its funny, when my brother and i were both attending high school in KUWAIT roughly 20 years ago our middle eastern peers were largely naive about AMERICAN culture and pretty much anything that wasn't related to that isolated oil-rich hellhole. my brother had a binder that carried a printed out picture of JOHN TURTURRO's epic bowling nemesis from the THE BIG LEWBOWSKI (WORKING TITLE, 1998) and his KUWAITI classmates would ask him who that was. he'd cooly reply "that's Jesus" to which they'd inquire confusedly "THAT's JESUS?!"
THE COEN BROTHERS are masters of playing with genre expectations and THE BIG LEWBOWSKI is a great example of them experimenting with the cinematic form of NOIR films and their ROMAN NOIR literary antecedent. NOIR films were largely created in a post-WWII climate where the world order was being rebuilt and the role of men was being challenged and rethought along economic, cultural and social considerations. the literary analogue to this genre predates WWII. usually there is a single male who throughout the film is fighting a series of outside forces that include government agencies (of the secretive variety), the media and (of course) women. women in particular are depicted as agents of destruction, i.e. femme fatales, who use their sexuality to attempt to derail our hero from his goal. of course its bullshit, but its a construction that is dear to a genre that at its heart is questioning what identifies masculinity when their hegemonic influence is questioned in a patriarchal society.
what makes THE BIG LEWBOWSKI so interesting is that instead of a determined, idealized male protagonist that rises to the occasion to supersede these overwhelming forces, we are instead given JEFF "THE DUDE" LEBOWSKI, an aging inept stoner with no will to effect change on the world other than his commitments to his bowling league and listening to CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL. he is the personification of ineffective masculinity, yet he is the protagonist that meanders his way through a convoluted plot of outside forces that he inept to deal with any reasonable capacity. that is the core of its humor and humanity.
i think i identified with that character not for his slacker-ness but his being thrown into crazy situations, much like i had at that point survived NIGERIA and boarding school.
LEBOWSKI throughout the film is manipulated by more sophisticated and devious counterparts, including another high-achieving JEFFREY LEBOWSKI who is nonetheless crippled and cuckolded by his barely legal porn star wife. even his doppelgänger or mirrored-self is compromised. much like his inability to effect change, the film also just kind of ends where it begins, and endless loop of inadequacy and mediocrity.
a film that never really ends or begins. no character development. no lessons learned.
great film well worth watching on repeat. i have since i was a teenager.
i am a total fanboy of DIVINE and JOHN WATERS.
i mean really. if you check out any of their trashy EXPLOITATION filmography from the 1970s, movies like PINK FLAMINGOS (DREAMLAND, 1972) and DESPERATE LIVING (DREAMLAND, 1977) or even more obscure earlier fare like MULTIPLE MANIACS (DREAMLAND, 1970) and MONDO TRASHO (DREAMLAND, 1969) you will not be disappointed.
my favorite out of the bunch is FEMALE TROUBLE (DREAMLAND, 1974) which depicts the life of a BALTIMORE teenager seeking attention throughout her life and ultimately commits murder for the sole motivation of becoming notorious.
for me this film is a bitter take on TABLOID culture in much the same way as BILLY WILDER's ACE IN THE HOLE (PARAMOUNT, 1951) eviscerated yellow journalism a generation before. WATERS saw the future of the AMERICAN SOUL and the lowest common denominator in cultural terms as the concept of infamy being a goal in and of itself predates today's online social media culture where people are famous for being famous and being "on brand." DIVINE is psychotic as all hell in this film and the DREAMLAND cast, as always, keep the film grounded in its debased underbelly like a more deranged and conked-out alternate versions of ANDY WARHOL's superstars.
the look, the acting, the humor and the caustic message about the nature of the media and the vacuous nature of seeking fame in this film is all textbook JOHN WATERS and is why FEMALE TROUBLE has been a touchstone of my movie-viewing habits since my teen years.
this film is required viewing in my opinion.
in an age of CANCEL CULTURE and ideological purity tests that border on the insane, i think it is as crucial a time as ever to revisit the figure of legendary film director ELIA KAZAN and his complicated legacy during the HOUSE UN-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES COMMITTEE hearings of the 1950s. for those unfamiliar with MCCARTHYISM, there was a wave of fear, much like our own current frenzied political climate, in the immediate post-WWII period related to our global rivalry with the SOVIETS dubbed the COLD WAR. there was always the threat of violence and massive attacks of the nuclear variety but ultimately it never got hot (i.e. conventional military conflict).
this state of affairs found the UNITED STATES turn in on itself and attempt to weed out anyone of note in major industries (politics, entertainment, journalism, etc.) who may have ever dabbled or supported socialist causes. it should be noted that in the immediate aftermath of the THE GREAT DEPRESSION in the 1930s, anyone with half a brain questioned the long-term viability of MARKET CAPITALISM.
this purity test famously heralded by WISCONSIN senator EUGENE MCCARTHY (who not ironically shared a counsel, ROY COHN, with DONALD TRUMP) was highly destructive to AMERICAN ideals of freedom and jurisprudence and resulted in ten JEWISH career professionals (screenwriters, directors, producers) known as the HOLLYWOOD TEN being BLACKLISTED and publicly vilified due to hearsay and innuendo. many film historians believe the SOCIALIST-bating histrionics was just a public smokescreen to ostracize JEWS in positions of influence, which marks this as a very dark period in our history.
KAZAN is famous for being a deft film director who specialized in character-driven narratives that touched on the struggles of working people (A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, ON THE WATERFRONT, EAST OF EDEN). his career dovetailed with the rise of METHOD ACTING and benefited from his collaborations with screen legends such as MARLON BRANDO and JAMES DEAN. basically he is a director of the highest order and his films are admired, studied and dissected by aspiring and working directors and random film junkies (like me) to date. he also dabbled in socialist circles in the 30s and was even a member of the communist party in NYC very briefly during that period.
now the names of members of were already known to the HUAC committee, but he was pressured to name names. and unfortunately he did. to this day he is a controversial figure for crossing that line and even during his acceptance of an award at the OSCARS over 50 years later, actors still turned their back in full view of the cameras. its a touchy subject and one that will forever be.
we like to think that people will make good choices in the face of tyranny and injustice, even at the expense to one's own self. fellow immigrant director BILLY WILDER (DOUBLE INDEMNITY, SUNSET BOULEVARD, SOME LIKE IT HOT) did such. he told HUAC to stuff themselves and he rightfully celebrated for such, but i think realistically the world is imperfect and people make imperfect decisions in imperfect situations.
did KAZAN deserve to be a pariah the rest of his life in the HOLLYWOOD community? i don't know, but i tend to side with empathy.
the people i find no empathy for are those that deliberately foster a divisive climate based on self-serving considerations such as power, which is definitely the case with MCCARTHY, COHN, TRUMP and all of his sycophants. perhaps a day will come when the waves of hatred will subside and our national wounds will have healed, but these people will still deserve our scorn and not those that got caught up in the hailstorm against their will. just saying.
for me, FEDERICO FELLINI's film JULIET OF THE SPIRITS (RIZZOLI FILM/FRANCORIZ PRODUCTION, 1965) is one of the best cinematic examinations of that feeling of being inadequate. i could be wrong, but each time i watch it i am only further confirmed in my belief that for all of this film's absolutely luscious use of color (the first FELLINI film to utilize such) and the sumptuous NINO ROTA score creating a dream-like otherworldly paradise filled with beautiful people and lavish garden parties, this film at its core is about loneliness and estrangement.
all of that carnival-like imagery and sound design is used to highlight how estranged the main character, played by FELLINI's frequent collaborator (and wife) GIULLIETTA MASINI, is from her philandering husband. it is a very unique device that is commonly utilized in MUSICALS whereby the set design, cinematography, dialogue and character behavior is meant to showcase the singular perspective of a character, not a representation of "reality." i am assuming in JULIET OF THE SPIRITS that all of the above is meant to convey the husband's charmed perspective of an idyllic, romantic idyll that his wife is only a minor character in. it is his fantasy and she comes across as a willing participant that doesn't quite fit.
again, it feels like a film on its face about inadequacy. but MASINI's character comes off grounded, stable and the epitome of a loyal partner. the husband is anything but. perhaps this is all a metaphor for the real-life partnership of MASINI and FELLINI, as his mistress was his love of cinema and filmmaking. he role being a stabilizing force and collaborator in his artistic visions.
if that is the case it is one of the most honest and deeply romantic films i know of. if anything it is the inadequacy of the director/husband to truly appreciate his wife that is on display here perhaps.
this film is worth viewing for the visuals and soundtrack alone. full disclosure: this is my personal favorite FELLINI film but virtually any of his films are worth checking out, especially 8 1/2, AMACORD, LA DOLCE VITA, SATYRICON or LA STRADA. could not recommend his work any more passionately for anyone interested in film.
CHARLIE CHAPLIN seems to get all the shine.
much of it deservedly so, especially given the transcendent greatness of films like MODERN TIMES and THE GREAT DICTATOR with which he used to levy criticism at capitalism and fascism at the height of his powers. it one thing to be supremely gifted and something completely different to take big risks and potentially bite the hand that feeds by critiquing your new country as an immigrant (see SPOTLIGHT on BILLY WILDER).
all that being said, watching BUSTER KEATON is akin to listening to LEADBELLY or HOWLIN' WOLF recording. at first you are mesmerized by the power of the art and then it hits you eventually how primitive the means of production where when this was made. in a sense it becomes that much more authentic and pure in its intention, although you eventually come to realize to them this was just what you did. one take. one microphone.
same with watching KEATON who wrote and directed his film which often display staggering set-pieces with stunts and acrobatics that are still thrilling and mesmerizing. when you see him throwing multiple logs from a moving train to display other logs lying on the tracks, that was actually him doing that.
whenever i feel like i've seen it all i tend to look back, way back to the early days of cinema (HAROLD LLOYD, GEORGES MÉLIÈS, JOSEF VON STERNBERG, ERICH VON STROHEIM) because there you really get a sense of the creative abandonment and potential they say in their craft. the rules hadn't been set yet.
and that's a nice place to be creatively for any artist.
at the heart of RIDLEY SCOTT's transcendent DYSTOPIAN film BLADE RUNNER (THE LADD COMPANY, 1982) is the question of what defines our humanity? what actually makes us human? loosely based on PHILIP K. DICK's novel DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? (DOUBLEDAY, 1968), this film follows a bounty hunter in a future dystopia where technology has advanced to the point that mass produced androids called replicants are used for their labor. equipped with a conscious and prefabricated memories, some of these subjects have circumvented their end dates, thus necessitating a bounty hunter (known here as a blade runner) to find and kill them.
i could go on about the revolutionary special effects and set pieces that define the look of this film, but it is my opinion that what really makes this film a touchstone for future generations are the concerns it brings up. in our modern day with modern genetics and CRISPR technology that allow us to modify the human genome to our will, it is important to consider what will be lost in the process. are we defined by our creator? are we pre-designated to serve a certain function or are we free actors allowed to explore our agency? what makes this film inspires is that there is an open question of whether HARRISON FORD's character (who is a blade runner) is himself a replicant. is the enforcer even in charge of his own will or is he too just serving the purpose of another higher entity.
when i look to the future all i see is BLADE RUNNER. this film did not foresee the internet, but i nonetheless it did see a future where information is a tool of power and identity. and that is something i see today that reduce us all to consumers that can be defined with an algorithm based on our spending habits, social media posts and spending habits. we are already defined by our reciepts in this new economy but the downsides insofar have been pretty mild to benign in nature on a personal level. i think that'll change and our agency will be in question once techniques are used to influence our decision-making, whether economically or politically. we are only in the beginning stages.
once it is in full bloom we will all be replicants in a sense. we will all be created by our environment into information consumers with a purpose we don't even envision.
that to me is the legacy of BLADE RUNNER. an absolutely can't miss, must-watch film.
so back in the early 2000s i'm at RUTGERS and somewhere along the way i ended up writing a series of film reviews for their student newspaper THE DAILY TARGUM. i loved the rush of seeing your stuff in print and still have copies of somewhere in my parents basement. it was a pretty sweet deal since i normally chose limited-run films that only showed at NYC landmarks like the ANGELIKA FILM CENTER and the FILM FORUM and the newspaper covered travel and admission costs. i essentially got free trips to the city. what a great time i had.
at some point i moved up from reviews to features and ultimately only got to do two of them. one was an interview with animator NICK PARK for a WALLACE & GROMIT film (which i will probably write about a some future point). the other was a phone interview with TIM ROBBINS. and that dude was a dick.
this is the story of that conversation.
studios usually seek out college newspapers as they service directly the much desired target demographic of college students. such is why their PR firms gave us access to their directors, actors, etc as a means of promotion. at the time ROBBINS was promoting some theater project of which i will not specify (as i still do not want to give his project any, albeit delayed by decades, publicity) that he had directed and filmed from multiple angles as part of some "punk rock opera" or whatever forced, lame term he devised at the time.
what i participated in was a group phone interview among several other college writers from NYU, COLUMBIA and HARVARD. the way this works is that the order of questioning is derived by the order you call in to the interview. now here is where it got interesting. ROBBINS' film had no distribution. normally the paper would be sent a promotional copy or be given tickets to a screening. not here with this project, i was going in blind. turns out, so was everyone else.
somehwere i have a lost tape of this interview and i should attempt to locate it, because in there i have ROBBINS condescendingly dismissing my question along with everyone else's. at some point he asked why he was even talking to us. the HARVARD writer adroitly asked questions based on a recent NY TIMES' review and that really set ROBBINS' off, asking the writer if she knew the writer personally. which was odd.
i remember leaving the interview dejected thinking "damn, i just got yelled at by an ACADEMY AWARD winner, this is the low point of my college career." after sharing the interview tape with my editors this quickly turned to "wow, i just got yelled at by an ACADEMY AWARD winner, this is the high point of my college career." i wrote a piece that took him to task for being a prick and not giving us the materials we needed to ask him informed questions, but ultimately i didn't want to give him any publicity.
do i hold a grudge against the guy? not really. maybe he was having a bad day. i just thought he came off particularly arrogant and completely devoid of any compassion to a bunch of lowly college writers looking to potentially promote his project. you would think communicating to us his passion for this personal film would be the objective, but no, putting us in our place for not appreciating his craft seemed a better use of his time. i don't care that i agree with his politics. dude was a dick.
so i attended NORTHFIELD MOUNT HERMON. its a private boarding school in GILL, MASSACHUSETTS and when i attended it had two campuses and a student population nearing 2,000. in the years since its cut both the number of campuses and student population in half and is part of the exclusive EIGHT SCHOOLS ASSOCIATION, a self-contained IVY LEAGUE-like association of northeastern prep schools that includes CHOATE, PHILIPS EXETER, PHILIPS ANDOVER and the like.
i was there for two years and without doubt those two years changed me. academically it challenged me in a way nothing before or since has, including college and grad school. it also exposed me to the rotting core of white privilege and intergenerational power and wealth. i attended classes with the sons and daughters of film directors, national politicians, authors, lawyers, CEOs, drug kingpins (no joke) and foreign dictators. it was heady stuff and still is. whenever i see TRUMP speak it reminds me of half a dozen assholes i went to high school with who honestly didn't give a shit because they knew they were made for the rest of their lives.
here's an example of that ridiculousness that this place was, and no doubt still is. i was in my freshman english class and a classmate got a call on his mobile phone and let the teacher know he had to take it. i distinctly remember him saying "i'm sorry, i have to take this. its my mom, in space." he literally walked outside looked up and spoke with his mother who was orbiting overhead above NEW ENGLAND apparently and was being patched in via HOUSTON. just crazy. but that was the norm.
here is another less cheerful example. an upperclassman in my dorm sophomore year was caught selling opiates on campus, but wasn't expelled since his CEO father was giving a speech in a few days about making ethical judgements in business via a speech on the buddhist eight-fold path tenet of right occupation. you can't make this stuff up. and to make it sting of hypocrisy that much more, the fallout ended up being a few scholarship students from the inner-city being dismissed.
when WES ANDERSON's film RUSHMORE (TOUCHSTONE PICTURES, 1998) came out midway through my freshman year it was a revelation because it didn't feel that far removed from my experience, minus the creepy love triangle. there was even a junior that got christened for his bad grades and participation in seemingly everything.
by far the best thing about the film was the BILL MURRAY's epic chapel speech near the beginning of the film where he told the poor kids to "take dead aim on the rich boys, get them in the crosshairs and take them down." this was pre-COLUMBINE, but when that played in my dorm half the students would stare down each other.
watching it now makes me shudder. my time at NORTHFIELD MOUNT HERMON wasn't ideal, i was bullied harshly with knowing supervisors that turned the other way and "let boys be boys," but at the same time it prepared me for the reality of the world.
a world where the rich stay rich and fuck everyone else. no wonder i joined the PEACE CORPS.
i first watched CLINT EASTWOOD'S first WESTERN directorial effort HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (MALPASO COMPANY, 1973) in a film class during undergrad at RUTGERS and i remember it garnering an immediate reaction on my classmates. if i recall correctly, it pissed off more than half the audience. it is a gloriously un-PC film.
the film deals with an unnamed stranger strolling into a frontier town and basically decimating it after encountering its loutish, corrupt inhabitants, only to walk away alone at the films end. in the script he is named GABRIEL and one can assume that he is meant to be God's wrath smiting down this sin-filled SODOM-like town and burning it to the ground, but this is never stated in the actual film.
for me this film is an enigma because EASTWOOD's character is so vicious yet you root for him, he by definition is the moral center of the film despite his own deplorable actions. case in point: in the first 10 minutes of screen time this unnamed character murders 3 townsfolk in cold blood and rapes a prostitute and yet somehow you still root for him. its awful.
you can't even call this character an anti-hero, he's just a terrible person inflicting pain on other despicable people. for me i'm conflicted and perplexed by this film, which is probably why i have rewatched it several times attempting to figure it out. is it a commentary on the VIETNAM WAR or PROTEST MOVEMENTS then taking place? is he saying that brute force justifies all actions?
i really don't know. i just don't understand how a character can be that awful and still hold moral authority in a film. just on a technical narrative side, that is a neat trick. what such violence is attempting to convey to the viewer? i still don't know but am interested in finding out.
legendary british NOIR film THE THIRD MAN (LONDON FILM PRODUCTIONS, 1949) directed by CAROL REED, screenplay by GRAHAM GREENE and starring OSON WELLES is as much an historical document as it is one of the unrivaled gems of the genre. filmed largely on location in VIENNA in the immediate aftermath of World War II, this film details the intrigue of shattered lives and jumbled alliances relationships, both personal and political, that defined this era.
main character HOLLY MARTINS (JOSEPH COTTEN) is in VIENNA at the request of his friend HARRY LIME (ORSON WELLES) due to a job offer but learns on arrival that LIME has died. much of the film finds him traversing the shadow economy and sullied actors, including LIME, that are set in an underground battle for political and economic hegemony in the vacuum set into motion by the ALLIED FORCES victory.
much has been made about the craftsmanship of the dialogue, the quality of the acting, the look of the film or even the ingenious choice to use post-war VIENNA as the ideal backdrop for a dark, noirish mystery film. all of these are deserved. i myself have even watched this film in VIENNA (there is a theater that ONLY plays it multiple times a day) and gone on the walking tour of its scenes on location.
and all that is good and interesting, but for me the real value of this film is the way in which it navigates sans judgement the shadow world of politics and economic influence. too often today people look at the actions of nations and politicians in a reductive binary moral compass of good and evil, when what they really should consider is who are the players and what is their interest.
growing up i saw this dichotomy firsthand in places where our government supported corrupt foreign military dictatorships (NIGERIA) and undemocratic theocracies (KUWAIT) purely based on economic necessity. i doubt there was a discussion revolving morality when backing these un-american regimes abroad because the vacuum of our absence would have benefited our economic and political rivals (RUSSIA, IRAN, CHINA). this film dives headfirst into the ethical morass that is this ambiguity and really gets at the heart of what we value as a society (through the idealism MARTINS) and what price we are willing to pay (through the actions of LIME).
this is a legendary film well-worth your time. consider giving it a watch.