December 04, 2005

Notes from the Trenches

Somewhere in the minutes before the screening of Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana, I leaned back, smelled the smell of stale popcorn, looked around at the half-dozen or so local press assembled, took a sip of the eyebrow-melting coffee provided us, and had one of those rare moments where the clouds clear and you realize how lucky you are. The gig is undignified for an Internet writer: we’re afforded a minimum of respect from the studios, the movies tend to be bad, and the audiences that we’re asked to sit with too often show themselves to be rude. But what I really dislike is feeling angry and red, like an exposed nerve.

Film Freak Central is a comfort – but with this last little blowup between myself and the Denver Film Society over their 28th film festival has inspired me to begin to look into projects locally that might actually change the things that I bitch about around here all the time. Your friends only listen to you whine for a while, after all, before they start handing you quarters and therapists’ business cards. I realized that part of what was bugging me so much this year was that I was waiting around for the Film Society or something like it to give me a call and they never did. But why should they?

So in that spirit, took several meetings this week, called in a couple of favors, made a lot of phone calls, and I’ve lined up several different lecture/teaching gigs with various non-profit organizations around the state in the next month and for the remainder of 2006. That means I’m spending a lot of time tonight putting together programs to appeal to wildly divergent audiences. It’s the most fun I’ve had in months. I can’t change the world, but I can shut up about it long enough to introduce some organized film appreciation where there wasn’t any before. What the hell, right?

Between the stuff I’ll be doing and the stuff that the Denver Art Museum does with their film series (programmed by pal Tom Delapa) and Howie Movshovitz’s monthly Tattered Cover film series – the dream is that in Denver, there’ll finally be an option at least one night every week of the year.

Stay tuned to FFC in the New Year, too: team strong like bull.

What kills me about Syriana is that Clooney almost eats himself to death packing on the pounds so that he looks like a slovenly, middle-aged schlep, and his body looks just. Like. Mine. So on the one hand I can finally say that my body looks like Clooney’s, but on the other hand, I’m putting the Eskimo Pie back into the freezer.

The film itself is overstuffed, too – I’m reminded of a very nice Anne Sexton poem called “The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator” that I’ll reference here instead of the review so the vocal segment of FFC’s casual readership that hates it when I reference poems won’t have their heads boil and pop like zits. This is the last stanza:

The boys and girls are one tonight.
They unbutton blouses. They unzip flies.
They take off shoes. They turn off the light.
The glimmering creatures are full of lies.
They are eating each other. They are overfed.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.

It’s hip, it’s got a beat, and you can’t dance to it because it’s onanistic liberalism. Lots of targets, all presented pretty well in a shorthand, flip sort of way (and lots of speechifying, too) but at the bottom of it is this message that says “give up” and “be nice to your family because it’s the only thing that you can control.” The penultimate scene in Traffic is the Michael Douglas family going to an AA meeting, right? Most of the criticism of this film has been along the lines of it doesn’t have a heart – bologna – there’s a dead kid, a broken marriage, a reconciliation, an absentee father and an emotionally-vacant son, and on and on, woven in and out of all the broadsides at macroeconomics and the very fundamental non-secrets of how the world works when no one thinks that you’re watching. It’s got plenty of heart, it just doesn’t have any surprises.

Wrote the Memoirs of a Geisha piece finally – it’s long. Disturbed a little by Ang Lee’s recent comments on it – disturbed about his comments on Brokeback Mountain, too, come to think of it.
His thoughts on Geisha are essentially “who cares, the girls are good” – and while I’m not saying that he’s wrong, I’m sort of wishing that a Chinese-American as visible as Mr. Lee would offer at least the illusion of having spent more time coming to his opinion. I’m also not pleased with his takedown of Stephen Chow.

In a case of the world shrinking, this very blog has gotten mentioned in places like Variety’s website and IFC’s, too, for weighing in on this Geisha business.

Working on a piece on Edward Scissorhands to coincide with its fifteenth anniversary, and it’s kicking my ass. Still, I should be done before the Chinese make their moon landing. There’s something going on in that flick with the casting of Anthony Michael Hall as the bully: it’s an interesting, heartfelt piece of work.

Watched Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior: a film about faith and blood set in feudal India, the best scene in it one where a man has a vision in the desert and, when he comes out of it, we see that there is snow packed in his footprints. It’s not bad. There were moments, in fact, that I felt like it was on to something truly holy in its extended silences and bottomless, heartbroken implications. Miramax bought the rights to this film four years ago and it’s just now finding a very limited release in the United States. Also finally caught up with Ong Bak: Thai Warrior which is, oddly enough, the second film this year I’ve seen about Muy Thai Boxing. Some of the stunts and the fights are pretty amazing. Not so amazing is a Thai motorcycle-taxi chase and the thin plot, dialogue, and performances.

Was sort of cruising Box Office Mojo’s ytd charts
and noticed that Chicken Little has done terribly overseas. Why would that be, do you suppose? I just can’t get my head around this shit. Guess I’d be a helluva lot richer if I could.

Read Bill’s DVD write-up for Cinderella Man and my not-very-good-but-there-you-have-it review of Dario Argento’s classic The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

Jack S. has two, Chad E. and Tim R. have one apiece, making this screenshot important. And #5/7 (2.5):

Hot off the Presses (12.5.05)

Read Travis' outstanding take on Powell/Pressburger's Tales of Hoffman and rejoice as FFC finally enters the Criterion age.

Watched the highly-anticipated Outback slasher flick Wolf Creek today and, fellas, it stinks. It's got the vibe of High Tension, but without all the nasty subtext that I felt redeemed Aja's flick to some degree. It didn't make it "okay", but it made it worth a conversation - but shockingly, Wolf Creek doesn't even have any kind of sexual undercurrents. There might - just might - be something in here along the lines of the transgressions of city mice in the land of the country mice (Deliverance, Hunter's Blood, Southern Comfort, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Wrong Turn and so on) - but even that's so undeveloped that it lands as more of an accidental afterthought than anything else. Best comparison is to Open Water - only without the gratuitous full-frontal nudity.

Hot off the Presses (12.6.05)

Here's my review of Memoirs of a Geisha and a new DVD addendum for the packed Lion's Gate 2-disc uncut edition of The Devil's Rejects.

Hot off the Presses (12.7.05)
Long day: saw a screening of Terrence Malick's The New World and. . . wow. Gonna' have to sleep on it, but I loved it, all 160 minutes of it. Farrell isn't the star so much as Q'Orianka Kilcher is and then she's only the star so much as she's an evocation of Malick's omnipresent nature. I was offended at first by the old Noble Savage shuck and jive until I realized that it was Malick reflecting 16th century attitudes and that the truth of what he was representing betrayed a different truth. . . Anyway - gonna have to sleep on it.

Also saw Eli Roth's new film, Hostel which is a lot like Wolf Creek, but more sadistic. Puerile, pointless, and artless: it's homophobic, misogynistic, and just as dangerous and juvenile as a fraternity hazing - it's a depressing time for slashers. All this the night after watching and addendum-ing The Devil's Rejects which is, no kidding, really beautifully done - especially by comparison.

Here's the review for The Chronicles of Narnia 1.

Hot off the Presses (12.9.05)
Just saw King Kong. Big, operatic, sometimes stunning, always heartfelt. Kong is king, baby.

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Chad Evan said...

Polanski's Macbeth?

Jack_Sommersby said...

I'm out for the count on the screenshot, folks. No idea.

But I'm glad you've rekindled some joy in your film-series planning stuff, Walter, to alleviate the the subpar treatment you've been receiving from the studios regarding the screenings. You're right: it won't get you the attention that, say, Ebert gets, but, damnit, its quality will definitely enrich those fortunate enough to be exposed to it, pal.

Vikram said...

I just picked up a copy of a book called "Unforgivable Blackness: the Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson" about the first black heavyweight champ in America. Just an astonishing read in terms of illuminating the social climate in America in the early 1900's.

I bring this up because Walter mentioned in his latest blog Bill's DVD write-up of Cinderella Man - a movie which FFC rightly dismissed.

After reading this book, I wish that a filmmaker of some stature would do a biopic about Johnson - now that would be a film worth seeing and we would have something to really talk about instead of the kind of watered-down pablum that Cinderella Man is.

Bill C said...

Actually, the last shot of Traffic is Del Toro taking his seat at a Bad News Bears game somewhere in Me-hico, but the song remains the same.

Cinderella Man, btw, is such horseshit I almost took my emergency cyanide capsule. The unforgiveable thing about it is how it stacks the deck against Max Baer, whose accidental manslaughter of Frankie Campbell is irresponsibly decontextualized in the movie. (He went to trial, had his boxing license revoked, and spent the rest of his life tormented by regret.) Not only does the movie turn him into The Crusher from Bunny Hugged, but it doesn't even acknowledge the anti-Semitic subtext of America's pinning their hopes on his defeat. Cinderella Man reminds me of the problem of Bring It On: when your heroes are privileged white suburbanites and their enemies are poor black kids from the projects, who the fuck are we supposed to root for?

Walter_Chaw said...

That's freaky deaky, man, and dead on: the capture's from Polanski's lovely mud and blood MacBeth. Brings you into a tie with our man Jack with two more to go.

You wouldn't still think so if you ever came to one of my lectures, but I appreciate the sentiment all the same.

Gonna look that book up. Another I'd like to see is the Stepin Fetchit story - I hear he recently got a pretty good biography written about him.

Yeah, Max Baer Jr. came out against the film at the time of its release. He was intervewed in the NY Daily News: "My father cried about what happened to Frankie Campbell. He had nightmares. He helped put Frankie's children through college."

A spokesperson for Ron Howard defended the film in this way: "The script was written from the point of view of the Braddock family. To them, Max Baer was a real threat. Ron felt that was how the character needed to be drafted." But Max Jr. lamented, "I have great respect for Ronny Howard. But he never called me for any factual information about my father. They distorted his character. They didn't have to make him an ogre to make Jimmy Braddock a hero."

(end quote)

And doesn't the film actually exaggerate the number of men Baer killed? Pretty ugly stuff - I mean, you expect this sort of shorthand from these people, right, except that now they're fucking with real live folks.

What I love is the E-banner up and around that has the number-one pull quote from Larry King saying "One of the best movies ever!"

Makes you wanna scream, makes you wanna laugh.

Chad Evan said...

Yeah, I wasn't sure at first (hell, I wasn't sure unti; you told me I was right) but I knew that bizarre tundra-landscape (which I think was found, like the rest of the film, in the home of my ancestral Evans in Wales rather than Scotland)certainly looked like the one the weird sisters dissapear into in the pre-credits sequence. This one's a tie with Welles' Othello for my favorite Shakespeare on film: honor the text by trying to match the poetry of the language with the visuals, says I. Currently reading Oliver Twist, and hope Polanski does as good a job with it.

Bemis said...


I agree strongly about Macbeth. Have you seen Peter Brook's King Lear? That's another one that perfectly distills Shakespeare into cinema. And also from 1971, if I'm not mistaken.

Carl Walker said...

Ha! I just assumed I wouldn't know the screenshot, but maybe if I had actually looked at it I would've recognized it from the movie I saw just a few weeks ago (not that I would've been first or anything).

More importantly, screw Ang Lee! Defending Geisha and then bashing Stephen Chow? To hell with that! Chow is one of my favorite directors so I am, to say the least, dissappointed to hear him say that. Admittedly though, it doesn't help for me that I, as you might recall, didn't think too much of the one Hou Hsiao-hsien flick I saw (is Three Times any better?).

Btw, any links for the Variety article? I did find the IFC blog at where you're quoted. Seems like that guy wants to have it both ways, implying it's somehow anti-Asian prejuidice to quibble about Zhang's nationality (when in fact it IS the Asians that are quibbling! eh?).

Walter_Chaw said...

Hi Chad -

Oops - it's Asian Variety ( - the way the blog is set up sans search engine, I'm having a hard time finding the link again (any help?) - but it was minor: essentially something along the lines of "this guy says this here".

There's also a link at for which I also don't have a link - but there my little throwaway about Nazi prostitutes is quoted. This is how your favorite neighborhood film critic gets in big trouble.

Haven't seen Three Times, alas.

Chad Evan said...

Never seen anything by Brooks, actually--I'll be sure to check it out, as Lear might be my favorite (although, as with Faulkner's big four, Shakespeare's four high tragedies are always shuffling in eminence for me.) I hear Godard's Lear is awful.

Seattle Jeff said...


I believe Ken Burns just did a documentary film about Jack Johnson (with the same title as the book). I believe it is out on DVD.

Bill C said...

The Godard King Lear must be seen to be believed. Shakespeare in a post-apocalyptic world toplined by Woody Allen and Burgess Meredith. From the producers of Cobra, to boot. Thank you for bringing it up--I keep forgetting it actually exists outside my head.

Alex Jackson said...

Very funny that the pic is from Polanski's Macbeth; my college just did a production of the play.

The local paper was very mean to it, surprisingly so I wouldn't have thought that the local paper would actually have the onions to be critical about a local production. The critic couldn't understand the dialogue. Neither could I, I'm not sure that it was a good idea to have the actors use Scottish accents, took away more then it gave.

Very well-directed though, I actually gained appreciation of theater as an art form. It exploited this idea that there are lots of different places that you can fix your eye; and that's something that is relatively unique to the theater. It's difficult to duplicate that on film.

I sort of like Polanski's Macbeth. At risk of showing off my greenness, I like the idea of the title character being a petty thug that simply bit off more than he could chew. A sort of Scarface-like figure. Local paper complained Macbeth wasn't charismatic. Huh?

I love the Welles version by the way and think that it's massively underrated. Even Orson Welles didn't like it very much, he called it a "charcoal drawing". That's precisely what I thought was so cool about it.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

One film with shakespear that people tend to forget is "my own private idaho". I believe it was based on "Henry IV", i can be wrong though.

Jefferson said...

Forbidden Planet, Ran, Throne of Blood, Prospero's Books ... Old Will was a hell of a screenwriter.

Rich said...

Shit, just watched Black Christmas after all the hoopla in that other thread (including Walter's advice to 'get busy') and was blown away. I haven't been that scared by and involved in a flick in a loooong time.

As for Shakespeare, I think Kurosawa's adaptations are the best I've seen (though I've not seen any of the Godard, Polanski, or Welles versions...come to think of it I've not really seen many at all). People have told me that the fairly recent Titus is quite good. I must confess that it had my brother and me in hysterics when during the few minutes I caught while flipping channels they did a bullet-time on a hocked loogie. I dunno, perhaps it makes sense when seen in context.

Chad Evan said...

That Tales of Hoffmann review is just superb, probably the best thing of yours I've ever read. Bravo, man, bravo.

Vikram said...

seattle jeff:

Thanks for suggesting the Burns' doc. I vaguely recall hearing about it but now after reading the book I'll be sure to look it up.

Vikram said...

Speaking of Godard's King Lear, isn't that the film that Tarantino - when he had aspirations of being an actor - stuffed his resume with by saying that he played a character in it when he didn't? I think he said something like he knew that no one in the US would have seen it so that he knew that he could get away with the lie.

After reading Bill's description of it, it sounds like definite a must see.

Carl Walker said...

hollow man, you're right about My Own Private Idaho. Some of the scenes are just slightly-modernized-dialogue versions of the Falstaff/Hal scenes from Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 (mostly 1). Keanu Reeves is the Hal character, while River Phoenix's story is more separate from the Shakespeare infusion. A more unique take on "adaptation" (wasn't terribly fond of it myself).

Rich, I think Titus is quite good myself. The loogie thing sounds strange. I just saw a Bollywood flick from last year called Main Hoon Na that has just the scene you're describing, but that's not the sorta thing you'd run across on cable, I'd imagine (and how would you confuse the two?).

And Walter, sorry I just have to say... CHAD? :sigh: Anyway hope you don't get "in trouble" as it were.

Bill C said...

Yeah, the Godard King Lear is the one Tarantino put on his resume. There's a background player in it who vaguely resembles him.

Lee said...

Sorry to hear about "Wolf Creek." After reading Ed Gonzalez's great review of it, I had high hopes.

tim r said...

You're so right about Wolf Creek - and the comparison with the heinous Open Water. What should we call this crap, realsploitation? Utter dreck, anyway.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

I saw 5 mins. of Main Hoon Na. Nothing irritates me more than bollywood melodramas. my mom watches them by the dozens ! sometimes i wonder if i was a test tube baby. however i did see a really good one about physical insecurity yesterday called "main, meri patni aur woh" (me, my wife and him).

I haven't seen "the warrior" but the lead in it, Irfan Khan, is probably my favorite indian actor.

Bemis said...

Now I'll have to check out the Godard King Lear - the connection to Cobra is irresistable. I'm very fond of My Own Private Idaho myself; the "I really want to kiss you" bit around the fire is one of the most lovely scenes in cinema.

tmhoover said...

Chad: Thanks for the kudos re my "Hoffmann" review. As you can well imagine, I love the Archers to bits, and was delighted to finally have the opportunity to speak my mind on them in a public forum. Was a little worried that I had descended into gush, but given your response, I guess not. Whew.

Walter_Chaw said...

Big fan of Ed Gonzalez's stuff and he's written a lovely piece on Wolf Creek - persuasive, too - but I just didn't see it. The picture seems to me to be just completely empty - pointless even - without even the kind of vicarious, amoral thrills provided by something like The Devil's Rejects. Based on the Australian "Backpacker" murders - read up on it at and it would've made a great flick.

Walter_Chaw said...

Loose threads dangling at previous - wanted to transport this and Nate's comments up to the main thread. Both worthy reads. This first by Dave Gibson:

Hey WC:

I’m looking forward to your review of “Syriana”, seems like you had a similar reaction. I’m getting very tired of these “cast of thousands” holiday films, which often tread on some interesting territory—but, are shallow by necessity when the filmmakers have to give cursory service to multiple storylines. (And wrap them all up with a nice “Syd Field” bow) “Syriana” struck me as a Cliff’s notes version of a text which doesn’t exist. Most of the interstitials were moderately engaging in themselves (except for Matt Damon’s ludicrously naïve “bagman” and his cynical “something for the ladies” storyline) but, pretty toothless for a movie about the oil industry—Stanley Kramer would have hit harder. Not abominable, but kind of….feh. Jeffrey Wright needs to be a bigger star however…

Someone else on this thread brought up Berandinelli’s (sp?) dismissal of the “Geisha” casting controversy. I guess he’s not factually wrong, and I’m sure that type of cynicism and casual bigotry is at the root of the filmmaker’s logic—but, validating that sort of ignorance is exactly the problem. Who is that type of comment for? The conservative retirees and rednecks who just LOVE internet film criticism? If he’s right, then his logical conclusion is that most North Americans are isolationist, anti-intellectual morons. I don’t think an audience member is automatically an idiot if you don’t know that the lead actresses are not Japanese, but—instead of reading more books, traveling more often, eating at different places, going to different movies, talking with different people---your answer is, “Well Gosh. They all look the same, who gives a flying fart!” Then you’re on your own. Not being curious is worse than not knowing.

But then, I'm Canadian. Sleeping in an igloo and eating back bacon and maple syrup must be affecting my brain.

Walter_Chaw said...

and this from Nate:


Don't know if you're still checking this thread but I'm curious what you think about Berardinelli's comment from his Memoirs review. In an effort to keep from decontextualizing his sentence, I'll say that he was talking primarily about box office implications:

"Three of the major actresses - Ziyi Zhang (Chinese), Gong Li (Chinese), and Michelle Yeoh (Malaysian) - are not Japanese. Their ethnicity isn't really an issue, since most Westerners won't know the difference."

Alex Jackson said...

Ed's review

Wolf Creek is a beautiful piece of horror that doesn't come with the noxious social and sexual baggage that typically dooms its ilk—like the technically proficient High Tension and Marcus Nispel's version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Looks like that's where the two of you part. I think that I'm with you Walt, but we'll see.

Vikram said...

Reading the above Berardinelli quote from Nate that Walter posts -

So empirically if there are more "Western" people who care then the casting of Memoirs of a Geisha would be relevant and if there are less people then it must not matter...

Also, according to Berardinelli, the implication is that there aren't enough Chinese or Chinese-Americans or "Westernized" Chinese for this to matter and/or that people like Walter with a Chinese-American background with negative views on the casting of this film are not really "Western" ...

Either way you look at it that's rather an astonishing quote.

cory m said...

In response to the Berardinelli quotes, Slant Magazine's take can be found here. Same basic point, but the context makes all the difference. In terms of explaining the reasoning behind the casting, I think Ed Gonzalez nailed it.

Chad Evan said...

God, who can take Berardinelli seriously anyway? He's quite possibly the most boring critic on the internet (which is why he's Ebert's favorite, naturally.) It's a fucking crime that his glorified plot summaries are part of the "Cream of the Crop" at Rotten Tomatoes when Film Freak Central's reviews are not. We ought to start a petition to seek redress of this grievance.

Alex Jackson said...

Funny though that Gonzalez is Cuban, so why would he identify with either Mexicans or Puerto Ricans?

Particularly Mexicans, as most Cuban immigrants come to the country with marketable skills (and left for political reasons) whereas Mexicans come in as cheap labor from a country with a lack of it. (Don't know much about the Puerto Rican immigration experience, not sure that it can be significantly generalized). And so the chief connection is what, that both Mexicans and Cubans speak Spanish?

cory m said...


I don't think Gonzalez was identifying with either group, merely offering an example for the sake of argument.

The Captain said...

Here here, Chad. How can we do this thing?

Walter_Chaw said...

Think you're right re: Wolf Creek and Ed. I like my horror with noxious sexual baggage. What, after all, is more horrible?

And as to Memoirs: the thing is a racist piece of garbage (even pre-casting disaster) but I'll be honest with you, I'm a lot more pissed off at the ignorance of folks like Berardinelli and Ebert for excusing the tactics rather than the muckety-mucks for being bound by them. I mean, how much apologizing do you really need to do on behalf of these yahoos?

Does anyone with the power to affect change or inspire conversation ever take a stand anymore against the things that are odious in our culture?

It took months and one non-film critic columnist at the LA Weekly, Erin Aubrey Kaplan, to write the definitive piece on that mess - and this one, too, maybe. Take a look.

Vikram said...

Great idea Chad...let me second the captain's seconds...

I went to

and made the suggestion to RT after reading your suggestion. Maybe there's somewhere else to make the submission - if someone knows let us know.

If Berardinelli can be in the "Cream of the Crop" then why not FFC?

Alex Jackson said...

I don't think Gonzalez was identifying with either group, merely offering an example for the sake of argument.

Well here's what he said:

Maybe it's because I'm used to this sort of thing and have compliantly accepted over the years that a Puerto Rican playing a Mexican is preferable to, say, Marlon Brando playing Emiliano Zapata in brown-face, but I see this typecasting as a laughable transparency rather than a deliberate attempt to spread pan-Asian stereotypes.

That seems to indicate to me that he personally identifies himself as Mexican. Which is interesting in that the connection between Cuban and Mexican seems to exist primarily through Anglo-American eyes.

Why would Puerto Rican playing Mexican (is he talking about Benicio in Traffic?) be thought offensive by anybody anyway? Because Puerto Rican is more middle class? That makes sense I guess, but why would a Cuban (middle-class ethnicity) bring up the objection? Simple case of empathy?

But yeah, something tells me that I'm putting more thought into Ed's ethnicity than even he is. Which hardly reflects well on me.

Ditto on the presence of sexual subtext. And classist subtext too, if you put the knife in you gots to twist it also.

The Captain said...

I actually did the same thing a month or so ago, after the Reader Mail included one jackass who said he'd e-mailed RT to try and get Walter off the list (unlikely and only enforing the stupid, I know, but I had a creepy feeling I knew the particular jackass). Tried e-mailing RT but got no response. Hmmm.

Jefferson said...

I just got through a seminar on Latino influence on U.S. art and culture -- it's got a longer history than you think -- and what surprised (Anglo) me more than anything were the degrees of ethnic distaste and distinction that exists in the Spanish-speaking world.

Mexican-Americans (the largest segment of Hispanics in the U.S.) are by and large looked down on by other segments. Most Americans of Mexican heritage are mestizo, meaning they have Indian ancestry.

Other Latino citizens -- Puerto Ricans, for instance (who hail from a U.S. territory, remember, not a foreign nation) -- are more likely to claim a Spanish (European) heritage than a Caribbean one. Cubans wield a disproportionate amount of political clout, by dint of their dominant presence in Florida, a presidential swing state. But they can also be quite fiercely nationalist, and don't take kindly to being grouped in with other Spanish-speaking ethnicities.

And central Americans -- well, the great untold story of their immigration to the U.S. is how they've been hired as housekeepers, gardeners and nannies ... by the acculturated and successful Mexican-Americans of Southern California. So you can guess where they might rank on the totem pole.

So although it doesn't make a difference to Bob Wasp whether Antonio Banderas plays Zorro (or more to the point, Anthony Hopkins), it can make a big difference to Señor Roberto Avispa -- depending on his class, cultural descent and personal prejudices.

Walter_Chaw said...

Thanks, Jefferson - that's interesting stuff. Any source materials to recommend for further research?

And Anthony Hopkins has played a black guy, too, in The Human Stain. Hopkins, to my mind, is so culturally distinct. . . same as Brando, I guess, who not only played Zapata, but a Japanese fellow in Tea House of the August Moon. Can't blame it all on the decade, I guess.

Jefferson said...

Ruben Martinez is a good writer on this topic. "The Other Side: Notes from the New L.A., Mexico City, and Beyond" hits this subject. He's got a newer one, "The New Americans," about immigrants of all stripes, which I haven't read yet. For deep background, there's also Juan Gonzales' "Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America."

The long and short of it is that you don't have to be white to be racist; that class and urban/rural dichotomies often have more to do with the way people treat each other than skin color; and that any alien culture, even one that exists as a subculture in a given nation, is far vaster and more complex than we suppose it to be at first glance. That makes understanding hard to come by, and a lack of understanding is where racism finds its early footing.

Alex Jackson said...

Thanks for the feedback. I figured that Mexicans were near the bottom of the Latino totem pole which is why Gonzales' identification with them as opposed to the Puerto Ricans surprised me.

I guess it would make sense for a Mexican viewer to feel offended by a Puerto Rican playing a Mexican character. Not sure it would work in the reverse, as it gives preference to the lower social group.

Kind of like an article I was reading about the use of white face in the movie White Chicks saying that it's not the same as whites wearing blackface. Indeed I was repulsed by White Chicks and as a white person I felt a little uncomfortable in being in the position of getting pissed on, but I can't say that my reaction at all appropriated that of a black witnessing a white in blackface.

cory m said...

I haven't seen Memoirs, but the content of the film sounds worthy of the ire that it has drawn. However, I'm having a little trouble convincing myself that the casting itself is a debacle. It seems to me that the criticism aimed at Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi from their home country is valid for the reasons Walter articulated, but is it really such a sin to cast a Chinese actress as a Japanese woman? I may be betraying my own racial insensitivity (and if so, please call me on it), but my pale, red-headed self has never been particularly annoyed when it is assumed that I am Irish, despite being French. Now, this may be because I am an American, and therefore do not particularly identify with the French culture, but I identify quite a bit with the US and I am not at all angry when we are played by British actors--or German, or French, or whatever.

Walter_Chaw said...

I actually don't have a problem with a Chinese actress cast as a Japanese woman or vice versa - EXCEPT in a situation in which a Chinese woman is asked to play a Geisha during this period of time, servicing men who are called, by the film, "heroes" of the occupation of Manchuria. Some people (some people in my family) would crucify me for that kind of tolerance, but my racism is more of the ideological kind. I drive a Japanese car, for Christ's sake, how righteous can I be?

I don't have a problem with a Jewish actor playing a German character, either, but would arch an eyebrow should she play Hitler's secretary.

Been really interested reading this feedback, folks, it's helped me clarify my own way of thinking in a lot of respects.

Take The New World for instance. It's a movie I really (really) liked and it tells the Pocohantas story from a decidedly European point of view. John Smith is not a sympathetic character though John Rolfe (Christian Bale), the guy who commercialized tobacco, is. The history as told is in dispute and the cast, from Q'Orianka Kilcher (South American Quechua) to Wes Studi (Cherokee) - are none of them from the tribe depicted in the picture. Different from Geisha? Same? I don't know Native American history well enough to know, but I haven't heard any controversy about the casting (Farrell is Irish, Smith, English, too) - but what I know of Studi is that he's a much-admired Indian activist known for using, where possible, the correct dialects and languages in his depictions. His role is relatively small in The New World - Kilcher's, however, is central, and I wonder if there's anyone in the Powhatan Tribe upset about it.

This is what producer Sarah Green says about it in her production notes - it starts to sound a little familiar (though it's not about race this time around):

"What we have tried to do is take the myth of John Smith and Pocahontas and use it to serve Terry's vision of cultures connecting and finding ways to move alongside each other, and the powerful consequences of misunderstanding.

"Creative license is definitely taken," adds Green. "Like all historical dramas since the ancient Greek playwrights, The New World uses real events-or as much as we know about them-and makes them work for the story that we're telling. The details and fates of some real-life characters have been altered to support the flow of the story and the dramatic elements. The sequence of certain events has been compressed. This is dramatic interpretation, and not documentary."

The bulk of the controversy (and it's mild) around this film seems to be about the underaged Kilcher rolling around in the hay with Farrell. There's almost nothing to it.

For my part, I found the picture to be remarkably sad and lyrical. I played ball with it. I wonder if I was wrong to do so.

The Captain said...

Travis, your review of Herbie Fully Loaded was fantastic, pretty much the definitive review on it, not that the film deserves such a thing - kudos.

Likewise Walter for the Memoirs review (is it worthwhile forwarding it to Ebert to see if we get any kind of response?) and also for the fantastic Devil's Rejects - just threw that unrated DVD on the Christmas list. Disappointed to hear that one of our only exports this year Wolf Creek sucks, I was looking forward to seeing it - still am, if only for this infamous "spine" thing that I keep hearing about, but more disappointing is that Hostel isn't any good. High hopes, how you fail me..

While good horror evades us, there's promise with the upcoming Silent Hill flick, which just puts its website up alongside a nifty web teaser which you can download from here.
They've got a poster competition on there as well - definitive proof that I'm an insane idiot with my two entries - one serious, one... not so much.

That X-Men 3 teaser is up also. I dunno if it holds any promise, with Singer gone and Brett Ratner replacing him, it looks terrifyingly like a jolly testosterone fest without much depth..

cory m said...


I actually don't have a problem with a Chinese actress cast as a Japanese woman or vice versa - EXCEPT in a situation in which a Chinese woman is asked to play a Geisha during this period of time, servicing men who are called, by the film, "heroes" of the occupation of Manchuria. Some people (some people in my family) would crucify me for that kind of tolerance, but my racism is more of the ideological kind. I drive a Japanese car, for Christ's sake, how righteous can I be?

I don't have a problem with a Jewish actor playing a German character, either, but would arch an eyebrow should she play Hitler's secretary.

I agree completely. But I don't think your review does. You spend part of the second paragraph on talking about a Hollywood that lumps Asians into a single group and things "they all look alike." Is that not an attack on the casting itself?

Also, you seem to break the casting offense into two parts: the Chinese for taking the roles, and the Americans for offering them the roles. This again, disagrees with your statement above.

The boneheaded Americans involved in every level of this production (Arthur Golden on down) deserve everything they get for the content, but every ounce of blame on the casting side belongs to Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi, who sold out their country. Just like I would blame a Jewish actress for choosing to be Hitler's secretary in a film that calls him a hero, and the rest of the production crew for being stupid enough to make the damn thing. You don't leave the actresses blameless, but you deflect a sizeable amount of the blame away from them--going so far as to mention Zhang's defense that it's difficult for a Chinese actor to break into Hollywood. Well, yeah, but if I choose to do something horrible in order to get ahead, the blame lies entirely with myself.

Walter_Chaw said...

Good points, all, let's try to address them if possible:

You spend part of the second paragraph on talking about a Hollywood that lumps Asians into a single group and things "they all look alike." Is that not an attack on the casting itself?

Eh - sort of. I mean, yes, it is of course, but more than that it's an attack of an idea of comfort in the casting of Asians cross-ethnic barriers that has led to the point where now, something genuinely offensive has happened. I mean to talk about the ignorance of it while trying to toe the line about how much it really hurts us most of the time. On the one hand most white producers do it because it's expedient, and on the other hand, most Asian actors don't mind because it's work - so who do you chastise? Well, I guess I chastise the ignorance a little more than I chastise the consent/personal gain - but christ, we all look bad now.

Also, you seem to break the casting offense into two parts: the Chinese for taking the roles, and the Americans for offering them the roles. This again, disagrees with your statement above.

Yes, to the first part - and I hope I begin to talk about that above - and as to the disagreement. . . not so sure. The whites did it, why?

1. box office
2. ignorance

the yella's did it, why?

1. fame
2. fortune

Who's more odious? If it were a different project, I wouldn't really care, I admit. I might feel a pang of discomfort, but not like this. There's enough blame here to go around.

The boneheaded Americans involved in every level of this production (Arthur Golden on down) deserve everything they get for the content, but every ounce of blame on the casting side belongs to Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi, who sold out their country.

And Gong Li, too. True. I think the divorce we're having here is that you're taking what I say in this review as blanket (and a lot of it is, I confess, looking at it again), when what I hoped to have done was lay out the history of this particular dispute to this moment and this picture - and then proceed, directly, into a discussion of the "crimes" of this film in particular. The inverted triangle they taught us in composition 101, in other words, and I wonder if I was too vague about it.

I think Memoirs is the unfortunate end-result of centuries of misunderstanding and misrepresentation - and it goes both ways, you ever see how the British are portrayed in Chinese kung-fu epics? - and I tried to distill the particular hurts of all that history into about a 800-word preamble to a 1200 word review.

You don't leave the actresses blameless, but you deflect a sizeable amount of the blame away from them--going so far as to mention Zhang's defense that it's difficult for a Chinese actor to break into Hollywood.

I did. I tried to be pretty even as to how to handle this trio of actresses mainly because, man, there but for the grace of googly-moogly go I, yes? How likely would I be to turn away a truck-load of money backed up to my front door to play a Japanese army general? Well. . . maybe that's a bad question - it'd take a lot of fucking money - but I think that we're talking about a lot of fucking money. If you check around (and have a good Mandarin translator) you'll see that poor Zhang is getting every conceivable kind of threat to her personal safety that you can imagine. Less so Gong and Yeoh, for whatever reason, but there you have it. I didn't want to pile on that way because I feel like I empathize a little, and because if I pile on then I'm just as bigoted and dangerous as all the Chinese people who want her hacked to pieces. I'm not excusing her - it's not my place to condemn or excuse, really, I don't know what's driving her to do this thing - but I am offering that this situation is hella ugly, and there's no simple way to talk about it.

Well, yeah, but if I choose to do something horrible in order to get ahead, the blame lies entirely with myself.

Too true - and I do say that whatever crosses they have are theirs to bear so at least we agree on that point. Truth is, I don't know that we disagree all that much about this - but I could be misreading.

Enjoying the chat - tally ho.

Walter_Chaw said...

Oh, and Cap'n, that "spine thing" is just not that special. You're familiar with the Backpacker Murders? Ivan Mital and all that? Apparently the bodies showed signs that some had had their spinal cords severed and there was some speculation that a few lived on for a while after it'd happened.

Anyway - there's nothing as disgusting in Wolf Creek as there is in the excruciating Hostel (how about an eyeball on a stalk clumsily snipped off as a Japanese chick wails like a banshee?) - it's an ugly piece of work, that, but with about as much import as a Herschel Gordon Lewis flick. I've talked to Roth before and I suspect that he'd appreciate the comparison. Quentin Tarantino produced it, you know, makes me wonder about the horror film he's making with Rodriguez. The whole thing plays a little too much like childish oneupsmanship to me.

The Captain said...

how about an eyeball on a stalk clumsily snipped off as a Japanese chick wails like a banshee?

Well, vomit. The wonders of internet marketing, I just found a clip of that scene (no, I'm not posting the link) and I'll be avoiding this movie like the plague.

Jefferson said...

cory m said...
The boneheaded Americans involved in every level of this production (Arthur Golden on down) deserve everything they get for the content, but every ounce of blame on the casting side belongs to Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi, who sold out their country.

It's worth noting that Michelle Yeoh is Malaysian, not Chinese, although she's won greatest fame in the Chinese cinema. That said, Malaysia took its lumps during four years of Japanese assault and occupation:

Which commenced the same day as Pearl Harbor, BTW.

(PS: Any tips on how to HTMLize a web address into text? All my clumsy attempts at coding failed; hence the address included above.)

Walter_Chaw said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rich said...


I wasn't sure how to do that either, but a quick Googling gave me some info.
You do it like this.

Jefferson said...

Cheers all. Walter, I'm less human now for having accidentally visited, thanks to your demo.

Another technical question ... and I don't mean to derail the thread, but what the hell, I'm gonna ... what DVD and sound systems do the FFC staff use for disc reviews? I'm particularly interested in sound. I've got a good Pioneer player, but I'm channeling the audio through an early-'90s ProLogic receiver to just two speakers -- no DTS, etc. I'd like to upgrade.

Input from other FFC readers/audiophiles is welcome too, of course.

Walter_Chaw said...

HA - wow - holy shit. I just made up a stupid website name, thinking back to the Cap'n's discovery that you could actually watch the eyeball scene from Hostel online somewhere.

Well, that shows me, doesn't it? Are there any website domains that aren't owned by a porn site?

As for sound and video - mine's a little rusty (and it was never top of the line) but for amps, I have a Sony HT-DDW670 600 watt system that a friend of mine who used to work at Soundtrack installed for me. I have a 34in flat tube Magnovox television (it weighs about 150lbs, no foolin') - really happy with both. My DVD player itself is the relatively inexpensive but super-reliable JVC XV-S500BK Progressive Scan player. Lots of functions on the easy-to-use remote, as well.

I recently got a DVD recorder from RCA on fire sale at KMart (80 bucks, down from $300) and the remote control is a complete fucking mystery. I stare at it for an hour like a Kubrickian monkey every time I pick it up.

Anonymous said...

Going to have to disagree with you on Hostel, Walter. It's cruel and unusual, yes, but I would consider the misogyny and homophobia to be traits of the characters, not the movie itself; isn't it the Americans' ignorant attitudes that draw them to the hostel (and the rest of the film), only to be tricked, humiliated and destroyed by the same women they see as objects? Reminds me deeply of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with the self-absorbed hippies being led to slaughter for their ignorance of/sense of superiority over the backwoods hicks. It is a ruthless film, but Hostel is a more of damnation of the American tourist, methinks.

-- Ian

Nate said...

Input from other FFC readers/audiophiles is welcome too, of course.

I'm always game for some tech talk. I have an Onkyo TXDS575 receiver with 70 watts per channel that I bought back in '98, and I'm extremely happy with it. My front and center channels are all Polk, and I love those as well. Both companies, however, have taken a turn for the worst in recent years, but are still decent for the money. I worked at Circuit City when I bought this stuff, so I got it at about 1/2 the retail price. I'd give you some fresh recommendations but I tend to be out of the loop until I actually need to buy something (which, hopefully, won't be for many years to come). If you have the money, though, spend it - in the home electronics world, you truly get what you pay for.

Walter_Chaw said...

The line for me between what's homophobic/misogynistic, the character or the film, is drawn for me by the way that the film regards the character. And Hostel regards the character as righteous.

The freaks are the bitches and the fags.

It's the American's "ignorant" attitudes that draw them to the hostel, I guess, but what's really so ignorant about college boys in Europe hearing about beautiful women at a certain hostel and then taking their europass and going there to check it out for themselves? Don't forget that the crazy guy of the bunch is from Iceland, by the way. I don't see the boys objectifying their Russian seducers once they get there, either, as they walk in on them while they're casually topless and then are invited to spa with them in what is revealed as a calculated seduction. Seems that they're actually being preyed upon for being young men that have not otherwise been established as violent, or rapists, or even particularly boorish.

And what of all the other male victims in the film that are sent there by the Russian dude with the camera phone? We get a peek and the implication seems to be that they're of all nationalities and predilections.

Then there's the liberal use of the word "faggot" which can be explained away by your ascription for American ignorance, but what of the revelation that one of the American tourists (the "good" one) might be gay right before we find out what happens to gay men in films like this. Does his punishment fit his crime (he sleeps with one of his seducers)? Or is he getting the hammer of God for being queer? And does his torturer, another gay man, deserve his fate? Pants around his ankles, head in a public toilet? Nothing American about this guy except the way that gay men are slaughtered in film since Cruising. I do like how Hellbent handles this, though, with pathos and, it's not too much to say, insight and humanity.

And then you have to look at the treatment of the Japanese woman, ostensibly the only positive female character in the picture. She's a cipher initially, then she's a screamer, then she's pulled around by the American boy, then she can't deal with her appearance, and so she kills herself. Not really much of a character, I guess, but as the only woman who doesn't show her tits, I was sort of latching on to what I could. If she kills herself as a distraction so the man can escape, why is her death made the butt of a joke of excess. (The second involving her.) If we look at the excision of her eye as some sort of commentary about sight or voyeurism or the "male gaze", I missed it, too.

Of the two Russian toddies, what do we make of their ultimate loud and bloody comeuppance in the middle of a street? If you can see them somehow as victims of the male gaze in this picture, then their offhand, almost slapstick slaughter seems to me to be an affront to that.

I'd go with the idea that it's the attitudes behind sexual tourism being indicted here (though zeroing in on the young Americans is still a weird thing to do) if the picture wasn't wall-to-wall with gratuitous, un-ironic nudity. There's that scene in this guy's apartment, right, with a naked chick fucking a dude in a drug-induced haze - this coming after a walk down the streets of Amsterdam's Red-Light District and so on. It's the Britney Spears school of feminism, to me, I guess, in that you can't have it both ways.

Are you seeing this entire film somehow as a statement about pornography and how women are driven to porn and prostitution by male tastes? It's a more powerful topic if it's set in the fleshpots of Thailand, I think, than the professional brothels of Amsterdam - but it seems to me that Hostel is a hella lot more leering. Consider the camera angle shifts in the sex scene between the two Russian girls and the two Yankee boys - and how the camera never, even if it makes no sense, fails to capture the display of tits. I like the "spa" scene, too, with a bunch of bathing beauties just lying around for our leer. If we're meant to develop some kind of empathy with them and the way that they're being exploited - I missed it, man, the story of the movie suggests that these women are all selling themselves and their genitals for the sake of a collection of sickos harvesting college-age kids staying in hostels and looking to get laid. There's an interesting story here at its center, my argument is with the puerility of its execution.

I missed, too, any sense of Texas Chain Saw Massacre superiority that the boys had over their eventual captors and betrayers: more I got this sense from them of jubilence at the prospect of what they called, loudly and often, "pussy." - Pussy which the women obligingly proved themselves to be. If it were a cautionary tale for Americans looking for sex with college-age women and of-age prostitutes in other countries whilst on vacation, I would at least expect/understand that the most promiscuous/shallow American not be annointed the hero/avenger mantel. There may be an element of tourist-hate (here and in Wolf Creek) but more it seems like xenophobia. The only sense of superiority I feel that's fostered in the flick is on behalf of straight men over women and gay men. Hooper's film had an amazing amount to say about disability, family, arrogance, and provincialism - and, more, it had a strong, strong sense of pacing and how to edit. It's so good at what it does that there wasn't even any gore in it. I've never heard the misogyny charge leveled against TCM (wouldn't stick for more'n a second in any case) - and there's a long tradition of this kind of city/country antagonism in film cross-genre. Problem with Hostel is that we have middle-class kids being tricked by lower-class kids on the payroll of upper-class men. Sooner or later, I start lumping the camera in with the peddlers of the skin trade and we're the ones lubing their retirements.

Anonymous said...


Don't know if I'd consider Paxton (the Jay Hernandez character) as righteous, per se. Certainly the character (and film) start off in the juvenile college-age "holy shit that's fucking awesome" way -- in a haze of pot smoke and prostitution. (Admittedly, "American" may have been a little too reductive.) It becomes apparent that he encompasses the kind of irrational hate that the characters have to offer the mysterious "other" (women/foreigners/homosexuals) isn't of the "I hate you because you're evil" way, but of the condescending "I hate you because you're inferior" way. At first, the world is willing to indulge him on this to lure him in, but that makes the horror of the "equal" reality that much more palpable -- when posed against the college boys' drug-and-sex-filled wank fantasy. (In that sense there is something dreamlike and unreal about the first scenes in the Amsterdam brothels -- the neon blue that overtakes entire shots.) After the bulk of the film, I think a certain "respect" comes when Paxton torturously executes his captors after he escapes; in other words, he can no longer see them as inferior beings. Even then, however, I don't believe it represents a transferrence of irrational hatred from "you're inferior" to "you're evil," but rather the ordeal becomes a primal, animalistic, eye-for-an-eye way that reminds me of Straw Dogs, negating any real "heroics." True that the Japanese woman ups the hero factor, but I think she goes on to illustrate Paxton's newfound refusal to consider women in general as inferior beings. Same goes for the death of Josh, the "good" tourist, which goes hand-in-hand with the death of the gay foreign businessman; they were both still human beings, not to be considered inherently evil nor to be underestimated based on their sexual orientation. Paxton deals with them respectively, on an even playing field, so to speak.

The Japanese woman's demise, however, may be a matter of pure annorak horror-nerd satisfaction. And that leads to the problematic aspect of this idea, the visual execution: how Roth's extreme horror film brat tendencies punch in at this last half hour, and the film becomes a revenge-fantasy in the vein of Thriller: A Cruel Picture, what with the superhero escape, the near-literal orgasm of bodily fluids and the aforementioned Russian women street-splatter. (It's pure movie logic that the Russian fellow with the cold sore should be there as well.) This surrender to the director's basest desires would probably ruin it for most, and understandably so, but again I cite Straw Dogs: certainly there are many who cheer for David Sumner at the end of that film when he dispatches of his attackers, but the lack of any moral center to the battle eventually leads us to criticize ourselves and try to determine why we would be so exhilarated by something so horrible. (As the final lines of Dogs implies, none of us really "know" our way home after our brutal sides have been revealed.) So there might be more going on here -- no doubt Roth wants to please his audience, but I think he brings up more uncomfortable questions about ourselves than desires. Maybe even more than he realizes.

-- Ian

Bill C said...

Yeah, I think I liked Brokeback Mountain even less. And happy as I was to see Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams naked again, the female nudity felt cynical, like a literal boobie prize for the straight guys who'd been dragged to see it. And I still can't believe the last shot of the movie is a closet door being shut. Heath is a revelation, though; you get over his Sling Blade impersonation pretty quickly.

Alex Jackson said...

Thanks guys, now I'm going to be tormented over the next few months wanting to see Hostel.

Didn't find a clip of the actual eyeball slicing, but I did catch a glimpse through the film's German trailer.

Looks pretty good; although I don't envy the poor bastard who is going to have to review the DVD and it's probable twenty audio commentary tracks.

You would all be pleased to know that Thriller and Nacho Cerdo's Aftermath are both on my Netflix cue, although right now I'm trying to stuff in as many potentially great 2005 releases before creating my top ten list.

ed gonzalez said...

Alex Jackson: No, you're not necessarily putting too much thought into my race, but I do think you're putting too much thought into my example. To be completely honest, the reason why I used "Puerto Rican"/"Mexican" was because "Jennifer Lopez"/"Selena" was the first thing that popped into my head. (I tried to think of a non-Cuban Latino playing a Cuban character on film but couldn't come up with an example off the top of my head—from Scarface to The Perez Family, the Cuban parts seem to all go to Italians; Cubans don't mind this, I think, because Francis Ford Coppola allowed Andy Garcia to play a Corleone.) This has nothing to do with me identifying with Mexicans and everything with me being sensitive to the way Hispanics are portrayed on screen. My point—or, rather, the point that I was trying to make—is that Memoirs of a Geisha's Chinese-as-Japanese casting is no different than the casting of Jennifer Lopez in the role of Selena. It's a business decision first and foremost; unconsciously, though, it risks conveying they-all-look-the-same prejudices.

But why weren't the complaints about Lopez's casting as Selena within the Hispanic community as loud as the ones resonating now from within the Asian community about Memoirs of a Geisha's casting? The answer is still a business one. Hispanics and Asians are not very well-represented on screen, and when they are, they're usually represented wrongly, and usually by the wrong people. But it seems that Hispanics are making more progress here than Asians—not that I would call white culture's happy embrace of our "Latin Explosion" progress, but still. Our trendiness (not to mention our population boom) has made Hispanics a little complacent, I think. We know that Hollywood still needs to represent us better on screen, and that our Hispanic actors should be getting more work (and should probably look a little less like Cameron Diaz), but we seem to think Hollywood is doing a fine enough job that we'll take Puerto Rican J. Lo playing Selena as long as they don't give us Italian Al Pacino playing Puerto Rican Carlito Brigante. As long as you cast within our race, we're good. But are Hispanics ready for this kind of complacency when so much work is still left to be done?

Man, there's more to be said here—seriously, I wanted to talk about Memoirs of a Geisha and how the controversy is different—but I'm being called into the other room to watch Dark Corner. More later, perhaps.

P.S. Jefferson, that things you learned from that class gave me a start. I say that because everything you learned about Cubans is 100% correct. (You've got our number!) I see those attitudes expressed in my family every time we get together. It infuriates me to see these attitudes in them and it embarrasses me when I see them manifest themselves in myself, like when I tell people that my last name is spelt Gonzalez not the more Mexican-identifiable Gonzales. ;)

The Captain said...

For Alex - Your favourite; eye eye, captain!

Excuse me while I once again be sick. While Asia is cornering the market on great horror, America seems to engaged in some kind of gruesome pissing contest for sadism. Saw, House of Wax, Hostel - I remember when the fascinating Nine Inch Nails Broken movie was the most disturbing thing ever, going head to head with the Japanese Guinea Pig series. Now, this shit is going mainstream.

Can you believe Hostel got an R-rating with less than 1 second cut? Takashi Miike said it was "too violent" for him.

Jefferson said...

Sr. Gonzalez: Glad (sorry?) to know my admittedly cursory glance at Cuban culture jibes with what you know. Filmwise, our seminar also had a roundtable with a Cuban-born producer whose name escapes me, and his responses to such questions -- transnational casting of ethnically Hispanic roles -- always came back to money as well. This is the core truth of the business. We were discussing a particular Spanish-language movie that had gotten great raves at independent film festivals, but had yet to find a U.S. distributor. His response was a shrug and the comment, "It'll be a great remake someday."

As Walter has said, "Ask a producer about his art, he'll try to sell it to you."

A more recent trend that disturbs me is the blonding/blanding of Hispanic actors into mainstream roles. Jessica Alba may not be the highest example of Latino culture, but she's also not a natural blonde -- this I know to be true. And did I simply dream that J.Lo was playing Italian in Angel Eyes, or did that really happen? (Either way, my next question is what the hell was I doing watching Angel Eyes?) I worry that it speaks to a kind of skin-tone prejudice that's just as present in Hispanic cultures as it is in mine, one I see reflected on the Mexican-produced telenovelas as well.

But the coolest thing I learned at this seminar? That jazz as we know it would not exist today had Dixieland not gotten busy with Afro-Cuban polyrhythms. And for that, I say ¡viva!

Ian: Didn't Cabin Fever finish with a hero-revenge rave-up too? With the viewpoint protagonist (y'know, the one who should have been infected immediately after sexually assaulting his hemorrhagic would-be girlfriend, but somehow wound up the last to catch the bug) carving a path of destruction in his escape? It sounds to me like this might just be Roth's default setting for concluding a film, and that's disappointing. I thought CF showed promise, for all its kitchen-sink flaws.

Alex Jackson said...

(I tried to think of a non-Cuban Latino playing a Cuban character on film but couldn't come up with an example off the top of my head—from Scarface to The Perez Family, the Cuban parts seem to all go to Italians; Cubans don't mind this, I think, because Francis Ford Coppola allowed Andy Garcia to play a Corleone.)

Also, the Cuban actress Jamie-Lynn DiScala plays Meadow Soprano. General rule of ethnicity seems to state that Cubans, Italians, and Jews can all play one another.

It sort of seemed to me that the integrated Italians would be seen closer to Cuban than the unwashed Mexican, of which the major thing they share with Cubans is that they both speak Spanish. Because, as stated Cubans don't look kindly on being lumped with other Spanish-speaking groups, social class would trump language as the chief associative factor.

Anyway I'm excited about Hostel, although I have to say that you're a total puss Captain. Guy-getting-fucked-by-a-horse-video that was not. One of the cool things that I learned about Miike is that you can only take the violence to a certain level. Once you bypass that level it ceases being emotionally affective and just becomes special effects, read goofy, read funny. Compare Dead or Alive with Audition. Or better yet, Peter Jackson's Dead Alive with Passion of the Christ (which I think might have had a better reputation if it was marketed to hard-core horror film buffs).

The Captain said...

It's not necessarily content, rather craft that does it - after all, the opening to Irreversible is just a guy getting his head beaten in with a fire extinguisher; had it not been for all the editing tricks and clever visuals and all, wouldn't have been as effective. Likewise the pornographic Bashin' of the Christ. You feel every whip and thump as Mel drives the nails into your hands alongside Jesus's onscreen. (Go grab for yourself the Guinea Pig series and then call me a puss.)

I'm something of a gorehound - you name it, I've seen it. Exaggerated grue vs extreme grue, I get what you're saying - but that Hostel clip bothered me - the combination of the screaming and the eye-violence and the torture and the cutting, the 'panic' atmosphere, even contextless it feels to be approaching Flower of Flesh and Blood levels. (Why exactly does he cut it off, anyway? Is that going to end the pain?)

Alex Jackson said...

Irreversible was an example of going too far I thought. I didn't feel that affected by it because they took it so far that I became distanced from the victim and started looking at special effects. Same with the eyeball scene in Hostel, I'm just too distanced from the idea of it. It might be effective if we have a shot of it getting torn out of its socket. (I think he cut it off so it would get caught on anything when they ran away?)

I was affected by Passion, I think that we can jointly attribute it to Gibson being a real filmmaker and being a genuine psychopath. The gorehounds should dig Passion, but it wasn't made for them it was made by somebody who believes the torture serves a very serious religious purpose.

I was also affected by the sheer anger in the TCM remake, the rightousness in the attitude behind the violence like the victims were really deserving what was coming to them. The best moments of House of Wax glanced on that.

The MPAA seems to be relaxing a little on violence, Passion of the Christ certainly challenges most NC-17 films, I really can't recall anything more brutal.

I haven't seen the Guinea Pig films, but I know of them particularly Flower of Flesh and Blood. Surprisingly, it's available on Netflix and so I moved it near the top of my list. Will see Aftermath in the near future though.

The Captain said...

I'm 100% with you on the Passion. I wrote a review here and I don't think any other film has affected me quite as much. Here in Aus the ratings system is slightly different, with the NC-17 equalling R18+ (Restricted to over 18s only) and PG-13 to R falling into either M15+ (Parental Guidance Recommended to those under 15) and MA15+ (Restricted to 15 or over unless accompanied by adults).

Amazingly, the Passion of the Christ was given an MA15+, meaning that parents could (and did) take their children to it. While it rightly deserved an R18+ (alongside Irreversible and Kill Bill Vol 1) it landed a lighter rating for the sake of a good merry Christian time. Hooray for fundamentalism and politics over common sense! This is old news, to be sure, but still demonstrates the shared insanity of both the MPAA and the Australian OFLC.

Anonymous said...

Walter - where'd you find that awesome Kong poster?

Anonymous said...

By the way, I just read your review for Memoirs of a Geisha, and boy is it a doozy. Thanks for summing up your thoughts on this one so articulately.

Anonymous said...

Comparing your review with Alex's, captain, I'm pretty sure that you are actually pretty far from being 100% with him on The Passion.


The Captain said...

Oh, not necessarily on the worth of the film, but of the violence and its effectiveness, is all I meant.

Rachel said...

I don't know about you guys, but I always enjoy misspellings on official art.:) (Sorry, AdriEn.)

ed gonzalez said...

Walter, glad to see you liked The New World so much. It's my favorite film of the year.

Did I miss something, but are you guys not updating your home page anymore?

cory m said...


Our thoughts on Memoirs are quite similar. The only place where I think we differ is in how much blame the actresses deserve. It seemed to me that when it came to the casting debacle, you saved most of your venom for the filmmakers and Hollywood in general, in effect deflecting too much blame away from them. This goes back to the position I stated earlier--that I am not offended by people confusing my own heritage, nor am I offended by foreigners playing Americans, and as such, I have difficulty understanding why people get angry over Chinese being cast as Japanese, or Cubans as Italians. Racial insensitivity? Probably. But I believe that if you think similarly, most of the blame must be given to the actor or actress who accepted a part in a film that insults his or her own culture. I'm not sure how worthwhile this little point really is, but there you have it.

Glad to hear you liked The New World and Kong. It gives me hope that I won't have to add them to the long list of disappointments this year has already given me.

Trailer for Sofia Copolla's Marie Antoinette, if anyone is interested. It scares me a little, but I suppose she deserves a little trust.

Walter_Chaw said...

You make some really interesting points - especially in regards to this idea of "equality" and "respect" in this film and in Straw Dogs. I quibble only really with the terminology, I think, in that I see where you're going in both that the man of "civilization" is forced to play ball with his inner beast. Problem with that read in Hostel, though, is that the Paxton character seems to me to already be indulging in the bestial side of himself: it's his pal, Josh, who's attempting to retain his civilization throughout.

What I'm wondering is if folks of a more sensitive/introspective nature don't always question what it is in themselves that attracts them to certain genre fare as they're watching it but most certainly if they're enlisted to review it. Most guys in this biz tend to deny that they get any kind of prurient thrills from the experience and dismiss the stuff offhand: lumping Hostel in with Kill Bill or some such bullshit. But if you can admit to getting kicks from The Devil's Rejects (if you did), then you need to find a way to meet it halfway. Halfway on ground that's neither "fogey" nor "psychopath" - and so we create a language of intellectualized avoidance to articulate, in essence, the same journey we take in our heads as the Deliverance boys take down that river.

All this by way of saying, that I would agree with you on a lot of what you're saying (if avoiding words like "equality" and "respect" which I think are evocative but misdirected) in a number of other genre exercises (even the Guinea Pig films - especially the "Flower" one and the mermaid one) - but quail when it's applied to something like Hostel which I feel as though really only inspires feelings of introspection because it's an example of misanthropic nihilism and not an exercise illustrating it.

Just for the sake of being argumentative in some respects, I'd want to hazard that very few modern, sophisticated viewers (and that's what we're talking about I think) cheer David's descent into the hole at the end of Straw Dogs. A descent, I don't need to remind you, that's forced upon him (as it's forced on most of the transgression films we talk about: even Wolf Creek) - he is, after all, laid siege upon in his home and it's his civilization; his refusal to turn over the Faulknerian manchild, that necessitates his bloody defense. The vengeance in Hostel is more along the lines of a boy I Spit on Your Grave - and without the girl/boy victim/rapist dynamic, I fear it loses something for me in the subtext.

That is, unless we start over and call the whole thing a coming out party for Paxton. That might not be a bad way to go, actually: the hijacking of masculinity.

I do like your read of the rescue of the Japanese girl, however, that's interesting to mark it as a humanizing moment for him. A shame though that even that is tempered by the revelation earlier on that "Asian chicks aren't my thing."

Ed, et. al:
Great groove going on representation. I agree in general with the read that it's business - but want to offer, too, that the rave-up here on Geisha has a little/lot to do, too, with the particular relationship between the Chinese and the Japanese especially in regards to this period of time and with these characters. I don't hear a lot of griping going on when the creme of South Korean cinema gets cast in Chinese films or Japanese in Chinese films - it's just with this film that there's been a hue and cry and I believe that this is why. . . well, at least 50% of the reason.

Bill is, by the way, updating the website almost daily - the frequency of the updates, though, means a lot of "refreshing" for even semi-casual visitors to the site. Do it at least once a day so you don't miss any of the nugoty goodness. It's also good for the OCD.

...jointly attribute it to Gibson being a real filmmaker and being a genuine psychopath

Laughed for a good five minutes - but only because it's true.

Found the KONG poster here:

I hope that I'm not so much deflecting blame from them as saying that they have their own crosses to bear. I offer why it is that so many people see them as race traitors, offer that there is irony in the kind of role they chose to do so, and then let Zhang speak for herself (Gong Li has come out now, too, with a similarly weak defense - hot on the heals of Rob Marshall's typically ignorant retort - yeah, Rob, you're right and 1.3 Billion Chinamen are fucking deluded - interesting that the Chinese actresses don't say that their detractors are wrong, per se, it's just the Caucasians who do that) - and the conscience of their decisions be theirs to tote around. Going beyond that starts to get ugly to me.

I don't blame JLo entirely for Selena, either, there's enough blame to go around.

Ed, New World is up there now for me, too - that and King Kong strike me as extremely similar films in ways more than cosmetic. It's a pretty tremendous double-bill for the American mainstream after a year of pissing around with its thumb up its ass.

Bill C said...

One of the few message boards I frequent, Mobius Home Video Forum, has dragged both Ed's and Walter's reviews of Geisha into a discussion, if anyone's interested.

Jefferson said...

Walter: As a viewer of Lost, I wondered if you'd applied this Geisha stream of thought to Naveen Andrews, a British-born Indian playing an Arab. Interesting that I've heard no backlash against this casting, and what's more, he seems quite beloved among fans of the show.

Bill: Still curious as to what sound system you're using for your DVD reviews. You always seem to pay close attention to the sonic mix in your critiques.

Carl Walker said...


I was gonna get all wordy, but I'll try to come out with the more concise version of it. Anyway, considering how there is, on the whole, no love lost between Indians and Arabs (see Pakistan-India), and on top of that considering how Americans of Indian descent were nonetheless subject to misguided Arab-bashing after September 11th (not that it's somehow ok when the victims really are Arabs, but it's especially bitterly ironic when they might hate Arabs more than the bashers do... see also Vincent Chin for an East Asian parallel), it does seem quite amazing in a "how bad should I consider this" kind of way that Andrews is playing an Iraqi. I actually like the show (blasphemy on this site, I think) but anytime someone can identify him as an "Arab" on sight, I kinda chuckle/wince because really, he doesn't look anything like an Arab... because he's not one! So it really seems kinda like they shouldn't be doing that, but then he is according to Walter only one of two actors even capable of acting on that show, so why begrudge him? :P

Alex Jackson said...

Trailer for Sofia Copolla's Marie Antoinette, if anyone is interested. It scares me a little, but I suppose she deserves a little trust.

Ha ha! What the hell is that?

Either going to be really good or really terrible, I'm not sure that there is any middle ground.

Bill C said...

Marie Antoinette looks like the kind of movie every hip director uses their get-out-of-jail-free card to make. Let's hope it's a hoot. I know in recent years I've really warmed up to Van Sant's Psycho but significantly cooled on Scorsese's New York, New York.

Jefferson: I don't have a terribly fancy setup, just a combination 500-watt 5.1/DTS receiver/progressive-scan DVD player from JVC (one of these days I'll bite the bullet and install 6.1), matched entry-level speakers from Polk Audio, and a 160-watt subwoofer from Kenwood. The subwoofer was some score, I'll tell you: I paid for a 50-watt subwoofer (this was back when I was worried that too much bass would start localized earthquakes; now I know it does and just don't care) and they loaded the wrong box in the car. Now get your greasy paws off Anna Paquin.

cory m said...

Jesus, I just read that Rip Torn is playing King Louis XV in Marie Antoinette. I think I have to see it, now. The man just never disappoints me.

Seattle Jeff said...

Rip was EPIC in Dodgeball!

And has a fun appearance in Studs Terkel's book "Working"

Jefferson said...

Now get your greasy paws off Anna Paquin.

For that, you'd have to actually GIVE me your sound system. Thanks for the insights.

The New Order song in the Marie Antoinette trailer only proves that Sofia Coppola was just as depressed in high school as I was.

Walter_Chaw said...

Good question re: Andrews and Lost, man, and I just gotta fall back to ignorance. I'm just as stupid as the next guy, y'know, the things that torque me off are just the things that I happen to accidentally know enough to be torqued off about. A while ago, a friend challenged me about not writing anything about the homophobia in Life Aquatic and I had to sit, gap-jawed, and admit that I hadn't noticed it. I had, around that time, ended almost four years as a Teamster working the graveyard shift in a rough environment where you called each other "faggot" and joked about how many cigarettes you'd trade the fresh meat for in prison. I was offered a 60-in TV for fifty bucks in that time by a co-worker who somehow knew the street value of custom tires. Loved every minute of it - but I came to realize it was my saturation in that macho culture that blunted me to a few of the things that were happening in film around that time. I mean, I'd catch some of it and miss some of it - it was erratic.

Still is - no excuse now, though.

So regarding the casting of a British-born, ethnic-Indian in the role of a torturer in the Iraqi Republican Guard in the most popular show on television? Wow - that seems like all kinds of wrong. At the same time, though, with the no-love-lost thing with India/Pakistan in mind - I wonder if there's enough of a distinction being made between the Punjabi ethnicity that makes up the bulk of Pakistan's people and the Arab ethnicity that makes up the bulk of Iraq's population. Am I being ignorant about making that distinction?

See - the fact is that I don't know enough about it and would look like a bigger ass if I pretended to. Even stuff I feel pretty comfortable with - like Snow Dogs and Bringing Down the House - I often get hate mail from African-Americans for being too sensitive. Bill, I know, got a piece of weirdo hatemail for being a white guy coming down on black movies in regards to Fat Albert which, in addition to everything else, was actually a positive review.

Anyhow - couldn't find a peep of controversy about it which means that either the anti-Arab defamation league doesn't ever get upset about things - or that this portrayal, by this actor, is actually not particularly offensive. It's dangerous to get too dogmatic about these things - I wanna reiterate that I generally don't have too much of a problem with cross-Asian casting - just not in a movie set at this time about these characters.

No worries, man, there are a lot of defenders of "Lost" around here.

You ever see Forty Shades of Blue? Torn is amazing in it.

Hey, break up the Seahawks, can't believe they did that to the Eagles. Well, I can, but holy christ, on nat'l TV no less.

"Why? Because it's sterile and I like the taste."

And - ooh - which New Order song?

jer fairall said...

Trailer for Sofia Copolla's Marie Antoinette

OK, I now offically cannot wait for it to be Fall 2006.

Bill C said...

The New Order song is "Age of Consent." Jefferson, I felt a similar kinship with Coppola when I saw the trailer, and I'm starting to think, nay, worry that you're my Tyler Durden.

tim r said...

King Kong - hell yes. But The New World? Really? "Sad and lyrical", fine - the last 40 minutes are wonderful, nearly Thin Red Line-worthy. But what are we supposed to do, just overlook how choppy, diffuse, and uncertainly edited the rest is? Farrell in shackles/Farrell wandering through tall grass/Farrell back in shackles. That's the first hour, from where I was sitting. Much as we love him, is it really clear what Malick's up to here? I'm open to theories, and look forward to reading your reviews as usual, but I do worry there's going to be a whole lot of special pleading over this one...

tim r said...

Sorry, that seems needlessly snitty, reading it back. Just hoping to get a bit of a debate started on a difficult movie, if you guys are game.

Seattle Jeff said...

Walter -

Here's what it's like to be a Seahawk fan:

Hawk Fan #1: Did you see that Monday Night game? The Seahawks are 10-2 with SF, Green Bay, and Tennesee at the end of the season! Home field advantage baby!

Hawk Fan #2: Man, it's going to suck losing our playoff opener.

Anonymous said...

I clicked on the Marie Antoinette link, but for some reason it directs to the video for Mr. Brightside. What's the deal?

Bill C said...

Man, R.I.P. Richard Pryor. Anyone at FFC wanna tackle an obit?

Alex Jackson said...

Believe it or not, Roger Ebert just gave Memoirs of a Geisha thumbs down on his show. He complains that it's misogynistic and a romanticization of the Asian mystique.

Roeper gave it a thumbs up.

Walter_Chaw said...

Pass on the Pryor obit - outta my league.

Didn't see the first of it as choppy or diffuse and Farrell is seldom by himself in the first two hours. He disappears, in fact, after one, doesn't he? And becomes a secondary character/cameo for the end? I didn't mind Farrell at all here and I've hated him lately - something about how Malick's made him this beaten, melancholic character - I barely felt like I saw his eyes - he seems to me more an idea of a person than a person anymore. Malick-ized, in other words, and once done he looks the part to me.

He's really only in shackles for like five minutes, right - and then its a lot with the Indians, a great scene in a swamp and a suit of armor, and the love story for an hour - then back to the fort for winter (again, not much Farrell) - and then he's gone. So - aside from our central disagreement that the first of the flick is diffuse and choppy (far from, I say, it all felt smooth and beautifully-metered to me) - I also take exception to the idea that there's much of a focus on Farrell.

The flick seems a lot like King Kong to me in that it's a romantic fantasy, an elegy for a lost age, and a tragedy of displacement.

With Ebert giving the thumbs down on his show to Geisha, do you s'pose that effectively kills its Oscar chances? I'll be honest that I didn't think he had it in him to buck a major studio picture - maybe the news that Dreamworks was just sold emboldened him. Thing is, though, that Ebert's a smart guy - reason #1 why his usual blanket pass to big-money flicks was so hard to stomach.

cory m said...

You ever see Forty Shades of Blue? Torn is amazing in it.

Thank you, Walter. I remembered reading about it, but I couldn't remember the title. I haven't had the opportunity to see it. Movie theater executives were kind enough to draw a line through my entire region of Northwest Pennsylvania and say, "These people don't just don't want to watch indie/arthouse films." Which always seemed like an awful self-fulfilling prophecy to me. People around here don't really go to non-mainstream films, but they don't really have the opportunity to, either.

So, it's not coming to theaters, and the DVD's appear to be a long way off. At this point, I'm just waiting.

tim r said...

Walter: Didn't mean to suggest the focus was just on Farrell, or to be quite that glib. I also like him in it rather a lot, Q'Orianka Kilcher enormously, and the most interesting thing about the movie, especially from a political standpoint, is how its focus shifts gradually from him to her, as you say. No, I just wanted to illustrate what struck me as very peculiar editing in the first half, with disruptive fades to black every few minutes. And we go from an image of, for instance, Farrell in captivity (shackles, ropes, being carted off, whatever) immediately to an image of him wandering freely around in the grass. And then the same happens again, and again. This is surely really odd. I honestly can't say I've decided whether it's just bad storytelling (I think most professional editors would say so), or if Malick's doing it deliberately for some reason, but it typified that sense of choppiness for me, and it's certainly not the only example. "Narrative fissures" is the way someone I know put it.

I'm genuinely surprised you found it smooth; it even makes me wonder if we saw different cuts, since last I heard the length hadn't been finalised. If so I'm dying to see the one you saw. I think what's really weird about this movie for Malick is that it has wonderful sequences but never achieves any kind of successful "macro" rhythm until its last third. He's always been a genius at rhythm before. But this felt to me either like a very rough assembly, or, worse, like he simply hadn't found the film he was looking for in the footage. It needed to be longer, if anything. The big disappointment is that it's the first thing he's made that I really think can be faulted, specifically and repeatedly, on aesthetic grounds - the cinematography, too, is so much plainer and more clunkily "pictorial" than The Thin Red Line's. Those voiceovers waft around so indistinctly. And a Malick whose aesthetic isn't working is, pretty self-evidently, a Malick in trouble.

Alex Jackson said...

I've seen Pryor's concert work (Live in Concert and Live on the Sunset Strip) and was quite impressed, but I know very little about what he has done on film. I think that it was wife who said that he was lazy and only did the movies for the money. The only film of his that I have seen is The Toy and while it's bad in a somewhat interesting way, it's still, well, bad.

Maybe it was laziness, but part of me thinks that it might have been discomfort with the canonization he recieved from critics (Pauline Kael called Live in Concert the greatest live performance she had ever seen or some such hyperbole) and the stand-up community. To her credit, Kael picked up on this. She said of Live on the Sunset Strip that he didn't need to do anything. He could just stand there and be admired.

On Jo Jo Dancer Your Life is Calling she relates a story about his short lived series "The Richard Pryor Show". He had to quit, and the producers insisted that he had to keep on going because he could "change things". He looked at them like they were crazy. He felt that he needed drugs to function creativity and to ask him to keep going was to ask him to commit suicide.

One might lament that his films were stronger than they were or more indicaitive of his talents as a stand-up; but by marginalizing himself in his screenwork, the burden of being a trailblazer might have been relieved a little. For a comedian whose humor is renowned for it's sense of humanism, it is probably appropriate that we view him firstmost as a human being.


Ebert gave two stars to the 1999 Best Picture nominee Cider House Rules; and two stars to both 2000 Best Picture nominees Erin Brockavich and Gladiator. Then we have to move back to 1995's Sense and Sensibility which recieved only two and a half. And then even further back to 1992, for his two and half star pan of A Few Good Men, 1990 for his two and a half star pan of Ghost, 1989 for his two star pan of Dead Poets Society, and 1987 for his two and a half star pan of Fatal Attraction.

Yes, I have memorized the Best Picture nominees down to 1987 and Ebert's ratings of them; and yes I am embarassed about this.

I certainly think that Ebert guaranteed Charlize Theron's win for Monster and Million Dollar Baby's Best Picture win; but I'm not sure that an Ebert pan (as rare as they are) necessarilly ninety-sixes a film's Oscar chances. Audience reaction may still play a role in this (it certainly did for most of the panned films that I mentioned).

tmhoover said...

I, too, will bow out of the Pryor obit; it's outta my league probably even more than it's outta Walter's. Will merely note that his stand-up and his film work (outside of concert films) are completely different animals. By the time he was a foregone conclusion, he was making wussy movies like The Toy and Brewster's Millions that were the polar opposite of his blunt, confrontational stand-up. Compare the fearless soul-baring of the concerts with his demeaning turn in Superman III -practically Stepin Fetchit time- and you see a man who clearly couldn't turn down a check. Blue Collar and a couple of other early examples notwithstanding (and mea culpa for the clunky review I wrote for BC in this site's infancy) by the end of his run, he was effectively neutralized as a screen presence.

Though perhaps this is a testament to how great his routines were. What major studio (in the '80s, no less) would finance a movie as brutal and tender as Pryor personifying a heart attack?

Jefferson said...

Heart to Pryor: "Don't ... breathe."

Prophetic words, a great routine, a very sad, triumphant, troubled, amazingly talented man. Thank God he was here.

Bill C said...

I just watched a Larry King rerun with Pryor from 1987, circa Critical Condition. There was an interesting bit where Pryor essentially denied ever having done a serious (as opposed to not-funny, let's make clear) picture, when of course he had a few on his resume, including one (Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling) that had been released not six months prior to his appearance on the program. I'm not sure what that was about, and it's unfortunate he didn't have a real interviewer to press him on it.

cory m said...

By the time he was a foregone conclusion, he was making wussy movies like The Toy.

A movie about a black man being purchases by a rich white family whose patriarch happens to be a member of the KKK is wussy?

Alex Jackson said...

A movie about a black man being purchases by a rich white family whose patriarch happens to be a member of the KKK is wussy?

Eh, adjusting for changes in political correctness between 1982 and today-- yes.

But that's a fairly good point.

James Allen said...

Richard Pryor.

I can make the following statement without hyperbole: Richard Pryor was easily the most influencial stand-up comedian of all-time. He wasn't the first to extensively use profanity (that was Lenny Bruce, of course) but his was not so much to shock or deconstruct (like say, a George Carlin would), but to establish a rhythm. It never seemed all that gratuitous, in other words.

He wasn't the first to comment on the black experience in a frank way, but where others (like Dick Gregory) were more political, Pryor was intensely personal.

And that's where Pryor's stand-up outshines his obvious modern discipiles: he was vulnerable. (Think of Chris Rock or Martin Lawrence or Bernie Mac, for as brilliant or funny as you may think those guys are, do they ever for a second let their guard down?)

Pryor's stand-up was so raw, so transcendent, he was the first (unless I'm seriously mistaken) comedian to have a major theatrical film released with just a stand-up routine. Watching Richard Pryor: Live in Concert is like watching an exposed nerve. He talks about his heart-attack, his relationships with women, and yes, the difference between whites and blacks, all in such a stunningly casual style. He's not afraid to make himself be the bad guy in certain situations. His macho poses are countered by genuine feelings of sorrow and regret. That he makes all of this uproariously funny to audiences of all stripes is a mark of his brilliance.

His second film, Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip goes even further. The backbone of the film are two extended routines, the first, an amazingly eloquant disavowal of the word "nigger," and second, the story of his infamous free-base incident, where he severely burned himself. Of the latter, Pryor knew that after such an incident he could not get away without talking about it, so again he laid himself bare, sharing his pain with the audience. We laugh, but we also feel the pain (as when he describes his first bath after getting burned), something not many comics can pull off.

Richard Pryor: Here and Now shows Pryor at his most relaxed and renewed. After all the pain of the last film, it's great to see him in what seems to be a better place. The film is centered with a routine about his battle with drug addiction (imitating Jim Brown constantly intoning, "Whatcha gonna do?").

As far as his "regular" film career, it is almost too easy to dismiss it. Sure, it's no secret that many of the films he did simply for the paycheck, but when he seemed interested, and there was a half-decent script, he could aquit himself well. In other words, he could've been quite a good actor if he wanted too, and a few films hint at that.

First off, though, he was one of 5 co-writers of the classic Blazing Saddles, his biggest contribution (accoring to Brooks) was writing most of Mongo's dialouge, of all things. But it's also pretty obvious that the patter of the street-smart black sheriff was influenced by Pryor (famously, he was proposed to play the role by Brooks, but supposedly he was turned down by the studio because he wasn't well-known enough.)

Onto his acting, I could sit here and trash his obviously crappy films, like The Toy and whatnot, but instead I'll try to give him credit for some films of his that I liked (or performances I liked).

Blue Collar was an amazing dramatic turn for Pryor, and he stood toe to toe with Harvey Keitel and gave a great performance.

Greased Lightning was a slight but fun biopic about race car driver Wendell Scott.

Silver Streak was his first teaming with Gene Wilder in a reasonably paced comedy/thriller, although Pryor doesn't show up until halfway through the film.

Some Kind of Hero was an earnest, but ultimately flawed film about a Vietnam vet returning home. Pryor does a good job with the role, though.

He was also good in smaller capacities in things like Lady Sings the Blues, and Car Wash.

Finally, his autobiographical Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling deserves a second look by most people. It took a critical hit at time, but it was about as close as you could get to Pryor's autobiographical stand-up material in a film form.

There's a lot to chew on through Richard Pryor's life. It was full and rich and painful and passionate... but the bottom line of it all is that he was damn funny, and he shared with us intimacies that almost none of us would want to share with others. And that's an amazing gift indeed. R.I.P.

"Fire in inspirational. They should use it at the Olympics, because I did the 100 yard dash in 4.3." - Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip

Bill C said...

Thanks for that, James.

Walter_Chaw said...

Ditto: Bravo, James.

James Allen said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
James Allen said...

Thanks a lot guys, I really appreciate it. I'm happy I could contribute.