsibilities of her class. When the Blonde scores the Norseman – when she hooks up rather than train for the Big Surfing Event -- the ChicanaRican is reduced to guilt-tripping her over her Blonde responsibilities. The ChicanaRican reverts to a screen stereotype not (much) seen since Butterfly McQueen: the head-shaking bewildered primitive who jes’ cain’t figger out why dese white folk don’ hab’  bettah sense! And with all they opportunities, too! It’s an interesting reversal, and one worked to perfection in GONE WITH THE WIND: the supposedly less rational primordial displays shock when The Blonde wallows irresponsibly in primality, the alleged turf of the darker lesser beings.

The Mongrel ethnic doesn’t really have much of a role beyond bootie-rotation, hooting from the car at cute guys, shaking her head at Blondie’s cowardice (and with all her opportunities, too!) and smiling her soulful angelic nasty smile that, in any righteous universe, would have her starring and Blondie playing a snotty waitress in a throwaway scene. And as if all that weren’t enough genuflection before The Blonde, The Blonde’s main competition in The Big Surfing Event -- a funky toughass surf-girl who clearly surrendered all  mainstream social ambitions to ply the sea – actually shows Blondie how to ride the wave of her life. Even the Blonde’s competition can’t resist the impulse toward masochism in the face of racial superiority.

 BLUE CRUSH marks an end to those WILD THINGS/IN CROWD-type teenage girl movies wherein the Country Club Set gets their comeuppance from a unified army of non-blondes and social misfits. This one’s about the triumph of the Cheerleading Class, and is most remarkable for the ethnics’ universal jubilation at The Blonde’s ascendant to Power Romance and  Success On Her Own Terms. The film tries to suggest that Blondie lives in a multi-culti world, and on the superficial level presents her as merely one of Los Pueblos, with her own issues and dreams, just like them. But in the end, only one member of this democracy gets a chance to change her station, and that’s The Blonde. When she does, her entourage takes it as a triumph for their whole little world.

It’s a strange new Hollywood mix: gritty realism in the mise en scene, benign fairy-tale horseshit in the narrative and gruesome racial politics in the guise of diversity.

Plus bootie-rotation, of course, often and in close-up. And the nakedness follows the tautology of the rest of the film. It’s like: well, girls do get half-naked and dance around their rooms, don’t they? We’re just honestly trying to show their lives… And fat black guy are often jolly and self-mocking, right? And Norse Gods cash-rich, modest and well-hung?

I’d claim it’s a totally cynical exercise but I swear, I think the producer/director really wanted to make a surf movie. And for the surfing alone, never mind the politics, it’s worth the money. But can you never mind the politics? The dissonance between its ostensive message and visual/narrative reality is so wearing that the only way to experience BLUE CRUSH may be the only way to experience most current big-studio action-epics: wait six months, buy the DVD and skip every scene that features dialogue.

 

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