Archive | May, 2012

Lee Marvin and the Iceman

30 May

(I/we have finished a first draft of the play, but more on that in a later post.)

I’ve spent the last few days watching John Frankenheimer’s version of The Iceman Cometh, one of the great plays by Eugene O’Neill. (The whole film is available on youtube.) It’s a massive, towering film from the 1970s, and largely forgotten. Which is strange, because the movie is bewitching and strong, and it’s the last film of both Frederic March and Robert Ryan. Ryan gives what is probably the performance of his storied career. March plays an Irish man and mostly gets away with it. 

Image

The play follows a group of drunks, hustlers, whores, pimps and busted out railbirds, as they argue, fight, and pester each other through two days in a sawdust bar called Harry Hope’s Saloon. Their hero is Hickey, a hard-drinking, good-time salesman coming into town for a party. Hickey is fun; Hickey is light-hearted; Hickey is generous; Hickey is content to be a drunk. But when he arrives, they discover he’s fallen into a strange, punishing philosophy of sobriety. He’s smart and insightful, but without booze his intelligence bends itself to talky analysis. Hickey spends the bulk of the play attempting to heal his old friends, forcing them to confront their inner demons. He wants them all sober. His cure is worse than the disease, though; his attempts to help lead to desperate ruin.

Iceman is considered O’Neill’s best play, sort of tied with Long Day’s Journey into Night. Both are bleak, brooding, emotional roller coasters with tons of alcohol and plenty of screaming. Iceman, however, has just a touch of dark magic—a metaphysical undercurrent. Hickey’s speech-making seems to magically remove the alcohol’s ability to numb their sadness, and like Bunuel’s The Avenging Angel, the characters can’t seem to leave. Something compels them to stay. 

Even trimmed the film is almost three hours. (The play often tops out at four.) Frankenheimer keeps the camera moving, and his technical skill is so high the movie doesn’t really feel like a play. It feels, strangely enough, like a well-shot, high-brow distant cousin of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with the grotesque physical decline of the drunks and the deathly pallor of their faces. At times it feels like a procession of the tubercular and the deranged. The corners of the film are smudged with perversity. (Frankenheimer did a similar thing with Seconds, his bizarre little foray into cult moviemaking, following an old man transforming into Rock Hudson through an obscure medical procedure.)

Image

Lee Marvin plays Hickey, and he’s superb, revelatory, playing the role in a laid back, relaxed fashion. He sometimes plays the pushy salesman, sometimes the doomed preacher. Marvin always had an amazing face—oblong and pointy, strangely fleshy with a skull beneath his skin that seemed to harden even as his face became doughy with age. He made some bad films, but he was always reliable. Like John Wayne, Gregory Peck, and Robert Mitchum, he was a pro who bent his lines inward, towards his own personality. He came to the fore (often over-) playing villainous cowboys. Anyone unsure of his acting chops should check out Point Blank, where he plays a murderous, implacable idiot too stupid to take advantage of the chaos he’s created. It’s a brilliant performance, underplayed and deadpan, a study in near-total bewilderment.

Sidney Lumet directed an earlier version of Iceman for TV. I watched this, too. Jason Robards, another fine actor, plays Hickey for Lumet. Robards delivers his lines in the rat-a-tat stage style that so many theater actors use: histrionic, elongated, full of facial tics, and on film, pretty wretched. His words, his thoughts, his memories, they move faster than most people think, and the result is that stagey quality I’m sure most playwrights despise. Marvin is tougher, more natural, subtler, a building tension in his lines. (Jeff Bridges plays the Robert Redford part, and he’s light years better at the role. Redford is all childish vulnerability; Bridges plays it angrier, inches away from murder.) With Robards the lines seem like, well, lines. With Marvin you sense the dissolution of his own identity.

He is Hickey. And he is damned. 

Advertisements

More truth than fiction: creepy documentaries

13 May

Simone has a doctor’s kit. She also has faux John Deere power tools. We store them together, and she has conflated the two. So tonight, to fix a cut on my hand, she starting hitting me with a hammer. She put pliers in my mouth. She twisted my nose with a wrench. And she shoved a miniature bedpan into my shirt. She ended the session catapulting her forehead into my face. There’s one potential career ruined.

Anyway, I’m not a huge fan of documentaries—they often fall into two categories, beautiful but boring, or stale succession of talking heads—but I’ve recently watched a number of very fine movies. (I also watched Melancholia, which I will write about at length, later; for now, let me just say that it is superb.)

Here’s a selection of the best I’ve watched.

One of the strange tiles from Resurrect Dead.

Resurrect Dead—This unnerving little documentary follows three men attempting to decode the mystery behind the “Toynbee tiles,” cryptic tiles hammered into the streets of Philadelphia and other major cities on the East Coast. The mystery involves pirate radio, David Mamet, self-delusion and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. It’s a very fine movie, lean and spare and direct, that will creep under your skin and stay there. I can’t quite explain how haunting this little movie really is.

An amazing exercise in investigative reporting and killer style.

The Thin Blue Line—Errol Morris is the greatest documentary filmmaker our country has yet produced. He’s incisive, moral, funny, insightful, but his movies have space in them for side stories and little snaking anecdotes. Here he deconstructs a murder through dozens of re-enactments. By examining each person’s testimony—and walking the audience through the re-enactment—he discovers the truth of the case and eventually freed an innocent man. Astonishing.

One of the scariest documentaries I’ve ever seen.

Cropsey—One of the first scary documentaries that works. The filmmaker here investigates the boogey man of his youth, Cropsey, a murderous wraith in Staten Island that supposedly kidnapped children and murdered them. Much of the film follows a crazed man on trial for the murders, and the citizens and cops who comb the garbage-besmirched Staten Island woods for corpses. In true gonzo fashion, the filmmaker contacts the suspect, and soon is part of the investigation. Mesmerizing and disturbing.

Truffaut and Goddard and cinema.

Two in the Wave—The French New Wave is the name given to the group of upstart film journalists and writers who, in the 1960s, stopped being critics and started making films. They include Resnais, Varda, Truffaut, Godard, Rivette and Chabrol, among others.  Truffaut and Godard are the two biggest names, and this very fine documentary follows their childhoods, their first films, their friendship and eventual falling out. Peppered with great film clips and interviews. Truffaut emerges as a cineaustic wunderkind, while Godard remains an oblique, tendentious, frustrating and misanthropic filmmaker. (Full disclosure: save for Alphaville and Contempt, I find Godard to be miserable and overrated; I know this puts me on the outs with most cinephiles.) I prefer Chabrol to both, but the background story of 400 Blows, one of the great movies, is worth the time investment alone.

One year in the life of hard living crackers.

The Wild and Wonderful Whites—One year in the life of hard-living crackers in West Virginia, as they deal drugs, have babies, fight, drink, dance, feud and murder. It’s an eye-opening glimpse into a hard-scrabble world of doomed, tormented souls. As a movie it has some flaws; there’s no narrative through line, some characters are hard to recognize, and the movie’s argument appears to be that the White family is vicious, cruel, mean-spirited, but full of independence and integrity. But as cinematic voyeurism/anthropology, it can’t be beat. These aren’t my people, but they’re close.

Bare knuckle boxing the Irish way.

Knuckle—The best of the bunch, which is saying quite a lot. The filmmaker spent 12 years chronicling feuding clans of Irish Travelers—a wild, self-governing Irish underclass—who settle their differences in a series of brutal, but strangely mannered, back-road bare-knuckle brawls. The film drops you right into the middle of it, and it takes fully half the film to realize that it is actually four clans feuding over two overlapping incidents, and that they are all related to each other. So cousins and uncles and even grandfathers duke it out year after year. The film focuses on a particular fighter, James Quinn McDonough, who keeps trying to retire, but keeps getting sucked back into fights with younger and younger opponents. Unforgettable.

Simone and Pearl and the Power Cosmic! part 2

4 May

It’s a study of two faces: one man responding to two daughters in two decidedly different ways. With Simone it was chamber music a la Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, and Schubert. With Pearl it’s indie folk/rock a la The Low Anthem, M. Ward, Josh Ritter, and Ryan Adams.  I can’t explain it. I’ve been listening to Helplessness Blues by the Fleet Foxes and The Avett Brothers, when Simone lets me.

Pearl is four weeks old. She’s reserved, attentive, and often calm despite Simone’s loving tortures. Pearl’s positively serene with her odd-colored eyes like a skinny baby Buddha. (“Do you think she’s blind?” Beth asks. “Um, no,” I say.) She radiates a deep calming placidity. When she isn’t wailing, squirming or crying at 3 in the morning.

I performed a type of baptism with Simone—I touched her forehead with olive oil and kissed her heart—but Pearl so far has only received my Gnostic utterances while bouncing her around through unfiltered moonlight.

The first book I read Simone was (groan) The Corrections. Pearl’s first book was The Secret Of Evil, Bolano’s latest posthumous book of stories.

When Simone was born, my anxieties ballooned. I felt stalked by dark things. Calamity lurked around every corner. My thoughts pinwheeled through diseases, accidents, misfortunes. Kidnappers, street toughs, nuclear Armageddon and even an alien invasion percolated through my subconscious. (Even as a child, I’ve often daydreamed about the funerals of my loved ones; I know it’s strange. I find myself writing obituaries for my family and friends. I often feel violence inside, some tarry gunk in my soul or stomach.) I spent my twenties convinced I would be knifed in an elevator, or strangled in a movie theatre with a wire garrote. Or crow-barred in the teeth walking home at night. This isn’t hyperbole.

With Pearl, and I have to say this cautiously, some—ahem, there’s no easy way to express this—essential inner darkness appears to have dissipated. I feel lighter. Touched by decency and kindness. Freed from a stormy inner malevolence I’ve hidden from, well, everyone.

I always thought that writing—all art, really—came from a dark place. We’ll see if I were right.

I’ve got essays/pieces on a whole smorgasbord of things, so please stay tuned.

Thor and his incorrigible hammer

2 May

(Just in time for the Avengers movie.)

1.

I grew up reading Thor comics, I have more than a passing knowledge of Norse mythology, and armed with these two things I still struggled through Thor, not only the worst movie I’ve seen in years, but easily the worst superhero movie ever made. Worse than Fantastic Four. Worse than Daredevil. Worse than Ghost Rider. Worse, in a way, than the Dolph Lundgren Punisher.

A stupefying, shaggy, confusing, misguided and profoundly offensive misfire.

The movie begins with a simple but strangely convoluted back-story. Two ancient races—the gods and the frost giants—are locked in endless struggle. Thor appears as a reckless musclehead, the assumed heir to a galactic empire of nine spheres of influence, ruled over by his benevolent father, Odin. (Played by Anthony Hopkins, who can blame looming retirement, boredom or even dementia for agreeing to the role; the other actors have none of these excuses.) Odin runs the empire through the Norse gods, a ruling elite of sword and axe-brandishing warriors. They travel through their dominion by teleportation through a golden boom tube type machine operated by the taciturn but stalwart Heimdall. And, although they appear to live in the middle ages, they possess incredible technological might.

Thor’s younger brother is a dark-haired kid named Loki, who we’re told is a sharp-tongued rapscallion but shows very little wit. Thor wants to destroy the frost giants, his father upbraids him, Thor gets angry, his father banishes him to earth, stripping him of his super hammer, Mjolnar.

Hurtled to Earth in a giant wind tunnel, Thor almost hits a car full of three scientist explorers. One of these is a dedicated but perky genius named Jane (played by Natalie Portman; more on this later.)

A few questions have already sprung to mind.

Why would cosmic space beings ride horses? Use swords and shields? Wear their facial hair in such ridiculous, baroque fashions? They would be beings of pure light and destructive imagination. Why would timeless space deities walk around with silly, horned hats? And, would an almost omnipotent being really walk around with an eye-patch? Would Odin really allow himself to grow old?

Not a joke; an actual publicity shot from the movie.

2.

At the beginning of the comic, Thor was, as punishment for his hubris, inextricably bonded to a human doctor named Donald Blake. Blake decided when Thor was needed, and would bang his cane on the ground. Thor was in charge of his super-powered body, but if Mjolnar was separated from him for more than 90 seconds, Blake would reappear. Worst of all, it took some time before he could re-transform into his Norse god alter ego. During most of the days he had to watch Blake’s actions from inside a human head.

This humanity—and weakness—was essential to the character. Without it, he’s Superman, only without the gentle, folksy upbringing of Ma and Pa Kent.

Through the decades, Thor has been bonded to different human hosts, and even lost his consciousness altogether, leaving his powers in the hands of a neurotic New Yorker. At one point, he lived solely in his body, but was wracked with profound, unending pain. He’s always been hemmed in by neurotic—that is to say, human—limitations. Thor is best when he is human.

The movie dispels with all of this fragility. And like Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy, which removed the gods from the Iliad—missing out on a major theme in the work, of the gods’ renegotiation with their relationship to man—Thor, by removing the humanity, makes it impossible to relate to the golden-haired godling. He’s basically a hard-bodied asshole with a strong jawline and a prettified beard.

Thor’s banishment leads to much-needed humility. Of course, he’s only human for two or three days. Can eons of assholery really be dispensed with in such a short time? Just hang around New Mexico with a couple of scientists and you turn into a decent guy?

His transformation requires a few days slumming with the powerless. (Of course, drop him in the favelas of Sao Paolo, let him grind out a few years of anxious hunger and wretched work; that would be a movie, and a quite different sentimental education.)

I cannot fathom a culture that would wear a suit of armor like this.

3.

The movie misunderstands the power of myth and the importance of superheroes. Norse myths are not nicey nice bedtime stories. They are a reflection of the Scandinavian peoples in an age of depravity. The Norse gods are savage, powerful berserks interested in poetry and rapine. They are hot-tempered, lusty and mean. They lie, cheat and steal, commit massacres and atrocities and all the Baldurs in the world (he isn’t in the movie, by the by) aren’t going to rectify the murderous bloodlust you’ll find. They rend limbs, gouge out eyes and at the end of days a giant wolf swallows the sun.

My point, goddammit, is that they aren’t enlightened, and presenting them this way is a real disservice not just to history or culture but to the whole notion of stories. In the Pagan tradition, gods are supposed to be flawed. Their flaws explain the problems with the universe. Their flaws explain evil, suffering and pain. It’s the most appealing thing about polytheism; there’s some other god out there causing your hardship. You don’t understand them and you can’t.

Superheroes, on the other hand, reveal the best things about our humanity by comparing physical capabilities with mental and/or emotional facilities. The hero isn’t a hero because he has super-strength. The hero was a hero, first; the powers come later. (There’s a reason DC chooses Batman, the only “human” superhero, always to save the day.) Heroes are heroes because they choose to be. They are the best in each of us and to present them any other way is a mistake. Their flaws, the obstacles to their self-awareness, these things make them better heroes. Superheroes give us a template for being better people: working through your weaknesses is what makes you strong.

Thor, here, fits into neither camp. He’s sort of bossy. He’s given no real declaration of values. He’s not really fitted with any sort of ideological adversary. He is a super-powered rich kid, inheriting his father’s fortune and mantle without working for it. (I kept hoping he would reject the whole notion of primogeniture, and fly back to Earth to live with Jane, forever.)

His enemy is, of course, Loki, his brother. (Who turns out not to be his brother at all.)

Loki—even in the comics—is the eternal trickster. He’s a wily, cackling wizard, a carnival barker with a hideous, deranged heart. Loki loves chaos; it’s essential to his being. He is only happy when things—relationships, societies, the world—fall apart. He hates his upright, unsubtle brother, who literally makes his way through the world swinging an oversized hammer, and that hatred only makes his mischief more interesting. It borders on jealousy, but Loki is also right. He is smarter than Thor; he is more pragmatic; he possesses a subtle, cagey mind; he even has more empathy with other creatures. Why shouldn’t he rule? What makes Thor a better candidate?

Loki’s a great character, and different writers have set him against Thor in different ways. Sometimes he’s the grand manipulator. Sometimes he’s the catalyst of disaster. Sometimes he gets his hands dirty and fights. He’s funny and charming, like Milton’s Lucifer, only less predictable. He’s sometimes even a hero. Here he’s as glum as everybody else.

4.

The film’s politics irked me most of all. Odin is the all-knowing patriarch, who kindly looks over his subjects with a wise distance. He runs what is, essentially, a benevolent empire. He rules for life until one of his sons takes over. In this way he’s like Saddam, Qaddafi, Idi Amin, the House of Saud, every petty and vengeful dictator since the dawn of time. Over an eternity, wouldn’t Odin eventually grow bored? Wouldn’t he at least experiment with sadism, hedonism, recklessness? (The myths often have him doing exactly this.) What makes him so good?

Odin’s wife, Frigga—strangely played by Rene Russo—has two or three lines. Sif, the warrior maiden who accompanies Thor on his first adventure, also has a handful of lines. Natalie Portman provides no real importance to the plot. The women are on the sidelines. They aren’t important. Only the men are. The men rule, the women do not.

Which brings us back to the beginning of the movie. Why should Thor lead? He is not worthy. The film itself has declared it so. But the touch of the political isn’t in the movie to condemn the notion of dynasties—we have that problem in our country, too—but to maneuver Thor into growing up into a decent man.

Only, he isn’t a man. He isn’t even mortal, not really. He’s the scion of a deadly clan of space beings. He’s been alive, perhaps, for thousands of years. He’s headstrong, anti-intellectual, ignorant of history and uncaring of the consequences. He’s a muscly George W. Bush.

The movie is saying, basically, that bloodlines should decide who rules. That we would be better with a ruling class. That it is some indescribable thing that makes a good civilization, not just laws, a stable infrastructure, a set of agreed upon rules of conduct. And I can’t accept that, not even in a blockbuster.

What did the producers spend the budget on?

5.

The film operates in a cheap, cinematic shorthand. Two attractive people spend five minutes together? Of course they’d fall in love. Sneaky brother finds out he’s adopted? Of course he’d turn evil. The film doesn’t want to do the necessary work of character development. It would rather shoot the camera through generic footage of stars. The characters don’t feel real. They don’t seem to eat, breathe, dream of naked harems or palaces of earthly delights.

As there’s no emotional core to grab onto, and a terrible script, it’s the pyrotechnics that must supply all of the film’s virtues. Boy, did they hire the wrong director for that.

Kenneth Branaugh boasts an impressive CV, mostly film adaptations of Shakespeare of varying quality. He’s also a capable actor, although a bit overrated. On paper, he was an interesting choice. But he makes a number of miserly mistakes. He confuses scale with meaning. The action is improperly framed. It feels rushed, and lacks any coherence or physical sense of space. It’s all so apparently digitized, shot against blue screens. Even the shots of space—didn’t we master this sort of thing decades ago?—look cheap, constructed with mouse clicks and stock footage. Even the desert and the stars look fake.

Branaugh sees some type of primal drama, a la Shakespeare, in the Odin/Thor/Loki love/hate family dysfunction. Ibsen-style psychodramatics is a silly overlay to what could have been a Lord of the Rings style bonanza. The film within this film, the film it could have been, shimmers behind the frames like a gauzy ghost. You can kind of see it, if you try. It’s a darker movie, following more primitive gods who no longer have any followers, who are being deleted by the godlike processing power of machines. The gods are stuck in a medieval mindset. Thor, stranded on earth, must adapt not just to human standards of humility, but also to a world that no longer believes in gods at all. Loki would be there, sowing chaos for fun, and Thor would be confronted with powerful, human enemies whose might and nihilism scare him into a new understanding of creation. He might even catch a glimpse of the gods in the new machines. But it’s just a ghost, unrealized and unexplored.

I was hoping Branaugh would push against the confines of Marvel expectations, providing dramatic flourishes, colophons and curlicues, touches of Tom O’Bedlam, Bottom or even King Lear. Something to let us know that a human being directed this movie! That there’s an intelligence, somewhere in the machine. Nolan and Raimi figured out how to do it, as did Favreau, Donner, and Burton, too. Branaugh, with his absurdly high brow resume, should have figured it out. But he didn’t. He doesn’t seem lost, exactly, but more absent. He’s been scrubbed by the abrasive scouring pads of big money.

There’s no wit, charm or humor. There’s no satire or bite. I kept wondering, what would Billy Wilder have done with this?

6.

And then there’s Natalie Portman. I’ve never been a big fan, although she clearly possesses enough of an internal life to find the fame game tedious and embarrassing. She receives too many accolades for mediocre performances. She has little range, is often unconvincing outside lonely girl roles. She has an expressive face and wounded, horse eyes, but her voice and her movements always struck me as off. Black Swan was an exception, where she does a superb job playing a professional dancer as both a woman and child, seductress and virgin, at home in the sleazy alleys and on a bed littered with stuffed animals. She was held to the role, though, by the fierce, strangely competitive director Aronofsky.

But what is she doing here? She plays a scientist with no motivation, a love object lacking soul or even lust. She has no interesting subplots or asides. She has no quirks, not even the old canard of atheistic scientist living out a reductive unhappy philosophy. She has no feats of bravery, nothing but lackluster lines like, “I made most of this equipment myself!” She isn’t driven. She isn’t mentally ill. She isn’t, well, anything. She’s wrong for the role. She doesn’t look the part and the movie doesn’t even try to convince you. (It’s cheesy, but couldn’t they have ponied up for some glasses or a labcoat? A clipboard? Buckteeth?)

7.

Thor always held a touch of the exotic for me when I was a child. He represented an alien strain of religious mania, which contradicted my own. The comics marbled the superhero stories with strands of Norse myth. It was a bastardization, having the New Mutants duke it out with Loki in the snowy interior of Canada, but combining the two made a peculiar sort of sense. Marvel was smart. They had the Greek gods, too. Thor’s best friend on the Avengers, for a while, was Hercules. And a major storyline, 20 or so years ago, had the Egyptian gods attempting to destroy all the other pantheons. Odin and Zeus had to work together, with some human heroes thrown in for good measure. It was kooky, silly, and awesome. (Black Knight, rigidifying into a human sword, was used to destroy Set at the crucial juncture.) This irrational mashup of cultures and mythologies is precisely what I’ve always loved about comics; they exist as some omega point where all stories collapse into.

Thor was a great addition to the Marvel universe. He gave its writers a great new playground to write in. The writers used the mythical conceits as a backdrop for killer science fiction. Thor’s enemies aren’t just Loki and the Frost Giants, but also the Juggernaught and the Absorbing Man and Mephisto. Some funky plotlines emerged. The Christian devil and a pagan godling duke it out for the future of the human race! Marbling the Marvel universe with this other mythology made anything and everything feel possible. Loki became a villain for other heroes to fight. Thor duked it out with Doctor Doom, even the Silver Surfer in one of the classic two-heroes-misunderstand-each-other battles.

I always admired Thor. He could kick ass, but he was basically a decent guy. He didn’t laugh much, didn’t know many jokes, but he helped people, and with his elaborate costume and sculpted hair he appeared like an upright fashion model or fierce clown. He charged into battle. He wasn’t a thinker.

This Thor lacks the innocence of the golden-haired visitor and the nastiness of the hammer-wielding berserk. He doesn’t even have the courage to be befuddled. He’s just a hunk of muscle in a universe of gold, silver and steel.

Accept no substitutes: The hero god flying through a universe of light, as imagined by Jack Kirby.