A semi-free-associational, six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon, reliance-on-patchy-memory look at every movie I saw in a theater this year
… The Coen Brothers’ comedy of stupid fitness center employees and central intelligence clusterfucks fits our present clusterfucked zeitgeist pretty neatly and might as well be an unintentional State of the Union address. Errol Morris and George A. Romero both took a whack at intentionally addressing our political present in 2008. Morris’ documentary about the U.S. military personnel in the Abu Ghraib photos, Standard Operating Procedure, drew criticism from both neo-conservative and liberal knuckleheads. The neo-Repub fascist zombie dinosaurs trotted out the old “how dare you criticize the U.S. government during a time of war” and “how dare you show compassion for terrorists while criticizing our military” bullshit and the knee-jerk pamphlet-reading Castro-apologist constantly outraged humorless liberal types were mad that Morris interviewed Lynndie England and the others from the infamous photos and gave them the opportunity to tell their own stories. I wish Morris had interviewed some of the Iraqi prisoners, too, but that’s not what this doc is about. (In interviews about this film, Morris said that many of the prisoners were too shamed by the photos to talk about them publicly anyway.) Morris is deeply interested in who took the photos, why the photos were taken, what happened before, during and after the photos, and what existed outside the frame. He’s also interested in what happened to these soldiers after the photos were leaked. Morris gives ‘em enough rope, and he gets a story of bored, terrified, inexperienced young people thrust into an insane situation, goaded into their appalling behavior by their superiors, who then throw them under the bus when the photos are leaked. They’re fall guys, but they’re guilty, too, and many of them try to abdicate their responsibility. Morris’ film is compelling but frustratingly elusive, just like his subjects. His dramatic recreations are a bit overblown for my taste, and the usually reliable Danny Elfman provides a score that’s overbearing and imitative of Morris’ usual composer, Philip Glass. I miss the Morris of Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, but I’m still interested in what he’s doing.
My favorite horror director and social satirist, George A. Romero, returned to zombie town for Diary of the Dead, his fifth film about undead brain eaters. This time, the political targets were kind of limp and unfocused, and the pretty boys and girls in the cast lacked the character of Romero’s usual ensembles. However, the tension, scares, suspense, and gore rivaled Romero at his kinetic best, and the elderly yet eternally youthful director is such a punchy, energetic, inventive visual stylist I could overlook a lot of serious flaws. Diary of the Dead tackles the ambitious subject of our information-saturated age (the 24-hour-news cycle of constant chatter, reality TV, blogs, IM, GPS, iPod, YouTube, etc.), but the characters spend too much time hammering the point home with repetitive, forced dialogue. Romero’s previous zombie films satirized their targets (squares vs. the counterculture, redneck vigilantes, racism, mindless consumerism, military intelligence, xenophobia, class, Bush II’s post-9/11 America) visually, leaving the message out of the dialogue and letting the image carry the weight. Even with its clumsy screenplay, though, Diary of the Dead is a solid horror movie and a worthy example of Romero’s mastery of form…
…Tsai Ming-Liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn, a nearly dialogue-free pure cinema experience from 2003 I saw this year at a Film Society screening, was such a powerfully immersive experience I didn’t want it to end. It seems impossible in our culture to get away from noise. One thing happens and 463 people analyze it immediately, no time to think it through. I am as guilty of this as anyone with my three fucking blogs, but I’m doing my half-hearted part to rectify the situation by posting so infrequently. This movie takes you away from noise for a couple hours and lets you relearn how to really look at objects and people again. Tsai’s film takes place in a movie theater on its last legs, showing a sparsely attended King Hu kung fu movie from 1966 called Dragon Inn. The kung fu movie plays on the screen within the screen, and Tsai’s movie watches the filmgoers as they watch (or don’t watch) it. Glacially paced but never boring, Tsai patiently watches the old man and his grandson, the older gay men who use the theater to cruise for sex, the sexpot who cracks peanuts loudly with her teeth, one after the other, the ticket-taker with the bad leg who has a crush on the projectionist who never seems to be in the projection booth. You learn so much about so many people without hearing most of them speak. Discounting the sound of the kung fu film, no dialogue occurs until 40 minutes have passed. Little things magnify, details feel enormous. The ticket-taker’s Sisyphean efforts to give her extra pastry to the projectionist while it’s still warm, up the wooden stairs on her bad leg, excited me 100 times more than anything in The Dark Knight (but more on that one later).
Another slowly paced effort from a master, Jacques Rivette’s The Duchess of Langeais (the American title comes from the Balzac source novel, but I prefer the original French title Ne touchez pas la hache – “Don’t touch the axe”), is a costume drama of unrequited love and parlor games with all the movie bullshit sucked out. Instead of a postcard-pretty aristocratic past, we get real old wooden floors that creak whenever anyone steps across them and real pain instead of boo-hoo poor little rich girl/boy you’ll find love in the end it’s all just a lark of the rich anyway. Like the ticket-taker in Goodbye Dragon Inn, Rivette’s protagonist, a French general who falls in one-sided love with a married high-society woman who toys with him (until she falls in love with him after he becomes unavailable), has a pronounced limp, and the way he drags it across the wooden floors with varying degrees of thud depending on his emotional state was one of my movie thrills of the year. I can’t say I’m entirely in love with the movie. It’s distant and occasionally inert (though occasionally [insert hyperbolic adjective indicating excitement and thrills here!!]), but there’s something indescribable in it that only exists in movies.
Guillaume Depardieu (Gerard’s son) played the limping French general. I assumed the limp was either an invention of Depardieu’s or Rivette’s or came from the Balzac novel, but Depardieu walked on a prosthetic leg. His real leg had been amputated after a severe infection set in following a motorcycle crash. Depardieu died unexpectedly of pneumonia a few months ago, at the age of 37. Long estranged from his famous family and sickly for most of his life, Depardieu and his tragic life story will probably imbue the Rivette film with a weight it didn’t possess before. At least Rivette’s film can carry that extra weight. A much more popular film couldn’t. Which brings us to The Dark Knight and Heath Ledger, but that’ll have to wait until next time…
Coming sooner or later, my lonely position as a non-fan of the latest Batman movie, other blockbusters, David Gordon Green and Gus Van Sant, my two favorite movies of the year, and a random assortment of other stuff. Since everything has to be a goddamn trilogy now, my year-end post will be a trilogy, too. Unless it turns into a quadrillogy. Who gives a shit? Less people read this blog than even my other two noise-makers and space-fillers. Happy New Year!
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