Fast, Cheap & Out of Control

Directed by Errol Morris

Through his films, Errol Morris is constantly exploring the human underpinnings that drive and justify our actions. The Thin Blue Line is as much about why Randall Adams was wrongly convicted of murder as it is about investigating the actual details of the who, what, when and where in his case. Mr Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. is really about the human mind’s capacity for self-delusion. The Fog of War takes this a step further by exploring the limits of our ability to destroy these delusions. Every single film takes an individual living an extraordinary life and shows how the impulses which drive them the same that drive some of us to be an auto-mechanic, others to be a musician and so on: we are all on an endless and likely futile quest to create order in a world in which we only have a finite amount of control. None of Morris’ films explore this concept more explicitly than Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.

This film weaves together the story of a topiary gardener (a man who trims hedges into animal shapes), a lion tamer, an expert on naked mole-rats and a robotic scientist. These are wildly disparate careers, but all revolve around the same basic impulse to understand, mold and control systems of life (or artificial life) that are just simple enough for us to understand, but far too complex for us to ever master. All of them are among the best at what they do, but none of them have any pretense that they’ve done anything but scratch the surface of potential knowledge in their field.

After the film was over I began to think about what separates life-long learners like these men from people who are content to float by on their own stagnant level of knowledge. It seems as if people who are hungry for knowledge are more in-tune with this human inquisitiveness and quest for order than those who are not. To paraphrase Ray Mendez, the mole-rat expert, it’s all about the intellectual exercise for him, not about the mole-rat specifically. It could just as well be a bird or a snake. For Mendez, along with the other three subjects, it’s about satisfying a basic need to learn and attempt to master something that drives them and makes them successful in their field. The key to human progress will be understanding the developmental process that allows some of us to fully embrace these intellectual cravings and some of us to remain ignorant of them. For Rodney Brooks, the robot scientist, the answer to that may the creation of a higher level of artificial intelligence that perpetually regenerates itself, rather than through what may one day be “old-fashioned” carbon-based lifeforms. As much as I’d like to disagree with that theory, it’s not always easy.

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Away We Go

Directed by Sam Mendes

The purported conflict in Away We Go is that a couple in their thirties who are three months away from welcoming their first child into the world and realize that they have the freedom to live wherever they want. They decide to go on a trip to find the perfect place to raise a family by visiting friends and family in Phoenix, Tucson, Madison, Montreal and Miami, learning nothing about these places and very little about themselves in the process. It’s hard to grow as a human being when you are already perfect and your life is totally devoid of any real problems. They do not have to worry about money, health, relationship troubles or any of the normal strife that real human beings move in and out of over the course of their lives. At one point, they even converse about the fact that they never fight or argue. Why does this movie exist? Let’s explore the possibilities:

1. To be funny

Well, it is mildly amusing at times. John Krasinski is very charming and funny (imagine that) and Maya Rudolph is likeable enough, although she isn’t given much to work with in the script. The humor is supposed to be found in their encounters with the couples they meet in each city, which are either compromised of horrific and one-dimensional monsters of “human beings” (Phoenix, Madison), an incredibly cool and supportive sister (Tucson), a happy couple with a nice, if a bit far-fetched family dealing with tragedy (Montreal), and a brother dealing with the trauma of his wife abandoning his daughter and him (Miami). The role of the protagonists? To learn a little bit more about how great they are each step of the way and to mine some humor out of tired awkward moments like a mother saying her daughter looks like a dyke or a couple explaining that it’s wrong to hide your lovemaking from your children. Is it funny? Kind of, I guess. However, in a movie that is purportedly interested in exploring the foundations of what makes for a happy home, why didn’t they think to include some real families dealing with issues that actually occur on the Planet Earth? Which leads us to possibility number two:

2. To Learn About Love and Parenthood

As I just stated, for the most part, this couple merely encounters either grotesque examples of what not to do or couples that have almost nothing to teach them. Plus, there’s a bigger issue: THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH OUR PROTAGONISTS! They’re certainly worried about being first-time parents, but seemingly less so than your average couple. The father seems excited and the mother’s biggest concern is how her body will look after she gives birth, even though her husband, the nicest guy in the history of the universe, clearly does not care. What do they learn? In the end, they are kind of taught that love and patience make up the foundation of a great family. BUT THESE PEOPLE ARE ALREADY THE MOSTLY LOVING AND PATIENT PEOPLE ON THE PLANET!!

3. To Learn About Different Regions of North America and How Family Life is Different in Each One

I’m really reaching here because we learn nothing about these places. I lived in Madison for five years. The only element of the city that they capture is that there is a university there.

So what is the point of this film? There is no point. The ending drives this home. Where do they choose to move? TO THE BEAUTIFUL LAKESIDE HOME THE FEMALE PROTAGONIST’S PARENTS LEFT BEHIND AFTER THEIR DEATH! One look at this place and you immediately gasp. Why was the question of where they would live ever an issue to begin with? Are we supposed to believe that the trauma of losing her parents makes the protagonist reluctant to go back there, as it is mildly suggested? Get real.

So here we have a drama without drama and a comedy with the cheapest of laughs. One gets the notion that Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, who wrote the film, merely wanted to make a movie to remind themselves of how happy and great they are. Good for them I suppose, but a waste of time for the rest of us.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

Directed by Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm

This movie was pretty good.

But I’m really watching it as an excuse to write a bit about Batman. Loyal readers know that he’s been discussed around these parts more than anyone and I’ve been thinking lately about why I love Batman stories so much. I realized that Batman is, in many ways, a carbon copy of one of my (real life) heroes.

Batman is the Ralph Nader of the comic world.

Batman is more committed to defending what is right than anyone else in the comic world. Batman is entirely incorruptible and completely indifferent to material wealth, physical pleasure, and emotional peace of mind. He actively avoids relationships, never compromises with figures of ill-repute, and forgoes happiness whenever it conflicts with his mission to fight evil. This is not unlike Ralph Nader, who has never been married and has never been caught doing anything even remotely scandalous despite the fervent investigations of his many enemies. They are both entirely pure in their pursuit of social justice, but also independent to an almost tragic degree. Just as Batman has no tolerance for criminals and will only work with the police on the rare occasion when they align themselves with his ideals, Ralph Nader never works with the Republicans and only reluctantly works with the typically compromised Democrats on the rare occasion they find the political backbone to pursue a cause that is virtuous. Batman and Nader are almost never wrong, but their whole-hearted commitment to doing what is right at the cost of their own personal well-being makes them both incredible role models and towering tragic figures.

Batman remains one of our great heroes because he is firmly stuck in the realm of fiction. We rarely live up to his moral standards, but we can enjoy him without guilt because it’s easy to turn our backs on him. We need only to close a book in order to put him out of our minds. Nader, conversely, is largely the same kind of figure (minus the cool gadgets and unrivaled physical prowess), but he is all too real, leaving us two options: to try to live up to his example or to denigrate his legacy. Like so many of the corrupt figures in Gotham City, the majority of America has chosen the latter approach to Nader. It’s too bad because it’s growing frighteningly apparent that people of conviction and focus are becoming all to rare in our country.

Sisters

Directed by Brian De Palma

I feel dirty after almost every Brian De Palma film I see. Sisters was no exception and it was mostly because I kept being subjected to this face:

Sisters is one of many attempts by De Palma to make a Hitchcock film. In this case, he goes for a combination of Rear Window and Psycho with the story of a reporter who witnesses a murder through her apartment window (and nobody believes her) committed by the surviving member of conjoined twins who has developed a case of multiple personality disorder. De Palma explores many of the same obsessions as Hitchcock, most notably voyeurism, but does so in a totally inferior way. His style is flashier, but with less substance. His stories are lurid and excessive, where Hitchcock’s are psychologically sophisticated and layered. Every filmmaker includes homages to the work of other artist’s, but when you are this overt you’d better include some elements that stand on their own or improve on the elements you are referencing. Occasionally De Palma succeeds in this regard, as he did to a certain extent with Blow Out. However, in the case of Sisters, his works pales in every conceivable way.

Hunger

Directed by Steve McQueen

Hunger occupies the rare class of very good films that nobody in their right mind would subject themselves to more than once. It is an incredibly powerful depiction of the “blanket” and “no wash” protests* in Northern Ireland’s Maze prison in the late Seventies, culminating in a hunger strike that resulted in the death of ten prisoners between 1980 and 1981. Steve McQueen is methodical in his treatment of these protests and wastes little time on exposition or character development. We are simply dropped into prison in the midst of the first two protests and endure the same long stretches of boredom in the midst of horrifically disgusting conditions with brief interruptions of brutal violence between the prisoners and guards when bathing and grooming is forced upon them. At this point, the prisoners are relatively anonymous and, with the exception of one man (who is looked at more closely in an effort to show the cost of these events for the other side), so are the guards. For one-third of the film, we simply wallow in the terrible conditions that the prisoners live in. I’m well aware of how unappealing this sounds, but it’s effective and if you cannot handle it I’m not sure why you’re watching a film about a deadly prison hunger strike anyway.

The middle third of the film switches to a single 20+ minute conversation, mostly shot in one take, between a prisoner (Bobby Sands, played by Michael Fassbender) and a priest where they debate the moral and political implications of the hunger strike Sands plans on starting soon. Both make compelling points about Sands’ impending actions and, considering how staggeringly long these shots are, the performances are amazing.

The final third covers the slow decay of Sands as his hunger strike whittles away at his body and mind until his death 66 days later. McQueen lingers on each detail of Sands’ deterioration, as his already skinny frame melts away and his skin breaks out into sores. It’s agonizing to watch, but I’m not sure if there’s any other ethical way to film this. Starving oneself to death is a terrible way to die, but in so many other films it serves merely as an excuse for heroic monologues while the protagonist looks sick and tired under a blanket. Hunger focuses on just how terrible a toll these actions have on the body, which forces us to take a good hard look at the beliefs that lead someone to do this to themselves. An idea powerful enough for so many men to do this to themselves is one worth taking a fresh look at. It’s baffling to me that so many in the British Government at the time refused to do just that for so long.

*This article provides some helpful background information on these protests. In short, these prisoners were protesting the fact that they were no longer being treated as political prisoners and decided to go nude rather than wear the prison uniforms worn by criminals (wearing only blankets – hence the term “blanket” protests). The “no wash” protest is exactly what it says: prisoners refused to bathe because they had historically been attacked by prison guards during this time or when they were removing waste from their prison cells. Many prisoners also smeared their prison walls with excrement.

New York Stories

This is a collection of three short films by Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Woody Allen. I’ll go over them one by one.

“Life Lesson”

Directed by Martin Scorsese

This is generally regarded as the best of the three short films in this anthology and I agree. Nick Nolte gives a great performance in it and it is directed with Scorsese’s typical flourishes and intensity. It tells the story of a successful artist whose much younger live-in assistant/lover has decided to leave him. Nolte convinces her to stay by promising she does not have to sleep with him anymore, but eventually his desperation and neediness lead to him sinking low enough to attempt a very embarrassing intimate moment with a New York City cop. It deals with most of Scorsese’s usual obsessions, as a man with a promiscuous past and an intense lifestyle attempts to mold a younger woman into his version of the pure feminine ideal. The story itself is just ok, but the performances are so great, the camerawork so intense (the painting sequences are fantastic), and the blistering rock and roll music (“Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum and an awesome live version of “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan with The Band are used particularly well)  matches the action so perfectly that the film leaves you feeling exhilarated about the power of the medium. But then . . .

“Life Without Zoe”

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola goes and ruins everything by subjecting us to one of the worst films I have ever seen. I haven’t been this angry about a film since I saw Crash. Where Haggis’ pile of garbage was derivative, manipulative and clumsy in its attempt to tap into the human condition, “Life Without Zoe” is a film entirely lacking in humanity. It is a brief, but tortuous celebration of the wealthy that has so much disdain for its audience that it neglects to even present the spoiled and obscenely rich young protagonist with a genuine conflict. Her parents are split up and rarely home, but she spends nary a second showing any concern about it. At one point the hotel in which she lives is robbed by gunmen, but the only thing they leave behind is an envelope containing something very valuable to her father (they even manage to literally drop it right in front of her – how convenient). Supposedly, the issue Zoe must deal with is returning the piece of jewelry contained in this envelope to some princess, which she accomplishes effortlessly because a kid in her school (the richest kid in the world)  happens to know her. The other major problem she faces is her supposed desire to reunite her parents. How does she do that? BY BUYING FIRST CLASS TICKETS TO PARIS AND TELLING HER MOM THEY’RE FLYING THERE TOMORROW AND, OH BY THE WAY, WE CAN GO SEE DAD PLAYING HIS STUPID GODDAMN FLUTE IN ATHENS WHILE WE’RE AT IT!! That’s it. This film is the equivalent of seeing some wealthy pre-teen in a reality TV show, but without the contrived conflict and drama. I honestly think Coppola made this film to make us feel miserable about our lives to punish us for not liking anything he made in the Eighties.

Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplay for this with his daughter Sofia and the result is nothing more than a narcissistic celebration of a young girl who grows up wealthy and entitled and untouched by the world’s problems. They even have the gall to include a homeless person in the film who lunges a ratty hand out desperate for food as Zoe and her friends try to catch a cab to go to some rich kid’s party. How does she placate him? With candy. LET THEM EAT CAKE! In fact, this whole film made me rethink Marie Antoinnette, which I now interpret as an apology for this abomination. I was unaware that the film had a point other than to play cool music and show off pretty costumes, but perhaps Sofia Coppola simply wanted to find an alternate Zoe who actually has to deal with some real problems (despite her best efforts to ignore them).

What an execrable piece of garbage.

Fortunately . . .

“Oedipus Wrecks”

Directed by Woody Allen

Woody comes along to make us laugh and forget about our troubles by letting us laugh at his! In this short film, Allen plays Woody Allen, this time as a lawyer. He is a successful partner in a law firm and engaged to be married, but is plagued by his nagging mother, who never stops meddling in his affairs and embarrassing him. Early in the film, he wishes aloud to his therapist that she would disappear. When she does thanks to a magic trick gone awry (note the Larry David cameo as the stage manager!), his life suddenly becomes a lot brighter – until she suddenly appears in the sky above New York and begins regaling New Yorkers with stories of his youthful bed-wetting and criticizing his relationship. It isn’t top-tier Woody Allen, but after Coppola’s nightmarish segment it felt great to be laughing along with someone who has made so many great films and is so incredibly prolific that he feels like an old friend at this point.

You can now listen to Meeks and I for two hours as we bask in the glory of  Rocky and share our analysis. Obviously, this is best enjoyed as you watch the film (start it at the first roar of the lion). The file can be found here. I’ve also put up a poll with some possible films for our next podcast, which I can guarantee will be 500% better. You can take that to the bank.

Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures

Directed by Jan Harlan

Stanley Kubrick is one of the few filmmakers with a body of work that seems wholly original. So many other great directors can not only be paired up with an earlier director, but they often wear these influences on their sleeves. Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman. Paul Thomas Anderson and Robert Altman. Martin Scorsese and, seemingly, everyone. It seems as if Kubrick’s films rise completely independently out of his own mind and onto the screen. I can’t think of a single other artist in the medium who has accomplished that. Indeed, over the course of a 142 minute documentary, we have nary a mention of Kubrick finding inspiration in the work of others, aside from some musicians or the novels upon which some of his films were based on, while a parade of actors, directors, producers and, to a lesser extent, critics extol his virtues.

Kubrick’s insular nature never allowed scholars or journalists to get very close to his creative process, but this film sheds a great deal of insight into what kind of man Kubrick was. His perfectionism and demanding nature are well-known, but I had no idea that he was the kind of person who would leave a set of instructions for his daughters on how to take care of their pets that was 15 pages long. It also shares some great stories about Kubrick’s worldview, such as a tale of a conversation he had with Jack Nicholson where he claimed that The Shining is an optimistic film because it’s about ghosts. “Anything that says there’s anything after death is an optimistic story.” I don’t know if there’s another human being on the planet who would interpret The Shining that way, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

In fact, that’s a great way to sum up the work of Stanley Kubrick. Totally unique, always dark and uncompromising, but never foolish, never shallow and never wrong. I know it’s a cliché, but Kubrick was truly one of a kind. We will probably never see someone with that level of control and that powerful of a vision again.

Rocky

Directed by John G. Avildsen

Meeks and I recorded our commentary. It is probably only intermittently entertaining, but was a lot of fun to do. I hope to get it up here within the next few days. Until then, I can say that I really liked Rocky. I don’t really understand how somebody couldn’t. You’ll have to listen for more “analysis,” which I define as angry rants about Paulie.

Update: This was our first try at this, but we’ve already noted some ways we can improve for next time. Feel free to leave feedback in the comments, which will more than likely be ignored or mocked. Unless it’s positive feedback, of course. A link to the .mp3 is below. Enjoy.

Rocky audio commentary

Django

Directed by Sergio Corbucci

Django: The Man With No Personality.

Django is so similar to Sergio Leone‘s Man With No Name trilogy that it is impossible to watch it without comparing it to Leone’s vastly superior films. Django has the same protagonist: a mysterious stranger playing two sides of a conflict against each other in the pursuit of his own personal gain. However, this stranger is absolutely devoid of personality. Where Clint Eastwood‘s “Joe” had black humor, toughness, and some wisdom and cleverness hiding behind those squinted eyes, Franco Nero’s “Django” is a completely blank slate. He’s a quick shot, but he doesn’t use his brains or brawn in any memorable way. He isn’t funny. He isn’t mysterious, or at least not in the sense that there is hidden information about him that we actually care to know. He isn’t even good at being mean. In one word, he’s boring. A character in a spaghetti western can be a lot of things, but boring is never one of them. The villains aren’t particularly colorful or memorable, either. Django may have been groundbreaking in the sense that it was on the forefront of this genre’s movement, but unfortunately it offers nothing that we can’t find in Leone’s films.

* * *

The tentative plan is to have our first audio post up tomorrow. It will be a feature-length commentary of Rocky (yep, I’ve never seen it!) I will be recording along with my pal Matt Meeks, whose voice is never low, opinions never mild, and mouth always profane. It should be great fun, provided I can find a place to host what I would assume will be a massive .mp3 file.

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