June 07, 2007

Ten Years, Ten-Lists #4 (Walter Chaw)

In composing a Top Ten list to celebrate the tenth anniversary of an endeavour I've only been a part of for six (six of the most creatively fulsome and rewarding years of my life in this profession, I might add), I ran through a chum-load of possible topics. I thought long and hard about cannibal films--not just natives dancing around a pot in old jungle screamers, but actual on-screen depictions, the hook being that after so many words, I'm probably just cannibalizing myself nowadays. I considered using this as an excuse to write about ten movies I couldn't slot into any particular Top 10 list. At a low moment, I even toyed with doing ten flicks I was wrong about the first time around. But then it occurred to me that the best way to honour a collaboration as important to me as mine has been with Bill (for my writing, for clarifying--to whatever extent that it's clear--my thinking) would be to set down a list of ten films that were, at various points in my life, seminal to the way I think. Ten pictures that are for me like those railroad track junctures leading off into different destinations--not the ten that you necessarily need to see to experience a similar revelation, but the ten that I did. The change in direction hasn't always been easy, some were more like wrecks than like rivulets, but here are ten personal milestones as FFC crosses the threshold of its first decade on the Internet.-Walter Chaw

10. Trouble Every Day (2001, Claire Denis)
Claire Denis' apocalyptic take on both the banality and reward of companionate love addresses the bestial roots of passion before taking on the terms of endearment we use to leash it. Vincent Gallo is extraordinary as the vacuum at the picture's dark core--and I don't know of a better illustration of what it means to love and fuck and grow old together in the tempest of the temporary. I saw this in a private screening at Boulder's International Film Series; later that week, the only public screening of the film in Colorado saw a few hysterics, including a young woman who locked herself in the bathroom and refused to be coaxed out for hours afterward. For me, the picture is the possibility of cinema as anthropology and as high art--a reminder, at a relatively late date, that there are still things that can get under the skin if the medium is wielded like a scalpel by a surgeon. Odd that a few knock-offs appeared not long after it. Not so odd is the cult that has gathered around it.

9. The Killer (1989, John Woo)
John Woo's ballet of bloodlust. The dubbed version with Brother Chow screaming "Dumbo!" as bloody tears stream down his cheeks was met with howls of drunken approval at my first screening of it in CU Boulder's Muenzinger Auditorium. I taught my pals that night how to say "shoot him again" in Mandarin (not knowing at that moment that Woo shot his pictures in Cantonese), and for probably the first time in my life felt a distinct pride in being Chinese in Colorado. Folks only familiar with Woo from his American output are missing the indescribable romantic machismo distilled by the director in his Hong Kong flicks--it doesn't translate. Yellow Power, man, and the wasting of Chow in this summer's Pirates of the Caribbean threequel is disappointing for sure. But that he's there at all is a result of this and other collaborations with Woo. I was ecstatic to hear that Chow is back in the fold with Woo's Chinese epic The Battle of Red Cliff.

8. Dragonslayer (1981, Matthew Robbins)
I hid under the seat for most of my first two viewings of Matthew Robbins' Dragonslayer--a picture I demanded to see because, unless I'm mistaken, I believed it to be some sort of sequel to Pete's Dragon. (A belief that, among other things, confirms that eight-year-olds are almost without exception stupid in the larger sense.) Little did I know that this "Disney" picture featured a flash of full-frontal nudity, a beautiful princess consumed by a litter of baby dragons, and the death of one--make that two--kindly father figures. A special-effects dry run for the groundbreaking stop-motion work of Return of the Jedi, its beastie Vermithrax Pejorative is pathetic in its majestic, pagan glory. It's helpless in the face of the encroaching Christianity, says one read, but for me at that moment, not-yet-weaned from a steady diet of Disney heroes slaying their shadows in a series of deeply-destructive problem-solving scenarios, it was a shot in the pants of that old-time atheism. I was terrified of the dragon, but I don't recall ever wishing it dead. The marvel of Dragonslayer and secret movie-brat Robbins' direction and script is that it proposes a happy ending that's not at all happy. The more I learn about myself through the movies, the better it gets.

7. Marnie (1964, Alfred Hitchcock)
I didn't really understand Hitchcock until I saw The Birds and then, soon after it, Marnie. You get a sense of the formalist (the auto-formalist, maybe) from stuff like North by Northwest and Notorious, but you don't get a full sense of Hitch's sly, unrepentant wickedness until you view his work through the prism of his Tippi Hedren pictures. I'd go so far as to say that Marnie is the Rosetta Stone for all of his pictures: you turn to North by Northwest for a sense of how Hitchcock's clockwork is wound; but you look at Marnie for a little sulphur whiff of the infernal electricity that makes the clockwork turn over. Tippi in this one is raped, and the whole sea reflects her change outside a porthole while Sean Connery--the dim, dashing rake cast perfectly at last--saves an empty glass cage in his room for her, his next and greatest trophy. Just as The Birds is Hitch's domestication fantasy for wild Tippi, all of a feminized nature arrayed against her wild individuation, Marnie is menstrual fear, sexual paranoia, and the price of carnality against the life of the mind. Though it's as much about artifice and illusion as any of the Master's treatises on the theme, it was my long-in-coming epiphany that the gateway to the secrets of the flesh is through the eyes of the artist.

6. Grave of the Fireflies (1988, Isao Takahata)
Isao Takahata's devastating war idyll Grave of the Fireflies was the singular event in my turning the corner on a fairly unquestioned bigotry against the Japanese. Raised in a household where a good portion of my mother's side of the family was fed to the Nipponese grinder in Nanking, I was, through glances and smirks and possibly even direct comments, bred to hate the Japanese. Watching this film for the first time my senior year in college, I came to terms at last with a lot of things I just took as plain truth and found myself confronted with the ugliness of my assumptions. The picture is so good on its own that it doesn't need much further endorsement from me: it's not just the best animated film ever made, it's one of the best films ever made in any medium. But for me, the switch that turned over in my heart has rippled into the way I look at everything in my adult life; things are never black-and-white, and the tactics of dehumanization make all manner of atrocity possible. Take the punditry of the modern day and consider something wonderfully acidic Melvin Van Peebles said to me in regards to bigotry in mainstream culture: how it's always possible to isolate our next enemy by identifying the "nigger" in our pictures.

5. Alphaville (1965, Jean-Luc Godard)
A houseguest asked once, while searching my library for a film to watch, if Jean-Luc Godard's neo-noir Alphaville was a good choice. My wife warned: "It's not conventionally entertaining." Fair enough. Indeed, more than fair--a quick look at most of my collection shows that the DVDs I keep are likewise not conventionally entertaining and, in the case of this selection, almost aggressive in their desire to not be conventionally liked. I saw Alphaville for the first time in college and it opened a door for me. It inspired, of all things, research, not into whether such and such a character was really real or this event happened or what have you, but into precepts of critical theory that I'd been using as reference points in the study of British Romanticist and Modernist poetry. The picture connected the dots, so to speak, allowing a dim student to finally understand that all the strategies that have been used for centuries to decode the sublimity of great works could be applied to bear fruit from film. A great picture by one of the great film theorists (talking about Alphaville or Week End or Breathless in terms of signs and signifiers is easy enough: they're textbooks already)--and if the case could be made that movies carry within them the same seeds as music or letters or brush strokes, then movies must also carry within them the possibility to understand the meaning of an individual's life. Of the critical life.

4. Revenge of the Nerds (1984, Jeff Kanew)
The first time I saw female full-frontal nudity once I was capable of assimilating what it was; my VHS tape became one of the most prized onanistic totems of my adolescence. Revenge of the Nerds has gathered around it a wealth of scholarship since its release because, more so than the oeuvres of Sylvia Krystal or Deborah Foreman, there's something genuinely sticky about the thing. The way that it equalizes gay people, and blacks, and women; the way that Darth Vader is turned into a literal rapist for a generation of boys like me secretly titillated by the fetishistic promise of his cyborg, insect carapace; the way that, the way that... Look, it's a hell of a film, and it holds up now as not a masturbation aid, but a scalpel for the dissection of the way that film is voyeurism incarnate: justification for voyeurism; idealization of voyeurism; and perfection of voyeurism. Too, it's a nutshell of why pornography's genres are such useful tabs for our real peccadilloes. A peek at what we hide between our mattresses reveals the taboos tattooed on our bestial pelts: miscegenation, pedophilia, sodomy, humiliation, promiscuity, water sports--you find these things in Revenge of the Nerds, encapsulated in the moment where a weak, physically ineffectual young man takes on the mantel of the Dark Lord of the Sith to rape a grateful Betty.

3. Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola)
A lot of movies made me feel scared; Apocalypse Now was the first movie to make me feel awful. Was it Coppola himself who said it's not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam? Call this film the gateway drug for all the films of the 1970s in the United States, our very own Aguirre: The Wrath of God about the limits (should we call it "limitlessness"?) of man's ambitions in art and life. It's the siren's call to a period in our cinema (say, 1967-1981) that should be considered, with seriousness, the best of any in any place at any time. Before it, I had equated the decade with bad fashion and Blaxploitation, with Clint Eastwood in monkey movies, with the Burt Reynolds of Smokey and the Bandit and not of Deliverance; and a uniform grain to the film stock just couldn't hold a candle to the slick comfort of the 1980s blockbusters that were my celluloid teat. I looked at the period with ignorance and disdain--and then I saw this movie, which feels depraved in a way that few films, especially ones that try to be depraved, do. More than that, the picture sparked in a younger me an interest in T.S. Eliot that eventually led to more general avenues of study while strengthening the bond that film has with an idea of the Sublime in art. If you don't get chills listening to Brando recite lines from "The Hollow Man", you might have a nerve missing.

2. The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Irvin Kershner)
I stood in line for two hours to see this film and was rewarded with one of the most miserable moviegoing experiences of my life. What the fuck is this? Luke, behanded; Han in carbonite; Lando not in carbonite; Vader is Luke's mf'ing dad; the Republic in tatters; and then it's over?! Since the wait for relief was interminable, my buddies and I declared The Empire Strikes Back the worst movie ever, resolutely replaying the action of the picture with our now-priceless action figures, be-handing Darth instead and throwing Boba Fett into dry ice punch bowls, thus proving the maxim that you should never give the public what it thinks it wants. If only Lucas had remembered that before forging ahead--and backwards in his special editions. (Though to be fair, he started destroying his legacy with Return of the Jedi.) What The Empire Strikes Back did was make me a blockbuster junkie. With Star Wars the first movie I ever saw in a theatre, the anticipation I felt for "the next one" was my first taste of delirious anticipation. (Those long summers of youth, you know, they go too fast, but time is elastic in a way that it doesn't seem to be anymore.) When I think about The Dark Knight, I get that same tingle--I get it for the new Coen Brothers flick, too, especially because it's an adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel. In every way, this first sequel is The First Sequel: the reason I love movies--and, hindsight and age being what they are, it remains the only artistically viable film in the Star Wars saga.

1. The Conversation (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)
I've constructed a sort of personal mythology around this picture--I'm asked about it often in my public-speaking ("What's your favourite movie?") and I think it surprises people that I actually have a favourite movie. The preface is always that The Conversation might not be the best film, but it's the single most important film in my decision to try out this movie-critic thing professionally. A product of Walter Murch taking over final cut after Paramount backed a dump-truck full of money up to Coppola's door to make The Godfather Part II, it's not finished in the most perfect way imaginable. Still, it cemented in me this lingering belief in authorship in film, and it was the first time, truly, that I began to feel I had ideas about movies that were exciting enough to share. Harry Caul (the name actually an accident--the picture also suggests divinity between the sprockets) is Gene Hackman's quintessential creation: the listener, he is the purity of the actor's craft. The course of the film is a test of fidelity philosophical and technological, while a remarkable cameo by Teri Garr is full of the weight of loneliness that a lot of '70s cinema only hints at. The story is simplicity itself (a dame, a murder, a hero in a trenchcoat), but the execution is as circular and damning as David Shire's piano score. It's the breakthrough in therapy and, six years later, I'm still clicking.

Also: Near Dark, Miracle Mile, Star Wars, Back to the Future, Gandhi, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Last Year at Marienbad, Grand Illusion, Peeping Tom, The Life of Colonel Blimp, Hana-Bi, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Once Upon a Time in the West, Die Hard, Predator, Killer of Sheep, The Thin Blue Line, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Rescuers

See also:


Dennis said...

Predator in your "also" listing? I'd love to read your reasoning for that, Walter.

And I always assumed that you would hate Ferris Bueller, given your aversion to most of the popular culture in the 80's.

theoldboy said...

Predator is fantastic. I fondly remember my first viewing in middle school, although the Alien franchise made a far greater impact on my film life, and not just because I was exposed to them a bit earlier.

I'm possibly excited now that Hostel Part II has Ian's stamp of approval, although over at Slant Nick Schager has jumped on the Eli Roth hate-train, possibly one of the most tiresome trains in the world of film discussion. Leave the fucker alone, already.

Alex Jackson said...

Okay, this is a circle jerk moment but that's classic Chaw, man. Seriously, brings back memories. I remember reading reviews of most of those titles back in the Epinions days.

Extremely personal list and with some kind of pattern in the titles that suggests the author's unique personality. What a top ten list should be.

Ryan said...

Darn, I was really hoping for a Walter-review of Hostel Part II - regardless, Ian's review is interesting, even if I can't agree with any of it. I'm more inclined to lean towards Schager's write-off, even if I lie between the two as to my actual feelings on the thing. Ian, can you respond to any of the criticisms Schager makes?

As much as I'd like to steer clear of the Roth hate-train, it's difficult to get past the fact that neither of the Hostel films feel like real movies - they seem to exist in an alternate universe in which there's no such thing as cause or effect, there's little weight to any action, and there's next to no hope of realism to anything, in particular, characters or settings. They miss the mark of the celluloid fantasy realm that Bay and Co. play in, and also completely steer clear of the kind of realism we embrace in the better HBO series's - but I can't deny that the second half of Hostel Part II, from about the time of Lorna's sorry fate, as incredibly compelling, even if it ends with a bit of pathetic "feminism" that's actually just exploitative crap, mirroring Roth's own lack of maturity and perspective. (I think this is really where Schager nails it - at first, I too was taken by the nifty castration finale that Hostel Part II offers, but any analysis at all makes it obvious that it lacks logic and is really just a weak defense to the accusations of rampant misogny that really led to the creation of the film and everything in it in the first place.) "Juvenille" might be the best way to describe the Hostel movies, except for the interesting moments in which they find a bit of depth - such as the German-speaking moment in the first film, and the Bathory-execution in the second.

theoldboy said...

Maybe I confused the non-cinematic quality you're talking about with Hostel feeling like an actual movie in a classical sense, because that's how it struck me. Consider me a hesitant Roth fan. The misogyny charges against the first film are alien to me, like Roth was somehow depicting attitudes that those fratboy types don't exude in reality(see: Borat)?, and the xenophobic element that many stupid Slovakians railed against on the IMDB message board is completely jokey. On one hand Roth's jokiness tends to offset more fruitful readings of his work, but it also makes it a hell of a lot of fun to watch one of his movies, at least for me.

Say what you will about his maturity, at least he's more worthy of discussion than the gang that excretes a Saw every year.

Alex Jackson said...

Just after I posted my last comment I read Ian's review; so now I gotta do more circle jerkin'. I haven't seen the film yet, but I've been starving for an intelligently written positive review of Hostel II.

I actually wasn't a big fan of Hostel either, for a similar reason that Ryan was actually. It really doesn't stick to the ribs at all. As violent and "disturbing" as it all was, the film is stunningly forgettable. Roth is such a shallow shockmeister that nothing in his films really penetrates into our long term memory.

But funnilly enough, the Roth hate train is getting me defensive. The attitudes behind the pre-emptive blog attack seem to be somewhat unexamined. The torture in Hostel 1 was sexualized also, but that film didn't get the outrage that Hostel II is getting. Naked women getting tortured is what it is, but there's something kind of dishonest about the faux-progressive chivalry of the "anti-misogynist" movement.

I suspect that Captivity is going to be less explicit but more purely misogynistic; if only because it's starring Kim Bauer and snotty stuck-up blondes are the perfect subjects for rape fantasies as they are presumedly "asking for it".

Ryan said...

The misogyny charges against the first film are alien to me

Yeah, me too. I've got to say, that was one of the most puzzling attitudes to the original Hostel - one of the most interesting reviews of that film came from Slant, which suggested the film was a much smarter beast than it actually was. What they suggested was the film I really wanted Hostel to be - instead, I found it extremely barren, a hollow husk - the Europe depicted was not only unlike the actual Europe, it was unlike anywhere in existence. The unpleasant attitudes were, as you mention, relatively accurate, but the characters lacked anything beyond their stereotypes; without humanity, who do you identify with? Without realism, why do you care? That's what I mean when I say they take place in that alternate universe - I felt for both of the students and the bumpkins in Cabin Fever, which remains my favourite thing Roth has done so far, but that definitely takes place in a cinematic fantasy that doesn't strive like realism in the way that I feel Hostel does, but fails. I don't believe any of Hostel or Hostel Part II, not even for a second. It feels dry and feels to be lacking not just, say, the three act structure, but any structure at all. Without any basis, it was hard to go any deeper for the subtext that the Slant reviewer did, and I feel Schager's got it in one that you can't really examine Hostel Part II for much subtext because it's just out to be disgusting, which it most certainly is, but without anything else to support it, and worse, it isn't even that disgusting. With the exception of the Bathory scene, there's no imagination, it isn't shot well, it's just nothing. Barren again.

I really, really want Roth to do well - I loved the Thanksgiving trailer and I thoroughly enjoy listening to him speak, and Cabin Fever was great fun, but I just can't get behind the Hostels.

The cut of Captivity they showed pre-billboard-controversy was a piece of pathetic garbage. Think the Sesame Street version of Hostel - no violence whatsoever. But they've now recut it based on the success of their shitty controversy, so now it'll still suck, but also have grue. Hooray.

Kurt Halfyard said...

It is positively scary how much I can relate to this list and the commentary around many of the films. I've always enjoyed reading your work Walter, but there is a niggling anxiety that dopplegangers exist.

The Killer and The Conversation would be in my world, almost the perfect double-bill.

Particularly what got me was the mention of seriously undervalued Miracle Mile and seemingly to the sands of time Dragonslayer...


theoldboy said...

David Poland has proclaimed Hostel Part II contains "The most disgusting, degrading, misogynistic, soulless shit I have ever seen in a movie that is going to be released widely in this country." and also mentions that if Eli Roth were on fire he might pee on him. I think Poland is a dick, but maybe something about this one is stickier than the last, which didn't really get much outright condemnation.

Alex Jackson said...

Was Schager the guy who wrote that scathing non-review of Cannibal Holocaust?

Anywho, you're a good man Ryan and I trust your judgment.

I think that I can agree wholeheartedly with this:

I really, really want Roth to do well - I loved the Thanksgiving trailer and I thoroughly enjoy listening to him speak, and Cabin Fever was great fun, but I just can't get behind the Hostels.

The Thanksgiving trailer was terrific and I think it shows that Roth is talented, has a genuine love for film, and is missing essential parts that normal human beings are supposed to have (a good thing). But he's just dicking around so far. The guy really doesn't seem to have anything to say; which might be why defenders of Hostel (one I can say at least) are latching onto the barren "ugly American" subtext.

theoldboy said...

Schager did write a scathing non-review (perhaps it could be called a review, I don't know, I recall a D grade from him) of Cannibal Holocaust on his site, but I don't think he wrote THE scathing non-review of Cannibal Holocaust, which...(searching Slant)...was Eric Henderson. Oh, a film called "Cannibal Holocaust" lacks "mirth", imagine that.

I loved Cabin Fever before it was unpopular to do so. It aligned perfectly with my sensibilities at the time of release, although it's definitely molded since. Thanksgiving, too, minus the molding.

Anonymous said...

Wait, so what is there to like about Cannibal Holocaust? The pure viscera of it?

Bill C said...

No fan of Eli Roth, I wanna see Look Who's Hostel, Too mainly to spite Dave Poland, whose vitriol is the best endorsement the movie could ever hope for. My favourite part of his sanctimonious screed (in which he brags about turning in a pirated copy like a good Sonderkommando) is his belaboured cataloguing of the things he would (piss on Roth were Roth on fire) or wouldn't (shake hands with Roth) do if the situation presented itself. Captain Blow Dry's really outdone himself this time. Recall that this is the man who loved Monster-in-Law, a movie I wouldn't exactly call a shining beacon of morality.

For what it's worth, Ian has interviewed Roth for the mothersite, and that piece will be up very soon.

Dennis: What the heck's embarrassing about Predator? No less than Robert Towne called it the best movie of the '80s. (Didn't David Gordon Green concur when Walt interviewed him?)

theoldboy said...

I'm sure Alex has a much better idea why, but CH is essential viewing. It's not necessarily an experience "worth" having for most people, the Normals, but it has the ability to change the person who watches, and while I don't want to say it's a positive experience, to me it is as though for me having seen a demonstration of humanity at its worst there's no place to go but up from there, except maybe Delta Farce.

Dennis said...

Nothing is embarrassing about Predator (though it can be difficult to defend), I love it too! I was just interested in Walter's thoughts on the movie, wondering if maybe he had anything to add beyond your fine review on the site. =D

Jefferson said...

Quentin Tarantino's sponsorship of Eli Roth is yet another reason to doubt the director of Jackie Brown can ever again deliver something that warm and engaging.

On the subject of the list, I found a lot of trenchant commentary about films I'd seen, and new reason to Netflix a couple I hadn't seen/don't remember. It also reminded me of a time when, as an adult in the late '90s, I fell horribly, disastrously in love with a coworker -- and only later realized it was all because she looked exactly like the Deborah fucking Foreman of my tumescent teenage years.

Ian Pugh said...


I read and enjoy Schager's work on a regular basis, but I think his somewhat reactionary review can be at least partly attributable to the director's presence at his screening. Understandable, as his juvenile hyperactivity gets tiresome quickly, and can put something of a damper on deeper reads of his films. At the Q&A after my screening, one guy asked if the version we had just seen would be the theatrical version, and he responded, "What, there wasn't enough cock in it for you?"

But the thing is, especially after sitting down and talking with Roth on a one-on-one basis, I don't know if I can take him entirely at face level--and not just because we disagreed on what the film was saying. His excitement for audience reaction and cinema in general is genuine, but there's something about how ultimately iffy he is in how he talks about responding to criticism that makes me think that his dogged insistence of pure self-satisfaction is partly a put-on for the benefit his constituency. (At the risk of repeating myself--as I wrote this up in the interview's introduction--I was reminded of how Lynch posed that no one had even come close to "his interpretation" of Eraserhead.) I maintain that there's something smart and (metaphorically) sticky about his films.

The feminist slant is indeed outrageously exaggerated, from both defenders and detractors. But what really gets me about Hostel Part II is that its version of Europe is so divided from reality. The American tourists aren't just far from home (based on its psychotic representatives in this film, the United States seems to be something of a Bizarro World in itself--of course, some might say that about reality already), they're born of a completely different universe, and thrust into Hostel's own fucked-up realm.


Beth's survival and eventual integration into the world of the "Elite Hunting Services" is a transformation into something dark and monstrous, sure, but more than that, it's also a revelation; "getting" what drives this universe and a willingness to become a resident--as someone who finally understands how this twisted world works and has the money to accomplish it (however weakly that plot point is introduced), she pulls her quarry's dick off to prove her ability to trump anyone in this sick world of torture. I mention the final scene of the film as being so perfect because it further demonstrates how far Beth has immersed herself--going so far as to resurrect the Grim Reaper imagery from earlier--and it closes with a silly yet disturbing sequence that so beautifully defines the rules of this universe. When I mention killing and dying as "the only ways to pass the time," that's what I'm referring to specifically--you could probably imagine the kids in Hostel Part II playing soccer with a decapitated head at any time, without any necessary context.

Bill C said...

wondering if maybe he had anything to add beyond your fine review on the site

No need for sarcasm! (But seriously, I'm sure he does; that review is way past its sell-by date. We actually have a few revisionist pieces in the pipeline, including a fresh take on the first three Die Hards.)

Dennis said...

I've always had the germ of an idea for interpreting Predator as a subversion of the macho "we're gonna blow you foreigners up" action movie by starting as one, only for a foreigner of a different kind to drop in and force the team to rethink their tactics. I'm probably just reading too much into a kickass movie that I've seen at least two dozen times.

Alex Jackson said...

I at least found Cannibal Holocaust profound. Maybe it's masochism, I love how it's a blanket condemnation of all of humanity as a whole and it positions the noble savage as noble only insofar as he acknowledges his savagery without excuses.

The animal torture is particularly significant and necessary in that, by including it, Deodata indicts himself along with the brutes in the film. There is no ivory towerism. And we empathize with the animals. We're not placing them on our level, we're going down to theirs.

I completely bought into the whole thing.

On a completely unreleated note, I finally did see The Untouchables and it's pretty great. That DePalma, he's got Schoonmaker juice coming out of his ears.

theoldboy said...

God, Eli Roth needs to start thinking more about his movies. I don't see how being true to the audience and being true to the story are the same thing, especially when you consider that the original ending of Hostel was a lot darker than what ended up in the movie, which is certainly satisfying in an immediate sense but barely leaves anything to go on--though, come to think of it, the end of Hostel sure reminds me of Death Proof--but it seems like he just throws meat to the sharks. I also find his adoration of Miike to be sort of misplaced in it. Miike could give less of a shit about being mean and cruel to the audience, as it's all grist for the mill. Roth desperately wants to be disturbing but doesn't want to leave the audience with a bad taste in their mouth. He's the Steven Spielberg of the gore film, I've been saying for a while now: too talented to completely dismiss, too literal-minded and audience-friendly (in a contrived way) to completely embrace. He has a desire to take you to dark places, but he doesn't want to strand you there. He's not going to earn any real ire from me, as he is one of my myspace friends, it's a conflict of interest, but as his movies improve I like him less and less.

The Untouchables is pretty great. I don't like how it gets bashing just because it's more conventional and safe than DePalma's Hitchcock fetish movies. It's better than most of those, anyway.

Ian Pugh said...

De Palma's gangster epics captured my heart at a relatively young age, so my biases lean pretty far in their direction. "Did he sound anything like that?!" may be the greatest thing Kevin Costner has ever done.

Tried to watch The Untouchables on Bravo a few nights after watching it on DVD--I'd call it the best argument for not putting R-rated movies on television; the Potemkin staircase sequence is rendered pretty much incoherent by "edited for content" and "formatted to fit your screen."

And then they played Hard to Kill.

Ian Pugh said...

Forgot to link the interview for those who haven't seen the mothersite yet.

Alex Jackson said...

I'm always non-plussed when people talk about how his films being "personal". Like I must really be missing something. I don't see it.... at all. He's a favorite of my B-list, but not of my A-list. I'm a huge huge fan of Tarantino and Kubrick, but it's funny how the movie bratisim and technical perfection only feels affected with DePalma.

I like him though. Like I said he has Schoonmaker juice coming out of the ears. And I'm really really bad at following complicated storylines, but I realized while watching The Untouchables that I never really have a problem following what's going on simply because he is such a talented visual storyteller.

Anonymous said...

I still think Femme Fatale is one of the more gorgeous movies of the new century. It is probably easier for people predisposed towards liking his stuff in that vein to appreciate it though. I'd probably watch it over The Untouchables six out of seven days of the week, which I don't like much. De Palma's direction is listless, and the script is cheesy (and not in a cool-cheesy kinda way). Carlito's Way and Scarface are both superior De Palma gangster epics.

Rick said...

I think Eli Roth and Mel Gibson are the two of the few filmmakers who's passion somehow surpasses their own personal lack of maturity and intelligence. Hostel II and Apocalypto add up to nothing, but their passion and talent really come through in both films. It is hard to not get behind those two idiots.

By the way, I loved all the top 10 lists posted recently, and I am planning on trying to rent the few I have not seen. You guys do a great job, your work is much appreciated by my friends and I.

theoldboy said...

I've only seen a few of DePalma's movies. I will vouch for the awesome badness of Black Dahlia. I sort of like Body Double, mainly because it has a third act porn-themed musical number that is about as good as that sounds. And I liked Dressed to Kill, until the third act denooeymint. But while the Schoonmaker juice flows all over his movies, they also leave me with nothing that I'm interested in thinking about. At least other film brats appear to have a wider frame of reference than just thriller conventions. For all the talk about Tarantino unable to make movies outside of movies, there sure are an awful lot of other cultural references tossed about in his work. With DePalma's "personal" (i.e. self-written) work I just--excuse my appropriation of a Jacksonian sex metaphor--get a boner and don't have anything to do with it.

Roth and Gibson? I think Gibson is more insane than stupid, and I don't think Roth is particularly stupid, either, just that he has enthusiasm but no real place to put it yet.

Rick said...

It seems Roth knows a lot about horror movies, but it seems like he does not know much about anything else. Though I do admire his passion for the horror genre.

Anonymous said...

I think there is plenty to chew on in most of De Palma's movies, you just need to adjust your perception a bit. For instance, not only is Dressed to Kill a cinematic hard-on, but it has a lot to say about our culture in the wake of the sexual revolution. That, and it's funny as hell.

Walter_Chaw said...

Ouch, holy shit, this one hurts a little. RIP Ousmane Sembene.

Ryan said...

You guys need a message board so we can discuss all of these different topics properly - Walt's great list isn't getting any of the discussion it deserves.

On that note, who wants to voice their disappointment over the lackluster Sopranos finale?

James Allen said...

Yeah, Ryan, these talkback threads can get a bit unweildy when topics go in other directions.

But since you brought up The Sopranos finale, I would like to say I have to give some credit to David Chase for confounding the expectations- demands really- of an ever annoying fanbase (talk about a show that got way too popular for its own good) for "closure," as if they are entitled. He basically flipped the bird in their general direction, an observation that seems validated given how much anger I've read/heard thrown in Chase's direction. I say well played, and I'm glad the too-devoted are annoyed.

Rick said...

Chase obviously hates his audience, and why shouldn't he? Back in college, I remember walking by rooms hearing people yell, "kill someone already!" or "this is boring, I hope someone dies soon!", and occasionally, "That was fucking awesome, did you see that? He fucked him up!". Note these Sopranos fans mainly consisted of 2.5 GPA Business majors who had a minimum of one STD. It seems most of the fan base zones out, and waits for violent images to jog them out of autopilot. They seem very similar to fans of South Park and Family Guy, but in those cases replace violence with obvious, offensive humor.

Jared said...

Disappointing Sopranos finale? What are you talking about? It was one of the finest hours television has had as an entertainment medium. This whole season has been chaos and now Tony begins reconstruction by putting together the shattered fragments of his crime and nuclear family in a post-apocalyptic feeling New Jersey winter. His subtle reconciliation with Uncle Junior was incredibly tense and saddening. It was a fitting ending that didn't try to cheat by tying up all the loose ends and answering all your questions. It was ambiguous in a way that pleases the intellectually curious, like "Birth"'s ending.

The Sopranos has never been some parade of nonstop violence, it's always been a quiet, intense, and brooding show. Tony looking at his entire family in front of him and having a silent epiphany which for all we know could've been his last thought or just another moment in his life is the perfect way to end the series. It makes some sort of peace, however uneasy.

The Phil Leotardo hit and the "oh shit!" guys was a fitting commentary on those exact idiots who never understood The Sopranos to begin with. The bloody comeuppance for the show's villain doesn't feel so cathartic when it's turned into a disgusting side show.

Ryan said...

My disappointment had nothing to do with the lack of violence, nor the "nothing really changes" ending - which, to be honest, I would have liked, and considered a worthy send off, had it not been carried out like a cheap gimmick. Oooh, we're building the tension, something is going to happen, he keeps looking at Tony, he's walking past him, is he going to pull a gun on him, is he, is he, CUT TO BLACK!!

It was cheap.

And, I think most of the season has been cheap; a shame since it started out so well, with Tony being shot and "adjusting" the way he thinks to see everything as rosy, but then having to contend with all the stresses of his 'line of work' as well as family, and the character being revealed as gay, and so on - fantastic. But then.. nothing happened. Long stretches of nothing happening. Events happening and not paying off in any way - while I have no doubts that this is "realistic", it wasn't executed in any way to be satisfying - I've been so bored with the last dozen episodes or so of the Sopranos with only occasional moments of joy, such as Melfi's kicking him out of therapy, and AJ's suicide attempt, that the finale really needed something to make it worthwhile. Phil's death was as gimmicky and gratuitous as the final moments, and the Junior visit did nothing for me, nor did all the cheap cameos from characters who have had nothing to do with the show for the last few seasons. It's weightless and dull - look at Christopher's death. They dedicated an entire episode to "dealing" with that, when it was impossible to care an iota. How the mighty have fallen, Mr Chase.

O'JohnLandis said...

OK, I'll talk about Walter's list:

After this last year or so of his work, I no longer have any reservations calling Walter the best writer currently writing about film in America. The last sentence of the "300" review is perfect, indicative of a unique and complicated and DIFFICULT AS HELL way of thinking and writing about film. But this list reminds me of everything I don't like about Walter's criticism.

(Two minor comments first: it's not exactly a weakness, but the list seemed pretty predictable. Despite the lack of a Jackie Chan movie, these are mostly movies he talks about a lot. So maybe the repetition factors into my displeasure. Also, I'm getting tired of honorable mentions and ties. If you're making a top-ten list, especially one for a special occasion, nut up and show me exactly ten titles.)

I think Walter's central flaw is that he looks at film like it's a kind of literature. And of course he sometimes likes films that don't have literary qualities, just as you'd expect any system to have exceptions. (No one could be 100% incapable of seeing films as films.) By the same logic, it's easy to see why his ability to tell good from bad is as good as it is, in this case pretty good: literature and film are similar. But even though his list does not necessarily speak to quality, there is one truly terrible film on there, and he thinks it's great. And I think that's interesting.

Trouble Every Day is the terrible film, and his paragraph in this list (let alone his actual review) is better than the film is. By that, I don't ONLY mean "if only these things were true, this film would be great." I ALSO mean, "this paragraph is a better piece of art than the film." Like Cronenberg's Crash, Trouble Every Day is less interesting than its premise looks on paper. They both seem to me like writing two sentences of description on a blank canvas and calling it a painting. (One might propose a variant on the Siskel "Is the movie I'm watching as interesting as a documentary of the same actors having lunch?" aphorism: "Is the movie I'm watching as interesting as a two-sentence description of its premise?") At least Cronenberg is a slightly better director, so his film gives somewhat less of an impression of someone trying very hard to miss his own point. But Trouble Every Day is so hopeless and clueless about what even constitutes a film, that it allowed me to finally articulate what pisses me off about Walter: he thinks it's a novel.

You see, movies have to have moments. Most movies need to have stories, and therefore wind up with moments AND stories, but even the adventurous people like Lynch understand that if you're not going to have stories, you still need the moments. What I mean by moments is this: points in the film where you are both engaged in the visceral, voyeuristic audio-visual experience of the movie AND noticing something about the movie as art. This can be an intellectual understanding of an interesting storytelling structure, a creative plot twist, a perceptive character trait, or some allegorical resonance. But the important thing is that the movie is, at least for a few moments, working at least two parts of your brain at once. Mulholland Dr. isn’t exactly straightforward from a storytelling perspective, but in that audition scene, you are THERE and you’re learning about the world and the character. Moments. Trouble Every Day doesn’t have even one moment. But if it’s a novel…

Novels are expected to have decent pacing, but those rules are made to be broken, and some people probably don’t care about pacing at all. So in novels, your brain has time to stop reading and reflect and think about subtext. The brain is only ever required to be in one place, really. Sure there are stories and action and sex, but they’re in your head, man. In novels, a story only needs to seem interesting on paper and in your head, so who cares if it’s shot in an interesting way, or moves, or has filmic moments. And amazingly, if Trouble Every Day had been made into a novel, those things that Walter writes might have been true. But they’re not there on the screen, not even in the cracks, and nothing artful, or creative, or interesting happens at any point during the film.

In fairness, Walter isn’t the only one who has this problem, and despite having identified what I consider a fundamental flaw of perception, I still and truly have no problem at all calling Walter the greatest here and now. Trouble Every Day, indeed.

Seattle Jeff said...

I just don't get why Walter likes "E.T."...

I also don't have a problem with "honorable mentions", but don't feel like writing 8 paragraphs explaining why.

James Allen said...

Go Caption Boy! When I saw the one for Surf's Up I practically lost it.

To move sideways a bit from the review, I saw March of the Penguins invoked, and, in a bit of serendipity, I just found the 30-second Bunny version of March of the Penguins, which summed up the movie quite well.

Anonymous said...

"Schoonmaker Juice"? Huh?!

Rick said...

"Schoonmaker Juice"? Huh?!

A callback to a previous blog posting which referenced the famous editor, and a scene that would make her wet. Someone please correct me if I am wrong...

Alex Jackson said...

Yeah, I was criticizing Junebug and In The Company of Men saying that they were not cinema because the directors weren't getting a hard-on in the editing suite. They basically weren't getting any pleasure out of filmmaking itself.

The Other John Landis, in yet another passionate bid to have me ousted, jokingly said that this criterion, in addition to being unmeasurable, was sexist. What if the editor was female? Shouldn't we have a Thelma Schoonmaker Wetness Scale? I told him that I liked the idea.

My board regular Oldboy then implemented the Thelma Schoonmaker Wetness Scale in his signature where he rated films on a scale of one to four stars with each star representing a cup of Schoonmaker juice.

So that's how the phrase "Schoonmaker juice" entered the vocabulary. Basically just means creative energy manifested through the resources of cinema.

A lot of explanation for not a lot I guess.

Ryan said...

Walter, why The Rescuers?

Anonymous said...

"Schoonmaker Juice", a ha. Hmm. Ok, got it. Gross. Maybe quit it.

O'JohnLandis said...

This thread is dead, but I'll respond anyway.

Alex, I don't remember specifically demanding your dismissal at any point, especially not as recently as the Schoonmaker post. But hey, maybe it was implied.

And though it's being used maybe a bit disingenuously, I have no objection to the continued use of Ms Thelma's vaginal processes as critical shorthand. We've covered erections long enough.

Walter_Chaw said...

I'm more of a poetry critic by training so it's of some interest to me that OJL picked out my desire for films to be words. . . Pauline Kael took down sociologist-cum-critic Siegfried Krakauer in an essay about saving film criticism from itself - the great irony being, of course, that Kael was a far better sociologist than film critic, herself. And a better writer than either. In any case, I think you're right OJL, for what it's worth, that my hardwiring pushes me in the one direction: toward deciphering, at times, what may not be there to decipher. Though, to be sure, I don't think Trouble Every Day is a textless text.

Thanks for the analysis.

Anonymous said...

I was really hoping for an appearance from The Devil's Rain, which I noticed you gave a positive score to over at Rotten Tomatoes. I've always wondered whether you actually believe it is a genuinely good movie, or if your appreciation for it is similar to that of Alex.

O'JohnLandis said...


I don't exactly think Trouble Every Day is textless; I think it's a short story. It'd be a killer idea for a film if it was attached to an interesting story or a clever surreal fantasy, but it's been expanded too much and intentionally shot from such a distance that it doesn't accomplish anything. It would be like Mike Leigh making The Descent in Farsi: gritty, nasty, provocative, mismatched, and unwatchable.

And despite my stance, there isn't a part of me that wants you to be more skeptical of subtext. I don't know if the tape in the Verbinski version of The Ring is really a whore. I think I could make a convincing argument against that, and it would probably include "...but tapes aren't vaginal and this particular tape doesn't only target men or even adults." But I'm not naive enough to think you could remove the part of you that comes up with things like that without losing the part that makes the connections that really work.

I suppose I could make the excuse that in honor of the anniversary I was actually trying to discuss something real, but that's probably bullshit. As is the idea that I was trying to give you some helpful advice like, “Follow the Moments, Dorothy.” Truth is--and I hope you sincerely believe that I don't intend this to be patronizing--I thought it was interesting what you've become as a film critic despite a fundamental handicap: you're a Broncos fan.

Oh, and you're the best poetry critic reviewing films on the internet. You know, for what that's worth.


Walter_Chaw said...

HA - yeah, that Broncos thing is a fucking albatross.

Christopher said...

Walter Chaw is the worssst. His review of Gomorrah and Slumdog Millionaire was so bad it made me angry.