Four Albums and a Film: The Best Summer Entertainment

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The Congos – Heart of the Congos (1977)

Great art knows no seasons. Nevertheless, some music is made for—or at least can be fully appreciated during—specific times of the year. Reggae, which many people still believe means Bob Marley’s music, tends to get broken out only once the flip flops and hibachi grills come out of hibernation. For an alternative that’s both inspiring and educational, the first reggae disc you should turn to as soon as the weather warms is Heart of the Congos. Shepherded into existence by the incomparable Lee “Scratch” Perry at the height of his uncanny powers, this album functions as a timeline of history invoking “songs and psalms and voices” to create a soulful, occasionally unsettling tapestry of deep cultural roots. On many tracks, Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, maximizing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.

Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland (1968)

Electric Ladyland is not merely one of the ultimate summer albums, it is summer. From the hot-town-summer-in-the-city chaos of “Crosstown Traffic” to the midnight lightning of “Voodoo Chile” and the sexual swagger of “Gypsy Eyes” to the sweat-soaked croon of “Long Hot Summer Night” (!), this double-disc oozes with bright lights (“House Burning Down”) and warm remorse (“Burning of the Midnight Lamp”). Even the Apocalyptic imagery, properly psychedelicized in “All Along the Watchtower” (the only time Bob Dylan had his own work improved upon) mutates from cryptic folktale to field report from the steamy jungles of Vietnam and/or the sweltering streets with police staring down protestors. And then there’s the extended suite that occupies all of Side Three: it starts with a saxophone and a smile (“lay back and dream on a rainy day”) and then slips underwater, literally: our feet find the sand and the sea is straight ahead. By the time the moon turns the tides (gently, gently away) you have most definitely been experienced: it’s a hot, sweet and soulful adventure. Electric Ladyland is a trek through sights and sounds that only one man could convey, and he seems like he’s eager to shed his skin and get to a place where his body will not constrain him.

Pink Floyd – The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)

It’s not so much that Floyd’s debut helped define the Summer of Love (though it did), or that there is necessarily anything one can associate with hot weather in those sounds. It’s more than that: from the echoed cadence of roll-called planets to those last surreal goose honks, Syd Barrett’s guided tour through the miniature landscapes and dreamscapes he was imagining does transport you to other places, but also another time: youth. Everything about the execution, and realization, of this spectacular album exudes the uncorrupted innocence of a novel conception. More inspiration than insanity, Barrett’s acid-inspired reveries unlocked the obvious genius teeming inside his head. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is an enduring and ever-relevant document of unbridled and ecstatic creativity realizing its initial and immediate fulfillment, a full-flowering burst that would not (could not?) be duplicated. Listening to it, especially during months that might remind you of a (sigh) more innocent time, it’s not unlike a trip to the beach for your mind.

The Who – Quadrophenia (1973)

“The beach is a place where a man can feel he’s the only soul in the world that’s real…” The Who’s masterwork Quadrophenia could almost be described as “accidental beach music”. Most of the narrative details the mercurial urgencies of young Jimmy, the disenchanted Mod. As such, the words and sounds and feelings are alternately frantic and claustrophobic—the story of a sensitive, chemically altered teenager uncomfortable inside his skin. There is only one release for him: the beach. The album opens with crashing waves and ends with electrified air of a summer storm; in between there are seagull chirps, scooters careening out of the city into open spaces, and bass drum thunder and cymbal-splash raindrops. The album, like the protagonist’s mind, wrestles with itself and rises and falls like the moods of adolescence, until the fever breaks, the skies open and the air is dark, cool and clear.

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

A confident, if impetuous detective sits patiently at the top of a sloping cliff, overlooking the Los Angeles coastline as the day’s light drops into evening. He waits, lighting cigarette after cigarette, totally unaware that he has already stumbled into a hornet’s nest of corruption. The beauty of what he sees (and we see) perfectly conceals the brutal ugliness of what is really going on: unwittingly, Jack Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is about to lift up a rock and behold the guts and machinery of what gets sold as the American Dream. It is hot and dry; indeed, the backdrop of the story is a severe drought that is wreaking havoc on local farmers. Over the course of a few scorching days, cars overheat, people drown in dry riverbeds, and a great deal of blood, sweat and tears indelibly compensate for the rain that won’t fall and the relief that never comes.

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

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 2013. This, from The Grifters, is right up there as one of the more horrifying scenes, ever. And it’s real baby. Real real.

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Four Albums and a Film: The Best Summer Entertainment

The Congos – Heart of the Congos (1977)

Great art knows no seasons. Nevertheless, some music is made for—or at least can be fully appreciated during—specific times of the year. Reggae, which many people still believe means Bob Marley’s music, tends to get broken out only once the flip flops and hibachi grills come out of hibernation. For an alternative that’s both inspiring and educational, the first reggae disc you should turn to as soon as the weather warms is Heart of the Congos. Shepherded into existence by the incomparable Lee “Scratch” Perry at the height of his uncanny powers, this album functions as a timeline of history invoking “songs and psalms and voices” to create a soulful, occasionally unsettling tapestry of deep cultural roots. On many tracks, Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, maximizing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.

Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland (1968)

Electric Ladyland is not merely one of the ultimate summer albums, it is summer. From the hot-town-summer-in-the-city chaos of “Crosstown Traffic” to the midnight lightning of “Voodoo Chile” and the sexual swagger of “Gypsy Eyes” to the sweat-soaked croon of “Long Hot Summer Night” (!), this double-disc oozes with bright lights (“House Burning Down”) and warm remorse (“Burning of the Midnight Lamp”). Even the Apocalyptic imagery, properly psychedelicized in “All Along the Watchtower” (the only time Bob Dylan had his own work improved upon) mutates from cryptic folktale to field report from the steamy jungles of Vietnam and/or the sweltering streets with police staring down protestors. And then there’s the extended suite that occupies all of Side Three: it starts with a saxophone and a smile (“lay back and dream on a rainy day”) and then slips underwater, literally: our feet find the sand and the sea is straight ahead. By the time the moon turns the tides (gently, gently away) you have most definitely been experienced: it’s a hot, sweet and soulful adventure. Electric Ladyland is a trek through sights and sounds that only one man could convey, and he seems like he’s eager to shed his skin and get to a place where his body will not constrain him.

Pink Floyd – The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)

It’s not so much that Floyd’s debut helped define the Summer of Love (though it did), or that there is necessarily anything one can associate with hot weather in those sounds. It’s more than that: from the echoed cadence of roll-called planets to those last surreal goose honks, Syd Barrett’s guided tour through the miniature landscapes and dreamscapes he was imagining does transport you to other places, but also another time: youth. Everything about the execution, and realization, of this spectacular album exudes the uncorrupted innocence of a novel conception. More inspiration than insanity, Barrett’s acid-inspired reveries unlocked the obvious genius teeming inside his head. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is an enduring and ever-relevant document of unbridled and ecstatic creativity realizing its initial and immediate fulfillment, a full-flowering burst that would not (could not?) be duplicated. Listening to it, especially during months that might remind you of a (sigh) more innocent time, it’s not unlike a trip to the beach for your mind.

The Who – Quadrophenia (1973)

“The beach is a place where a man can feel he’s the only soul in the world that’s real…” The Who’s masterwork Quadrophenia could almost be described as “accidental beach music”. Most of the narrative details the mercurial urgencies of young Jimmy, the disenchanted Mod. As such, the words and sounds and feelings are alternately frantic and claustrophobic—the story of a sensitive, chemically altered teenager uncomfortable inside his skin. There is only one release for him: the beach. The album opens with crashing waves and ends with electrified air of a summer storm; in between there are seagull chirps, scooters careening out of the city into open spaces, and bass drum thunder and cymbal-splash raindrops. The album, like the protagonist’s mind, wrestles with itself and rises and falls like the moods of adolescence, until the fever breaks, the skies open and the air is dark, cool and clear.

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

A confident, if impetuous detective sits patiently at the top of a sloping cliff, overlooking the Los Angeles coastline as the day’s light drops into evening. He waits, lighting cigarette after cigarette, totally unaware that he has already stumbled into a hornet’s nest of corruption. The beauty of what he sees (and we see) perfectly conceals the brutal ugliness of what is really going on: unwittingly, Jack Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is about to lift up a rock and behold the guts and machinery of what gets sold as the American Dream. It is hot and dry; indeed, the backdrop of the story is a severe drought that is wreaking havoc on local farmers. Over the course of a few scorching days, cars overheat, people drown in dry riverbeds, and a great deal of blood, sweat and tears indelibly compensate for the rain that won’t fall and the relief that never comes.

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

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 quiet 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.)

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.

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?

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Four Albums and a Film: The Best Summer Entertainment*

The Congos – Heart of the Congos (1977)

Great art knows no seasons. Nevertheless, some music is made for—or at least can be fully appreciated during—specific times of the year. Reggae, which many people still believe means Bob Marley’s music, tends to get broken out only once the flip flops and hibachi grills come out of hibernation. For an alternative that’s both inspiring and educational, the first reggae disc you should turn to as soon as the weather warms is Heart of the Congos. Shepherded into existence by the incomparable Lee “Scratch” Perry at the height of his uncanny powers, this album functions as a timeline of history invoking “songs and psalms and voices” to create a soulful, occasionally unsettling tapestry of deep cultural roots. On many tracks, Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, maximizing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.

Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland (1968)

Electric Ladyland is not merely one of the ultimate summer albums, it is summer. From the hot-town-summer-in-the-city chaos of “Crosstown Traffic” to the midnight lightning of “Voodoo Chile” and the sexual swagger of “Gypsy Eyes” to the sweat-soaked croon of “Long Hot Summer Night” (!), this double-disc oozes with bright lights (“House Burning Down”) and warm remorse (“Burning of the Midnight Lamp”). Even the Apocalyptic imagery, properly psychedelicized in “All Along the Watchtower” (the only time Bob Dylan had his own work improved upon) mutates from cryptic folktale to field report from the steamy jungles of Vietnam and/or the sweltering streets with police staring down protestors. And then there’s the extended suite that occupies all of Side Three: it starts with a saxophone and a smile (“lay back and dream on a rainy day”) and then slips underwater, literally: our feet find the sand and the sea is straight ahead. By the time the moon turns the tides (gently, gently away) you have most definitely been experienced: it’s a hot, sweet and soulful adventure. Electric Ladyland is a trek through sights and sounds that only one man could convey, and he seems like he’s eager to shed his skin and get to a place where his body will not constrain him.

Pink Floyd – The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)

It’s not so much that Floyd’s debut helped define the Summer of Love (though it did), or that there is necessarily anything one can associate with hot weather in those sounds. It’s more than that: from the echoed cadence of roll-called planets to those last surreal goose honks, Syd Barrett’s guided tour through the miniature landscapes and dreamscapes he was imagining does transport you to other places, but also another time: youth. Everything about the execution, and realization, of this spectacular album exudes the uncorrupted innocence of a novel conception. More inspiration than insanity, Barrett’s acid-inspired reveries unlocked the obvious genius teeming inside his head. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is an enduring and ever-relevant document of unbridled and ecstatic creativity realizing its initial and immediate fulfillment, a full-flowering burst that would not (could not?) be duplicated. Listening to it, especially during months that might remind you of a (sigh) more innocent time, it’s not unlike a trip to the beach for your mind.

The Who – Quadrophenia (1973)

“The beach is a place where a man can feel he’s the only soul in the world that’s real…” The Who’s masterwork Quadrophenia could almost be described as “accidental beach music”. Most of the narrative details the mercurial urgencies of young Jimmy, the disenchanted Mod. As such, the words and sounds and feelings are alternately frantic and claustrophobic—the story of a sensitive, chemically altered teenager uncomfortable inside his skin. There is only one release for him: the beach. The album opens with crashing waves and ends with electrified air of a summer storm; in between there are seagull chirps, scooters careening out of the city into open spaces, and bass drum thunder and cymbal-splash raindrops. The album, like the protagonist’s mind, wrestles with itself and rises and falls like the moods of adolescence, until the fever breaks, the skies open and the air is dark, cool and clear.

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

A confident, if impetuous detective sits patiently at the top of a sloping cliff, overlooking the Los Angeles coastline as the day’s light drops into evening. He waits, lighting cigarette after cigarette, totally unaware that he has already stumbled into a hornet’s nest of corruption. The beauty of what he sees (and we see) perfectly conceals the brutal ugliness of what is really going on: unwittingly, Jack Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is about to lift up a rock and behold the guts and machinery of what gets sold as the American Dream. It is hot and dry; indeed, the backdrop of the story is a severe drought that is wreaking havoc on local farmers. Over the course of a few scorching days, cars overheat, people drown in dry riverbeds, and a great deal of blood, sweat and tears indelibly compensate for the rain that won’t fall and the relief that never comes.

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Goodfellas: The Most Definitive American Movie of the Last Two Decades

First, a confession.

I did not love Goodfellas the first time I saw it (in the theater, shortly after it opened, in October, 1990). Then again, this seems to happen with certain albums and movies: the ones you end up loving most often are not love at first sight. For instance, I also didn’t fall head over heels (as I later would) with Mean Streets that first time, possibly because I was too young and needed to get the one-two punch of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver fully out of my system; after those two (which were indelibly seared into my impressionable psyche at first viewing –and subsequent ones) Mean Streets seemed almost like an autobiographical home movie (which, I was too dumb to realize, it kind of was).

Likewise, I didn’t “get” all the fuss about Chinatown (you probably have to at least be out of high school to begin to appreciate; to even know how to grasp that one) or The Last Detail. In fact, while I’m naming names and copping to confession mode: I was severely underwhelmed by The Big Lebowski, a film I now would have to put in my all-time Top 20. Let’s face it: some movies (and albums) confound expectations (I came to Lebowski still reeling from the sullen perfection of Fargo and I was simply not prepared to grapple with The Dude’s Tao) and some simply require extra levels of dedication: like a good marinade or magic spell, they need time to do their thing. That, at least, is the best explanation (rationalization?) I can come up with for why a handful of films I would take to my desert island initially left me unconverted.

Suffice it to say, I quickly learned the error of my ways. And, I reckon, one of the redeeming qualities of humans is our capacity to repent and improve. Put another way, those movies did not get better with repeated viewings, I did. Or, they helped me be better: a better viewer, a better judge of art, and quite possibly a better (or at least more evolved) human being. And don’t get me wrong, I liked Goodfellas when I saw it in the theater, I just could not have predicted I’d end up considering it the most definitive, fully realized (in short, the best) American film made over the course of two ensuing decades.

All of which seems a rather pointy-headed way of introducing a celebration of one of the most violent films of all time. Of course, Goodfellas is much, much more than that. But, I would argue, of all of Scorsese’s upping of the ante in subsequent efforts (Cape Fear, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed), this is one film (along with the aforementioned Raging Bull and Taxi Driver) that not only warrants, but demands the borderline gratuitousness of the violent action and images. It is, after all, a movie about mobsters. Thin-skinned and, frankly, puritanical critics have always chafed at the near pornography of Scorsese’s stylized brutality, but in a film like Goodfellas the ceaseless stream of severed limbs and bodily fluids is designed in the service of verisimilitude.

Take, for instance, 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).

(Intermission: if you have not seen it yet, Christmas has come early for Goodfellas fans: GQ has a special feature, with comments and recollections from cast and crew. The whole thing is here and I’ll happily submit five of my favorite anecdotes, below:

Corrigan: I’ll never forget the first time I saw the scene where Pesci is saying, “You think I’m funny?” and he pretends like he’s going to kill Ray Liotta. Now everybody knows it, but there was a first time when no one knew what he was going to say and do. We were on the edge of our seats, like, “Oh my God! He’s gonna fucking kill him!”

Liotta: For the scene at Tommy’s mother’s house, I don’t think Marty gave his mom a script. I remember Joe saying, “Mom, I need this knife. We hit a deer, we got to cut off its—” and he can’t remember it, and Bob jumps in as he’s eating “—hoof.” There was a lot of improv.

Darrow: Marty calls me into the trailer. I had lines in the scene with the bandage on my head [when Sonny begs Paulie to be a part-owner of his nightclub], but it wasn’t much. Marty said, “I’m going to take this scene away from Paul and Ray, and it’s your scene.” So I says, “Okay, but tell Sorvino.” He said, “Don’t worry about it.” I say my lines, and Sorvino goes, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! What fucking movie are you doing?” Marty didn’t tell him anything; he wanted him mad. See how mad he was in that scene? Because Marty knows how to get it out of you, he really does.

Peter Bucossi (stuntman): De Niro was kicking the hell out of me that night. I had pads on, but I recall being quite bruised a few days later. I mean, he tried to hit the pads, but in the midst of their fury they’re not worried about making sure.

Low: I did come up with my own lines of, “What am I, a schmuck on wheels?” “I’ve been bleeding for this caper.” “Jimmy is being an unconscionable ball-breaker!” During a break, one of the Mob guys in the movie comes to me and he says, “What is this ‘ball-breaker’ thing that you’re saying, the ‘unconscionable?’ ” I said, “You know, in the Caribbean there’s conch shells; you can’t break ‘em.” They all give me like the thumbs-up: “Oh, I get it. ‘Unconscionable!’ “)

So, let’s go to the scorecard.

Most quotable movie from the last two decades? What else have you got?

Most compulsively rewatchable? Obviously.

Best soundtrack? It’s on the short list.

Sheer number of indelible scenes? Please.

Best acting, from leads to bit parts? Not even close.

Most imitated movie of the last 20 years? Not even debatable.

Goodfellas was so great its largest “fault” was its own success; that it inspired so many lame, shameless rip-offs. We see this phenomenon over and over, with movies ranging from Pulp Fiction to Swingers, but we are still seeing it with Goodfellas. Everything from the clever introduction of characters to the voiceover narration (not the use of it, but the way it is utilized), to the then-revelatory use of still-frames to, well, frame some of that narration. All of these have been copied to the point of parody –real or intended.

Take DeNiro and Pesci (please!), neither of whom again came close to this level of work (I realize Casino has its advocates, but DeNiro does not act in that movie, he smokes cigarettes, and Pesci –whose range was limited in the first place– is an amusing and occasionally riveting caricature of the role he immortalizes in Goodfellas). This is not necessarily offered as critique: Pesci has two of the seminal supporting roles in Scorsese (and movie) history, first as Jake LaMotta’s long-suffering brother Joey in Raging Bull and then, a decade later, as Tommy DeVito. DeNiro, in hindsight, may have had less range than many of us realized; he certainly has done plenty of work in the last two decades, but…let’s just say he front-loaded his career with his finest work. And it’s work that stands tall in all cinema, so it seems silly to nitpick the bad choices, lack of inspiration or punch-drunk technique he has put on display since his epic turn as Jimmy Conway.

What tends to get lost in the discussion of Goodfellas, between the violence, the quotable scenes and the sheer heft of the soundtrack (Shangri-Las to Sid Vicious? Only Scorsese) is the fact that there are moments of incredible, almost astonishing subtlety. Most of them, not coincidentally, are delivered by the master at the height of his game, DeNiro. His character is so fully realized that every word, wince and grimace go beyond authenticity and seem natural, obvious. Conway is such a genius at crime, it is amusing and eventually almost heartbreaking to behold the befuddlement he is constantly feeling as he’s confronted by the idiocy of others. The way his disgust with the motor-mouthed and insufferable (and hilarious) Morrie slowly boils past the breaking point; his disdain for Henry’s increasingly out of control drug abuse (“they’re making your mind into mush”); his big brotherly admonishment of Tommy’s increasingly out of control emotions (“you’re gonna’ dig the fucking hole this time”) as well as his loyalty (you get the sense that after Tommy is whacked, this is the first time in his life Jimmy has cried). And then there are the sublime moments: his dialogue before the Billy Batts beating (“ah, ah, you insulted him a little bit; you were a little out of order yourself”), the aforementioned improv during the dinner scene (“the hoof”), and his reaction to the cohorts, after the big heist, when they roll into the Christmas party with fur coats and Cadillacs.

The scene (or one of them anyway) that stays with me is near the end: everyone, including Henry, knows he is on borrowed time, and it’s very likely his one-time mentor Jimmy is going to pull the trigger. The only person who doesn’t –or does not want to– believe it is his wife, Karen. In the brief but disturbing scene, she visits Jimmy who casually (but carefully, we know) inquires what types of questions the feds are asking Henry. At that moment we know (we already knew) that it’s over; we’ve seen what Jimmy has done to every other participant in the heist, we know (even though Karen still doesn’t realize, even as she stands next to the man who will kill her and her husband; the man that was there for the birth of her children) that something terrible is about to happen. And it almost does. When Jimmy mentions some extra dresses Karen should take, she initially appreciates his generous offer. As she walks down the alley (and Jimmy does not follow) she begins to get suspicious, and when she looks into the doorway Jimmy is signalling, the goons inside shush each other and it goes silent. Finally, she gets it, and rushes to her car even as Jimmy urges her to go back. This scene takes less than a minute, happens in broad daylight and it’s scarier than anything from any “horror” movie in the last 25 years. It also brings the sensibility of the movie (of these people) full circle: just as we needed to see, and understand, that Henry –despite his kindness and charm– was capable, and quite willing to inflict bloodshed at any time, we now see what Henry later articulates: it’s often your best friends who take you out, and they are smiling when they do it.

Moral of the story? Crime doesn’t pay, except when it does (and even if it never does, it’s better than a day job). At the beginning of the film, Henry claims “as far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.” The tragedy of his life is not that he became one; the tragedy is that as the movie ends, and Henry stands in the (relative) safety of his suburban lawn, he still longs to be one.

What else is there, besides everything? The best way to discuss a movie this rich is to simply watch it, again, and savor all the scenes and words and sounds. In the final analysis, full credit must go to the wisest of guys, Scorsese, for pulling off a tour de force on every conceivable level: a lavish looking spectacle that never seems overly polished, a massive production where every set, every song and every role is ideally cast (super-sized props to Marty for hanging in there and remaining true to his vision of having the fairly unknown Ray Liotta play the starring role; the studio imbeciles, in their eternal anti-wisdom, wanted Tom Cruise), and a detailed examination of an alternate universe – an America of a different era, populated by people we couldn’t have otherwise understood, or ever wanted to let into our living rooms. With the considerable help of the writers, actors and crew he assembled, he obliged us to welcome these good fellas into our lives, forever.

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Coppola’s ‘The Conversation’: A Love Letter to the Process of Making Art

In Dostoeyevsky’s Notes From Underground the self-loathing narrator proposes that every man has secrets he will only reveal to friends and secrets he must keep to himself. And then there are the things he is afraid to admit even to himself, and the more decent the man, the more things he will find himself unable to confront.

In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a man less concerned with the answers to uneasy questions than the questions themselves. He is a well-regarded surveillance specialist; a self-employed spy who builds his own equipment and attracts high profile clients who will pay top dollar for his services. As he explains to his enthusiastic assistant (the always-excellent John Cazale), he is uninterested in the personal lives of his clients or what their motivations might be—he just wants to get the job done as only he can do it.

Caul, who claims not to care about the inner feelings of others, goes to great lengths to keep anyone from gleaning his personal thoughts. And from his old-fashioned eyeglasses, coat and tie attire or the see-through slicker he wears rain or shine, he projects the look of a professor or librarian more than efficient sleuth. This is entirely by design: by making himself as ordinary as possible, Caul believes he can keep others from intruding on his personal space—which we quickly understand is, for him, sacred.  As such, he is a human coil of simmering tension, all nervous energy and restraint. He is a quiet man with an urgent dialogue endlessly unspooling in his mind. Or, he has several urgent dialogues simultaneously distracting him. Or, he is ceaselessly trying to suppress these urgent, distracting dialogues. That he is unsuccessful is obvious: his discomfort around others reveals the obsessions and idealizations simmering deeply beneath his austere façade.


  
Gene Hackman, to be certain, had his work cut out for him here. How to take a character that is so intractable and ultimately unknowable, and manage to make him engaging, even sympathetic? Hackman, despite his renowned acting abilities, struggled to fully understand and depict Harry Caul, a role so dissimilar to previous assignments (this is the man who played Popeye Doyle, for God’s sake!) and his own personality. Ultimately, Hackman exposes a man who struggles so fervently to avoid telling anyone anything he inexorably shows everyone everything.

As a result, The Conversation is a tour de force, but it’s a quiet tour de force. In fact, it is just about impossible to imagine a movie like this being made today. Few directors would trust—perhaps with good reason—that audiences would embrace the deliberately languid pace and lack of resolution. In fact, while critically successful (then and now), this movie did not fare well commercially at the time of its release.

Of course, the movie is impossible to separate from the early ‘70s in several important ways. For one, its inescapable political implications (Watergate, wire-tapping) and its art house aesthetic sensibility (The Conversation is one of the more durable experiments to come out of the “new wave” of Hollywood bad boys who briefly had—and took—the opportunity to make movies they way they needed—and wanted—to make them). The Conversation, perhaps more than any of his celebrated films, makes the purest case for Coppola’s genius. The movie’s disconsolate message is tempered by its director’s lack of cynicism (a refreshing trait early on that ended up marring his later work with excess sentimentality and preciousness). Coppola, who also wrote the screenplay, is perhaps the only director of that era sufficiently unselfconscious to depict a protagonist so self-conscious he is in constant danger of suffocating.

Also worth mentioning is the film’s uncanny similarities to Chinatown (also released in 1974). In both, an essentially respectable man has seen his best intentions harm others, and vows never to repeat his mistake. In both, a man realizes too late that he has gotten involved (and invested) in something far larger and more dangerous than he imagined. Both films are virtually flawless, from the script to the ingenious structure, the direction, score and acting. Especially the acting. Certainly in the ‘70s there was plenty of “acting” going on, which is why so few (if any) movies have aged (and seemingly improved) with time as The Conversation and Chinatown.

“I don’t have anything personal, nothing of value,” Caul insists at one point, and we know he means it. Or, we understand he thinks he means it. Or we realize, by the end, that he very much wants to mean it. Throughout, we see more than his colleagues, his girlfriend (who he considers overly inquisitive when, after many months, she would like to know where he works, where he lives and why he does not seem to own a telephone), his priest and—most significantly—he does. But the sum total of these subtle insights (the way he avoids swearing, the time he picks up a cookie and studies it for several seconds before putting it back on the plate, his diversion of playing saxophone alongside an LP recording) ultimately shed insufficient light on what makes him tick. This is actually the secret of the film’s success.

In less capable hands we would know everything at the outset: what his back-story was, what he was looking for and what he needed to achieve so we could root for him to “win”. There are, of course, no winners here, but the message of the movie is not nihilistic. By the time it concludes, the culmination of events has slyly served to confirm all of Caul’s skepticism. He trusts no one and thinks the worst of people, which is his personal tragedy. The larger tragedy is that on the few occasions he lets his guard down, or trusted his own instincts, he is proven spectacularly wrong for having done so.

The 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.

Even once the crucial twist is understood, the film remains elusive. It is a darkly affecting drama, but what else? Also an allegory for Watergate (not likely, despite the rather facile, if pervasive critical analysis, considering the screenplay was written in the mid-‘60s)? A commentary on political chicanery? A love letter to the painstaking process of assembling a work of art, bit by technical bit? Some of all of these, to be certain, and several other things, for sure. It’s never quite the same experience once you’ve seen it the first time, but The Conversation warrants repeated viewings. Like the very best films, fresh nuances and details emerge and a deeper understanding and appreciation accrues. Popeye Doyle in The French Connection was the role Hackman was born to play, but his embodiment of Harry Caul should be celebrated as the best work he ever did.

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/130415-coppolas-the-conversation-a-love-letter-to-the-process-of-making-art/

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Celebrating Chinatown: The Ultimate Summer Movie (and the Perfect American Movie)

Chinatown does not usually make the short list of best American films. In fairness, it probably shouldn’t. It will have to settle for merely being the only perfect American film ever made. Perfect? Well, perfection is in the eye of the beholder, and the definition of perfect might include the notion that there is no such thing as perfection in art. Nevertheless, by any number of criteria, Chinatown continues to satisfy more than thirty years on. In the final analysis it’s the magnificent sum of its considerable parts: it’s tragic, it’s hilarious, it’s (at times) scary, it’s challenging, it’s complicated, it is unnerving. It is, in short, America. Or at least it does the near impossible: it articulates the symbiotic relationship between greed and power that props up capitalism, a narrative that played an ever-increasing role in 20th century America. Much could—and should—be said along these lines, and how Robert Towne’s meticulous screenplay was ideal fodder for Roman Polanski’s dark and utterly authentic vision (Polanski also deserves extensive praise for resisting the happier ending Towne wanted).

That is all well and good, but why does Chinatown remain compelling, and worthy of repeated viewings? Speaking personally, I’ve seen the film at least 15 times in the last 20 years, and each viewing has revealed new layers or nuance, and has only confirmed that initial impression: it’s perfect. The screenplay, the soundtrack, the casting: all unassailable. Memorable scenes? Really, the entire movie is just a series of memorable scenes. Or, more accurately, a continuous stream of indelible moments: Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in the barber shop, covered in shaving cream, angrily inviting the wiseass banker to step outside and “discuss things”; Gittes sardonically lamenting the loss of his shoe (“Son of a bitch! Goddamn Florsheim shoe!”); Gittes telling the dirty joke unaware of his soon-to-be-client and lover standing behind him; Gittes driving frantically through an orange grove to escape some pissed off farmers whose land he is trespassing upon; Noah Cross (John Huston as the flawlessly named incarnation of evil) persistently, and quite intentionally, mispronouncing Gittes name (Mr. Gits); Gittes calling the officious jerk in the public library a weasel; Gittes imploring Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to let the police intervene against Cross (her father) and her unsettling response: “He owns the police!”… the list could go on.

Perhaps most importantly, this is, quite simply a beautifully crafted work, the type of movie that can be savored without the sound on. One example: Gittes sits patiently at the top of a sloping cliff, overlooking the Los Angeles coastline as day slides into evening. He waits, lighting cigarette after cigarette, totally unaware that he has already stumbled into a hornet’s nest of corruption. The beauty of what he sees (and we see) perfectly masks the brutal ugliness of what is really going on: unwittingly, Gittes is about to lift up the rock and behold the guts and machinery of what gets sold as the American dream.

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 Gittes asks Cross—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.

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/64305/cinema-qua-non-indispensable-dvds-part-1b

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Hey Woody, Irony rhymes with Soon-Yi (and other thoughts on L’affaire Polanski)

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I can’t possibly improve upon the excellent commentaries being made all around the papers and blogs regarding L’affaire Polanski. My take on the matter is rather simple: don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. Polanski did the crime and admitted as much. End of fucking story.

Anyone (then or now) who has deluded themselves into thinking he actually fled the U.S.A. (and stayed gone) because he was afraid of a vindictive judge, as opposed to the more primal fear of going to jail (as he would –and should have done), needs a swift knife to the nose.

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Good to see that the insular Hollywood country club has circled the wagons to support their fugitive friend. Have you seen this shit? A petition to release Polanski? Don’t you sign petitions for, you know, innocent people being oppressed by malevolent governments? Only assclowns from L.A. could confuse Polanski’s (self-imposed) plight with a situation that actually warrants mass protest. Like, say, health care reform. That Woody Allen went anywhere near this particular issue reveals him to be both beneath contempt and incapable of understanding irony (hint: it rhymes with Soon-Yi). What a shameless piece of shit. The only thing more embarrassing than his signature on that petition is the sum of his career the last two decades. How about Whoopi Goldberg’s quote? Wow. It’s almost impossible to resist making offensive rebuttals to her offensive and illogical peregrinations regarding the concept of ”rape-rape”, so I’ll simply suggest it would be nice to offer her the “rape test” the same way Liz Cheney should get the “torture test” to see if reality easily squares with their blithe declarations about other peoples’ pain. Anne Applebaum has one of the most starkly offensive attempts to equivocate, while this idiot publicly soils herself at Huffington Post. Indeed, while Salon.com has demonstrated a mostly sane editorial stance, Huffington’s orchestra of elite idiots are ardently displaying how insulated and utterly out of touch they are. Look at this bozo (and look at that list of signatures. If Scorsese stings –and it does– seeing the great Milan Kundera is downright depressing, although it does put his undeniable misogynistic streak in better perspective).

This is neither tough nor complicated. Any of these well-paid pukes rallying around their weasel are just as odious as the politicians (ironically, the types most of these artists correctly skewer) who admonish us to look forward and not ruffle feathers by investigating war crimes committed in all of our names. For instance. (That some of them are invoking Polanski’s history as a Holocaust survivor is disingenuous as it is cynical. And sickening.)

The fact that Polanski is a brilliant director (indeed, I’m on record endorsing Chinatown as the most perfect American movie ever made) really has nothing to do with justice. If you believe in that not-so-complicated concept, this is a no brainer. The problem is, we’re seeing the lack of brain power and the darkended hearts that work together to keeps the cash registers ringing in Hollywood.

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Perfection Turns 35

Thanks to AMC, I’m reminded that The Godfather Part II turns 35 this year. (And they should know, they show it on a bi-weekly loop.)

I’m not especially interested in adding to overwhelming opinion that decrees The Godfather series cinema’s greatest achievement. For one, is it? More importantly, who cares? The movies are indisputably great, and that should suffice. Besides, that type of coronation is usually the sole province of dorks who actually make it a point to rank artistic achievement. Like, for instance, declaring that Chinatown is the only perfect American film ever made. Regardless, while each one has its issues, taken together, The Godfather saga is tough to top. That’s good enough for me.

One more thing. The Godfather Part Two may not be perfect, but it does have what is quite possibly the best scene in movie history. The final scene is a sort of alpha and omega for film, maybe even Art. How does it do this? Simple, it’s perfect. It not only manages to connect all the threads of almost six hours (and two generations) of Mafia melodrama, it is also elegaic in almost operatic fashion: instead of being an overture, it is a coda. It doesn’t project the future (if so, it might have foreseen that the ill-begotten Godfather Part Three should have been aborted, like Kay and Michael’s third child), it retreats into the past, something Michael will be spending a great deal of time doing from here on out. It’s a complete triumph of writing, acting and direction. What’s remarkable is how Francis Ford Coppola made the most with what he had (or more importantly, how–as often seems to be the case with incredible art–circumstances conspired to impel brilliance). To wit, the famously impossible Marlon Brando petulantly refused to appear for one day of filming, so Coppola had to rework the scene without him. Ironically, it is considerably better for his absence. That is not a slight on The Don; his presence pervades the scene: he is spoken about, he is at the height of his powers at this moment and his influence over each character and all of the events is palpable (indeed, in one wonderful moment, the dimwitted Fredo–poor Fredo–cuts the Japanese some slack for Pearl Harbor by noting “they didn’t know it was Pop’s birthday”). Vito looms large enough, any interaction with his sons would have sucked up the air in the room and left little space for the import of what unfolds. In the entire arc of the story writ small, each character succinctly expresses their unique M.O., or hints at strengths or flaws we have already seen (Sonny’s temper, Fredo’s aforementioned simplicity, Michael’s considerable–and underestimated–resolve, Tom’s quiet sagacity) as well as the tragic twists we know will unravel (Carlo and Connie, Tessio).

The scene could only come at the end, but it encapsulates everything that happened (even before the primary action of the first film) and it colors how we know the rest of Michael’s life will be: alone, full of resentment, regrets and memories. In less than five minutes, it is at once amusing and moving, it summarizes and portends. It is one of the extraordinarily rare artistic achievements that might be called, without hyperbole, miraculous.

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