07 – Once Upon a Time in America

Abstract – Directed by Sergio Leone; Robert DeNiro stars as a prohibition era Jewish mobster.

Background – In spite of some people claiming they “aren’t real westerns” The Man With No Name Trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West are four of the most well-known westerns of all time. So when I heard that Leone’s final film got chopped up against his will but had recently been almost fully restored, I knew it had to be on my list this month.

Comments – 1: Leone’s direction is really the star here. While there are some very good performances from Robert DeNiro, James Woods, and Joe Pesci among others, the reason this film is at all watchable is that Leone has a marvelous sense of pacing. I want to make clear that this is a near four hour movie and yet it never really feels that way. Leone’s greatest gift as a director was his sense of pacing, making westerns – the genre most commonly associated with a boring sentiment – exciting and fresh. Here he takes a crime saga about the dangers of greed in America and develops a remarkable character study over a brooding four hours.

2: And here we make history. This is my first negative comment for one of the films this month. While Leone has an excellent sense of pacing which makes the film very watchable, the film has a huge problem in its storytelling. Almost four hours of film and the plot we get is unfortunately lacklustre. As the final hour approached I was struck with the feeling of “three hours over already” while simultaneously feelings “is that it?” It was truly bizarre because I wasn’t bored but I was certainly craving more information.

3: This is a particular example of the problem above. There are two rather graphic rape scenes. They are long scenes and they are hard to watch. Their graphic nature could be attributed to something thematic but eventually it moves from theme to gratuity and you start wondering why you’re watching this for so long. You get the message, but Leone keeps beating you over the head with it.

Deep Cuts: I want to specifically focus on one scene in the deep cuts to fully demonstrate what I’m getting at. There is an excellent sequence early in the film where one of the children (one of the younger DeNiro’s compatriots) buys a cupcake topped with whipped cream that he’s going to sell for a few minutes with the local prostitute. He gets the cupcake and knocks on her door and I told to wait for a few minutes. So he sits down on the stairs to wait for his chance. As he is waiting he starts playing with the wrapping on the cupcake trying to get some of the whipped cream out. Realizing how good it tastes, he unwraps the cupcake and starts slowly taking bits of whipped cream off. He considers taking the cherry on top but thinks that would defeat the purpose of having bought the cupcake in the first place. So he puts the cherry back and starts scraping bits of whipped cream off the sides of the wrapping until he caves and eats the cherry and the entire cupcake shortly after that. This is almost a seven minute scene and it benefits from Leone’s pacing while suffering from his script. This scene is very long and generally a metaphor for the core theme of this film: greed. It never feels slow but at the same time, every scene of the film is like that. Long metaphors filled with emotional content that don’t satisfy.

Double Feature

Watch with Miller’s Crossing for a night of Jewish mobsters.

Watch with Blade Runner The Final Cut for a pair of director’s visions restored.

06 – Sideways

06 – Sideways

Abstract – Directed by Alexander Payne; Paul Giamatti stars as a middle aged failed author and middle school English teacher who takes his soon to be married friend on a wine tour in northern California in a movie about anxiety, depression, loneliness and wine.

Background – I was not planning on this being a part of this series. I made a stupid typo when selecting my films and wrote that Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation was released in 2004. I finished watching Lost in Translation and started writing it up and then noticed that I had made this mistake and was faced with a decision. I could either, pick a new film from 2004 and replace Oldboy later in the month or I could pick a film from 2004 that I had seen before and watch it now. Obviously I chose the former. Sideways is my favourite film of all time. Around this time last year it replaced Jaws which had been my top choice for about a year and a half when it replaced A Few Good Men which was the film that got me into films. This film features the character that identify with more than any other in all of film. This film is so important to me that when I was in a fairly dark place and blogging drunk I started taking emotional moments from the film and in total Fight Club style started posting, “I am Miles (insert noun here)” posts. I laugh every time, I feel every pain, I know the movie inside and out and it registers with me on a fundamental level I often have a hard time describing. This friends, is a special movie.

Comments – 1: Paraphrasing the film, “Why that movie did not make you the biggest star, is a sin.” Here I am referring to Paul Giamatti. Giamatti is the key to this film because his emotional journey through Miles is the star of the story. We learn early in the film that he is an aspiring author who has written a novel partially inspired by his life. As he starts his trip with Jack, hungover I might add, Jack tells Miles that he will not allow Miles depression and anxiety to ruin the trip for him. When Jack tries to get Miles to flirt with a woman (Maya) who seems interested in him, Miles is too nervous to engage. When Jack and Miles get drunk with the two female leads, Miles goes to the “dark side” and “drink and dials” his ex-wife we see the veneer of charm that Miles uses to keep people from seeing how truly miserable he is. We only see that misery a few times in the film. Once when Jack tells him his ex-wife remarried, another when Jack confronts him about the “drink and dial”, next when he reveals Jack’s lie to Maya and she becomes livid with him, and finally when he sees his ex-wife and she tells him that she is now pregnant. It is never pronounced, only betrayed in the small flutter of Giamatti’s eyes and the stress in his face. But what Giamatti did in this film was create a full character, a character who is anxious and depressed and whose defensive mechanisms are on the verge of falling apart at any moment.

2: The editing and the music are the technical keys to this film’s success. That “drink and dial” scene I mentioned before is very important to understanding this because it is a montage that lets the music bring us on a journey. Jack and Miles are at dinner with Maya and Stephanie and they are all conversing as they choose wine and food. The montage then begins and a harpsichord starts playing the film’s main happy theme. It’s a little slower than we last heard it and as the wine pours and the food is served, so are Miles’ smiles. Then the music transitions into what the OST calls “Miles’ Theme” but could just as well be called “The Sad Song.” We see images of wine being poured laid over Miles’ face as his drunken thoughts go to the dark side. Its two and a half minutes of beautiful filmmaking and it gives us insight in to where wine can take Miles.

3: There is a scene about mid-way through Sideways that critic Manhola Dargis described as a “small masterpiece.” As Jack and Stephanie have gone to bed, Miles and Maya become close over a nice bottle of wine. Maya asks Miles why he has an obsession with Pinot Noir. It would be a disservice to the scene to not quote it directly so here is what Miles replied.

“it’s a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It’s uh, it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s, you know, it’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and… ancient on the planet.”

Drunk and smitten, Miles then asks Maya why she is into wine, and her response is just as beautiful.

“How it’s a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your ‘61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline… And it tastes so fucking good.”

I’ll go into this scene further in the Deep Cuts but the dialogue in this scene is important. Not only is it exquisitely written but it has layers and layers of meaning that can be delved into.

Deep Cuts – Here I’m going to delve further into the scene described above as well as a few others and why they matter to me personally. Just prior to that scene, Miles asks Maya, “what’s the bottle that did it.” What was the bottle that got you into wine? Among cineastes we ask a similar question except about which movie did it. Sideways is a part of a small sub-generic-category of film that is about a hobby and forces viewers to understand the passion or evacuate. The best my passion has ever received was Martin Scorsese’s Hugo but this film describes the passion of a hobby better than any film I’ve ever seen. Those two speeches by Miles and Maya describe that it’s more than a hobby and more than a passion, it is a way of life.  Miles, earlier in the film, describes his ex-wife as having, “the best palate of any woman I’ve ever met.” One reading of the film would be to say that Miles is elitist and a little misogynist when it comes to wine tasting, but a closer understanding of his character reveals that distinguishing her as a woman is information about who he can fall in love with. Miles requires someone who loves wine as much as he does to connect with. This running theme is personal to me because I’ve gotten to a point where film is something that a partner of mine would have to truly love for me to be in a relationship. It’s more than a hobby, it’s more than a passion, it is a life style.

But back to the meat of that exchange, it is obvious that Miles is describing himself as he describes the Pinot. He sees himself as misunderstood and rough around the edges while also beautiful and filled with the capacity for love. That metaphor lies right at the top of that scene and while the line is very well written, it requires Maya’s response for it to truly be “coaxed into its fullest form.” Maya responds to his ode-to-pinot by describing what could be best called an empathetic love of wine. Maya looks at the big picture, that wine is alive and growing until it dies. She brings a wide metaphor of life-as-wine into a direct appeal to Miles to open the proverbial bottle as she touches his hand. He says that his love needs coaxing, and she says she wants to help but that he has to pop the cork. It’s a beautiful metaphor that brings the prosaic down to the personal.

Also started in that scene is some information that becomes critical later in the film. Miles reveals that he has a 61 Cheval-Blanc in storage and had been saving it for his tenth wedding anniversary. This is obviously a very fancy bottle of wine for Maya declares that, “The day you open a 61 Cheval-Blanc, that’s the special occasion.” In, what is not a stretch to call, the second most emotional scene in the film, Miles opens that bottle. After returning from the trip and damaging things with Maya, Jack gets marries with Miles as the best man. Before the reception, Miles’ ex-wife confronts him and reveals that she is pregnant. The look on Miles face is one of complete devastation and as she leaves he returns to his apartment to get his prized bottle of wine. The next shot is at a fast food restaurant where Miles is drinking his wine from a disposable cup, washing down a burger and fries. Miles confronts that he is never going back to whatever happiness he had before with his ex and the special occasion is one final irony. Was this film not a comedy it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the next scene be one of Miles hanging in his apartment. It would seem that Miles’ suicidal musings will finally come to fruition until he gets a call from Maya. She forgives him for what had happened on the trip and then compliments him on his novel. She remains confused though about the ending, asking if one of the characters finally commits suicide. And in the final moments of the film we see Miles driving to Maya and knocking on her door, leaving their future ambiguous. Unlike Miles’ novel however the ambiguity is not about life, for we can be certain that Miles has come through the other side.

Double Feature

Watch with High Fidelity for another comedy about a struggling artist with a big mouth and too many words in his head.

Watch with Manhattan for the parallels between Maya and Miles and Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.

Watch with Planes Trains and Automobiles for a great pair of buddy movies.

This is my favourite film of all time. And while I know that that has changed in the past and will likely change again, I will never forget the impact this film has on me.

05 – Blow Out

Abstract – Directed by Brian De Palma; John Travolta stars as a movie audio technician who records the audio of the assassination of a presidential candidate.

Background – As I explained in my post about Blow-Up, this was one of the last minute additions to this list. However I have had a long experience with this story through its related filmography. I was fairly young when I first saw Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State and still to this day love that film. Then in school I first saw The Conversation, a far superior film which then led me to Antonioni’s Blow-Up and then finally De Palma’s Blow Out.

Comments – 1: Red, white and blue, a huge portion of the frames of this film are an American flag distorted. As I watched this wholly engrossing story happen I became more amazed at how in each scene there would be something red and something blue on a white background. It was stunning and it bashes you over the head with the message that the foundations of America are crumbling and distorted. It is beautiful; totally and completely beautiful; and sad as I’ll soon describe.

2: Travolta gives the best performance of his career here. Better than Grease, better than Saturday Night Fever, better than Pulp Fiction. Travolta plays a fully developped character with a history, with morals, with dreams, even if those dreams are eventually dashed. He is able to create great chemistry with all of his co-stars and his performance shows all the paranoia and distrust that he can muster.

3: The direction and the homage; as I described in my write up for Blow-Up the best scenes of that film are as the main character is taking his photographs and blowing up the image to find evidence of the murder. This film has a similar sequence when Travolta is going through his tape and finding the sound of the gun shot and matching it up to a film he has of the events. Its tensely edited and as with the best of thrillers, it is impossible to look away.

Deep Cuts – Blow-Up is about a civilian who witnesses a civilian murder. The Conversation is about a recording surveillance expert with past government contracts who records what could be a murder about to happen. Blow Out is about a civilian who had worked for the police in the past and records a political assassination. Enemy of the State is about an innocent man who comes into possession of a recording of a political assassination and is then himself surveyed. Each film becomes more political than the last and each film moves further away from civilian involvement than the last. The first film is demonstrably anti-counter culture while all of the other films become more definitively anti-government.

Going in reverse though, the films show another trend. Each film becomes more ambiguous in its style and message. Enemy of the State shows the specific recording of a political assassination and the guilty assassins using more surveillance to track down the recording. It’s a purely anti-government control theme with no room for ambiguity. Skipping this film for a second, The Conversation is less about politics and more about the ubiquity of surveillance. Blow-Up is the equivalent of get-off-my-lawn in its politics. But Blow Out is the most interesting of them all. Blow Out is about Watergate, there is no doubt about that, however the film takes a stance against power that has nothing to do with surveillance. The surveillance is not coming from those who possess power and can be removed from the political equation. Travolta’s politics in this film are about the ubiquity of politics. The police, the media, and of course elections are about power. Nothing else matters and anyone willing to get in the way with a concern for morals are eliminated. And the saddest part is that in this film, they get away with it. Travolta’s love interest and the only other person who witnessed the crime is killed and the evidence is destroyed. Travolta goes back to his job, distraught, and becomes jaded, eliminated in the eyes of the powerful.

Double Feature

Watch with Blow-Up, The Conversation, and Enemy of the State if you want a comprehensive film experience about surveillance.

Watch with Insomnia if you want a night of tension and colour and concern about the state of police.

04 – The Phantom of Liberty

Abstract – Directed by Luis Bunuel… this film is difficult to describe. It is about the lives of a lot of different well off people living in France before the events of May 1968. I could go into more detail but I think it’s a little beside the point.

Background – I’m a film student. If there’s one thing I think every film student has seen it is Un Chien Andalou. Luis Bunuel’s collaboration with Salvador Dali is one of the most famous pieces of surrealist art ever and any time a film prof talks about surrealism in film, Un Chien Andalou is a part of the conversation. However that actually wasn’t my first introduction to Bunuel. There’s a great moment in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris where Owen Wilson’s character talks to a young Bunuel and tells him to make a movie about people who go to a dinner party but are incapable of leaving. Gil is describing the film The Exterminating Angel which Bunuel would make about 35 years later in 1962. Angel was my first Bunuel film followed by Andalou and then in one of my classes I watched The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and a clip from The Phantom of Liberty.

Comments – 1: The strengths of this film are relegated to some specific scenes since there are no stand out performances. I’ll start with the blatantly absurd ones. The best scene – the one I watched in class – features a group of people arriving for what would appear to be a dinner party. However the table has toilets seated around it and the guests all drop trou and begin conversing while smoking and reading magazines. After a few minutes of conversation the character we’ve been following gets up to “go to the dining room.” He goes to a private room where he sits down and unveils a table at which he starts eating a well prepared dinner alone. This is the most absurd of the scenes and while it is not flagrantly funny, the absurdity of this film is most poignant here in its commentary about the division between class and obscenity in the upper class.

2: The next best scene is the funniest scene in the film. Two parents hear from their daughter’s school that she has gone missing. They arrive at the school and the teacher starts to explain what has happened when their daughter comes and tugs on her mother’s dress. The mother acknowledges her daughter but tells her to go back to her seat while continuing to panic about her missing daughter. The parents then go to the police, with their daughter in tow, to file a missing persons report. The chief of police then commends the parents for bringing their daughter along because it will help them create a more detailed missing persons report. It was that line when I burst out laughing. It was only at the end of the film when I realized the point of the scene but I’ll save that for the deep cuts.

3: The final scene that is important to comment on is the most highly critical of religion. A woman is on her way to see her sick father and stops for the night in a small inn because of a storm. There she meets four priests who visit her before she goes to sleep offering to pray with her. After a small cut away, we return to the priests who are now smoking and playing poker with the woman, using their religious artifacts as chips. The woman goes to find matches in another room and the couple in that room invite the woman and the priests in for a drink. As they all celebrate, the couple slowly change into their BDSM outfits and the woman begins whipping the bare buttocks of the man as he deprecates himself verbally. The woman and the priests leave in disgust.

Deep Cuts: Those three scenes are thematically significant when you take into account the riot at the end of the film. While we are only given that information sonically, I think it’s not hard to imagine these riots being those that occurred in May of 1968 or at least ideologically similar to those ones. Each of those scenes deals with someone in a position of power. The man from the first scene is a professor at the military academy, the parents from the second scene are very well-to-do, and all of the people at the inn are in positions of power (one a nurse, four priests, etc). In all four scenes they show a bourgeois sense of morality that is misguided and out of touch, a part of the cause of the May ’68 riots. If this film can be classified simply in its themes, it is in the nature of the bourgeois as out-of-touch.

Double Feature

Watch with The Dreamers for another perspective on May ’68.

Watch with The Life Acquatic with Steve Zissou for some good fun poked at the bourgeois.

03 – Shame

Abstract – Directed by Steve McQueen; Michael Fassbender stars as a well off executive struggling with sex addiction.

Background – I first came across this film through The Film Experience blog in the run up to the 2011 Oscar nominations. Being a bit of a Tarantino nerd, I had first become aware of Fassbender for his small roll in Inglourious Basterds. In 2011 he also starred as Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method which put him back on my radar. So when TFE posted an Oscar chart with Fassbender as a contender for Best Actor I took real notice. The concept itself is pure dramatic gold and the more I learned about the project and the director the more I wanted to see the film. It was one of my top 5 films of 2011 and is still a film that I love for its beauty and horror.

Comments – 1: The Direction is stunning. The most common complaint of this film (really all of McQueen’s films) is their heavy handed artistry. Extremely long takes, minimalist dialogue and action, showy acting; McQueen does nothing subtly. For me though, that works incredibly well. The two best examples of that here are a long take of Fassbender running through New York to avoid a rough situation in his apartment and one of Carey Mulligan singing New York New York. Both of these are as art film as you can get but since that is my cup of tea I loved every minute of it.

2: Fassbender is the key to this film. He drifts between functioning and desperate in a strained way that highlights the crisis within this character. He fucks (I don’t use that term lightly, the sex in this movie is not making love and it’s not doing it, he is fucking someone and it is graphic) no less 8 people over the course of the film and none of it is sexy. It feels empty and that is demonstrated best in Fassbender’s face as he move between passionate and relieved. As though every second he is not engaged sexually is torture and as soon as he finishes, the torture begins again.

Deep Cuts: Thematically this film touches on what meaningless sex is. The most well defined relationship in the film is between Fassbender and one of his coworkers go out to dinner and the two of them are obviously flirting. He describes that he doesn’t see the point in relationship and she asks him, “then what are we doing here.” The date seems to have gone nowhere until the next day at the office Fassbender approaches her, kisses her, and asks her home with him. In Fassbender’s eyes you can see that he almost thinks she is his way out of his addiction. But when they get to his apartment and start fooling around, he sees himself drifting from connection to addiction and stops. She leaves, and then in the next sequence we see him graphically fucking a blonde woman in the same room. He was almost intimate with someone, but regressed because that would not satisfy his addiction and would harm a person he had genuine affection for. The sex he has requires dehumanization of the partner. He requires power over the partner for it to be effective.

And that is what meaningless sex is. Where there is a complete power dynamic skew. For Fassbender in Shame it is about him having power but there is another side of sex addiction where you are completely abandoning power to feed your addiction. Now make no mistake, there is a full culture of BDSM that could be described in these terms but the difference is that in healthy BDSM relationships, all sides are still engaged in a transaction with agency. The sex addiction in Shame is the introspective side of abuse, sex addiction that serves as a release rather than a relation.

Double Feature

Watch with Lost in Translation and Her as a triple feature for an examination of loneliness and intimacy.

Watch with Thanks for Sharing because of sex addiction with a positive spin or Nymphomaniac for a negative spin.

Watch with Boogie Nights if you never want to see gratuitous sex on screen ever again.

02 – Blow Up

This post is a part of the June Movie Project here at QueerMyntCritic, for the full list of films to be reviewed go here.

Abstract – Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, David Hemmings is a fashion photographer who accidentally photographs a murder.

Background – This was not originally supposed to be the second film on the list. Originally it was to be Tokyo Story and then Chimes at Midnight but neither of those were available to me. At one point Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom was going to be in this spot but holy crap just from the trailer I knew I couldn’t do it as a part of this series. Then as I was looking through directors I hadn’t used I came across DePalma’s Blow Out and recalled that it was inspired by this film. So I added them both to the list in replacement of Tokyo Story and Chimes at Midnight. The other reason that this film really popped out at me was because of its relationship to The Conversation. I had to present on that film in a class earlier this year and in my research found that Coppola cited this as a specific influence on that film.

Comments – 1: Tension, this film is tense above all else. Particularly as Thomas begins noticing that his photographs from the park reveal a murder. He paces across his apartment, from his dark room to his living room, blowing up parts of the photos he took to see with more clarity. Back and forth back and forth he paces has the narrative of the day’s events come into further clarity. It’s hard to look away and that is exactly what you want in a film like this.

2: Colour! Oh dear the colour pallets of this film are gorgeous. Considering digital manipulation of colour was not a possibility at the time it is pretty amazing how united the film is visually. The outfits are all very 60s and it from the fashion shoots with the more outlandish outfits to the everyday wear of  the photographer ever outfit fits every location and every location feels right out of the 60s.

3: Humour, tragic humour. There is a moment late in the film after the photographer’s studio has been burgled and the photographer ends up at a party trying to tell a friend of his about the murder. In the house party everyone is stoned out of coherency and when the photographer finds his friend he is unable to put the experience of the day into words. Not that anyone would understand him because of how intoxicated they are. The humour of this scene is in how it is critical of the 60s counterculture: pointing out the apathy of a drug addled youth.

Deep Cuts – I want to discuss this film in reference to The Conversation because that film will not be a later part of this series. Blow Up is about the invasive power of photography while The Conversation is about the invasive power of audio. Blow Up follows an innocuous if morally questionable fashion photographer who accidentally photographs a murder in a park. The Conversation follows an audio surveillance expert who discovers a murder plot on one of his recording jobs. Blow Up is about the danger of pure aesthetic while The Conversation is about the threat posed to privacy by technology. Its interesting that these two films are so stylistically similar considering how spectacularly different they are in themes.

Double Feature

Watch with The Conversation and Blow Out and Enemy of the State for a generational take on these ideas from the 60s to the 90s.

Watch with Pierrot Le Fou and Le Bonheur for a colourful extravaganza.