Zeitgeist

From now on, it can be said that plague was the concern of all of us. Hitherto, surprised as he may have been by the strange things happening around him, each individual citizen had gone about his business as usual, so far as this was possible. And no doubt he would have continued doing so. But once the town gates were shut, every one of us realized that all, the narrator included, were, so to speak, in the same boat, and each would have to adapt himself to the new conditions of life. Thus, for example, a feeling normally as individual as the ache of separation from those one loves suddenly became a feeling in which all shared alike and — together with fear — the greatest affliction of the long period of exile that lay ahead.

Camus

The Fall of Rome

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast

— Auden

Last two stanzas.

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, XI

September, 2019

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

Rewatched Miller’s Crossing (1990), a Coen Brothers movie about Gabriel Byrne running a scheme between the Irish and Italian mobs during Prohibition. The scheme is impossible to follow, but in the end I think he wins? The gold medal goes to Turturro for his performance as a sneaky little weasel, edging out Jon Polito by inches. The fact that they filmed the hats as though they were symbolic is enough: what the hat symbolizes, if anything, isn’t important. The cat in Inside Llewyn Davis was meaningless too. I forgot how good that Danny Boy action sequence is. People make note of the "Barton Arms" hotel as a nod to Barton Fink, but I didn’t see anybody point out that there’s a Mike Fink comic prominently featured as well. I give it 3.5 high hats out of a possible 5 high hats.

Manhunter (1986)

Watched Manhunter (1986), Michael Mann’s adaptation of Red Dragon, with Brian Cox instead of Anthony Hopkins and William Peterson instead of whoever else was in that movie. I watched the director’s cut, which added nothing of value: you knew which scenes were edited back in because they hadn’t really been processed, and looked like city council meetings from the public access channel. It feels like a Michael Mann movie in its themes and preoccupation with expressionist urban landscapes, but it did not have enough tactical movement in my opinion. The Frankenstein (1818) interlude where the monster goes on a date with a blind lady was awkward and came out of nowhere to dominate the last act. The climax felt like they made it in a hurry, and sure enough it seems they ran out of money right before filming it. I guess the poster IS the wall? I wish I knew a veterinarian who would let me pet a tiger after hours. I give it 3.75 turtle shelters out of a possible 5 turtle shelters.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

Rewatched The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), John McTiernan’s fantasy art heist movie set in a pre-9/11 mindset. In this movie, Rene Russo investigates and falls in love with zillionaire thief Pierce Brosnan. McTiernan’s instinct to lighten the mood in comparison to the original film was dead on. Even though crimes are being committed in this movie, they’re victimless, and everybody involved is just having a great time being rich, or looking at rich people. Everybody, that is, except feckless NYPD detective Dennis Leary, who sucks anyway, and even he comes around by the end. Was it the over-saturation of upbeat jazz music that changed his mind? Or was it just that in 1999 nothing seemed consequential? Frankie Faison is in this movie. What is Thomas Crown’s yearly briefcase budget? In 2019 they would at least nod to having him do something with his money besides leave performance yachts, gliders, and Shelby mustangs lying around: something charitable, redemptive, or apologetic. Next time you watch this movie, pay attention to all the different pencil holders! I give it 4 green apples out of a possible 5 green apples.

The Wrong Guy (1997)

Watched The Wrong Guy (1997), in which a cowardly buffoon (Dave Foley) believes he is a fugitive from the law after discovering his boss has been murdered. A direct and self-acknowledging parody of North by Northwest (1959), it also feels an awful lot like The Jerk (1979) in comic tone. Meg/Jennifer Tilly plays a narcoleptic love interest, the daughter of a poor banker who is (in a storyline that almost pays off) about to be foreclosed on by an evil, rich farmer. There were also a couple probable references to The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), such as the boardroom scene, and the sleeve-ripping scene. The bits are strung together, and many are very funny. Through triangulation you get a clearer sense what Foley’s voice contributed to The Kids in the Hall. Kevin McDonald has a cameo, as does Mark McKinney. The opening sequence is excellent. I give it 3.75 tainted hams out of a possible 5 tainted hams.

Out of Sight (1998)

Rewatched Out of Sight (1998), Steven Soderbergh’s first movie with studio money. George Clooney is a bank robber, and Jennifer Lopez is a U.S. Marshal out to catch him but, oops, they fall in love. From an Elmore Leonard novel, and though I didn’t know it the first time around, now it’s unmistakable. This is the high point of Lopez and Ving Rhames’ acting careers, for me; probably Clooney’s, too. So many great performances in this movie: Don Cheadle, Dennis Farina, Luis Guzman, Steve Zahn, Albert Brooks. Cameos by Michael Keaton (as his character from Jackie Brown (1997)) and Samuel L. Jackson. I thought the editing was classic Soderbergh, but it turns out Anne V. Coates edited it, so it’s possible some of the things I think of as classic Soderbergh are actually classic Coates. I give it 4 big steaks out of a possible 5 big steaks.

Porco Rosso (1992)

Watched Porco Rosso (1992), an animated love letter to 1) planes and 2) Italy. Porco Rosso plays himself, but this time as an lonely former WWI pilot, haunted by his past, who hunts seaplane bandits in the Adriatic. He crosses paths with an American flying ace against whom he must square off, with the help of a plucky girl. The ratio of machine guns fired to anybody getting hurt is 5000 to 0. There aren’t any real threats in the movie, just a lot of great background paintings. I think it’s great that Porco Rosso doesn’t turn back into a human at the end of the movie, and it’s never explained how he became a pig man, and almost nobody asks about it. It struck me that this movie borrowed a lot from Talespin (1990), but then I discovered it was probably based on Miyazaki’s own manga from 1989. Still, two animators coming up with strikingly similar ideas at about the same time: pretty odd! I give it 4 trenchcoats out of a possible 5 trenchcoats.

The Social Network (2010)

Watched The Social Network (2010), an apocalypse movie chronicling the invention of Tom from MySpace. Aaron Sorkin wrote the screenplay, which was amazing but evidently didn’t care about history at all. David Fincher is the Mark Zuckerberg of directors. This movie threaded the needle to tell a story in which nobody is likable, or worth rooting for. Nobody real that is: Rooney Mara’s character, and Rashida Jones’ characters seem nice, but they are just composites, as unreal as the second Armie Hammer. Jesse Eisenberg just made a weird face the entire movie. N*Sync did a good job as Napster. I give it 3.5 Red Vines out of a possible 5 Red Vines.

Kaili Blues (2015)

Watched Kaili Blues (2015), a film by Bi Gan, about a doctor in China traveling to another city to retrieve his nephew. To understand the experience of watching the film, try putting a question mark after every word in that description, and add in the concept that the present, past, and future are flattened together and that the whole thing could be a dream. And yet it’s not an incoherent puzzle box, it makes sense and every elusive image gets paid off with something later (or earlier) on. Often compared to Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), I liked and respected this film a lot more. It’s also post-apocalyptic, in a way, with all we see of the city of Kaili being either demolished or under construction. The most famous thing about it is the documentary-style 41-minute tracking shot, which I am a sucker for. The first half of the movie is great as well, and shows you how to unload an excavator from a trailer. Why did she take the ferry across the river and then walk right back across the bridge? I give it 4.25 disco balls out of a possible 5 disco balls.

Mr. Arkadin

Watched Mr. Arkadin (1955), Orson Welles’ mashup of Citizen Kane and The Third Man. Robert Arden plays a small-time crook hired by mysterious billionaire Gregory Arkadin to investigate Arkadin’s own dark past. Welles called this movie a disaster, because he lost creative control during editing and hated the theatrical release, but as far as I can tell that is true of most Orson Welles movies. In all there were 3 different edits of this movie; I watched the Criterion Collection’s "Complete" edition. The high-definition transfer reveals the glue on his magnificent hairpiece and beard. On the plus side: moody photography, jet-set noir, and Welles’ theatrical baritone voice made the film worth watching. On the minus side, I didn’t care about the plot at all. There’s a scene where a refrigerator is wearing a sombrero. I give it 3 goose livers out of a possible 5 goose livers.

Between Two Ferns: The Movie (2019)

Watched Between Two Ferns: The Movie (2019), a framing device for a series of short episodes of the web series. There are something like 12 Between Two Ferns interviews, and then everything else is pretty thin. I don’t think they go more than about 7 minutes between showing interviews with celebrities. They got a really good lineup. He asks Keanu Reeves "on a scale of 1 to 100, how many words do you know?" and that’s maybe the funniest slam ever. You can see how hard they work to cut around everyone laughing. Some of the interstitial plot, about Zach Gallifianakis traveling the country to earn a network talk show, is funny, but not as funny as the other stuff. A lot of LA comedians get shoehorned into cameo roles; too many to name. I give it 2.5 razor scooters out of a possible 5 razor scooters.

What a place to be in is an old library! It seems as though all the souls of all the writers, that have bequeathed their labours to these Bodleians, were reposing here, as in some dormitory, or middle state. I do not want to handle, to profane the leaves, their winding-sheets. I could as soon dislodge a shade. I seem to inhale learning, walking amid their foliage; and the odour of their old moth-scented coverings is fragrant as the first bloom of those sciential apples which grew amid the happy orchard.

— Charles Lamb, from Oxford in the Vacation

An essay about wandering around a campus when all the students have gone home. I remember this feeling.

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, IV

Vol. IV, December 2018

Notorious (1946)

Watched Notorious (1946), wherein Ingrid Bergman is the disgraced daughter of a convicted nazi agent, pressed into service to spy on her father’s co-conspirators, and treated rather shabbily by everyone, including her handler, Cary Grant. The influence of the Hayes codes is felt throughout the movie, as everything was smolderingly romantic but completely asexual. This is the only performance by Claude Rains I’ve ever seen that was good. When they were making the movie in 1945, nobody outside the military knew how to make an atomic bomb, but Hitchcock’s pseudoscientific version was not actually any dumber than the ones in movies today. If you like insert shots of peoples legs kicking things, this is the movie for you. Very tense. Good payoff for how the bad guy gets his just deserts, which allows the movie to end without really any denouement. I give it 4 foreshortened cups of coffee out of a possible 5 foreshortened cups of coffee.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Watched The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), a Coen brothers western anthology. Of the six stories, the titular one is the least interesting and most disturbing, with Tim Blake Nelson playing a murderous cowboy version of Bugs Bunny. It doesn’t actually fit very well with the rest of them, come to think of it. The best is “The Gal Who Got Rattled”. A very Coen brothers thing is to sprinkle in thematic elements we can feel smart for noticing, but which do not necessarily add up to a complete message. Congratulations on losing the weight, Dudley! I give it 4 dog holes out of a possible 5 dog holes.

Aquaman (2018)

I watched Aquaman (2018), a DCEU movie in which Prince Namor the Submariner (Jason Momoa) fights to save Atlanta. Prince Namor (Aquaman) is a parseltongue — but with fish — and he’s very strong. It’s funny that though they were cast side by side in the same movie, I was happy for Dolph Lundgren and sad for Willem Defoe. There are no fewer than three scenes in this movie in which someone finishes saying their exposition, then the wall behind them explodes so that a fight scene can start. If a technologically advanced civilization has mastered fusion, why do they go to war by having thousands of people line up in ranks and run to the other side of a field while screaming? Honestly, I think a trident would beat a sword anyway. I give it 2 octopus drumkits out of a possible 5 octopus drumkits.

Krull (1983)

Watched Krull (1983), a fantasy movie that feels influenced by Flash Gordon (1980) and Barbarella (1968). In it, hammer-wielding polygamist Liam Neeson uses a very particular set of skills to help Colwyn (Ken Marshall) rescue a female protagonist whom I believe he knew for like 6 minutes before she was kidnapped. Line readings were stilted and delivered like the actors couldn’t see each other. Best sequence is The Widow of the Web: had both a translucent stop motion spider and actual stakes. They definitely shot that tiger up with real tranquilizers! I give it 2.5 flamethrower hands out of a possible 5 flamethrower hands.

Munich (2005)

Watched Munich (2005). Very good movie, not the best. Mossad agents retaliate to the Munich attacks by assassinating PLO leaders in a series of increasingly messy and morally compromised home invasions. Hard to miss the symbolism about homes in this movie, there sure is a lot of it. Eric Bana did fine, but for some reason I can’t care about whatever emotions he’s feeling. Oh look, Ciarán Hinds’ wang. At first, it looked like the movie was going to have an interesting episodic structure, but like the mission itself, it sort of drifted at the end. I give it 4 hunks of unpasteurized cheese out of a possible 5 hunks of unpasteurized cheese.

The Plague

The doctor was still looking out of the window. Beyond it lay the tranquil radiance of a cool spring sky; inside the room a word was echoing still, the word “plague.” A word that conjured up in the doctor’s mind not only what science chose to put into it, but a whole series of fantastic possibilities utterly out of keeping with that gray and yellow town under his eyes, from which were rising the sounds of mild activity characteristic of the hour; a drone rather than a bustling, the noises of a happy town, in short, if it’s possible to be at once so dull and happy. A tranquility so casual and thoughtless seemed almost effortlessly to give the lie to those old pictures of the plague: Athens, a charnel-house reeking to heaven and deserted even by the birds; Chinese towns cluttered up with victims silent in their agony; the convicts at Marseille piling rotting corpses into pits; the building of the Great Wall in Provence to fend off the furious plague- wind; the damp, putrefying pallets stuck to the mud floor at the Constantinople lazar-house, where the patients were hauled up from their beds with hooks; the carnival of masked doctors at the Black Death; men and women copulating in the cemeteries of Milan; cartloads of dead bodies rumbling through London’s ghoul-haunted darkness — nights and days filled always, everywhere, with the eternal cry of human pain. No, all those horrors were not near enough as yet even to ruffle the equanimity of that spring afternoon. The clang of an unseen streetcar came through the window, briskly refuting cruelty and pain. Only the sea, murmurous behind the dingy checkerboard of houses, told of the unrest, the precariousness, of all things in this world. And, gazing in the direction of the bay, Dr. Rieux called to mind the plague-fires of which Lucretius tells, which the Athenians kindled on the seashore. The dead were brought there after nightfall, but there was not room enough, and the living fought one another with torches for a space where to lay those who had been dear to them; for they had rather engage in bloody conflicts than abandon their dead to the waves. A picture rose before him of the red glow of the pyres mir- rored on a wine-dark, slumbrous sea, battling torches whirling sparks across the darkness, and thick, fetid smoke rising toward the watchful sky. Yes, it was not beyond the bounds of possibility…

Camus

Enlightenment

Now there is no more magic or witchcraft. This is because the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses cannot be used any longer. It was these books that meticulously inscribed and recorded all witchcraft, magic and incantations. These two books are sealed in Wittenberg and they are exhibited as curiosities, but cannot be borrowed.

— Kuhn and Schwartz

The Law of Triviality

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump.
I said, “Don’t do it!”
He said, “Nobody loves me.”
I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
He said, “Yes.”
I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”
He said, “A Christian.”
I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?”
He said, “Protestant.”
I said, “Me, too! What franchise?”
He said, “Baptist.”
I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Baptist.”
I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”
I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”
I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”
I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

— Emo Philips