Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

was the next step in our exploration of Roman Polanski. So far, the last, too. Maybe we'll keep going; who knows?

We ended up watching this on Thanksgiving morning, instead of the parades. An odd choice, maybe, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Because we're thankful we don't have children? was the joke of the day.

It was only a joke, but it's the most insightful thing I can think of to say about the film. It's not really a horror film at all, I came away thinking, but a sort of very dark comedy about trying to start a family in the big city.

Rosemary is the country waif in the big city (although there's no way in heaven, hell or Houston that Mia Farrow sounds like she's from Omaha), just starting out on life with her husband the actor. They find a nice apartment - that turns out to be in a building full of devil worshipers. Read "wild partiers" for "devil worshipers" and don't you have every renter's fear? Her husband's career is on the move, but it turns out that's only because he sold her baby. Read "his soul" for "her baby" and don't you have...oh wait, that's still a horror movie. But it's a more conventional one, and also a pretty good description of the compromises we all make to get ahead, the compromises a sheltered young wife (in 1965) might fear her husband is making, compromises that will compromise her too. She gets pregnant, and then it seems like everyone around her including the doctor is colluding to make her life hell - you don't have to read anything for anything to see that as reflecting a deep anxiety about pregnancy, the pain and uncertainty it brings with it, the doctor who tells you to just trust him, that he knows your body better than you do, and oh yeah, anxiety about this invader that's taken up residence in your body...

It's a very funny movie.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Chinatown (1974)

I came to movies late. In my teens I managed to see the occasional blockbuster, the PG ones at least, and once in a while watched something more serious on VHS, borrowed from the local public library. Then once I went away to college I lost interest in movies for about ten years. Saw them once in a while, on a date or with friends, but was too transient or too poor (no VCR) to see many on my own. One of my sisters had a thing for classic Hollywood, but I never thought it was for me.

It was after I graduated from college (after a long break between my sophomore and junior years) that I really got interested in movies. I took a job teaching English in Japan, and lived in company housing for three years, usually alone, but with a TV and VCR provided by the company. And I got hooked on movies. For about three years I watched obsessively, and for the last year or so, after breaking up with my girlfriend, I was averaging one a night, at least. It was a pretty pathetic existence - I knew this at the time - I'd come home from work, get dinner from one of three or four convenience stores within walking distance, and settle in for the night with a video or two. Like I say, pretty pathetic, and oh so bachelor. But I caught the film bug then. I can remember the moment when it hit. I don't remember what movie it was (probably something lame), but I remember the titles coming up and feeling a little thrill - a movie's starting. Something cool's going to happen. Like one of those self-serving AFI things.

I knew nothing. I was just watching whatever I could find in the local video stores (I'd maintain memberships in two or three at once), a pretty random selection of Hollywood stuff, classics and trash and everything in between. I should have spent this time getting into Japanese cinema - I tried, once in a while, but my Japanese wasn't yet good enough for me to feel really comfortable watching Japanese films without subtitles, and I was homesick enough that American films exerted a greater pull on me than Japanese. So it was in Japan that I explored Hollywood.

Explored it, as I say, almost randomly. I was becoming aware of film as art, but my tastes were pretty determinedly middlebrow. I worked my way through James Bond (for the first time), the Alien series, and the Star Trek movies as eagerly as I did most of Coppola, Scorsese, and de Palma. I tended to gravitate toward what you might call, not quite Guy Movies, but Guy Films - never had much taste for Schwarzenegger or Stallone, but was always a sucker for Serious Mafia Movies and Revisionist Westerns.

One of these Guy Films, one of the best, was Roman Polanski's Chinatown. I saw it several times in that period, but none of his others. Saw The Two Jakes, at least twice, and liked it, but never any other Polanski until many years later, when I was married, and we saw The Pianist, and that was at least as much for Adrian Brody as Polanski.

Why is Chinatown a Guy Film? It's got Jack Nicholson. It's got Faye Dunaway. (Bonnie and Clyde is a Guy Film, too.) It's a noir. It's a neo-noir (meaning it's much more watchable for the modern Guy than the classic noirs, which changing fashions in acting and direction have rendered a little distant). It's got Jack Nicholson (worth repeating).

Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki and I watch a lot of movies, and we try to take them seriously. Netflix is our friend. Recently we decided to explore Roman Polanski a little. The recent resurfacing of the scandal had something to do with it, I'll admit. We started with Chinatown, since neither of us had seen it in so long.

I have nothing insightful to say about it. "Forget it, Jake - it's Chinatown" is still one of the great lines in movies. Faye Dunaway is still the perfect neo-noir femme fatale. John Huston is brilliant, and Jack Nicholson is Jack, sliced-up nose and all. The color scheme, burnished yellows and browns, is the next best thing to real noir, a sunstruck updating of the idea. All of this is true, and perfectly obvious, and I'm only the five millionth person to say it.

So there's nothing to blog about here. Except that I loved it just as much as I did the first time, in my little apartment in Fujisawa. And it took me back there.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Titanic (1997)

Can I show my face in polite company if I admit to liking Titanic? I have no guilty pleasures with music - if it gives me pleasure I feel no guilt. I'm less sure of my taste in film, however.

But I do like this.

I liked it the first time I saw it, in the theater in 1997. Then I wasn't a very sophisticated moviegoer: I liked it simply. The spectacle wowed me and the love story moved me.

I've watched it a number of times since, most recently this evening with Mrs. Sgt. T, and I have to say I still like it. Not for exactly the same reasons. I have to admit now that the dialogue is pretty clunky, and the story is mechanical.

But it still works: it's a machine that does what it's supposed to do. And while you'd think being aware of that would keep me from being wowed and moved, instead I find myself wowed and moved (maybe in spite of myself) and, in addition, impressed by the efficiency of the machine.

It's going to sound odd to say this about a three-hour $200 million movie, but Titanic is incredibly economical. The love story exists entirely to show us the various parts of the ship, both before and during the sinking. You could turn this around and also say that the ship is the only thing that gives this love story any interest at all. But the fact is we have both, and they work together perfectly. We do see the whole ship, before and during the sinking, in a way that feels almost incidental to the story. And we do find ourselves caring about Jack and Rose, in a way that almost doesn't entirely depend on the borrowed urgency of the sinking.

Economical in other ways, too. The salvage-mission frame story not only works as a frame, adding/breaking up tension as needed, guiding modern-day viewers into the old world of the story, etc. It also works to draw the stereotypical male viewer into the movie, just as the love story draws the stereotypical female viewer in. The science guys on the salvage ship explain how the ship actually sank, so the guys in the audience can follow the thing as it happens in the background; and notice how we cut back to the frame story, and the science-y stuff, just after Rose and Jack first get intimate? "Enough mushy stuff - let's talk about how stuff breaks!"

And both the science stuff and the melodrama work together to create a sense of the event, a sense that this is what happened to the ship, and this is what happened to the people on it. And all of this is told through perfectly efficient visuals: always striking, always effective, and frequently poetic, in the broadest of senses. If the eerie beauty of the motionless ship half-submerged in a still sea, lights reflecting off the dark ocean, stars and flares overhead, lifeboats tiny all around, doesn't get you, maybe you can't be got.

There's a place in my personal film festival for this kind of movie.