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

con3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This essay originally appeared in PopMatters and is featured in Murphy’s Law, Vol. One –available now.

Share

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

WH1

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

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

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

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

1. Taxi Driver

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

2. Goodfellas

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

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

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

3. The Bounty

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

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

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

4. Marathon Man

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

5. Chinatown

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

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

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

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

6. Burnt By The Sun

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

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

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

7. Full Metal Jacket

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

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

8. The Deer Hunter

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

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

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

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

9. The Conversation

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

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

10. Stroszek

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

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

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

So, what did I miss?

What are your favorite scenes depicting human beings behaving badly?

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

Share

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

WH1

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

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

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

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

1. Taxi Driver

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

2. Goodfellas

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

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

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

3. The Bounty

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

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

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

4. Marathon Man

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

5. Chinatown

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

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

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

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

6. Burnt By The Sun

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

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

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

7. Full Metal Jacket

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

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

8. The Deer Hunter

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

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

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

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

9. The Conversation

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

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

10. Stroszek

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

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

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

So, what did I miss?

What are your favorite scenes depicting human beings behaving badly?

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

Share

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.

Share

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

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

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

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

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

1. Taxi Driver

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

2. Goodfellas

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

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

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

3. The Bounty

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

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

4. Marathon Man

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

5. Chinatown

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

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

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

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

6. Burnt By The Sun

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

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

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

7. Full Metal Jacket

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

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

8. The Deer Hunter

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

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

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

9. The Conversation

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

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

10. Stroszek

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

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

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

So, what did I miss?

What are your favorite scenes depicting human beings behaving badly?

Share

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share

Essential Performance: Gene Hackman in ‘The Conversation’*


Harry Caul is a man less concerned with the answers to uneasy questions than the questions themselves. He is a well-regarded surveillance specialist; a self-employed spy who builds his own equipment and attracts high profile clients who will pay top dollar for his services. He claims not to care about the inner feelings of others, yet goes to great lengths to keep anyone from gleaning his personal thoughts. As such, he is a human coil of simmering tension, all nervous energy and restraint. It seems as though an urgent dialogue is endlessly unspooling in his mind. Or, he has several urgent dialogues simultaneously distracting him. Or, he is ceaselessly trying to suppress these urgent, distracting dialogues. That he is unsuccessful is obvious: his discomfort around others reveals the obsessions and idealizations simmering deeply beneath his austere facade. Ultimately, Hackman exposes a man who struggles so fervently to avoid telling anyone anything he inexorably shows everyone everything.

“I don’t have anything personal, nothing of value,” Caul insists at one point, and we know he means it. Or, we understand he thinks he means it. Or we realize, by the end, that he very much wants to mean it. The comprehension that he is involved in an event that might have appalling consequences unnerves him; the realization that he abetted people he would not knowingly have worked for devastates him. He trusts no one and thinks the worst of people, which is his personal tragedy. The larger tragedy is that on the few occasions he lets his guard down, or trusted his own instincts, he is proven spectacularly wrong for having done so.

In the closing scene, Caul plays his saxophone amidst the wreckage of his apartment, which he has ransacked to find a hidden microphone. Hackman, that most expressive and gregarious of actors, might achieve his finest moment portraying a lonely man’s quiet disintegration. All of his (apparently dispensable) possessions destroyed, he must finally face the music—while the sound of an unaccompanied horn cries out his sad song.

*Taken from the (highly recommended) PopMatters feature Essential Film Performances, Part  Two, running all this week. (A full assessment/appreciation of The Conversation is forthcoming.)

Share