28 November 2013

The Ice Storm a Brilliant Look at the the 1970s Suburbia and When the Twain Did Meet

Joyless. Numbly going through the motions of suburban life in the 1970s. Barely understanding or caring about events shaping the country or the world. Not thinking not feeling and in fact avoiding the chore of exploring the self the act of being.

Plastic existence with the numbing drone of the television or of the softening effect of cocktails. Huge houses with too many rooms and too few ideas. Surrounded by nature outside and things -- so many things -- inside.

But it was comfortable. There was money and creature comforts so one could survive it all. There were also other people and the empty interactions that were supposed to bring community but only highlighted the isolation.

No film has ever captured the Seventies or suburban living and certainly not the meeting of the two as well as Ang Lee's brilliant The Ice Storm (1997). You will see the best minds of your generation destroyed by ennui.

The Ice Storm is set over a Thanksgiving in 1973 in a Connecticut suburb of New York. Kevin Kline and Joan Allen portray the principle mom and dad. With Tobey Maguire and Christina Ricci playing their children. Other young actors in the film include Elijah Wood and Katie Holmes in her film debut.

Richard Nixon is a sort of featured player appearing in archival footage as Watergate is starting to sink his presidency. Only the 14 year old Wendy (Ricci) seems interested in his web of lies. Her older brother Paul (Maguire) is in prep school and is more interested in a beautiful classmate (Holmes) and getting high and reading comic books.

Part of the brilliance of The Ice Storm is how utterly nonjudgmental it is. Lee's camera captures the stark beauty of the homes and landscapes and of the ice storm itself but it is otherwise objective in following the characters. We thus have neither sympathy nor antipathy for anyone. We merely observe. Having been around in the Seventies and having spent some time (thankfully not very much) in the suburbia of that time I can attest to the accuracy of what we see. Not just the physical look -- which is spot on right down to the tacky clothes -- but the feel of the time and place. Looking back it seems a sort of faux modernism. It was a prosperous time in which one working parent could support a family with a house and two cars. There was a comfortable sort of intellectualism that was more focused on the superficiality of reforming government and weeding out corruption than with challenging conventions or producing great art. The conformity of the 1950s was dead but so too was the spirit of rebellion of the 1960s. Shlock was in whether it was trashy disco music garish clothes bushy sideburns obnoxious game shows or prefab sports stadiums.

Kline and Allen play Ben and Elena Hood. Whatever passion that their marriage once had is long gone so Ben is having an affair with the wife (Sigourney Weaver) of a good friend and neighbor. Elena feels purposeless which perhaps explains why she shoplifts at the local drugstore. Their precious daughter stares numbly at the TV and willingly allows the neighbor boys to see her vagina. Their forever bemused son comes home for Thanksgiving though he leaves the following night for an unsuccessful  date with the girl of his dreams.

That night there is a terrible ice storm a huge cocktail party that morphs into the saddest key party you'll ever see and a tragic death. Even in death there is no great wave of emotion. There is more an emptiness of a person lost which is odd given the emptiness of the lives we see. There is also a lack of desperation almost an acceptance of going through the motions. Taking the next step doing the next thing. A death of conscience and consciousness. The children at once detect the meaninglessness of it all and participate in it. The easy affluence has sucked everyone into its vortex.

Yet this is a remarkably watchable film. The characters are still engaging and the settings striking. Lee created a world that is familiar accessible and in its own way entertaining.

In The Ice Storm no one gets what she or he wants. Whether everyone gets what they deserve is entirely the viewer's call. I don't know exactly how "rated" The Ice Storm is but it can't be rated high enough.

16 November 2013

Another Saturday Night of Musing and Mentions of Dustin in Straight Time and Mitchum as Eddie Coyle

Listening to Bill Evans Time Remembered. Sweetest piano music. Keys caressed and from this soft beautiful sounds that go well on a Saturday.

It’s cold out but Bay Area cold. Not Finland or Canada cold. Warm inside. Heater on. Comfortable.

Columbia University. Watched a bit of their football team’s loss to Cornell on the telly this morning. The Lions are winless. I care because mom went there. So did Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Ginsberg’s mom suffered from insanity just as mine did though presumably my mother’s mental illness didn’t strike until after her time at Columbia. I don’t know I wasn’t there. I came along later. Kerouac’s mother was not insane but he himself was an alcoholic. Like my mom. Poor ma. Made much of my childhood and teen years hell and I hated her for it for decades. Took a long time to realize that she meant no harm. Not her fault. Hard to assign blame in such situations. Best not to.

We wish for things that never could be. Like a sane and sober mother. So that happens and there it is. Tugging at us and all the wishing doesn’t change anything. I can wish many things had been different (and often do). Many of those wishes are about mistakes I made. There were some lulus. But here I am today in a warm house with nice music playing a wife I adore in the other room. I love my job and my children and as I type these words I enjoy good health. Not bad.

Happiness is an indulgence many people feel they can’t afford. I myself sometimes shoo contentment away thinking it unearned and liable to set me up for a big fall. Stupid I know. One must embrace happiness. Wrap your arms around it and hold tight lest it flit away. Oh it will escape for a bit eventually but....

Peppy. A faster tempo to this song. My head bobs.

Last Saturday I watched a film called Straight Time (1978) starring Dustin Hoffman as a man just released prison after doing seven years. He tries to go straight. But circumstances conspire as they are want to do and he’s quickly off the straight and narrow. It’s another gem from one of the most productive periods of film ever. The ‘70s. It’s damn near like they didn’t make any bad ones back then.

Straight Time also features M. Emmet Walsh Harry Dean Stanton Gary Busey Kathy Bates and Theresa Russell then a gorgeous 20 year old. The shame of the film is that we see Walsh’s naked ass and not Russell’s. Let me be clear that I do not watch films for purposes of seeing naked people. But if there is to be someone in the nude I much prefer it....Anyway you get the idea and I’ve been sidetracked.

What Straight Time does so well is explore how events beyond our control can send our lives hurtling in other directions. We like to think we are in charge of our lives and certainly we often are. But we often aren't.

Hoffman’s character is easy to root for. No we don’t want him robbing banks or shooting people but we sympathize with him and his earnest efforts. Besides it's goddamned Dustin Hoffman who almost always has played likable sorts. The movie is gritty and real as is often the case from Seventies American cinema. Straight Time was written by a con who was an ex con by the time the film was made. His understanding of the life shows. Its an effective film on numerous levels one of which being that it doesn't make judgments and leaves us room to think particularly with the manner it ends.

Tonight I had my second viewing of The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) another crime film from the Seventies. This one starring Robert Mitchum as the titular character in a most effective performance. He’s done time. He’s had his knuckles busted in a drawer for letting some people down. He’s in the know. And he’s facing another stretch in the can which doesn’t sit well with him given that he has a wife and kids. His friends are what I will call working class crooks. They are connected to the bosses who rake in the big bucks but we never see them. Instead we meet a cast of characters who work long tense pressure packed hours breaking various laws. They have to fear cops and one another. A slip up can result in broken knuckles a trip to prison or a bullet in the head. With friends like that....

Coyle is a low level crook respected but not admired. A stand up guy but pretty old for criminal middle management. TFOEC is meticulous and realistic and endlessly interesting and eschews gratuitous violence and artificial action scenes. I admire the hell out of it.

Wouldn’t you know it I’m getting too tired to write anymore which is to say I’m too tired to do much of anything other than hitting the sack. So I reckon I will.

04 November 2013

Kill Your Darlings But Gently as You Howl You Holy Holy Reader You Treasured and Precious Film Goer

Rhyme and meter in poetry. The taming of the mind the boxing in -- the repetition of form. The death of

How important is it to make an effort. To try. To persist. To fight through gas pain and constipation and physical exhaustion and that ornery ole cuss called laziness. And for what? To write to express to say something anything because without the writing without the effort I am left in the void killing time so carelessly as sure as it is killing me. The head aches. The pulsating pain in the belly rages. The body cries out to lay down lie down be down to drown helplessly in sleep. If it comes. What a wicked bastard sleep can be. Begging to be employed then staying at arm’s length. Teasing taunting. For that is what awaits. That and more gastrointestinal discomfort. Doubts too. Damned doubts crowding into a brain desperate for reassurance for comfort for the soothing balm of righteous certainty. Accursed pride and flimsy wisdom. Where art thou? Surety? But do doubts want to be assured? I think not because then they will cease to be. Doubts want to live to be so they fend off hope and optimism. Bastards.

So the words are forced from the source. Wherever whatever that may be. The combative man struggles to tame his own impulses and loses nothing but his mind. And still the awful pain wrenches. The eyelids grow heavier and the fingers tire. Tire. My ire. Cue the choir. Hallelujah I will stop now.

But for what?

We shall see,;.:

Kill Your Darlings brings to life the epic meetings of fabled legendary and wondrous writers Allen Ginsberg Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs with Lucien Carr mixed in for very good measure. To some of us their time together in New York is the stuff of great history stories which alert the muse. There was of course a murder thrown into the mix committed by Carr against his constant stalker David Kammerer. The film concerns itself with these men and that tragedy (for which Carr received a figurative slap on the wrist having successfully claimed that Kammerer was making unwanted homosexual advances).

It’s risky business depicting characters and events well known and beloved. Others have failed as in the recent screen rendition of Kerouac’s On the Road. But first time director John Krokidas hits his marks and then soars beyond. While KYD is not an unqualified stand on your seat and applaud success its a bloody good movie that I am still pondering 24 hours after seeing it. Huzzah!

First we start with our central character a personal hero of mine Allen Ginsberg. Here he is portrayed by -- what’s this? Harry Potter you say? -- Daniel Radcliffe. Young master Radcliffe does not disappoint. He resembles the young Ginsberg enough and beyond that does nothing to suggest he is not him incarnate. However Ben Foster as William Burroughs does convince us that he is in fact the man come back to life. Foster doesn’t just have the look of Burroughs but the voice and his every action is suggestive of what I know of the writer. I’ve seen Foster knock a role out of the park before and am of the strong opinion that he is a helluva an actor.

Jack Huston is among three actors to portray Kerouac in the past year and does an admirable job. Huston only vaguely resembles my favorite all time novelist -- something he cannot be blamed for -- but sounds and acts enough like him that the story is not interrupted by his presence.

Finally we have the relative neophyte Dane DeHaan as Carr. Carr is less familiar to us then the others so this actor has more leeway. But I have to say they got a ringer for Carr with piercing blue eyes that one imagines would drive the girls and some of the guys wild. DeHaan is excellent as the troubled but exciting and excitable Carr. (While we’re on the subject of actors and characters a special nod to David Cross as Ginsberg father, Louis.)

The opening sequence of Kill Your Darlings will be considered perplexing to some messy to others and inspired to still another group. I agree with all three which is to say I liked it. A story like this of these sort of people birthing the Beat Generation demands innovation. Krokidas frequently lets out most if not all the stops as in a benzedrine fueled scene in which the principals are all in a bar where everything and everyone else freezes and they cavort about them.

Krokidas never lets the story lag the pacing is crisp the camera work and surrealism muted enough not to detract from the story but prevalent enough to do proper justice to the goings-on. Which by god did go on.

Ginsberg is a freshman at Columbia University (at the same time my mother was a grad student there -- did they meet? -- doubt it). First he meets Carr who is the type of bloke some of us are lucky enough to meet at the right times of our lives. The charismatic exciting inspirational ultra cool bohemian who can shake the dust of our lives and getting us up about and thrilled about it all. All of it. Here is adventure here is excitement here is grabbing life and making it your own.

For young men this means parties booze drugs opening your mind to other possibilities to all possibilities and it also means meeting people. Lots of different people with different ideas. Ginsberg was so damn lucky he met no less than William Burroughs. Then tops that off with Jack fucking Kerouac. None of three had yet published anything and were far from famous. But there they were about to kick literature in the ass.

For Ginsberg school and poetry and life did not mix. School would have to give way. Meter and rhyme were eschewed by Walt Whitman so they had no chance with him. In Carr and co. he had inspirations aiders and abetters. Kill Your Darlings captures all this as it does the strange case of Kammerer the professor who gave up all to be with his beloved Carr who in turn grew increasingly annoyed with this obsessed and almost certainly mentally ill man. Killing him is of course far too harsh but it is a crime of passion and did happen and that is as they say that.

Kill Your Darlings portrays Carr as the catalyst he was having played the crucial role of getting Ginsberg out and about and introduced to Burroughs and Kerouac. It does not let him off easily. This is not his story and we are not left feeling great sympathy for him. We are left excited about Ginsberg and the amazing poetry he was to create and the transcendent life he was to lead.

For those of us familiar with the characters and the story KYD will not disappoint in fact it will send us back to books and novels and poems and videos and photos that we have seen before and now need to see again in a new light. Others? Can’t really say. I’m not an other I’m me. But me liked. Maybe others will too.

03 November 2013

I Am No George Clooney But I Do Write About Finally Seeing and Loving Terrance Malick's Badlands

I want to be smart and interesting and a good storyteller like George Clooney. Was just watching him in some You Tube clips. Him and other actors in a roundtable discussion slash interview. I do not look like George Clooney. Never have. Never will. I am and always have been a reasonably attractive male in good physical condition -- excellent as a matter of fact. I am short but not so you could step on me short. More the absence of great or medium height. I'm pretty sure that George Clooney is not short. Anyway he's got lots of money and talent and fame and women think he's really handsome and even men admit to the fact. He's also charming. I can be charming but rarely choose to be. Sometimes I'm downright grumpy. I have talents of my own and many have been appreciated over the years. So maybe I shouldn't complain. I guess what's really bugging me is that I can't sit around with a bunch of famous actors and swap acting stories with them. I surely could sit around with them and listen. I'd be really good at that. But it would hardly be the same. Oh well.

I got on to You Tube after watching Terrance Malick's Badlands (1973) a film I'd somehow never seen before even though it's been around for 40 years now. I really really really enjoyed it. I want to see it again. Maybe own the Criterion Collection edition of it. Screw the maybe part from that last sentence. I definitely want to.

This was Malick before he fell into those long trance like states while directing in which he had tracking shots of molecules or whatever the fuck he was doing. In The New World (2005) he told the Pocahontas story as if she were leaf swaying in the breeze. You could fall asleep during the film and not miss a thing. Seriously. Before that was The Thin Red Line (1998) which a lot of people absolutely love. None of these people are me. I found it annoying irritating and confounding. The more recent The Tree of Life (2011) I greatly admired as it had a cohesion to it yet was not afraid to wonder all around the history of the universe and the meaning of life in telling its story. After Badlands was Days of Heaven (1978) which I thought was a terrific film and just to prove it to you I'm going to watch it again in the next week or so. Promise.

So Badlands tells the story of a young couple who go on a killing spree. Actually the guy (Martin Sheen) does all the killing. The bemused girl (Sissy Spacek) is just along for the ride. And what a ride. Movies can take a somber or ugly subject and make it palatable or interesting or beautiful. Malick did the latter in this case. The beauty of the film is such that we do not forgive the heinous crimes. They're more like a narrative tool. The deaths are not sad or shocking. Except when the girl's father (Warren Oates) kills her dog as a punishment. Somehow that's the cruel one. The five people we see getting killed are more like abstractions whose deaths in this case serve the function of driving the story forward. We can't contemplate them. We must just know that they happened. The killer certainly doesn't waste any tears on the dearly deceased.

Sheen is wonderfully understated as the James Dean lookalike who is forever saying "I don't care." And he doesn't. He takes what comes and does what he must or at least what he thinks he must. Consequences are for another time. Spacek excepts his actions because she is young and in love and unformed and curious. It's really a great screen pairing.

Malick's visual style is not bloated here as it later came to be. There are clouds and trees and animals and roads and dust but they are not lengthy diversions from the plot. They are part of it. Would that he'd stuck to that notion longer.  He also employs music to excellent effect. Instead of scenes that stretch like the Great Plains (my subtle reference to where the film takes place) there is a tightness to scenes. A length that respects the characters the story and the audience.

If you've never seen Badlands you must. It's like a mash up of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Moonrise Kingdom (2102). Those are two really good movies from a couple of very different directors (Arthur Penn and Wes Anderson). I'll go further and say that the Badlands reminds one of the great Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki. Actors read lines hit their marks and move along. They do not pontificate they do not emote they function as part of the film. Yet there is a definite sizzle to the whole 90 minutes a drive a verve and a spirit. There is a lot to see and admire.  I give it many many stars.