Archive for June 2019

Call Us Ishmael

June 30, 2019

Screen Shot 2019-06-30 at 2.29.09 PM The thesis of David Shaerf’s swift, engaging documentary Call Us Ishmael is simple: Herman Melville’s gigantic, narratively skimpy, intolerable, beloved Great American Novel Moby-Dick has the power to turn some of its readers into Ahabs, pursuing the white whale of the book. The movie isn’t titled Call Us Ahab, though, so Shaerf seems to speak for a gentler, more productive mode of obsession, and a less threatening way for the reader to be drawn in by the work. Instead of being maimed and then ultimately pulled into the deep, the readers seen in the film are, like Ishmael, taken along for a ride, a ride that sometimes usurps months or years of their creative lives — and for some, the ride hasn’t ended and possibly won’t.

Take, for example, the yearly ritual at the Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts, which since 1995 has hosted the Moby-Dick Marathon. People get up and read aloud sequentially from the book until the entire book has been heard. It usually takes about 25 hours. Can you imagine dozens of people sitting, standing, reading, listening, lying about in sleeping bags, for better than a day, with any other book? Well, they do — this past May, UCLA’s annual Marathon Reading tackled The Handmaid’s Tale and Octavia Butler’s Parable novels. But, of course, UCLA’s inaugural marathon dealt with, yep, Moby-Dick — a year after the Whaling Museum started it. Anyway, Call Us Ishmael is about five minutes old when it shows some footage from the Moby-Dick Marathon.

From there, Shaerf moves on to various artists who’ve been inspired by the novel, and that’s what most of the rest of the movie addresses. Shaerf has the same story as many others: he tried it under duress in school, loathed it, went back to it years later, got hooked. First of all, this very thing is why I have never believed in summer-reading lists for high school, even though the selection has opened up to popular youth novels in the last decade or two. A teenager is not ready to assimilate what Melville is doing — I don’t care how smart and mature the teenager is. You need some life and loss and pain under your belt to appreciate a lot of literature, and in the case of a stark raving weird novel like Moby-Dick you need the patience and the willingness to submit to someone else’s overpowering vision for a while, with no clear narrative carrots on a stick.

But the familiar story of someone who bounces off of Moby-Dick, spends ten, twenty, thirty, forty years away, and then for some reason is lured back to it and now rises to it — we hear that again and again in Call Us Ishmael. The artists Shaerf talks to are usually interesting, sometimes a little abashed by talking about how completely the book subsumed their lives. Matt Kish gets a lot of time, possibly because he did art for the movie and its marketing; he discusses his book Moby-Dick in Pictures, wherein he made a piece of art for each page of Melville. The project took Kish a year and a half (and we see his bemused girlfriend remembering the long process); another artist in the film, Frank Stella, took a decade and a half to complete his journey with the book. We see art students who responded to the work in various ways; we see musicians (Patrick Shea, Laurie Anderson) who recorded literal or allusive songs about it.

The only medium Moby-Dick has never fully stuck to is the very medium Shaerf works in, and he covers that a bit. The most famous adaptation was, of course, John Huston’s 1956 effort, whose reception was mixed. It’s a fine strong Huston movie but it doesn’t really convey Melville, only his plot, which isn’t the book’s strong point. There have been several film versions; my ironic favorite might be the 1930 attempt (with John Barrymore), which doesn’t even pretend to be faithful to the story (Ahab reunites with his true love Joan Bennett at the end, and Ishmael doesn’t figure into it at all). Two made-for-TV whacks at the material (with Patrick Stewart and William Hurt as mad Ahab, respectively) came and went without much notice. If there were to be a point to another film adaptation today, it would need to be a $250 million monstrosity in IMAX, with Daniel Day-Lewis emerging from retirement to give us his Ahab, under the direction of Spielberg, bringing his catalog nearly full circle. (As it is, Jaws is probably about as close to a pure-cinema riff on some Moby-Dick elements as we’re going to get.)

Ultimately, Call Us Ishmael allows that the book is so many things to so many people — and maybe it speaks most clearly to those with a touch of obsession — because it seems to encompass everything. All those passages about whaling aren’t just “about whaling” — you’re getting an immersive education in the society, economy, and even ecology of the world it sets up. It gives you the bare bones of what screenwriting guru Robert McKee says is necessary for a story — an object of desire, and someone who desires it — but then surrounds it with flesh made of anecdote and cetology. The thing is insane and difficult and, for those in this film, rewarding and inspiring. But is the book really ever done with them? Call Us Ishmael tells the compelling and, when you think about it, frightening story of a literary classic that acts like the monster under the bed, grabbing readers’ ankles and pulling them into its hot close darkness. Ayuh, there goes another one.

Do the Right Thing

June 23, 2019

0703_do-the-right-thing On June 30, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing turns thirty. It still hasn’t lost a step. Aside from some hairstyles and a few of the songs, it doesn’t read at all like an ‘80s film. It’s truly an end-of-a-decade work. In some respects it’s almost experimental; some of the scenes play like short theater pieces, and the movie is full of words — debate, disputation, denunciation, or just plain shooting the breeze — yet we never question it as a work of cinema. The way cinematographer Ernest Dickerson paints with skillet-hot colors, or the way editor Barry Alexander Brown snips scenes to release our laughter as well as to propel the story, or the way Ruth E. Carter dresses the characters to sketch them for us in an instant — these and more put Lee’s film, only his third, into the realm of art alongside entertainment. Its concerns are timeless and, as the film itself wearily admits, will ever be.

Nobody is really the main character of Do the Right Thing — the Bed-Stuy community itself is, it’s a group portrait — but Lee picks out Mookie, played by himself, as the character who interacts with most of the others. As a delivery guy for Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, Mookie sees the same faces a lot; one of the first things we see him do is direct an exasperated “Hell no” to a pair of girls who look like they want to talk to him about God, or get him to sign a petition, or something. Mookie does this as though this is far from the first time he’s waved these girls away; the same is true, mostly, of his relationship with the neighborhood disabled guy Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith). Everyone who lives or works here is by and large tired of each other, but nobody can afford to go on a vacation away from them, and it’s going to be a brutally hot day. (The movie takes place on August 5, 1989, according to the newspapers we see.)

The only thread of narrative we get is the attempts of the abrasive Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) to shame Sal (Danny Aiello) into putting up photos of black celebrities alongside the Italian stars on Sal’s “wall of fame.” Buggin’ Out’s logic is that Sal’s clientele is mostly black, so the decor should reflect that; like almost everyone else in the movie, he’s not wrong, but that doesn’t make him completely right, either. Buggin’ Out’s mission is debatable; the whole chatty, pop-art-colored film is. The very title has been discussed endlessly. Does Mookie, in an act of destruction that may or may not be intended to draw collective ire from flesh towards property, “do the right thing”? Lee’s line has always been that white people always ask that question and black viewers never do. Put another way, does anyone here “do the right thing”? When, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, there is no dialogue but only contrapuntal monologue, and when there are two sets of rules, one for people of color and one for everyone else, it can be nearly impossible to know if there is a “right thing.”

To Lee’s credit, he writes dialogue (or guides his actors into improv) that allows his characters to open themselves up, justify themselves, let us see how they see themselves. Even Pino (John Turturro), Sal’s rancidly bigoted son and the closest thing the movie has to a villain other than the cops, is given some breathing room to suggest why he’s so angry. (His cronies back in Bensonhurst give him a hard time for serving food to black people.) In short, everyone would like to think he or she is doing the right thing; everyone is the star of his or her drama, each of which plays itself out on the stoops and egg-frying sidewalks of New York on the hottest day of summer. Lee’s movie is as much about a community of psychically isolated people as about racial tension. Nobody can see past their own scrim of rage, sadness, regret. Everyone is irritable.

Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), one of the movie’s many great archetypes seldom seen in major films before, calls out the dichotomies that make up Lee’s film with his Night of the Hunter parable about love knocking out hate. Originally, when Robert Mitchum delivered this, it was a hypocritical little ditty that turned out to be ironically prescient. Radio Raheem looms around the neighborhood all day toting a massive, deafening boom box (playing Public Enemy’s instant classic of electric urgency “Fight the Power”) but is essentially harmless; in a way he is the film’s Jimmie Blacksmith figure, who ultimately becomes unhinged when the white power structure severs him from how he defines himself. Once he begins to lash out, he is doomed from that moment. But in his love/hate scene, Radio Raheem seems to be speaking hopefully.

And naïvely? Love, in this movie, seems short-lived, and hate persists. Mookie’s baby mama Tina (Rosie Perez in a vivid debut) closes out her time in the film cussing out Mookie. The neighborhood elders Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) and Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) — whose presence as onscreen antagonists and as real-life couple always brings a fond smile to my face — seek cover together after the climactic event. They seem sobered, though not driven into each other’s arms as a more conventional story would demand. Before that, we see Mother Sister screaming “Burn it down!” and not much later crying “No!” in despair over and over; there you have the opposite sides of the movie’s moral coin, all in the emotional inferno of an old black woman who has seen and lived great heartache. Do the Right Thing did not turn out to be the fire this time (pundits in 1989 worried about copycat violence; number of Mookie-inspired riots: zero), but the right and wrong things it deals with haven’t gone anywhere. This is, and seems more than ever like, the great American movie of the last thirty years.

Us

June 16, 2019

us Jordan Peele has proven himself one of the most fascinating writer-directors working today — not just in the horror genre, but in general. His presence behind the camera now guarantees my interest. Us, Peele’s mesmerizing, terrifying follow-up to his Oscar-winning hit Get Out, shows that the social-horror sensibility that animated that film was no fluke. This is, among other things, a thriller that (like last week’s The Perfection) is powered by surprise and its willingness to cross genre boundaries, so it’s another one whose plot is difficult to write about — though the plot isn’t the main reason Us gets under our skin, in any case. It’s the primal punch of the images and moods that the plot makes possible. For instance, how can I explain how hilarious and horrific the use of NWA’s “Fuck tha Police” is here? It’s a joke at the expense of Siri/Alexa-type virtual assistants, but it’s also a grim warning: For real, fuck the police, they’re not going to help you here, not in this weird new world informed as much by Hands Across America and Michael Jackson as by Kubrick’s The Shining.

Has Jordan Peele ever read the snippet that Harlan Ellison once published from his unproduced The Whimper of Whipped Dogs script? There’s an image near the beginning that makes me think he has — a girl drops her candy apple in the sand of a beach, where it sticks up as ominous night rain begins to patter onto it. I recalled Ellison’s image of a knife in the sand dappled by raindrops. Even if Peele wasn’t influenced by this specific bit, it seems clear that he’s drinking from the same intoxicating and frightening well of brutal visuals that filled/fueled Ellison’s imagination. Those visuals can help an artist try to make sense of violence, and in Us Peele summons hints and whispers of the uncanny in order to make sense of, and ultimately elicit sympathy for, its mostly inarticulate monsters.

The narrative begins simply, with a well-to-do family off to kick back in their summer house. Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), the mother/wife of the family, seems to be the main protagonist by virtue of her introduction in the opening extended flashback as a little girl. She is grown now, and a bit skittish due to her experience in a strange beach funhouse, but essentially normal. So are her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). They all hang out at the Santa Cruz beach with their also-wealthy friends (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) and their twin teenage daughters, and the subtext of familial violence expressed in ironic jokes begins to surface. One night, the Wilsons are trying to relax back at their summer house, and a quartet of menacingly silent figures appear outside.

If Peele’s subversive narrative style has an Achilles’ heel, it’s that after Get Out we know to notice, and file away for future scrutiny, any number of visual, aural, or thematic Easter eggs. When a character turns up holding a sign referring to Jeremiah 11:11, and when another character not only notices that a clock reads 11:11 but calls attention to it, we know we’re meant to look up the Biblical quote on our phones in the parking lot after the movie. (Amusingly, when you google the line now, you get back a bunch of images from Us.) I’ll let you have fun with the passage, with its intimations of evil and the wrath of the Old Testament God, and what it could possibly have to do with a story that makes room for paper people chains, Minnie Riperton, rabbits, Lucas/Spielberg nods, and the discontents of what used to be called (and in the context of this movie is a perfectly appropriate descriptor) “the underclass.”

The wounded-seeming Nyong’o plays victim and victimizer with equal conviction and facility, and Winston Duke, whom I’d only seen before as the sardonic, intimidating warrior M’Baku in Black Panther, is something of a revelation here as the much less at-ease-with-violence Gabe, whom Peele almost seems to have molded in his literal image. (When Gabe is forced to grab a baseball bat and warn the interlopers away, Duke gives us the attitude with a subtle undercurrent of self-doubt.) There’s twinning all over the movie, including a real spider crawling out from underneath a toy spider, and there’s Elisabeth Moss at her stark raving scariest, staring in a mirror and rendering her face incarnadine in more ways than one (she seems ready for a David Lynch movie). The movie is spooky as hell, dealing hard and fast from a thick deck of symbolist cards, and ultimately Peele offers it as a suggestion to think about what society and prosperity are built on. It is brilliant and timely and more than a little insane in its everything-ties-together narrative sanity, which the movie also comments on. I have no idea where the actual hell Peele intends to go from here, but wherever it is, he has my eager permission to go there and report on his findings.

The Perfection

June 9, 2019

perfection Netflix’s new thriller The Perfection (with its impossible-to-remember title) relies on the type of screaming twists and turns on a dime that can stymie a reviewer. How can you talk about a movie like this to people who may not have seen it without nuking its surprises? You can’t, so I am obliged to sketch and suggest. The Perfection is about two cello prodigies, Charlotte (Allison Williams) and Lizzie (Logan Browning). The menacing artsiness and female trauma that inform the movie’s tone put it in the same small folder as Suspiria (either version) and Black Swan. It seems to switch not just gears but genres, several times. I would recommend going into it completely cold, and not even watching the trailer, which prankishly sets a viewer up to expect a vastly different film than it turns out to be.

What you get for your trouble is a handsomely photographed (by Vanja Černjul, who also shot Crazy Rich Asians), feverishly written (by director Richard Shepard with Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder) thriller that gets you hating one character, then another, then someone else, until finally balance is bloodily, poetically, and somewhat ludicrously restored. The Perfection is therefore not the nicest movie or experience. It exists to pull the rug out from under you, repeatedly, until you mistrust the rug and the floor under it. Is it pleasurable? Here and there. It’s more gripping than entertaining; it squeezes us, it pulls on the short hairs of our temples. It establishes and maintains control — bullying control. Like most thrillers great and poor, it essentially takes a rapist’s attitude toward the audience. It gets you alone and has its way with you.

The redeeming factor here is that, ultimately, The Perfection shakes out as a #MeToo revenge thriller. Its brutality and manipulations come to seem necessary in order to convey the wounding tone required to get us, in the end, on the side of victims who at first seem like aggressors. We may feel betrayed at certain points, but so have its characters. The movie also ladles equal amounts of beauty and rancid ugliness into its hermetic aesthetic, breaking away from that only during a cold roadside scene that packs the most painful violence, which comes to be seen as an act of mercy. The events leading up to the scene — like much else in the movie, and indeed in most thrillers — won’t stand up to harsh scrutiny. The plot depends on a hostile bus driver behaving as a character secretly wants him to. I imagine there’s a deleted scene involving the close study of bus routes so as to guarantee winding up in a desolate area.

The Perfection also contains the following: a tender same-sex lovemaking scene; a few lovely if stressful music performances; a performance by Steven Weber that confirms my longstanding suspicion that he’s aging into William Fichtner; a laughable flashback (or rewind, really) that explains how a cooking instrument comes into a character’s possession (almost as funny as the preceding scene in which the character just randomly seems to produce said instrument — the movie is firmly in the tradition of thrillers that can’t possibly take themselves seriously and don’t want us to, either); a bit that had me thinking we were in Romeo Is Bleeding territory and on the exit into Long Jeanne Silver turf; a quaint confidence in various medications to have exactly the effect on someone that one hopes they will have.

There’s more, but I grow tired of avoiding writing about the story. I can finish by praising the intense performances of Williams and Browning, or the way a cello performance that must proceed without error elicits more sympathetic wincing than does the sometimes graphic violence, or the film’s nearly Cronenbergian reliance on body horror and disfigurement. The Perfection is strongly made, scene for scene, and it ends on a note of serene unity of soul through music in the face of ghastly oppression. But I can’t say I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief when it was done squeezing my soft bits. I won’t claim it doesn’t have the right to play with sensitive themes and elements to get its effects; I think, ultimately, it earns that right and shows itself to be compassionate. You do have to navigate a whole lot of bear traps to get there, though, and you may not agree that it’s worth the journey, with all its hurt and vomit and maggoty visions of sickness. I can raise a glass to the skill of all involved but I’m in no hurry to feel all those things, see all those things, again any time soon.

The Wild Bunch

June 2, 2019

wildbunch Watching The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah’s magnum opus, you might imagine it should have killed off all Westerns forevermore. Or movies. The film, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on June 18, was designed to flip our violence-craving switch off by giving us splattering, gushing, slow-motion carnage. Instead, to Peckinpah’s chagrin, it fed and reinforced that craving. And yet, to modern eyes, it’s not the copious blood squibs and squirts that feel revolutionary (not when we know it was preceded by Kurosawa and Herschell Gordon Lewis); it’s Lou Lombardo’s time-scrambling editing, which glides from regular to slow motion between shots during the sequences of greatest brutality. Old-school mythmaking met new-school technique and produced, as Pauline Kael had it, a new wine that exploded the old bottle of the Western.

The basic story is older than the medium itself — a band of aging outlaws on one final score. But Peckinpah takes it and tries to strip off all the romanticism that had accumulated around the trope for the past seventy years or so. In retrospect, Gene Hackman’s character in Unforgiven can be seen as a Peckinpah figure, debunking the grand old legends of the West, replacing the pulps’ malarkey with his own cheerfully cynical version. (And I mean cheerfully; despite the gore and grime of The Wild Bunch, its tone is mostly the opposite of grim and gritty. There are a few points when characters join in full-throated nihilistic laughter.) In this savage universe, death is noted and given its due, but only briefly; life is pursuit and retreat, and innocence is represented by a group of children burning ants and a scorpion alive.

In such a godless place, only killers and thieves with some sort of moral code, however shaky, stand a chance of existing with dignity. Our anti-hero, Pike Bishop (William Holden), says that if we can’t be loyal to the men we ride with, we’re no better than animals. But no one else is obligated to share that ethos. The movie is set in 1913, possibly a surprise to newcomers, and the appearance of an automobile seems really out of place in the reality established in the film up to that point. But it’s not the car that’s the anachronism, it’s these men, who might have made their bones after or even during the Civil War, and who don’t belong in the 20th century. Moral codes are becoming an endangered species. In one short year, all the technology seen or talked about by these men — such as the machine gun that gets such play during the climax — will be put to use in the first Great War. For most of the movie, though, our anti-heroes — including Ernest Borgnine as sarcastic Dutch and Ben Johnson and Warren Oates as the loutish Gorch brothers — ride through a world of six-shooters, rifles, maybe dynamite.

The pictorial style of the film — classical, elegiac — bumps up against the technique that fractures and prolongs death. Peckinpah uses pure cinema to make his point about the world passing these men (this genre) by. The Peckinpah figure here might be Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), formerly an associate of Pike, now deputized by the railroad to find and kill Pike and his gang. Deke doesn’t take any pleasure in violence, and isn’t like some of the human buzzards in his posse who rush to denude the dead. Deke seems to see the writing on the wall, and Ryan plays him with a sad gravitas typical of his great late-career performances. (Indeed, if not for later triumphs by Oates and Johnson, I’d be tempted to say Peckinpah got career-capping work out of everyone here.) A lot of The Wild Bunch, while working to be iconoclastic, is also archetypal. If you’re going to redefine painting, you still have to do it onto a surface, not in thin air.

And so The Wild Bunch is projected onto a big wide screen, larger than almost anything (though Peckinpah isn’t much interested in aping Sergio Leone’s near-parodic gigantism). The scale is epic though not inflated. The simpler men in the gang seem capable of joy, fleeting though it is (literally soaking in wine with topless women — the nascent second-wave feminism of its era touches this film not in the slightest, by the way). The older, wiser men can laugh ruefully at the abyss but have stared into it too often to forget it for long. That’s Peckinpah in sum. This lengthy Panorama movie-movie, with its crimson eruptions playing out in open air and sunshine, turning the dry Mexican sand into bloody mud, may be Peckinpah’s most personal film; he’s both Pike, an old outlaw feeling outmoded, and Deke, a former outlaw renouncing disorder. Peckinpah and his film are profoundly ambivalent about which is the better man, and fifty years later that may remain more of a shock than the arterial geysers.