Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and Me (Revisited)

littlefeather1

And the Oscar goes to…

Who cares?

Okay, okay: I’ll resist the urge to be a sourpuss and let it suffice that I express my indifference to the pompous and circumstance of the Academy Awards the old fashioned way –by not watching.

I watch the movies, of course; I even write about some of them. I just can’t help but be appalled anew, each year, the way we elevate these preening peacocks, and clamor like serfs before royalty at what outfits they are wearing, who is sleeping with whom, and what they will say if their peers determine their act of make believe rose above the rest.

I think George C. Scott said it best when, after returning his gold statue for his work in Patton, he remarked “the whole thing is a goddamn meat parade. I don’t want any part of it.” (Also: while his performance as Patton is considered one of the best, ever, I always feel obliged to loudly celebrate his scene-devouring turn as another General, “Buck” Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove, a movie that, pound for pound, may have some of the finest performances in any movie. Even more so than The Godfather.)

Speaking of The Godfather, Marlon Brando’s performance as Don Corleone is generally considered, along with Scott’s Patton, one of the handful of all-time greats. This time each year it is inevitable that The Godfather (and The Godfather Part II) is invoked. Also inevitable are the snarky, sorority-girl assessments of the best and worst Oscar speeches, etc. The sweaty and self-loving (yet still courageous) Michael Moore’s beatdown of Bush’s “fiction” in 2003 will, of course, live in infamy. Of course, as tends to happen with the truth, the same idiots in the audience who hooted and booed would likely be more willing to speak out, now that’s safe (and now that the then-controversial, yet indisputable reality that Bush and his boys got us involved in our Iraq imbroglio on false pretenses is the official story line). Cheers to Moore for using his few seconds on stage to talk about something more meaningful than his love of Hollywood, praise to God for letting him win, or serving up the obligatory obsequiousness that the occassion generally demands.

 

At least Moore showed up; there is lingering –and understandable, considering the frail feelings of those involved– disdain for Brando, who not only refused his Oscar (the horror!), but sent an Apache named Sacheen Littlefeather to speak out on behalf of Native Americans. The backstory of Brando’s involvement in, and then-novel advocacy for awareness regarding the historical treatment of Native Americans is summarized here. The full speech Brando never delivered is here. Of course, to contemporary eyes, the sentiment –and the manner in which it is expressed– seems naive and too hectoring by half. However, we have come quite a long way in the last few decades in terms of our acknowledgment of the very issues Brando was calling attention to, and as with Moore, time has only enhanced the legitimacy of his scorn.

But…what about the fact that Littlefeather was an actress herself? Does this undermine the authenticity of Brando’s message? Of course not. Indeed, the more scripted it might have been, the better: what could be more appropriate at this orgy of onanistic self-approval than an actress punking a few hundred of the most famous and well-paid insiders?

A few years later, in a delicious instance of art imitating life imitating artistic life (et cetera), Neil Young paid homage to this occasion (either earnestly, tongue-in-cheek or, knowing Neil, a bit of both) in one of his best songs, “Pocahontas”.

Native Americans, Iraq and Oscar: someone should make a movie.

Share

“Only Let Be No War”: The Films of Nikita Mikhalkov, Volume 1 (Revisited)

nm2

The release of this box set is a welcome development. This is not necessarily to suggest anyone is likely to shell out $80 for five films, but the fact that they are available at all is good news for movie fans. Of course, if you have a Netflix account, you can enjoy these new releases without having to pay retail prices for them.

Nikita Mikhalkov was a legend in Russia long before Burnt By The Sun won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1994. It is debatable that even the release of this series (Volume 1, which portends subsequent editions) will convert many American viewers, but at least the films will finally have a fair chance to find whatever audience will receive them.

Having recently viewed each title a couple of times (and having watched Burnt By The Sun for at least the tenth time) this reviewer can recommend each without reservation. To be certain, there is a element of enrichment at play: it’s often worthwhile to learn something about a time—and culture—still mostly unknown to western eyes and sensibilities. That’s what textbooks are for, right? The fact of the matter is that each of these films has a great deal to offer, aesthetically as well as historically. Rest assured, none of these movies will feel like a homework assignment. They are filled with humor, horror and the struggle for fulfillment (or, short of that, the struggle for peace); the same things that have shaped and influenced our history as humans regardless of language or locale.

These films do feel dated, but that’s inevitable and by no means a negative. In addition to being decades old, they were created in a different Russia and, in many regards, an entirely different world than exists now. Then there is the fact that three of the films are set earlier in the 20th (and one is a period piece from the 19th) Century. The question, then, is not so much how well they have aged so much as how convincing they are on their own terms. For several reasons, they hold up well and remain compelling achievements, which is what we should expect from a director of Mikhalkov’s stature.

The next, more crucial question—with all aesthetic considerations aside—is whether they are entertaining enough to entice a contemporary, non-Russian speaking audience. The verdict here is that they are, although this endorsement is offered with the winking caveat that they are only as appealing as any Russian film with sub-titles can be.

Are you still with me? If so, and you are prepared to dive in, you might be best advised to work backward in chronological order of release. Newcomers should certainly get acquainted with Mikhalkov via Burnt By The Sun (1994), followed by Without Witness (1983) and Oblomov (1980). The next two, Five Evenings (1979) and A Slave Of Love (1976) are perhaps the most challenging but, in their way, the most rewarding.

A Slave Of Love has previously been unavailable on DVD, so cinephiles who remember Jack Nicholson praising it in the ‘70s (as the back cover boasts), and people who have heard or read about this minor classic finally have an opportunity to see for themselves if it warrants the hype. The story is set in 1917 during the Bolshevik Revolution, and concerns silent film siren Olga (Yelena Solovey) who is working with a not-particularly inspired crew on a new project. Despite the lethargy, which is exacerbated by the summer heat, there is a palpable sense of urgency. The police keep dropping by and, although they are on location off in the country, a collective apprehension intensifies as rumors and rumblings from the city accumulate.

Eventually, Olga does her best acting away from the bright lights once she finds herself falling for the attractive and worldly cameraman Pototsky (Rodion Nakhapetov). The more she feigns indifference, the more obvious it is that she is smitten. At one point in the midst of a car ride that leaves the vehicle covered with country dirt (the presence of dust and grime sticks to every scene, working well to convey authenticity and serve as a metaphor for what is happening on and off the set), she laments the lack of meaning she finds in her work, despite her celebrity. She longs for a cause; to be something or, short of that, “useful—like a tree or the earth” (Ah, now that is Russian!). She gets her chance when it is revealed that her lover is a dissident, and wants her to help the cause. This sets up an epiphany wherein she is able to transcend her solipsism, but only by paying a price she could not have imagined.

Five Evenings was shot in less than a month, during a seasonal lull while Mikhalkov was filming the expensive and elaborate production Oblomov. The plot seems straightforward enough, but the languid pace and lack of traditional conflict (much less “action”) is deceptive: this film is a quiet powerhouse, and the careful build of emotional intensity reaches a memorable and deeply affecting conclusion. The setting is Moscow near the end of the ‘50s, and involves a fortuitous reunion between Tama (Lyudmila Gurchenko) and Alexander (Stanislav Lyubshin), who were once lovers before the war interrupted their lives 17 years earlier.

Shrewdly shot in black and white entirely inside Tama’s communal apartment, it is a dark film, literally. The interiors of the building are ill-lit and the empty spaces and shadows become characters, albeit in a way that never seems contrived. One feels the vibe of post-war Russian life, with its slowly eroding faith of God, country and self. As Tama and Alexander speak without complaint about their jobs and prospects, it is increasingly clear they are hoping to convince themselves as much as each other. It is also apparent that a great deal of attraction still lingers, while the sense of lost time and missed opportunity is obvious in their clipped exchanges and wary eyes. These are people who can barely allow themselves to dream, so the potential vulnerability risked by admitting they are lonely, scared and quite possibly still in love is unthinkable.

Eventually, inevitably, the truth (truths) can no longer be avoided or denied, and Alexander—after explaining the price he paid for refusing to immerse himself in the corrupted cesspool of the Soviet “system”—articulates the simple truth regarding the soul he has salvaged. “A man should remain true to himself,” he says softly, the hard years hanging around his neck like a noose. “It is a very advantageous position.” Considering all that he has seen and experienced, the simple integrity of this sentiment is a revelation: astute American viewers will be reminded why so many people still give up a great deal to come to this country.

The final scene of Five Evenings does not offer a resolution so much as a celebration of human resolve. In the last moments, once the couple has laid their feelings—and to a certain extent, their lives— on the line, the screen shifts from black-and-white to color (a tactic Francis Ford Copolla may have borrowed a few years later for Rumble Fish). It is an effulgent finale and a brilliant symbolic stratagem for a scene suffused with such unadulterated emotion. Once the credits roll it is difficult not to feel that this cast and crew have rendered what usually passes for drama in Hollywood facile and inauthentic.

Oblomov is, aside from Burnt By The Sun, the film Mikhalkov is best known for outside his own country. Based on the novel by Ivan Goncharov, the eponymous protagonist is a classic sort of Russian anti-hero. Oblomov (played by an ideally cast Oleg Tabakov, whose pudding-face and pork chop physique could not possibly be more suited to the character) is rather like Melville’s Bartleby, only with means. Like Melville’s morose scrivener, Oblomov would prefer not to…do much of anything. He suffers from the very Romantic and very Russian literary affliction of ennui.

Once his legendary inertia is adequately established (augmented by narrated flashbacks of a pampered youth), we meet his lifelong friend Stoltz, the sophisticated and ambitious businessman who knows culture, eats carefully and generally tends to his physical and mental well-being—the anti-Oblomov, if you will. At Stoltz’s urging, his friend reluctantly agrees to spend a summer in the country where he meets the young and gorgeous Olga (Elena Solovey again). He slowly and predictably (but convincingly) falls in love with her, and the resolution of this infatuation will have permanent ramifications. Oblomov is an old-fashioned epic: long, deliberate, full of careful tracking shots (indoor and especially outside), wonderful score, solid acting and able to conjure up another time and place that, once viewed, will be difficult to forget.

Without Witness is probably the most straightforward, if least satisfying of the films. Even more claustrophobic than Five Evenings, all the action occurs during the course of one evening in a small Moscow apartment. The tone is disarmingly jovial when an ebullient, and inebriated, ex-husband (Mikhail Ulyanov)—who has since remarried—drops in on his still-single ex-wife (Irina Kupchenko). They do not seem especially estranged, and she does not seem unduly upset—or surprised—by his impromptu appearance. One quickly suspects his roguish goodwill and her stoic grace are masks, and one is correct. As the evening winds down, they each unburden themselves of secrets, resentments and a nasty surprise or two. Nothing that unfolds is particularly surprising (or frankly memorable) but the acting is fine and it works well enough as the obvious Bergman tribute it is attempting to be.

Finally, the one most western audiences have seen, or at least heard of, Burnt By The Sun. This is perhaps the only film from the last 20 years where I agree with virtually every critique (of which there are many, aside from the contrarian cranks who feel obliged to find fault with any movie fortunate enough to be lavished with awards), yet still consider a near-masterpiece. Is it, at times, heavy-handed? Da. Can it fairly be accused of occasional preciousness? Da. Sentimental? Da. Still, and I measure my words carefully here, so was Tolstoy. Am I comparing this film to Tolstoy? Sort of. It is undoubtedly the most accurate, or at least successful, depiction of what we might call “Tolstoyan” (Memento, incidentally, is for my money the most “Dostoyevskian”).

This invocation is not offered lightly: the (very impressive) number of characters, the scope of its political, social and romantic entanglements, the sense of history anticipating the future even as the future seems to mockingly distort memory and deed, the violence and tenderness—occasionally contained in the same gesture; all of these are indelible elements of great Russian literature. If nothing else, Mikhalkov should be celebrated for the audacity to throw his cap in the big arena and go for broke.

The acting is top notch all around, including Mikhalkov who stars as the war hero and Stalin confidante Colonel Kotov. Special mention must be made of the performance Oleg Menshikov turns in as the enigmatic Mitia, the prodigal son who abruptly returns home with a secret that will shatter everyone he knows. Not many actors are able to transform convincingly from lovable to despicable to ultimately sympathetic (or, Tragic in the literary sense of the word), but Menshikov delivers one of the best, if unheralded performances in any movie from recent memory.

Among Burnt By The Sun’s many triumphs is the way it confounds almost every expectation it spends the first part of the film carefully building: the Kotov family’s bliss seems over-the-top, and the viewer eventually realizes this is strictly intentional, not merely as a plot device to set up the house of cards before it crumbles, but to suggest how illusory most of that bliss actually was (as in: ignorance is). The story also explores the tension inherent in one person’s contentment (particularly if that person is powerful) and how it can often be at the expense of someone else’s (particularly if that person is powerless). In a classic scene Mitia relates his decade in the service of the state that he had no choice but to sacrifice and tells the story as a thinly-veiled fairy tale. We see, as he speaks and acknowledgment slowly registers on the listeners’ faces, that the Kotov’s contentment is not only quite complicated, but more than a little revolting.

Like most masterful movies, Burnt By The Sun can be appreciated for its succession of unforgettable scenes: Kotov explaining war and peace to his young daughter by admiring her soft and unscarred feet; Mitia correcting his servant’s pronunciation while carefully loading his pistol; the peasant driving in circles all day, looking for a town that never existed; Mitia playing the piano while wearing a gas mask—and the moment he locks eyes with Kotov across the room: a short and subtle exchange that shifts the entire momentum of the movie; Mitia standing fully clothed in the creek, reciting (in broken English) from Hamlet…these are all astonishing gifts that can be savored again and again. At the beginning of the movie a song is performed in a public square while Kotov and his wife dance in the snow; at the end the song is whistled by Mitia as he sinks into a warm bathtub: in a little over two hours we’ve seen the story of these lives played out, encapsulating the joy, hope, dismay and dread we know haunted an entire country.

Share

Peter O’Toole, R.I.P. (Revisited)

peter+o+toole

They’re all gone.

Burton, then Harris, then Reed, then Taylor.

And now, O’Toole.

Yes, it all begins and ends with his once-in-a-millennium turn as T.E. Lawrence, and attention must be paid, period. But once that obligatory fact is uttered, how many dozens of other performances can we list as evidence of a greatness that become sui generis the old fashioned way.

I can’t think of a single actor who could have pulled off this scene (not to mention this performance, from the immortal masterpiece, The Ruling Class):

***

Here is Oscar Wilde (a name I don’t invoke lightly, and one of a handful of witty geniuses with whom O’Toole exists comfortably, on the literal and figurative levels), lamenting and/or celebrating the tragi-comedy of life (his, any artist’s): Would you like to know the great drama of my life? It’s that I’ve put my genius into my life; I’ve put only my talent into my works.

O’Toole certainly put his talent and genius into his work, even though it’s an ongoing embarrassment to the ongoing embarrassment that is the Academy Awards that one of our genuine masters never got his little gold statue.

O’Toole also, by all accounts –like his great friends Burton, Reed and Harris– put more than a little effort, industry and genius into his existence. Who could blame him? Being Peter O’Toole, he clearly came to realize early on, was its own burden, its own responsibility, its own obligation. Put another way, when I think about the musicians I most admire (think Hendrix, Coltrane), I have an ongoing fantasy bordering on obsession that I could transport myself in time and watch them, in the studio, creating the songs I know and love. With someone like O’Toole, as much as I would pay, in every sense of the word, to be in a small-ish theater seeing him become Hamlet, or on the set of Lawrence of Arabia (!!!), I can honestly state that above any other wish, nothing would please me more than to be amongst his company, or even a proverbial fly on the wall, during any random pub adventure he instigated in his prime.

At the end of the day, did he squander some, even much of his remarkable talent? Perhaps.

But that depends on how you choose to measure such things, and I say this as one who greatly appreciates, and tries to create, art.

I’d say while it’s our collective loss, as movie watchers, that quite probably Peter did not dedicate himself with the seriousness and care he might (ought to?) have, who are we to judge the decisions he made and the elan with which he sucked the marrow out of life, straight no chaser? His collected works outshine the majority of his peers, before or since, and while he might have made a few more indelible contributions to the canon, who can quarrel with the fact that he did things his way, on his own terms, and managed to be the best at everything he did, because he could? Best actor? Best looking? Wittiest? Without doubt. Uncautious? Impractical? Compulsively sybaritic? Probably. And: who cares? If he was going to do Shakespeare, he was going to do it unlike anyone else (for better or worse); if he was going to lose himself in the cups, by God he was going to do it bigger, badder and yes, better, than anyone. And have fun doing it. And make history, even if it was the type of history he couldn’t recall in later life; you can bet your ass the people who were there never forgot it. That is what it means to be a god.

We only get so many gods per generation. We’ve lost one that we were lucky to have in the first place. They won’t make any like him again because they never made any like him in the first place. Rest in peace you rascal, you raconteur. Sleep easily: your work here is done, and we lesser mortals will puzzle the rest of our days over how you ever managed to do the things you did.

(4/1/2010)

My vices protect me but they would assassinate you!

That is from Mark Twain, a man who talked the talk, walked the walk, drank the drank and, for good measure, smoked the smoke. This was the famous quote that kept running through my mind like a mantra, or a rallying cry, as I read the trashy, sensationalistic, poorly written masterpiece by Robert Sellers entitled Hellraisers. The full title is Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed. To be frank, and anyone who knows even a little about any of these icons, the book could have focused on just one of them and had more than enough material to fill a volume. That it is crammed with (outrageous) stories involving all four of them is almost too much of a bad thing (bad meaning good but also meaning awful). What follows is not a review so much as a celebration.

I read this book in short, ecstatic snippets over the course of the past month. If you are the type of person who buys toilet books (does anyone buy toilet books?), this one is an automatic addition to your potty arsenal. Me, I was reading it before bedtime and while the laugh-out-louds were frequent, I invariably got drunk enough from the contact buzz to pass out after a few pages.

I think this book can be properly appreciated as a document of (cliche alert!) a truly different era. These types of artists simply don’t exist anymore and, to be honest, they could not possibly exist. I’m not necessarily implying that contemporary cinema will suffer for it, but these days (as Richard Harris points out) Tom Cruise shows up at a screening with a bottle of Evian while Harris and his compatriots would turn up, with neither irony nor a compulsion to impress, sporting a bottle of scotch. Is our society, or our silver screen, unduly affected by this passing of the gourd? Who knows. And who cares.

One thing that is certain: celebrities today are unhealthily obsessed with their status. Their capacity for sensation is a business decision, often engineered by PR hacks, or else enacted electronically: a tweet here and an interview there, all safely behind the glass. Could you imagine having a pint with just about any Hollywood A-lister? Of course you couldn’t. The fact of the matter was, these four rapscallions were (cliche alert!) men of the people, and by word –and more significantly, by deed– they were both entirely at ease and happiest when they were surrounded by the so-called common folk. Even though each of them was extraordinary in his own way(s), all of them came from difficult or at least potentially unpromising origins: they knew how little separated them from the coalminers they came up with, and how fortunate they were getting paid to pretend as opposed to breaking their backs in a factory.

And, (cliche alert!) talk about keeping it real. These chaps threw back pints and threw around their fists because they wanted to and, to a certain extent, they had to. Here’s an instructive anecdote: On a visit to Rome Harris persuaded one of the film executives to join him in order to witness first hand that it wasn’t always the actor who started all the brawling. On their first night they went to a bar and listened as a drunken American tourist spelt out in a loud voice how he was going to do in Harris. The executive advised his client to take no notice. “Do you want me to wait until I get a bottle across the face,” reasoned Harris, “or go in and get it over with.” The executive could see only logic in this statement and Harris took the insulting Yank outside and flattened him.

Here’s the thing. That’s not old school; that is one room and no electricity school. And while I’m not endorsing or advocating a top tier artist (or any average citizen) employing violence to settle their disputes, there is something almost refreshing (not quite quaint, but close) in this mano a mano arithmetic. Consider that, and compare it to our contemporary film, rock, and especially rap superstars with their posses, guns and melodramatic beefs. Drive-bys and group beatings? How about this: Got a problem? Let’s squash it right here, right now, without weapons or a crew of thugs jumping in.

At the same time, I’m not suggesting that these paleolithic antics didn’t have deleterious effects on their lives, as well as their art. Did we get the best they had to give? The verdict on all four (particularly Burton) is quite clearly nay. But would we otherwise have gotten This Sporting Life? Could we ever conceive Lawrence of Arabia? (It’s commonly agreed that O’Toole’s work here is among the best in movie history, but it may not be as well known that the almost impossibly elegant actor was hearty enough to endure an excruciating desert shoot that would have crippled many other thespians.)

Did each of them forfeit the best years of their artistic (not to mention actual) lives to drinking and skylarking? Perhaps, although it depends upon one’s definition of what entails a life best lived, and that is fodder for another discussion altogether. Based on the anecdotes and testimonials contained within these pages, not a single one of them regretted leading such unabashed existences (even if none of them could recall large chunks of those lives due to the state they were often in).

Let’s look at The Tale of the Tape (taken directly from the book).

Exhibit A, Richard Harris:

– One night Harris was thrown out of a pub at closing time, but still in need of a drink boarded a train just to make use of its open bar. With no idea where the train was headed he arrived in Leeds completely (inebriated) at one in the morning. With nowhere to go he walked down a nearby street and seeing a light on in a house chucked a stone at the window. The owner came storming out but upon recognizing Harris invited the star inside. Harris stayed there for four whole days and wasn’t sober once. Eventually the man’s wife phoned (Harris’s wife): “I’ve got your husband.” She was shocked when (Harris’s wife) replied, “Good, keep him.”

– In his favorite New York bar the bartender would see Harris walking in and immediately line up six double vodkas.

– At home in the Bahamas neighbors took to dropping by uninvited. To deter them Harris conceived an impish plot. One afternoon a family living close by turned up. Walking inside they found Harris with two mates sitting naked watching porno movies and masturbating. “Oh, hello there,” said Harris. “Come on in.” The incident went round the island like all good gossip does and afterwards Harris was left pretty much in peace; the way he wanted it.

– “When they took him away to hospital (shortly before his death)”, recalls director Peter Medak, “the lobby just completely stopped, and Richard sat up on the stretcher and turned back to the whole foyer and shouted, ‘It was the food! Don’t touch the food!’ That was typical Richard.”

(Personal note: just looking at the various interviews and clips on YouTube reveal without any doubt that Harris was a master storyteller and what we used to without irony call a bon vivant. He is a pub legend and if he did little else in his long life than bring amusement and joy to the thousands of people fortunate enough to have their eyes, ears and beers in his vicinity, it was a great deal more than most human beings are capable of imparting. Of course he did much more than that and he will endure as one of the genuine characters of the 20th Century.)

Exhibit B, Richard Burton:

(Personal note: this book will be a required purchase for anyone who has ever been fascinated by Burton’s relationship with Elizabeth Taylor. I must confess, I’ve never cared much about it, or her, but could not help but be amused, and startled, to discover that in her prime she could drink just about any other human being under the table. “I had a hollow leg (in those days)…my capacity was terrifying,” she recalls. So they had that little hobby in common, but it was definitely Liz’s looks that put the hook in Burton. “Burton referred to Taylor’s tits as ‘Apocalyptic. They would topple empires before they withered.'” Let’s stop and savor that for a second: there are novelists whose collected works don’t contain a line that perfect. Inevitably, both Burton and Taylor withered, and it was from the inside out. Anyone who was born between 1970 and 1980 can recall seeing these two on TV (or in a movie) and thinking “What’s all the fuss about?” and having their parents quickly set them straight. In their primes they were arguably the brightest and most beautiful stars in the Hollywood galaxy. But wither they did, and it was an expensive, languid, and hard-earned degeneration. With Burton, it wasn’t a matter of how much he consumed, but how he managed to find time to eat or sleep or breathe. On a given day he might plow through three full fifths of vodka. I’m not certain I’ve had that many martinis in my life. All of which is to say, of the four, Burton is generally considered the one who had the most to give and gave the most away as a result of his addictions –which either prompted or exacerbated a lethargy and greediness that devoured entirely too much of his energy and ability. More than a few notable folks offered the opinion that had Burton exerted a bit more control over his vices he may have ultimately become the most revered stage actor of all time, surpassing even Olivier.)

– During one particular scene (in 1966’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) Burton was required to down a whiskey. The props department brought in flat ginger ale, the movies’ usual substitute for scotch, but Burton waved it away. “It’s only a short scene, won’t need more than a couple of takes. Bring me some real whiskey.” In fact the scene needed 47 takes. “Imagine it, luv,” Burton bragged to a journalist later, “47 whiskies!”

– Burton had arrived to work on The Klansmen drunk and stayed drunk throughout filming, consuming three bottles of vodka a day, a routine he’d been following for the past six months…when (the director) was filming Burton’s death scene he complimented the make-up man. “You’ve done a great job.” The make-up man replied, “I haven’t touched him.”

– Staggering home at three in the morning, O’Toole tried to carry (Burton)…and both men stumbled into the gutter. Somebody stopped beside them on the pavement. It was Alan Bates, O’Toole’s ex RADA colleague. “Peter,” he said, “today I’ve just signed up for my first commercial picture.” “We both looked up,” recalled O’Toole, and said “You coming down to join us, then?”

Exhibit C, Oliver Reed:

(Personal note: I have a special place in my heart for Ollie. I couldn’t have been more than ten the first time I saw the musical Oliver! and Reed, as Bill Sikes, scared the living shit out of me. He was the real deal: the kind of face you could smash a torch into, break a bottle on and pour hot oil over and he’d smile…before he killed you. I then enjoyed him as the perfectly cast father in the movie version of Tommy. He was (cliche alert!!) absolutely one of those rare actors who, for me, I’d watch in virtually anything he did just because he had that presence: he loved the camera and the camera bloody loved him. That he ended up dying, in a bar, after drunkenly arm wrestling with a group of sailors four decades younger was…pathetic, predictable, perfect.)

– In an early role (as a werewolf, in a wretched B-movie), Reed enjoyed keeping his make-up on at the end of the day and terrifying fellow motorists at traffic lights.

– After Tommy Reed and The Who’s Keith Moon continued their rabble-rousing friendship. Reed enjoyed a game that he christened “head butting”. Each player was required to smash his head against his opponent until one collapsed or surrendered. A regular victim was (The Who’s bass player) John Entwistle, who, after being knocked out three times, pleaded with the nightclub owner to either ban the game or ban Ollie.

– Filming The Great Question (1983) Reed was stuck in Iraq…in what was essentially a war zone. One night Reed joined the crew for numerous drinks in the hotel bar and, looking in the nearby restaurant, saw a Texas oil billionaire whom he knew. Jumping up, obviously drunk as a skunk, he rushed upstairs to his room. “When he came back down he was wearing a western shirt and cowboy boots and walked John Wayne style into the restaurant to see his buddy,” recalls stunt man Vic Armstrong. “Inside he gave this guy a Texas handshake, as he called it, which basically means lifting your leg up and smashing your cowboy boot down on the table. So Ollie walked up to this guy’s table, surrounded by women and other dignitaries, and smash, all the cutlery and glass went flying in the air. Suddenly Ollie looked at the guy and it wasn’t his mate at all, it was some Arab with his harem, deeply offended that this westerner had come stamping on his table and upsetting everything.

– Reed had his private parts (which he was fond of calling his “mighty mallet”) emblazoned with the images of two eagle’s claws. Not long after, he had an eagle’s head tattooed on his shoulder, so when people asked why he had an eagle’s head on his shoulder he could reply, “Would you like to see where it’s perched?”


Exhibit D, Peter O’Toole:

(Personal note: after reading this book I’m more convinced than ever that if I could come back as another person and experience their life, Peter O’Toole would be on the very short list.)

– Interviewer: “Are you afraid of dying?” O’Toole: “Petrified.” Interviewer: “Why?” O’Toole: “Because there’s no future in it.” Interviewer: “When did you last think you were about to die?” O’Toole: “About four o’clock this morning.”

– O’Toole once arrived late for a ferry back to Ireland, the gangplank having just been raised. When the captain refused him entry O’Toole seized the ship’s papers, without which it couldn’t sail. He was only persuaded to hand them over by the arrival of a policeman. O’Toole then chartered a plane to Dublin, hired a taxi upon landing and raced from the airport to the harbour. When the ferry arrived there was O’Toole waiting on the dock to challenge the officer to a fistfight.

– O’Toole had never been the most subtle of people and old age hardly dented his un-PC ways. He had little time for the current crop of British stars like Hugh Grant. “Ugh, that twitching idiot! Ooh, I musn’t say that, must I, but he’s just a floppy young stammerer in all his films.” (Personal note: HaHaHaHa!)

– At the 2002 Oscars, O’Toole was to receive a lifetime achievement award. However, on discovering the bar served no alcohol, he threatened to walk out. Panicked producers had some vodka smuggled in.

In the final analysis, these men were geniuses on the screen, and depending upon how one judges such things, geniuses off it as well. One could maintain that, like Oscar Wilde, they were equally geniuses at life: they lived life fully on their own terms, and after all the broken glass, bludgeoned livers, wrecked relationships, wounded feelings and untapped potential, the sum shined brighter than the bits and pieces. Were they running away from their demons even as they rushed, face first, into a mirror or bar brawl or oncoming vehicle? Perhaps. But there was a courageousness to their conviction and intolerance for half-measures that, for better or worse, we’ll seldom if ever see again. They lived the lives they led because they had no choice, and more to the point, because nobody else could.

Share

Serpico and Turning Black Friday into Good Friday

SERP2

Look at that dude.

Pacino, clean-shaven and short-haired as the movie begins, sports the best ‘stache of the decade, then goes goatee, then gets full facial (hair and head), all of which accomplishes several purposes, concurrently: it denotes time passing, it indicates the all-in embrace of counterculture and defiance this ostracized cop is both acting out and reacting to, and finally it reveals how indelibly –and painfully– the process ages him. Mostly, on simple aesthetic levels, Pacino on screen here is as badass as any icon could ever be. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Some people shop on Black Friday. I watch Serpico.

I want –and need– to revisit this movie on an annual basis, because it satisfies many needs. One, it’s a masterpiece, so there’s that. Two, it reminds me many things I need to know, about the world and myself. And most of all, it is a rallying cry against conformity and cowardice; it is a stark reminder of how much we are capable of and how little we typically do. I watch it and think: I want to be that guy. I know I can’t be that guy, so it’s the least I can do to watch, learn and emulate.

I wrote about Serpico while introducing a piece commemorating the ten-year anniversary (in 2009) of what I consider the best film of the last twenty years, The Insider:

(Toward the end of Sydney Lumet’s ’70s classic Serpico there is an unnerving scene that encapsulates the conundrum faced by the eponymous cop: already persona non grata within the law enforcement fraternity for his refusal to take bribes, Serpico is transferred to the narcotics division, where the beat is the exceedingly dangerous streets way off-Broadway. His new partner grimly explains that, compared to the types of kickbacks Serpico was accustomed to seeing, the haul in narcotics is serious business. “That is big money, that you do not fuck around with.” In this moment Serpico finally understands that his life is now in greater danger, amongst police officers than at the hands of criminals, because of his insistence on obeying the law.)

I think this one scene, perhaps even more than anything in the embarrassment of riches that is Network, tells us all we need to know about how the world really works. Going back to the Watergate story, the reporters were advised to “follow the money”. That might be the most disturbingly succinct epitaph of our last century. Every act of violence and venality is prompted by the pursuit of money or the lack thereof, and most of all, the things money can’t buy (which, come to think of it, is the central theme of Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead).

When I ask myself: how is it possible that, despite the will of the people and the painfully obvious cookie crumbs leading to the criminals, Obama has let Wall Street off without so much as a harsh word, or how the Republicans can hold the country hostage for indefinite tax cuts on the wealthiest one percent, or (worse) how so many feckless and supine Democrats can tolerate –and in some cases, abet– this mendacity, or how our military budget is sacrosanct, or how we can continue to fight ill-advised and unwinnable wars (killing countless Americans and “foreigners” in the bargain), when I look at some of my well-educated and otherwise enlightened friends and wonder how they can possibly be immune to this cognitive dissonance, I think of these words: “That is big money, that you do not fuck around with.”

I’d like to revisit a piece I wrote many moons ago (earnestness trumping ability), celebrating Serpico. I could never (and would never) pick favorites but if I had to, I would probably suggest that this movie represented the best work that Pacino and Lumet ever did.

Serpico (1973)

An illuminating moment occurs near the beginning of the film Saturday Night Fever—the project that officially launched the trajectory of John Travolta’s career, where, with a haircut and white suit, the young hot shot evolved from Vinny Barbarino, Sweat Hog, to Tony Manero, disco icon—a film which, like any formidable piece of art, is as much a reflection of its times as it is the vision of its creator: A lean, mean, and bikini brief-clad Travolta halts in mid-strut and gazes lovingly up at his wall, upon which is a poster of the man—a bearded, long-haired, gold hoop earring-wearing undercover cop—and he haughtily, if speciously assures himself “I look like Al Pacino!” The symbolic import of this simple scene is substantial. The act of conferring coolness through establishing, by any means necessary, solidarity with Pacino—particularly a young cat who knows he’s bad, especially a movie character depicting a young cat who knows he’s bad—is about as ringing an endorsement of unequivocal hipness as anyone could reasonably hope to attain. This moment then, signified a passing-of-the-torch of sorts, and an informal promulgation of what most folks already knew: that Al Pacino, in short, is the ‘70’s, and along with Nicholson and DeNiro, formed the divine triumvirate of American motion-picture ascendency in that decade.

Coming less than a year after the searing intensity of his performance as Michael Corleone—in the role and movie, The Godfather, Pacino could not have chosen a more diametric project than the true story of Frank Serpico, the undercover cop who pits himself in a lonely—and costly—war against an entire police force. This film serves as a radical (and realistic) rewriting of the classic—and antiquated—American Dream myth, wherein the best man always wins, and good always prevails over evil. With an escalating irony that could only be culled from real life (otherwise it would be offensively implausible), the more he attempts to distance himself from the wrongdoing around him—which has casually corroded the department like a malignant infirmity—the more scorn he is subjected to. In a word, it doesn’t get any more American than this: Serpico, the man, and Serpico, the movie, are potent amalgams of, and commentaries upon, the country that made them. The idealizing, even naïve young man confronting corruption is arguably an invariable rite of passage for just about every individual who leaves the comforts—and conformity—of home for the bigger, badder realities of the world. When the individual is a police officer, and the subject of his disillusionment is the laissez-faire depravity of his precinct—and, to a larger extent, the backbiting, political system as a whole—the stakes are raised rather considerably.

It is sufficient testament of a job well done that it is impossible to imagine any other actor taking on the role of Frank Serpico and delivering such a capable, compelling performance. The tribulations of this alienated underdog provide the opportunity for Pacino to utilize a concentrated fervor in ways he never would (or could) again. It is a tailor-made vehicle for his expressive gifts: this is his superlative performance, his greatest role. He is, in turns, quiet, assertive, tranquil, indignant and incensed. He is a man of intelligence and integrity surrounded by the numbed and indifferent denizens of New York City’s police departments, amongst whom he wears out his welcome quickly—and irretrievably.

The crux of his dilemma is an unflinching nonconformity, which obliges the battle-wearied veterans of his precinct to examine not only their own detached compliance, but why he won’t go along with it. In a development that is perverse as it is ironic, he becomes increasingly regarded with suspicion because he refuses to break the very laws he’s sworn (and is paid) to uphold. Because he is honest, he cannot be trusted. If the story, or the actor, wasn’t up to the task, this rather unremarkable—indeed scarcely believable—story would seem trite, redundant, or nauseatingly bathetic. Thankfully, this true tale—which, like any worthwhile biography about an extraordinary individual, serves equally as a commentary on society and that evasive and evanescent perception dubbed the human condition—is abundantly provocative, discomforting, and ultimately redeeming.

Serpico is one of the rare and wondrous works of art that truly satisfies on all levels: it is, first and foremost, an intriguing and indelible movie experience. It is also an inspirational story that serves to remind us that crime often operates in an unremarkable, but eviscerating fashion. It reminds us that heroes don’t wear capes, and seldom wear badges. Often, they wear a look of defiance, and a battered, but not beaten pride—a weary, but unwavering integrity.

Serpico was—and will remain—one of the great things that came out of the much-maligned “me-decade”. The bell-bottoms, platform shoes, white suits, pompadours and carefully cultivated obtuseness faded, like the fads that they were. Disco faded; Travolta faded. Just because the cyclical engine of fashion has made some of these things unconscionably, and inconceivably cool again, doesn’t mean that they won’t once again drift back into the droll depths whence they sprang. The stuff of substance, soulful as it is scarce, will nevertheless continue to stick around—as it always does—especially on the fleet and unfashionable frequencies. And, despite The Godfather, despite Dog Day Afternoon, despite Scarface, despite Glengary Glen Ross and Heat—Pacino would never be this cool again. Just ask Tony Manero.

Share

You Want To See Something Really Scary?* 10 Horrific Scenes for Halloween (Revisited)

WH1

First off, a confession of sorts: scary movies don’t scare me.

Or, to put it less bluntly, as a one-time horror movie aficionado, I quickly outgrew the ways gore supplanted suspense and special effects became a substitute for authenticity. It just happened that I came of age during the apotheosis of the Friday the 13th franchise. In fairness, the first one was genuinely terrifying. But, for me, even as a pre-teen, the most effective parts involved the mother, not the invisible knife and axe weilding psychopath. In any event, it was probably also an inevitable matter of timing that I was starting to grow up just as slasher movies became such an obligatory, and lucrative enterprise. I grew bored and more importantly, was never scared.

One of the reasons I always found Texas Chainsaw Massacre so truly horrifying is that, when I first saw it, I was already accustomed to the ludicrous pas de deux of the post-Halloween M.O.: the sexy vixen, scared out of her wits, running like a track star while Jason or Michael Myers walk in slow motion, invariably catching her, or jumping out from behind a tree, superseding the Space-Time Continuum, or whatever. In Texas Chainsaw Massacre, there is no slo-mo, no obligatory –and intelligence-insulting– pyrotechnics; it’s raw and real: when the victims run the bad guys run after them (with chainsaws). For me the clip below, of the first kill, is still amongst the scariest “scary” scenes in horror movie history, owing largely (if ironically) to it’s low-fi sensibility. You know what’s going to happen but you don’t know what’s going to happen. And then it happens. When “Leatherface” slams that steel door shut, it’s an indelibe moment: creepy, cringe-inducing and, several decades later, unsurpassed.

For me and, I suspect, most adults, the most unnerving scenes are not from movies found in the Horror section. There is a reason truth is stranger, and scarier, than fiction. Looking back on specific scenes that impacted me on first viewing, and retain their power to unsettle or spook me today, I offer up ten that I’d rank as more terrifying than anything featuring cartoon-character evil.

1. Taxi Driver

I’ll commence with a wild card of sorts. According to legend, the actor intended to play this role could not make it on shooting day, so director Martin Scorsese (then still fairly unknown, at least by appearance), gamely stepped in and gave it a shot. The results are astonishing: more than merely a credible contribution, Scorsese taps into things he’d seen, heard and, perhaps, experienced, and fueled by lack of other options and, according to legend, some less-than-healthy doses of Bolivian marching powder, provides a cameo that, from first view, is unforgettable. The entire film holds a camera up to the shadiest back-alleys of the Big Apple, and this scene –as much as any of the more celebrated ones– depicts the rotten core inside these hearts of darkness.

2. Goodfellas

(A much longer assessment what I consider the most definitive movie of the last two decades can be found HERE.)

There are, of course, no shortage of scenes from this one that could make the cut (DeNiro’s “death face” in the bar, DeNiro trying to lure Henry’s wife into the side-shop where paid goons are waiting to whack her, virtually every scene with Joe Pesci), but I’d give special props to the infamous pistol-whipping scene, which occurs relatively early in the story. We’ve already met the young Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), and despite the (brilliant) opening sequence where we see him and his partners in crime shove a half dead (and made) man into a trunk, then kill him on the highway, we’ve mostly identified with him as the good-looking, gentler mob acolyte (indeed, he is chastised for being too soft when he has the temerity to waste a few extra aprons on the poor slob who got shot in the stomach and is bleeding to death outside the pizza joint). Particularly in comparison to the hardended elders, including mentor Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (DeNiro) and psychotic running mate Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), we could be forgiven for thinking Henry is actually a, well, good fella. The efficient impact of this scene, then, is the way it advances the plot and reinforces the grimmer reality of who Henry is, and where he came from. Remember the first time you saw this? How shocking that quick explosion of violence seemed? It was not merely a matter of a thug not having the time or interest in a fist fight, it was the even more disturbing notion that he could, and would kill Karen’s neighbor as a matter of course. And when he says he’ll do it next time, there is no question he will.

This scene is actually a clinic in character study and compressed plot rhythm: we are reminded, abruptly, that Henry is in fact a violent man and is capable of extreme violence which he will unleash without hesitation or remorse. How about the initial reaction of the neighbors? In addition to the excellent juxtaposition of social status (here is Henry, the poor kid from the shitty ‘hood and these clowns, polishing the expensive car that mommy and daddy bought), you see their nonchalance: they are not the least bit intimidated as Henry crosses the street. “You want something fucker?” the ringleader asks a second before he gets the something he’ll never forget. See, in their world, there are three of them; what could this dude with his leather coat do? Three on one; and if he threatens us, we’ll tell our parents. Oh, unless he bashes one of our noses in and tells us, without bravado, that as bad as this hurts, it’s only a warning (reminiscent of Sonny’s vicious smackdown of Carlo in The Godfather:when he says, out of breath from the beating he’s just dished out, “You touch my sister again, I’ll kill ya,” it’s not only an obvious statement of fact, but a masterful bit of acting from Caan: a lesser actor would have shouted the lines and been unable to resist the seemingly obligatory opportunity to grandstand; my theory is that his restraint is partially or entirely due to the fact that he’d witnessed –and possibly delivered– ass-kickings like this in his own life and didn’t have to talk the actorly talk because he could walk the bare-knuckled walk).

3. The Bounty

It’s impossible to watch this one without marveling at how young both Hopkins and Gibson are. And they needed that youthful vigor to conjure up the intensity-with-a-capital-I so much of this movie delivers. I’ll resist the urge to offer a rant about how, were I asked to submit my favorite Hopkins performances, The Silence of the Lambs (for my money the single most overrated movie of the last quarter-century) would not make the Top 5. In terms of outright scary, Sir Anthony’s portrayal of obsessed and, by this point, half-crazed Captain Bligh does the trick quite nicely. Unlike the often over-the-top (albeit quite enjoyable) histrionics of Hannibal Lecter, Hopkins is tapping into some of the ultimate human pathologies here: corrupted power, paranoia, pride, ambition, et cetera. The result is a tour-de-force of claustrophobic power-struggling where, of course, no one really wins in the end.

(For the record, regarding Hopkins, I could just as easily nominate another scene from the same movie, here, which features an almost impossibly young Daniel Day Lewis! For Mel, few scenes can match the conclusion of Mad Max, here which, in addition to boasting one of the most satisfying instances of just desserts, also provided the blueprint for a very remunerative copycat franchise.)

Real time edit: the original video is gone, but this is better: a compilation of Hopkins as Bligh. Skip to 3.22 for the scene.

4. Marathon Man

Since this one is filed under Suspense, it makes the cut. Laurence Olivier (enough said) brings the pain as a demented Nazi dentist. I would not be surprised to discover that an entire film was built around the idea of this single scene. It comes dangerously close to parody (Dustin Hoffman, over-acting as always) but Olivier keeps it real, and underplays the role like only the grittiest of ancient school veterans can, investing this sociopath with an almost inexplicable humanity: he inflicts anguish because he is buried alive in his own. But mostly he is a rat scurrying to keep one step ahead of the men who are hunting him down, and he’ll do anything possible to live one more second.

5. Chinatown

(I’m on record as declaring this the only perfect American movie ever made. More on that HERE.)

Naturally, Chinatown passes the ultimate test: is it still meaningful, today? Does it still tell us something about ourselves? Sadly, it does. Impossible as it may have been for Towne and Polanski to imagine, there would come a time where public trust of those in power deteriorated beyond even the Watergate era nadir of Nixonland. Today, as the fabricated sheen of Wall Street crumbles around us, we might ask the wizards who wrought this mess the same question Jake Gittes asks Noah Cross (John Huston as the flawlessly named incarnation of evil)—and expect the same answer:

“Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?”
“The future, Mr. Gits! The future!”

There it is: the most accurate and succinct depiction of unfettered greed you’re likely to hear. And to see John Huston convey it is to appreciate, and be appalled by, the allure and immorality of depraved power. Jake hears it, and sees it, and for him—and the country—it’s too little, too late. As always. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” his partner admonishes him. But Jake can’t forget it, and we know he won’t forget it. Neither will we.

6. Burnt By The Sun

(A legthy appraisal of this masterpiece, and four others from the brilliant Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov, HERE.)

Among Burnt By The Sun’s many triumphs is the way it confounds almost every expectation it spends the first part of the film carefully building: the Kotov family’s bliss seems over-the-top, and the viewer eventually realizes this is strictly intentional, not merely as a plot device to set up the house of cards before it crumbles, but to suggest how illusory most of that bliss actually was (as in: ignorance is). The story also explores the tension inherent in one person’s contentment (particularly if that person is powerful) and how it can often be at the expense of someone else’s (particularly if that person is powerless). In a classic scene Mitia relates his decade in the service of the state that he had no choice but to sacrifice and tells the story as a thinly-veiled fairy tale. We see, as he speaks and acknowledgment slowly registers on the listeners’ faces, that the Kotov’s contentment is not only quite complicated, but more than a little revolting.

Special mention must be made of the performance Oleg Menshikov turns in as the enigmatic Mitia, the prodigal son who abruptly returns home with a secret that will shatter everyone he knows. Not many actors are able to transform convincingly from lovable to despicable to ultimately sympathetic (or, Tragic in the literary sense of the word), but Menshikov delivers one of the best, if unheralded performances in any movie from recent memory.

7. Full Metal Jacket

Sticking with the war-and-what-it-does-to-us theme, this is possibly the most painful-to-watch scene from any movie I can think of.

A naturalistic tour into the dark heart of modern war, preceded by a disquieting tour into the darkness of the hearts that prepare our soldiers to survive there. The second section, on the front lines, a surreal sort of cinéma vérité, is more plodding than cathartic, which is probably the point. The first part of the film, devoted entirely to a group of Marine recruits at Parris Island, is a quicksilver tour de force—at turns riotous and harrowing. It is some of the most assured, affecting work of the decade: not too many movies can take you from hysterical laughter (the initial scenes where drill instructor R. Lee Ermey lambastes the boys is piss-your-pants funny) to disgust and, inevitably, despair. The blanket party scene, where the incompetent “Gomer Pyle” (Vincent D’Onofrio) is savaged by his fellow cadets lingers in the mind as one of the most disturbing scenes in movie history. It manages to illustrate a great deal about conformity, the military, the perceived necessity of truly breaking someone before they can function and what we must kill inside ourselves in order to survive. Most directors would inexorably play this scene for pathos; Kubrick films it matter-of-factly and his shrewd use of subtlety makes it many times more disturbing. (Taken from a longer appraisal of the incredible Stanley Kubrick HERE.)

8. The Deer Hunter

It would be awfully hard, not to mention irresponsible, to avoid including another scene involving the most controversial foreign policy fiasco of the last century. In other contexts I’ve grappled with it HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Movies like The Deer Hunter and Coming Home dealt with Vietnam’s immediate aftermath—the dead or wounded—but not many artists (certainly not enough artists) articulated the dilemma of the working poor who returned from the front line to become the unemployed, or unemployable poor. The vets who ended up in jail, or hospitals, or sleeping under bridges. Or the ones always on the edge (this was, remarkably, a time when shell shock was still a more commonly used term than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and, as George Carlin astutely pointed out, perhaps if we still called it “shell shock” it might be less easy to ignore), the ones who, by all outside appearances, could—and should—be finding work, and contributing to society, and staying out of trouble. As politicians of a certain party confirm time and again, you cease to be especially useful once you’re no longer in the womb, or no longer wearing the uniform.

This scene employs pitch-black subtlety as foreshadowing for what these brave, game and supremely misguided young men will soon endure. As such, it is effective and understated commentary on how war is sold vs. how it is, and the myriad ways we (mis)treat our soldiers once they’ve done all that was asked of them.

Eh. YouTube fail. Enjoy (is that the right word?) this one instead.

9. The Conversation

(A full discussion of this masterpiece can be found HERE; a summation of the film’s denouement is below.)

Harry Caul’s comprehension that he is involved in an event that might have appalling consequences unnerves him; the realization that he abetted people he would not knowingly have worked for devastates him. But he is not broken, yet. That dissolution is saved for the last scene, a final indignity wherein Caul’s most unimaginable apprehension is realized. After receiving a phone call on his unlisted number, he suffers the humiliation (and terror) of hearing his own apartment being bugged. Panicked, he promptly reduces his apartment to splinters in a fruitless attempt to find the hidden microphone. In what has to be one of the most harrowing scenes in cinema, the camera pans over a desecrated aftermath where Caul plays his saxophone amidst the wreckage. What earlier in the movie might have been construed as a bit of a contrivance (the one-man band playing along with a pre-recorded tune) now symbolizes this man’s lonely disintegration: his record player (along with all his other dispensable possessions) destroyed in the rampage, he must finally face the music, while the sound of an unaccompanied horn cries out his sad song.

10. Stroszek

Finally, a scene where no people need apply (Taken from a longer appraisal of the great Werner Herzog, HERE.)

A stark, disconcerting and unforgettable experience, Stroszek is not a film one returns to for fun. It remains one of the most efficient and ruthless appraisals of the American Dream myth while managing to be amusing, touching and ultimately demoralizing. Using his infallible instincts, Herzog has non-actor Bruno S. embody the unlucky, exploited Stroszek. Fleeing Berlin for what they assume will be the warmer and more prosperous U.S.A., Stroszek and his companions end up in the frigid, desolate landscape of Wisconsin. The final scene, after things have gone predictably off the track, features Stroszek on a ski lift holding a frozen turkey. Beneath him, in coin-operated cages, a duck plays a drum with his beak, a rabbit “rides” a wailing fire truck and a chicken dances while the soundtrack features the ebullient harmonica woops of Sonny Terry. Arguably the most surreal, and satisfying, commentary on the human condition ever filmed: once you’ve seen it, it stays seen.

*Incidentally, bonus points for any old school readers who immediately placed the title of this post. Go HERE if further assistance is required.

So, what did I miss?

What are your favorite scenes depicting human beings behaving badly?

Bonus clip for 2014. This, from The Grifters, is right up there as one of the more horrifying scenes, ever. And it’s real baby. Real real.

Share

End of Summer (Camp) with a Bat, a Cat and a Clown

bat-cat-2-500x366

IT IS AN INEXORABLE, if lamentable rite of passage: revisiting mementos from one’s childhood and discovering that, to an adult’s eyes, they’re lacking.

But then, “putting away childish things” is how we avoid arrested development, a condition that impairs critical faculties, stymies meaningful relationships and makes one susceptible to things like libertarianism. (If, for instance, you re-read Ayn Rand and her porcine-fisted prose still seems eloquent, you’ve got some growing up to do; if you encounter her sophomoric metaphysics for the first time as an adult and are inexplicably smitten, you are, unfortunately, a lost cause, both morally and intellectually.)

When I was a child, you would have had to pry the bowl of Boo Berry from my cold, dead hand. Now I understand my teeth would rot on contact, even if I were able to score a box online (apparently this is actually possible; this is America). I used to think a Big Mac (washed down with that non-carbonated orange drink, obviously) was the height of culinary bliss, a sort of pre-adolescent ambrosia. I thought scary movies were, well, scary. In other words, I thought a lot of things. I was even correct about one or two of them.

I thought, for instance, that the Batman TV series was amazing. It turns out I was wrong. It’s not amazing; it’s sublime.

Bear with me. When’s the last time you saw (when’s the last time you thought about) Batman and imagined Adam West instead of, say, Christian Bale or Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson, etc.?

It probably has been a while because, annoyingly, the old episodes are currently unavailable via Netflix and, until recently, even to purchase. And you’ll need a couple hundred bucks to satisfy your curiosity via the box set series. The show does still get airplay on certain TV channels. I know this because I have friends who have kids. Quite serendipitously, I was babysitting one of these little cherubs and per her request (!) we caught a couple of old school episodes. I’m here to tell you, without shame and with inexplicable enthusiasm, it was something of a revelation.

There are several angles I could take here, but my rekindled interest can be reduced to two words: Cesar Romero. The O.J. (as in, Original Joker).

JOKER

Folks, anyone born after 1980-ish probably can’t appreciate this, but for people of my generation, Cesar Romero was The Joker. I sort of recall reading the occasional comic book but don’t have any special memories of how he translated on the page. I do have memories of the laugh, the green hair, the purple suit and the unhinged antics that were, at once hilarious and horrifying. What I did not recall, since I was a kid at the time, was how irredeemably, magnificently campy the show was.

I certainly recall that the original Superman never resonated with me, in part because that show was not old school, it was antediluvian school. Plus, the George Reeves incarnation was always a tad too fascistic for my delicate sensibilities. (Incidentally, am I the only one to recently discover George Reeves died by a bullet wound that may have been suicide? Holy irony, Batman.) Then again, I’ve never been much of a Superman guy; in my formative years it was always Batman and Spiderman, both of whom were funnier, darker and more human.

Anyway, back to The Joker. Obviously Jack Nicholson was tapping into that campy vibe in 1989, but his role, however amusing, was over-the-top in ways that don’t age particularly well (kind of like the movie itself). Not many people would argue that Heath Ledger’s pitch-black, though still sardonic take was not a huge improvement. Nevertheless, before we crown Ledger’s uncanny performance the final word on the subject, we are obliged to return to the beginning. Have you forgotten how unbelievably perfect Cesar Romero was? Check it out:

Any questions?

Maybe it’s the fact that he was a bit older. It also didn’t hurt that his Cuban/Italian descent imparted a subtly exotic, almost indescribably outré edge. This is The Joker I grew up with, and it’s the only arch villain I can imagine actually rooting for—as a child or an adult. Just reading about Romero makes me happy. Check this out. The fact that he refused to shave his mustache—his decades-old trademark—for this role is so genius I can scarcely handle it: like the Joker himself, a recalcitrant rascal. How brilliant is that?  The most incorrigible fiend played by an incorrigible, image-conscious movie star with prima donna tendencies? Bliss. And extra marks: if you look at photos or, if you’re smart, find some clips online, you can totally see the impossible-to-conceal ‘stache in each episode. Truth is always odder and better than even the best fiction.

And let’s do a quick sidebar for how outstanding the other bad guys were. Burgess Meredith as The Penguin, anyone? Yes, please. And don’t overlook Frank Gorshin as The Riddler. This trio comprises an untouchable criminal triptych that could not possibly be improved upon. For irrefutable evidence of this claim, please appreciate this clip from the movie, wherein we have Penguin fencing with Batman (making appropriate Penguin noises), Romero’s brown hair obvious under the wig and The Riddler doing some bad ballet on board a boat: it’s the sine qua non of caped-crusading camp. This is the all-in Battle Royale (with cheese), a brawl that involves all the assorted players, because duh. And the capper, when our hero saves the kitten from drowning with the winking send-off “Bon voyage pussy!”. Holy blissful extravagance, Batman!

And lest we forget (how could we forget?) there is Catwoman. Can I get an Amen? I’m a rather huge fan of Lee Meriwether, and everyone has to appreciate the incomparable Eartha Kitt (from Season Three). But let’s not kid ourselves here: it’s all about Julie Newmar. The young me would like to say, Thank you, Catwoman. The adult me would like to say, Will you marry me, Ms. Newmar?

Her perfection as Catwoman, as a woman, period, would suffice, but seeing how she has remained engaged, politically active, and completely down to earth (and appreciative, after all these years, of her fans) makes her as attractive, eight decades on, as she’s ever been. (Swoon.)

And don’t think I’m sleeping on Adam West. I won’t (can’t?) compare him to the subsequent Batmen played in the various movies, but kind of like with The Joker, he did it first and he did it best. He is Batman. A gentleman, a humanitarian, a…dork. His (West’s) goofiness can’t be overstated, and that humanity gives the character a distinct vulnerability. How can you not love this guy?

In addition to everything else, it’s possible that Batman was the first series to jump the shark (or at least repel the shark). Consider the clip, above: obviously the series was straining to keep its edge (or appeal, or whatever) and by Season Three the producers/writers seemed to understand what may have worked in 1966 was not registering in late ‘67. The world, of course, was changing. Hence, we have the most camptastic—and transcendent—few moments of TV I can ever recall watching: Batman and Joker surfing. With bathing suits over their costumes In shark-infested waters, obviously. (And a handy, if obligatory bottle of Shark Repellent, because OBVIOUSLY.) With real surfers cheering from shore. This is a line in the sands of Santa Monica: you’re either with me or against me. I defy you to watch this clip and not join the party.

Summer may be winding down and all of us are getting older every second, but retaining a child-like joy for certain things is still the best way to keep age and cynicism at bay.

So, in closing and with eternal gratitude, the campy, iconoclastic genius of the show summarized in one scene (keyword BATUSI):

Bonus clip: The cast, older, wiser, gentler:

 This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 9/16/15.
Share

PUNCH DRUNKER: THE 50 GREATEST MOVIE FIGHTS OF ALL TIME (Part Five)

Monty-Python-and-the-Holy-Grail

10. True Romance

Yes, Clarence vs. Drexl could easily make the list. But even Oldman’s genius has to take second place to the scene. And you know which scene we’re referring to. This scene, notorious for its, shall we say, frank discussion of racial relations, and hilarious for its rather unorthodox delineation of history, is one of the most-quoted from all contemporary films. For good reason, and all praise to Tarantino (who wrote it), Tony Scott (who directed it) and the bravura performances of Hopper and the genuinely incomparable Christopher Walken. It also includes the hulking presence of the then-unknown James Gandolfini.

The scene is certainly problematic (and no politically correct critic would want to touch it with a ten foot soap box), but more than the adults-imitating-schoolchildren one upmanship it sardonically presents, there is serious acting going on here. It is to the considerable credit of all involved that this scene never degenerates into (self) parody and is able to be hilarious and horrifying, often at the same time. There probably aren’t too many examples of scenes in semi-recent cinema that so successfully skirt the switchblade’s edge of tension and release. Hopper goes from scared to crafty, then understands he’s screwed and decides to go out with a bang (literally). The moment he realizes he is a dead man, you can almost feel him resignedly saying “fuck it” as he decides to have a cigarette, after all. And when he lets out the mirthful little laugh (a very Hopperesque touch), you get the chance to savor him saying “fuck you” to the men who are about to murder him.

 

9. The Terminator

Like I said, forget T2. The first installment was superior in every way, and—like many of the old-school films celebrated here—is better precisely because it’s so human. Sure, special effects are swell for the unimaginative, but they are for people who prefer lap dances to actual intercourse. Aesthetically, the final confrontation between The Terminator and Kyle is raw and goosebump-inducing (sorry young readers, nothing will ever match seeing this, for the first time, on the big screen), but emotionally, the good guy who, not for nothing, is only trying to save the world, feels pain, actually bleeds and finally dies. He fulfills his purpose, takes one for the team and becomes one of the more convicing martyrs in movie history. (Also: for my money, Michael Biehn does not get nearly enough love for his superlative performance. I cringe to think how terrible this role would be if played by many of the A-List clowns who likely read for it.)

 

8. The Karate Kid

Because it still feels good, after all these years. The crane kick that keeps on kicking (ass). Banzai, Daniel-san!

 

7. Monty Python and The Holy Grail

It’s just a flesh wound! At once a send-up of over-the-top movie fights, and an impressive bit of violent showmanship, this is arguably the most memorable (and quotable) scene in the movie. The idea and execution are impeccable, but the inimitable John Cleese (“I’ve had worse.”) elevates this scene from extraordinary to all-time status.

 

6. Rocky III

Of course the fight vs. Apollo Creed is the best thing Rocky (or Stallone) ever did in or outside a ring, but for the purposes of this list, Rocky III is the gift that keeps giving. Nevermind the paint-by-numbers fight and rematch with Clubber Lang (Mr. T. for you youngsters), how about the beyond-over-the-top invocation of boxing and wrestling? Enter a relatively young Hulk Hogan as Thunderlips, the ultimate male (“Move around the ring”, “He is the ring”). It’s a shameless cash-in on a popular “sport”, camp that gives Adam West a wedgie, and a laugh-out-loud scene that I enjoy more as an adult than I did when I first saw it (in the theater, naturally). Bonus points for the beach sprint competition with former foe Apollo on the beach in L.A., which culminates in a short scene that, for homoerotic mileage, gives even Top Gun a run for its money.

 

5. Mean Streets

An antidote of sorts, it’s instructive to appreciate Martin Scorsese’s integrity. His dedication to authenticity depicts a ridiculous pool hall fight scene that actually plays out the way fights usually look in real life: sloppy, uncoordinated, mostly embarrassing. It’s a steadicam clinic, made indelible by Robert De Niro, who initiates the mayhem (while “Please Mr. Postman” plays on the jukebox) and then, after police-assisted peace is restored, almost starts it up again. So many exceptional images from this still somehow underrated masterpiece, and the incorrigible Johnny Boy (De Niro) standing on top of a pool table, brandishing a cue and doling out very ineffective karate kicks is among the best. Bonus points for this exchange: “You can’t call me a mook!” “I’ll give you mook!”

 

 

4. They Live

And here we have the scene, where so many of these elements (camp, over-the-top pyrotechnics, implausibility, bad (and good!) acting, and, of course, wrestling) come together. A six minute fight scene. S.I.X. M.I.N.U.T.E.S. And this isn’t just a gratuitous scrap; the end of the world as we know it as at stake (“Put on the glasses!”), with hero Roddy Piper (formerly “Rowdy” Roddy Piper of World Wrestling Federation fame)  and not-yet convinced good guy Keith David sorting things out in an alley. The sequence allegedly took over three weeks to rehearse, and it endures as the Alpha and Omega of what we talk about when we talk about movie fight scenes.

 

 

3. Tom Yum Goong

Words can’t do it justice, so just trust your eyes. Instant clasic, already immortal one take (!!!) scene, which took Tony Jaa and company over a month to prepare and rehearse. The result is unedited (!!!) perfection, using the fifth take. Only one word will suffice: Respect!

 

 

2. On The Waterfront

Have we ever rooted for anyone like we do for Terry? “You take them heaters away from you and you’re nuthin’! Your guts is all in your wallet and your trigger finger!”

Terry is fighting mad, fighting for himself, for his livelihood, for everything. He’s fighting Johnny Friendly, the man who murdered his brother; the man who has systematically choked the soul out of an entire neighborhood. He is trying to become, finally, a Good Guy, and he has to defeat the Bad Guy (and his crew) to do it. If he loses, it’s all over not only for him, but hundreds of other working men who’ve never kidded themselves about becoming contenders. He fights the good fight and nothing is ever the same, for anyone, after it’s over.

 

 

1. Blade Runner

The extended, indelible final sequence of Blade Runner has all the elements of every archetypal fight scene listed above (violence, blood, danger, desperation, even humor), but it obliges the invocation of that most dreaded word in criticism: it transcends. To be certain, it easily enters the discussion of greatest fight scenes, ever. More, it is one of the great movie scenes, ever.

“More human than human”: that is the infamous motto of The Tyrell Corporation. Between implanted memories and superhuman attributes, we focus on the literal implications (“We’re not computers Sebastian, we’re physical.”). Only near the end–of the movie, of Roy Batty’s life–do we understand the irony: by dying, and letting his opponent (who is trained and paid to hunt him) “win”, Roy becomes more human than the humanity we’ve seen on display throughout the story. By acknowledging he’s not built to last (“It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”), he proves himself to have more empathy, more soul, more purpose than the human machines who’ve built, persecuted and profited from him.

By losing (the fight, his life) with grace and compassion, Batty proves that his existence was not in vain, and solves the greatest mystery of being: so long as someone survives, his life–and memories–will not, in fact, be lost like tears in rain.

In the end, this confrontation is a matter of life and death and, unlike almost all the fight scenes in movie history, it manages to matter and mean something.

 

This essay originally appeared in The Weeklings on 7/29/15.
Share

PUNCH DRUNKER: THE 50 GREATEST MOVIE FIGHTS OF ALL TIME (Part Four)

war-of-the-roses-kathleen-turner

20. The Outsiders

Brat Pack Porn.

 

19. The War of the Roses

Dark comedy? How about black hole comedy. That last, and final, altercation between Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner is, like the ones that preceded it, at times amusing, macabre and over-the-top. But that last, final gesture? Ouch.

 

18. Enter the Dragon

Wherein Bruce Lee makes himself a legend. For all time.

 

17. The Godfather

In addition to being quite gratifying (the bullying wifebeater Carlo getting slapped around by someone his own size), it’s also a nice bit of art imitating life—which is not typical for fight scenes. When Sonny, out of breath from the beating he’s just dished out, says “You touch my sister again I’ll kill ya”, it’s not merely a statement of fact, it’s masterful acting from James Caan. A lesser thespian would have shouted the lines, unable to resist this golden opportunity to grandstand. It’s likely that Caan’s restraint is partially or entirely due to the fact that he’d witnessed—and probably delivered—ass-kickings like this in his own life and didn’t need to talk the actorly talk because everyone knew he could walk the bare-knuckled walk.

 

16. Old Boy

Wherein Dae Su (the great Choi Min-Sik) drops the hammer, pun intended, on a bunch of hoods. Improbable, over-the-top, essential.

 

15. Eastern Promises

Because you’re never more vulnerable than when you’re naked. In public. In a steam bath. Being attacked by gangsters wielding curved knives.

 

14. Raiders of the Lost Ark

Indy fighting the big bald Nazi? Indy fighting a Nazi inside, on top of and underneath a moving vehicle? Yes, to both. But we all know which scene takes top billing. It is perfection, period, but knowing the story behind it makes it a million times better. Struggling with a case of dysentery, Harrison Ford squashed weeks of rehearsed sword play (the original scene was intended to be a sword vs. whip showcase) and allegedly said “Let’s just shoot the sucker.” It’s a shot still heard ‘round the world.

 

13. Goldfinger

How to choose a single selection from the embarrassment of riches that is the James Bond filmography? Not possible, but 007’s dance of death with Odd Job is as agreeable an example of the violence cut with humor and quirky cleverness that these films specialized in. Also, too: Sean Connery.

 

12. Batman

A delicious palette cleanser, we can forever appreciate the sine qua non of campy superhero fight scenes, and what better arena than Adam West’s Batman, the ultimate in caped-crusading camp. This is the all-in Battle Royale (with cheese), a brawl that involves all the assorted players, because duh. And the capper, when our hero saves the cat from drowning with the winking send-off “Bon voyage pussy!”. Holy blissful extravagance, Batman!

 

11. Roadhouse

Speaking of camp, does it get any better (e.g., worse) than Patrick Swayze? The movie is at once sui generis and meta, deeply aware—and proud—of its shamelessness. But most folks would agree, the final fight scene is a tour de force of semi-farce; it has so much homoerotic energy it almost services itself. Where in the earlier scuffles you can fear the mullets while simultaneously contemplating who is gayer: Swayze (RIP), the great Ben Gazzara (RIP!) or the dude with the pool cue. You know, the one who used to fuck guys like Dalton in prison (!!).

 

This essay originally appeared in The Weeklings on 7/29/15.

Share

PUNCH DRUNKER: THE 50 GREATEST MOVIE FIGHTS OF ALL TIME (Part Three)

62606-excalibur-1

30. The Princess Bride

Props to Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin for actually learning to fence (with both hands!) for this incredible duel, one that would have made Mr. Flynn proud, if not a tad envious. It’s a master class not only in swordplay, but storytelling: to get two characters we’ll come to love to outdo each other, but remain lovable and, importantly, not kill one another, is more than slightly impressive.

 

29. The Pink Panther

Question: What’s the best Closeau vs. Cato face-off? Answer: All of them. But the first one, which kicked off one of the more enjoyable ongoing gags in any movie series, warrants special affection. The phone call, mid-fight, which Cato answers “Inspector Closeau’s residence”, is a delightful touch. And, of course, Peter Sellers is God.

 

28. Let It Be

No blood shed. No punches thrown. No voices raised. And yet, this ten second clip reveals the tensions (many of which were understood and appreciated only in hindsight) simmering in the Fab Four camp by the time they met to piece together the Get Back project (later realized as Let It Be). Macca, as has widely been reported, had become more than a bit bossy (even bitchy), and, in his defense, somebody had to keep the machine moving. But his micro-managing led the ever-gentle Harrison to deliver the most gentlemanly rebuke you’ll ever see. They likely regretted letting the cameras roll as they imploded in real time, but all of these moments are essential historical documents.

 

27. The Bounty

Many will point to Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter as his best performance (not even close) or, at least, a case study of true evil (only if you prefer comically implausible with a super-sized serving of camp). No, it’s his turn as the self-loathing Captain Bligh in the remake of The Bounty that properly showcases his chops, and uses acting as opposed to clowning to reveal the depravity of a broken (actually, breaking) human being. Having already bullied, then alienated the crew, his monomaniacal quest to round Cape Horn pushes the mates past all endurance. Here, Mel Gibson (a moment of silence for a young Mel Gibson who could—and did—actually act back in the day) as the soon-to-be-mutinous Fletcher Christian, makes a futile attempt to talk sense into his superior. What follows is a discussion that makes clear the obsession, bordering on insanity, that drives Bligh. The demonic glee in his eyes when he mockingly asks Christian “Are you a coward too, sir?” is infinitely more satisfying—and frightening—than anything he did with that stupid mask over his face.

 

26. The Empire Strikes Back

As gut-crushing as it was to watch Vader vanquish Obi-Wan, it was all worth it for this moment. Now, finally, revenge! Luke is going to avenge his mentor, and triumph over darkness. Or not. Justly celebrated as an unforgettable clash, this also endures as a scene that is about as much of a mind-fuck as any pre-adolescent is capable of handling: I am your father!

 

25. Excalibur

One of the last analog epics (filmed with real people, in real time), Excalibur is replete with worthy battles. The extended bout between Arthur and Lancelot is very legit, as is the final showdown where Arthur dispatches of Mordred. But the scene where Arthur, who has just pulled the sword from the stone, rallies his faithful army against the upstarts, qualifies as a first-rate fight scene, but also a truly magical moment, when young Arthur and Uryens understand they are both in the grip of something grander and more mysterious than they can comprehend.

 

24. Robin and Marion

So analog it (almost) hurts. Sean Connery vs. Robert Shaw is a clash of the titans on literal and figurative—and other—levels. You know it’s coming throughout the film, yet if a fight to the death can be anticlimactic (for the right reasons) this one is. There is a certain sadness and resignation; and the way it’s filmed: two men in the middle of a field, no special effects, no close-ups, no dramatic music, it feels less like Hollywood and more like a documentary that captured this fictional event as it actually happened.

 

23. Goodfellas

If Scorsese is good at anything (and he’s great at many things, thank you), it’s building tension. This masterful scene, which ends in Billy Batts getting one of the most fearsome beat-downs in movie history, is built slowly with more than a little humor (De Niro’s Conway, impish and menacing “Ah ah, you insulted him a little bit…”). We know Tommy is about to blow (and the way Batts winds him up is spectacular. Two words: “Shine box”), but we also think: There’s no way he will go after a made man, right? Wrong. A few dozen punches and kicks later, Batts is just about done and, we know, so is Tommy. It’s just a matter of time.

 

22. An Officer and a Gentleman

Watching it years later, as an adult, this scene is obviously forced and more than a tad manipulative, but, well, who cares? When Zach Mayo (“Mayo-naise!”) inevitably squares off against Foley, we’re longing for the underdog to avenge countless anonymous officer candidates who have been abused by the men who train them, after breaking them. The scene does not necessarily deliver the expected or desired result until, years later, you understand the good guy wins.

 

21. My Bodyguard

How scary was the bald dude that beat up Adam Baldwin?  It was, therefore, indescribably satisfying when Linderman exacts his revenge. But we get two for the price of one when little Clifford Peache squares off with Melvin Moody (Matt Dillon before he became Matt Dillon). When Moody whines, both in pain and disbelief, “You broke my nose!”, underdogs and bullied undergrads around the world rejoiced.

 

 

 This essay originally appeared in The Weeklings on 7/29/15.

Share

PUNCH DRUNKER: THE 50 GREATEST MOVIE FIGHTS OF ALL TIME (Part Two)

a-clockwork-orange-a-clockwork-orange-323597_720_431

40. Superman II

The (Super)Man vs. (Super)Man fight scene (Clark Kent vs. “Bad” Super Man) in Superman III has more literary import, but we’re talking fight scenes here. As such, it’s hard to top our hero facing off against his three (almost) equals, in NYC (or, Metropolis), naturally. “General, would you care to step outside?” (Bonus points for the awesome and always-elegant Terence Stamp camping it up to full effect as Zod. Extra bonus points for some of the most aggressive, albeit easy, product placement in movie history.)

 

39. Animal House

The food fight that launched a thousand imitations, both in movies and in cafeterias across America. Preceded by one of the best provocations in cinematic history: “See if you can guess what I am now!”

 

38. The Last Detail

While there is a perfectly suitable, if pedestrian, fracas in a restroom (Navy vs. Marines), the best fight in this film occurs without a single punch thrown. As Billy “Badass” Buddusky, Nicholson does the Nicholson Thing before doing the Nicholson Thing became The Nicholson Thing. And his rage is righteous, as he rises to the defense of his African-American shipmate, who is maligned by the redneck bartender.

-Buddusky: “I’m gonna’ kick your ass around the block.”

-Bartender: “You try it and I’ll call the shore patrol.”

Buddusky, brandishing gun: “I AM the motherfucking shore patrol MOTHERFUCKER! I AM THE MOTHERFUCKING SHORE PATROL! NOW GIVE THIS MAN A BEER!!”

Epic.

 

37. The Deer Hunter

Another one where no blows are thrown, yet the verbal barbs land, but good. The boastful and tiresome (and lovable, RIP John Cazale!) Stan pushes group leader Mike (De Niro) too far and gets a talking to that’s equal parts philosophical and nonsensical: “This is This” is what all of us would love to say to any blowhard, whether it’s a friend, an idiot at the end of the bar, or our boss.

 

36. A Clockwork Orange

Man vs. Droogs. There are many outstanding candidates from this single film, all of them disturbing in their own weird, wonderful ways. But the stylized irony of group leader Alex, stewing over the putative mutiny amongst his soldiers, and then being inspired by hearing Beethoven from an open window before delivering a slow motion smack down, all choreographed to Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie Overture” (proving once again that no one, except possibly Scorsese, ever used music to such enchating effect), is violent ballet of the first order.

 

35. King Kong

This one still hurts. And it’s difficult to overstate its impact, not merely the super-ape sized shadow it still casts over cinema, but the (unintentional?) commentary it provides for us, as ugly Americans, and our ceaseless capacity to misunderstand, appropriate and, yes, murder the natural (and unnatural) beauty we can neither appreciate nor preserve. It’s all in here, Man Vs. Beast, Beast vs. Machines, Beasty vs. Beauty and yes, Man Vs. Man. Also: one of the best closing lines and epitaphs ever: “It was beauty killed the Beast.”

 

34. The Warriors

If your movie is going to be silly, own it. Wallow in it. The Warriors is 93 minutes of glorious, gluttonous wallowing, and it’s impossible to stop watching. Props to Walter Hill and the entire assembled crew (including the poor, ignored Orphans) for achieving something like a stylized video game disguised as a movie. Or something. So, on their way to eluding or thrashing every gang from the Bronx to Coney Island, we get gangs in buses (the baldheaded Turnbull AC’s) to all-female outfits (The Lizzies) to dudes in overalls and rollerskates (The Punks). But for style points and the best brawl, caps off to the Baseball Furies. Painted faces and Yankees uniforms (yuck!), at first The Warriors flee, then face-off against these major league wimps. Timeless line: “I’m gonna’ shove that bat up your ass and turn you into a popsicle.” Ajax FTW.

 

33. Cape Fear

Your mileage may vary on the remake (for my money, it’s Scorsese getting too Scoresesian for his own good), but De Niro certainly doesn’t phone it in. Yet, as scary as his Max Cady manages to be, no one on the planet could be as menacing as Robert Mitchum. The scene where the hired goons realize they’ve bitten off way more than they can chew is a little bit hilarious and a lot horrifying. Mitchum is scarier here than any and all fake Tinseltown monsters ever imagined.

(Like any proper fight, I brought some back-up. Brother Sean Beaudoin making sure Mitchum gets appropriate homage. Tag-team in effect: Worth mentioning that Mitchum ran away from home as a teenager and worked on trains as a stevedore, a brutal job. He was expelled from school for beating up the principle. He also boxed professionally, and did time on a chain gang in the deep south….also, unlike Bogey and Cagney and Tom Cruise, he was actually as big a dude in real life as on the screen. He was so fucking terrifying in Night of the Hunter that he didn’t have to fight, just tattoo Love and Hate on his knuckles and show people….In Cape Fear (only approx. 33,000 times better than the remake), after Cady beats up the thugs you mention, there’s one guy left, who realizes he’s made a massive mistake. The guy’s got his dukes up and then Mitchum gives him a look….and the dude turns and runs with palpable and believable terror. Mitchum goes after him and…fade to black. Possibly the most brutal fight scene in cinema history then takes place in our mind, because you know Mitchum caught that guy….and you know he did way worse things just than punch him.)

 

32. Slap Shot

The Hanson Brothers are a silly, satirical and also fairly accurate representation of what hockey at its worst (or best) degenerated into during the era of the Broad Street Bullies. Dutifully over-the-top, they can’t even wait until the game begins to initiate their first of many conflagrations. (Bonus points for patriotism: “I’m listening to the fucking song!”)

 

31. Days of Heaven

Man vs. Insect. Make that thousands upon thousands of insects. You never feel more human than watching Nature ruin your farm, and your livelihood. It’s an marathon battle in miniature, an entire war that is over before it starts, and the carnage is total and lasting. It’s also disturbingly beautiful (and that’s just Sam Shepard), with extreme close-ups on the bugs, the fields and the faces of the folks as they make their futile stand against the inevitable. Unlike much of Terrence Malick’s work, it’s easy to understand exactly what’s going on here; like virtually all of Terrence Malick’s work, it’s full of arresting and splendid images.

This essay originally appeared in The Weeklings on 7/29/15.

Share