Archive | July, 2011

A child in the 1980s: Saturday morning, 6:30, and too many cartoons

30 Jul

Saturday mornings belonged to me. Always the first up, I had over an hour of blessed free time to surf the channels and watch whatever I wanted. I was only supposed to watch an hour a day, but I was sneaky. I didn’t count television I watched alone, and neither did my parents. We had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. They assumed I followed the rules and I didn’t disabuse them of their assumption.

I preferred to watch cartoons alone, anyway. I snuck around school day afternoons, too, but watching cartoons then was less magical.

My dad liked westerns, football, and wrestling, so I had to vie with these to get my cartoon fix once he was up. My strategy was twofold: complain a lot, and make obnoxious noises while playing with my toys. As a matter of routine, I usually started my shows by 6:30. (Before 6:30, the only thing on was Disney’s You and Me, Kid, a show where parents and children did stretches in matching jumpsuits. The host was a Richard Simmons knock-off. I despised this show, but often watched it.)

My mom nixed a lot of the cartoons; they were deemed Satanic. He-man was forbidden. So was The Smurfs. Anything with Dungeons or Dragons in the title was verboten. Mighty Mouse was off-limits, too, thanks to some report from Focus on the Family people. She-Ra, obviously, but even G.I. Joe made the forbidden list after Destro turned out to be of European devil-worshiping stock, this the only time my mom sat down to watch the show with me. Care Bears was off-limits, too, but I didn’t care about that.

Ambling through the corridors of memory, here’s a rundown of the shows I remember, the ones I loved and the ones I hated. Note: I’m not included the Warner Brothers or Disney serials; these are on the whole excellent. I’m also not including live action shows, despite the fact that I loved Zorro, Star Trek, Buck Rogers and Lost in Space.

No, Johnny, we're . . . heroes.

G.I. Joe was always my favorite. I liked Snake Eyes, Quick Kick, Storm Shadow, and the Saboteur. I had a thing for ninjas and karate. (This led to a later fascination with Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and Michael Dudikoff.) Intro here.

It don't get better than this.

Spiderman and His Amazing Friends was my number two, although it wasn’t on for very long. I sort of hand a thing for Firestar. My favorite episode was when the X-men guest-starred, and they all fought the Juggernaught. Episode available here:

Optimus Prime: defender of the free world . . . and an eighteen-wheeler truck.

Transformers was a great show; Gobots wasn’t. (The name—and I cringe to write it here, but I have to be honest about my former self—sounded gay.) The story followed these giant robots who had adapted, through some odd evolutionary path, the ability to transform into cars, planes, weapons and ghetto blasters. (You have to watch this, the best, nuttiest, awesomest scene from the animated movie.

A rare action shot from a thrilling show.

I hated Babar. My grandfather in Houma, Louisiana, had HBO, my cousins and I loved this, but Babar was always on, this swishy elephant in a tuxedo. The big conflict was usually what they would have for tea, crumpets or biscuits? God, I hated Babar.

Let's kick some albino tail!

I tolerated Bravestarr, although it watches like a bad idea handled poorly. The spaced out western thing was weird (they got there way before Firefly, I just realized), and the villain was an obvious Skeletor rip-off, who speaks with an absurd Strother Martin impression. Here’s an episode where he loses his fancy pants powers.

Look at me like that again and I'll smite you!

I liked Thundarr the Barbarian. It was a combination of Conan and Star Wars, but also with dinosaurs and weird monkey people. But I never knew when it was on. Steve Gerber was one of the creators, and he gave it a funky off-kilter feel. I remember Thundarr had a crown with lightning bolts on it. And a comet cracked the moon, removed our atmosphere, and tossed us back into the dark ages. Intro here.

First rate earth, second rate heroes.

I loved Defenders of the Earth, too, but could never catch it on television; it seemed to always shift around. I always assumed it was a European show.  The heroes were wacky, and Ming The Merciless, who I knew from Flash Gordon, was often the villain. Check out the intro.

Come on, honey, this hammock is strong enough for two.

Duck Tales was hit or miss, but often great. Darkwing Duck, an offshoot, was a step down but I still liked it. Talespin was an improvement; I loved the plane and the Indiana Jones feel. Here’s a taste of Darkwing.

The villains of my favorite show.

Bionic Six was the mutt’s nuts, but it was on in the mornings during the week, and I only caught it when I was home sick, or faking. The main villain was this depraved doctor with a stethoscope. theme song and intro here.

The Gummi Bear family, high on that mysterious gummi juice.

Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears was just okay, although the episode with the boomerang mercenary was incredible. Episode available here.

I still don't understand what this show is about.

My buddy Jason loved M.A.S.K., but I couldn’t get into it. The toys were cool, but main villain was some old guy with a silly mustache. Who would be scared of him, really?

The movie was better.

I did not like The Real Ghostbusters, but I always watched it. (And, something that still annoys me, the cartoon ruined the end of Citizen Kane.) There were two Ghostbusters’ shows, and I disliked but watched them both. Here’s the intro to the less famous one.

Ouch.

I regretted watching Alf Tales even as a child. Some poor bean-counter got boofed on this one.

Pee-Wee Herman rip-off and creepy as hell.

Ed Grimley gave me the shakes. I still don’t know how this ever got made. It’s so creepy.

I wish I could unwatch these.

The Monchichis were strange. (And, in 7th grade, Carson Winn made fun of me on a school trip for knowing the words to the song, forever twinning this harmless little show with bullying.) They were like monkey creatures? Who played all day? I don’t remember a villain. (intro here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MppEZvhLm5g)

The 1988 Superman series was superb. It aired at 6:30 in the morning, and I never missed it.

Inspector Gadget was neat, and I recognized the voice from Get-Smart, another show I loved. But the show was never very funny; I always wanted more action, but never got it.

Heathcliff was blah. I yawn when I think of it. It’s the first place I heard the word, “Dadgummit.”

Silverhawks (intro here) and Thundercats were similar, middle-brow action fantasies that attempted to teach its viewers lessons. I saw right through them. Kind of liked Thundercats, though.

Visionaries was awesome—these knights had holograms in their chests that became laser animals that could claw and bite people—but it aired on Sunday mornings, when television was banned, and therefore I saw it exactly once, at a friend’s house. Intro here.

I liked Alvin and the Chipmunks; I thought the songs were cool, and thought that the characters were interesting. The best episode was Alvin singing against the horrors of East Berlin. I’ve linked to the video here. It explains the whole Cold War shebang.

Cartoons meant a lot to me. These old ones still do. They represent boundless freedom, that mish mash of achy tiredness with just-awake wonder. Sure, they were holding me captive to ads for sugar cereals and toys manufactured by wage slaves in China. Their messages were simple and direct. They were loud, brash affairs where most every problem was solved with violence. They held little subtlety.

Simone won’t have Saturday morning cartoons to watch. We don’t have cable, and the world has changed. When she wakes up at 6, scrambles out of bed to the living room, she’ll probably insert the jack into her ear and wander the digital ether, looking for the things that brought the child in her father so much happiness.

The best movies by decade, part 5: The 1970s (12-24)

29 Jul

There's only one destination you can be certain you'll meet.

12. Two-lane Blacktop/The Warriors/Jaws—Monte Hellman’s road movie watches like a dream from the counterculture of the late 1960s. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson as drag racing hustlers, Warren Oates as a mid-life crisis drunkard, with Harry Dean Stanton and author Rudy Wurlitzer playing bit parts. A few races here and there, lots of car parts, moments of silence with engine work, a climax that never seems to appear—it’s close to a Samuel Beckett play. Hellman pulls it off, though, and the movie that results is an unforgettable drag racing movie that feels important. And, you get to see James Taylor say, “Fuck.” The Warriors: Walter Hill’s update of The Persian Expedition substitutes the Coney Island Warriors for the Greeks, and a hundred nefarious gangs for the Persians. The results are dazzling. Falsely accused of murdering a charismatic gang leader looking to unite all the gangs to overthrow the police and city government, the Warriors must flee across the city with the entire gang infastructure in pursuit. They meet clown-faced baseball players; switchblade sisters; ultra-violent police; and others. No movie has more expertly bottled thrills, humor, satire, absurdity, and fun than this late night jaunt through the five boroughs. It’s an action movie with ideas, and watches like a science fiction take on urban decay. Jaws: The white whale bites back. One of the first blockbusters is also one of the best. Three men—Robert Shaw, Roy Schieder, and Richard Dreyfess—embark on a hunting expedition of a great white shark. The shark has been eating people at a populated beach, and the men, for different reasons, are determined to destroy it. The movie is long, at times meditative, confined to the boat and propelled by Spielberg’s obsessive attention to filmmaking detail. (Duel was a made for TV film; he mapped out the entire shoot with such accuracy that he filmed on location in ten days.) The movie’s alternating tone is one of its strengths, and the fluffy blockbusters that followed do nothing to diminish this film’s value or quality.

Behind that exquisite face, a remorseless killer.

13. Alien/Murmur of the Heart/Le Circle Rouge—A rigorous exercise in style, set design, audience manipulation, and terror. A group of space explorers come into contact with the remnants of an alien civilization. They explore a giant sarcophagus in wonder and awe, until one of their own is attacked by an alien, which they then bring back to their own ship. Ridley Scott’s complete control over the set, tone, and mood is chilling. The last ten minutes are unparalleled in their intensity. Murmur of the Heart: Louis Malle is the French filmmaker who got away. His career was strange, encompassing deeply personal films, noirs, and even some American movies, including Atlantic City. This is his best film, a coming of age story about a self-involved teenager intrigued by jazz, pop culture, and of course, the opposite sex. But the boy is flawed, possessing a heart murmur, and the health system decides it best to send him to a sanitarium where he can be treated by blasting hoses of cold water. The ending is off (really off; prudes beware), but the journey is funny, savage, and strange. Le Circle Rouge: Jean-Pierre Melville is one of history’s great directors. Here he tells the story of tight-lipped gangsters, including Alain Delon, and their shot at a big score. There’s little backstory, just action, suspense, color, dread. Melville is at times cold. I think Bob Le Flambeur is his best film (besides Army of Shadows) because it is also his warmest. Still, it’s a great movie, thrilling and intense.

Absolutely terrifying.

14. Don’t Look Now/Save the Tiger/Catch-22—Oh my God, it’s scary. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie play a married couple recovering from the loss of a child. They vacation in Venice, when weird things begin to happen. Nicholas Roeg shoots this movie on location, with some scenes out of order, and the result is an astonishing horror movie of quality. As Sutherland wanders the Venetian bridges and alleyways, searching for a vision of a red-hooded little girl, the film’s atmosphere of dread builds to a terrifying climax. Save the Tiger: A tiny, mean little picture grounded by the enormous presence of Jack Lemmon. Lemmon plays the half-owner of a fashion line facing bankruptcy, divorce, and the eradication of his own identity. The movie follows him over the course of a few days, facing the hardest decisions of his life, including whether or not to engage in arson to save his business. A fantastic movie, co-starring great comedic character actor Jack Gilford, that watches like a thriller. Catch-22: Mike Nichols directs this excellent adaptation of one of the towering works of 20th Century literature. It seems like an impossible task, but Nichols pulls it off. A great cast, with Alan Arkin, Martin Sheen, Bob Newhart, John Voight, Orson Welles. The movie captures the book’s rhythms, absurdities and rich humor, but offers a quiet beauty to the mix. I’ve never figured out why this movie isn’t thought of more highly (along with the Hospital). Perhaps because the book is so strong?

Klaus Kinski amok in South America.

15. Aguirre, the Wrath of God/The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser—Werner Herzog is the untamed wild man of film. His movies are strange, raw and hit or miss. They often deal with extreme themes. Hauser tells the true story of a grown man who appears in a town without an education and strange mystical mutterings. He slowly becomes mature, and wins over the townspeople, but something evil is stalking him. It’s a great movie, weird and chilling. Aguirre is darkness of a different order. Kinski, besides writing perhaps the best memoir of the business, is an acquired taste, but here he dials it down as a rapacious conquistador driven to discover the lost city of gold. His journey is punishing, there is no plot and little dialogue, but it’s a compelling, uncompromising and powerful work of art.

We all turn into them in the end.

16. The Deer Hunter/Dawn of the Dead/A Clockwork Orange—The third great Vietnam film (behind Apocalypse Now and Platoon). The story follows four men from a broken down mining town (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Cazale and John Savage) before and after their stint in Vietnam. The men wear their scars in different ways. One is confined to a wheel chair; one becomes a thrill-seeking drug addict; and one internalizes his pain into a mental paralysis. It’s a long character study that demands a lot from the reader, but delivers a powerful cathartic message about survival. Dawn of the Dead: George Romero amplified his original zombie concept, adding humor, satire, and existential dread. The result is the finest survival movie ever made, insistent on tabulating the process of daily living, and the need for distractions to maintain sanity. A Clockwork Orange: A cannon of grapeshot blasted into the psyche. Kubrick’s dystopian vision of a future England, besieged by violent, disaffected youth and the extreme response by the system’s hierarchy. Alex (played by Malcolm McDowell) is the leader of a gang of thugs, who spend their days getting inebriated, fighting, or raping. Parts of the movie have dated badly. In my younger days, I loved this movie. I still like it, I suppose, but my fondness for it has diminished. What is Kubrick saying about the human condition? What are his thoughts, his actual beliefs, about right and wrong? Alex being re-unleashed on society, without any rehabilitation, is a chilling indictment of something, I just don’t know what. Doesn’t a murderous rapist deserve to be stripped of his basic defenses?

Hot rods, cool music, and Harrison Ford.

17. American Graffiti/The Last Picture Show/Halloween—George Lucas’s love song to high school, cruising, and early rock n’ roll. The movie’s conceit, tone and approach been copied two dozen times (the best being Dazed and Confused), following a group of high schoolers in one very important night of their lives. The best scenes balance nostalgia with world-weariness. And what scenes! When Richard Dreyfuss walks through his empty high school, knowing he’s never going to come back, it’s excellent. Lucas could have had a very different career, and it’s easy to see why his friends, including Spielberg, were disappointed when he went off on the Star Wars tangent. The Last Picture Show: Yearning and nostalgia of a different kind. Peter Bogdonavich’s ode to small-town life details the ups and downs, miseries and more miseries, of the low-down youth of a dying Texas village. The kids have three things to stave off the boredom: sex, booze and movies. The movie is excellent, made with skill and tender care, and its length does more to catalog the passage of time than any other film I’ve seen. Halloween: John Carpenter’s suburban horror flick about a depraved murderous genius and the sultry coeds who he stalks. First, it’s scary. Second, it dismisses its silly Freudian explanations while submitting psychosexual underpinnings to its murders. Meaning: Michael Myers cannot be explained. Horror cannot be explained. Evil cannot be explained. It can only be experienced, and if you’re lucky, survived.

You can walk all you want, but Buñuel will never let you get there.

18. Discreet Charm of the Bourgeouis/The Sting/Harold and Maude—Buñuel’s bizarre study of upper middle class weirdness, and besides Diary of a Chambermaid and Belle de Jour, probably his best film. (I despise many of his films, including The Milky Way, my vote for the most overrated film of all time.) A free-form film, where characters die and then come back to life, see ghosts, commit atrocities, all without consequences, the movie follows a group of wealthy people attempting to get together for a meal. Only, they are stymied at every attempt, by increasingly bizarre obstacles. I’m not sure what the movie is saying about humanity—are we too busy for the fundamental things?—but the watching of it is funny, enthralling, and unforgettable. (A counterpoint to The Exterminating Angel, where the dinner guests can’t seem to leave.) The Sting: A charming as hell movie, but a major step down from Butch Cassidy. The reason is simple: Newman and Redford aren’t together on screen enough, and the plot is convoluted and silly. Still, the period details are engaging, and the movie has a breezy confidence and swagger. This is also the film’s biggest problem; it wants to be liked. A superb supporting cast and excellent direction mark this an exercise in polished, professional entertainment. Harold and Maude: A stylized love story with a Cat Stevens’s soundtrack and strong principle leads that works best in dialogue with The Graduate. In this movie, the young man in question is disaffected to the point of continual suicide. He craves to be different. And unlike Dustin Hoffman, who is handsome in a boyish way, here we have Bud Cort, the alabaster-skinned reject who looked like a child until he was 40. His paramour isn’t the stunning Katherine Ross, but rather the aged Ruth Gordon. At times the movie pushes its cute weirdness a little too far, but the overall film is a powerful statement about love, life, and survival.

What's a little gunfire amidst so much sand blasted beauty?

19. Badlands/Days of Heaven/ Last Tango in Paris—The one-two punch from Terence Malik. He’s not for everyone; his films move from different character’s point of view through rambling voice-overs. But he’s an expert at crafting images. Badlands follows two young lovers as they murder their way through the southwest, all to a Karl Orff score. The Karl Orff music is child-like and happy. The narration is upbeat. The story is bleak and desperate. The dissonance works. Days of Heaven is a more meditative work, following Richard Gere and his girlfriend and her younger sister. Killing a factory boss in Chicago, Gere and company flee to the Midwest to thresh wheat for an austere wheat baron (played by Sam Shephard). Last Tango: Bertolucci’s most personal movie follows two damaged people who meet in an apartment for anonymous, desperate sex. Marlon Brando’s performance is as powerful as the critics have claimed; he’s cruel, vulnerable, and complex. Bertolucci made good, great and terrible movies. This is arguably his best.

Stupid and drunk and out of control.

20. Animal House/The Bad News Bears/Salo, or 120 days of Sodom—A comedy that’s aged well. The inebriated, morally challenged fraternity members approach life through a boozy, oversexed lens. The cast is hilarious: John Belushi, Karen Allen, Donald Sutherland, Tim Matheson, John Vernon and Mark Metcalf. The movie has problems, such as an inability to celebrate an unsustainable (and in reality accompanied by sexism, bullying and anti-intellectualism) lifestyle while also pointing out its inherent flaws. Doesn’t matter; the movie is funny, pleasurable and oddly decent, despite its rowdy exterior. The Bad News Bears: Walter Mathau gives a great performance as a drunken, used up rake who takes over coaching a little league baseball team. His inadequacies are on full display, and his partial transformation from inebriated failure to only slightly inebriated half-failure is the perfect metaphor for the sliding economic and moral malaise of 1970s America, as well as the scorched earth nastiness of a winner take all culture. The movie is funny, often emulated, and unflinching in its exploration of the losers, boozers, and dead-enders that bobble along at the edges of our great society. Salo: No laughter, but plenty of tears. Scrub your skin, rinse your mouth with soap, and rub turpentine in your eyes; Passolini’s adaptation of De Sade’s 120 of Sodom is as rough, disgusting and vile as they come. Like the novel, the film is an exercise in degradation and cruelty. Unlike the novel, Pasolini contextualizes the sadistic hedonism within the framework of the fascist mindset. Here, the four libertines who run amok among poor, nameless children and prostitutes are high ranking Italian fascists. Pasolini’s argument is simple and clear: allow man’s baser urges free reign—and he’s speaking politically, of course—and torture, slaughter will ensue. Not a movie to watch more than once, but an unforgettable descent into mankind’s madness.

I hope aliens are as pretty and strange as David Bowie.

21. The Man who Fell to Earth/Superman/Ali: Fear Eats the Soul—Nicolas Roeg’s foray into science fiction, and it’s a disconcerting mixed bag. David Bowie stars as an alien from a planet that has run out of water (the future?). He lands on earth, and attempts to carve out a place for himself in society so he can accomplish his lofty goals. Forces align against him, including his own burgeoning appetites for sex and drugs. It’s a very good, if uneven movie, with the added bonus of a fully naked David Bowie dancing his ivory, unblemished body on a bed. Superman: A noble take on the superman mythos. Christopher Reeve plays the last son of Krypton, stranded on our planet with only the trace conscience of his father as a guide. Gene Hackman plays Lex Luthor, the insane super genius out to entrap his alien enemy forever. The poor special effects don’t hinder the film at all, another example of good writing as the answer to everything. Ali: Fassbinder is a strident, powerful filmmaker but not to my liking. There’s something nasty and misanthropic in the background of his films. I don’t trust him. I often feel he is lying, misrepresenting himself. Here, he directs a very good movie about an aging German woman and her relationship with a much younger Turkish immigrant. The fallout of their romance is a tragedy, and a scathing indictment of German failings and human intolerance.

A not so innocent man in Cassavetes's take on the gangster film.

22. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie/The Outlaw Josey Wales—Cassavetes is important, but an acquired taste: the long rambling scenes; the spontaneous riffs; the lack of cohesion in theme or plot. But given a taste of his idiosyncratic style, it’s hard not to admire the man. His take on the crime movie is a bizarre sidestep. Ben Gazarra plays a burlesque club owner who falls into the clutches of the mob. They send him on a suicide mission, to kill a Chinese bookie who has moved his way up the underworld food chain and is threatening the mob bosses. The resulting movie is half-comedy, half-gangster movie, elongated through Cassavetes’s baroque style. The Outlaw Josey Wales: Only in the 1970s would a movie this good be this low on a best-of list. Clint Eastwood directs and stars as the title character in this post-Civil War revenge film about a decent man driven to murder and mayhem. Hunting down the men who killed his family, Wales picks up his own new family of misfits, and it is this balancing act of vengeance with love that makes this western one of the greats.

Elegant, subtle entertainment. With guns.

23. The Friends of Eddie Coyle/Dirty Harry/Young Frankenstein—A great crime movie that’s been forgotten. Robert Mitchum plays Coyle, an exhausted and not too bright low level criminal facing prison time. The only way out is to turn state’s evidence. This excellent bank robber movie—it’s sparse, tough, and unsparing—is also the best movie about Boston. Dirty Harry: Don Siegel’s hard-nosed cop thriller is elevated by Clint Eastwood’s wolfish smile and the on-location shooting of San Francisco. It’s a tough film, untouched by any niceties or desire to be liked, and is partially to blame for a slew of vigilante films that followed. But, it’s good; it’s visceral; it’s uncompromising; and it’s real. Harry Callahan is dangerous, true, but he’s also willing to make the hard moral choice of killing one person to save others. Young Frankenstein: Mel Brooks very funny riff on the Frankenstein movies. It’s attenuated nonsense, but hilarious and satisfying. Through his career, Mel Brooks was hit or miss, but with this and The Producers, he hit the bullseye. He liked Gene Wilder, and it’s easy to see why. Wilder is unstable, but kind, and the combination of the two is as good a springboard as any for comedy. Peter Boyle, who has parts in Eddie Coyle and Taxi Driver, co-stars.

Colorful, inspired anarchy.

24. The Muppet Movie/Klute/The Man Who Would Be King—The great children’s movie for adults. Loosed upon an avaricious world, the innocent muppets attempt to navigate their way across the country, while being pursued by a vengeful Charles Durning, who wants to eat Kermit! Anarchic silliness, double entendres and a enthusiastic madness combine with the cast of comedic actors, including Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, Cloris Leachman and Orson Welles for a great movie. Klute: There’s more than one movie sneaking around in this mystery thriller that also purports to be a feminist character study of a woman in control of her sexuality. The two movies never really become comfortable with each other, and the pulpy detective story wins out. Thank God. Donald Sutherland as the aghast, unsure detective in a seedy, barely recognizable world is the movie’s real heart, not Jane Fonda’s philosophizing call girl. The Man Who Would Be King: John Huston’s big buddy adventure movie, made the richer by John Huston’s masculine direction. Sean Connery and Michael Caine co-star as two British adventurers who take up the white man’s burden to become rich in the outlands of Afghanistan. Huston’s powers were on the wane for some time, and then he punched back with this and Fat City. This isn’t a subtle movie, it isn’t revolutionary, it breaks no new ground, but it’s good, good, good.

Honorable Mention: Le Samourai; Picnic at Hanging RockBarry Lyndon; Fiddler on the Roof; What’s Up, Doc?; Patton; All That Jazz; The Duelists; Three Days of the Condor; Mr. Klein; Marathon Man; Grease.

The best movies by decade, part 5: The 1970s (1-11)

27 Jul

You could call it the New York decade. No other city has been explored, exhumed, ravaged, and praised on celluloid as much as the Big Apple, and the 1970s were its best years. The greatest American city enthralled and horrified audiences, from the B-movie bonanzas set mostly in Harlem and Brooklyn, to the vigilante revenge sagas that seem to encapsulate the untidy crumble of the seventies so well.

You could also call it the New American cinema, for the 1970s was also an explosion of American filmmakers, young and old. The counterculture of the 1960s resulted in a Hollywood out of step with America’s youth. The success of Easy Rider, The Graduate (hardly a countercultural movie, in retrospect) and Bonnie and Clyde sent the movie producers scrounging around at the edges of things. The result was an enormous influx of new talent. It could be summed up as revenge of the nerds. The first generation of film students unleashed their knowledge, vision, and solipsism on the world.

Someone loosed artists in the banker’s retreat. The snake was free in the garden.

This was a good thing. The films as a whole are spectacular, moving and socially relevant. They are pungent, unpredictable, diverse. A number of personalities pushed their way into American cinema, vying for influence and control. Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino all produced their best work in this decade. Lesser figures snuck in with the greats: Brian De Palma, Hal Ashby, Alan Pakula and Bob Rafaelson among others. It was a blazing comet of talent, a cascade of writers, directors, actors and artists in a mad rush to immortalize their work. Many of these directors continue to work. Others flamed out in fantastic self-destruction.

A question emerged: what would American cinema look like, crowd-pleasing blockbusters or uncompromising works of art?

Heavy lies the crown

1. The Godfather 1 and 2—The greatest crime epic of all time and it’s really a film about the inner workings of a typical American family. The cast is superb, a combination of future stars, great character actors, and an aging Marlon Brando. The movie works because, as many critics have noted, outside or external morality is replaced with an insular code. The murder, dismemberment, and blackmail are only palatable inside the Corleone family. It’s what makes Michael a hero in the first film, and a villain in the second; he works for his family—basically revenging his father—in the first film, but in the second he turns on his family for himself. Together, it’s the best film ever made, and a scathing study of moral decay.

It's the news that's making us mad.

2. Network/Chinatown—Sidney Lumet had a great run in the ’70s. Working with screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky, he created the best film about media, manipulation, politics, money and madness utilizing an all-star cast: William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch and Robert Duvall. The screenplay is intricate, forceful, grim, cynical, and still humane. The story follows a low-rated news network that decides to keep Howard Beale, one of its anchors, on the air even after he has clearly lost his mind. The executives allow his derangement to develop on air, and soon he has a large following. It’s harrowing stuff, and often misunderstood. Beale is not some hero for the masses; he’s a sad, brow-beaten stooge, so pathologically disturbed that he can’t understand who’s pulling the strings. It’s a terrifying metaphor for the average citizen, and still a dark plunge into the abyss kind of movie. Chinatown: Jack Nicholson plays Jake Gittes, a private eye who wants to be liked and get along. Hired into an absurd missing persons case, he slowly descends into a horrid world of money and violence, where visionary land barons with terrifying power fight each other with the elements of the earth: land and water. John Huston delivers a great performance, as does Nicholson. Robert Towne wrote a great script, sticking to the hard-boiled conventions but elevating the concerns into political, social, and philosophical terrain. But it’s director Roman Polanski’s movie, a scathing indictment of the basest human desires to control, conform, and ruin any and everything that is wild or beautiful.

An immersion into the deranged, damaged mind of Travis Bickle.

3. Taxi Driver/Mean Streets—A total immersion into subjective experience and the purest exploration of the relentless savagery of urban disaffection. Robert De Niro plays Travis Bickle, a taxi-driving Vietnam vet who, damaged from his war experiences and fragile to the hardness of the world, is sculpted by the vile late night excesses of the amoral denizens of a run amok city. Paul Shrader’s insane weirdness—his obsession with guns, his intense understanding of disaffection, his racism—combined with Scorsese’s talent with the camera result in a great film that is uncompromising, unyielding and vicious. The scaffolding of the film, and the source of its eerie, hypnotic power, is its potent, unspoken racism. The best scenes follow Bickle as he stares down the ethnic peoples who have taken over his city. A mind-bending journey into the dark. Mean Streets: Scorsese’s most personal film is also his richest. Lacking the hip distance or formalized aesthetic of Goodfellas and Casino, Mean Streets is a paean to young criminally minded misfits on the mean streets of New York. Harvey Keitel plays Charlie, a well-intentioned Catholic involved with up and coming gangsters. His best friends are reckless Johnny boy (played by De Niro) and self-serious Tony (played by David Proval). The best pieces involve petty crime; the film’s need to be serious (and strangely moralizing) tears at the movie’s best feature: Scorsese’s longing to return to the amoral rough housing of his youth.

Woody Allen moves away from slapstick and its wonderful.

4. Annie Hall/Manhattan/Interiors—As years pass, the 1970s were Woody Allen’s decade. He’s never really stopped making interesting movies, but these taken together these three comprise a high water mark for American filmmaking. Annie Hall is his most famous, and it’s easy to see why. The film is sneaky; the entire contents take place within the memory of Alvy Singer. This conceit allows Allen to shoot back and forth in time, push the conventional boundaries of a romantic comedy and even step outside the plot on comedic whims. Yet, the film has an insouciant grace, an ease of viewing that makes the watching of it pleasant and even restful. Manhattan is a different kind of movie, a beautiful and probing look at an active but self-destructive mind at work. Here Allen plays Isaac, a television writer and much more confident take on his nebbish persona. Startling and beautiful. Interiors is his first riff on his idol, Ingmar Bergman, and it’s a humorless foray into the nasty conflicts within a family. It’s a superb film, well paced and without an inch of fat. Made by any other filmmaker, this would be a flagship movie.

A great movie with great songs.

5. Nashville/ McCabe and Mrs. Miller —Robert Altman’s finest hour. A large cast of characters occlude, destruct, seduce, elide and collide over the course of a few days in the country music capital of the world. The musical numbers are great, and this despite my intolerance of country music. The movie is long and patient, but it contains multitudes, with commentary on politics, relationships, philosophy, psychology, popular culture, and is—and this is a kooky comparison—a southern La Dolce Vita. McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a Robert Altman western with a Leonard Cohen soundtrack, and if that doesn’t whet your appetite you don’t like movies. Warren Beatty plays McCabe, a down on his luck gambler who grabs a vision of building a whorehouse in a mining town. He meets Mrs. Miller, a madame from back east who guides his vision with her knowledgeable hand. The town builds up around them as their professional relationship deepens.  But when hard men come to town, the whole thing is endangered, leading to a nail-biting climax. When tethered to a story, Altman could work miracles. MASH is a good film, and so is Thieves Like Us, but these two are for the ages.

The 1960s in a nutshell: authority versus the individual in a psychic ward.

6. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest/The Conversation—Nicholson had a run in the ’70s unparalleled by any other actor. He made too many good films (Chinatown, The Last Detail, The King of Marvin Gardens, Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, and if you include the first two years of the 80s, you also get The Shining and Reds). Here he plays Randall McMurphy, perhaps his best role, a heedless whirlwind of a character who refuses to bow to any external authority. He falls under the control of Nurse Ratchett, a tight-fisted nurse who manipulates her wards chemically, physically and psychologically. McMurphy is uncontrollable, and brings to Ratchett’s tranquil Eden sex, drugs, and defiance. She’s America, he’s the 1960s. The movie works beyond its metaphor, however. It’s a harrowing drama with plenty of comedy and a great supporting cast. The Conversation: Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, an intensely private sound engineer who gathers information from the private lives of others for his profession. One conversation in particular—between the daughter of a wealthy businessman and her male friend—plays out throughout the film, as he listens to the nuances and particulars. The conversation at first sounds nonsensical, but as Caul listens to it over and over, alongside the audience, it becomes clear that something diabolical is taking place, and potentially murderous. A hypnotizing little movie, and an unforgettable exploration of our eroding privacy.

Robert Duvall as Kilgore, the insane commander obsessed with surfing and the smell of napalm.

7. Apocalypse Now/ The Passenger—The darkest, strangest, most disturbing vision of warfare ever made. Adapting Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to the Vietnam war, Coppola utilizes his vast filmmaking gifts. Martin Sheen plays a trained military killer sent upriver to remove a rogue C.I.A. colonel who has seduced a tribe of locals into thinking he’s a god. The movie works because it is non-literal; in the hands of another filmmaker, it would watch like Rambo II. During the filmmaking, actors died, Sheen had a heart attack and Coppola lost his mind. All of the background madness shows, reverberating on the screen with hypnotic power. The Passenger: Antonioni’s second best movie, and yes, Jack Nicholson stars. Nicholson plays a reporter in Africa who decides to impersonate the life of a man who dies in the hotel where he’s staying. Why he does this is unclear, but he soon becomes involved in international arms deals and a life of danger and intrigue. Antonioni’s skills with the camera, his patience and fortitude, work wonders in thrall to what is essentially a mystery-thriller. Like Blow-up, his slow pacing and scrutinizing visuals produce a different type of thriller. You sense a great but plodding mind at work. The final five minutes, a single take shot, tracking killers pursuing Nicholson through the dusty streets of Gibraltar is so calm, reassuring and beautiful you forget your watching a man being murdered.

A blazing hot day in the city and a bank robbery gone wrong.

8. Dog Day Afternoon/The Hospital—The best bank robbery movie ever made. The filmmaking is superb, immediate, gritty, a heightened realism. It is a study of a decent man, with decent values, making horrible mistakes. The two bank robbers aren’t villains, or even criminals. Why they’re doing what they’re doing is the key to the movie’s appeal, and why the fallout of their failures is so heartbreaking. Pacino’s performance is controlled, and watching him unfurl his character’s anxieties is a highlight in a decade of great American acting. The Hospital: George C. Scott plays a beleaguered doctor in the middle of a midlife crisis. When his doctors take a perfectly healthy man and through honest mistakes, bureaucratic complexity, and malpractice, put him into a coma, Scott faces a crisis of confidence in his profession, outlook, and way of life. Paddy Chayevsky wrote the script, and Scott falls into the character with heedless abandon. It’s a performance for the ages, in a movie that is funny and sad, a metaphor for the convoluted exigencies of American life.

Don't answer the phone!

9. Black Christmas/The Exorcist—A horror movie gem, and unparalleled in its ratcheting up of isolation and horror. A group of sorority sisters, staying in the house over Christmas break, receive a series of obscene phone calls that escalate in their violence. Meanwhile, a faceless killer moves through the sorority house, killing the coeds who wander into his (or her?) path. Bob Clark, who would later make A Christmas Story, creates unbearable suspense in what is, I would argue, the first modern horror movie. You won’t easily shake this one off.  The Exorcist: The gold standard of horror films, and an honest (if admittedly biased and strange) examination of faith in the face of evil. A young girl begins suffering from strange poltergeist phenomenon. Her mother, played by Ellen Bursteyn, investigates, as her daughter becomes a howling, scary maniac. Father Karras, struggling with a loss of faith, is brought in to exorcise the demon. It’s a tense, nail-biting affair, a disturbing portrayal of adolescent female sexuality, and a terse, pared down horror film.

The creepiest series of non-sequiturs you'll ever endure.

10. Eraserhead/Star Wars—David Lynch’s first feature is strange, haunting, scary as hell and sort of funny, too. The visuals follow a rigorous black and white gestalt, an exploration of the inner demons of a man facing fatherhood and it has these bizarre set pieces involving a woman in the radiator singing with a pancake face. It’s a telegram from the other side of the mirror, trafficking in dream logic, but Lynch’s devotion to his vision is so total, and strangely warm, that it works. Re-watch his movies and they begin to make a bit of sense. Take in his entire career and he seems a holistic visionary, with a wide enough philosophy to include the underrated Dune. Star Wars: You can’t get away from it and you shouldn’t even try. This original foray into science fiction mythology is also a pastiche of half a dozen different genres. Gunslinging cowboys, noble samurai, bomber pilots, damsels in distress and faceless grunts collide in this breathless adventure that is the natural culmination of merging the 1930s serials with advanced visual technology. The movie has a pop gravitas all its own, earned by Alec Guiness’s haunted performance and the movie’s zen-style philosophy.

Man versus man and nature in Deliverance. "The machines are going to fail."

11. The Last Detail/Deliverance—Robert Towne’s script is funny, vibrant, youthful and searing. Hal Ashby’s direction is calm, direct and elegant. (He misfired as often as he hit, but anyone who included Harold and Maude in his CV is a great director.) Two shore patrol sailors, played by Jack Nicholson and Otis Young, are instructed to carry a third young sailor (played by a young randy Quaid) to a naval prison in several days. The young sailor, convicted of petty theft, is going away for eight years, and his two guardians decide to give him a worthy sendoff, including booze, women, and good times. Their journey will take them across a number of big cities, including Philadelphia and New York. A fantastic little movie. Deliverance: A great film that is misunderstood, pigeonholed by a scene that is terrifying and, considering the subject matter, handled with subtlety. Four city men go out to the country to canoe down a river soon to be dammed. They encounter a strange, hostile cluster of freakish outsiders, as well as an untamable wilderness indifferent to the miseries of man. Burt Reynolds and John Voight were never better, and Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty make for strong supporting players. A great, if dark and disturbing, film.

Brooklyn jollies, Manhattan follies, part 2: Sometimes a great notion

24 Jul

1.

The plan was complicated. We would drive to upstate New York from Chicago, spend a few days with friends, and then zip down into New York City. There we would stay with some of Beth’s friends in Brooklyn; I would go to a party at a friend’s apartment; the next day we would visit Manhattan; and then leave Simone overnight and go to a wedding in Mystic, Connecticut. The next morning we would drive back through New York, pick up Simone, I would attend my online graduate classes, and then we would return to Chicago via interstate 80.

It was an ambitious plan.

Any number of things could go wrong.

And many of them did.

Although punctuated with some bright spots, the trip was a disaster.

Before things fall apart, Simone makes a friend in Cooperstown, N.Y.

2.

The first leg goes fine. Simone is happy. Beth and I listen to David Sedaris on the radio. I develop a crick in my neck, but I deal with it.

Oneonta is a town in upstate New York, surrounded by tree-covered mountains. It’s nice, pretty and quiet, but we don’t sleep enough, hours less than usual.

On the way into New York, we’re cranky. Traffic is light. Beth talks about bridges.

We park the car in Park Slope, where Sherina lives. The early afternoon sun filtered by tree branches and the sky wide and handsome.

Beth’s friend, Sherina, and her boyfriend, Jonathan, live in a two-bedroom apartment. There’s a windowless corridor running from the front rooms, where Jonathan has a command center of computer equipment, to the tiny single-window kitchen. It’s nice and we’re excited to be here. But, there’s a problem.

They have two cats.

Beth is allergic to cat dander. Super-allergic. Her throat constricts, her eyes water, her skin itches.  “I forgot about the cats,” she says in a half-whisper, her bag sitting open and exposed on the bed.

3.

Jonathan and I walk up Fifth Avenue. The street is lined with restaurants and shops, people. We drink Norwegian coffees and talk about comics. I feel better. The cobalt sky and it isn’t too hot. We finish our route, watch Bored to Death and wait for Beth to call. I spend an hour stretching my back on a yoga ball. I call my friend, set up my plans for the night. He lives about a mile away. I’m excited.

Beth finally calls. “We might have a major crisis on our hands,” she says.

“I’m having a bad allergic reaction to Sherina’s cats. I can’t breathe. I feel like I’m dying. We might have to stay with your uncle.”

This is serious; my uncle lives six hours away, and if this is the best Beth can come up with, we’re in trouble.

She can’t return to the apartment. She’s stuck outside. Toni, the only other New York friend Beth knows, is out of town.

Sherina has a friend who lives nearby. There’s a couch, etcetera.

My chances of making it to my friend’s party are shrinking.

For dinner, Beth picks a bar on the corner. We sit outside. It’s standard fare. Simone eats French fries and some bread. Her diet this trip has been bad: cheese curds, rice cakes, frozen yogurt, pancakes and fried potatoes. She’s tired, cranky and bored by the end of the meal so I run her up and down the sidewalk, where she touches the blinking walk sign with dirty hands.

I take Simone up to the apartment while Beth begins her peripatetic jaunt around the neighborhood; she’s waiting for the friend to get home.

It’s 8:45. Simone has two dirty diapers in as many minutes; she’s sick. I call the doctor; I inform Beth; I hug Simone and put her to sleep. I email my friend, bail on his party, sit in semi-discomfort, full of regret. I haven’t seen him in two years.

Jonathan reads. I stare at my computer screen. Beth continues her walk. Sherina joins her, and soon so does Jonathan.

I sit in the empty apartment. I contemplate getting drunk. Feels irresponsible. My nose is running. My shoulders ache. I feel clammy. My throat is tightening. Am I allergic to cats, too? I’m anxious about Simone, feeling wretched.

Too tired to read, I dash off a half-finished blog entry and then watch The Golden Child on TV.

It’s something to do.

4.

The next morning, Simone wakes me up at 5:50. We watch Toy Story 3, because I don’t want her to wake up our hosts, and I spoon-feed her yogurt as per the doctor’s instructions. Beth wakes up at 6:30 and starts walking around the neighborhood with her bag. She’s slept maybe 4 hours; I’ve slept closer to 5; Simone has slept 8.

The sleeplessness accumulates. Beth is touchy. So am I.

Simone and I join Beth outside around 7:45.

A week’s worth of refuse and recycling rests on the curbs and sidewalks in multicolored garbage bags.

“At least in Chicago we know what to do with our garbage,” Beth says.

We walk Simone through Prospect Park to the farmer’s market. The place is already crowded. Simone is docile, occasionally kicking her legs inside the stroller. We buy blueberries and eat them as we stroll through the park.

The morning heats up.

We meet Sherina for breakfast. The food is good. Simone eats a pancake.

We walk to Gorilla coffee, a local roaster. The storefront is blanketed with gorilla faces in Che Guavera red. The baristas are friendly. We drink lattes on blood-red benches as the morning shifts into midday heat. Beth’s been on her feet for close to four hours, and it’s just past 10.

Still, a good start to the day.

We walk towards the Brooklyn flea market. Discarded shoes and books dot the stoops of the awakening city.

I strike up a conversation with two guys in a vendor’s stall. They’re both in their forties, one looks familiar, the other is from Australia. We talk about old crime movies. They know their stuff. More than me. We chat for 15 minutes before I leave with a handful of recommendations and plenty of good cheer.

“The brotherhood of the cinephiles!” the Australian says as I back away. Did he want a hug?

Back in front of Sherina’s apartment, Beth stows her bag in the car. “Do you think it’s too hot for my products?” she asks. “Will the bag be okay? Do you think my stuff will melt?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe not. I can run it back upstairs. It’ll only take a second.”

“Then it will get more cat hair on it.”

Sherina stays out of it, waits.

“It’ll be fine,” Beth says, and we head for the subway.

Hey, where's my coffee?

5.

Simone, Sherina, Beth and I head for Manhattan. The train ride is uneventful.

We’re going to stay with Toni but she isn’t ready for us. So, we walk. It’s hot. We head to the High Line Park, which is fantastic, an elevated park on an old railroad track, with wild grasses and beautiful benches and stunning views of the city. And people. Lots of people. It’s a crush in the narrow places, and Simone in the stroller is stressing us all out. An impossibly old lady moves at a glacial pace, sliding along with her walker. I feel guilty about it, but when I see an opening I shoot Simone past.

The sun bears down on us. It’s a relentless UV assault. I can feel the golden lasso’s touch on my face and hands.

At the park’s end, we descend.

Beneath the park, there’s an outdoor beer garden and food trucks. I eat spicy kimchi tacos while Simone climbs on the seats and tries to run away. It feels good to sit down.

“How far is Toni’s apartment?”

“It’s about two miles,” Sherina says.

They talk and turn to me. “You want to walk or ride the train?”

“Up to you,” I say, a major mistake.

“Let’s walk,” Beth says.

If only life could be lived backwards.

6.

We walk. The sun is hot. The ground is hot. The sky is glassy, unwelcoming and cloudless. The people have indifferent faces. New York smells like a combination of sea salt and half-rotted sweet cabbage.

On a semi-deserted street, I pass within two feet of some old guy fumbling with some camera equipment and plastic bags.

He flips out. “Six feet of sidewalk and you almost knock a $600 camera out of my hands, you’d be replacing it you piece of SHIT!” his voice raises to a yell. He rails. He shrieks. He threatens. His screaming turns into a rant. We walk.

“That guy is yelling at us,” I say to Sherina.

“What?” They both turn and look at him.

“That guy, he’s yelling at us.”

“He’s crazy,” Beth says.

“I tune all of it out when I’m here,” Sherina says.

“Let’s cross the street,” I say, and cross it we do. The angry old guy follows us to the corner and then stops. He’s wearing a yellow button down with brown suspenders and with a slight bewildered look on his face. It’s clear that he’s forgotten about us.

A Christian youth troupe enacts a public performance about the twelve disciples. They look bored. We move on.

It isn’t two miles. It’s almost three, but we walk six blocks to avoid Times Square. By the time we make it to Toni’s, we’re a ragged, overheated, desperate crew. The sun or the city has bleached the joy out of us.

Beth has now been outside, on her feet, for close to 12 hours. Simone is sleepy and taxed. I feel like a barrel of sour mash. We’re done and we know it, but we don’t put our failure into words.

Chewed up and spit out by the naked city.

7.

Night. Toni’s apartment is small, organized, and air-conditioned. She and Sherina look for gluten-free restaurants while Beth and I ignore each other. I scan the room. Our stuff is everywhere, invading Toni’s orderly life like a rampant weed. Simone is sleeping in Toni’s room. The tv is off.

My eyes pause on Beth’s bag. The coloring is too dark, splotchy in places. Something has spilled inside. I’m tempted to stay quiet, let her discover for herself, but I don’t.

“Hey, babe? I think, maybe, something might have spilled in your bag.”

She bends over and looks. “Shit.” It’s an angry, defeated word.

She empties her bag, methodically. It’s bad. There’s oil on a lot of her clothes. It’s seeped through and stained almost everything. She’s furious. I retreat to the bathroom, hear her through the walls. She’s muttering. “We can’t have a decent goddamn trip because everything is just so fucking terrible.” I don’t catch the rest. I’m so tired my eyes are unfocusing. Beth spends thirty minutes cleaning out her bag, coughing, eyes watering, as she re-exposes herself to the cat dander. She’s miserable. I don’t have the heart to ask if the dress she’s going to wear to the wedding is okay.

Toni goes to sleep. I inflate an air mattress in the bathroom. It’s a clunky, silly procedure, wedging me between the sink and the door. When I emerge, Beth is sleeping on the couch. I’m too tired to sleep, so I read some comics before eventually giving up. It’s almost 2.

Simone wakes up at 5:30. The sleep deprivation continues.

Beth hands her to me, goes back to sleep. Simone is tired, and eventually I get her to fall asleep on the air mattress, half of my back on the floor.

The city has defeated Beth. We take Simone with us up to Connecticut. We leave New York at 10. The wedding starts at 4. We have six hours to drive there, check in to the hotel, and get ready for the night.

I drink a huge cup of coffee for the road. My thoughts spark like exposed electrical circuits. I carry the jittery hungry feeling in my limbs. I bounce my feet. I sing songs in my head. I think of ideas for a new novel. I wonder how Simone is going to handle a night wedding after two hard days.

Beth and Simone fall asleep.

We leave New York behind us.

I have a realization as I catch a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror. My face has hardened over the years. I use to get hit up for money every few blocks wherever I went.

Now, it never happens, anywhere.

Brooklyn Jollies, Manhattan Follies, part 1: Vigilantes on parade

21 Jul

We’re back from New York City. It’s 100 degrees outside, and I’m huddled in my Chicago apartment while fighting off a cold. I’m working on the entries of the New York trip—which was an unmitigated disaster—but first, some context.

I was 22 when I first visited New York City. I was convinced that, as soon as I crossed the city’s border, a bi-racial gang of muggers would beat me with tire irons, steal all of my belongings, and then sodomize my (almost) senseless body.

I carried a creeping fear, even in the fancy neighborhoods. I thought everyone was armed. Vicious street gangs ran rampant. Everyone was either a coke addict or a crack fiend. Every male had filed teeth. Every female wore stiletto heels. People carried night sticks under their clothes, straight razors in their pockets, and reused dirty hypodermic needles just for fun.

It was a switchblade, brass knuckle, snub-nosed pistol kind of place, and I would never be safe there. I was a small-town boy. I did not belong.

Movies did this to me.

No city has been as dissected, affirmed, attacked, assaulted, or celebrated as much as New York City. This city is refracted through a thousand movies. Walking its streets is an exercise in déjà vu.

(If I had to rank the best New York filmmakers, I would say Sidney Lumet, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Spike Lee.)

Making a best of New York movie list is pointless; hundreds of great films have been set here. Instead, here are some films that roam around the city, giving you a feel for its fetid, shadowy places.

Look, punk. I paid for this mustache. Now get ready for some hot lead.

Death wish—A vicious, unentertaining lie. Charles Bronson plays a meek New York architect who stalks street-level criminals after his wife and daughter are assaulted. (They made five of these.) He arms himself, lures street thugs into attacking him and them guns them down. It’s joyless business; think Taxi Driver without the art. There’s an example of a scene here.

The movie that first made me realize New York was the devil's vacation home.

Taxi Driver—The snarling movie of New York racism and rage. Travis Bickle, a semi-autistic square, attempts to build a life for himself driving a cab through the dark. Back from Vietnam, unstable, unable to express himself, Bickle is transformed by the atrocious decay he witnesses. I saw parts of this film when I was 10 (including Scorsese’s speech, here). The scaffolding of the film, and the source of its eerie, hypnotic power, is its potent, unspoken racism. To this day, I can’t get a clean and clear look at New York. I keep seeing the red taillights of the cab, as they slide through the mist with that haunting Bernard Hermann score.

A forgotten movie with a great cast and tons of New York.

The Anderson Tapes—I could list fifty movies of vigilante justice and gang bangers, but where would be the fun in that? Here, Sean Connery plays a rascally thief out for a big score. The target is a building of wealthy tenants on the Upper East Side. The story carries the characters back and forth across the city while various governmental agencies record their conversations. The movie is excellent, for the uninitiated, and has two great speeches from Alan King, unrelated to the main plotline but essential to the film’s meaning.

An antidote to a year's worth of feel-good movies.

The Pawnbrowker—Sidney Lumet’s bleak exploration of the consequences of the Holocaust on a survivor’s life is a scathing American response to the French New Wave. Harlem comes alive as a seething ghetto, a collision of languages and cultures. Rod Steiger is astonishing as the morose, defeated pawnbroker of the title, who spends his bitter remaining days sitting in judgment at the New York freakshow that passes through his shop every day. At the film’s center is a vicious black hole: there is no hope for people, not in a world as horrid as this. Not all art is made to inspire, or uplift; some films just bear witness to the awful unraveling of a man’s frozen heart.

Almost beautiful enough to make you forget the horrible things.

Manhattan—It’s one of the richest cities in the world, but the movies seem to forget the absurd concentration of wealth. Woody Allen doesn’t traffic with the uber-rich, just upper middle class people locked in untidy love games. Manhattan is Woody Allen’s love letter to the city and his one movie he hates the most. It’s hard to see why. The script is sharp, the cinematography is stunning and it’s all set to a Gershwin score. Perhaps Woody Allen’s finest hour, and this is saying a lot.

The bitter taste of no food, cold wind, and a city full of indifference.

Midnight Cowboy—Go now and wiggle in revulsion and disgust. John Schlesinger moves through the ragged edges of the city, its barrios and tenements, a revel amongst hustlers and pimps and gigolos and perverts. The city is a giant dump, infested with human vermin scuttling along in total squalor.

Pop culture perfection.

The Warriors—A slash and burn cartoon of a movie, with great New York locations, including scenes in all five boroughs. The storyline is ripped from ancient history: the Warriors, a Coney Island gang, are blamed for the murder of the visionary king, and have to fight their way back across the city, with every local gang gunning for them. (Xenophon would have approved.) It’s an oddball little film, operating with its own logic. I saw this when I was a child, and was bewitched by its kooky charm. I still love it.

More:

Marathon Man—A problematic film that covers huge chunks of the city, including lots of Central Park.

The Wanderers—Not a very good movie, although pungent and powerful to the eight-year-old me. Lots of New York, including Greenwich Village.

Nighthawks—A very silly movie—a major plot point is Sylvester Stallone’s willingness to dress up in drag—but with some great New York shots, especially in Harlem.

Across 110th Street—A great first half, misfired second, this gritty little cop drama wanders up and down Harlem.

He Got Game—An uneven, perhaps even terrible film, but it’s got Brooklyn bald and beautiful all over.

The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three—Perhaps New York can only be understood underground, in the subways; this lazy little gem follows a terrorist plot on a subway car.

When did our best movies become cartoons?

16 Jul

(Sitting in a Brooklyn apartment and worried about Simone who is fine but just sick enough to keep me anxious and uptight and she isn’t crying which is good but I can hear her breathing through the double doors if I crane my injured neck and my thoughts are crystallizing around the notion that I just might go my whole life with a vague feeling of dislocation and that our childhoods can do immeasurable harm and for some people adolescence never ends and that I write not out of boredom but fear)

One of Simone’s first words is Poppins. She says it when she picks up the case to one of her favorite movies, Mary Poppins. It’s adorable. She runs in a circle and jumps up and down. She spins herself dizzy and shoves the dvd case into my face.

She’s crazy for movies, so much that we had to put a two-week moratorium on watching any, which prompted many of the tantrums I mentioned in an earlier entry.

How many spoonfuls of sugar will let me fly?

(Her other words, for the record, are: apple, blue, balloon, train, spoon, shoes, paper, pancake, papa, ball, more, please [we’re great parents] eye, want that [maybe not so great], and I tired.)

Anyway, it’s been an interesting experience revisiting the children’s movies from my youth. Some hold up well, while others are painful to watch. (I’ve been taking notes.)

But I’ve noticed something.

If you look at the best movies of the 1980s—off the top of my head Blue Velvet, Back to the Future, Raging Bull, After Hours, Ran, Once Upon a Time in America, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Conan the Barbarian, Pixote and Wings of Desire—none of these are cartoons. I suppose Akira could justifiably be on some people’s list, just not mine. And I know Ralph Bakshi has his fans, but all of his movies have problems.

No, Fievel, you're not welcome here. The Cossacks are waiting for you at your old home. Now run along.

Same for the 1990s: Pulp Fiction, Chungking Express, Goodfellas, Deconstructing Harry, Boogie Nights, Bottle Rocket, Jacob’s Ladder and Swingers, again off the top of my head, and no cartoons. Toy Story could be included, but it wouldn’t be on any list of mine.

I wonder why this movie's been forgotten . . .

But, if you rated the best films from the last ten years, half a dozen could be on the list, including Wall-e, The Triplets of Bellville and The Incredibles.  (And an argument could be made for Ratatouille, Shrek II, Finding Nemo, The Secret of the Kells, Up, Antz, A Bug’s Life, Persepolis and Spirited Away, and these are just the movies I’ve seen. Monsters, Inc., Steamboy, Cars and Ice Age are all supposed to be good movies, too.)

Taken as a whole, it’s an astonishing array of quality films, and collectively better than their live-action counterparts. They’re also cooler.

So, what’s going on? When did our best movies become cartoons?

One argument is competition. Pixar and Dreamworks both make quality cartoons, and the competition between them, and Disney, too, now that Pixar has separated from them. Another argument is the prolonged adolescence of so many men these days. The third argument is the market. As our culture becomes more and more youth-centered, movies are, like everything else, moving towards those with disposable income. A fourth argument has to do with television. Cartoons on television were far superior back in the day than they are now. Creators like the artists on the old shows, through innovation and technology, can now make longer, feature-length films.

Worth two hundred Bad Boys II.

But the quality of the films is what makes this an interesting question. The first ten minutes of Up is as moving, touching, heart-rending, and realistic a portrayal of a marriage as any movie ever made. Cartoons these days are funnier (Shrek 2), more thrilling (The Incredibles) and more formally daring (The Triplets of Belleville and Wall-e) than live action films. I hate to say it, but they constitute a movement as important (and interesting) as the French New Wave.

I don’t have an answer. I’m too worn out.

Back to Simone. Her favorite movies at this moment, in order: Shrek, The Little Mermaid, Mary Poppins, and Pete’s Dragon. We tried Wall-e and The Incredibles, but they didn’t do much for her. So it’s back to Poppins. The moratorium for movies had ended, but we’re keeping her to thirty or so minutes once a week. (Which is, of course, a big fat whopping lie, but we try.) Her tantrums have mellowed, her vocabulary is expanding, her personality remains inquisitive and sweet.

Movies might just be good for you after all.

(Just look at me, sitting in a Brooklyn apartment and worried about Simone who is fine . . .)

The best movies by decade: The 1960s (11-25)

15 Jul

Paul Newman, as the hustler, smoking like a son of a bitch.

11. Requiem for a Heavyweight/The Hustler—It’s a boxing movie, but with little heart. Rod Serling wrote the screenplay for this lean little film about a washed up boxer (Anthony Quinn’s finest hour) and his busted out manager and trainer (Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney). Gangsters are involved, led by a Serling was a great writer—he could capture a character in two or three quick scenes, a few pieces of castoff dialogue—and the story of an uneducated boxer’s decline into parody is harsh, unsentimental, and scathing. Don’t expect it to all come up roses. The Hustler: The best portrait of the mangle that talent, ambition and pride can become when in the hands of unprincipled people. Paul Newman, playing Fast Eddie Felson, is a pool hustler traveling alongside Myron McCormick. They’re on their way to defeat the big-time Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). George C. Scott plays Fats’s manager, who decides to take Felson under his wing. A fantastic movie about late nights, stiff drinks, and the price of love and losing.

Toshiro Mifume is one of the baddest samurai around.

12. Yojimbo/The Odd Couple—Funny, violent, quirky, beautiful, Kurosawa’s Yojimbo watches like a gangster movie mashed up with a western, blended in with a hard-boiled detective story (I’ve heard it’s based on Hammett’s Red Harvest, but I don’t quite see it) and then re-imagined through the lens of Japanese culture. A stranger wanders into a town, where two dueling clans have reached an unstable peace. For reasons that are never quite clear, the stranger then systematically sets them against each other. Excellent entertainment. Odd Couple: We all have our middlebrow favorites, and this one is mine. Lemmon and Matthau are wonderful together, the script is funny, mean-spirited and then sweet. Three good films have come from Neil Simon’s stage plays: The Sunshine Boys; Biloxi Blues; and this, his best. The movie’s gender politics by today’s standards are strained. But the warmth and genius of the two main performers cements this oddball little movie into the realm of the classics.  Along with The Sunshine Boys, and Biloxi Blues, this is the best Neil Simon play.

French science fiction weirdness by Jean-Luc Goddard.

13. Alphaville/Contempt—I find Godard to be strange, distant, horribly overrated in his later films and arrogant beyond belief. But I love these two of his films. Alphaville is Godard’s strangest, and maybe his best. The story follows an assassin, of sorts, and is narrated by a robot intelligence, and the surreal touches alienate the viewer. But Paris has never looked stranger, and Godard’s point is clear: we are living in the future. We’ve always lived in the future. Contempt: Godard’s self-referential film, about a blocked screenwriter attempting to distill the Odyssey into film version while juggling his failing marriage and the approval of money-mad producer Jack Palance. Wide shots, big color, human foibles and failings. Watching this, it’s clear how much talent Godard has wasted in pursuit of political and philosophical meanderings.

Formalized misanthropy a la Stanley Kubrick.

14. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid/2001: A Space Odyssey—A Goddamn great movie, although fractured by time, money, and multiple versions.  James Coburn plays Pat Garrrett as a villainous, hedonistic, poker-faced killer. Kris Kristofferson plays Billy as an immature, reckless man who is living in the wrong era. The movie suffers, in parts, by strange editing decisions and multiple versions. (Once Upon a Time In America has a similar problem.) But, then the scenes, the goddamn scenes so perfect, and nothing sums up Peckinpah’s talent and sadness and eccentricity than Slim Pickens sitting at the water’s edge, with the sun setting into a vermillion horizon, and he’s holding his guts in with a flimsy gloved hand. With a few changes, this would be the greatest western ever made. 2001: Magisterial and misanthropic. Slow, pretentious, laborious, and yet a journey to another world. Godlike forces are at work. Humanity moves from mindless beasts to calculating machines. Giant stone monoliths seem to direct human evolution towards some vast new life form. Strauss’s musical pieces are used to great effect, and the whole thing seems like a somber new age hymn. Or a big fucking joke. Kubrick’s misanthropy—hiding as faith in human evolution—is on full display.

Richard Burton—perhaps sober?—in his greatest role.

15. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold/Dr. Strangelove—Richard Burton’s finest hour and it’s as cynical and bleak a story as they come. He plays a burned out British secret agent who returns to a rainy London unsure of his place in the world. The intelligence officers want him to pretend to defect, so they can infiltrate the East German high secret service. He does, meets his counterpart on the East German side, and begins to like him. Shot in luminous black and white. Strangelove has a different, absurdist view of the cold war and mutually assured destruction. It’s a mish mash of styles, and parts haven’t dated well. In some ways it’s a challenging movie; there were at least three screenwriters on the thing, and the various viewpoints show. But, when it’s funny, it’s great. Predictably, George C. Scott steals the show.

Youth in revolt, British style.

16. If . . . /Alfie/The Sound of Music—The best movie about youth in revolt, and it’s set in an English boarding school. The Brits are a perverse bunch, and if you don’t believe me watch this, then watch A Clockwork Orange, then skip forward to Scum and Made in Britain. They seem to think parenting involves a good whack to the knuckles and then months of confinement with vicious narcissists. If . . . stars a young Malcolm McDowell who is prodded, bullied, tortured and tormented in a tight-knit boarding school where the older students bully, bruise, and seduce their younger wards. As McDowell’s treatment worsens, so do his fantasies bloom. And a movie that begins as a straight-forward slice of life tale becomes unhinged. By the film’s end, you won’t know what’s real and what’s imagined. Give this film a chance; you will never forget it. Alfie: I love this movie. Michael Caine plays Alfie, a womanizing freeloader in swinging London. The film is even-keeled and simple, until Alfie must confront the horrendous consequences of his philandering. Simple, straightforward, film about real people surviving mundane situations. There aren’t enough movies like it. Sound of Music: I’m not all about murder, paranoia, and fear. I have a heart, too. Take The Sound of Music. It’s a long but thoughtful film about a distracted nun and her nine Austrian wards, and despite the premise, it’s a very fine film. Christopher Plummer, who’s has a late career renaissance these last 6 or so years, plays a stern naval officer who thaws from the affections of Julie Andrews. Andrews’s acting is often overlooked because of her voice, but she’s utterly convincing in the role of Maria.

Three killers waiting for their last train in the spaghetti-western masterpiece.

17. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly/ Once Upon a Time in the West—Sergio Leone’s one two punch to the myths, lies, and ugliness of the old West. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly watches like some science fiction creation myth. The characters don’t have names, they wander through a desolate landscape peopled with bizarre swarthy soldiers from both sides of the Civil War, and everyone is quick to shoot, maim, and kill for money, water, revenge, anything. Stephen King credits it for inspiring him to write the Dark Tower Books, and Quentin Tarantino claims it’s his favorite movie of all time. It’s a pop relic, for sure, but also primal and powerful, if a bit too long. West is a different story altogether, serious, brutal, and tragic, a study of revenge and land speculation. Charles Bronson and Jason Robards are both great, but its Henry Fonda, cast against type as the steely eyed villain, that stands out. Perhaps the best beginning in movie history.

St. Disturbia—the most unsettling movie of the 1960s.

18. Lolita/Peeping Tom—Stanley Kubrick’s warmest movie, which is a disturbing thing to say. His version keeps the dark humor and utter strangeness of the novel, while also capturing the character of Humbert Humbert with James Mason’s ironic, sly, self-effacing performance. Peter Sellers is a great joy to watch here, controlled and vibrant behind the strange disguises and pipsqueak voice. Peeping Tom: The mother of all disturbing movies, this Michael Powell film follows an emotionally disengaged young man who uses his movie camera to murder women, taping their final death rattle expressions. But, as if in a Hitchcock film, you start to root for the fucked up little creep as the lasso of the law begins to tighten around his neck.

"Z," the greatest political thriller ever made.

19. The Battle of Algiers/Z—Two overtly political movies, both raw and riveting. Shot in a documentary style, this tale of Algerian freedom fighters cum terrorists and the French military men who fight them is horrifying and bleak. There’s little plot, the characters lack dimension, and the most interesting character is a French military officer who has too little screen time, but the movie still works. Marvelous. Z is the political thriller of the 20th century, a raging true account of the murder of a leftwing Greek politician. It has excellent action sequences, great dialogue and wonderful homages to other movies (the Singin’ in the Rain sequence, re-contextualized as a villainous gay hustler cruises for rough trade, is unforgettable).

The classiest of thrillers.

20. Bunny lake is Missing/La Jetee—Otto Preminger again, in a horror-thriller hybrid made with consummate craftsmanship. It’s merry old England, but something is amiss. Ann Lake and her brother are fresh off the boat from America, when Ann’s daughter, Bunny, has gone missing from her daycare. But, was she ever really there? Lawrence Olivier plays the detective hired to sort it all out, Noel Coward plays a skeevee pervert living next door, and Keir Dullea (of 2001 fame) plays Ann’s clingy patronizing older brother. Somewhere in the middle, one of the great scenes in movies: the camera breaks from Lawrence Olivier interviewing Ann Lake—leaving the plot behind—to the Zombies performing “Just out of Reach” on the tube. It’s a strange moment, and it isn’t clear if it is meant to be comical or disturbing or a comment on the cultural sea change about to happen. Rich and strange. La Jetee: The best short film ever made, period. The basis for 12 Monkeys, La Jetee is told entirely from photographic stills, with a disconcerting voice over. The story involves a burned out future where a ruling elite of scientists think they’ve discovered the key to fixing their world: time travel. The traveler they send spends his nights dreaming of an enigmatic death he witnessed as a young child. The film is all of 26 minutes long, but it will rub in your thoughts forever.

"Nine men who came too late and stayed too long."

21. Will Penny/The Wild Bunch—Charlton Heston’s best acting, and this isn’t a slam on the film. He plays an illiterate cowboy who runs afoul a gang of murderous whackos, led by Donald Pleasance (who also does his best work; again, not a joke). There are three movies here: a love story, a revenge western, and a story about work. Each movie works well, and the movie is surreal, violent, mainstream, loving and tough all at once. Some critics have dismissed this little movie over the years as sentimental and slight, but there’s something here that I can’t shake. A deep humanity, coupled with an embarrassed confession of how bad people have become. Wild Bunch: Stylized, hyperviolent, and despondent in its grisly view of human nature, but also a great film. William Holden leads a band of nasty outlaws through the American southwest and Mexico, first looking for loot and later looking for revenge. They’re followed by Robert Ryan and an even worse band of killers and thieves, and they leave a bloody trail of bodies every which way. It isn’t for everyone; some will even hate it; but for the converted it’s the final chapter, until Unforgiven, on the western and the west. The tagline says it all: “Nine men who came to late and stayed too long.”

Two aging starlets strapped to a ghastly grist mill.

22. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?/Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte—And people think movies have become more obscene. Bitchy Joan Crawford and kind Bette Davis are cast against type here as two deranged sisters, locked into psychological combat through need. Crawford plays a paraplegic at the mercy of her sadistic sister, who savagely brutalizes her for most of the movie. Robert Aldrich is known as a maker of male-dominated films of violence: Vera Cruz, The Dirty Dozen, Attack. But his two best films—besides Kiss Me Deadly, of course—star Bette Davis and watch as grotesque horror films from a twisted psyche. Baby Jane is difficult to watch even now. Charlotte, on the other hand, is an old-fashioned Southern gothic, grisly but handled with aplomb. He wrings a very good performance from Olivia De Havilland, which makes you realize how little good work there was for actresses. Aldrich’s touch is not subtle, but it’s strong, strong, strong.

"Somewhere in the universe there must be something better than man."

23. Planet of the Apes/The Time Machine—This is how the world ends, in flames, fire and cannibalism. Planet of the Apes is the first and best of the Charlton Heston science fiction extravaganzas (although Soylent Green is an underrated picture). The film operates at some primal lizard part of our brains. An alien planet where evolution has pushed apes, orangutans and chimps to the top, while sifting humans to the bottom? A strange caste system of scientists, warriors and leaders, who worship ape statues from the distant past? I remember, when I was 18, I saw a postcard for the movie that read, “Somewhere in the universe there must be something better than man.” Time Machine: A visit to retro-future nostalgia. Rod Taylor stars in this fabulous science fiction romp, a cold war adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel, that takes our hero to the far future where Eloi, docile, tender humans frolic all day while Morlocks, Eloi-eating monsters toil away in the earth, doing all the work.

Robert Blake and Scott Wilson, two cold-blooded killers on the road.

24. In Cold Blood/Lord Jim—As disturbing as the book, and influential on a number of filmmakers, including David Lynch, although he might not admit it. Robert Blake and Scott Wilson play the two cold-blooded murderers. Richard Brooks directs this incredible adaptation of the Truman Capote wonder. The story follows Blake and Wilson before, after and during their slaughter of the Clutter family, as well as the detectives who hunt them down. Stylized and scored with excellent music, this one is unforgettable. Brooks directed Lord Jim, too, and I’m one of the only people who champions it. Peter O’Toole stars as the coward who flees to Africa to start anew, where he first crosses swords with a brutal warlord (Eli Wallach) and then later a band of mercenaries (led by James Mason).  An epic study of deception, self-delusion, and fate, it’s just a great movie that has been overlooked for far too long.

Night of the Living Dead: "They're coming for you Barbara. Barbara? They're coming for you."

25. Night of the Living Dead/The Manchurian Candidate—A how-to guide for independent filmmaking and a cinematic Molotov cocktail. George Romero shot his low budget creepie in a small town over a few nights. The extras brought their own costumes and were paid in barbecue.  The mood is desolate. Romero hides his low budget with odd camera angles and a terrifying idea: the dead are coming back to life, and they are hungry. There’s no real back story. There have been other zombie movies, from Romero and others. And an argument could be made that Dawn of the Dead is superior. But there’s something special about the original. A film that bites into your flesh and never lets go. Manchurian: The great political thriller of the 1960s, and the movie that almost never was. Veterans of the Korean Conflict are all suffering from the same dreams. The hero of their outfit is the son of well-known politicians. Something is happening, and no one is sure what it is. Frank Sinatra begins to suspect foul play, and all manner of hell breaks loose. Frankenheimer, one of the great technical filmmakers, shot this film with magnificent aplomb. The violence is casual, the performances are strong. When President Kennedy was assassinated, the movie disappeared. Thankfully it has returned, with its lessons of media manipulation and the costs of fear.

The truth behind the iron curtain—nonsense, ineptitude, melancholia.

26. The Fireman’s Ball—A zany, crazy, hard-edged satire of the crumbling communist republics. The whole movie follows a retirement party for an ancient fireman. The party is a disgrace. The auction items keep disappearing. There isn’t enough food. The partiers drink too much, misbehave, talk nonsense and ignore the very real dangers lurking outside their proscribed world. This pre-Hollywood Milos Forman movie reveals a sharp-toothed satirist’s eye, as well as a surreal view of people and the world—that he lost as he got older. (Although anyone who directs this and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has had a better career than most.)

Honorable mention: Days of Wine and Roses; Zorba the Greek; Zulu; Georgy Girl; The Apartment; The Great Escape; Kelly’s Heroes; Advise and Consent; Beckett; Easy Rider; Diary of a Chambermaid; Sword of Doom.