May 29, 2007

Ten Years, Ten-Lists #2 (Ian Pugh)

It was actually a set of closing credits that gave me the idea for my contribution to FFC's Top Ten List project--the very final sequence of Romero's Dawn of the Dead, to be exact. Thinking about how that film's end titles entailed the most eloquent, concise, and chilling example of the film-long equation of zombies with dead-eyed consumerism, the idea of compiling a list of other great thematic "thesis statements" became an attractive one. Ultimately, I decided to head for the opposite end of the chronological spectrum, because while the best opening title sequences establish and epitomize their films' worlds and intentions, they also represent the screenwriters' and filmmakers' eagerness to snatch up the soonest possible opportunity to subdue the viewer with the elusive magic that is cinema. The definition of what constitutes a "title sequence," per se, will be left intentionally vague for the purposes of this list. Many of these selections are pre-credits teasers, while others are the moments that surround the literal credits--basically that grey area between the studio logos and "directed by."-Ian Pugh

10. Magnum Force (1973, Ted Post)
Sequels don't require the laborious set-ups that original films do--and boy, does the second Dirty Harry film ever know it. As the film begins, we're quite plainly presented with Harry Callahan's familiar .44 Magnum, spread out across a blood-red background. The gun turns towards us and--as Clint Eastwood recites an abridged version of his "do you feel lucky" speech--fires. Call it a simplification of Godard's necessities for filmmaking: all you need is a gun.

9. Bride of Re-Animator (1989, Brian Yuzna)
A good chunk of my admiration for Brian Yuzna's scattershot Re-Animator sequel lies in its opening stinger, featuring the living, disembodied head of arch-prick Dr. Carl Hill slowly floating towards us as he casts a dire warning directed at his nemesis, Herbert West. The last time we saw the dear departed Dr. Hill, his brains were splattered across the walls of Miskatonic University; he won't be formally revived from the dead in this film for another half-hour. And yet here he is, head awake and fully intact, coming at us with a beautifully melodramatic speech in the Bela Lugosi vein. (After all, beyond the obvious Frankenstein connection, Bride of Re-Animator is something of an extended tribute to Ed Wood.) Hill has bent the rules of his own metaverse to once again rise from the grave and make life difficult for everyone. It's the ultimate re-animation.

8. Stop Making Sense (1984, Jonathan Demme)
"Hi, I got a tape I wanna play." The singularly bizarre sight of the crane-like David Byrne jamming to an acoustic version of "Psycho Killer" on a bare stage makes us wonder what he's hiding up his sleeve.

7. Dead of Night / Deathdream (1974, Bob Clark)
Dead of Night earned the right to use Hitchcock's familiar "no one will be seated" marketing ploy by turning the jungles of Vietnam into something dark and supernatural even before Andy Brooks (played by a different actor in the pre-credits sequence than in the film proper) is killed in the line of duty and sent back to Mom and Dad as a post-traumatic zombie. So once the film starts throwing pulsating lights and faraway, ghostly voices at us, it doesn't seem like a leap of logic so much as one step deeper into a void of madness that has already engulfed us. To be honest, the audio alone could almost carry this sequence, as the wails of a dying soldier and the pleas of his doomed friend ("Darren? Darren, Jesus Christ, Darren!") are just as haunting as any other horrors delivered throughout the rest of the piece. With this prologue, Clark implies that his own metaphors may be unnecessary in the harsh face of what was already happening overseas.

6. The Untouchables (1987, Brian De Palma)
Pauline Kael famously called The Untouchables "an attempt to visualize the public's collective dream of Chicago gangsters." I would call its title sequence an attempt to visualize the public's collective dream of the gangster genre as a series of recognizable abstracts. Start with a sepia background and pillars of shadows that vaguely mimic some aspect of the noir aesthetic--maybe the ceiling fan that presides over the archetypal private detective's office, or the Venetian blinds that ominously open and close when he wants a peek at the outside world. They're eventually revealed to be the deep shadows cast by the enormous letters of the title itself, which of course becomes a representation of the purely conceptual heroes from the days of Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, and Robert Stack's Eliot Ness--in our eyes, larger-than-life and, of course, untouchable. Top it off with Ennio Morricone's driving, threatening overture and you're ready for The Untouchables despite that there isn't a single fedora or Thompson gun in sight.

5. Schizopolis (1996, Steven Soderbergh)
The entirety of Schizopolis is something of a gigantic joke on an audience unprepared for the avant-garde, and Steven Soderbergh's intro, in which the man himself takes the stage for a brief explanation, serves as a parodic response to folks who demand cohesion and logic from the likes of David Lynch--finally, somebody can tell me what all of this weird shit is about. But all that awaits such expectations are more frustrations: Soderbergh interrupts his stream-of-consciousness speech with random commands to "turn" and retreat to a different camera angle, and concludes that the viewer's lack of understanding in the film's purpose is "your fault, not ours." It's at once a condemnation of the attempt to rationalize a world of subconscious surrealism and an invitation to play by its rules.

4. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977, Lewis Gilbert)
I can't list my favourite opening sequences without mentioning at least one James Bond film; out of all of them, I choose Maurice Binder's title sequence from my personal favourite of the series, The Spy Who Loved Me. The teaser itself hits all of the familiar marks for a Bond film--and I could probably do without the disco remix--but the surrealistic titles manage to indulge in the typical silliness that comes with the territory (girls on trampolines, fetishized gun barrels) without descending into puerile ridiculousness. Notice how they follow the easygoing flow of Carly Simon's "Nobody Does It Better" while capturing the undercurrent of paranoia in the film's détente subplot: there's actually something self-consciously reckless about how the guns are thrown around here. The vital moment, however, comes when the 007 silhouette knocks over a row of nude women "dressed" as marching toy soldiers.

3. Fahrenheit 451 (1966, Francois Truffaut)
The opening "titles" of Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 don't feel quite right, as if they were made by someone with only a rudimentary grasp of filmmaking: the credits are read aloud in an indifferent monotone while the camera, armed with obnoxious pastel filters, zooms in abruptly on what appear to be intricate television antennae. It comes from another world, one of illiteracy, artlessness, and suppression--one that's becoming more and more familiar every day.

2. Darkman (1990, Sam Raimi)
I absolutely adore the opening minutes of Sam Raimi's Darkman--the original, superior version of Raimi's overblown Spider-Man 3--because they establish its world of comic book hyper-logic so effortlessly. Raimi kicks things off by filling his frame/panel with a multitude of unique personalities (in the second shot of the film, notice the geek off to the side quickly alternating between popping pills and puffing his cigarette), only to cram more such characters into view a few moments later. Then it proceeds to embroil them all in a manic gang war to determine which band of thugs will serve as the bad guys of this picture. The winners, of course, are the ones whose themes and traits are most consistent with a comic book villain landscape--Robert Durant's penchant to clip the fingers of his adversaries with his cigar cutter; a guy named "Skip" with a machine gun housed in his wooden leg--and those who best prepare the viewer for the fantastic elements that Darkman is about to hurl at them.

1. A Hard Day's Night (1964, Richard Lester)
The Beatles described their experiences with crowds of rabid fans as terrifying--it was apparently the threat of being assaulted with scissors for locks of their hair that finally forced them to stay holed-up in a studio for good. But A Hard Day's Night begins with the Fab Four, just two steps ahead of a screaming mob, running for dear life with great big grins on their faces and concocting silly, makeshift plans to escape. It's a spectacular, hyperactive sequence, one that of course sets the stage for the madcap hilarity ahead. But knowing the truth of it, it also says a lot about masking your fear and pain for the benefit of your audience--willingly feeding into a popular perception that there was something fun and cartoony about the disturbing loss of anonymity that attends worldwide fame. I dare say that it transforms The Beatles' subsequent horseplay into the work of operatic Pagliaccis. Incidentally, the sequence makes for a fine companion piece to the final, live-action sing-along of Yellow Submarine, where the band attempted to exude the same camaraderie when they were actually on the verge of destruction thanks to their clashing egos.

See also:

May 25, 2007

Ten Years, Ten-Lists (Alex Jackson)

I was invited to speak on national radio this morning about the 30th anniversary of Star Wars and regret that I couldn't make it, as I think a lot of the reflections on this cultural milestone I've seen so far are a bit too clouded by nostalgia to see the Hiroshima-like impact it had (and continues to have) on cinema and the popular culture. I'll be the first to admit that I don't hate the Original Trilogy in and of itself, but can we stop fetishizing these movies already?

Forget all that, though. At the risk of sounding solipsistic, we've got bigger fish to fry...

FILM FREAK CENTRAL actually crossed the first-decade threshold a couple of weeks ago, but I wanted to hold the announcement until I had the stamina to pay a proper tribute.

To mark this occasion, all of us here at FFC--Walter Chaw, Travis Mackenzie Hoover, Alex Jackson, Ian Pugh, and yours truly--have compiled a Top 10 list of our own devising. A new one will surface every couple of days here at the Blog, with mine, the most self-indulgent, coming last. As always, we invite you to critique these lists, suggest alternatives, and just generally do your blog thang.

First up: Alex Jackson with a subject close to my own heart. Take it away, Alex!-Bill Chambers

When this project was first announced, my initial idea was to make a list of ten middlebrow films worth going to bat for. But the more I thought about it, the more unoriginal and--in light of Walter's recent two-for-one pan of American Beauty and Forrest Gump--overly reactionary it sounded. I thought about what I really wanted to say in a Top Ten list and realized that, more than just defending the status quo, I wanted to point people to some buried treasures. The idea of compiling a list of underrated classics was also a little passé--a list of underappreciated classics from the 1980s, however, feels powerfully evocative. For the most part, I stumbled upon these films, guided by a sense of adventure, though a few were referred to me by a particularly strong review. Many were well-received at the time of their release but have since fallen out of fashion, with none retaining a particularly strong reputation. As I see it, this should be one of the focal goals of movie reviewers everywhere: to shine a little bit of light on films that have been ignored or simply forgotten.-Alex Jackson

10. Wish You Were Here (1987, David Leland)
When it was first on Showtime, my dad recorded Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure for me and caught the end credits of this film, which depicted a British street performer dancing on the boardwalk. I watched this for years before my curiosity got the better of me and I did a reverse-lookup of the title on the Internet Movie Database using the name of one of the cast members. The picture is a breezy but bittersweet coming-of-age story about a sassy teenage girl who rebels against her deadening working-class existence with sex and becomes pregnant by the town's middle-aged projectionist--a friend, as it happens, of her judgmental and overbearing father. Wish You Were Here is very funny, very peppy, and very brutal in a way that doesn't cancel out the funny or the peppy.
9. Pixote (1981, Hector Babenco)
It's a little fatty and drags in spots, but who can forget that glue-huffing sequence with little Pixote? Or the last shot at the train tracks? Or the iconic kiss with the prostitute? The fattiness is necessary, in a sense. Given a little room to breathe, sensational material becomes natural, normal, and real. Walter accurately labelled City of God "Quentin Tarantino's Schindler's List." One need only refer back to Pixote for that film's good doppelgänger.
8. Children of the Corn (1984, Fritz Kiersch)
I've been an advocate for Children of the Corn for a while now. To be honest, the script is pretty bad; the dialogue is filled with howlers; there's the it's-just-a-dream-cliché and the woman who gets out of the car when her man told her not to cliché; and everything ends with a big explosion to help out the guys cutting the TV spots. But there's something in the air. Low-budget horror had a different feel in the early-'80s; Children of the Corn lacks the slick sheen you encounter even in films like House of the Dead. This thing is sparse, quiet, and deadening. And it plays on our fears of the Bible Belt very powerfully, more so than any movie I've yet seen. I find Children of the Corn to be much more frightening than Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and I think that can be traced back to the fact that the monsters here are all children. If they're children, what they're doing can't be dismissed as the happenings of one lone band of psychos. It has to run deeper.
7. Life Lessons (1989, Martin Scorsese)
It's the first segment of the prestigious anthology New York Stories and is unfortunately the only thing of real value in that film. Life Lessons is as good as anything in the Scorsese canon. I may be revealing my inexperience in saying so, but a sequence where artist Nick Nolte paints on his canvas through a series of rapid dissolves so that it looks like there are several of him working at the same time has to be one of the freshest uses of the cinematic medium I have ever seen. This is a true master at work.
6. Made in Britain (1982, Alan Clarke)
I know that Alan Clarke has gotten a lot of love around these parts and apparently those serious about film have known about him for years. I heard a little bit about Made in Britain from Roger Ebert's near-pan of American History X and from interviews with Gummo director Harmony Korine, who cites Clarke as a major influence. But to be honest, I wasn't really aware of the guy until FFC reviewed a box set of his work. Made in Britain is one of the great juvenile delinquent movies. The script (by David Leland, the writer-director of Wish You Were Here) is brilliant in making the protagonist (Tim Roth) a neo-Nazi. That single decision renders him more morally ambiguous than the working-class heroes who populate a film like Brassed Off and yet more sympathetic than the rebels-without-a-cause who populate our more class-unconscious American films. It's darkly funny, too; I love the moment where the mentally-retarded black kid who gets in trouble because he always follows the crowd participates in a hate crime with Roth.
5. The Mosquito Coast (1986, Peter Weir)
A very recent discovery for me and I kind of want to get the word out. All the materials seem to be there: a literate script by Paul Schrader; icy, dispassionate direction by Peter Weir; and a flashy but brilliant performance by Harrison Ford. Yet the film never quite caught on like it should've. Believe it or not, the cult that's formed around it on video consists largely of teenage girls lusting after Ford's co-star River Phoenix! The Mosquito Coast has two of my favourite ideas for a movie: the intellectual who argues himself outside of the human race, and the teenage boy who gradually realizes that his father, who had been the centre of the universe as he knows it, is batshit insane. The film is about nothing less than a failed god figure, a notion that has the precisely right blend of the romantic and the cynical. Plus, check out the cameo by the great Butterfly McQueen!
4. Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984, Michael Radford)
It's the rare film adaptation of a classic novel that does the source material justice, and quite surprisingly most who've seen it tend to agree. If only more people would see it! The filmmakers appear to have read the book and understood Orwell's thesis that the key to maintaining the totalitarian government is in keeping everybody perpetually miserable. The film is wonderfully grungy and hauntingly ugly--and with the great John Hurt as Winston Smith, it avoids making heroes of the patently anti-heroic. Embarrassingly, the story remains topical today. The idea that we shouldn't criticize our government in a time of war is regularly presented sans irony by talk-show pundits who fail to understand that if we don't criticize our government in a time of war, the government can forgo ever being criticized by always being at war!
3. Pennies from Heaven (1981, Herbert Ross)
Other than maybe home movies shot in Super8, I don't believe there is anything I love more in a movie than lip-synching. I never saw the Dennis Potter miniseries this is based on, but from the sounds of things the miniseries likes its characters whereas the feature film (also scripted by Potter) despises them--it really doesn't paint a very optimistic picture of human nature. Pennies from Heaven is sort of an anti-musical, a subversive take on the polluted gender dynamics that populated the Busby Berkeley and Fred and Ginger musicals of the 1930s. When a heart-shaped iris wipe closes out what is unquestionably the rape of Bernadette Peters, the entire genre is violated along with her. This is a work of pure cinema with a heart that is four sizes too small. It uses sarcasm and escapism as a weapon and is nothing short of a masterpiece of audience abuse.
2. Parents (1989, Bob Balaban)
Like The Mosquito Coast, Parents is a film about a kid who discovers that his mother and father, the centre of his universe, are nuts. In fact, they're cannibals--but the movie is also about incest, in a disguised form. It sexualizes cannibalism and Mom and Dad want their boy to be a cannibal like them. Moreover, it's about the fear of disappointing your parents. The kid doesn't overtly reject his parents' values; he's just a kid, he doesn't know what's going on. This important fact helps raise the film above the level of an easy attack on 1950s suburbia and into some sort of gonzo, left-of-centre masterpiece.
1. Christiane F. (1981, Uli Edel)
The titular Christiane F. is a fifteen-year old girl in Berlin who is a huge David Bowie fan, and to fit in with the older and more sophisticated crowd she tries heroin. (Or "H" as they like to refer to it.) The film is perhaps the most brutal Afterschool Special ever made. Once she's addicted, Christiane gives handjobs to older men to support her habit. She and her boyfriend decide they're going to go cold turkey and fight over one last fix to keep themselves going. We see her nude, vomiting, going through withdrawal, and yet, not only does the actress portraying Christiane (Natja Brunckhorst) actually look fifteen, but the film is also told through a teenager's sensibility: it's naïve, romantic, and a little bit stupid. It even ends with Bowie's "Heroes"! The tone clashes with the images that we're seeing and that seems to be precisely the point. Christiane F. is so authentic from an emotional standpoint that it's jarring and difficult to take.
I also recommend Paperhouse (1988, Bernard Rose), The Monster Squad (1987, Fred Dekker), Alice (1988, Jan Svankmajer), Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984, Joseph Zito), The Race for the Double Helix (1987, Mick Jackson), Talk Radio (1988, Oliver Stone), Mother's Day (1980, Charles Kaufman), Night of the Comet (1984, Thom Eberhardt), Personal Services (1987, Terry Jones), and, with some measure of guilt, My Demon Lover (1987, Charlie Loventhal).

May 17, 2007

Thursday's Friday Talkback

If you're wondering about the spotty transmissions of late, I broke my freakin' arm. Between this and the hernia operation, I hope I've finally shed the cosmic "kick me" sign, though it'll still be a couple of weeks before I'm out of the sling and substantially contributing to the site again. Could be worse, of course--could be "The Office" heartbreaker Jenna Fischer, who recently, gulp, broke her back. Apparently she'll make a full recovery, but nevertheless: get well soon, Pam!

Anyway, we haven't had a proper talkback in a while, so here's a sampling of some recent reviews bound to jumpstart the conversation around here, including a sneak peek at Walter's review of Shrek the Turd--er, Third. There is also this, the trailer for the latest Un Film de Michael Bay, which brings to mind Joe Dante's reason for turning down Batman: because he didn't believe in Batman, he believed in the Joker. From the looks of things, they hired a Decepticon to direct Transformers.

Next week marks a special occasion for FFC; more on that soon.