Thursday, November 10, 2011

Shampoo (1975)

The Tragedy of a Dildo, in Three Acts

directed by Hal Ashby
starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie,
Goldie Hawn, Jack Warden, Lee Grant

"You think George is a fairy?" 
"Well. I don't know for sure. He's a hairdresser."

Of course, that's the crux of Shampoo's comedy: the Beverly Hills hairdresser who's only the most put-upon pussy magnet in existence — no hunter but a mere fawn too accommodating to bolt from the crosshairs, using a scythe of finely honed flakiness to hack his way through the jungle of outstretched hands pawing at his jeans.

Beatty and co-writer Robert Towne (Chinatown, The Last Detail) lit their Don Juan stogie with a spark from The Country Wife, a Restoration-era romp about a man trusted to be alone with all the wives of the village since he was thought to be impotent. Here, "impotence" is translated as "suspected to be gay because he makes his living in a field dominated by mincing queens." Naturally, that's a nudge-and-a-wink to a mid-'70s public all too familiar with tales of pussyhound Warren Beatty's Tinseltown exploits. Irony-wise, it's the central conceit meant to keep us chuckling with delight as that rascal George flits from Lee Grant's married rich-cunt to shit-for-brains model Goldie Hawn to Grant's bitter Lolita of a daughter (Princess Leia!) and back to old flame Julie Christie, all under the nose of a town too busy smoothing its moustache and checking its toupee in the mirror to notice. 

Shampoo's no wacky bedroom farce from the bell-bottomed-'n-shag-carpeted '70s, though. Beatty, being the politically committed granddaddy-to-today's-Clooneys-and-Penns that he is, was no more interested in providing sitcom yuks than he was in allowing us a glimpse of Julie Christie's tits. He and Towne set the story in 1968, on the eve of Richard Nixon's election to high office — and with a film made six years later, when the evening news was regularly peeling back the jowls of Tricky Dick's White House to show the maggots gnawing on the rancid, mottled corpus underneath, you'd better believe there's Intended Political Allegory in these here hills. Election Day '68, in Shampoo's eyes, was The Shot That Killed the Sixties — less a blast from a bolt-action rifle than the splash of a '67 Olds plummeting off a bridge at Chappaquiddick, the tattered carcass of an era to be laid at the feet of the "Silent Majority" Nixon voters who pumped it full of buckshot — sure — but thrown in the faces of the peaceniks and politicians-for-change who were too busy injecting sexual and emotional hypocrisy into the culture at large to bother stopping the hunters.

If all that sounds like a tall order for a movie about a manwhore who motorbikes around town with a blow dryer holstered on his hip, then rest assured: Shampoo definitely fumbles the delivery. Of ultimately minimal value are the Spiro Agnew cameos during moments of sexual largesse or the blonde chippie in a brightly-colored Nixon-Agnew hat. (Would one have seen such a thing on the streets of Beverly Hills at the height of the "Love Generation"?) Besides, Towne and Beatty shoot easy sympathy for the Buffalo Springfield crowd in the foot with the fact that the sole likeable character happens to be Lester Karp, the Nixon-voting (and almost ritually cuckolded) businessman played by Jack Warden. So forget politics. Just enjoy Beatty himself, the Olivier of playing who-me? innocent like no other actor of his era. His George Roundy is the cad you hate not to love, sweetly dumb in the lingering mist of a childlike naïveté, the bumbling fool (Beatty's forte, as in Bonnie and Clyde, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Ishtar, Bulworth), yet somehow still getting away with things nice boys don't even think about.

If I've said nothing about the film's director, Hal Ashby (whose work I tend to love), it's because George Roundy is clearly Beatty's ultimate auteur statement, his most plainly personal character. Beatty essentially co-directed the film, but a viewer with zero knowledge of that, or of his career-long penchant for smacking foreheads with directors over creative control, could glean that fairly easily. Those of us who consider ourselves familiar with the Beatty legend look for a little piece of it in all of his performances. Beatty is — was — a star, first and foremost. We wouldn't want him to disappear behind peculiar accents or the mustache of a railroad baron from 1896 anymore than he'd be able to. We want to sit back and grin during a scene with him and Julie Christie, as we wonder if a lovers' quarrel in his trailer that morning led her to tear into him with a bit more intensity than the script called for. All the characters he's chosen to inhabit — as well as the ways in which he's chosen to inhabit them — have been either a winking embrace or a chuckling repudiation of his image as The Guy Who's Banged Every Starlet in Hollywood. And Shampoo manages to be both.

Then again, to paraphrase Nixon himself (via Oliver Stone): when you look at George Roundy, you see what you'd like to be; when you look at Lester Karp, you see what you are. And if you're standing in Lester's wingtips, then, of course George is a fairy — that's what people say about guys like him, isn't it? Obscenely self-assured pretty boys with the audacity — the arrogance — to sample the wares of multiple needy, neurotic women rather than chain themselves to a relationship with just one? Men who, by dint of the massive balls they've cultivated, actually live out the fantasies that the socially inept and supremely unconfident jerk themselves to sleep with every night? Men who women seem to just throw it at? And when they do, it's usually right after having their dinners paid for by one of those hommes sans game who poses as the ultimate nice guy — right? — the type who thinks that keeping his car radio tuned to the smooth-R&B station and professing disdain for the Neanderthal ways of the rest of the male species will somehow provide that magical St.-Paul-on-the-Road-to-Damascus moment for some skank-in-a-bar who's spent the last four years' worth of Friday nights getting her cervix batter-rammed by bad boys who choke and don't call back.

As if devoting one's time and energy to bedding various women — not to mention, all the messy intimacy with female genitalia contained therein — were somehow undeniable proof that what said "player" really craves is another man; never mind that. A guy like George Roundy is too smooth to be straight — please, God, let him be gay! After all, with guys like George on the market, life for the Lester Karps of the world means being stuck in line with a dozen other schlubs cradling ground chuck past its sell-by date — lucky if they get a moment's worth of eye contact from the checkout girl — while George breezes out with all the filet mignon in the place. And half of it probably jumped off the butcher's block and flung itself into his cart — that son-of-a-bitch.

So, George has what the Oprah set would term "commitment issues." Well, as they say, one is often a product of one's environment. And take a look at George's environment: why would he settle down with any of these women, or grant them a sliver more consideration than he gives to the necessity of financial statements when applying for a bank loan? Lee Grant's Felicia is so unblinkingly self-centered in the face of propriety, such a turban-headed savage along the Western shores of dignity, that she fucks George mere minutes after he's dipped his wick in her teenage (underaged?) daughter. Said daughter (Carrie Fisher — absolutely no tape on the breasts here, Mister Lucas) oozes so much slime-green resentment for her that she drags Mommy's plaything into her pen, then blithely tosses it back — still covered in her saliva and teeth-marks. Goldie Hawn's Jill is such a whining, approval-craving ninny — cowering and crying for George at every little bump in the night ("I thought I heard shots!") — that mild-mannered George blatantly compares her to a child during one of those when-are-we-having-kids conversations that every guy dreads. (And even then, she's too dumb to be at least mildly offended.) When their climactic confrontation finally occurs, Jill's been so willfully blind that you're rooting for George to just up and dick-slap her with the truth, ready to jump up and cheer with pumped fist at his infamous "Let's face it... I fucked 'em all" speech, as if it were Elliott taking off on his bike in E.T. 

Even the woman for whom he feels something closest to the L-word — Julie Christie's Jackie — scarcely bothers to hide the fact that she rents her snatch to the highest bidder, that she's with Lester for his money, that she's fully aware of his marriage to "that cunt" Felicia and cares not a whit about diving under the table to blow George — in full view of Lester, in full view of Felicia — during the returns-watching function that serves as the film's centerpiece. In the middle of this crazed, Caligula-esque circus of me, George's "I don't fuck anybody for money, I do it for fun" rings out like the clarion call of sanity — the lone dinghy of true innocence in waters not nearly as pure as professional Sixties idealists would have you believe. It also sounds like the cold, unadorned truth. Say what you will about your local manwhore — at least he fucks for the sheer human pleasure of sliding off another pair of panties grown clammy with the dew of excitement (part of nature's programming, anyway), not for money or social status or career advancement or a good table at Spago's.

"Maybe it means I don't love 'em...
nobody's gonna tell me I don't like 'em very much..."

George is a guy who spends all his time around women — certainly, he must like them, right? Except that, in the real world, the biggest misogynists tend to be those who "score" the most, not (as is commonly assumed) bitter nerds with their dicks indefinitely stationed in Palm Springs. Anyone who's ever spent ten minutes of "conversation" time with your friendly neighborhood suburban jock can attest to this — get him alone, away from the future Playmates he's taken for granted since puberty, and "Love, Tenderness and Respect" ain't the name of the tune he sings. Of course, it might have something to do with the fact that getting a higher degree of "action" entails being around more women. And being around more women entails a greater awareness of the vagaries of the fairer sex — i.e., looming insecurities, the unceasing need for validation, the constant head games, the shallow assessments of what constitutes a good time, the shallow assessments of other people (especially, other women), the tantrum-throwing when she hasn't gotten her way, endless prattling about the most trifling minutiae of her daily existence.

Or, even less charitably: the more success one has getting into women's salty little panties, the more one realizes what great aphrodisiacs things like money and status really are. (How the fuck else could Jabba the Huts like Biggie Smalls or personality-free dorks like Tiger Woods actually get laid?) And once one tends to chance upon this gradual dawning of the consciousness, one tends to note one's increased resentment and overall lack of respect for the pretty little things one gets into bed — even at the height of one's carnal success, even as one fields whispered declarations involving the L-word, even (well, especially) as she hobbles out of your apartment with a dislodged uterus, wearing your fingerprints around her throat like a Girl Scout merit badge. (Or so I've heard.)

Beatty soft-pedals this aspect of womanizing in Shampoo, much as he soft-pedaled Clyde Barrow's alleged bisexuality, much as The Parallax View soft-pedaled the U.S. government's complicity with assassinations and cover-ups, much as Bulworth soft-pedaled the high untenability of the let's-all-be-socialists-and-fuck-'til-we're-all-the-same-shade-of-gray party line. Perhaps that's an outgrowth of some George Roundy-ish need to please (if not outright seduce) every audience member who comes along. Nonetheless, Beatty was nothing if not a guy who knew about women. And, however muted, indelible truths about Being a Guy are indeed carefully nestled behind Shampoo's hedges, waiting patiently for the scavenger hunt to begin.

The Second Most Important Lesson of the film: cater exclusively to a woman's vanity and the pussy's yours. She could have a husband, two boyfriends, a secret admirer and a kid on life support — doesn't matter. Your crotch might bear the scent of half the women in the town, the wall over your bed may sport an entire season's worth of scuff marks from high heels — doesn't matter. Devote every drop of your attention to making her feel like the best-looking woman in five counties, ensure that men slip on their own drool in her wake, that she's the envy of every catty little cunt in Nordstrom's — and most assuredly, the pussy's got your name tattooed on it. Looks have precious little to do with it — tellingly, not one woman in the film comments on George's appearance. If you need her badly enough, if you make her believe beyond any shadow of a doubt that she's the only girl on the planet who can make your back arch and your toes curl and your heart pound — then, you can resemble J.J. from Good Times and you'll still be churning in her gut like bad fish.

Now, for the flip side — The Most Important Lesson of Shampoo: What Goes Up Must Come Down. Every Dog Has His Day. Venture just one day past your sell-by without the sweaty hand of a steady sweetheart clutched in yours, and you're one for the trash heap. A faint memory to bring no more than the occasional reminiscence. Ultimately, the fate of the world's George Roundys is being cast aside for a safe bet, a man who offers the stability of a steady high-end salary to keep her shoe collection healthy and growing. It's being judged for your manwhoriness by the same women who used it to their advantage when it suited their needs — when they drunk-texted you at 11:25 at night for a little impromptu wall-scuffing because they needed the comfort of the ego boost and the orgasms you reliably provided.

Eventually, George will break down to Jackie: "I don't trust anybody but you." And therein lies the tricky part. The part where it all comes back to bite you on the ass. The part where it's initially fun to be the guy they want to fuck, until it's eating a path through your guts: "What if she were my wife? Or my girlfriend, who told me she was just going out for drinks with the girls?" And then, you realize that you can't trust anyone — not the carousel of women with whom you share your living room couch, not the men like a younger version of yourself, whose incessant offers your precious lady love will undoubtedly field the second you're not around.

If George/the '60s is the dumb-blonde innocent that Beatty intended him/it to be, then Shampoo winds up with a pretty dim view of such innocence. The confrontation between George and Lester — player vs. player-hater, young vs. old, The Silent Majority vs. Hippie Commie Out to Destroy Everything We've Worked For — is where George seals his own fate as surely as the film portends the pitter-patter of the Reagan Eighties dancing a two-step to Slick Rick's "Treat Her Like a Prostitute" on his welcome mat. George's utter resentment — "How do I know what they have against you? They're women, aren't they?" — comes spilling out at last. And that ingratiating quality he's used to keep so many balls in the air is precisely what delivers the death blow here: he convinces Lester that Jackie really likes him, that it's not all about the money for her. It's a brazen lie — and it becomes the golden chariot in which Lester dashes off with Jackie into a future George could never realize.

Lester doesn't even need to have George thumped by hired goons. This kid's a flake and nothing more — too non-committal to satisfy even himself, a shiny new toy, a dildo, a ring in the jewelry section at Wal-Mart to be coveted by teenage girls who don't know any better, before they grow up and develop a sense of what their hips and curves and batting eyelashes will net them out there beyond the confines of Daddy's House. At which point, they graduate from Sex as Mere Pleasurable Activity and move into Sex as Business, Pussy as Commodity. The Market. The Adult World. In which George — with his go-nowhere plans and his charming but empty little fantasies — is but a panhandler shivering in the cold, nose pressed to the glass, watching all the fat cats and their trophy wives sipping chardonnay by the fireplace inside.

And then, you're the pathetic forty year-old guy in the bar, the laughingstock with a lukewarm Stella in hand. And then, the Beach Boys is the saddest, most poignant music you've ever heard.

And then, you're alone.

©2010 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Gimme Shelter (1970)

A Trifle Too Satanic

directed by David Maysles, Albert Maysles
and Charlotte Zwerin
starring The Rolling Stones, a shitload of Hell's Angels,
The Death of the Sixties

"Something very funny happens when we start that number."

That's Mick Jagger's sudden lump-throated reckoning in the eye of the storm at Altamont — a limp-dicked stab at levity as the Stones bring "Sympathy for the Devil" to a halt and try to figure out just what the hell's going on out there in the darkness, what with all the pushing and shouting, and Hell's Angels gathering like storm clouds around the band, and naked fat zombie girls trying to claw their way onstage, while high-as-a-kiters tug at the speakers, and hippies who should be blissfully tripping are instead trying desperately to alert Mick to something. Meanwhile, new guitarist Mick Taylor's hiding under his hair and Keith Richards is busy rhythm-chording his way into the ether like no one since Nero picked up a fiddle. (Jagger in a frustrated snit: "Keef! Keef! Would you cool it and I'll try an' see wot's goin' on...")

Suddenly, a huge gap opens in the crowd, like cattle bolting at the bark of gunfire. What we can't make out (but would later be reported): pool cues wielded by pissed-off Angels begin cutting through the air — each one the flick of the whip that scatters a thicket of zonked-out teenagers who made the mistake of pushing too close to the stage or being too close to the Angels' motorcycles. Kids already huddled at the feet of the band begin clinging to the stage like a raft, afraid of being sucked backward into the vortex of cracked skulls and bad-trip confusion. A crying girl nods her head in time to Charlie Watts' ever-steady beat. The Stones slog on, torn and frayed, likely counting down the minutes until they can break for the safety of their helicopter. Jagger's weary improv during "Under My Thumb": "I pray that it's alright..."

Springing from the brows of Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters and Hank Williams and Southern soul, the Stones were, by far, the best and blackest of our mutt-bred pop culture's Original White Niggers. ("Monkey Man," indeed.) They taught scruffy American boys how to be American — how to pout and posture, how to hold one's guitar, how to feed the birds the perfect cocktail of misogyny and sensitivity and have 'em thirsting for seconds, how to sound just black enough to align oneself with the sex and menace of the blues while staying hard-rock enough to headline stadiums and grace the T-shirts of the kids from the 'burbs. It took Mick 'N Keef to show us how to appreciate the blues, how to acknowledge our hillbilly roots, how to rub elbows and swap sweat with our Negroes (onstage, anyway), how to dig the funk and show ourselves up as mullet-headed, sexually insecure dinosaurs when we labeled the disco rhythms of "Miss You" and "Emotional Rescue" a craven sellout.

"Turd on the Run" and "Tumbling Dice" and "Brown Sugar" and "Monkey Man" and "Stray Cat Blues" mark the Stones as the true architects of what rock ended up as — that is, if we're taking as testimony the overall sound and approach of, say, Guns N' Roses or coke-era Aerosmith or uptempo T. Rex or the New York Dolls or the Faces or the Iggy Pop of Raw Power or the Black Crowes or Little Steven and Nils Lofgren in Springsteen's band or ZZ Top or the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion or any number of loud, sloppy blues-rock doo-dah merchants. The whole alt-country/"Americana" genre could send Father's Day cards to Exile on Main St.'s weary, drunken jaunts down the alleys and backroads of the South. Keith Richards' legendary fondness for dope plus the elegantly wasted grandeur of his onstage cigarette-dangling probably influenced legions of Slashes and Johnny Thunderses and God-knows-who-else in their personal acquisitions of needle-mania. Scuzz-punk malcontents Pussy Galore dedicated an entire album to deconstructing Exile. Liz Phair considered her Exile in Guyville a song-by-song response to it. Martin Scorsese can't make a gangster film without "Gimme Shelter" (the song). I used to reserve "Sweet Black Angel" as a ringtone for any black girls I was fucking.

And so, we watch the Stones-loving, Woodstock-era youth culture of Gimme Shelter with the fascination of anthropologists studying dinosaur fossils. Throughout the first half of the film, we're essentially hanging with the Stones on their 1969 tour of the States. We follow them as they check into their cheap motel rooms. (Holiday Inn!) We're treated to a work-in-progress version of "Wild Horses" during a mixing session at Alabama's famed Muscle Shoals studio. We chuckle at Keith in all his smacked-out, bad-teeth languor as he shows off his Marilyn Monroe T-shirt for the camera, seconds after swigging booze like bottled Kool-Aid.

We marvel at the ridiculously young Mick Jagger on the screen here, the one strutting across that Madison Square Garden stage in his Uncle Sam top hat and what looks like a goddamn kids' superhero costume, with his electrocuted-chicken dance moves and the sheer, genuine love of performing that keeps bubbling forth. We watch him and we see him as our parents once saw him: not the long-past-his-prime, thoroughly safe and jet-setting pop royalty who famously inspired a "get off the stage, old man" from Morrissey. No, this is a young and still-relevant Mick — fully aware of his powers, ironic to the core, and yet totally sincere in his embrace of the role of Sixties Cultural Avatar. It's Mick Jagger as the big, bad, booty-lipped Lucifer leading the youth down the pied-piper path to irreversible moral decay, who warned you coy little out-of-time cunts not to play with fire, who teased you with your own complicity in the culture that killed the Kennedys, who foretold all the rape and murder that was just a shot away, who brayed openly for coke and sympathy, who invited up your fifteen year-old sister (thirteen, if you believe the live version) and didn't even want to check her I.D. first.

This is rock as the riot-sparking madhattery that your parents and the county sheriff tried to shield you from. It's rock as a force of nature to kill or die or fuck to — as if Mick's hips were connected by invisible wire to each hit of the snare drum, as if Mick himself were nothing more than a puppet on the strings of the Charlie Watts-Bill Wyman steam engine pumping away behind and beneath him, as if the chugga-chugga juggernaut churned up by Keith and Mick Taylor were pure uncut China White being mainlined straight into his vein, all the way up to his brain, and the sheer fucking heft of the noise they're cooking up has possessed him, mind-body-and-soul. We watch the Mick of Gimme Shelter and the last thirty-odd years evaporate right in front of us: the faceless tours with 800-ft. video screens in corporate-owned arenas, the nostalgia, the classic-rock radio overkill, the graceless aging, the overly familiar crunch of those Keef rhythm chords as Mick licks his lips and gyrates his way through another tale of conquest or romantic desperation like he's still twenty-five years old.

And then we get to Altamont. And, oh, do the storm clouds gather fast.

Of course, the Maysles Brothers hadn't intended to be pallbearers at what the press would term the funeral for a generation's hopes. (If I wrote for, say, Rolling Stone, I'd probably liken the Sixties to some kind of "high" and call Altamont the "comedown.") Mundane as it seems now, it's key to remember: these guys were only there to capture primo footage of The World's Greatest Rock 'N Roll Band on what was then its first U.S. tour in three years. And so, we watch as a simple end-of-tour freebie gig at the Altamont speedway in northern California slowly mutates into Altamont — the End of the Sixties, the Death of the Innocence — piece by piece, the sheer spirit-depleting horror of the thing only gradually revealed, like a jigsaw puzzle that forms the poster for the new Rob Reiner movie.

During the Jefferson Airplane's set, the grinning death's head of impending doom materializes one image at a time — naked hippies writhing, sullen Angels sipping their beer, the musicians nodding and jamming, the crowd moving in tighter, pushing forward, then surging back. We get a jittery Grace Slick trying to still the waves of discontent — "Easy.... easy..." — that she feels coming off the crowd. Then the Airplane's Marty Balin gets knocked out by Angels and there go the floodgates — the crowd parts for some unfortunate soul meeting two or three pool cues at once, scythes cutting whip-like arcs through the pot-laced air, as if we've suddenly jerked forward into fast-motion and the film were unspooling past the gate faster than our eyes could comprehend. Calls for a doctor are met largely with indifference as the bad vibes have yet to spread out to the majority of the crowd. Minutes off the Stones' helicopter, Mick's greeted by a fan socking him in the eye.

And then, the queasy climax we came for: the crowd parts (again) around the spastic dance of a pimp-suited black kid named Meredith Hunter, who's either mid-scuffle or in a mad rush for the stage. For reasons debated endlessly in the forty years since — self-defense or harmful intent? — Hunter's left hand brandishes a revolver. Before we can blink, an Angel tackles him from the side and buries a knife in his back, sweeping him into the off-camera darkness to breathe his dying breath under (what was later reported as) a barrage of further blows and kicks. And thus, David and Albert Maysles' thrilling little Rolling Stones tour documentary became the evil twin to Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock, the Deep Throat of culture porn for assorted Sixties-backlashers, a snuff-flick dissertation on the impossibility of utopia.

"But where were the police?" you ask from your central air-conditioned penthouse suite of twenty-first century hindsight. "Where was security?" Apparently there were no cops — at least not until Meredith Hunter was already a lime-green lump on a stretcher. And all those drunken Hell's Angels going around cracking skulls and weighing down the makeshift stage? Well, they were the security.

Ah, the Sixties. That fleeting arrhythmia in the EKG of the twentieth century — a psychedelic fever dream of peace and love and brother-helping-brother before the culture yanked the thermometer from under its tongue, rose from its sickbed and continued onward in its otherwise uninterrupted march toward corporate-sponsored, conservative-voting, middle-class respectability. But what a dream it was, this era of automatic culture-cred parceled out to random longhairs, druggies and misfits due to their perceived antipathy to the Man. Didn't want to be shipped off to die in the 'Nam? You were a revolutionary, maaan. Evinced a dislike of the pigs and anyone else with the stench of authority? You were a revolutionary. Spent your days handing out pamphlets and shagging any body-painted, floppy-tittied, Buckwheat-bushed floozy who happened to spasm-dance her way into your acid-baked field of triple-vision, all while decrying the privilege that made such a charmed life possible in the first place? Oh, you were a revolutionary. (Of course, the bulk of this criteria applied as much to Charlie Manson as it did to, say, Abbie Hoffman or any kid at a Doors concert.)

And if you belonged to a notorious biker gang known more for boozin' 'n fightin' 'n runnin' trains on saggy motorcycle mamas than for any sense of social purpose or progressive political thought? Then, you were an "outlaw brother of the counterculture" and you and your sawed-off pool cues got hired to maintain order at a free outdoor festival headlined by Mick Jagger and company for five hundred dollars worth of beer.

The Maysles structured Gimme Shelter as a commentary on itself. The concert footage and the soul-crushing experience of Altamont are the movie-within-the-movie; the actual movie is the ashen-faced Stones in the brothers' editing room, after the fact. And they're on the same trip as us: watching the World's Greatest Rock 'N Roll Band go from hammer-of-the-gods cockiness to pathetic bleating and useless "brrrothers and sssisters" platitudes in the face of the kind of danger that can't be bought off or seduced with insouciant pop-idol poses. We watch the Stones as stars in their own version of Antonioni's Blow-Up, running the footage of Meredith Hunter's death back and forth to try and suss out the truth from the murk, the murder from the grain — that specter of a knife frozen in eternity against a girl's checkered dress, the inevitability of a dream's end paused and scrutinized again and again like Mathilda May's tits on a VHS tape of Lifeforce when you're sixteen years old. It's as if, by reversing that knife plunge and pausing it mid-air, the horror of a split-second decision fueled by drugs and half-comprehension — to say nothing of probable class resentment and the unavoidable racial element — could be sucked back into the portal of happenstance from whence it so rudely burst.

And maybe then, the dream would live on. Maybe then, the acid-heads we see spinning in circles before the Airplane's set would genuinely come to know expanded consciousness and the True Meaning of It All. Maybe then, the soccer mom we see taking up money for a Black Panther defense fund ("after all, they're just Negroes") would come to see the day when black and white and brown and plaid all melted together in a beautiful pan-racial orgy of Neapolitan ice-cream togetherness. Maybe one day, the Man and his outmoded way of thinking would finally shuffle off this mortal coil, and the children of Woodstock would assume his throne at last — the very ones who nattered on about changing the world (as if they were the first generation to hit upon that particular form of self-flattery) while those of lesser privilege lost limbs in Southeast Asia and had to settle for "Satisfaction" over Armed Forces radio. And — who knows? — maybe Hendrix would join Janis Joplin and the Lizard King and Danny Whitten of Crazy Horse onstage for a monster jam at the inauguration of President Ted Kennedy at the dawn of the Eighties. It was the Sixties. Time was on the side of the righteous. Anything was still possible, right?

Or maybe there's more to that cold-blooded stabbing that seemed so clear-cut on a Moviola in the Maysles' editing suite. Would history regard differently the sacrificial black lamb of the Stones' satanic white-blues communion had Meredith Hunter managed to squeeze off shots that ventilated some poor hippie chick's skull? Would it have thrown the actions of that murderous Angel into bold relief if Hunter had fired that revolver willy-nilly and sent errant bullets into one of the Stones, perhaps Jagger himself? Could the whole damnable misfortune be attributed to the seriousness with which the Angels took their job as concert security?

David Hemmings in Blow-Up knew: sometimes, the more you stare at something, the harder it is to ever know just what the hell you're looking at.

©2011 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Thursday, October 27, 2011

There Will Be Blood (2007)


written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
starring Daniel Day-Lewis,
Paul Dano, Kevin J. O'Connor, Ciarán Hinds

There Will Be Blood may or may not be the masterpiece that writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson so obviously wanted it to be — the verdict isn't yet in, only four years after its release. But there's some of the poetry of a silent-movie epic in its painterly widescreen tableaux of an American West in its bare-plains infancy, in the film's wordless, ritualistic evocations of what it meant to make one's living from the land, in the way that its chunk of the early years of America's oil industry quietly unfolds like the petals of some rare orchid opening — gradually, wondrously. Call it Abel Gance's Napoleon, maybe, or bits of von Stroheim's Greed compressed then stretched out across the arid California landscape while Jonny Greenwood's atonal Penderecki strings hiss and hum and threaten psychic disintegration à la Kubrick. Daniel Day-Lewis, in the guise of oil magnate Daniel Plainview, likewise recalls an earlier era of cinematic spectacle with his turn-of-the-century Snidely Whiplash-cum-railroad baron look and his crooked gait and his verbal conjuring of director John Huston (think Chinatown) plus any number of Woodrow Wilson-era bigwigs whose voices he studied recordings of in preparation for the role. It's museum-exhibit America given heft, blood, force — a land where men with big dreams and bigger money rushed to the edge of a cliff just to throw it all off and see if it had wings. People called them "crazy" when they failed, "genius" when their gambles took flight and became the mass-produced automobile or modern air travel or the film industry or Big Oil.

The film is rather obvious in its bid to be a Citizen Kane-by-way-of-Giant for our Crash-worthy times, though epic ambition hardly qualifies as a cardinal sin. And it does send Daniel Plainview off on a rather predetermined trip to Crazyville, the reasons for which we're expected to intuit or perhaps just accept as the natural flipside to the whole genius/father-of-an-industry coin. We're told that Daniel's spent years building his hatreds, told of his disdain for humanity. And then, we see the manifestations of that worldview — a pair of murders, the severing of ties with adopted son HW. But there's a missing link in the chain that binds these developments to the earlier Daniel Plainview, the Plainview who earned his fortune by the sweat of his own brow, who brought education and the modern age to backwater citizenry, whose work ethic and insistence on the best for HW after his hearing loss obviously had something to do with the resourceful young tycoon that the kid has become by the end of the film. Plainview kills a drifter posing as his long-lost half-brother but it's not a reaction to any sort of threat the man poses. Is Daniel merely punishing him for having coaxed a glimmer of humanity out of him, for having seduced a man who doesn't like to explain himself into pouring out his coal-black heart? As with Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson's prior effort, the screenplay often feels as though it could have used another run through the typewriter. (Magnolia, on the other hand, could have used about forty pages shaved off.)

But I get it: clearly, Anderson is going for a more suggestive, less on-the-nose style of storytelling — one that sketches out the broadstrokes of life at the dawn of twentieth-century social development (industrialization, the church as the nexus of community, the birth of Jesus-soaked modern politics) while allowing us to fill in the details. More often than not, it works — you're marvelling even when the approach leaves your head full of unanswerable questions. What doesn't work so well is the film's easy assumption of venality and two-bit hucksterism in Eli Sunday, the town's self-appointed young preacher. (Though Paul Dano labors admirably with scraps.) Plainview's practically smirking with postmodern "Religion! What bullshit!" glee from the moment he first hears of Sunday's Church of the Third Revelation, and it's a view that the film does nothing to challenge or offset. What we end up with is an echo of the lopsided face-off between Day-Lewis' Bill the Butcher and Leonardo DiCaprio's Amsterdam in Scorsese's Gangs of New York. Eli's nothing more than the paper tiger of Religious Hogwash that Anderson pits against the raging Colossus of Reasonable Agnosticism, and the outcome of said battle is never in doubt; it's forecast from their first meeting.

If there's anything Anderson's filmography has shown us, it's that he doesn't shortchange his characters in the humanity department. "Come on in," his films exhort us with open arms worthy of Jack Horner. "You might be a hopeless misfit or a fuck-up or a small-timer or a dim-bulb or a coked-out porn whore thoroughly ill-equipped to ever gain custody of your kid, but there's no derision in this house, nobody here you can write off or distance yourself from or feel superior to." That was the big, beautiful heart beating away beneath all the Johnny Wadd homages and raining frogs and Scorsese whip-pans and Julianne Moore's bubblegum-pink nipples — obviously, this show-offy whiz-kid had learned something from all those Jonathan Demme films. That was what made him such a matured-soul standout, such a glorious Altmanesque throwback in an era defined by the too-cool-for-school preening of Tarantino and his pop culture-spouting hit men.

How much more powerful would Blood be, though, had it rejected the taint of postmodern hipster antipathy to Christianity in order to examine — truly, seriously examine — the psychological motivation for Eli's God complex? What if Anderson had given Eli just a smidgen of the same blemished humanity he lent to daughter-diddler Jimmy Gator in Magnolia? What if — instead of the Saturday Night Live sketch we get of Eli "casting out" the "evil spirit" of an elderly woman's arthritis — he'd endowed Eli with a genuine gift for speaking to the emotional needs of his congregation, for applying a measure of spiritual unguent to their lives? As hilarious as that arthritis bit is (and I do love it), it's little more than tent-show revival theatrics; easy laughs. You don't come away from it thinking, "Wow, at least Eli really brings something to these people's lives," you snicker along with Plainview and snort, "What a half-ass con-man! What kind of backwoods ignoramuses could take this idiot seriously?" Hell, Ozzy Osbourne's "Miracle Man" or the Jim Bakker parodies that Jim Carrey used to do on In Living Color ("Ah.... haaave... ssssinnned!!") contain about the same level of pathos.

And as far as the congregation is concerned, what is there in these people's lives that makes them so receptive to a figure like Eli and his rather narrow interpretation of salvation? Do they take his claims of communion with the angels at face value? Or do they merely dig past the crust of hokum on the surface to tap into what lies beneath — the reassurance of Old Testament order in an chaotic new world? (For that matter, what about the old lady with arthritis when she finds that her hand is still a gnarled claw? Does she still put her faith in Eli's powers of "healing"?) The Coens or Alexander Payne might occasionally render their common folk a faceless mass of simpletons and call it a day, but I expect a director of Anderson's talents to at least acknowledge that these questions exist, even if he's not terribly interested in the answers.

Of course, a masterpiece needn't be flawless; film history's Greatest of All-Time Pageant is filled with porcelain-skinned, pink-nippled, raven-haired Perfect Tens which, when undressed, reveal the scars of overlength (A Clockwork Orange, The Wild Bunch) or of sticky ideology (Birth of a Nation, Triumph of the Will) or of obvious calculation (virtually any Spielberg) or of individual sequences which, once fresh or shocking, have since rusted gracelessly against the roiling waters of time (too many to mention). None of this matters; the only court in which a film has to stand — the only sagging pair of tits to which a film must tether itself in lifelong matrimony — is the lair of the collective unconscious. And There Will Be Blood at its best is pure waking dream; less a motion picture written, scored and directed than a writhing, wriggling piece of our national character — as preserved in amber by muckrakers like Upton Sinclair, whose 1927 novel Oil! Anderson is partially adapting here. One of the best things that Anderson's learned from his hero Robert Altman (via Nashville and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, especially) is how to make a masterpiece that doesn't feel like one, that doesn't act as if it aspires to be one. Accordingly, Blood shakes out as Masterpiece Theater the gloriously rude American way: crazy, pitch-black humor, wild shifts in tone, coal-hearted amusement at man's folly, the out-and-out slapstick of Eli's spirit expulsion bit or the scene in which Eli calls Daniel up before his congregation to give him "the blood" and bitch-slaps him into oblivion as payback for an earlier humiliation.

And then, just when you're not looking, Anderson slips in moments of such sublime, understated beauty, you're afraid to breathe too hard, lest the magic of the moment dissipate into the air like petals from a dandelion. Mind you, I'm not talking "beauty" in the morning-sunset/rolling-meadow way that it's been taught to us, I'm talking the beauty of a fully realized, indefatigably human work of art. Anderson's version of beauty is as fraught with instability and danger as everything else in the film but it's there: in the film's early, wordless sequences of grim-faced workers so caked and painted with dirt — and, later, oil — that they look like refugees from a minstrel troupe while digging away at the earth and peering up occasionally at the blinding sunlight. It's there in the way the film casually acquaints us with the mundane details of early twentieth-century oil mining, in the way that a miner baptizes his baby son with a smudge of black oil across his little forehead, in the way that modern politics dawns in that glimmer in Plainview's eyes as he sees how Eli's vessel-for-the-Holy-Spirit act has the good people of Little Boston so thoroughly seduced.

Day-Lewis made the choice to project to the cheap seats with his Acting here and, yet, the most important things about Daniel Plainview are left for us to understand on that subconscious level where all great thespians reach us. He lets bits of Plainview's humanity dribble through his fingers in fleeting moments when he's content enough or drunk enough to momentarily loosen his grasp, in the way he ensures that little Mary Sunday will never again be beaten by her father for not praying, in the way that he accepts little HW's punches as his due as they're reunited. And when Anderson's sensibility chimes in time with Day-Lewis's impulses, we get chills no speechwriter could put into words: the queasiness of sudden realization when Henry fails to recognize a clue from the past that Daniel keeps feeding him, or the way that that wave of ocean-water-as-realization washes over Daniel and a perfectly timed cut takes us to Daniel in the whorehouse as Henry staggers up and asks for money.

And then, there's Plainview's big moment, which just might be the single best scene in the last ten years of cinema: his whiskey-sodden admission to Henry of the little hatreds that he's built up inside of himself over the years, of his furious sense of competition with others, of the way that he looks at people and sees nothing worth liking. Of course, there's absolutely nothing in his words that hasn't been thought or felt by anyone with any kind of experience with the numbing stupidity of one's fellow humans: the small-mindedness, the petty obsessions, the betrayals of friends and lovers, the endless concessions to unearned vanity, the constant need for attention or validation. Any man who can look around this demented slaughterhouse of a world we live in (thank you, Howard Beale) and not feel at least some degree of revulsion — not at least occasionally want to bash one's fellow man in the cranium with a fucking bowling pin — is a man without a brain, without a soul. If there is a hell in this world, a flaming inferno that can't be escaped or reckoned with or reasoned away, then, clearly: it's other people. And the truth of that invades Plainview's speech — the genuine climax of the film — the way that painful memories and past transgressions have a way of seeping into, and poisoning, even the most mundane moments of one's life.

But it's the cuckoo, black-comedy Jack-Nicholson-in-The-Shiningsville of the film's final "I drink your milkshake!" setpiece that properly catapults the whole enterprise into the stratosphere. If, in the real world, unfettered capitalism and Jesus-freaking are perfectly happy to swap spit and pad off to each other's boudoirs in the still of the night in order to suit their individual purposes (see: modern-day politics, Republican variety), Blood's final flourish is still a fairly evocative portrait of the forces warring for our grubby little red-white-and-blue souls. Again, Anderson tips his hand in regard to Eli/organized religion with the ending. But then again, check that title — that's a promise to the audience. And in cinema, if nowhere else in life, promises must be kept.

Altman and Kubrick wisely injected doses of tittage into the mix, but Anderson was just as wise to exclude the flaxen curls and milky bosoms of the fairer sex from his canvas here. There's something muted and dry in Plainview's psychological makeup, something that — like the Vietnam background of Travis Bickle or whether Patrick Bateman was simply imagining all his hacked-to-bits, rat-raped victims — doesn't need to be reduced to something so pedestrian as explanation. Whether or not Plainview's impotent (something Anderson reportedly toyed with in an earlier draft), asexual or simply too monomaniacally driven for common, sloppy human entanglements, it's clear that the only drilling he needs to do is into that fertile woman under his feet. The young American West is his wife, explosions of black gold the only ejaculations he'll ever need; our thoroughly industrialized twenty-first century America his spawn. On that level, at least, his antagonism toward Sunday is properly understood. Who needs all that old-time religion when Plainview is offering the new: the oil that bubbles forth as our blood of the Lamb, Plainview himself as the Jesus who'll sacrifice himself for our social advancement by getting rich beyond his wildest dreams and then dying alone and insane inside his storybook mansion. Naturally, Anderson concurs: Plainview as presented is the only prophet whose teachings we still live by, the only Jesus whose parables make a lick of sense according to our cutthroat modern world.

Audiences require layers for the mass delusion that entertainment represents, though. When the artistic impulse is nestled inside of a mass-market form like the horror film or the gangster genre, audiences more readily accept what the artist is saying about Who We Are, about this brittle paper god of civilization that we've constructed around ourselves. Peckinpah (the Western), John Huston (the Bogart film), Jonathan Demme (the comedy) and Kubrick (the war film, the Stephen King adaptation, the satirical futuristic parable) did it all the time. Sometimes, though, an artist just strips down and lets his sweaty balls flap in the wind. Robert Altman — Anderson's guru — did this by not bothering to sugarcoat his cynicism or his supreme disinterest in conventional storytelling; probably why he was never much of a hit with audiences beyond M*A*S*H (the counterculture war comedy). Anderson's displayed the heart of a Demme, the technique of a Scorsese and, now, what may prove to be the reach of a Kubrick. But his soul belongs to Altman — to whom There Will Be Blood is dedicated.

©2011 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Monday, May 23, 2011

Blue Collar (1978)

Detroit in the Seventies: "And Then, We Woke Up..."

directed by Paul Schrader
starring Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel,
Yaphet Kotto

Opening credits. A caught-on-barbed-wire howl none other than Captain Beefheart with a paean to ass-raped working stiffs, its beat like the clanging of hammers, steel against steel. It's the pounding of a bill collector's fist on your dinnertime door, or maybe the clamp of a license plate press. It's the big-city blues of the modern industrial age: the plant, the bar, then home to the family where bills keep piling and shit needs fixing and the wife needs fucking and inane sitcoms blare away on a TV it took you three years just to pay off while the rugrats you can't afford to feed or clothe yell and scream at each other and break up everything you barely even own. That's your life. That's your working-class American Dream.

It's also your Detroit in the late Seventies, a perpetual Night of the Living Dead set in a burned-out urban cemetery strewn with condemned buildings, crushed hopes and spare auto parts, where the working poor stumble about under a permanent cloud of factory smoke in that pregnant pause before the barbarians finally broke down the gate, before the ground at the city's feet gave way to the hellfire maw of racial and economic chaos whose white-hot flames had been warming the concrete above it since before King and his dream were obliterated by an assassin's bullet.

For guys like Zeke (Richard Pryor), Jerry (Harvey Keitel) and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto), chaos crouched in waiting just around the turn of the decade. Like a sack of mangoes rocked by blow after blow closed auto plants, rising crime rates, white flight, inept (and, in some cases, outright corrupt) leadership good ol' Motor City would never again regain its former shape. Year by year, the carrot of basic solvency would be yanked another inch beyond the grasp of outstretched hands; year by year, in lieu of the fulfillment promised him by all the shiny happy people in the TV ads and the political speeches, Cain of the broken-backed rabble would edge ever closer toward the jugular of Abel standing next to him. Say goodbye to country tunes at the local watering hole, Hank: Detroit in the age of RoboCop would see worker set against worker, friend against friend, black against (what remained of) white, inner-city blight lashing out at the Job's hedge of nitroglycerin working-class stability that surrounded it. American Working Man, meet the hellhounds loosed by your own bed-buddies-with-state-government union. Take a hard look at the impracticability of that dream you've been paying for on layaway the last ten years. Next stop: the pasture. In the meantime: "Buy this shit, buy that shit." In the end, "all you got's a buncha shit." That's what it all adds up to. That's all these guys know.

So, like the Paul Schrader protagonist that he is, Zeke takes an idea that's been growing in his brain for some time and decides to put it to action. The idea? Payback. A little righteous vindication, even. Not the "true force" of Travis Bickle's fantasies and not the moral cleansing effected by a Charles Rane or a Jake Van Dorn, but something rather appropriate to the downscale existence of three frustrated worker bees: why don't we rob the safe at Union headquarters? Zeke got the idea while there to file a complaint with their Union rep the damn safe was big as day and wide open, nobody looking after it but some half-asleep geriatric. Zeke spills the plan to Jerry and Smokey during the comedown from a coke-fueled orgy that's like the only stab these guys have at rolling back the clock for a couple of hours and letting the sunshine of pre-adulthood spontaneity wash over their drab, responsibility-burdened lives. It'd be a knock-over, Zeke says in and out. And with the bread split between the three of them, Jerry could finally get his daughter the braces she needs and Zeke could get the three grand he needs to pull the IRS out of his ass. They've certainly done worse.

Besides, they agree, what the fuck has their Union done for them, anyway? What, break their asses for Monopoly money and keep their backs strained from trying to get the tips of the ends just to kiss? (Forget about meeting.) The Union can't even take care of their most basic needs just ask Zeke's poor little finger, cut to shit from months of him sticking it in a hole just to get his broken locker open every day. Clearly, the bitch is fucked from the asshole out the foreman shouts abuse, the shop steward ignores it, and the Union rep just looks the other way so fuck 'em all and let's just take what we've got coming to us.

And then, they hit the safe. Where they find nothing but petty cash mere pocket change plus a ledger documenting a series of illegal loans. Turns out, that's the sweet blowjob of fortune and an ass-rape from bad luck in one fell swoop. While our heroes go about trying to extort a Union desperate to keep a spotlight off of its shady dealings to build a half-assed breaking-and-entering into a long-overdue housecleaning, a blow for the common man Union higher-ups discover what they've stumbled onto. Well. Tricky Dick might have left the White House, a cleaned-up Iggy Pop might have been rocking synthesizers, and Star Wars and Spielberg might have just kickstarted the Bigger and Deffer '80s; but up in Murder City, it was still the Gritty '70s. Faster than you can say "downbeat ending," here comes the iron fist of Uncle Sam to hit these guys where it hurts most boom, there goes a simple plan hatched over early-morning regrets; boom, there goes years of friendship. And boom there goes life as they've known it.

After a solid run of era-defining scripts realized by other directors (Taxi Driver for Martin Scorsese, Rolling Thunder for John Flynn, Obsession for Brian De Palma, The Yakuza for Sydney Pollack, plus an early crack at Close Encounters of the Third Kind for Spielberg), Paul Schrader happened upon a basic story cooked up by his brother Leonard and decided to take the reins himself. True, Blue Collar may seem at first to be an odd fit for a depressed, emotionally throttled son of Dutch Calvinism with a knack for loners consumed by messianic, suicidal redemption quests. (There's that ten-mile shadow The Searchers apparently cast over his imagination.) But it's a fit that winds up hand-in-glove. The Lord Jehovah's unblinking eye over Schrader's Midwestern childhood gets a nifty transmutation into the boot heel of that coal-hearted prick Capitalism and the economic penalties guys like Zeke and Jerry face simply for having families hell, for breathing. (If the lives of our country's sainted poor are any indication, then Howard Hughes was on the money like Andrew Jackson: frightened at the thought of knocking any of his women up, Hughes ejaculated in mouths, never vaginas.)

Blue Collar stands tall as one of the last gasps of great '70s working-class cinema a pantheon that includes Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, Straight Time without turning into something Barton Fink might have pulled from his typewriter. It's from an era when Hollywood still knew how to speak to its audience, from an era when Hollywood still acknowledged that bank tellers and waitresses and office drones watch films, too; that not everyone in the audience puts "cop," "criminal," or "disillusioned private eye" on their yearly tax returns. A guy like Schrader was at least two social classes removed from a guy like Jerry Bartowski, and certainly so from strugglin' brothas like Smokey James and Ezekiel Brown, but Blue Collar wastes nary a frame on po'-folks condescension. And it absolutely nails the grind of paycheck-to-paycheck living: Wednesday nights at the bowling alley, jalopies that need new gas pumps, Hamburger Helper with bread and butter for dinner (and your kid's still hungry), asshole bosses who only notice you when you pause for a breather but never when you're busting your ass. Fat cats expand their stomachs while Jerry stands around in his Big Mac T-shirt and his Archie Bunker house, giving vent to white resentment "it'd be better off if I didn't work at all; at least then, we could collect some government welfare" that would ripen into public discourse (and open political strategy) under Ron 'n Nancy. An auto worker trying to feed his family, a filmmaker struggling to bring his vision to the screen either way, that ceiling you can't break through is just a floor to the guy above you.

Sure, as with any directorial debut, there's a few off-notes. There's also the occasional moment of undigested symbolism when you see a lug like Ed Begley Jr.'s character reading Catch-22 on his lunch break, clearly, that's Schrader's hand popping out from behind the camera and waving hello. Some of the gags a tubby worker's ongoing war with a vending machine, the masks sported during the robbery of the safe don't jibe with the film's overall tone, although the levity is appreciated. And Lucy Saroyan is perhaps a bit too erudite for a working-class Detroit housewife.

Rarely has male camaraderie on film been better realized, though Pryor, Keitel and Kotto don't act these guys' long-standing friendship; they wear it: in their ease with one another, in the little gestures, the knife-edged jokes and barbs that guys trade over cheap beers (and especially in front of women) the way girlfriends trade gossip and self-aggrandizement. The three of them wear Bobby Byrne's suitably grubby cinematography like fuzzy old slippers at any moment, Schrader could cut away to another table of Joes and these guys would melt right into the mise-en-scène, just another soft-focus jumble of high-fives and shared grumbles about the boss, despite the fact that one of them just happens to resemble one of the most popular comedians of the decade. It's a sketch of doomed friendship made all the more amazing when you consider the alienated loner holding the pen, or read accounts of the three actors at each other's throats due to Schrader telling each man that he, not the others, was the true star of the film. (Drugs and Pryor's infamous volatility during the era probably didn't help, either.)

How is Pryor? Well, if you've heard anything about this film, then you already know: the man had serious dramatic chops, chops enough to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with another typically fine, intensity-on-the-verge-of-boiling-over Harvey Keitel performance. Of course, Pryor's comedy could have told you that, too. Onstage, acting out the movies that clattered away on the projector of his own imagination, Pryor embodying winos, junkies, preachers, slick-talking pimps, befuddled boyfriends, flustered rednecks, sexually frustrated women, stern fathers, stuttering Chinese waiters, dimwitted boxers, cops, kids, dogs, monkeys, (hell) even his own malfunctioning heart — did exactly what he does in Blue Collar: he gave voice to the voiceless, he let you know how the "other guy" felt. He put anger inside the unthinkably hilarious, humor inside the foul-mouthed satirical rage and never once did he spare himself. Hell, no, his greatest jabs were directed at his own gut and if only one could say likewise about his legion of imitators those jabs never failed to have an underlying humanity or sense of uncertainty to them. "I was a fuck-up, too," you could hear him saying when he spun comedy gold out of stories like getting his ass kicked at junior boxing or fighting with his father or his many failed relationships. Zeke Brown comes closest to preserving the real Pryor on celluloid not the cool, jive-talking Negro there to imbue Gene Wilder with hipness and then step aside so that Wilder can kiss the girl, and certainly not the neutered funny-face-making of his wan '80s comedies.

Zeke meets Jerry on his porch one last time and irreparably frayed bonds are held to the light so as to kill all lingering doubt. It's all over now, babe two friends, once brothers in toil and debt, now forming a "V" on divergent paths. Jerry's "thinking white" and Zeke is taking the best opportunity for his family, for himself that he's ever been offered. Neither man can understand or even hear, really what the other man is saying, what's important to the other man. It's two separate value systems, two separate histories, two essentially irreconcilable worldviews locked in combat. That's the history of black and white in an all-American nutshell. It's the reason you'll never see Oreo-style configurations of beer buddies taking over your neighborhood dive bar. And it's entirely to the film's credit that this comes off not as hip cynicism or didacticism or a junior Marx sermon in a lunchbox with your Twinkie, but as living, breathing human tragedy.

Ultimately, it's Zeke who ends up the voice of reason. Sure, "they pit the lifers against the new boys, the old against the young, the black against the white everything they do is to keep us in our place." But revolutions as revolutions tend to do fail and fail miserably. Bills, taxes, next month's rent that's the only reality. People have families, they have mouths to feed; there's no time for impotent adolescent fantasizing. "Takin' it to the streets"? Fighting "the Man"? The Sixties? Yeah, good dope, banged a few hippie chicks, but wake up, kid that alarm clock's been blaring for years.

Are cards stacked in service of Schrader's vision here? Absolutely. Blue Collar posits that three Joes trying to make a difference will fail miserably where even a nut like Travis Bickle succeeds. It never pretends for one second to consider the possibility of any alternatives these guys could have had education, a different line of work, the existence of anyone up in the penthouse who might genuinely address workers' grievances. And yet, it carries a much larger emotional truth, especially relevant to the tenor of our bad-economy times. As with Billie Holiday's old friend Heartache, half of America's gotten used to rolling over and bidding good morning to its financial woes and precarious employment situations. Where once we took can-do optimism and boundless opportunity for granted, mere crumbs for starving throngs are the truths we now hold to be self-evident. Behold your possible future, America: a freeze-frame on the inevitable, a cut to blood-red. Blue Collar is a new national anthem.

©2011 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Friday, May 13, 2011

Live Flesh (Carne Trémula) (1997)

I Heard Her Call My Name

directed by Pedro Almodóvar
starring Javier Bardem, Francesca Neri,
Liberto Rabal, Ángela Molina, Jose Sancho

It's alchemy, really: Pedro Almodóvar with a camera and a gorgeous Spanish actress accomplishes what Keith Jarrett accomplishes behind a Steinway, what a mad scientist achieves with a bunch of test tubes and some bubbling green shit — his frothy concoctions don't just spume over into sublime joy, they effloresce. There's a wide-eyed, gasping-for-breath, this-happened-and-then-OH-MY-GOD-this-happened quality to the way his tales unfold. He's a bricklayer, this patron saint of the distressed heroine — just when you've adjusted to his next plot development, he throws another revelation on top of that, followed by his next twist of fate, then another revelation; finally, he tops the whole thing off with yet another of his whirligig climactic arcs. Most filmmakers are like that bitchy girl with the loose twat, the one you text during last call when all other options for the night have failed — they've got the same three mechanical moves everyone else has and one peak is all you're lucky to get. Almodóvar, though, is so sensuous, so knowing in that barely-legal-Thai-massage-girl way of his, he's got you reaching peak after peak, your virility still spurting forth, dripping down your pants leg as you stumble into work the next day with that faraway smile on your face and breathlessly describe the experience to a friend.

Live Flesh gets the ball rolling with a hilarious-on-the-verge-of-poignant opening sequence that depicts a woozy prostitute (Penelope Cruz) with just enough time to throw on her slippers before giving birth to future Pizza Hut delivery boy Victor on a Madrid bus. Then, we shoot ahead twenty years to a single night of happenstance — the axis on which the rest of the story spins. Apparently, some truly transcendental trim belongs to drugged-out rich girl Elena (Francesca Neri). The single hit of it that she's given to the now-adult Victor (Liberto Rabal) has the lovestruck lad barging into her flat while she's awaiting her drug connection. He refuses to leave — hell, he's even swiped a pizza for her nourishment — and when she pulls a gun on him, he just digs his heels in further. Bitch popped his cherry — in a bathroom, no less — and, to Victor's mind, the least she could do is explain why she suddenly wants nothing more to do with him. What she explains to him is the fact that he was a lousy lay; the ensuing scuffle attracts cop David (Javier Bardem) and his partner Sancho. Victor, of course, responds like the even-tempered son-of-a-whore that he is: he puts Elena's own gun to her head. David and hair-trigger Sancho then pull their guns and, when all is said and done, David's in a wheelchair thanks to an errant bullet in his spine and Victor's doing a six-year bid for having had his finger on the trigger.

But wait! — as the late-night infomercials like to tell us — there's more! Victor didn't deliberately fire the shot that paralyzed David, his trigger finger was squeezed by Sancho while Sancho was trying to wrest the gun from him. And then — what do you know? — while Victor's plotting vengeance from a prison cell, Elena kicks her habit, ditches the blonde fright wig, opens a center for abused children and ends up married to paraplegic David, of all people. And then — what do you know? — it turns out that Victor's still carrying a torch for Elena. And then, it turns out that Sancho's nursing a dark secret related to his own unhappy marriage. And then, Victor's released from prison, starts stalking Elena and runs into Sancho's wife. And then... (Cue organ theme and a word from our sponsors.)

I have a couple of confessions: 1) I don't find the bulk of Live Flesh particularly believable and; 2) I don't particularly care. Live Flesh succeeds according to my definition of Pure Cinema, which is: films obeying nothing but their own blissfully cuckoo logic, films beholden to nothing save the insular worlds they've spun out of thin celluloid and made as real to us as our own routine-laden, death-and-taxes McLives for two hours. Pure Cinema couldn't give a lesser crap about kowtowing to whatever mundane reality we're probably watching movies to get away from in the first place; its whole raison d'être is in exploring states of mind and emotional plateaus in as uninhibited — as unrestrained — a manner as possible. "Realism" doesn't merely straitjacket this impulse; it chains it to a dungeon wall, feeds it stale bread and ass-rapes it. Almodóvar's method — as Spanish as paella, as quintessentially European as female armpit hair — is a method that takes all the volume and color and unexpressed passions that simmer boil-like beneath the skins of our real lives and cranks them up past ten. Conventional response is turned inside out — you don't mock an Almodóvar film for its brazen tango outside the constraints of your puny workday-commute-with-cup-of-Starbucks, you curse real life for not being more Almodóvar-like.

The plot, as it were, hinges upon the actions of unfaithful wives — one Tina Turner dying to get away from her Ike, one venerated like a saint while dying to err like a good old-fashioned human fuck-up. Victor's hotheadedness is redeemed by his naïveté — his clear worship of las mujeres, a resolute refusal to judge that's like an outgrowth of his own compassion for a mother who turned tricks to put bread on the table. Perhaps, the affection shown to him by the women he juggles — despite his initial sexual ineptitude — is some sort of motherly ray of benevolence sent beaming unto him from beyond the grave. Regardless, the touch is as sure as it is satirical: one never feels the need to damn Almodóvar's women for the affection they seek, nor do you feel sorry for Sancho or cuckolded cripple Javier Bardem, who can pull a mean Mike Jordan on the Paralympics b-ball court but can't keep his bon-bon of a wife to himself.

Of course, Elena's married David not only out of some form of Catholic penitence but also to take care of him. She's not just atoning for her days as a druggie, she's atoning for being the center of the incident that ended David's career as a cop. And no matter how devoted David is to her as a husband, no matter how skillfully he'd crack someone's skull for harassing her or how expertly he gives impromptu bathroom head, their relationship is always going to be that of the patient-caretaker — hardly the stuff that moistens panties. It's crystal clear why she confesses her infidelity to him: it's gotten tiresome up on that pedestal and she wants off. Perhaps, she'd even say it's for David's own good: "know me, the real me, the fucking flesh-and-blood woman you married, not this Mother Teresa with a scrub brush that you've made me out to be." 

Granted, those of a certain ideological bent may intuit a sliver of patronization toward the ladies on Almodóvar's part. And, fond of his heroines though he may be, he's never once shied away from showing how crackpot irrational, how childishly impulsive women can be; how emotionally untethered and psycho-sexually drawn to the unhealthy they usually are. Hell, his narratives depend upon it. And yet, he's so connected to the humanity of his characters that nothing he does feels exploitative or curdles in your mind, post-viewing — it feels as natural watching his characters converse over a joint as it does watching a battery-operated toy scuba diver nestling itself in Victoria Abril's nether-regions or watching the shrunken character in a faux-silent film crawl inside of a giant vagina six times his size, to be with his lover for eternity.

True understanding between the sexes beckons. Disseminate the Almodóvar filmography just a touch wider and the collective yolk of mankind may yet learn to stop rolling its eyes whenever the fairer sex utters something other than "want coffee?" or "don't worry, I'll just take my morning-after pill." The love Almodóvar invests in his panoply of distressed heroines is enough to stir the cinders of boyhood infatuation smoldering inside every embittered male. It's a love so palpable, so infectious that it just might spill over into your personal life as a man: where once you heard an incessant stream of insecure blathering on auto-pilot, an aria of me me me, you may now imagine the rolled r's and saucy purr of an adorably bewildered Penelope Cruz. What once resembled a downy-breasted succubus slurping away at the lifeforce of your precious time and energy may now take on the contours of a Francesca Neri secretly dying for the saving grace of your hardy persistence.

Of course, it's all bullshit. That's cinema's stock-in-trade. It's what our savviest filmmakers dress up and fashion into false gods, before which entire cultures including your humble narrator readily genuflect. Bullshit at its friendliest fuels our dreams and, hell, if a man can't dream — if he can't enjoy the occasional happy ending provided by the agreeable massage-parlor whores of Hollywood before trudging home to hatchet-faced reality — he might as well reach for the Smith & Wesson with the single bullet in the chamber and call it a day, no?

©2011 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic
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