November 30, 2012

Not dead (Skyfall)

Just as the Dark Knight films aspired to be Bond (as Chris Nolan explains here), so the new Bond, the Sam Mendes-directed Skyfall, aspires to be a Dark Knight film, with Javier Bardem (camp, bleached, monstrous) as its scene-stealing Heath Ledger. They come together in other ways. In the Dark Knight films Nolan wrestled with the comic-book implications – they were superhero movies that didn’t really want to be superhero movies – and, equivalently, Skyfall is an espionage thriller that takes in almost supernatural elements, especially in its depiction of the villain (his island of ruins, his techno-omnipotence). The hero – Bond (Daniel Craig) – seems overshadowed, blandly mechanical, barely present. Apart from M (for mother), the women are superfluous and even the sex isn’t fun. The Craig-era Bond is never enjoying himself; the Roger Moore-era Bond was only ever enjoying himself. Like Nolan’s Bruce Wayne, this Bond confronts and exhumes childhood memory and trauma – recurring image: tunnels – with Albert Finney’s Kincade as his Michael Caine and the ruins of Skyfall in Scotland as his Wayne Manor. As in a Nolan film, the lines are clean and the palette is limited – shot by Roger Deakins, this is at least the best-looking Bond film in years, possibly forever – and the sense of Nolan-like ambivalence and sombre psychology dominates. Since Goldeneye in 1996, the Bond films have had to face their own redundancy; in this instalment, re-evaluation of espionage values has turned into resentment for both Craig’s Bond and Bardem’s Raoul Silva. Action cliches? Yes, two of the worst – car chase through crowded market in foreign country, endless fight atop a train – but both are done before the opening credits, before the serious business of death-resurrection-death-resurrection gets going. “With pleasure,” Bond says at the very end, to his new boss, incongruously but almost convincingly, perhaps anticipating a happier film to come in two years, with the past out of his system and more people dead.

November 29, 2012

Can the world be as sad as it seems?

My best (and some worst) films of 2012 list is up at Werewolf. An expanded version, with some books and music, will be here in a few weeks.

November 26, 2012

Window of a train

“Later she would look at time like scenery outside the window of a train, just a way of noticing what had passed her by, or what she had passed by.” Dana Spiotta, from Eat the Document.

Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011). Irene Jacob in The Double Life of Veronique (1991).

November 23, 2012

David Foster Wallace, movie critic

As you read DT Max’s excellent biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, other books suggest themselves. How about a volume of the Wallace-DeLillo letters? And maybe Wallace’s notes on movies? The book gives us only a small taste of the latter.

For example, Wallace as a teenager “went to a lot of movies”. There was Being There, “which he saw over and over again and which fascinated him with its portrait of a man who learns everything he knows from television” (Wallace watched a lot of television). And there was Jaws, “which sealed his fear of sharks”. Later, in his twenties, Wallace “loved” Brazil – a detail that comes into the text because there was talk that Terry Gilliam might want to direct a film of The Broom of the System (later, Gus Van Sant was apparently interested in optioning Infinite Jest). But Blue Velvet was the revelation. Wallace wrote:
It was my first hint that being a surrealist, or being a weird writer, didn’t exempt you from certain responsibilities … That whatever the project of surrealism is works way better if 99.9 percent of it is absolutely real …
Later, Max reiterates that “Wallace never forgot David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and the skein that separates unremarkable from abnormal in America”.

In the 90s, he sees Jurassic Park and Titanic, like everyone else. In the depths of reading the Infinite Jest proofs, he watches the family dog movie Beethoven over again and again on video as he works. 

“Movies, he liked to say, were an addict’s recreation of choice,” Max writes.
Then he wrote letters about the movies. DeLillo was his chosen correspondent and his opinions were anti-elitist and mildly contrarian. For instance, he saw and loved the cyberthriller The Matrix – “visually raw and kinetic and riveting in a way that only something like Bochco’s Hill Street Blues was in ’81,” he wrote his friend – and hated the acclaimed Magnolia, which he found pretentious and hollow, “100% gradschoolish in a bad way”.
DT Max doesn’t mention Lost Highway, which was of course the subject of an epic magazine-meditation-on-Lynch by Wallace back in 1997 (and it can be read here).

November 15, 2012

Evasion and surveillance

As a footnote of sorts to yesterday’s bit on Body Double, a capsule on De Palma’s Femme Fatale that ran in the Listener sometime last decade when the film screened late one night on free-to-air television, probably in an erotic thriller graveyard slot (no theatrical release in NZ, of course). Femme Fatale is every bit the movie movie that Body Double was. I used to rate these things out of 10 – and Femme Fatale got a 9. In the still above, the lead blonde is introduced watching Double Indemnity on television, with French subtitles. Which nearly says it all.
Femme Fatale
Stylish, mysterious and preposterous, Femme Fatale might be the culmination of Brian De Palma’s career-long obsession with the films of Hitchcock. While there are elements of Rear Window – it’s a film about watching, spying, in which both the male and female lead are introduced with cameras in their hands – the role model here is Vertigo. Like Vertigo’s Kim Novak, Femme Fatale star Rebecca Romjin-Stamos appears as both blonde and brunette in a plot that is about evasion and surveillance. While De Palma has made some seriously bad choices over the decades, his Hitchcock bag of tricks is as full as ever: the sudden twists and dreamlike mood swings, sexual tension and pathological motivation, icy music and icier blondes. And while it lags in the middle, both the opening sequence – a jewel heist during the Cannes Film Festival – and the ending are sensational. (2002) 9
Also, in relation to Body Double: there were the same telescopes in the swinging Hollywood Hills in the Blake Edwards sex comedy 10. There, spying on nearby women did not reach a sinister conclusion but was taken as a cute side effect of Dudley Moore’s mid-life crisis. Only in the Californian 70s. Through his telescope, Moore watches the Boogie Nights-style sex parties of some big-shot porn producer. Both films could have been retitled The Sex Lives of Others, but Body Double renders it all closer to decadence than innocent fun.

November 14, 2012

The killer drove a white Ford Bronco

Which peak-era De Palma film has the worst reputation? Dressed to Kill, Scarface or Body Double? It’s probably still Body Double. I think Dressed to Kill is the best of the three (the most coherent, the most unforced), Scarface is the most operatic, the most violent and the most serious, and Body Double is the most entertaining, the most ridiculous and easily the most movie-conscious. Like David Lynch’s Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, Body Double takes Hollywood as its subject – the seedier end, where B-movie indie blurs with the porn industry. In the early 80s, the porn world is going video, and the wider atmosphere of De Palma’s film seems contaminated by its ever-lowering production values. The central image of Body Double, repeated in posters and stills, was a man watching a woman through a telescope: the Hitchcock-quoting De Palma was citing Rear Window but there is actually more of Vertigo in this set-up (the man, Jake Scully, suffers from claustrophobia as Scotty suffered from vertigo; like Scotty, he follows a woman around a shopping arcade but takes spying to its inevitably seedy conclusion; there is blonde/brunette confusion) and in its doubling. Meta-levels multiply ­– De Palma sends himself up, casting Dennis Franz as a movie director reshooting the shower scenes from Dressed to Kill for his horror cheapie, Vampire’s Kiss ­­– and at its craziest moment, the softcore action stops so that Body Double can become a Frankie Goes to Hollywood music video, with Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford standing by. At this point, another Holly appears, played by Melanie Griffith, who is herself a Hitchcock quote (as daughter of Tippi Hedren), but the leading man is a let-down, less everyman than nobody. Craig Wasson plays Jake Scully and did anyone ever hear from him again? Dressed to Kill had dreamlike texture and terror. This has the same kind of logic but little genuine fear. And also, weird prescience: there is an uncanny line of dialogue that goes, “there is a woman being killed in that Ford Bronco right there”. A few months back, I noticed that David Lynch was saying that Lost Highway had some OJ Simpson in it; Body Double got one of that story’s key details, as well as its wider murder-in-Hollywood sleaze-ambience, eight years early.

November 2, 2012

The whole city is haunted by an imaginary past

Dream double bill: Mock Up on Mu (2008) and Southland Tales (2006).

California’s apocalyptic state. Revelations via entertainment and entertainment via revelations. Paranoid style. In both cases, sprawl and maddening overload.

That sentence – “The whole city is haunted by an imaginary past” – comes from a footnote attached to J Hoberman’s review of the David Lynch film Inland Empire in Hoberman’s new Film After Film: Or, What Became Of 21st-Century Cinema? In the footnote, Hoberman is talking specifically about Thom Andersen’s cine-essay Los Angeles Plays Itself (like Mock Up on Mu, easily viewed in full on YouTube).

Spookily, you then turn the page and get this: “The desire to couple movies most likely derives from the Depression-era gimmick of the double feature.” That leads into a discussion of Douglas Gordon’s Between Darkness and Light (After William Blake), an artwork in which The Exorcist and The Song of Bernadette are screened at the same time. Dream double bill ...