Best of Enemies

Best of Enemies

On Netflix right now is the fascinating documentary Best of Enemies, a film about the 1968 debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal during the Republican and Democratic Conventions.  (William F. Buckley was a conservatist and Gore Vidal was a liberal.)  The movie examines the debate in the wider context of American political discussion, especially in related to television.  Although these two were intellectuals that represented elements of an older America in their debating style, the movie makes the claim that the political bloodlust of these debates helped lead us to our current predicament in news entertainment.

The movie works on many levels.  It is an extremely interesting character study, a excellent historical document, and an alarming look into our media culture.  Talking heads that are brought into the movie include the likes of Dick Cavett, Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens, and others, some of whom were personal acquaintances with both Vidal and Buckley.  So many of the culture wars that America is still fighting were taking place around these debates.

There are so many interesting things about this movie, especially some of the commentary.  During the film Buckley’s brother is one of those that is interviewed.  While it is apparent that he has no love for Vidal, he does admit that Vidal was correct in predicting that America would become an Empire and all of the problems that being an empire entails.  Both Buckley and Vidal seemed haunted, in different ways, by these debates later in their lives.  One can’t help but wonder, despite how far apart they were at the time, if they would not both be troubled by our current political debate, which this movie claims they both unwittingly steered us towards.

 

The End of ‘The Hateful Eight’ and George Carlin

The following post concerns the end of the movie ‘The Hateful Eight’.  You’ve been warned.

Bullshit is the glue, that binds us as a nation.

Where would we be without our safe, familiar, American bullshit? Land of the free, home of the brave, the American dream, all men are equal, justice is blind, the press is free, your vote counts, business is honest, the good guys win, the police are on your side, God is watching you, your standard of living will never decline… and everything is going to be just fine— The official national bullshit story. I call it the American okie doke.

– George Carlin

I couldn’t help but think of that quote as I watched the end of Quentin Tarantino’s new movie.  The new Western features a group of characters that get sequestered in a lodge during a Wyoming winter, in the decade after the Civil War.  Like all Tarantino movies, he takes a well known genre and introduces new elements to it, often from other cinematic influences.  You could easily watch this movie and just be entertained by it’s combination of dark humor, suspenseful drama, and sensational violence.  But like other Tarantino’s movies, especially the last few, there is a more than just sheer entertainment going on.  Although Tarantino’s genius has always been attributed to the innovative ways he tells stories through film and his quotable dialog, the style of his films and not their substance, it is wrong to think his films are only style.

The Hateful Eight features historical and cinematic American archetypes.  Samuel Jackson’s character, Major Marquis Warren, is a bounty hunter and a former member of the Union Calvary.  Bruce Dern plays a former Confederate General.  Walter Goggins is a younger Southerner who mentions the Lost Cause of Southern defeat.  Those characters and others don’t trust each other.  Everyone has a secret, no one trusts that the others are what they say, and a lot of the suspense from the movie comes from the these characters poking and prodding each other to figure out what the real aims are of everyone in the lodge.  Whether you like the film or not probably depends on how much you like Tarantino’s style of filmmaking, of which I happen to be a fan of.

But for those that are not fans, you are missing out on one of the best movie endings of the year.  The end of the movie features Jackson and Goggins, two characters that are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, teaming up against the gang of which is there to free Jennifer Jason Leigh, playing criminal Daisy Domergue.  Like many Tarantino movies, the end of the movie features cinematic violence that leads to all of the characters either being dead or wounded.  Jackson and Goggins are the last two alive.

Earlier in the film Jackson’s character produces a letter that he claims is written by Abraham Lincoln.  He later admits it is false and claims the lie about the letter is to make white people feel safe around him.

The last shot of the movie, as Jack and Goggin’s characters lay dying, Goggins asks to read the letter, and both men seem to find comfort in it.  I couldn’t help but think of this as a metaphor for America, where people with seemingly nothing in common, other than a shared history of violence and bigotry, are bound together by a pretty story that sounds nice, but has very little to do with reality or fact.  This is a cynical view, but there is a lot of truth to it.  Often the patriotic political stories that we are told as children, and that we still believe far into adulthood, are closer to fairy tales than to reality.  One only needs to think of the myth of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree.  But even such phrases as “the land of the brave and the home of the free” are nationalistic claptrap that we use like a comfort blanket as we imagine an imaginary past where everything was as it should be.

I can’t really think of a better scene in a movie that demonstrates the point Carlin is trying to make above.  “Bullshit is the glue, that binds us as a nation.”  David Milch, through his show Deadwood, also uses the quote, “History is a lie agreed upon.”  I’m not trying to deny the many great things that America has done.  There is a duality running through this country’s history.  But nostalgia for an imagined past is something that too often prevents many of our citizens from realizing that there can be better days ahead, if only we don’t repeat our ancestors mistakes.

 

Michael Mann On ‘Heat’

Heat Hockey

Michael Mann On ‘Heat’

I found the above Rolling Stone article about Michael Mann and the making of the movie Heat to be interesting.  The film has long been a favorite of mine since I saw it as a kid.  I recently watched it this year to see if it held up.  Surprisingly, I not only felt it was as good as I remembered, but actually found new dimensions of meaning to appreciate.  One of the all-time classic American films.

Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

Macbeth has always been my favorite Shakespeare play.  Maybe it was seeing Roman Polanski’s film version as a kid that imprinted it on my memory, but it’s the one that I have always been drawn to.  I was looking up quotes from it tonight and this is such a great passage.

Here is a great review of the film by Roger Ebert for those of you interested.

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

The other night I watched the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.  It is a documentary about the band Big Star , it’s initial failure and long slow road to cult status.  Despite having long known who Big Star were through The Replacements song Alex Chilton, I was never one of those people pining over Big Star records in my bedroom.  Once, at a used record shop, I bought a Big Star compilation.  I have no idea if it was a bootleg, etc.  I have never seen it before or since.  Although there were several songs I loved on it, I realize now that it’s track listing was a bit bizarre.  While it contained many of the band’s most popular songs, they were in an order that didn’t provide the best context for them.  (Context in the world of music is really important.  Often when I put my iPod on shuffle, my favorite songs often aren’t as enjoyable as they are in their natural habitat.  Also think about how the way in which a great live band puts together a set, and how when done right the show builds in energy at just the right moments.)  Also, since hearing the remastered versions of the Big Star catalog, I realized how sonically muted the versions I had were by comparison.

I thought the movie was fascinating. Not only because it tells the tail of Big Star, which is interesting in its own right, a story full of tragedy and redemption, but it gives you a sense of Memphis regional music at the time.  In the pre-internet age, music was much more regional, allowing for strange mutations to arise.  Communication wasn’t as easy, so strange little scenes developed in different locations.  (Although Big Star were even strange for Memphis at that time and place.)  I do feel that with the current economic model of the music industry, especially in regards to touring, that music is becoming more regional again.

The movie does what any good music documentary should do: It communicates what is special about the music and makes the music sound great.  It not only tells Big Star’s story in a compelling way, but when you actually hear the music, the music sounds extraordinary.  As I commented before, I think hearing the details of Big Star recordings, in the right context, really makes their music come alive.  The movie also has alternative takes of these songs, allowing one to see how they were built into their final and superior versions.  Their music is full of ecstatic joy and harrowing sadness, sometimes threading the needle between the two.

Although I new the rough outline of the Big Star story going in, I found that the film gave me a new appreciation for their recordings.  I think there is enough new elements, with great footage and interviews with those still alive, to recommend it to those that are already fans.

 

The Bastard Executioner and Monty Python

I am giving the new show The Bastard Executioner a try.  It’s a show that focuses on Wales in the 14th Century.  I haven’t seen enough of the show one way or another yet to give an opinion.  However, Monty Python has made it slightly hard to watch any historical drama, especially one like The Bastard Executioner (which also has a witch!), without realizing the absurdity of human behavior.  Even watching the Oscar winning The King’s Speech, which focuses on the lead-up and onset of World War II, I couldn’t help feel that the characters were, “emotional mutants.”  It’s not that you can’t enjoy historical pieces, as I still very much do.  It’s only that you realize the absurdity in the horrible behavior of our ancestors while doing so.  You begin to notice the comedy of human behavior and error.  Perhaps this is what happens when you are raised on Monty Python.  If you haven’t seen any of their movies, do so. You may never again see the world the same way.

The Last Detail, Francis Ford Coppola, and the Market Forces of New Hollywood

The Last Detail

Last night I watched the movie The Last Detail staring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, and an extremely young Randy Quaid.  The movie is about two men in the Navy (Nicholson and Young) who are supposed to take the character played by Quaid to a military prison.  Not liking the task they are given from the beginning, and growing to like it even less as the movie progresses, they take longer then they need to complete it.  As the task at hand grows more distasteful, they decide to show Quaid’s character a good time, taking him out drinking and to a whore house, among other things.  The movie was directed by Hal Ashby and written by Robert Towne.

I found out about the movie by reading Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.  This is a book that examines New Hollywood, a period that runs roughly from the late 60’s with Easy Rider and up through the 70’s.  Ashby was one of the directors who came up during this period, along with Paul Schrader, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and others.

This movie is a good example of the character driven films being made during this period.  The camera barely moves compared to modern filmmaking.  Other than a few scuffles, there is very little action.  Most of the movie revolves around the personality of the characters and the dialogue, which is fantastic.  There is also a strong anti-authoritarian streak running in this film and others from this period.  Watching this film is closer to, if not reading a novel, at least reading a well written short story.  The language is realistic for the time, in markedly different contrast to older Hollywood films.

I wanted to mention the movie, as I believe, if you are interested in well written character driven films, that it is worth seeking out.  However, this isn’t a review.  I would just feel amiss if I didn’t mention it.  Although I was at least aware of many of the movies in the book, this is one that I had never heard mentioned before.

I’m always interested in why certain forms of art flourish in different time periods.  Although there are many reasons why the 60’s were great for music, the 70’s for film, and modern times have been described as the golden age of television, I think that the economics of a given era are always something to be considered.  The more money that flows to creativity, the more interesting and creative things we will see made.  Not only will those in a given field have more resources to give birth to their dreams, but more creative people will seek out a given medium.  Again, although this is not the only thing that influences culture, this is a big factor that has been proven time and again.  Biskind even talks about this near the end of the book:

Could another group of directors have done it differently, broken the back of studio power, created little islands of self-sufficiency that would have supported them in the work they wanted to do?  Could a hundred flowers ever have bloomed?  Probably not.  The strength of the economic forces arrayed against them was too great.  “We had the naive notion that it was the equipment which would give us the means of production,” said Coppola.  “Of course, we learned much later that it wasn’t the equipment, it was the money.”  Because the fact of the matter is that although individual revolutionaries succeeded, the revolution failed.  The New Hollywood directors were like free-range chickens; they were let out of the coop to run around the barnyard and imagined they were free.  But when they ceased laying those eggs, they were slaughtered.  

The book goes on to talk about how the directors, even the truly great ones like Coppola, were selected by market forces.  However, another interesting point is that the directors that were able to marry the personal with the commercial lasted longer than the ones that were making strictly personal films.  Success seems to be dictated by those that had the strength to create something personal, melded with a flexibility to bend to the commercial forces.  The Godfather is a perfect example.  It was a studio picture that Coppola took, even though at the time he would have rather been making movies that were even more personal to him.  However, he was able to infuse that studio film with enough personality to make it popular and unique for its time.

I don’t know if I have reached any definitive conclusion in all of this.  But I think these things are interesting to think about.  Another thing to consider is now, with so many people wanting intellectual property and artistic products for free, how does that affect the kind of culture around us?  Many people lament the fact that films and music aren’t what they used to be.  Why is this?  Is this simply nostalgia for a time that didn’t exist?  Or have we simply devalued things to the point where they can’t be created at the rate that we would like?

P.S.  I couldn’t help but think that the movie, which I don’t want to spoil, is in some ways a great commentary on this whole period of creativity in Hollywood.  (Even though the movie was created during the middle of this period.)  If you watch it, pay close attention to the relationship between freedom and authority.  

 

The Baggage that We Bring to Art

On my last post I wrote about Lou Reed and Metallica’s Lulu.  It was an album savaged by critics.  A lot of my favorite pieces of art have been critically condemned only to find reevaluation years later.  Terry Gilliam has a movie called Tideland that knocked me out when I saw it.  It was one of the only times I have walked out of a theater thinking that I had just seen something completely new.  I was excited, ecstatic even, only to read reviews later that tore the movie to shreds.  This did nothing to alter my view of the film, I was only sad to learn that the film wouldn’t find a larger audience.  I also felt bad that so many people had missed out on such a fantastic film.

This is not standard review, nor do I want to spend time relaying the entire plot.  If you want to learn more about the movie here is the Wikipedia page.

One of the things interesting about the film is that it’s protagonist is a little girl and the movie is filmed with her perspective in mind.  The little girl undergoes many trials including her dad dying of a heroin overdose in their rural farmhouse in Texas.  If you view the film through the eyes of an adult, there are many uncomfortable moments in the film.  There is a kiss scene where the girl kisses, innocently, her friend who is a boy that is mentally handicapped.  Because we are adults, and adults are sexual beings, viewers may be inclined to view this scene with a sense of horror.  But if you view the scene through the eyes of its protagonist, it is just an innocent kiss between friends.  As with many Gilliam films, a theme running through the movie is how our imaginations allow us to survive the realities of the world, which are often less than ideal.  Children, out of all ages, possess the strongest imaginations.  Therefore, it only makes sense that in many ways children are more resilient than adults.

Although knowledge can, at many times, increase our appreciation for art, as we learn to understand the language of certain art forms, it can occasionally blind us to its true meaning.  What we bring along with us, our psychological intellectual background, is important.   This is often why you may see musicians, painters, filmmakers, appreciating different things than the general public.  They usually are steeped in the knowledge of their particular field.  They might have a better idea of when someone is breaking from convention to reach new ground.  You don’t have to be an artist.  It’s not some kind of secret club, just generally if you are making something you are interested enough to immerse yourself in it.  A library card and a curious mind are all one needs to learn the language of any given medium.

However, outside of the language of a medium, there is also what we bring to a piece of art from our personal background.  How we view the world influences how we view the themes of a piece of art.  What I love about this movie is that Gilliam has created something that asks us to shake off our personal and cultural biases.  He is asking us to be children again, to view the world with the same sense of wonder that they do.  It’s a beautiful place if you can get into that headspace.

No one states this better than Gilliam himself in the introduction to the movie, up above.  This introduction also played in the theater when I saw the film.  Although sometimes overstating your purpose can be harmful, given the nature of this film, I really felt that it is effective.  He is trying to get the viewers in that headspace of a child before the film begins, which is essential to a proper interpretation of the film.  I remember thinking, upon seeing this introduction two things:

“Gilliam is throwing down the fucking gauntlet”, and “I’m in.”

 

Curb Your Enthusiasm 70’s Style

I was reading Easy Riders and Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind.   It’s a book about the era of New Hollywood, when directors like Hal Ashby,  Roger Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, and others were at the height of their powers.  Anyway, the following passage, about director Peter Bogdanovich and actress Cybill Shepherd,  reminded me of the concept for Larry David’s  Curb Your Enthusiasm:

When Peter talked about Cybill, he patronized her. “Cybill stared out as a whim, an instinct, a little voice in my ear that I listened to.  I had an itch, and she scratched it….She’s very malleable.  You can bend her in any direction.  She does what she’s told.”  It became impossible to pick up a magazine without seeing the two of them beaming toothily from the cover, winsome and smug, as if to say, We’re Peter and Cybill, and you’re not.  Cary Grant told him to shut up.  “Will you stop telling people you’re in love.  Stop telling people you’re happy.”

“Why?”

“Because they are not in love and they’re not happy.  And they don’t want to hear it.  

“But Cary, I thought the world loves a lover.”

“Don’t you believe it.  It isn’t true.  Just remember one thing, Peter, people do not like beautiful people. “

Why Do Movies About Music Leave So Much Music Off Screen

Why Do Movies About Music Leave So Much Music Off Screen

 

An extremely fascinating article about a recent run of well received movies with music at their core.  Why do movies about music often focus more on the salacious aspects of musicians lives?  Why do they often ignore the larger musical communities that musicians are a part of?  Why do they often fail to give viewers a real glimpse into the creative process?  The writer does a great job of combining film, music, and cultural criticism here.