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

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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. (Many more thoughts on Taxi Driver, here.)

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 2017. 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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Why Taxi Driver Still Endures

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Besides being a masterpiece, Taxi Driver endures in part because the conditions that inspired it endure.

Not many critics would name it as the best American movie, and it probably would rank as few fans’ favorite films. Is Taxi Driver, nevertheless, the most important American film? It is, in the sense that we need our best art to endure; to speak past trends and time, to tell us about ourselves while asking more questions than are answered (otherwise it’s philosophy or worse, literary theory).

Shakespeare’s oft-quoted notion of stories holding a mirror up to Nature has become a crutch if not cliché for describing what art does. As history continues to confirm that we’ve evolved less than we might hope or imagine in the intervening centuries since Hamlet soliloquized, the more relevant issue might be why art matters. As such, it’s probably Oscar Wilde who got it right when he declared “It’s the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”

Taxi Driver might not even be Scorsese’s best movie, but it’s definitely in the Top One. Okay, Raging Bull could fairly be considered his ultimate achievement (although substantial credit must be given to the ready-made script and tag-team for the ages from De Niro and Pesci). Mean Streets may, for aficionados, be his most consistently watchable (aside from The Departed, but in terms of aesthetic heft, that comparison would be like an all-star game vs. what the Miracle Mets pulled off in ’69—de rigueur brilliance vs. once-in-a-lifetime lightning caught in a bottle of straw-covered Chianti). Goodfellas, of course, is Goodfellas.

Aside from Taxi Driver, is there a film that continues to address—both directly and indirectly—so much of what makes America simmer and sometimes explode? Network turned out to be so prescient it’s practically a documentary (and would this make Paddy Chayefsky cackle or cry?). Taxi Driver seems to provide both a macro and micro analysis of our combustible American experiment: violence, sex, repression, isolation, exploitation, poverty (for starters) and the ways these phenomenon push and pull on practically everyone, occasionally proving toxic for the least-equipped amongst us.

Two words: Bernard Herrman. Three words: Best Soundtrack Ever.

In the crowded field of contenders, a handful of geniuses easily distance themselves from the competition: Piero Umiliani is Bach, Nino Rota is Mozart, John Barry is Wagner, (John Williams is Stephen King), and Bernard Herrmann is Beethoven. (Ennio Morricone is God.)

There’s also Beethoven-level pathos in the fact that not only was this Herrmann’s final score, but he died literally hours after completing it. Added bonus: as Scorsese was largely unknown during pre-production, the notoriously cantankerous Herrmann was unmoved by the director’s desire to have him score the film. “I don’t write music for car movies,” he allegedly said. Only when he saw the scene where Travis pours peach brandy over his breakfast was he convinced.

Fact: during the immortal “You talkin’ to me?” scene, the screenplay simply read “Travis looks in the mirror.” (A reminder that not only was De Niro once an actor, during his prime there were few better.)

Apparently Scorsese first approached Dustin Hoffman to play Travis Bickle. It’s best to not even imagine how different this movie would have been.

Many other actors were considered for (even offered) the part, ranging from the intriguing (Jeff Bridges) to the preposterous (Burt Reynolds?!).

The fact that Paul Schrader spent some time sleeping in a car before writing the screenplay helps offer insight into the myriad ways everything about Taxi Driver feels so real.

In an interview, Albert Brooks relates the conversation (equal parts amusing and disturbing) where, after filming, Schrader thanked him for helping him “understand” Tom, the one character he didn’t understand.

The stories of method actors being method actors can be hilarious and embarrassing, but at times, instructive. It may seem obvious or facile, but the time De Niro took actually driving a cab around NYC enriches his performance. Just the way he stretches his sore neck after another endless evening is a deft, if subtle touch. It’s also a natural reaction from someone who has pulled some 15 hour shifts.

We rightly mock the onanism of thespians who believe staying in character throughout a shoot confers authenticity. How many actors, today, fresh off an Academy Award—as De Niro was in ’74—would actually spend any (much less substantial) time physically driving a cab?

Also noteworthy is the way De Niro, the ultimate New Yorker, is able to convincingly seem out of his element (on all levels) in The Big Apple. He supposedly studied the speech patterns of some soldiers from the Midwest (while on the set of Bertolucci’s 1900).

The issue of Bickle’s “complicated” views on racial relations is a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) theme that recurs. In the original screenplay, the pimp (Harvey Keitel) and both the Mafioso and bodyguard/bouncer were all black. Consider that, and appreciate the credit Scorsese deserves for his better judgment—creative and cultural—in spite of screenwriter Paul Schrader’s objections.

No matter how controversial his treatment of race, in this or any movie, it’s impossible to pretend Scorsese is not rendering real people, however backward or repellant. Contrast this with another director who courts derisive scandal, Quentin Tarantino, whose characters’ bigotry always seems too gleeful by half. Where Scorsese, at his most incendiary, can credibly claim he’s interrogating certain experiences and observations of an adult with the filth of a city under his fingernails, Tarantino repeatedly comes off like a developmentally arrested video clerk who has lived his life watching movies.

According to legend, the actor intended to play the role of Bickle’s psychotic passenger (George Memmoli, memorable as Joey from Mean Streets) was injured and couldn’t make the shoot. Scorsese gamely stepped in and gave it a shot. Suffice it to say, the results are terrifying, and astonishing. The entire film holds a camera up to NYC’s shadiest back-alleys, and this scene depicts the rotten core inside these hearts of darkness as much as any of the more celebrated ones.

It’s fascinating to hear Scorsese (in interviews and the making-of feature) describing the way De Niro directed him during their scene together.

While so many other scenes continue to be discussed and celebrated, with good reason, De Niro nevertheless gives a clinic even as the camera mostly focuses on Scorsese. His economy of words and movement in this scene are extraordinary: for almost four whole minutes, the only thing Bickle says is “Yeah,” twice.

The best soundtrack scores contain music that can exist entirely outside the films they appear in (or were written for), yet are—for all the right reasons—inseparable from the movies themselves.

Perhaps more than any film, Taxi Driver portrays New York City as it used to be (for better and worse). Adding to an already claustrophobic script, the shoot occurred during a garbage strike over the course of an unusually sweltering summer. One can certainly see, and practically smell the mid-decade grime.

For visual evidence of how much the city has actually changed, this site does some wonderful work.

No matter how many times you’ve seen it—and you know it’s coming—the slow pan-up revealing Bickle’s Mohawk remains one of the more arresting, and disturbing visuals in all cinema.

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The aforementioned improvisation before the mirror is venerated as one of De Niro’s finest moments. For this writer, the unbearable moments that occur as Travis follows Betsy out of the porn movie might best illuminate De Niro’s mastery of craft. Even as his date (and we) cringe that he’s naïve enough to even consider a “dirty movie” (in Betsy’s words) appropriate, the fact that in this scene—and for large chunks of the movie—we feel empathy for Travis, a character we might understandably feel nothing but disgust for, is one of the primary reasons the movie resonates after repeated viewings.

A great many things occur throughout the course of the film, but few of them happen quickly. The languid pace of the action, obviously, reflects the tensions simmering below the surface. It’s possible that Scorsese’s directorial instincts were never quite as impeccable as they are in Taxi Driver. For instance, this: a scene so pitiful even the camera looks away.

Or this. The implication that Travis is rehearsing his own soliloquy (Hamlet meets the narrator from Dosteyevsky’s Notes from Underground), editing and perfecting it, in his mind.

Okay, one more. If I were forced to submit the single scene (in any movie) that best illustrates both loneliness and alienation, and the ironic disparity between what gets sold on TV (as normal, as achievable, as happiness) and what so many people actually experience, it would be difficult not to choose this one.

A lot of actresses auditioned for the role of Iris. Like dozens. Jodie Foster allegedly was not the first choice, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone else doing the role similar justice.

Some serious heavyweights auditioned for the role of Betsy. Cybill Shepherd was far from the most talented of the lot, but she did exude the combination of beauty and banality the part required.

It’s a minor role, but it can’t be overstated how crucial Albert Brooks is for providing humor and fleeting relief from the near-suffocating intensity of the screenplay.

Even when it’s well-intended, we have an inclination to mythologize artists, particularly actors. There’s nothing wrong with this, especially if the work warrants our adoration. That said, shrewd preparation is seldom sexy as improvised magic, but it’s often crucial for a convincing performance. Case in point, Harvey Keitel spending time with an actual pimp (and play-acting as a prostitute to really get a sense of the power dynamics at play) unquestionably provided heft and credibility to his uncanny turn as Sport.

Paul Schrader, naturally—and with Scorsese’s full blessing—scoured the streets to find a prostitute he could talk to. The young lady he eventually met not only informed the final script, she appears (as Jodie Foster’s friend) in the film.

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In terms of bang for buck, is there a character actor from this era who ended up in more epic films than Joe Spinell? In addition to a brief role in Taxi Driver, he also found his way into both Godfather movies, the first two Rocky movies, as well as Cruising, Nighthawks and Night Shift. He should be buried, with a plaque, beneath the Empire State Building.

How many movies have been as flawlessly cast, from the leads to the most minor characters (think Melio in the convenience store, or even the man attempting to rob him, or the Secret Service agent Travis attempts to impress, and not least, Peter Boyle (!) as Wizard).

As reliable and perceptive as Roger Ebert usually was, his speculation that the post-shootout epilogue is a dream sequence has always seemed remarkably undiscerning. Never mind that Schrader, Scorsese and De Niro all are on record as stating the opposite. Never mind that if Travis, from whose point of view we’ve seen all the action unfold, is dead but still “seeing” it undermines the narrative logic. The carnage, horrific as it is, is still only the second most grotesque aspect of the film. The most appalling incongruity is that Bickle’s viewed as a hero. The movie would already be an unqualified success, but with Travis (who, no sentient viewer should forget, was seconds away from attempting to assassinate a presidential candidate) being lionized by the media, Schrader et al. offer some of the darkest irony in cinema history. More, they anticipated an American media that’s only become more culpable for sanitizing or altogether misreading sensational acts because, naturally, sensationalism sells.

Even the ending isn’t really the end. Courtesy of the extremely ambivalent final shot of Travis seeing (or hearing, or sensing) something, and only catching his own eyes in the rear view mirror, the last image the viewer is left with is that Travis remains tightly wound. As the credits roll, one is left wondering if he might be in the news again, inevitably.

Eternal props to Tom Scott.

Apparently De Niro was on board for a sequel. Thank God for the rain that helped wash that garbage from our screens before it ever got made.

 

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 9/19/16.

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Taxi Driver: 40 Thoughts for 40 Years

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Not many critics would name it as the best American movie, and it probably would rank as few fans’ favorite films. Is Taxi Driver, nevertheless, the most important American film? It is, in the sense that we need our best art to endure; to speak past trends and time, to tell us about ourselves while asking more questions than are answered (otherwise it’s philosophy or worse, literary theory).

Shakespeare’s oft-quoted notion of stories holding a mirror up to Nature has become a crutch if not cliché for describing what art does. As history continues to confirm that we’ve evolved less than we might hope or imagine in the intervening centuries since Hamlet soliloquized, the more relevant issue might be why art matters. As such, it’s probably Oscar Wilde who got it right when he declared “It’s the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”

Taxi Driver might not even be Scorsese’s best movie, but it’s definitely in the Top One. Okay, Raging Bull could fairly be considered his ultimate achievement (although substantial credit must be given to the ready-made script and tag-team for the ages from De Niro and Pesci). Mean Streets may, for aficionados, be his most consistently watchable (aside from The Departed, but in terms of aesthetic heft, that comparison would be like an all-star game vs. what the Miracle Mets pulled off in ’69—de rigueur brilliance vs. once-in-a-lifetime lightning caught in a bottle of straw-covered Chianti). Goodfellas, of course, is Goodfellas.

Aside from Taxi Driver, is there a film that continues to address—both directly and indirectly—so much of what makes America simmer and sometimes explode? Network turned out to be so prescient it’s practically a documentary (and would this make Paddy Chayefsky cackle or cry?). Taxi Driver seems to provide both a macro and micro analysis of our combustible American experiment: violence, sex, repression, isolation, exploitation, poverty (for starters) and the ways these phenomenon push and pull on practically everyone, occasionally proving toxic for the least-equipped amongst us.

Two words: Bernard Herrman. Three words: Best Soundtrack Ever.

In the crowded field of contenders, a handful of geniuses easily distance themselves from the competition: Piero Umiliani is Bach, Nino Rota is Mozart, John Barry is Wagner, (John Williams is Stephen King), and Bernard Herrmann is Beethoven. (Ennio Morricone is God.)

There’s also Beethoven-level pathos in the fact that not only was this Herrmann’s final score, but he died literally hours after completing it. Added bonus: as Scorsese was largely unknown during pre-production, the notoriously cantankerous Herrmann was unmoved by the director’s desire to have him score the film. “I don’t write music for car movies,” he allegedly said. Only when he saw the scene where Travis pours peach brandy over his breakfast was he convinced.

Fact: during the immortal “You talkin’ to me?” scene, the screenplay simply read “Travis looks in the mirror.” (A reminder that not only was De Niro once an actor, during his prime there were few better.)

Apparently Scorsese first approached Dustin Hoffman to play Travis Bickle. It’s best to not even imagine how different this movie would have been.

Many other actors were considered for (even offered) the part, ranging from the intriguing (Jeff Bridges) to the preposterous (Burt Reynolds?!).

The fact that Paul Schrader spent some time sleeping in a car before writing the screenplay helps offer insight into the myriad ways everything about Taxi Driver feels so real.

In an interview, Albert Brooks relates the conversation (equal parts amusing and disturbing) where, after filming, Schrader thanked him for helping him “understand” Tom, the one character he didn’t understand.

The stories of method actors being method actors can be hilarious and embarrassing, but at times, instructive. It may seem obvious or facile, but the time De Niro took actually driving a cab around NYC enriches his performance. Just the way he stretches his sore neck after another endless evening is a deft, if subtle touch. It’s also a natural reaction from someone who has pulled some 15 hour shifts.

We rightly mock the onanism of thespians who believe staying in character throughout a shoot confers authenticity. How many actors, today, fresh off an Academy Award—as De Niro was in ’74—would actually spend any (much less substantial) time physically driving a cab?

Also noteworthy is the way De Niro, the ultimate New Yorker, is able to convincingly seem out of his element (on all levels) in The Big Apple. He supposedly studied the speech patterns of some soldiers from the Midwest (while on the set of Bertolucci’s 1900).

The issue of Bickle’s “complicated” views on racial relations is a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) theme that recurs. In the original screenplay, the pimp (Harvey Keitel) and both the Mafioso and bodyguard/bouncer were all black. Consider that, and appreciate the credit Scorsese deserves for his better judgment—creative and cultural—in spite of screenwriter Paul Schrader’s objections.

No matter how controversial his treatment of race, in this or any movie, it’s impossible to pretend Scorsese is not rendering real people, however backward or repellant. Contrast this with another director who courts derisive scandal, Quentin Tarantino, whose characters’ bigotry always seems too gleeful by half. Where Scorsese, at his most incendiary, can credibly claim he’s interrogating certain experiences and observations of an adult with the filth of a city under his fingernails, Tarantino repeatedly comes off like a developmentally arrested video clerk who has lived his life watching movies.

According to legend, the actor intended to play the role of Bickle’s psychotic passenger (George Memmoli, memorable as Joey from Mean Streets) was injured and couldn’t make the shoot. Scorsese gamely stepped in and gave it a shot. Suffice it to say, the results are terrifying, and astonishing. The entire film holds a camera up to NYC’s shadiest back-alleys, and this scene depicts the rotten core inside these hearts of darkness as much as any of the more celebrated ones.

It’s fascinating to hear Scorsese (in interviews and the making-of feature) describing the way De Niro directed him during their scene together.

While so many other scenes continue to be discussed and celebrated, with good reason, De Niro nevertheless gives a clinic even as the camera mostly focuses on Scorsese. His economy of words and movement in this scene are extraordinary: for almost four whole minutes, the only thing Bickle says is “Yeah,” twice.

The best soundtrack scores contain music that can exist entirely outside the films they appear in (or were written for), yet are—for all the right reasons—inseparable from the movies themselves.

Perhaps more than any film, Taxi Driver portrays New York City as it used to be (for better and worse). Adding to an already claustrophobic script, the shoot occurred during a garbage strike over the course of an unusually sweltering summer. One can certainly see, and practically smell the mid-decade grime.

For visual evidence of how much the city has actually changed, this site does some wonderful work.

No matter how many times you’ve seen it—and you know it’s coming—the slow pan-up revealing Bickle’s Mohawk remains one of the more arresting, and disturbing visuals in all cinema.

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The aforementioned improvisation before the mirror is venerated as one of De Niro’s finest moments. For this writer, the unbearable moments that occur as Travis follows Betsy out of the porn movie might best illuminate De Niro’s mastery of craft. Even as his date (and we) cringe that he’s naïve enough to even consider a “dirty movie” (in Betsy’s words) appropriate, the fact that in this scene—and for large chunks of the movie—we feel empathy for Travis, a character we might understandably feel nothing but disgust for, is one of the primary reasons the movie resonates after repeated viewings.

A great many things occur throughout the course of the film, but few of them happen quickly. The languid pace of the action, obviously, reflects the tensions simmering below the surface. It’s possible that Scorsese’s directorial instincts were never quite as impeccable as they are in Taxi Driver. For instance, this: a scene so pitiful even the camera looks away.

Or this. The implication that Travis is rehearsing his own soliloquy (Hamlet meets the narrator from Dosteyevsky’s Notes from Underground), editing and perfecting it, in his mind.

Okay, one more. If I were forced to submit the single scene (in any movie) that best illustrates both loneliness and alienation, and the ironic disparity between what gets sold on TV (as normal, as achievable, as happiness) and what so many people actually experience, it would be difficult not to choose this one.

A lot of actresses auditioned for the role of Iris. Like dozens. Jodie Foster allegedly was not the first choice, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone else doing the role similar justice.

Some serious heavyweights auditioned for the role of Betsy. Cybill Shepherd was far from the most talented of the lot, but she did exude the combination of beauty and banality the part required.

It’s a minor role, but it can’t be overstated how crucial Albert Brooks is for providing humor and fleeting relief from the near-suffocating intensity of the screenplay.

Even when it’s well-intended, we have an inclination to mythologize artists, particularly actors. There’s nothing wrong with this, especially if the work warrants our adoration. That said, shrewd preparation is seldom sexy as improvised magic, but it’s often crucial for a convincing performance. Case in point, Harvey Keitel spending time with an actual pimp (and play-acting as a prostitute to really get a sense of the power dynamics at play) unquestionably provided heft and credibility to his uncanny turn as Sport.

Paul Schrader, naturally—and with Scorsese’s full blessing—scoured the streets to find a prostitute he could talk to. The young lady he eventually met not only informed the final script, she appears (as Jodie Foster’s friend) in the film.

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In terms of bang for buck, is there a character actor from this era who ended up in more epic films than Joe Spinell? In addition to a brief role in Taxi Driver, he also found his way into both Godfather movies, the first two Rocky movies, as well as Cruising, Nighthawks and Night Shift. He should be buried, with a plaque, beneath the Empire State Building.

How many movies have been as flawlessly cast, from the leads to the most minor characters (think Melio in the convenience store, or even the man attempting to rob him, or the Secret Service agent Travis attempts to impress, and not least, Peter Boyle (!) as Wizard).

As reliable and perceptive as Roger Ebert usually was, his speculation that the post-shootout epilogue is a dream sequence has always seemed remarkably undiscerning. Never mind that Schrader, Scorsese and De Niro all are on record as stating the opposite. Never mind that if Travis, from whose point of view we’ve seen all the action unfold, is dead but still “seeing” it undermines the narrative logic. The carnage, horrific as it is, is still only the second most grotesque aspect of the film. The most appalling incongruity is that Bickle’s viewed as a hero. The movie would already be an unqualified success, but with Travis (who, no sentient viewer should forget, was seconds away from attempting to assassinate a presidential candidate) being lionized by the media, Schrader et al. offer some of the darkest irony in cinema history. More, they anticipated an American media that’s only become more culpable for sanitizing or altogether misreading sensational acts because, naturally, sensationalism sells.

Even the ending isn’t really the end. Courtesy of the extremely ambivalent final shot of Travis seeing (or hearing, or sensing) something, and only catching his own eyes in the rear view mirror, the last image the viewer is left with is that Travis remains tightly wound. As the credits roll, one is left wondering if he might be in the news again, inevitably.

Eternal props to Tom Scott.

Apparently De Niro was on board for a sequel. Thank God for the rain that helped wash that garbage from our screens before it ever got made.

Forty years. Wow.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 9/19/16.

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

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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.

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Point/Counterpoint: Sean Beaudoin vs. Sean Murphy – the 90’s Edition (Revisited)

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Point/Counterpoint is a beloved feature that first appeared in the fall ’72 Telex edition of the Weeklings. PC/P is the product of an intellectual tradition hearkening back to storied Oxford debate squads and the golden age of radio, in which two authors match wits over random subjects while being forced to choose a side and defend it on the fly. Readers are advised to stand back, as the heat can get intense. This week’s All 90?s arm wrestle involves essayist, raconteur, and former Governor of Virginia, Mr. Sean Murphy.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are now on the clock.

 

Michael Jordan –

Point (Murphy): Here is the uncomplicated part: Jordan is the dominant and peerless athlete of the ‘90s. Here is the complicated part: He is a prick. Big deal, right? Well, not so fast. Certainly, when it comes to athletes, actors, authors and the rich and famous in general, we don’t—and often shouldn’t—expect much in terms of humanity. They are too busy perfecting their craft, and in the instance of rich and famous, being an asshole is their life’s work. And for the creative sorts who have left us with profoundly moving, redemptive art, we acknowledge that messy interpersonal relations or despicable traits all pale in comparison to what they were put on earth to do. But just as Jordan is a once-in-a-generation talent, so too was his opportunity to make a real once-in-a-generation type difference. Indeed, one could argue that today, with our five-second attention spans and every idiot (famous or not) working ceaselessly on building their unique “brand”, it’s difficult to rise above the din. It is, therefore, easier to imagine the impact Jordan might have had, in an analog era, to make a meaningful and lasting difference, had he cared to do so. Famously, he didn’t. “Republicans buy sneakers too,” he quipped sardonically, with a lack of shame and soul that would make Ayn Rand wet. Could Jordan single-handedly have improved sweatshop conditions overseas and reigned in the worst aspects of the previous decade’s consumerism apocalypse? Actually, yes. He might have done more than merely be immortal on the hard wood; he could have changed our world, for the better. How many people in any generation actually have this ability?

Counter-Point (Beaudoin): I don’t think any public figure, celebrity or athlete or otherwise, has an obligation to make a difference. Whatever a “difference” might actually mean. Jordan was basically conservative, in the sense that he was relentless, ruthless, and did whatever it took to make as much money as possible. I see that as a very political act. He rejected the notion that his opinion on Bosnia or race relations was of greater value than not upsetting Hanes executives. He succinctly expressed his worldview by giving everyone the finger while insulating himself behind a wall of Nike checks. And also by being the Greatest Player Ever. Sorry, but if Mike had flown to Malaysia to lock arms with workers in front of a sweatshop gate, he wouldn’t have been the guy who stuck a dagger in Craig Ehlo’s heart, or marginalized Patrick Ewing, or pushed Bryon Russell out of the way like he didn’t exist before sinking the jumper that doomed Karl Malone. I fundamentally disagree with the notion that artists should be judged by their personal lives as opposed to their output. It’s a dangerous temptation when the artist is still alive, because it’s almost impossible for their behavior not to color perceptions of their work. I’m not going to pretend I can watch Curse of the Jade Scorpion without wondering about Woody’s predilections, fairly or otherwise. But I would argue, at least theoretically, that we all should be able to. It’s a good movie or it isn’t. (It’s not). But if you went back through history, almost every great artist (and many not great ones) were complete assholes. Check out the life of Caravaggio. But you don’t see too many people complaining about “David With the Head of Goliath” hanging at the Met because they’re offended by him as a person. To see the world in a truly original fashion and then be able to interpret that view with unusual skill and nuance often requires a level of narcissism that results in aberrant, transgressive, and/or manic behavior. Michael Jordan is exactly the complicated amalgam of thoughts and behaviors and beliefs that allowed him to play like him. If he were 9% better of a person, he’d no doubt have been more accessible in the locker room and maybe even spokesman for a worthy cause, but he wouldn’t have played the way he did. People are the totality of themselves. If Mike were the person you wanted him to be, then he’d also have been B.J. Armstrong, and therefore not the person you wanted at all.

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Newt Gingrich –

Point (Beaudoin): If somewhere in Washington D.C. right this second there’s a bigger sac of crappy ideas, unearned self-regard, and a true disdain for “the people” masquerading as public service, I dare you to name them. It’s astonishing that Newton Leroy Gingrich is still taken seriously enough to have just made even a doomed run for president, let alone win a few primaries, although perhaps we can thank him for having burned through twenty million of Sheldon Adelson’s money for no good reason whatsoever. Gingrich’s “Contract With America” was a failure on nearly every front, a zero-sum political expedience bereft of ethical standards that ushered in the hyper-partisan behavior currently crippling government. Add to that the mendacity of having crowed about “family values” on television nearly every night, including the period in which he led the charge to impeach Bill Clinton, while simultaneously conducting numerous affairs of his own on the side. In the meantime, Gingrich was run out of office by his own party, wrote nine remaindered novels that other books are embarrassed to be shelved next to, and then married a woman who looks like a steak knife wearing a toupee. Easily one of the worst people in America.

Counter-Point (Murphy): But we want Newt Gingrich on that wall. We need Newt Gingrich on that wall. And do you think it’s easy being Newt? Respect, and a sort of awe, is required for a man who never asked to be a Mr. Potato Head of all Shakespeare’s best villains: one part Polonius’s sanctimony; one part Falstaff’s red-jowled bluster; one part Iago’s soulless scheming. He is the tragicomic Sisyphus of our time, pushing the boulder of ambition up that hill, only to be toppled each time he is so close he can taste it (realizing, as he careens ass over ego, that the smell of victory is actually the collective babble from inside-the-Beltway blowhards, who turn on you so quickly it’s almost like an homage). His eyes forever on the prize, a would-be Bogeyman for an ill America; instead he ends up inside his own closet, sniffing other people’s panties. Don’t all the haters realize he would enjoy nothing more than crawling under that rock to decay, silently, into the soil? Instead, he is compelled to stand in front of We The People who can’t understand he just wasn’t made for these times? That, had he only been given the chance, he could have taught Jefferson a thing or two about writing (and philandering), he could have out-proselytized any of our wig-wearing Weekend Warriors, he could have saved us a Civil War by proving separation of the races was God’s will (or else The South was the New Jerusalem, or some other shit), he could have, well, he could have been a contender. Gingrich is the real life Willy Loman of our political stage, still out hustling his wares, not aware that his time has passed, his time was never in fact here: it was an illusion, a great white hype, a bloated gasp for relevance that will echo forever as a footnote, a guffaw and a grimace. Newt Gingrich exists because no one else could possibly play the part. For this unpalatable but irrefutable fact, attention must be paid.

Newt describing the size and shape of his second wife's taint.

Alice in Chains –

Point (Murphy): While I find Nirvana terminally exalted to the point of parody (the idea that Cobain is the spokesperson of his generation is almost as depressing as people killing each other over a used pair of Air Jordans), and I never had much love for Pearl Jam, I think Alice in Chains is the great overlooked band of the ‘90s. Awful enough, today, to be remembered as a “grunge” band; infinitely worse to be damned with the flannel-smelling praise of achieving “lesser” grunge status. I find this unfortunate, in part because Alice in Chains did more to outshine that lame, facile label than any of their brethren. Layne Staley is best in small-ish doses, I’ll concede, but even at his most affected, his intensity is always undercut by Jerry Cantrell’s calm, cool and disaffected harmonies. Let’s not mince words, I not only consider Dirt a masterpiece, I’d put it in my Top 10 of that decade: it’s a suicide note in music, and the fact that less than a decade later, Staley would indeed be dead only adds to its desolate aura. There is anger, hurt, self-pity, self-hatred and, ultimately, a defiance that, for me, makes the posturing of other grunge acts seem like an after-school special. “Down in a Hole”, a showcase for the ways the band balanced bleakness and brawn, endures as a too-intimate tour into the darkest heart of addiction, full of recrimination and remorse, yet it somehow manages to be…tender? We rightly indict so many pop acts for faking it; these dudes were laying it all out there, and they perfected an ugly type of beauty that, unlike so much else that came out of the ‘90s, isn’t tied to time or place.

Counter-Point (Beaudoin): I will agree that it was a horrible decade for music in general, but if Dirt is even in the top hundred albums, the 90?s might go down as the worst arbitrary stretch of years in human history, including all that Vaudeville piano “Oh, my baby loves whisker soap and Sarsaparilla” shit. I think Alice in Chains is basically an unlistenable pile of derivative hooks and suspect melodies, and in particular that Layne Staley’s voice is maddening in the extreme. He’s always straining for a note, always resolving a line in exactly the same way, not to mention burbling insipid lyrics about roosters and (yawn) heroin dissolution. But what’s vastly more interesting than the relative accuracy of those statements is how you and I, who otherwise share so much in common as far as musical taste, could view this band so polemically. When I was younger (back in the 90s) I was often annoyed by this sort of thing, but now I find it fascinating. We are two very different people who are inconsistent and unpredictable! We are governed by a false logic called “taste” that is actually a product of our environment, imagination, and maybe even our genetic sequence! Opinions about music are basically arbitrary and worthless! Hooray life! Although I will say that the one band I truly loathed more than any other in the 90?s was Third Eye Blind. You better not tell me you have a poster of them on your ceiling or we’re done.

The soundtrack to the best years of our lives.

Y2K –

Point (Beaudoin): Can you imagine how truly wonderful it would have been if computers across the globe really did lock up on that fateful midnight? And not just until repairs could be enacted, but permanently and across the globe, remaining useless hunks of mis-dated silicone all these years later and having saved us the indignities of Reddit, texting, Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, and people talking loudly on cell phones in cafes? Oh why, Y2K, why did you fail to be the catastrophe we so richly deserved?

Counter-Point (Murphy):

If Y2K had delivered the goods, pulling a Terminator Skynet and leaving us in a Bladerunner-style post-apocalypse, I would not have been able to burn the next decade converting my creative energy, youthful idealism and pre-midlife angst into emails instead of novels. If Y2K pulled the plug (figuratively) ensuring we had to pull our puds forever in analog (literally), I would have had nothing better to do than tackle the ever-expanding list of unread books that, fourteen years later makes Borges’ Library of Babel look like the pile of magazines at a doctor’s office. If Y2K had truly partied like it was 1999, I would still remember what grass smelled like, what sweat felt like, what animals sounded like, what real people looked like, or what composing a sentence uninterrupted by a dozen extraneous thoughts and distractions Google/Facebook/iPhone-d like. Why would I possibly want any part of that?

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Quentin Tarantino –

Point (Murphy): Even typing out his name makes me cringe. It’s not just that everything he’s done since the ‘90s has sucked, or that he is at once uninhibited and oleaginous in ways that could put infomercial stars and politicians to shame. It’s not even that he’s been sprinting in circles, overrated and infuriating as only the rarest of artists can manage to be. His real crime is the breathless puerility suffusing almost every scene of every movie, post Jackie Brown. (Technically proficient, sure, and his action sequences—however insipid or ultra-violent—get high marks on the pyrotechnics scale.) Each successive effort implodes on its own adrenaline, ending up like a puppy trying to fuck its own poop. And yet…it seems churlish to hate on the former video clerk who gave us Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, no? In fairness, could we reasonably expect anything after that one-two punch? He made a couple of movies that did not capture the proverbial Zeitgeist so much as bury it alive in a wood coffin (see what I did there?), only to have it erupt out of the ground in the form of a million inferior imitations. So it’s not that his movies, post-Y2K, are an endless fruit loop of diminishing returns, it’s ultimately that Tarantino epitomizes so much of what went wrong in the ‘90s, continuing through our present day. It’s not even his fault, really. Other than pesky matters of integrity, who can blame QT for giving the people what they want? Of course we can point to any era and explore how naked opportunism and commercial-minded replication is the de-facto setting, especially in Hollywood. Isn’t the worst sin of this justly-maligned decade the way we consecrated an ongoing syndrome of inauthenticity, super-sizing and one-upmanship, whether it involves music, movie sequels, book series or (un)reality TV?

Counter-Point (Beaudoin): Say what you want about Tarantino, and it’s interesting because he’s one of those rare cinematic personalities about whom you could easily deliver a convincing rant on almost any side of any issue, including each of his movies, girlfriends, and Oscar speeches–but he’s done three things in his career which to me absolve him of almost any other fault: 1. In Reservoir Dogs he single-handedly resurrected the soundtrack as personality or extra character, using Joe Tex and Blue Swede and Stealers Wheel just as effectively as Harvey Keitel or Michael Madsen. Punchy street level counter-rhythms were the true engine behind Reservoir Dogs, far more than the ear-cutting scene or Chris Penn’s tracksuit. 2. Casting John Travolta in Pulp Fiction was an incredibly brave and far-sighted choice. It’s hard to remember now, but Travolta was essentially Kryptonite in 1992, more a bloated former Sweat Hog than the action hero he would soon become. Turning him into a henchman with a ponytail and a bag full of dope who could do a mean Twist at Jack Rabbit Slim’s was a stroke of pure genius. 3. Dialog. By the late 80?s Hollywood had completely forgotten what real, honest dialog even sounded like, not to mention brought to a script. It’s not Tarantino’s fault that Pulp Fiction spawned a thousand cheap imitations of Samuel L. Jackson’s Valley of Death speech, or years of Mumblecore versions of Royale With Cheese. “I just don’t dig on animals that don’t know enough to get out of their own filth” reminded us that people tend to talk to each other in crude and mundane ways that can often be revelatory. Tarantino was the one who made us realize it again.

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Every Movie that has Ever Won an Academy Award Should Not Have –

Point (Beaudoin): Let’s just talk about Forrest Gump here, and let it stand in for every other stiffed and slighted film in Oscar history, even though complaining about the illogic of Oscar voting is essentially the same as arguing about the outcome of an episode of Deal or No Deal. In any case, Forrest Gump is a disingenuous stinking turd of a film, a palliative for Clinton-era ennui and the residual shame of fifty years of tragically stupid foreign policy decisions. Three Back to the Future films gave Bob Zemeckis the technical chops to place Forrest relatively convincingly next to Nixon, but was in fact a trick better exploited (first) by Woody Allen in Zelig. Gump’s dimwitted celebration of the wholly American desire to retroactively cast itself as an innocent bystander to its own crimes pissed me off in the theater when it came out, and my antipathy has only increased since. Forrest Gump (you could easily make the same case for the career of Tom Hanks) is the epitome of the need to reduce complex events and emotions into a montage of bromides and high-panted shrugs that more or less say, “I know, I know, but we meant well, didn’t we?” No, we mostly didn’t. The only truly honest element of the film is the one in which Gump repeatedly acts like a creepy stalker who in any other context Jenny would have aggressively restraining-ordered halfway through his first Savoy Truffle. My understanding is that in the sequel, Gump in the Rye, Colin Hanks plays a Jodi Foster fetishist who sniffs his fingertips a lot and keeps getting arrested crouching behind the shrubs of David Letterman’s estate.

Counter-Point (Murphy): Movies like Unforgiven and The Silence of the Lambs are not simply overrated twaddle: they are to Art what charlatans like Dr. Drew are to medicine or abominations like Politico are to journalism: the “real” thing for the undiscerning, intellectually unevolved, instinctually incurious, easily impressed, overly assured. The ‘90s Academy Awards were like a Bizarro aesthetic universe, a perverse pinball machine where smug smacked off cynical and clanged into self-satisfaction and descended into the gutter of banality (Life is Beautiful should have earned everyone involved a cinematic red card, sent off the artistic pitch for eternity; instead, of course, it won that buffoon Roberto Benigni a best actor statue proving that Life is Unbearable). But hey, if it wasn’t for the ‘90s Academy Awards, I may have entered the new millennium not sufficiently disabused of the illusion that substance beats style, or that feel-good and soulless saccharine is sniffed out by uncorrupted tastemakers, or that Money always, always means more than Authenticity. Seeing travesty (Goodfellas losing to Dances with Wolves) after mockery (American Beauty over The Insider) after perversion (Braveheart beating anything) did me one lasting service: it ensured that I’d never watch, or even pay attention to, the exorbitant, appalling and onanistic festival of ostentation and egotism that is the Academy Awards, ever again. Stupid is, after all, as Stupid Does.

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Life Used to be Less Complicated –

Point (Murphy): I’m always on guard against two things above all: cliché and nostalgia, as both are traps that short-circuit critical thought and unfettered perspective. But damn if I don’t miss reading books. Don’t get me wrong: I still read books, all the time. But it’s been over a decade since I spent several hours, uninterrupted, mug nuzzled in a paperback. Much as I like to resist them, the shrieks from my devices, arrayed around me like so many electronic magpies, are all but impossible to ignore. I blame myself for this lack of discipline, but I reminisce about a time when it was novel to walk into the other room once or twice an hour to check email, and then return to my novel. Now, I can hardly watch a movie or read an essay (much less a book) without constantly making sure I’m not missing anything. In my paltry defense I’d say it’s less the FOMO phenomenon and more an actual rewiring of the way my mind works. That scares the shit out of me, especially as someone with artistic inclinations. Even at work, it’s not uncommon for me to have multiple windows open at any given time, along with Outlook, a spreadsheet or two and one or two documents, perhaps with music playing, and I’ll open a new window and while I’m waiting for it to load (three seconds being an eternity; an actual connection issue an affront), I’ll check my mail, and then go back to the fresh window and forget what I opened it for. This too mortifies me. I’m as much a tech junkie as anyone, and while I’d like to blame these portable, connected toys for corrupting our supposedly more serene lives, I suspect it’s even worse: technology has tricked us into being busier every single day, and it’s not even work, it’s play. Is this a trend we can slow down? Should we? Or are we advancing our evolution, fast-tracking an ability to connect, communicate and yes, commiserate, in a fashion previously unimagined? Having virtually everything that has been or is being created, available for free, in real time, is something I would have considered an outright miracle as a bored young punk; now it increasingly seems like the gift that will keep taking.

Counter-Point (Beaudoin): Even in the context of what it was like in this country before 1920, we are, basically, whiny, entitled worms. Life did not used to be less complicated. Life was very much more complicated, surrounded as it was by the demands of basic survival on almost every front, even for the wealthy. Pregnancy, disease, life expectancy, travel, drinking water, food production, physical labor, information distribution, the legal system, heat, cold, even just basic hygiene–all were vastly more difficult and elusive. The degree to which we are now basically helpless, dismissive of our past, and criminally soft in almost every way makes me deeply depressed at 3 a.m at least once a week.

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What Monica (Lewinsky) Means, Then and Now –

Point (Beaudoin): During the height of the Oddly Placed Cigar Era, I made plenty of jokes at Ms. Lewinsky’s expense. I didn’t think of her as a person, never considered what it might have been like to be the object of that level of scrutiny. To me she was an event. A cartoon. She was the woman naive enough to believe a self-serving philanderer really loved her, or would protect her when the time came. She was a pair of salacious lips, a 50?s haircut, a soiled dress. Most damningly, she was the woman dumb enough to confide in Linda Tripp. But then I grew up some and began to feel a great deal of empathy for Monica. I began to realize that if you collected even the smallest fraction of the really stupid things I did in my twenties and allowed the full blast of media hypocrisy to judge them, I would even now be in permanent solitary, busy talking to the walls and throwing my excrement at guards. How unfortunate to have your sexuality formed by a massively famous public figure, let alone then exposed to the world. Can you imagine standing by, powerless, while the rest of your life was determined by the whims of a sanctimonious cunt like Ken Starr? And then to be smothered under another twenty years of Clinton family prominence, your name forever brought up as a smirking reference, even as Hillary mulls another presidential run certain to kick off more cheap jokes and snide commentary? Which is all to say that I read Monica’s Vanity Fair piece genuinely rooting for her to charge out strong, unbowed, and newly emergent. Instead it wallowed in self-pity and lame justifications. She had two decades to write that fucking thing! It should have been a call to arms. A raw plea. A bruising manifesto littered with scorched politicians and gashed pundits that made Ted Kaczynski look like Ogden Nash. Didn’t really happen. Shit, she should have let me write it for her. I seriously would have for two hundred bucks and a platter of tacos.

Counter-Point (Murphy): Time has only convinced me that it’s not how great Clinton is (or was), so much as how spectacularly so many of his left-ish leaning compatriots suck by comparison, that makes liberals love their Bubba the way Bubba used to love Krispy Kreme. (The fact that he outfoxed the aforementioned ass-clown Gingrich is enough to earn him eternal goodwill in some circles, including mine.) As such, he may be a rascal, an imp, an occasionally immoral scoundrel but, dagnabit, he’s our scoundrel. While history will look increasingly less kindly at the Glass –Steagall sell-out (where triangulation met gluttony to create an unfettered shitstorm America will never fully recover from), it’s l’affaire Lewinsky that makes so many things Clinton, Inc. so difficult to digest. One might even say that Hillary was not standing by her man so much as protecting The Brand, a premonition of the brazen megalomania that hurt her in 2008 and makes her…a perfect candidate for 2016? As for poor Monica, it’s difficult to feel anything but pity for her, however naïve and vacuous she remains. That she was seduced, used and then tossed aside by an administration that was equal parts Caligula and Don Corleone is a sober reminder that history has always been written by the powerful, and the powerful are often neither great nor good people. (That history is reported these days, as it unfolds, by boot-lickers who love nothing more than the smell of a semen-scented dress is too obvious, and depressing, to warrant further commentary.) In this case, her story is His Story and however we interpret it (then, now, later) is our collective story, since all but a handful of us will always be spectators. Are we not entertained?

LEWINSKY

This article originally appeared on 10/1 in The Weeklings. More on that amazing site, HERE.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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Point/Counterpoint: Sean Beaudoin vs. Sean Murphy – the 90?s Edition (The Weeklings*)

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Point/Counterpoint is a beloved feature that first appeared in the fall ’72 Telex edition of the Weeklings. PC/P is the product of an intellectual tradition hearkening back to storied Oxford debate squads and the golden age of radio, in which two authors match wits over random subjects while being forced to choose a side and defend it on the fly. Readers are advised to stand back, as the heat can get intense. This week’s All 90?s arm wrestle involves essayist, raconteur, and former Governor of Virginia, Mr. Sean Murphy.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are now on the clock.

 

Michael Jordan –

Point (Murphy): Here is the uncomplicated part: Jordan is the dominant and peerless athlete of the ‘90s. Here is the complicated part: He is a prick. Big deal, right? Well, not so fast. Certainly, when it comes to athletes, actors, authors and the rich and famous in general, we don’t—and often shouldn’t—expect much in terms of humanity. They are too busy perfecting their craft, and in the instance of rich and famous, being an asshole is their life’s work. And for the creative sorts who have left us with profoundly moving, redemptive art, we acknowledge that messy interpersonal relations or despicable traits all pale in comparison to what they were put on earth to do. But just as Jordan is a once-in-a-generation talent, so too was his opportunity to make a real once-in-a-generation type difference. Indeed, one could argue that today, with our five-second attention spans and every idiot (famous or not) working ceaselessly on building their unique “brand”, it’s difficult to rise above the din. It is, therefore, easier to imagine the impact Jordan might have had, in an analog era, to make a meaningful and lasting difference, had he cared to do so. Famously, he didn’t. “Republicans buy sneakers too,” he quipped sardonically, with a lack of shame and soul that would make Ayn Rand wet. Could Jordan single-handedly have improved sweatshop conditions overseas and reigned in the worst aspects of the previous decade’s consumerism apocalypse? Actually, yes. He might have done more than merely be immortal on the hard wood; he could have changed our world, for the better. How many people in any generation actually have this ability?

Counter-Point (Beaudoin): I don’t think any public figure, celebrity or athlete or otherwise, has an obligation to make a difference. Whatever a “difference” might actually mean. Jordan was basically conservative, in the sense that he was relentless, ruthless, and did whatever it took to make as much money as possible. I see that as a very political act. He rejected the notion that his opinion on Bosnia or race relations was of greater value than not upsetting Hanes executives. He succinctly expressed his worldview by giving everyone the finger while insulating himself behind a wall of Nike checks. And also by being the Greatest Player Ever. Sorry, but if Mike had flown to Malaysia to lock arms with workers in front of a sweatshop gate, he wouldn’t have been the guy who stuck a dagger in Craig Ehlo’s heart, or marginalized Patrick Ewing, or pushed Bryon Russell out of the way like he didn’t exist before sinking the jumper that doomed Karl Malone. I fundamentally disagree with the notion that artists should be judged by their personal lives as opposed to their output. It’s a dangerous temptation when the artist is still alive, because it’s almost impossible for their behavior not to color perceptions of their work. I’m not going to pretend I can watch Curse of the Jade Scorpion without wondering about Woody’s predilections, fairly or otherwise. But I would argue, at least theoretically, that we all should be able to. It’s a good movie or it isn’t. (It’s not). But if you went back through history, almost every great artist (and many not great ones) were complete assholes. Check out the life of Caravaggio. But you don’t see too many people complaining about “David With the Head of Goliath” hanging at the Met because they’re offended by him as a person. To see the world in a truly original fashion and then be able to interpret that view with unusual skill and nuance often requires a level of narcissism that results in aberrant, transgressive, and/or manic behavior. Michael Jordan is exactly the complicated amalgam of thoughts and behaviors and beliefs that allowed him to play like him. If he were 9% better of a person, he’d no doubt have been more accessible in the locker room and maybe even spokesman for a worthy cause, but he wouldn’t have played the way he did. People are the totality of themselves. If Mike were the person you wanted him to be, then he’d also have been B.J. Armstrong, and therefore not the person you wanted at all.

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Newt Gingrich –

Point (Beaudoin): If somewhere in Washington D.C. right this second there’s a bigger sac of crappy ideas, unearned self-regard, and a true disdain for “the people” masquerading as public service, I dare you to name them. It’s astonishing that Newton Leroy Gingrich is still taken seriously enough to have just made even a doomed run for president, let alone win a few primaries, although perhaps we can thank him for having burned through twenty million of Sheldon Adelson’s money for no good reason whatsoever. Gingrich’s “Contract With America” was a failure on nearly every front, a zero-sum political expedience bereft of ethical standards that ushered in the hyper-partisan behavior currently crippling government. Add to that the mendacity of having crowed about “family values” on television nearly every night, including the period in which he led the charge to impeach Bill Clinton, while simultaneously conducting numerous affairs of his own on the side. In the meantime, Gingrich was run out of office by his own party, wrote nine remaindered novels that other books are embarrassed to be shelved next to, and then married a woman who looks like a steak knife wearing a toupee. Easily one of the worst people in America.

Counter-Point (Murphy): But we want Newt Gingrich on that wall. We need Newt Gingrich on that wall. And do you think it’s easy being Newt? Respect, and a sort of awe, is required for a man who never asked to be a Mr. Potato Head of all Shakespeare’s best villains: one part Polonius’s sanctimony; one part Falstaff’s red-jowled bluster; one part Iago’s soulless scheming. He is the tragicomic Sisyphus of our time, pushing the boulder of ambition up that hill, only to be toppled each time he is so close he can taste it (realizing, as he careens ass over ego, that the smell of victory is actually the collective babble from inside-the-Beltway blowhards, who turn on you so quickly it’s almost like an homage). His eyes forever on the prize, a would-be Bogeyman for an ill America; instead he ends up inside his own closet, sniffing other people’s panties. Don’t all the haters realize he would enjoy nothing more than crawling under that rock to decay, silently, into the soil? Instead, he is compelled to stand in front of We The People who can’t understand he just wasn’t made for these times? That, had he only been given the chance, he could have taught Jefferson a thing or two about writing (and philandering), he could have out-proselytized any of our wig-wearing Weekend Warriors, he could have saved us a Civil War by proving separation of the races was God’s will (or else The South was the New Jerusalem, or some other shit), he could have, well, he could have been a contender. Gingrich is the real life Willy Loman of our political stage, still out hustling his wares, not aware that his time has passed, his time was never in fact here: it was an illusion, a great white hype, a bloated gasp for relevance that will echo forever as a footnote, a guffaw and a grimace. Newt Gingrich exists because no one else could possibly play the part. For this unpalatable but irrefutable fact, attention must be paid.

Newt describing the size and shape of his second wife's taint.

Alice in Chains –

Point (Murphy): While I find Nirvana terminally exalted to the point of parody (the idea that Cobain is the spokesperson of his generation is almost as depressing as people killing each other over a used pair of Air Jordans), and I never had much love for Pearl Jam, I think Alice in Chains is the great overlooked band of the ‘90s. Awful enough, today, to be remembered as a “grunge” band; infinitely worse to be damned with the flannel-smelling praise of achieving “lesser” grunge status. I find this unfortunate, in part because Alice in Chains did more to outshine that lame, facile label than any of their brethren. Layne Staley is best in small-ish doses, I’ll concede, but even at his most affected, his intensity is always undercut by Jerry Cantrell’s calm, cool and disaffected harmonies. Let’s not mince words, I not only consider Dirt a masterpiece, I’d put it in my Top 10 of that decade: it’s a suicide note in music, and the fact that less than a decade later, Staley would indeed be dead only adds to its desolate aura. There is anger, hurt, self-pity, self-hatred and, ultimately, a defiance that, for me, makes the posturing of other grunge acts seem like an after-school special. “Down in a Hole”, a showcase for the ways the band balanced bleakness and brawn, endures as a too-intimate tour into the darkest heart of addiction, full of recrimination and remorse, yet it somehow manages to be…tender? We rightly indict so many pop acts for faking it; these dudes were laying it all out there, and they perfected an ugly type of beauty that, unlike so much else that came out of the ‘90s, isn’t tied to time or place.

Counter-Point (Beaudoin): I will agree that it was a horrible decade for music in general, but if Dirt is even in the top hundred albums, the 90?s might go down as the worst arbitrary stretch of years in human history, including all that Vaudeville piano “Oh, my baby loves whisker soap and Sarsaparilla” shit. I think Alice in Chains is basically an unlistenable pile of derivative hooks and suspect melodies, and in particular that Layne Staley’s voice is maddening in the extreme. He’s always straining for a note, always resolving a line in exactly the same way, not to mention burbling insipid lyrics about roosters and (yawn) heroin dissolution. But what’s vastly more interesting than the relative accuracy of those statements is how you and I, who otherwise share so much in common as far as musical taste, could view this band so polemically. When I was younger (back in the 90s) I was often annoyed by this sort of thing, but now I find it fascinating. We are two very different people who are inconsistent and unpredictable! We are governed by a false logic called “taste” that is actually a product of our environment, imagination, and maybe even our genetic sequence! Opinions about music are basically arbitrary and worthless! Hooray life! Although I will say that the one band I truly loathed more than any other in the 90?s was Third Eye Blind. You better not tell me you have a poster of them on your ceiling or we’re done.

The soundtrack to the best years of our lives.

Y2K –

Point (Beaudoin): Can you imagine how truly wonderful it would have been if computers across the globe really did lock up on that fateful midnight? And not just until repairs could be enacted, but permanently and across the globe, remaining useless hunks of mis-dated silicone all these years later and having saved us the indignities of Reddit, texting, Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, and people talking loudly on cell phones in cafes? Oh why, Y2K, why did you fail to be the catastrophe we so richly deserved?

Counter-Point (Murphy):

If Y2K had delivered the goods, pulling a Terminator Skynet and leaving us in a Bladerunner-style post-apocalypse, I would not have been able to burn the next decade converting my creative energy, youthful idealism and pre-midlife angst into emails instead of novels. If Y2K pulled the plug (figuratively) ensuring we had to pull our puds forever in analog (literally), I would have had nothing better to do than tackle the ever-expanding list of unread books that, fourteen years later makes Borges’ Library of Babel look like the pile of magazines at a doctor’s office. If Y2K had truly partied like it was 1999, I would still remember what grass smelled like, what sweat felt like, what animals sounded like, what real people looked like, or what composing a sentence uninterrupted by a dozen extraneous thoughts and distractions Google/Facebook/iPhone-d like. Why would I possibly want any part of that?

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Quentin Tarantino –

Point (Murphy): Even typing out his name makes me cringe. It’s not just that everything he’s done since the ‘90s has sucked, or that he is at once uninhibited and oleaginous in ways that could put infomercial stars and politicians to shame. It’s not even that he’s been sprinting in circles, overrated and infuriating as only the rarest of artists can manage to be. His real crime is the breathless puerility suffusing almost every scene of every movie, post Jackie Brown. (Technically proficient, sure, and his action sequences—however insipid or ultra-violent—get high marks on the pyrotechnics scale.)  Each successive effort implodes on its own adrenaline, ending up like a puppy trying to fuck its own poop. And yet…it seems churlish to hate on the former video clerk who gave us Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, no? In fairness, could we reasonably expect anything after that one-two punch? He made a couple of movies that did not capture the proverbial Zeitgeist so much as bury it alive in a wood coffin (see what I did there?), only to have it erupt out of the ground in the form of a million inferior imitations. So it’s not that his movies, post-Y2K, are an endless fruit loop of diminishing returns, it’s ultimately that Tarantino epitomizes so much of what went wrong in the ‘90s, continuing through our present day. It’s not even his fault, really. Other than pesky matters of integrity, who can blame QT for giving the people what they want? Of course we can point to any era and explore how naked opportunism and commercial-minded replication is the de-facto setting, especially in Hollywood. Isn’t the worst sin of this justly-maligned decade the way we consecrated an ongoing syndrome of inauthenticity, super-sizing and one-upmanship, whether it involves music, movie sequels, book series or (un)reality TV?

Counter-Point (Beaudoin): Say what you want about Tarantino, and it’s interesting because he’s one of those rare cinematic personalities about whom you could easily deliver a convincing rant on almost any side of any issue, including each of his movies, girlfriends, and Oscar speeches–but he’s done three things in his career which to me absolve him of almost any other fault: 1. In Reservoir Dogs he single-handedly resurrected the soundtrack as personality or extra character, using Joe Tex and Blue Swede and Stealers Wheel just as effectively as Harvey Keitel or Michael Madsen. Punchy street level counter-rhythms were the true engine behind Reservoir Dogs, far more than the ear-cutting scene or Chris Penn’s tracksuit. 2. Casting John Travolta in Pulp Fiction was an incredibly brave and far-sighted choice. It’s hard to remember now, but Travolta was essentially Kryptonite in 1992, more a bloated former Sweat Hog than the action hero he would soon become. Turning him into a henchman with a ponytail and a bag full of dope who could do a mean Twist at Jack Rabbit Slim’s was a stroke of pure genius. 3. Dialog. By the late 80?s Hollywood had completely forgotten what real, honest dialog even sounded like, not to mention brought to a script. It’s not Tarantino’s fault that Pulp Fiction spawned a thousand cheap imitations of Samuel L. Jackson’s Valley of Death speech, or years of Mumblecore versions of Royale With Cheese. “I just don’t dig on animals that don’t know enough to get out of their own filth” reminded us that people tend to talk to each other in crude and mundane ways that can often be revelatory. Tarantino was the one who made us realize it again.

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Every Movie that has Ever Won an Academy Award Should Not Have –

Point (Beaudoin): Let’s just talk about Forrest Gump here, and let it stand in for every other stiffed and slighted film in Oscar history, even though complaining about the illogic of Oscar voting is essentially the same as arguing about the outcome of an episode of Deal or No Deal. In any case, Forrest Gump is a disingenuous stinking turd of a film, a palliative for Clinton-era ennui and the residual shame of fifty years of tragically stupid foreign policy decisions. Three Back to the Future films gave Bob Zemeckis the technical chops to place Forrest relatively convincingly next to Nixon, but was in fact a trick better exploited (first) by Woody Allen in Zelig. Gump’s dimwitted celebration of the wholly American desire to retroactively cast itself as an innocent bystander to its own crimes pissed me off in the theater when it came out, and my antipathy has only increased since. Forrest Gump (you could easily make the same case for the career of Tom Hanks) is the epitome of the need to reduce complex events and emotions into a montage of bromides and high-panted shrugs that more or less say, “I know, I know, but we meant well, didn’t we?” No, we mostly didn’t. The only truly honest element of the film is the one in which Gump repeatedly acts like a creepy stalker who in any other context Jenny would have aggressively restraining-ordered halfway through his first Savoy Truffle. My understanding is that in the sequel, Gump in the Rye, Colin Hanks plays a Jodi Foster fetishist who sniffs his fingertips a lot and keeps getting arrested crouching behind the shrubs of David Letterman’s estate.

Counter-Point (Murphy): Movies like Unforgiven and The Silence of the Lambs are not simply overrated twaddle: they are to Art what charlatans like Dr. Drew are to medicine or abominations like Politico are to journalism: the “real” thing for the undiscerning, intellectually unevolved, instinctually incurious, easily impressed, overly assured. The ‘90s Academy Awards were like a Bizarro aesthetic universe, a perverse pinball machine where smug smacked off cynical and clanged into self-satisfaction and descended into the gutter of banality (Life is Beautiful should have earned everyone involved a cinematic red card, sent off the artistic pitch for eternity; instead, of course, it won that buffoon Roberto Benigni a best actor statue proving that Life is Unbearable). But hey, if it wasn’t for the ‘90s Academy Awards, I may have entered the new millennium not sufficiently disabused of the illusion that substance beats style, or that feel-good and soulless saccharine is sniffed out by uncorrupted tastemakers, or that Money always, always means more than Authenticity. Seeing travesty (Goodfellas losing to Dances with Wolves) after mockery (American Beauty over The Insider) after perversion (Braveheart beating anything) did me one lasting service: it ensured that I’d never watch, or even pay attention to, the exorbitant, appalling and onanistic festival of ostentation and egotism that is the Academy Awards, ever again. Stupid is, after all, as Stupid Does.

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Life Used to be Less Complicated –

Point (Murphy): I’m always on guard against two things above all: cliché and nostalgia, as both are traps that short-circuit critical thought and unfettered perspective. But damn if I don’t miss reading books. Don’t get me wrong: I still read books, all the time. But it’s been over a decade since I spent several hours, uninterrupted, mug nuzzled in a paperback. Much as I like to resist them, the shrieks from my devices, arrayed around me like so many electronic magpies, are all but impossible to ignore. I blame myself for this lack of discipline, but I reminisce about a time when it was novel to walk into the other room once or twice an hour to check email, and then return to my novel. Now, I can hardly watch a movie or read an essay (much less a book) without constantly making sure I’m not missing anything. In my paltry defense I’d say it’s less the FOMO phenomenon and more an actual rewiring of the way my mind works. That scares the shit out of me, especially as someone with artistic inclinations. Even at work, it’s not uncommon for me to have multiple windows open at any given time, along with Outlook, a spreadsheet or two and one or two documents, perhaps with music playing, and I’ll open a new window and while I’m waiting for it to load (three seconds being an eternity; an actual connection issue an affront), I’ll check my mail, and then go back to the fresh window and forget what I opened it for. This too mortifies me. I’m as much a tech junkie as anyone, and while I’d like to blame these portable, connected toys for corrupting our supposedly more serene lives, I suspect it’s even worse: technology has tricked us into being busier every single day, and it’s not even work, it’s play.  Is this a trend we can slow down? Should we? Or are we advancing our evolution, fast-tracking an ability to connect, communicate and yes, commiserate, in a fashion previously unimagined? Having virtually everything that has been or is being created, available for free, in real time, is something I would have considered an outright miracle as a bored young punk; now it increasingly seems like the gift that will keep taking.

Counter-Point (Beaudoin): Even in the context of what it was like in this country before 1920, we are, basically, whiny, entitled worms. Life did not used to be less complicated. Life was very much more complicated, surrounded as it was by the demands of basic survival on almost every front, even for the wealthy. Pregnancy, disease, life expectancy, travel, drinking water, food production, physical labor, information distribution, the legal system, heat, cold, even just basic hygiene–all were vastly more difficult and elusive. The degree to which we are now basically helpless, dismissive of our past, and criminally soft in almost every way makes me deeply depressed at 3 a.m at least once a week.

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What Monica (Lewinsky) Means, Then and Now –

Point (Beaudoin): During the height of the Oddly Placed Cigar Era, I made plenty of jokes at Ms. Lewinsky’s expense. I didn’t think of her as a person, never considered what it might have been like to be the object of that level of scrutiny. To me she was an event. A cartoon. She was the woman naive enough to believe a self-serving philanderer really loved her, or would protect her when the time came. She was a pair of salacious lips, a 50?s haircut, a soiled dress. Most damningly, she was the woman dumb enough to confide in Linda Tripp. But then I grew up some and began to feel a great deal of empathy for Monica. I began to realize that if you collected even the smallest fraction of the really stupid things I did in my twenties and allowed the full blast of media hypocrisy to judge them, I would even now be in permanent solitary, busy talking to the walls and throwing my excrement at guards. How unfortunate to have your sexuality formed by a massively famous public figure, let alone then exposed to the world. Can you imagine standing by, powerless, while the rest of your life was determined by the whims of a sanctimonious cunt like Ken Starr? And then to be smothered under another twenty years of Clinton family prominence, your name forever brought up as a smirking reference, even as Hillary mulls another presidential run certain to kick off more cheap jokes and snide commentary? Which is all to say that I read Monica’s Vanity Fair piece genuinely rooting for her to charge out strong, unbowed, and newly emergent. Instead it wallowed in self-pity and lame justifications. She had two decades to write that fucking thing! It should have been a call to arms. A raw plea. A bruising manifesto littered with scorched politicians and gashed pundits that made Ted Kaczynski look like Ogden Nash. Didn’t really happen. Shit, she should have let me write it for her. I seriously would have for two hundred bucks and a platter of tacos.

Counter-Point (Murphy): Time has only convinced me that it’s not how great Clinton is (or was), so much as how spectacularly so many of his left-ish leaning compatriots suck by comparison, that makes liberals love their Bubba the way Bubba used to love Krispy Kreme. (The fact that he outfoxed the aforementioned ass-clown Gingrich is enough to earn him eternal goodwill in some circles, including mine.) As such, he may be a rascal, an imp, an occasionally immoral scoundrel but, dagnabit, he’s our scoundrel. While history will look increasingly less kindly at the Glass –Steagall sell-out (where triangulation met gluttony to create an unfettered shitstorm America will never fully recover from), it’s l’affaire Lewinsky that makes so many things Clinton, Inc. so difficult to digest. One might even say that Hillary was not standing by her man so much as protecting The Brand, a premonition of the brazen megalomania that hurt her in 2008 and makes her…a perfect candidate for 2016? As for poor Monica, it’s difficult to feel anything but pity for her, however naïve and vacuous she remains. That she was seduced, used and then tossed aside by an administration that was equal parts Caligula and Don Corleone is a sober reminder that history has always been written by the powerful, and the powerful are often neither great nor good people. (That history is reported these days, as it unfolds, by boot-lickers who love nothing more than the smell of a semen-scented dress is too obvious, and depressing, to warrant further commentary.) In this case, her story is His Story and however we interpret it (then, now, later) is our collective story, since all but a handful of us will always be spectators. Are we not entertained?

LEWINSKY

This article originally appeared on 10/1 in The Weeklings. More on that amazing site, HERE.

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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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Goodbye and Good Riddance, Joe Lieberman

Waaay back in November 2008 I put my feelings about Joe Lieberman on the permanent record. In a post entitled File Under: Teflon Joe (formerly filed under: Are You Fucking Kidding Me?), I pulled few punches and even allowed myself for a few fantasies. Of course he didn’t burn out, he faded away, and now he slithers off into semi-retirement (certainly he will turn up on the consulting circuit, turning expensive tricks for the powers-that-be). If there was a more shamelessly opportunistic, self-serving, solipsistic jackoff than Joe Lieberman inside the beltway this past decade, I can’t think of one (and that’s saying a lot, because there is no shortage of shamelessly opportunistic, self-serving, solipsistic jackoffs ’round these parts).

Anyway, for old time’s sake, here’s a blast from the past, in its unedited entirety.

The rumors of Joe Lieberman’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Damn. Personally, I wanted them to call this guy. Joe Lieberman didn’t need to be ignored, or voted out, or censured. He needed to be whacked. Politically speaking, of course. Mostly. I mean, let’s review the low-lights: motherfucker helps seal the deal as VP nominee–for the Republicans during the Florida fiasco in 2000. Promptly launches his ’04 campaign, which, rounding up, he had precisely 0% chance of winning.

(Side note: that he even made it as Gore’s VP choice was astonishing, considering he was the one Democrat who attempted to out-sleaze the GOP with his nose-holding piety once the wolves began to circle the wagons, post-Lewinsky. Of course, Clinton brought much of that mess entirely upon himself, but that’s neither here nor there: at worst, Holy Joe could have just shut the fuck up and stayed out of the way. Help, don’t hurt. That is your job. And, if there was some infinitesimal chance that any politician could ever be genuinely outraged by the sexual peccadilloes of another pol, much less the sitting-president, Joe’s opportunistic grandstanding was very obviously what it’s always been all about: himself. On the other hand, Gore was quite aware of this, and chose him anyway. That right there was almost sufficient reason for him to deserve the unthinkable (i.e., actually having victory snatched from him by the most inept and unqualified asshole who ever has–or ever will–run for the highest office in America. Indeed, Gore suffered so many self-inflicted wounds, he could (and should, and likely will) become a case study for how not to run a campaign). Granted, McCain gave him a run for his money with his ill-spirited, running of the bullshit debacle, but unlike McCain, Gore was actually qualified for the gig. It was his for the taking, and he consistently found ways to trip over himself, like a buffoon who couldn’t make the cut as one of the Three Stooges. And the primary reason Gore tapped Lieberman was to illustrate that he was down with the disdain; he not only approved Joe’s sanctimony, he encouraged it. Anything to distance himself from a very popular president whom he deemed unfit to campaign for him.

All of which is to say: let the record be very clear here: even back in the day–difficult as it is to imagine a day before 9/11, before Bush–Lieberman was the wrong person at the wrong time, chosen as a VP pick for completely cynical reasons in a spectacularly shortsighted act of calculated vetting. In other words, he was perfect. If he had just kept his huge, pale head out of the crossfire, he could have appropriately been relegated to the dust heap of political history, a Trivial Pursuit question that a handful of people, twenty years from now, might have answered correctly. But, of course, he seized the opportunity to be the most bellicose and hawkish Democrat in the pre-and-post rollout of the Iraq shitstorm. And that is truly saying something, when you consider how eagerly future candidates like Hillary Clinton and John Edwards sprinted to be the first ones in line to wave the flag and bomb the bad guys. Hillary, making her own very cynical and unforgivable accommodations to the neo-con nitwits, paid the ultimate price down the road, and could never run in the other direction fast enough to escape the shadow of what she had done. There, in a few sentences: the most succinct summation of why two sure-fire Democrat presidents never ascended to the throne; for Gore it was tragedy disguised as comedy; with Hillary there was never anything funny about it.)

So where did we leave off? Oh yeah. Iraq hurt everyone who climbed on the bandwagon, including Joe, who endured the humiliation of having to run as an Independent. But, as he always does, he hung on. And how did he reward the voters (and colleagues) who, when push came to shove, ultimately had his back? By bending over backwards, with that inimitable combination of bitterness and pomposity, to do everything in his power to ensure that John Mccain beat Barack Obama. Using the same unfortunate (and, in many instances, illogical) types of talking points that sold the Iraq War, and argued for America’s continued presence there, he hit the road and appealed to the worst aspects of America to make his case. Like an overly eager, brown-nosing student of Rove’s most insidious tactics, Joe questioned Obama’s patriotism, and whether or not he’d be able to keep good, loyal Americans safe. You know, kind of the way Bush has. Or McCain would. Just about any normal person would get a hernia trying to contort themselves into the twisted positions Lieberman took. Of course, it is not twisted, if one considers that the only person more consistently wrong about Iraq than Lieberman was McCain. History will show that he was, in fact, the right VP for the man who did not choose him. If anyone has been more shameless and brazen than Lieberman in his quest to maintain political power purely for the sake of having political power, it’s McCain. They deserved each other, and it made sense, when Obama won, that they both get escorted into the old folks home together, where they can beat their chests, yank out their hair, and bemoan the good old days when lying, self-aggrandizing used car salesmen could paint themselves as moral paragons.

And so…how is it possible, on any level, that Lieberman has survived, yet again? He makes The Terminator look like James Dean. There are too many clichés, all of them utterly appropriate, to go around here: does he actually have nine lives? How many pictures of prominent Democrats in bed with strippers does he carry in his wallet? How could the devil even want to trade down for his lily-white, sullied soul? How has he not been found, in a back alley, inside a new Cadillac, with an ice-pick shoved through the back of his neck? How has he not just spontaneously combusted from the sheer excess of toxic bile built up inside of him?

I have no answers to any of these questions. But, with the benefit of a few days hindsight, I can only nod my head and tip my hat to our president-elect. He is not of this earth. He is, in fact, the anti-Lieberman. Given a righteous opportunity to ensure that the closest thing we’ve seen to an actual Benedict Arnold in our time is escorted into the obscure infirmities of old age–as he so obviously deserves to be–Obama has shown his true colors. How can you realistically expect to be seen as (much less actually be) an agent of change if one of your first acts is to retaliate against such a pitiful insect as Joe Lieberman now is? (Granted, it’s exceedingly tough to swallow the notion that he not only lives to see another day, but that he retains his chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Then again, let’s see how long that lasts.) In any event, I think Obama is seeing the bigger picture here, and understanding the long-term (or, simply beyond short-term) pros and cons of how he handles this situation. No one would shed any tears over Lieberman’s corpse (again, politically speaking), but why make a martyr out of the insufferable one? Why give the ankle-biting blowhards on the Right any opportunity to say “See!” or “I told you so!” regarding the new sheriff in town.

Perhaps more important (and there is no small amount of Machiavellian overtones here), what more effective way to neuter, or at least shame, Lieberman, than by throwing his cur-ass a bone? Of course, it’s fair to counter that if Lieberman has shown anything, it’s that he is beyond shame, and that he’ll continue to do anything and everything in the monomaniacal service of…himself. Still, he’ll get his comeuppance, whether it’s in 2012, or in a few months (stay tuned). Or perhaps Obama is even smarter than that, and recognizes that Lieberman is like Sgt. Barnes in Platoon: incapable of being killed; the only thing that can kill Joe Lieberman is Joe Lieberman. I’m happy to hand him a gun, just in case. Or, you know, we can see if “Jimmy the Gent” Conway has some spare time…

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