Aug 19, 2011

On DVD: Network

A truly prophetic movie about the debasement of popular entertainment and the noxious influence of TV, Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, is so timely right now that it should be required viewing for anyone who "is mad as hell and cannot take it anymore", which is pretty much everyone these days. Watching it, I had an epiphany. If we were to revisit the great American films of the seventies, we could just watch them and pretend that the downward spiral to moronic, corporate, hellish Hollywood movies never happened. There are so many good ones, we wouldn't miss a thing. They are newer, fresher, more brave and more original than anything we watch today. They are still surprising. In fact, they are surprising because they are so brazen, so free, so unencumbered by accountants and lawyers. I could not believe that MGM, a major studio, financed and distributed this movie, which basically spends two hours heaping damnation on companies like MGM. Network is sharp, and angry and it is basically Chayefsky's cri de coeur, his personal diatribe. It is theatrical, full of lengthy speeches, some of them the best expository writing in film; it is a freaking rant, is what it is. It stings and it bites and it warms the heart with divine vitriol and, as every Sidney Lumet movie, it is alive and crackling with energy. Lumet is the greatest master at casting character and background roles. Every person in Network is perfect.
I saw Network at the Plaza Satélite cinema with my friend Lani when were were about 15 or 16 years old. It rattled me, but I did not understand it. I thought it was over the top. I did not understand why Faye Dunaway would seduce an old man like William Holden or why that had anything to do with the story (three cheers for the loss of innocence!). I thought it was grossly exaggerated and bitter. I resented that it wanted to punish those of us who actually loved watching TV. Who the fuck did this movie think it was? There was something in its crankiness that I felt was valuable, I just did not now exactly why.  But that is the beauty of revisiting the classics. You get a chance to redeem yourself.
The miracle of Network is that it is even more relevant today than it was when it was made. I imagine that this movie will never lose its prophetic powers, because things can and will only get worse. What seemed then an unhinged, crazy idea for a news show, with anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) sharing the stage with a fortune teller and God knows who else, is not out of touch with the total debasement of the news today. Diana envisions a show about domestic terrorists who film their own attacks, which is totally prescient, not only about reality shows, but about people using cameras to document their every fart. There is a great scene where the network's army of lawyers are reading the contract for a TV show with a communist leader and the leader of some guerrilla group who are supposed to star in it. Both communism and the guerrilla pretty much go out the window at the mere mention of who's gonna make what money.
Five actors got Oscar nominations for this movie. But first let me say that having William Holden and Peter Finch in the same frame is, for film buffs, the equivalent of the 72 virgins in paradise for other people. You just can't believe you are lucky enough to be experiencing these two charismatic, masculine, awesome movie stars and great actors together at once. Finch won the Oscar, for his is the showier part, although Holden just kills, as Max Schumacher, a seasoned news producer, a relatively decent man, caught in the ratings frenzy, swept aside by younger, greedier, more ruthless people. Holden devastates. I miss him horribly.
The fabulous Ned Beatty plays a corporate titan and was nominated for one amazing speech in which he basically says there is no democracy and there is no America, there is only IBM, and ABC, etc. Only corporations rule. Beatrice Straight, won the best supporting actress Oscar, also for one scene as Schumacher's wife. Faye Dunaway won an Oscar for her excellent work as flinty, driven network executive Diana Christensen. In the excellent commentary he provides in the DVD, Lumet says that when he first spoke to Dunaway about the script, he told her: "I know what you are going to tell me, that there is no vulnerability in this role. There is none and if you give her vulnerablitly, I'll make sure to cut it out of the movie." She said something like, "let's get to work". This is called cojones, and this is why I love and miss Sidney Lumet.
Lumet says that everybody spoke of Network as a satire, but that for him and Chayefsky, who both got their start on TV, everything in the movie is sheer reportage.
I believe him.
He also mentions that he has never been a director of comedy, although he has a great sense of humor. To me this is the key to the disturbing dissonance of this great movie. It is an extraordinarily biting satire, but it is not directed as such. It is served with as straight a face as possible, and Lumet amps up the drama, which makes it far more dangerous than if it had been treated tongue in cheek.
Some of the dialogue in this movie only Paddy Chayesfky could get away with. Characters explain at length who they are and why they do what they do, but the language is precise, lethal and delicious and it is just a joy to hear it. It also brims with truth.
So if you are feeling angry, there is nothing more satisfying than checking out this awesome, bilious film. 

Aug 18, 2011

The Help

I don't know what is more offensive, the self-congratulatory wishful thinking behind this story: Skeeter, a white aspiring writer in Mississippi (Emma Stone) helps bare the truth about race relations between the black maids of Jackson and their white employers; or the dispiriting conventionality of this movie. This movie is so artless, in the crude sense of the word, so uninspired, so unimaginative, so doggedly conventional, so incompetent, that it actually makes the offensiveness of the white girl savior fantasy almost irrelevant.
This movie has the curious virtue of making one more annoyed the more one thinks about it. While watching it, one is mercifully distracted from the corny mess by some of the very game performers, who endeavor to lift it out of its own stiff, calculated phoniness. As the simplistic pap it is, (which I imagine is similar in the bestseller) it goes in easy. It just leaves a very unsatisfying taste in one's mouth.
The performances are all over the place. Among the better ones, my favorite is Sissy Spacek's, as the mother of Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) the arch-villainess of the story. Spacek is so at home in the place, she is the only person in the entire movie, with the exception of Leslie Jordan, the hilarious guy who plays a newspaper editor, that actually seems to belong in Mississippi. It's not only because her accent seems fine, (fahn), is that she is unhurried. She is laid back. She belongs to a place where time (tahm) is slow. Most everybody else seems to have driven from LA, gotten a dialect coach and played let's dress up and act like manic Delta queens. But Spacek is softly eccentric, and she does not overact. Her timing is impeccable. Jessica Chastain, on the other hand, goes all out. She plays a busty, giggly blonde with gusto. She is totally over the top, but she is excellent because there is a core of sweet, unconscious decency in her. The director, Tate Taylor, is so clueless that he chooses to leave in some of her more exaggerated reactions, but she is still very appealing. Of all the young women in the movie, she is the only one who seems to have a more dimensional character, even if it is a caricature. Allison Janney, as Skeeter's mother, is as always, funny and solid.
I really want to like Emma Stone, for she has the spark of a movie star, she is quirky in a good way, but as of yet, she has a limited bag of tricks. She plays a spunky, unconventional woman who wants to be a writer, but she seems to be the same person she is in all the movies I have seen her in (Easy A, Crazy, Stupid, Love, and this one). Skeeter is potentially an interesting character, someone who straddles conventionality and independence, which is a hard balance to master in life. Opportunities are squandered to show how she evolves emotionally to reject the culture in which she's been brought up, or how conflicted she is in not agreeing with her square friends, or how maybe a part of her would like to really belong to that clique. But she seems more driven by her desire to be a writer than by any pressing sense of injustice. This may be real, but it could be more interesting. Instead, it seems is that she is going through the motions of the plot. To be fair, none of the characters act realistically in this movie. They don't have a moment of human spontaneity, unless they're Sissy Spacek.
Only actors with a deeper sense of craft emerge unscathed from the broad strokes of corn and caricature the director heaps on the treacly story. Hence, Bryce Dallas Howard, playing Hilly, is so simply and stupidly evil, she is hard to watch. Her acting is at the level of drama club in high school. Someone with more chops could have infused something more complicated in the character, not just a caricature of ridiculous prejudice. It would have been interesting to feel sorry for a woman so benighted, so heartless, so convinced of segregation. After all, she truly believes the help is happier using their own toilets. But Howard is one step from twirling her mustache, if she had one. Reese Witherspoon would have known what to do with this role.
As for Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, the actresses who play the two main black characters, Abileen and Milly, they are both intensely committed. I have only seen Davis in Doubt, and she brings that same intense defiant dignity to both roles, but I happen to think she is a bit hammy. There is only so much dignified defiance one can take in an actor. Spencer has a wonderful presence, she is immensely likable, but she seems to reprise the stereotype of the folkloric, sassy black housekeeper, with as much panache as she can muster. The two actresses give it all they've got and they keep the audience awake, but they deserve better written roles.

The idea of asking "the help" about how they feel could yield a lot of extraordinary material in the hands of an insightful writer. As it is, it is nothing but sentimental pap that female audiences should know better than to accept: simplistic notions like "all the Black maids love the white children they raise" (as usual, all of them are paragons of goodness). Or, these black maids try to give better values to the white children they raise, but they end up being ungrateful racists. I think this is a bunch of hooey. These maids are too busy doing all the housework and babysitting all day long to be instilling lofty values on the kids they mind. They can be loving caretakers and the attachment to the kids is mutual, but idealizing their tough reality doesn't do them any favors. It just makes white people feel better for feeling bad about it.
I come from a country where maids are known as "the happiness of the home". I am extremely curious to know how audiences in Mexico will react to this film, because the help's situation in Mexico right now is way too similar to that of the help in Mississippi in the 60's, if you can believe it. In Mexico, many maids have maids quarters with their own bathrooms, they care for rich children and leave their own behind in their impoverished towns or villages. In Mexico, nobody sits to have lunch with the maid, unless it's the children. But reality is complicated and the justifications for prejudice and segregation are almost elegant in their compromise and denial. The wealthy are useless and need someone to do everything for them, and the poor need to eat. It is the status quo, intensely unfair, murky and codependent, and both sides abide by it in the interest of social harmony. I'm not saying this is how it should be, it's just how it is. People have been trying to unionize maids in Mexico for years. It ain't happening.
The Help at least has the good graces of not pretending that the civil rights struggle in the South was initiated solely by a curly haired white proto-lesbian and the two maids she coaxed into spilling the beans. The movie integrates the murder of Medgar Evers as a backdrop for raised consciousness on both sides. But what annoys and insults is the oversimplification. There are many moments of ridiculous triumph, in that pat Hollywood equation that if you do the right thing, you get amply rewarded. The busty woman learns to cook and makes the southern meal to end all southern meals all by herself (in one night!) and she and her husband sit Milly at the table. As if. Milly and Abileen come into their church on Sunday to, guess what, a stand up ovation (these should be banned from movies under threat of capital punishment; really, how low can you go?).  Skeeter gets rewarded by her valiant efforts with bestselling success and a job at a publishing house in New York. Meanwhile, Martin Luther King was rewarded for his efforts with a bullet in the head.
If this movie were more honest, Abileen, instead of cheering Skeeter to go look for her life in NY, would tell her to get out of Dodge and never come back to that dump, but it's all a big Hallmark card of enormous back-patting. To add insult to injury, the pathetic and ill-advised inclusion of a song by Bob Dylan has a kind of a bull in a china shop effect, but in this case it is actual art, interrupting two hours of well-meaning, queasy kitsch.

Aug 15, 2011

On DVD: Taxi Driver

I am taking a screenwriting class where we chose to read Paul Schrader's screenplay for Taxi Driver. It is a magnificent script that reads like a novel. I loved it even better than the movie because it is much more evocative, and although Scorsese created a great work of art with the material, the movie seems rushed and blunt in comparison.
When I first saw Taxi Driver I was in my mid-teens. I didn't like it. The music seemed horrifying, everything was terribly sordid and gruesomely violent and scary and dark and relentlessly ugly. I had seen movies about tough topics but I had never seen such an ugly, ugly film. Robert De Niro scared the shit out of me. The sight of Jodie Foster, who was about my age, as a prostitute, was too much for me to bear. I had a very visceral reaction to the film, as if I had been exposed to ugliness and moral squalor I did not expect nor welcome. I felt sullied by the film and I didn't understand why it was considered a great movie.
I saw the movie yesterday again for the first time in about 30 years. It's good to grow up.
For starters, I was shocked at how less shocking Taxi Driver seems today. Granted, this was the film that opened the door for very graphic and explicit violence in movies (more than Bonnie and Clyde which was cartoonish). It was the film that inspired generations of filmmakers to glorify the aesthetics of squalid violence and to let blood gush aplenty. Today Taxi Driver is not only a prescient film about crazy loner killers, (they really seemed to come out of the woodwork after it came out) but a thing of terrible beauty. The visual panache that became Scorsese's trademark is there. The cinematography by Michael Chapman is amazing. It really is devised to make you see what the immortal Travis Bickle sees and feels through his windshield. They actually shot inside the car and drove around, without a camera car. That is why it feels so real.
Robert De Niro's performance is so scary, so true, so quiet, that it may be one of the aspects of the movie that will still send shivers down your spine long after you find the violence almost quaint (it isn't, but it has become commonplace). All the parodies that were made of De Niro's channeling of Travis' crazy self-regard are monstrously exaggerated when compared to the seething calm De Niro exudes in the film. His violence is so deep into his body and his soul that he is scary without even yet lighting a fuse. It is not a show-off performance. He is stealthy, quiet, almost mousy, but you can feel the hatred and the confusion in him roil up inside his taut, rangy body.  If you must know, the famous "You talkin' to me?" scene is not in the original script. It was De Niro's choice. He was so brutally handsome, sad pathetic, dangerous, and coiled within himself I cannot take it. He kills me.
Yesterday I understood Bernard Herrmann's crazy, adventurous score. One part of it is just brutal, nasty, scary, but then there is this weirdly jazzy sax melody that weaves in between and points to Travis' sick obession with porn, his loneliness and the side of him that is redeemable. It is really a very bold choice as musical scores go.
In the script, as in De Niro's performance, what I find most disturbing is the tender side of Travis Bickle. He is some sort of warped innocent, almost an autistic person, who barely understands the rules of social interaction, a loner truly trying to belong and connect.
The DVD includes a lengthy documentary interviewing everybody for the remastered version of of the film. De Niro, in his usually reticent mode, Harvey Keitel, who was supposed to play the Albert Brooks part, but asked Scorsese to play the pimp, Cybill Shepherd, Peter Boyle, Jodie Foster, Brooks, Schrader, Scorsese, and Chapman. Very cool stuff.

Aug 1, 2011

On DVD: Two Exorcisms

I never saw The Exorcist when it came out. In those days I was a total film snob and refused to sully my arty track record with Hollywood dreck of mega-hit magnitude, even if it was blockbusters everybody talked about. That's the reason why I didn't see Jaws when it opened. When I saw The Exorcist for the first time on DVD, not too long ago, I was surprised at how effective it seemed. It is a very well made film and it spooked me, even if I can't give a rat's ass about the devil, Satan, the Catholic Church or any of that mumbo jumbo. Seeing the digitally remastered DVD for a second time, however, was extremely underwhelming. I love the cinematography by Owen Roizman, and Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield, and the visual, sound effects and the make up are great, even if the make up isn't aging all that well. But The Exorcist is literal, basic and pretentious at the same time. It never bothers explaining why the devil wants to invade a smurfy, unlikable kid like Linda Blair, and the movie feels rather silly and campy rather than scary. There is very little suspense. The acting is over the top. The Devil and Max Von Sydow are the best things in the movie.

But perhaps I felt this way because I saw it right after I saw Requiem, a German movie from 2006, about a real possession case that happened in Germany in the 1970s.
Requiem has no effects. There is no green bile, no turning heads, no obscene bloody stigmata. No one dies. It's about Michaela, a young, devout Catholic college student, (the incredible Sandra Huller) from a small country town in Germany, who suffers from Grand Mal epileptic seizures, which make her hear voices. In her case, because she is a rather obsessive Catholic from a very devout family, she is obsessed with the idea of suffering and martyrdom, and ends up believing she is possessed by demons. Requiem is the most rational approach to the idea that a person can be possessed by outside evil forces. What satanic possession is to some, mental illness is to others. Here, the approach is dispassionate and barely ambiguous. The movie does not believe in demonic possession. But it believes that faith taken literally can trigger horrors of irrationality that can seem positively satanic, yet they are all in the mind. Watching Michaela destroy herself is super creepy. Seeing the actress teeter between total normalcy and lucidity and stubborn belief is super creepy. She is a very sympathetic character. A nerd, a fish out of water, she has a stone cold, controlling mother who wants to keep her from hurt but under her thumb, and an understanding father (Burghart Klaussner, the clergyman from The White Ribbon) who wants her to live her life. At school, far away from home, her epileptic episodes become tinged with religious overtones. She believes she is incapable of touching a rosary, then incapable of praying. She thinks demons lurk inside her. Her young friends want her to seek psychiatric counseling, but she refuses. The family, being devoutly Catholic, also frowns on horrid-sounding diagnoses from the doctors. No one wants to believe their child is mad. Michaela stops taking her pills. She gets worse. What is terrifying in this small, effective film is how isolating her madness is, but also how willful. Her willfulness envelops everyone around her, like what she probably assumes is what charismatic saints do to other people. Instead of going to a shrink, she goes to her parish priest. Surprisingly, he tells her that the devil and the miracles and all those tropes of good and evil are not to be taken literally, but as symbols, and that what she needs is a shrink! But she doesn't listen, so another, younger, creepier priest steps in and wants to perform an exorcism. Since she refuses medical treatment, she makes this the only option available to her. She is hell-bent in believing she is possessed, therefore she is. I find this not only enormously disturbing, but more terrifying than buckets of cheesy Hollywood make-up. Whatever demons she has rest solely in her psyche, which can be the most terrifying place of all.
There are a couple of scenes in this movie that are the same in the American movie. The scene where the mother is bathing her in the bathtub and the scene where the priest first confronts her demons. They could not have been achieved in more opposite ways, but Michaela's reaction is very similar to Regan's: she screams hysterically, she curses the priests, she gets completely out of character -- you'd think she had the devil inside her.
In the end, a chilling title informs us that Michaela died of exhaustion after 12 exorcisms. This is the stuff that makes the hair at the back of my neck stand on end.