Tuesday, September 29, 2009

#20 Luck, Woody, Tennis, Gump IV

One last peeve. Love Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump (1994). Truly the Feel-Good-Movie-with-Grit for the ages. Whenever it comes around on its two- or three-year cycle on cable, I can count on being thoroughly entertained again. Sort of like my thing with The Thing--the John Carpenter/Kurt Russell 1982 version (NOT the albeit great 1951 James Arness original that I originally saw only fitfully through the seat backs and in between frightened runs to the lobby long ago at either the aforementioned Avalon or Stoney in Chicago)--but for different reasons.

Well, one of the movie's life-analogies--the more famous one--is to a box of chocolates, as pictured in last post and containing half of the home-spun words of wisdom. Adumbrated by his mother, and repeated way too often in the course of the motion picture, here it is from Forrest:

My momma always said, "Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."

Gnash! The sound you hear is teeth a-grinding. It's hard NOT to get bruxistic about this line of dialog, because #1 it's taken up so often by otherwise smart, well-meaning people, who, perhaps brain-washed by that popular and well-meaning film, are half-consciously convinced that these ARE words of wisdom about our life on this planet. Heck, I've heard it used quite seriously by one of my former colleagues as the basis for a commencement speech! And #2: Woody Allen's bogus "net-court" tennis-analogy rises to sheer genius when compared to this pile-size dump of pop philosophy. Illogic squared.

To be fair, though, to the film-maker and to the novelist from whose work the movie is adapted, the line may have been meant to be stupid, as a handy bit of character-exposition. Gump IS so very stupid vis a vis the ways of the world, while being so very SMART in other very important ways. (In the novel, by the way, he's portrayed as something of an idiot-savant, adept in Physics and Math, which keeps his grades up for football.)

However, "Momma" is portrayed as being much more worldly-wise than her son. If her philosophy of Life and Luck, other than being in good fun, is to be taken seriously--and Forrest has more than his share of tragedy in an otherwise well-spent life--then it fails in the following respects, in ascending order of importance:

  • There's most often a "actual-size" map/key printed on the inside cover of the box indicating the varied make-up of each chocolate confection in their separate compartments. If you can read, then you'll "know what you're gonna get." Nary a soupcon of Luck involved.
  • Even if you can't read, or can't even see, there's a SKILL to be developed by the inveterate boxed-chocolate-sampler sampler. (The element of skill is also what hurts Woody Allen's net-court analogy.) Set by industry tradition, the contents of each chocolate-covered piece is identifiable by its generic shape, in conjunction with a distinctive "swirl" on top. Nothing random about it.
  • Assuming illiteracy or blindness or lack of bon-bon acuity, no matter what you randomly pick, you're still gonna get a CHOCOLATE something-or-other, for crying out loud, not a camouflaged pebble. "Momma wants you to try one one of these, Forrest, but watch out for the pebble look-a-likes" ... "But how am I supposed to know which-is-which, Momma?" ... "Just go ahead, son, I'm teaching you a lesson about Life." Much better analogy.
  • Make a totally gut-wrenching pick? You can simply spit it out. Life works just like that, does it not?
So enough with the box of chocolates already, which took on so much of a life of its own outside the movie. A more palatable analogy about Life in a world of Chance and Circumstance, and the role that Luck plays in it, is the White Feather that floats willy-nilly upon the scene from time to time. Forrest himself "unwittingly" defines the symbolism at the end of his truly eloquent speech to his now grave-bound Jenny:

I don't know if Momma was right or if it's Lieutenant Dan. I don't know if we each have a destiny [not really supported by her chocolate-box nostrum, however], or if we're all floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time. I miss you Jenny.

Better ... but the white feather is so gratuitous. So inorganic to plot and character. At least the Wood Man makes the symbolism of the hovering net-court tennis ball tie in naturally with his mis en scene. Now, if Gump's feather had floated into his ear and given him a nasty infection ...

Monday, September 28, 2009

#28 Luck, Allen, Tennis, Gump III

So ... even before the story proper begins, Match Point has us in suspense already by literally suspending us in mid-air along with the tennis ball about two feet above the net, ready to fall on either side, and so determine who wins and who loses in the course of the film to follow. Spoiler: the image never returns; the ball never drops. But something else does, analogously, later on.

Woody Allen's title takes literal meaning, of course, from the sport of tennis--the last point of the match that decides winner and loser, as we've seen in real-life examples. The main character, Chris Wilton, is a fictional real-life tennis-pro, retiring still-young from the tournament circuit, but--and this is important--already "winning" a job as an instructor at an exclusive club in the very first scenes of the film after the prologue. The title thus immediately and easily suggests figurative associations. From the other side of the tracks--working-class Ireland--pretty-boy Chris is a player in every sense. His only "skill" seems to be his intelligent, effortless charm, but that's enough to score winning points against the influential people in Society and Business who somehow come his way, and to make the right kind of "matches" that will get him ahead of the game ... except for one. Take a guess.

But let's take it ad nauseum. Sorry, bored, non-tennis-buffs. Got to do it. We never see Chris in competitive play (Allen has him standing at the net punching a few balls back to to wealthy clients just after he gets the job in order to credentialize his on-screen persona)--but we can imagine him NOT as a primarily offensive player like Federer, and especially Nadal, who power the ball at every stroke (as does most every other top-ten player these days). We perhaps are invited to see tennis-pro Chris as most like Andy Murray--another upstart out-lander, by the way; this time a proud Scot, which always seemed to cause media-trouble for him at Wimbledon--who is primarily a defensive shot-maker, relying more on placement than power, and waiting for the opportunity presented by his opponent to give him a ball that he can clearly hit for a winner. Not enough to win at the U.S. Open this year, but enough to be 3rd-ranked in the world.

Chris is at the top of his game as the movie opens. A mere twenty-minutes later, his charming, "passive-aggressive" style of play has already taken him to the top of London's upper-class society. His tennis-instructor connections have quickly led to the Irishman's plight-trothing with the daughter of an outrageously rich Brit, who has in turn hired him into a plush executive position in the family business. The audience must always keep in mind, however, that opening freeze-frame. The ball has not yet dropped over the net, one way or the other. (Bad analogy for Luck v. Life, but a great image.) You might say Luck brought Chris a future brother-in-law with a love-starved sister, but he had known just where to position himself, and had the skills to take advantage of the opportunity. Unluckily though, it would seem, the well-meaning brother brings with him a spoiler: his fiancee' Nola, the Scarlet Woman. (How well is the actress Ms. Johansson named, considering her role in the film?!) Do they fall in lust? Is a tennis ball fuzzy in the woods?

Yes, and the plot complications begin. I'll save us some time here and refer the Myriad Readers to Theodor Dreiser's classic novel, An American Tragedy, redacted in the equally great film, A Place in the Sun (1951), where Montgomery Clift plays the social-climber and Shelly Winters the femme fatale who would sabotage it all. The plots are well-nigh EXACTLY the same--I think Woody acknowledged his homage someplace or other. And the director borrows heavily, too, from his earlier award-winning and box-office-popular Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). In Match, the quadrangle soon becomes a triangle after Chris marries the daughter, the brother dumps Nola, who now can become the legitimate mistress, if she will. There are many lucky and unlucky twists that inhabit the line of action here, but the entertaining though never-funny comedy of manners inevitably devolves into the film noir we knew it would become. Bad luck: girl gets possessive and pregnant; threatens everything; must be killed. Boy kills girl. Good luck: boy gets away with it. Or so it seems as the credits roll. But the ball hasn't yet dropped.

At the end of Place, Mongomery Clift is punished for his crime. At the end of Crimes, the Martin Landau character, who does the deed through his ne'er-do-well brother and a hit-man, is not, at least not by the justice system. Both characters suffer their guilt, and in the former that guilt is expiated and mooted deus ex machina by the death penalty. Not so easy in Crimes. In the final moments of that film Landau confesses to the Woody Allen character, in a "hypothetical" conversation, that the "murderer" went through long periods of gut-wrenching guilt and remorse (he did), but one morning, surrounded by his happy family and accumulated wealth, it seemed that those demons had vanished. The character played by Woody remains dubious: "I just don't see how anybody could survive the terrible guilt of such a thing." Nonetheless, Landau rejoins and hugs his wife, and they return to the evening's wedding festivities. The credits roll.

Now here's the trick Allen plays on us in Match Point. Two or three tricks, really. First, it looks that after all Chris will not get away with his "perfect" crime, and will be caught by the authorities. Several events pop-up that would impede it, but he "lucks-out" on every one, and the murder has apparently succeeded in wonderfully noir-ish fashion. But then, after cleaning up the crime-scene, he throws potentially incriminating evidence into the Thames. All of the items make it over the guard-rail and into the river but one: a ring. It bounces off the top of the railing, hovers in mid-air for a slo-mo moment, and lands back on the embankment, after Chris had already turned and run off. Of course it sounds familiar, and visually it couldn't be a more perfect counterpoint to the first scene of the movie. True genius here. Bad luck has finally caught up with Chris Wilton. But nooooo--the homicide cops do investigate him, yes, for unluckily Nola has left behind a diary that her murderer overlooked ... and they find the ring. However, they find it in possession of a vagrant-burglar-drug-addict who had picked it up along the Thames, and who happens to answer beautifully to the bogus scenario that Chris tried to stage! Investigation over.

The ultimate twist, though, is more subtle ... and by allusion. Our protagonist is seen early on reading Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. The novel most probably influenced Allen's earlier movie of almost the same name--Woody was a great fan of the Russian classics (cf. his Love and Death and Tolstoy)--but there's no doubt he wants us to apply it directly to what's going on in Match Point. To follow up on the book's appearance, he has the future father-in-law recommend the mentality of his daughter's suitor to his wife in the following terms: "Oh, yes, he's quite the educated young man; we had a nice chat about Dostoevsky the other day." As we know, after his murderous crimes, the novel's protagonist, Raskolnikov, is so violently guilt-wracked, that he has no choice but to give himself up in the end. Landau in Crimes, the same, as he confesses to the Allen character, though he stops short at turning himself in, and seems to get over it. But Woody plays Dostoevsky in that movie--"nobody survives the guilt"--and Dostoevsky plays Dostoevsky in Match Point.

Will Landau's character or Chris Wilton ultimately survive the guilt? Or is Woody Allen's vision totally bleak and morally nihilistic? Well, we see Chris in shuddering paroxysms of guilt before the fact, and of remorse, after. Apparitions of the slain women (he must kill two to stage the crime properly--thus three people counting the unborn) come to visit his fevered consciousness, even before he's questioned about the crime. The answer to my question earlier is NO. While we can't expect a simplistic, "Tell-Tale Heart" sort of resolution to the moral problems presented, I think Woody Allen is telling us pretty clearly that the guilty parties in both movies are deluding themselves. The guilt will catch up with them sooner or later, if not the authorities. In other words, the writer-director has given us implicit permission to condemn these characters to eternal psychological torture, punished for the rest of their fictional lives by the worst kind of Raskolnikovian misery. (more)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

#27 Luck, Woody, Tennis, Gump II

Continuing from last post, the analogy of the "net-court" point with LUCK as a controlling factor in LIFE is a bad one, at least as formulated by Chris Wilton in the visual/voice-over prologue to Woody Allen's Match Point. His tennis-pro character should have known better, even if his creator did not. He's got the "luck" on the wrong side of the net.

But let's go back to Roger Federer for a minute to explain some of this from a real-life perspective. It so happens that he made a now-famous "lucky" shot--you may have seen a replay--penultimate to the for-real "match point" over Novak Djokovich in the semi-finals of the U.S. Open. It was a backwards between-the-legs shot, one that has now become classic since show-boaters like Nastase and Noah made it a crowd-pleaser a few decades ago. It's a desperation shot, but really the defender's only chance when caught too close to the net and the opponent's return is a low-trajectory lob. The ball is out-of-reach for an overhead smash, but chase-down-able. When the player catches up to the ball, there isn't enough time or space left to run around it and hit a face-forward, normal return (as in Roger's photo last post). So, while sprinting frantically away from the net toward the baseline, he must time his stroke for just when the ball, having already sailed over his head, is about to take its losing second-bounce. Down goes the racket between the legs, and ... thwack. Most of the time it's a futile effort--the ball dribbles away, or founders into the net--but the crowd applauds the lost-cause dedication all the more. Sometimes--more often than one would think--the acrobatically tortuous return makes it back over the net ... only to be put away by a smiling opponent now in near-impregnable net-play position. Even more applause. Quite often, though, the opponent will "net" the easy one, out of sheer shock that the ball came back at all. Most applause ever.

Not any of the above for Roger Federer. He hit a CLEAN WINNER! Utilizing his incredible speed and impeccable footwork, the world's #1 ranked player chased the ball down, hit it from between his legs at just the right moment, and at just the right angle, to send it cross-court past the astonished stare of Djokovich waiting at the net. That made it advantage and break-point for Roger in what was to become the deciding game. His opponent, doubtless shell-shocked from the previous point, blew his serve ... point and match! After the match, Federer was asked semi-facetiously by the always-sharp Mary Carillo about his miraculous shot-making:

--Is that a shot you guys practice a lot?
--More so than you might think, or that we should, really.

Aye ... there's the point, really. The over-and-under-and-between-the-legs thing is not a matter of luck at all--at least not if the opponent hits his lob to a place on the court that a skillful player can get to. Just how MUCH skill will determine the outcome. And Roger Federer's got it in spades.

Now let's go back to the bogus "net-court" analogy at the beginning of Woody Allen's fictional Match Point. (A peeve, I'll admit, but bear with me; it's a fine movie notwithstanding.) Recall that the tennis ball is freeze-framed above the net, equipoised between going forward or falling back. Totally in the hands of fate, it would seem. In tournament play, if the ball makes it over and drops unreachable on the other side, it's considered good tennis manners to give your opponent a sheepish little salute acknowledging your "lucky" shot. You're a spoil-sport if you don't. But it's simply a ploy to mollify the groaning fans. Behind that humble gesture is the knowledge--for any and every player--that the point was deserved. The "luck" involved is on the other side of the net: bad luck. The winner of the point has hit the ball skillfully enough that what might have otherwise flown cleanly over the net has hit near enough to the top to allow the ball to go over. Simple physics. In other words, the ball would have to be pretty-well-aimed in the first place. Less skill = lower on the tape. Point lost.

Okay ... so Woody chose an inept analogy--this doesn't mean there's not a lot of luck involved in the opportunities he presents his protagonist with in the course the movie. Cast willy-nilly amongst the high-tone, tennis-and-horsey-set of English society, our hero must nonetheless employ a panoply of natural and social skills to take advantage of these opportunities. One of them is played by Scarlet Johansson. No, that's not her in Vermeer's most famous painting, "Girl with a Pearl Earring," but it might as well have been. Little wonder that Peter Webber chose the actress for his eminently watchable movie with the same title (2004)--the resemblance is so remarkable. (more)

Friday, September 25, 2009

#26 Luck, Woody Allen, Tennis, and Gump's Sampler

Speaking of the Wood Man (last MM), I finally got around to Netflixing Allen's Match Point (2005), right after the U.S. Open just few weeks ago. Though the fellow at right lost his match-point to Agentinian Juan Del Potro in an incandesent five-set final, Roger Federer--still the greatest player of all time after winning his Career Grand Slam at the French and surpassing Pete Sampras in total wins (16) at Wimbledon--now holds the record for the "luckiest" shot in Grand Slam history. Or was it skill?

Woody Allen's Match Point made some history, too. It was the first film that earned money-over-cost for him in the U.S. since the estimable Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)--a cool twenty-one films previous. Ironically--since it's his first one shot entirely outside this country. This film is uncharacteristically but beautifully set in quaint upper-class London and the luxuriant English countryside. All of his previous three-dozen or so had barely made it out of mid-town Manhattan. So this unusual departure from a typical "Woody Allen" had modest "good luck" at the box-office (the eccentric auteur has never come close to a blockbuster). Could it also have been because of his canny "skill" in choosing the only American in the cast: the "luxuriant" Scarlett Johansson, cine-genic sex-goddess for our times? For many in the audience, she would be worth the price of admission, me included.Then again, it could be because Match is NOT a dead-giveaway as belonging to the Allen oeuvre--he's not in it, for one thing, and it's not in the least bit funny. Altogether a very strange and surprising film for him to make. And I've seen most every one.

More of that later, but first: LUCK. No subtlety at all about it, the movie harps on the theme from first line to last, from one scene to the next. Like Bunuel's in Phantom of Liberty--if you've been keeping up--the world of Match Point seems to be ruled by Chance and Circumstance, and for the characters in this film the only winning skill we can bring to the "game" is keen opportunism. (Difference: nobody ever really "wins," or has to, in Bunuel's surreal vision.) Allen broaches the theme in the very opening frames through a voice-over by the wily male-lead, "Chris Wilton"--I can't help but hear a little "Wimbledon" in his last name--a tennis-pro, as we are soon to find out. We're focused on a tennis-court net, like the one above, over which several balls pass back-and-forth during an obvious rally, until one return strikes the "tape," bounces straight up a couple of feet, and freezes in mid-air. Meanwhile, we have been listening to the following:

The man who said, "I'd rather be lucky than good," saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It's scary to think so much is out of one's control. There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second, it can go forward, or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward, and you win. Or maybe it doesn't, and you lose. [The ball remains frozen to fade-out, and the movie-proper begins.]

The very last lines of the film are a restatement of the opening, thus framing the whole story-arc: at a festive gathering of the principals, the brother-in-law "corrects" an earlier toast to Chris's new-born son by saying, "No, no--not to be great; I would just wish him to be LUCKY!" (more)

Friday, September 18, 2009

#25 Two Books by Steven Berlin Johnson

Saw this pop-science/pop-culture author last March on "The Colbert Report," promoting his latest book, The Invention of Air (2008), ambitiously subtitled, "A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America." It's really all about Joseph Priestley, who has been a hero of mine for a number of reasons, and for a goodly number of years. Long library waiting-list. Just got it a couple of weeks ago, and a review is to follow in the fullness of time.

Meanwhile, I got hold of his earlier book, Everything Bad Is Good For You (2005), subtitled, almost as ambitiously, "How Today's Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter." Johnson's study of what I'll over-simply call "techno-culture" and it's effect on our collective gray-matter IS good for you, and will make you smarter and--this is most important--less guilty about the time you and/or your kids spend on playing video-games or watching television.

Johnson's got some science to back that up, but first, he got me hooked early on when he explains his central thesis by coining a metaphor from a Woody Allen movie!--

... popular culture has, on average, grown more complex and intellectually challenging over the past thirty years. Where most commentators assume a race to the bottom and a dumbing down--"an increasingly infantilized society," in George Will's words-- I see a progressive story: mass culture growing more sophisticated, demanding more cognitive engagement with each passing year ... making our minds sharper, as we soak-in entertainment usually dismissed as so much lowbrow fluff. I call this upward trend the Sleeper Curve, after the classic sequence from Woody Allen's mock sci-fi film, where a team of scientists from 2173 are astounded that twentieth-century society failed to grasp the nutritional benefits of cream pies and hot fudge.

That's the author's only reference to the movie--he assumes probably correctly that most of his readership would've seen it, or at least heard about that "classic sequence." However, it's just too good not to share more fully with the Myriad Readers. Sleeper (1973) is perhaps my favorite from Allen's early, "mainly-funny-with-some-social-satire" period. Here one of Woody's trademark "schlemiel" characters, Miles Monroe, is brought back from an accidental cryonic state 2oo years into the future. His former diet was a regimen of all the hippie food-fads of the day; in fact, to hammer the point home unmercifully, Allen has him working at a health-food store! After thawing him out, two scientist-doctors discuss the morning after, all the while puffing on their cigarettes:

--For breakfast he requested something called "wheat germ, organic honey, and tiger's milk."
--Oh yes [chuckling]. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
--You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or ... hot fudge?
--Those were thought to be unhealthy ... precisely the opposite of what we know to be true.

Or later when, after they advise him to be sure to inhale deeply on a proffered cigarette, Miles confronts them with his confusion:

--Where am I anyhow? I mean, What happened to everybody? Where are all my friends?
--You must understand that everyone you knew in the past has been dead nearly 200 years.
--But they all ate organic rice!

This is the author's Sleeper Curve. Video-games bad? Nope. Turns out they're good for you after all. They are only one aspect of an intellectually rich, high-tech landscape through which a modern 10-year-old navigates: "shifting effortlessly from phone to IM to e-mail in communicating with friends; probing and telescoping through immense virtual worlds; adopting and troubleshooting new media technologies without flinching." That last was written before likes of Twitter and FaceBook (etc.) came into prominence, which can only further his point. Compare all of this to the rather simple-minded recreational toys and games of the past, and again you get his point. New stuff make brain good.

Public classrooms may be overcrowded and teachers underpaid--traditional test scores continue to go down--but outside of school kids' brains are developing sophisticated problem-solving skills. And IQ scores continue to go up. That's right: over the past 50 years Americans have improved by about 15 points, half of that in the last couple of decades. Johnson believes the paradox is solved when we look at what IQ tests test: problem solving, abstract reasoning, pattern recognition, spatial logic--a sufficiency of all of which is to be found in modern media technology. Q.E.D.

Even prime-time television has become more intellectually rigorous over the last couple of decades, Johnson believes. And I like his take on it. Ever since Hill Street Blues, he says (to paraphrase), a story-arc with multiple plot-threads has been de rigueur for the most successful sitcoms--popularly and critically--from Simpsons to Seinfeld to my current favorite, Scrubs. (Though I might contend that it really got started with shows like All In the Family and Mary Tyler Moore.) No longer "present tense" from one episode to the next, where the bare-bones "situation" was enough for the viewer to "get" the joke--Three's Company, Home Improvement--the newer shows require external references, an accumulated context that the audience must draw upon in order to be in the know. (That's why they're so popular in reruns: the viewers already have their ready-made "insider's playbook") Johnson points out Sam's past drinking-problem in Cheers, for example, or George Costanza's made-up character/entity "Art Vandelay," who appears in several episodes of Seinfeld. And I'll add the notorious "Master of My Domain" episode which keeps coming back in the form of "self-denial" in-jokes throughout the rest of the series.

Finally, and incidentally, my kids came up and along a bit before the monster techno-media revolution--somewhat ahead of the Sleeper Curve--but the author cites various fantasy and role-playing games as possible precursors to that revolution. One of those he mentions is Dungeons and Dragons, to which my first three sons were devoted player-aficionados. As far as I know, they never gave it up. I guess that's why they're so very, very smart. Or not.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

# 24 Bunuel and Defoe--a Footnote

Little did I know ... a favorite movie from my youth turns out to be the work of none other than Sn. Luis Bunuel: The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954). Despite the poster, Dan O'Herlihy spoke English, I'm pretty sure. All his Mexican co-players were dubbed, I assume, but that would probably have escaped an eleven-year-old. Haven't seen it since I sat down to watch it--probably one of a double-feature--at the old Avalon movie palace in Chicago (see DM for earlier references--way too many of them for a healthy childhood). What a shock it was to discover, in looking over the director's corpus last week, that he played a then-anonymous part in my formative cinematic years and beyond. I had either read the book before or soon after the Avalon, but at any rate I felt at that young age I had a real fix on Defoe "academically," long before I caught up with his if-not-better-works: Journal of the Plague Year and his true classic, Moll Flanders--later in life.

You may have noticed a rather conspicuous gap in the Spanish auteur's career, as I have presented it anyway, between the 1929 Dog and his breakout Mexican/French films of the 60's--amazingly, that figure also represents his age! Briefly: after his exile from his homeland, he did menial dubbing and editing work in Hollywood for awhile, before settling in Mexico permanently, where for a couple of decades he ground out essentially B-movie, commercial fare of little consequence at all. Except for Crusoe. It was released internationally to some acclaim--again, much of this comes as late-breaking news to me--with the Irish-born O'Herlihy in the lead, for which he got his one and only Academy Award nomination. (The actor, a good one, was a man of few significant parts, it seems, though I did recognize him when he appeared later in a major role in Fail Safe (1964), and in many more less-major ones over a long career in film and television.)

Crusoe came out at just the right time, at least for us kids. It was an era of Saturday matinee swashbucklers and desert-island adventures like Treasure Island and Swiss Family ROBINSON, and you can tell from the poster that Bunuel's movie was advertised as such. Moreover, that's the only way I can remember it.

HOWEVER: now that I know that the film was/is a "Bunuel," let me just speculate a review, from a grown-up perspective. We are "musing," after all. Right off, exile and castaway would be the perfect subject-matter for the expatriate and, even more importantly, existentialist director. Here we've got total free-will (except for Friday the "willing" slave), unencumbered by the superficial constraints of bourgeois society that the writer-director satirizes so unmercifully. And, wow, couldn't Bunuel nail this theme definitively when Crusoe finally grants his "man" the gift of complete freedom. Conveniently, Friday's "phantom of liberty" is quite literal, but enslavement in any form to anyone or anything would be Bunuel's idea of the worst crime imaginable, and he probably allows this to play upon his hero's psyche. Why probably?--because I DO recall several nightmare dream-sequences (of course) involving mainly Crusoe's father (a potential Freudian wonderland) in the course of the movie. But I no doubt ignored their thematic significance at the time. They would have been getting in the way of the "aventuras."

And what about Bunuel's trademark imagery? When I revisit the film I'll look for lots of ANTS. They pop up in almost every one of his movies as a symbol of one thing or another, and what better place for them and other scary mini-creatures than a desert island? Here the very real would translate easily to the surreal, and vice-versa. (Incidentally, his collaborator on Dog, Salvador Dali, loved the little fellows too--check out the ant-riddled clock in the lower-left corner of his most famous painting, "The Persistence of Memory.") And I know I'll find nature's sufficiency of Bunuelian megafauna--both the quick and the dead.

But then again ... Netflix notwithstanding, I may just leave his Adventure of Robinson Crusoe as a very pleasant childhood memory.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

#23 "Milky Way," Bunuel II

How could Bunuel NOT be the founder and chief practitioner of surreal cinema, considering his earliest credential: An Andalusian Dog (1929)? It was co-directed by Salvador Dali, of all people, and they both have roles in the film. A curiosity of film-making in it's infancy, it's nonetheless revolutionary in its imagery--Freudian symbolism to the core. No discernible plot (a murder is there somewhere), but rather it assails us with a series of nightmarish scenes invoking the flow of the unconscious. Ants are crawling, death's-head moths are perching, and sea-urchins are urching about in all the wrong places. At one point, and for no discernible narrative purpose, the distracted "husband" of the film hitches himself to a heretofore-unseen grand piano with two rotting donkeys inside, attached to which in turn are two trussed-up and bewildered priests dragged along behind. Cut. A blind detective appears fitfully to seemingly piece things together. Impossible. That gives you a gist--and I didn't even mention the (most) notorious image of a woman's eyeball being slit open to the tune of a cloud passing over the full moon. Don't rent this one. Rather, re-watch with pleasure Hitchcock's thriller, Spellbound, where G. Peck and Dr. I. Bergman try to make more sense out of Salvador Dali's dream-sequence imagery. Yes, he collaborated.

And speaking of Hitchcock, also avoid Bunuel's two films with leading-lady Catherine Deneuve: Belle du Jour (1967) and Tristana (1970). Though Bunuel was not quite as obsessed as the American director with icy-blond heroines, the auteur's choice of Deneuve pretty much ruins these movies, as Kim Novak and Tippi Hedren almost did for Hitchcock's post-Grace-Kelly efforts. (Sorry ... love Hitch, but never quite Birds and Vertigo.) Award-winning but a bit overrated in my view, Bunuel's films with Deneuve about repressed sexuality in hypocritical bourgeois society might have been okay but for her terminally repressed acting style. Showing us, as the old Hollywood saw goes, a range of emotions from A to B. Then again, it might have been the scripts. Too earnest in the satire, without enough comic grotesquery.

Herewith, then, are my six must-see films of Luis Bunuel, without undue critical baggage--he was one of the great critic-haters, by the way, because of the cretinous reception often given his more "serious" (i.e. non-commercial) films--in chronological order:

  • An Andalusian Dog (1929). Okay, so I take back my earlier comment. Everybody should spend just 16 entertaining/excruciating minutes with this infamous and influential almost-movie but once in their lives. Compare: David Lynch's Eraserhead.
  • The Exterminating Angel (1962). Upper-class guests arrive twice at dinner party. Servants inexplicably leave. Guests discover they can't, though there are no physical barriers preventing them. Hilarity ensues. Spend several days (or weeks?) trying to figure out their pseudo-problem, eating leftovers and starving to death and dying of disease. Meanwhile, a pet bear and some sheep escape from hostess' bedroom. Sheep killed, grilled, and eaten. Idea to sacrifice host to alleviate situation. Commits suicide instead. Finally figure out they can leave after all. Survivors attend funeral mass in nearby church, additional real-live sheep following them in. We hear gunshots in background as police shoot down working-class rioters who had been gathering outside the mansion-house throughout the movie. Perhaps surreal is not a strong enough word. Compare: Lord of the Flies (1963).
  • Simon of the Desert (1965). Based on 5th-Century Saint Simeon Stylites' supposed son, the pillar-sitter has denied all natural, human desires for 6 years, 6 months, and 6 days. Hilarity ensues. Satan, in the form of the luscious Spanish actress Sylvia Pinal (she was in three by Bunuel, including Angel above), tempts him unmercifully but apparently unsuccessfully in several guises and scenes of fleshly lust. (It's a scant 45 minutes, owing to two other directors dropping out of two other projected "acts" for the film.) Suddenly, in the final scene, we are magically transported to a swinging 60's discotheque, where we find Simon and Sylvia in modern dress, and now somehow a couple, talking and flirting, enjoying their drinks, and watching the carefree patrons dancing to the music of a band called "Radioactive Flesh." Humanity will out. Compare: Monty Pyhon's Life of Brian.
  • The Milky Way (1969). Two Beckett/Stoppard-like vagabonds (Peter and John) are on a pilgrimage along the ancient road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, traditionally following the direction of the galactic band in the sky--hence the title. Starting out hitch-hiking on a modern French highway, they step in and out of a panorama of religious history stretching from biblical times to the present. Sometimes they participate in the theological debates and confrontations--trinity or not; free will or predestination; universal salvation or damnation--other times they witness or dream about them. Or the anachronistic scenes are simply intercut without apology.The cast of characters they/we meet includes Jesus getting advice from Mary on whether he would look better without a beard; the Grand Inquisitor digging up a dead saint and burning the body for posthumous heresy; the Pope standing before a firing-squad of anarchists (bizarrely prescient); the Marquis de Sade debating God with his bound concubine. All in good fun. Really ... or sur-really, if you will. At the end of their odyssey, the pilgrim pair resort to, and cavort with, two harlots plying their trade around St. James Cathedral--seeming to fulfill a prophesy, given at the beginning by a God/Death figure, that they will conceive anointed children of some kind. Compare: Coens' Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
  • The Discreet Charm Of the Bourgeoisie (1972). As in Angel, Bunuel again employs the conceit of the dinner-party as a key to the facade of conspicuous consumption lived by the middle and upper classes. This time, though, it's in reverse: nobody ever gets to consume. In a comic series of unfulfilled expectations, lunches and dinners are planned, even sat down to, only to be interrupted--and here's the satirical thrust--by complications as mundane as crass forgetfulness to a military coup. We see beneath the specious good life and good manners a panoply of political intrigues, international tensions, financial chicanery, adultery, drug-dealing, murder, and a demented priest. Compare: Robert Altman's Shortcuts.
  • The Phantom of Liberty (1974). Bunuel's favorite. Narrative structure turned upside-down into Freudian free-association and determined purely by chance connections between one character or one scene to the next. Most of them comic, some tragi-comic. And then forgotten. His most "existential" film. Randomness rules the universe, but, as a result, we are rewarded with total free-will, or some phantasm thereof. One theme throughout: Humane Morality is all we can count on to withstand the depredations of chance and circumstance. Defies summary, so I won't try. It has to be the most dashingest-of-expectations movie ever made, and yet--in spite of, or because of that--one of the most thoroughly entertaining. Compare: nothing like it.

But in that vein, Myriad Readers, do yourselves a favor and rent/watch Woody Allen's favorite of his own making: The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). Or re-watch it, as I did the other night. I feel sure that Luis Bunuel would have approvingly watched the Woodman's surreal satire several times over ... had he not died two years earlier.

Monday, September 7, 2009

#22 "The Milky Way" a la Luis Bunuel

That's the English title of Bunuel's La Voie Lactee' (1969), my favorite of all his films. Our little excursion last time into the surreal world of cosmology and the fate of our titular galaxy reminded me of the film, only one of a surreal corpus that most often deals with cultural apocalypse, but always with cosmic overtones. And the ones I'll recommend are, moreover, shamefully funny.

His very last film, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977--I'll use the English titles hereafter) had just played on one of those 300+ movie channels, and I had just become infested with several strains of flu-virus--one of which could have been swinish, since I often bought fruit from a Mexican market around the corner--and, accompanied by multiple-orificed catarrh, laid me up and down for about six weeks. Bunuel kept me company, along with reruns of Scrubs--that highly entertaining TV sitcom which has a nice Bunuelian mix of fantasy and reality for comic effect. Obscure, which I hadn't seen, was disappointing ... not good medicine. So, with a little help from Netflix, I tested my very positive recollections of the auteur-director's earlier work that I had seen, along with some others, to see how they all matched up.

But first, if you're unfamiliar with Bunuel, or have seen only the Academy Award winner The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972--Best Foreign Film), think Coen Brothers. While as far as I know they haven't publicly acknowledged any influence--as have David Lynch and Kubrick--their Raising Arizona, Lebowski, Oh Brother, and especially Barton Fink could have been made by Bunuel. I'm convinced, for instance, that most of the utterly surreal last half of Fink--from and including the murdered woman the hero finds next to him in bed--is a warped dream-vision of a guy with writer's block ... or maybe not. The Coens' movies rely above all on almost total unpredictability--unexpected flashback and forward, startling occurrences and disturbing imagery, fantastic dream-sequences that may or may not be dream-sequences, grotesque characters, inexplicable cut-aways, and crazy plot-lines that become, more often than not, befuddlingly lost to the audience altogether in the course of the movie. Great fun.

And that's also Bunuel at his best. What sets him apart, though, is his abiding social conscience. Informing all the outrageous funny-business is SATIRE. Main target: the hypocrisy of the middle-class. And secondarily that mask of justification for bourgeois lust and greed: ORGANIZED RELIGION. In Bunuel's case, given his own background and the backdrop of his movies, that means Roman Catholicism. Sect doesn't really matter--any dogmatic creed would have served his purposes (likewise, Bergman naturally chose high-church Lutheranism). How effective was his social satire?--at the end of his Spanish period he was lucky to escape the Fascist/Catholic-dominated country of Generalissimo Francisco Franco (who's still dead, by the way) with his life. Repatriation to Mexico didn't keep him out of trouble, but it did eventually lead to some of his greatest films. (more)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

#21 The Milky Way--One Less Thing To Worry About

Good News for a change. Concerns over those pesky dwarf-galaxies threatening our own have been allayed. Oh, one of them in our "local group" will collide with us all right, and fairly soon, but the damage would be, in all probability, minimal. In a new study released Monday, coordinated by Ohio State, a group of astronomers from California to the UK have determined through computer modeling that the halo of DARK MATTER around the Milky Way will be what saves us from annihilation. Whew! Close call.

It's only been within my lifetime that other galaxies were definitively proven to be other galaxies. Before that they were "nebulae" or cosmic clouds circling what was considered the center of the universe: the Milky Way itself. I can well remember my old science textbooks referring to the Crab and Andromeda nebulae, and the Magellanic Cloud. Nothing about galaxies. There were early speculations, especially after Galileo spotted stars amidst these formations. None other than the polymathic Immanuel Kant, for example, thought they might conceal "island universes." But it ultimately took two "Hubbles" to pin it down. First, Edwin Hubble himself got hold of a powerful enough telescope in the 1930's to confirm that these island universes were not part of our galaxy, and even started classifying them (ours is a Spiral, which we see only from within snd sideways in the night sky). And later, his namesake Hubble Space Telescope finally left no doubt. High-school textbooks have I hope caught up by now.

Anyway, lead-astronomer Stelios ("star"?!) Kazantzidis and his colleagues performed detailed computer simulations to determine what would happen when a satellite galaxy collides with a spiral galaxy buffered by Dark Matter, like ours. Result: lovely "puffy edges," as he calls them. The studies show that the satellite galaxy would gradually disintegrate, while its gravity tugged on the edges of a larger galaxy, one like the test-model Andromeda, drawing out stars and other materials in the process. Kazantzidas concludes:

We can't know for sure what's going to happen to the Milky Way, but we can say that our findings apply to a broad class of galaxies similar to our own. Our simulations showed that the satellite galaxy impacts don't destroy spiral galaxies--they actually drive their evolution, by producing this flared shape and creating stellar rings--spectacular rings of stars that we've seen in many spiral galaxies in the universe.

Who would have thought that Dark Matter could be such a great friend. And a wonderful decorator to boot. Put's my mind at rest. I feared for the worst, but now I'm rather looking forward to that collision. Our Milky Way is already a handsome piece of work, but a few puffy edges would be a fabulous final touch. Cosmological feng shui. Just think of that when the weight of the world's problems are getting you down.