Saturday, March 20, 2010

Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1993)

So, the "Like A Virgin" conversation.

One point of view, halfheartedly espoused by Mr. Blonde (who, remember, was in prison for most of Madonna's career), is that it's about "a girl who's very vulnerable...she's been fucked over a few times...and she meets a guy." This Mr. Brown calls the Sensitive Girl thesis: the singer has had bad experiences with love, had her heart broken, and now the right guy comes along and he's making her believe in love again, almost as if she had never known of its bad side.

The other point of view, Mr. Brown's thesis, is that the song is only about sex: the singer's experience is entirely of the carnal variety, and her current malaise isn't heartbreak, but jadedness. She's become habituated to the normal pleasures of sex - "dick dick dick dick dick dick dick dick dick." But when "this John Holmes" type come along, he's equipped to make her feel again - i.e., he's physically big enough to challenge her, and make her feel like the whole sexual experience is fresh again. He's jolted her out of her malaise, as it were.

In other words, the debate is about whether "Like A Virgin" is about spiritual/emotional renewal or a bigger, better sexual thrill.

Or: was Reservoir Dogs so revolutionary because it opened our eyes to new possibilities in filmmaking, in film-watching, engaging our minds in ways they hadn't been engaged by what Hollywood had been cranking out our whole lives? Or was it just that it gave us more profanity and more violence and more style than we were accustomed to? Was Tarantino's arrival that of a fiercely intelligent filmmaker, or just the guy who (thought he) had the biggest dick around?

The point of this movie, I think, is to say that there's no difference between those two propositions, and maybe no difference between those two propositions and the third one I snuck into the parentheses in that last sentence.

He may be right.

Roman Polanski's Frantic (1988)

First off, this is not the movie to watch when your wife is on the other side of the globe on a business trip, and you miss her.

That aside, there were two things I liked a great deal about this movie.

First, the color scheme. I probably get more excited than I should about color schemes in movies. But I really think this one works. It's almost all gray - all the hotel interiors are grey, Harrison Ford wears gray through the whole movie, a lot of the exteriors are shot with grays - concrete and macadam. And a lot of the outside scenes take place at gray times of day. Whatever isn't gray is usually a similar neutral color. I think Polanski likes to make noirs that don't observe that fundamental rule of noir: darkness. Chinatown was all golden afternoons; Frantic is all pearly dawns. Does it enhance the suspense? I think so. Frantic is about a man privately panicking, knowing something's wrong and unable to get anybody else to believe him. The cops, the hoteliers, the consulate - they're all unruffled. Imperturbable. Gray. It's almost as if the light itself doesn't believe him.

The other thing I like is the way it blurs the role of the femme fatale. The movie has two notable red presences: the protagonist's wife is wearing a red dress when she disappears. We don't even see her wearing it - we see her holding it, and know she's going to put it on, but we never see her in it until near the end. But all that time we have this image in mind of the doctor's wife in trouble somewhere, wearing a red dress. It becomes a sort of mental escape from all the gray - putting us somewhat in the place of the doctor, who just wants his wife back.

The other spot of red comes late in the movie when Michelle, the woman Ford's character finds who might be a clue to his wife's whereabouts, puts on a red dress to accompany him to a nightclub where... Anyway, by this time we've seen his wife in the red dress once, at the botched exchange. And now Michelle is in one. She's in the position of femme fatale in the film: young, sexy, doomed. She's a drug mule in way over her head; spies from two countries want her dead, and in following her around Ford's doctor is drawn deeper and deeper into the underworld. Standard femme fatale stuff, in other words. It's only cemented when she appears in the red dress.

But by this time in the film, the red dress has already come to mean something else for us: the doctor's wife. And that's when it hits you: the doctor has been running around with this Michelle for half the movie, he's been to her apartment, she's been to his room; he's told the French police that she's his mistress; he's even been naked in her bed. But there's no sexual tension between them. By design: we never for a moment feel that the doctor is in any danger of forgetting his wife.

It all comes together in a very interesting way in the end: both women are present at the final shootout, both dressed in red, and Ford tries to save both of them. Of course the femme fatale dies. There's this wondeful moment, though, when both the doctor and his wife are cradling the dying Michelle - both women in red are there, and there's no jealousy, no weirdness. Which is only right: she's young enough to be their daughter. But when was the last time you saw a movie obey that logic?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill (2003-4)


Kill Bill
holds a special place in my heart because it's the only one of Tarantino's movies that I can play the sourcery game with. I've seen just enough yakuza films and samurai films and Japanese action movies to get what he's doing with his references here, at least sometimes.

That interests me because with his other films I read reviews and essays detailing all the intertextuality and wonder if I'm really getting them. No, scratch that: it's not so much "getting them" I'm worried about as whether or not I'm having a valid experience of them. Like, the line on his films often seems to boil down to them being a postmodern thang, only truly existing in the interstices of the vortices of its multiplicitous referentialities. And unless you can correctly hopscotch among the referents, you can't hang with the big dogs. Not being a big dog myself, I've never been able to test that hypothesis. I've had to content myself with enjoying the many pleasures his films offer to those who don't get all the winks and nods.

But with Kill Bill I sort of get some of the winks and nods. So what does that do to my experience of the film?

Here's where my long studies of Japanese popular literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries come in. Intense intertextuality, art that's a mashup of gazillions of examples of prior art, is nothing postmodern at all: they were doing it in Edo. I find I appreciate Kill Bill much like I appreciate Eight Dogs: as something that works both as a story in its own right and as a catalog of all the stories of its ilk that came before it. I've seen Suzuki Seijun's Pistol Opera, and I love it, and after I got over the self-importance of knowing where QT got the yellow suit, I realized that still and all, Kill Bill is its own movie. I could identify every single one of its sources but that wouldn't mean I had understood this movie. More to the point, I could see every single one of its sources but that wouldn't mean I had seen this movie. It's its own thing, as well as being all those other things.

Maybe that's obvious. But it's nice to see it for myself.

Seeing this for the first time, when it came out, I was a little disappointed: after the amazing emotional depth of Jackie Brown had stiffed with audiences he seemed to be retreating to the mostly-surface shininess of Pulp Fiction. I saw it as an exercise in style, when with his previous film Tarantino had revealed himself capable of more.

Now I'm able to appreciate that this film has its own moments of emotional resonance - the final encounter between Kiddo, Bill, and their daughter just knocked me out this time. And that final scene with Beatrix bawling on the floor of the motel bathroom - that's not the work of a shallow filmmaker.

But more than that, Basterds is an undeniably serious film, and that means he's not in permanent retreat, which conversely allows me to enjoy the intoxicating stylistic experimentation of Kill Bill for its own sake. It's really the apotheosis of Tarantino's aesthetic, and he may never be able to top it.

In short: gawd, this is a cool movie.

J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey (1961)

I first read this at the same time that I first read Nine Stories. Same edition, too, I think. Re-reading it now I feel the same way I did then: it's his best. (Then again, I never got around to reading Roofbeams/Seymour until yesterday. We'll see.)

In my mind it had always lingered as Fitzgerald for the '50s, which is evidently what Salinger had set out to be. Same eloquent and witty delineation of a particular intellectual and socioeconomic set, same urbane and yet not disengaged prose... Anyway, I saw a connection. I know a lot of people do.

What surprised me re-reading it was the spiritual dimension. I feel dumb being surprised by it, since it's obviously the point of the book. And I'm not unsympathetic to the spiritual quest here, as I'm in principle a supporter of the varieties of religious experience. As I get older I'm afraid I'm getting more, not less, materialistic (in every sense), but still: go seekers. (And, when I'm in the mood, go Beats: this book clearly connects Salinger, possibly against his will, to Kerouac and Ginsberg and them-all. More angst and less joy, but same concerns.)

But even now in the full enlightenment that this book is about Searching for Truth and Transcendence, I still think it's the novelistic qualities I love it for. I know a lot of people are rubbed the wrong way by the Glass family, but I'm fascinated by them, which is a measure of Salinger's description and conceptual abilities. He's created some immortal characters here, and he has them say amazing things. Yes, I find Zooey's speeches just the tiniest bit tedious by the end, but overall, this is a tour-de-force of writing.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof (2007)

So I guess I'm more or less on record as liking the talkier Tarantinos. This one qualifies. And I love it for its dialogue. Even more than most of his movies, this one loves its beautiful women, and their dialogue (meaning their minds: Tarantino is a well-known feminist) is as sexy as their bodies. And, particularly on a second viewing, everything Stuntman Mike says is brilliant, brilliant verbal foreplay for his twisted jouissance to come.

But that's not what I love this movie for most. I love it most for its structure, its almost classically simple parallelism. The way it divides so neatly into halves, with the plot in each half almost perfectly mirroring the other (up to the point where Zoe Bell starts to kick ass); the way each half has such a slow, languid, sensual buildup, peaking in a big champagne pop of action. It's an elegant movie, if I may be permitted to describe a Tarantino that way. I find it very beautiful, on a structural level. As well as cool as hell on most other levels.

What I don't love it for is its musical philosophy. Actually, I do - mostly. Joe Tex? Check. Staggolee? Check. Jack Nitzsche? Check. Insisting that Pete Townshend made a mistake in not quitting the Who to join Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich? Insufferably hipsterish. (Is QT trying to make us hate Jungle Julia at this moment, right before the crash? Discuss.)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Bob Dylan: "Repossession Blues" (1978)

Dylan opened his '78 shows revue-style, with the band doing a Vegasy instrumental version (heavy on the sax) of one of his songs ("A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" for the first half of the year, then "My Back Pages").

Then Dylan would come out and kick things off proper with, not one of his greatest hits as the overture had implied, but a blues cover. "Love Her With A Feeling" and "She's Love Crazy" were standard choices; in the year-end US shows he did a very inventive arrangement of "I'm Ready." But my favorite - or at least, the one I think works best in the context of the events of the year - was this one, "Repossession Blues."

Olof credits it to one Roland James, about whom I know nothing; I've never heard anyone's version but Dylan's. Musically it's a standard blues, with standard but effective lyrics about poverty ("they took my television / now they're comin' for my radio"). What makes it so appropriate, of course, is that Dylan got divorced in 1977, very famously, and lost (or so it's speculated) a considerable part of his not inconsiderable fortune in the settlement. Wags dogged the tour with the nickname "The Alimony Tour." I don't tend to care too much about Bob's personal life, but at least in the '70s, he was very clearly (if coyly) making the state of his marriage the subject of his art, so is it even remotely possible that there wasn't something self-referential going on in his choice of this song?

Of course, Bob being Bob, he only performed it twice. He never makes the obvious move (except when the obvious move is to avoid the obvious move, in which case he makes it...). The best-known version is the one I'm going to link you to right now: it comes from the early-'78 rehearsals in Santa Monica, before they took off for Japan. He then performed it once and only once, in Osaka on February 24. The live version is pretty much the same as the rehearsal version, and they're both wonderful.

What this displays is Bob's mastery of the blues. Among many, many other things, Dylan is one of our great singers of blues songs. Here he's in a relaxed mood, not overselling the song, just letting it roll forward with all the unprepossessing drive of a new Chevrolet Bel Air (worth every dollar you put down on it, I guess). And he's not trying to sound like anyone here, not trying to sound like that mythical black janitor in Columbia Studios in '61: he's singing from the center of his own '78 conception, voice laden with sarcasm and tension.

It's a key track, one of the most important of the year, and if I ran the zoo it would lead off any representation of Dylan's work in 1978.

Another thought on Inglourious Basterds

The wife's away this week, and out of sheer boredom I decided to watch all of Tarantino's films again. We'll see how far I get. Started last night with Inglourious Basterds. Felt about it pretty much the same way I did the first time - still love it - may have enjoyed it more this time. Wasn't as worried, I guess, about what it was saying about torture.

Which is probably the right way to approach this movie. This time I was struck by something Brad Pitt's character says in that memorable scene where we first see the Basterds in action whacking Germans. He says, "Killing Nazis is the closest we get to going to the movies," or words to that effect.

Reverse it and you have what is pretty obviously the point of this movie: going to the movies is the closest most of us will ever get to killing Nazis. To, in other words, seeing good triumph over evil, and even participating in that triumph - most of us partake of great events only vicariously.

In other words this movie is really about the capacity of the movies to offer us catharsis, a space in which to live out the things we can't in real life. Shosanna does this in a very literal way - she doesn't get to experience her vengeance, her triumph, only her cinematic avatar does.
Victims of the Nazis don't get to bash Nazi heads in - only their celluloid homonculi do.

None of which is to say that because it's "just a movie," we don't have to worry about what it says about torture - if nothing else this movie should convince us that the diminutive "just" is a slur on art. But it is to say that, at least potentially, violence onscreen (on the page, or in a song) can have a different meaning than it does in real life. Can. And that maybe we don't have to, even shouldn't, forbid to our imaginations everything forbidden to our bodies.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Barbee Boys

In many ways the Barbee Boys are my quintessential '80s band, even though I didn't discover them until the early '90s. They took so many musical clichés of that decade - the Police-style production, the Men at Work-style soprano sax, the Edge-style screaming guitar, the Fixx-style angry white funk - and made them all work. There's just too much to love about them.

About that Police sound. Everybody was under the Police's spell in the early '80s, every musician at least who was at all interested in making their peace with the new decade; their clean, bright, uncluttered sound offered a way out of punk's angry mess and mainstream rock's orchestral stodge, and their unabashed chops offered hope that, despite what the rock press was eager to proclaim, there was still a place for musicianship in rock. Barbee Boys take that all to heart, too, but they pack that tight sound even tighter with the anger of their songs. The bright clean space of the Police becomes the harsh glare of a dance-floor strobe for the Barbees.

Those songs: at their best the Barbees' lyrics explored the hot, jagged edges of romance in the pumped-tight, coked-up, fucked-up '80s. Edgy, agitated, nervous lyrics, delivered with angry aplomb by their two lead vocalists: Konta and Kyoko. Yes, that's a boy and a girl. This was their secret weapon. Sometimes one or the other would take over for a whole song, but at their best they were singing against each other, giving you a lover's argument or treacherous flirtation in song. Their voices and deliveries were perfect for this: Konta the intellectual, shrill male (think Elvis Costello with a sweeter voice and less of a sense of humor), Kyoko the husky-voiced female, equally capable of crooning seductively and belting angrily. (I don't think I've ever heard a sexier singer than Kyoko. Maybe, in a completely different vein, Astrud.)

It was a stunningly effective formula, and they managed to come up with enough variations on it - ska interludes here, big-echo power-rock there, almost-tender ballads occasionally - to keep it interesting without losing their punch.

Here's their first single.

Bob Dylan: "Something There Is About You" (2/20/78 Tokyo)

I've been listening to a lot of 1978 Bob lately. One of my new discoveries is his only rendition on the '78 world tour of "Something There Is About You." It came during the very first show, in Tokyo on February 20. Why he dropped it is a mystery: the flowery orchestration works a lot better for this song than for a lot of others that stayed in the setlist all year.

It's one of his most delicate lyrics to begin with, a gentle nostalgic look at youth and love - he even mentions "old Duluth" - and on Planet Waves it's cast into a magnificent tide that seemingly only the Band could create. It sounds improvised, a spontaneous outpouring of music.

But the '78 arrangement manages to more than hold its own, flute trills and gospel choruses and mandolin flourishes combining with a stately beat and very Robertsonian guitar lines to create a contemplative lake stillness off of which Dylan can skip his vocal stones. It doesn't sound improvised - it's very carefully arranged and it sounds it - but it's a great arrangement, perfectly serving the lyric. And Dylan delivers a committed vocal, easily capturing the mood of the poetry, not erasing the Planet Waves version, but not letting you miss it either.

If I ran the zoo, this would certainly be on my multidisc representation of Dylan's work in 1978.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland

Mrs. Sgt. T and I are big Tim Burton fans. Emotional Tim Burton fans, the kind of people for whom Mr. Burton represents an unqualified endorsement of unfettered imagination, a stalwart support for anyone out standing in their left field: a weirdness that doesn't apologize for itself. Every so often I suspect I've misjudged him, though - or rather, to be properly self-conscious about it, I am reminded that this Tim Burton I love is probably primarily a creature of my own imagination, and only touches the real director at one or two points, like the contact of spheres (musical or not).

Alice made me think that.

We've been looking forward to this ever since we saw banners for it in the Boston Common Loew's a year ago. For the obvious reasons: turn the guy who made Corpse Bride loose in Wonderland? Even if he is working for the mouse, there's no way this can suck, right?

And as we were in the theater, watching it, I was satisfied. Visually, it's perfect - the script provides Mr. Burton with a pretext for presenting us a Wonderland that's not bright primary colors, but tattered and decaying, Victoriana not as its heroine lives it, but as her grandchildren would encounter it in junk shops. It's a whimsical vision, but not sugary; for every adorable childish fantasy (the frog who ate the tarts) it gives us a striking grotesque (Helena B.C.'s Queen). The Cheshire Cat is everything it should be; so are the White Rabbit and the March Hare, and pretty much every character. And the Hatter - let's just say that when Johnny Deep recites the first verse of "Jabberwocky" the movie achieves a kind of poetry that only Burton can seem to achieve these days, and only in unapologetically weird fantasy.

So, it delivered.

But the longer I thought about it the more disappointed I became in the film's take on Alice. There's one moment that crystallizes it for me. At the end, Alice (who this film has reimagined as a young woman on the cusp of either getting married or doing something else with her life) has a tender moment with the Hatter, who is in this film something of a Suiter (sic) as well. He asks her why she doesn't just stay in (w)Underland this time. She hesitates, but then gives just the answer you were afraid she'd give, which is that she has things in the real world that she needs to take care of blah blah blah.

I.e. she fetters her imagination, comes in out of the cold of left field, apologizes for her weirdness: the film posits this whole fantasy world as a simple function of adolescence, and worse, it instrumentalizes it, makes fantasy a mere tool for working through real-life issues, subordinating fantasy to "real life," containing it, neutering it.

It's the only thing she could do in the context of this script, of course - which reimagines the Alice story as a girl power thing, where a Disney princess is faced with a choice between a life of traditional subservient femininity and one of self-actualizing adventure. In such a context of course she has to make this choice, embrace real life, face her dilemmas and work through them. And don't, pray, get me wrong: I have no love for traditional subservient femininity and much love for girl power.

But it pains me to see Lewis Carroll's masterpiece of wilful nonsense (and I sat down and read the books last week, after seeing the film, so I could finally make my acquaintance with Wonderland as written - I can't believe I never read them before - true masterpieces) - that is, pure play as end in itself, not as didactic tool - reduced to, well, didacticism. I don't even have anything against didacticism - some of my favorite literature is didactic, and I think more literature is didactic than most people realize...

It's just that it's clear to me that the people responsible for this Alice had no clue as to what the original Alice meant - which is, precisely, a resistance to something as instrumentalizing as "meaning." Poetry may mean something, but poetry is not reducible to what it means: it's not an argument. And the same goes for nonsense. There may be symbolic elements to Alice - satiric, topical, even Freudian "meanings" to be found - but the whole is not reducible to them: it is not an allegory. But that's what Burton's film makes it.

Is it his fault? I'm fully prepared to believe that this conception of the story was locked into the project from the beginning, since it feels so contemporary Disney. I want to believe that Disney had decreed that this be a girl-power Alice, and that Burton was powerless to depart from that rubric, and that he accepted this devil's bargain because of the chance it gave him to play in this visual universe. Maybe, maybe not; I've been thinking through his other films, and it's not like this is the first time he's given a film an ending that furls its freak flag (Planet of the Apes comes to mind)...

So, Tim Burton: unabashed fellow of the odd, or secret abasher of it?

PS: I'm done with 3D.