Thursday, October 28, 2010

Pickup on South Street

If Samuel Fuller can hang his legacy on anything, it is his ability to embody contradictions that no normal director could ever reconcile. He could be broader than James Cameron yet as sophisticated a writer as Wilder, a barbarian who seemed to steal a camera and trick a crew into making a movie even as his mise-en-scène communicated layers of meaning. Pickup on South Street, his 1953 noir masterpiece, contains the sort of anti-Communist sentiment you'd expect from a cheap genre film in the early '50s, yet its politics are so deliberately vague that producers could simply change some lines in dubbing to change the Communist MacGuffin to drugs in order to play the film in commie-loving France. No editing to the film itself was necessary.

The supposed anti-Communism streak can only be seen in a few lines of dialogue, perfunctory crowd-pleasing sentiment that wards off any criticism from the "patriots." Some of those lines even point out how uninformed the general public is about the Reds. "What do I know about the Commies?" asks a stool pigeon central to the story. "Nothin.' I know one thing: I just don't like 'em."

What Fuller does instead with his villains -- if one can even delineate any character in this film as even slightly heroic to offset the others -- is play upon something more primal. The Communists filled a role in the American consciousness normally occupied by the bogeyman in the closet. Like the killer in M, the handful of Soviet collaborators represent a dark force within everyone that transcends anything so petty and fleeting as national loyalty. After a certain point, the object they chase becomes irrelevant to the beast they cannot tame, and nobody tackles that sort of thing with the same flair as Fuller.

Opening in a subway car as packed passengers engage in the standard behavior of public transportation use: not looking overly hostile but generally avoiding eye contact and shrugging off physical proximity as everyone must get close but strive not to get too close. One man slinks up to a bombshell and picks her purse. Funnily enough, the eye contact he maintains with the woman to avoid suspicion attracts the audience's suspicion instantly given how deliberately everyone else on the train avoids any kind of contact. With a magnificent use of close-ups that Robert Bresson must have studied before making Pickpocket, Fuller creates suspense immediately. As far as we know, this criminal is just pinching a wallet. Who is this guy? Is the woman important? Why is that other man watching them intently, and what does he see?

Only after the pickpocket exits the train and the victim eventually gets off at her stop do the pieces start to fall into place. The woman, Candy (Jean Peters), realizes she's missing her billfold and jumps on the phone to call her lover, Joey, but their conversation, vague as it is, suggests she lost more than money. At last, things become clear: the second man in the train was a cop, but he was watching the woman, not the pickpocket. He knows she's carrying government secrets, even if she doesn't, and the theft sets off a race to find the crook, Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) that pits Commies who don't display any outward dedication to the Red cause versus cops who don't show any serious commitment to America. Everyone involved is just doing what they're forced to do.

This existentialist streak complicates the narrative, turning what might have been an 80-minute piece of fluff into an exploration of feelings of isolation, unchangeable fate and the price of blind, automatic devotion to a cause. Everyone slaps around Candy, from her boyfriend to the cops to Skip himself when the two finally meet, but she takes all of it, and all the thinly veiled catcalls that she's a whore. Yet when she discovers she was carrying Red secrets, she collapses, terrified of being a Red. For audiences then, this might have been the perfect example of the evil of Communism, a black mark that superseded all other social taboos and transgressions. Today, we can see Fuller's intent more clearly: this woman is in her own personal hell, and the one thing that upsets her is an insinuation on something as indirect as a political affiliation?

Fuller further muddies the traditional arcs of Hollywood narratives by creating a disturbing relationship between Skip and Candy, one that comes off as aggressive, even rapacious, on Skip's part and wretchedly codependent on Candy's. Yet Fuller ironically scores their scenes with frothy, romantic violin swells, giving an audience the turgid romance they so love even as he rubs their faces in how dark those kinds of relationships really are.

And the dialogue, dear readers. Oh, it's so hard-boiled I wanted to tap my TV screen with a spoon and peel off the pixels. The FBI agent working with the police captain confronts Skip about the need for him to turn over the microfilm. Skip, of course, doesn't want to because he's already got three strikes and knows that turning over the film will earn him his fourth conviction, an automatic life sentence. "If you refuse to cooperate, you'll be as guilty as the traitors who gave Stalin the A-bomb," urges the agent. Skip, such an arrogant smart-ass you want to reach into the film and slap him, disinterestedly fires back, "You wavin' the flag at me?"

With such rotten characters, it's no wonder that even the film's moral center, the stool pigeon Moe (Thelma Ritter), is far from saintly. She first bursts in on Capt. Tiger and Agent Zara's investigation as if a kindly old lady coming in for a nice chat. When the fed leaves the room, she instantly starts singing to the captain, giving up the name of Skip, whom she's practically raised all his life and genuinely loves. She makes reference to feeding her kitty, by which she means a large wad of cash she's saved from her legitimate work selling neckties and the reward money she's collected over the years from ratting on crooks. Her nest egg takes a dark turn: rather than some fund to get her out of the projects, the cash is meant to get her a nice burial plot in a fancy graveyard and a lavish funeral. Fuller's camera moves in for one of its blisteringly effective close-ups when Tiger warns her that she shouldn't carry that wad around lest someone in her rough neighborhood steal it and she wind up in the rundown cemetery in Potter's Field. Ritter, a supremely talented comedic performer, turns so somber in an instant that you can't even laugh when she fearfully mumbles "Look, Tiger, if I was to be buried in Potter's Field, it would just about kill me."

The people of Pickup on South Street all use each other. The cops use Moe the way the Reds use Candy. Skip uses both women, the former for nurturing and support and the latter for sexual conquest. Even Moe and Candy exploit each other, Candy using Moe to get to Skip as Moe uses her to add more money to her burial fund. Loyalty is portrayed as a sucker's game in which a dominant force extracts from the weak until there's nothing left to give. But some of them do regret it and wish it were better: when Skip discerns Moe was the one who sold him out, he doesn't hold a grudge, saying she's gotta eat too. Fuller never dips into outright nihilism, but he makes sure that every potentially heartwarming aspect of the film is undercut with a horror that prevents easy escape.

It's not always easy to tell in a Fuller film whether the cast he assembled understood what it is he wanted, given how brazenly contradictory everything he ever wrote was. But he's got some magnificent performances here. Widmark was one of the great screen villains and antiheroes, able to mix his innocent looks -- he always looked like a teenager playing dress-up on a set -- with a sociopathic glare that sends chill after chill down the spine every time the camera captures the sinister twinkle in his eyes. Peters, on the other hand, will never make any short list of the greatest actresses, nor even a long list. But she absolutely and completely radiates pure sex in this movie, practically taped into each dress and breathily delivering each line. She's so electric that she seems a femme fatale even when she reveals herself almost instantly to be a victimized shrinking violet who allows herself to be pushed around by everyone.

But no one compares to Ritter, who commands every scene she's in and casts a pall over the final act when Joey comes 'round her apartment looking to take out his fear on a defenseless target. Ritter brings out the nuance Fuller couched in his broad, tabloid writing, first conveying the humor with her ironic self-justifications ("I was brought up to report any injustices to the authorities!") and gradually sinking lower and lower until you can see the world finally break her back. Her kind face belies the methods she's had to resort to in order to survive, and her ragged humanity only looks wholesome when compared to the absence of it in the other characters. In her final moment, a vast monologue that has her surrender to the forces she never even tried to fight in life, only to secure a noble death, she looks through the pathetic Joey, through the camera and through us. This isn't some lazy welfare queen rotting in the projects, this is a proud woman who could never win and finally stops trying even for second place. That Ritter received a nomination for Supporting Actress is no surprise; that she did not win, even over Donna Reed's fine work in From Here to Eternity, is a travesty.

Fuller is the king of small touches. Candy angrily throws down money in a Chinese restaurant to a guy who knows Moe's address as the man casually picks up the bills with his chopsticks and tucks them in his breast pocket. When cops come to Skip's hideout, he offers one a beer as he half-hurls the bottle in such a way that he clearly wants to strike the cop but leave himself an out to avoid an arrest. Skip cuts through Candy's paranoia over being affiliated with Communists through practicality: "So you're a Red, who cares? Your money's as good as anyone's." When Joey shoots Candy for not giving Skip up, the thief visits her in the hospital as the camera moves behind the bed, placing the two characters behind the bed frame's bars. These flourishes are but offshoots of a narrative so deceptively simple in conception and ultimately twisted in execution that I cannot hope to impart all Pickup on South Street has to offer, not for another several viewings yet.

Along with Nick Ray, Fuller was a master of digging through the artifice and false happiness of postwar cinema, tapping into the rich vein of cynicism that such a massive war created and no amount of economic prosperity could obliterate. Pickup on South Street, like the best noirs, is not merely stylized but reflective, tapping into the soul of an America that claimed it had entered a golden age yet had to immediately invent an enemy to fill the gap left by the Nazis just so people still had something to pin their fears upon. By casually stripping away Communism itself as something worthy of fear, Fuller backs up the general Red Scare assertion that we must fear enemies from without far less than those from within. The key difference is where the Red Scare engendered fear of neighbors, Fuller wants us to fear ourselves.


Ridley Scott's Alien ended in such a way that it begged for a sequel. Even those of us who roll our eyes at the prospect of unnecessary "enfranchisement" had to admit that Ripley's story didn't end with her slipping into cryogenic sleep and hoping someone intercepted her signal. Yet with Scott himself reluctant to get trapped on one series of films, the prospect of a sequel faded into the back of 20th Century Fox's corporate mind for years.

Enter a young upstart named James Cameron, an up-and-comer who'd been thrown off the set of the great Piranha II and then knocked on Hollywood's door with a sledgehammer with The Terminator. A fan of Scott's film, Cameron had an idea for a sequel, but changing hands at Fox put his initial work on hiatus, waiting to see how The Terminator fared at the box office before giving him the keys. Even when they finally relented, they gave Cameron a budget only $7 million higher than the one Scott received seven years earlier. And where Scott got by with only a few distinct sets and a single alien, Cameron's film called for all-out war with more locations, a bigger cast and more aliens.

Thus, when Aliens finally hit screens, the money-saving techniques were plainly evident. The narrower aspect ratio, the heavy grain in the film stock -- reversing the issue of the original Alien's soft stock by leaping to the other extreme -- the recycling of a handful of alien costumes. What is far more noticeable and relevant, however, is the manner in which Cameron dispenses almost entirely with the elements that made Alien great, only to re-assemble the broken parts into a masterpiece in its own right.

Where Scott's film was atmospheric, graceful, cerebral, Cameron's is quickly paced, blunt and in your face. The degree of difference can be seen all over the place, from substituting Jerry Goldsmith for the always on-the-nose James Horner to replacing Alien's tagline "In space, no one can hear you scream" to "This time, it's war." Aliens is loud and brash, with a cast of characters who, in true Cameron fashion, are utterly two-dimensional but just kooky enough to be endearing. Cameron even has the balls to return to the planet where the Nostromo stumbled across the eggs, risking all sorts of plot holes just to maintain a continuity and to avoid larger logical questions. Then, he manages to change everything anyway by dropping in a bit of dialogue that explains Ripley floated in stasis for nearly 60 years, and in the interim, Weyland-Yutani set up colonies on the planet.

This addition, especially as it is fleshed out in the vastly superior longer cut of the film, allows Cameron to develop two of the more tantalizing threads left in the ether in the first film: the vicious anti-corporate mentality of the franchise (and something that would concern Cameron intermittently across his career with the Terminator films as well as Avatar), and the character of Ripley. As we learn in the longer cut, Ripley had a daughter when she left, only to return and find that her child had grown into old age and died while she drifted in cryostasis for six decades. Now, she must sit in a company hospital, discredited by a board of trustees that not only denied her story but charged her with destroying a perfectly good tow-ship, left under nominal psychiatric care as she thinks of the life she no longer has.

Eventually, a company rep, Burke (Paul Reiser), sheepishly and discreetly comes to Ripley and mentions that all transmissions from the colony on LV-426 have ceased, coinciding with a shot given to the audience of colonists sent to inspect the alien ship they somehow never noticed while exploring the planet and returning with a facehugger attached. Ripley, still scarred by what happened to her seemingly only a few days ago, understandably does not wish to go back to the planet to survey what's happened, but Burke's invitation amounts to a tacit acknowledgment of her truthfulness, and Burke will send her with a contingent of marines, though she takes little comfort in this.

If Scott's predecessor cut against the grain of post-Star Wars cliché by presenting a cast of characters who were average and relatable to audiences despite the centuries between reality and fiction, Cameron's film messes with military tropes. It's not entirely clear who controls the marines, but the squad sent to investigate the colony ultimately answers to Burke. If the military is not privatized in this future, it does at least openly look out for business interests. Cameron has never been what you might call subtle, but he gets at a side of Vietnam with this film that even the slew of 'Nam movies didn't address so directly: that war was started by the military industrial complex and kept going long after it became evident we had no business there and, furthermore, could not win. Cameron takes it one step further and brazenly warns of using federal (or planetary) troops to protect business interests.

Furthermore, the initial arrogance of the marines, with their smart weapons and state-of-the-art equipment, falters in the face of a less advanced but more committed foe. Granted, the aliens have an advantage over the Vietcong in that their are biologically superior, but the most terrifying aspect of Aliens is the inability of the humans to even momentarily stop an advance no matter how many creatures they kill. The aliens never retreat, never show any sign of dwindling numbers, and they can pop out of anywhere. Sound familiar?

As for the actual cast, you gotta love 'em. Cameron makes these marines the most hilariously cocky-cum-terrified misfits you ever saw. The C.O., Lt. Gorman (William Hope), clearly just graduated from the academy and is out of his element with the rest of the squad, who've done their time and formed a bond. They make for a veritable who's who of clichés, from the tough-as-nails, black sergeant who whips them all into shape (played by Al Mathews, because Carl Weathers must have been busy); a fiery Latina who does not react to the taunts of her male comrades because she's tougher than all of them (Jenette Goldstein, making up for Veronica Cartwright's hysterics in the first film); and a sensible corporal who matches the sergeant's toughness with a softer side (Michael Biehn); and a private who talks the most shit during the preparation for the mission, only to instantly morph into a coward when he finally faces the enemy (Bill Paxton). Also accompanying them are Burke and Bishop (Lance Henriksen), an android who inspires distrust from Ripley based on Ash's actions and spends most of the film walking the line of suspicion.

Given how shallow these side characters are, it's a wonder what Cameron accomplished with Ripley. In the extended edition, the director delves into the character, making explicit her sense of maternal loss. This, of course, is explored more thoroughly through the character of Newt (Carrie Henn), a young girl and the only survivor of the alien outbreak in the colony. Her ingenuity saved her, but when the marine stumble upon her in their first sweep of the colony, she's been driven half-feral and silent from shock. As Ripley nurses her back to health, Newt clearly becomes a surrogate child for the daughter Ripley never got to see grow up. So touching and believable is their chemistry, in fact, that even the special edition, which adds mostly additional scenes on this dynamic, does not slow down the film's perfect pacing.

Let's talk about that pacing. Alien worked primarily because Ridley Scott had a keen sense for shot length and plot advancement. His film is slow enough to sink into the mind and give the audience space to inject their own fears into the mystery, yet quick enough not to lose the tension. Cameron faces the problem of maintaining the flow of an action movie. The lulls of a horror film can be as effective in scaring audiences as the actual moments in which something happens, but an action film languishes in its moments of empty character building. Despite the limited budget and the ambition of the project, Cameron never once lets the momentum sag, even in the longer cut. If so many supporting characters are two-dimensional, Cameron at least acknowledges it and doesn't bother saddling us with cheap, dispensable background for them. Apart from Ripley, all of these characters live in the present, and they react to the situation, not dwelling on some past issue. And who has time to even think about what's happening in the moment when dozens upon dozens of aliens bear down on the humans at all times?

The speed of the film also helps Ripley's transition into the ultimate badass for feminists. The first film showed Ripley growing until she proved she had the capacity to survive. In Aliens, she evolves until she proves the capacity to save others. When Gorman blanches in the face of the alien attacks, she steps in and capably directs the marines, who almost never question the force in her voice. She also displays the most self-restraint, choosing to spare the double-crossing Burke even when he locks Ripley and Newt in the medical bay and unleashes facehuggers in the attempt to implant them with embryos to be taken back to the company.

Occasionally, Cameron's lines take on a certain hard-boiled charm. Paxton's goofy performance allows him to toss out nugget after nugget, the best being his macho breakdown when he paces around screaming "Game over, man! Game over!" until Ripley and Cpl. Hicks have to slap some sense into him. When the depths of Burke's malfeasance appears, Ripley spits in disgust, "I don't know which species is worse. You don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage." Of course, nothing beats that most crowd-rousing of lines, "Get away from her, you bitch!"

The finale of Aliens puts the final spin on the subject matter that crafts the film into its own distinct entity. Scott's film, leaving H.R. Giger's imagination to fill the cracks of our mind, presented an androgynous vision, pitting Sigourney Weaver, who, at six feet tall with an athletic build, combined traditionally feminine and masculine physical traits, against an alien comprising nothing but phallic and vaginal symbolism. Here, Ripley, traveling into the bowels of the infestation to save Newt, comes across the alien queen, a giant xenomorph laying dozens of eggs to wait for the next round of surveyors to infect. It's a maternal showdown that puts the final touches on Cameron's feminist vision. By triumphing over not only the male establishment that silenced her (by the end, the marines answer to her and the only one who lives, Hicks, treats her as an equal) but a projection of the motherhood she feels she lost, Ripley casts out her demons and just so happens to look like a complete badass doing so.

Upon its release, Aliens enjoyed a similar reaction to its predecessor: Scott's film got mixed reviews at first until the movie took off, but critics and fans alike instantly embraced Aliens, and its effect on reintroducing artistically qualified genre film to America, while not as powerful as the first movie, was substantial: Weaver even snagged a much-deserved Oscar nomination despite the Academy's long-standing ambivalence toward science fiction. The final two films in the proper Alien franchise would suffer from the sudden interest of the studio that casually let Cameron tinker with a classic, suddenly hounding studio hands during every bit of production and robbing the franchise of what made it stand out with its first two films: directorial ambition and artistic daring. Also, the other two had the rotten luck of following perhaps the two most enduringly entertaining and rewarding popular sci-fi films of the 20th century, and they just couldn't live up to the standard. After all, though I must confess to prefer the atmosphere of the first, Aliens is one of those precious few sequels that can stake a serious claim to being better than the original. Apart from Die Hard, I cannot name a more immaculately crafted action extravaganza. And Die Hard didn't also inject a thoughtful meditation on the role of women and maternal instincts within an action framework. Score one for Cameron.

*Some quick words on the Blu-Ray: I'm planning a Blu-Ray-specific review of the new Alien Anthology release for another site (if you're interested, check the Apocalypse Now review I did last week), but I thought I'd at least address some of the concerns related specifically to this entry in the saga. In an interview before the box set's release, James Cameron mentioned that he'd scrubbed all the grain from the picture's infamously thick and hazy stock, leading some to fear that he'd gone haywire with Digital Noise Reduction gizmos and smoothed things until the image looked too plastic. Fear not: Aliens has never looked so good, retaining a great deal of grain in most shots while adding a degree of dimension and depth never seen in the film's image. It's certainly not the greatest restoration I've seen, but frankly I'm impressed that Cameron and the crew that restored the film managed to create such a clear image, and they ought to share their methods with a number of other commercial studios (and to be fair, even Criterion restorers couldn't have totally salvaged this stock). A hearty round of applause all around for the transfer, which doesn't look as spectacular as the deepening of Alien's more softer look, but in many ways this is the more admirable of the two restorations.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Alien sits in the middle between the opposing styles of my two favorite horror films, the two films I believe represent the pinnacle of the genre. On one end is John Carpenter's Halloween, an elegantly composed film so meticulous that it has no jump scares but instead creates a deliberate and well-sustained atmosphere of unsettling discontent. You're waiting for something to jump out at you, but for the most part it never does. That film is about the inevitability of an unstoppable force. At the other pole is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a film made by an equally gifted filmmaker who nevertheless has a sloppier style than Carpenter's immaculate perceptions. Yet that messiness works in Tobe Hooper's favor, allowing him to make a horror film that works, time and again, on a feeling of spontaneity. Even when you're watching it for the second, or fifth, time, it has the power to startle you because everything happens in the moment.

Alien certainly has the atmosphere and directorial sophistication of Halloween down pat. Its sets are complex while looking well-worn, with H.R. Giger's legendary monster instantly announcing itself as one of cinema's most ingeniously designed creatures. With a nuanced soundtrack and an equally delicate and haunting score, the grace and intelligence of the direction has lent itself to endless analysis over the sexual imagery of the film and the themes elicited from a creature with broadly phallic and vaginal physical characteristics, a debate that compounds when you consider the status of the franchise's heroine as perhaps the great feminist icon of popular cinema.

What so few critics do, sadly, is talk about how magnificently terrifying it is. Inevitably dated by the homages, the spoofs and the outright plagiarism, Alien nevertheless continues to hold a power over this viewer after a number of viewings, its pacing setting the mood in the first act, only to mingle with the more unpredictable action in the next acts that keep the film fresh. For as much as Giger's Xenomorph attracts attention for what it symbolizes, attention should also be paid to the simple fact that the creature's constant evolution, combined with Scott's wise decision to only show the barest glimpses of the monster, allow the monster to take on a greater psychic weight in the audience's mind instead of giving it away. Even with Spielberg's Jaws, the audience had a rough idea of the shape of the shark, if not the size. Here, it's all up to guess work, and that make it all the more scary.

Alien exists in a world where space travel has become banal. Where Star Wars kicked off a host of space opera imitators, Scott's film, working off Dan O'Bannon's script (itself a horror version of his comedic Dark Star, made by John Carpenter) presents the average Joe in space. Despite the humongous size of the Nostromo, the ship in which a crew far too small for its cavernous interior resides, the ship is a towing vessel, and its crew, with the exception of a science officer, would not seem out of place on any working class job on Earth. They bitch about paychecks, grumble over the food and worry about fixing the rundown ship. They are not presented as some facile family, but they do come off as relatable people, giving the film's upcoming fantasy a realistic foundation.

Awoken from their cryogenic sleep, the crew is surprised to find they've not returned to Earth's solar system but have been redirected after intercepting a distress signal in another part of the galaxy. Immediately, the crew voices their protest, asking if they're going to get more money and threatening to simply continue back home after a long haul. Only when Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the warrant officer, tells them that company policy dictates all ships must respond to any distress calls under threat of forfeiting payment altogether does the crew stifle their grumbles.

This first act suggests no impending doom, no sense of disquiet. Its halcyon inactivity allows Ridley Scott to probe the main areas of the Nostromo with a fluid intelligence, using each shot to establish key sections of the ship while framing them in ways that flirt with the careful compositions of 2001 while still adhering to the fast pace of commercial sci-fi like Star Wars. Scott is a notably inconsistent filmmaker, but when he's on, he has an uncanny ability to suffuse artistic mise-en-scène, even a certain amount of grace, into shots that never lose their more direct, mainstream appeal.

When the tow ship arrives in the orbit of an uninhabitable planet and a search party lands a shuttle on the barren rock in adverse conditions, the noose gently tightens around the throat, more so when the crew happens upon a massive, derelict alien ship. Jerry Goldsmith's already subtle score steps back further to let the ambient sounds of howling wind and the creaking of the decaying spaceship. Compared to the almost pedestrian spin on interstellar magnificence of the Nostromo, the alien ship is more lavish, more intricately designed and ornate, clearly the result of bioengineering compared to the obsolete industrial construction of the Nostromo. Scott's talents have never been more evident than they are when the search crew stumbles across a gigantic fossil of an alien corpse. The "space jockey" instantly changes the dynamic of the film: where the enormous derelict suggested something bizarre, this humongous corpse, frozen forever at what could be a giant cannon, one last futile gesture of defense, inspires awe and fear in equal measure. What is this thing? Are there more of him in the sector? And why does he have a gaping hole in his chest?

One of the crew finds a section in the depths of the ship filled with large, leathery eggs and, well, you know the rest. Where Alien previously existed as a realistic depiction of working class slobs in space, suddenly the film explodes into surreal, hypersexualized energy. Poor Kane (John Hurt) looks into an open ovum, gets attacked by a clawed, acidic vagina from hell, which stays on his face for a day before everything seems to return to normal. Then, a penis with a mouth bursts through his chest. So it goes.

As if the attacks weren't frightening enough, Giger's Freudian construction of the alien plays on subtle fears, most of the actually masculine, concerning rape. The "facehugger" invades Kane's mouth and, in a sense, impregnates him -- even the science officer, Ash (Ian Holm), refers to the beast as "Kane's son." Later, when Ash is revealed to be with the crew solely to ensure that the company they work for can get a hold of the alien specimen for their weapons division, he attempts to kill Ripley by choking her with a rolled-up newspaper. The surviving crew finds them and literally knock off Ash's head, revealing him to be an android. And the milky substance that runs through his wires is blatantly reminiscent of semen.

This is all well and good, but the manner in which Scott never places the focus on Giger's interpretive imagery, allowing the audience to consider it on their own terms while he gets down to the business of crafting a thriller. The use of Jonesy the cat as a miscue seems dated today mainly because the "It's Only a Cat" cliché, which had existed in bare forms before but exploded after this film. Yet Scott slyly uses the cat as a means to warn the characters, who never figure out that the cat hisses when the alien is nearby because anyone who might have put two and two together subsequently met a gruesome end. The cat's hiss, in a way, becomes the alien's "theme." Elsewhere, Scott sets up the ingenious chase through the air ducts, in which the ship captain (Tom Skerritt, proving that not even faster-than-light travel and cryostasis could propel humans far enough away from '70s hair) crawls through the vents attempting to lure the alien to the airlock. We process most of the action via the rest of the crew, who monitor movement in the ducts on a scanner that shows a second dot coming at the captain impossibly fast, disappearing and re-appearing again. Veronica Cartwright had the thankless role of being the sobbing, hysterical mess, but you empathize with her terror as she watches some unknown monster closing in on her friend.

In the climax, Scott mounts a sensory overload as Ripley sets the ship to self-destruct. Klaxons blare, lights flash and steam hisses through every leaking hole in the Nostromo. It's a bewilderingly executed segment, taking the well-defined structure of the ship's interior and throwing everything into chaos. When Ripley runs back to get the cat, there's no telling how far away she is from Jones, where the alien is, and how she can get back to the escape shuttle. Naturally, she makes it, and we get one last scare when the alien guesses ahead of Ripley and stows away on the escape pod.

In those final moments, Ripley becomes a hero for the ages, even if she managed to save no one else (well, except the damn cat). One of the enduring draws of Alien is that it's nearly impossible until the end to tell who will live. Ripley immediately projects a hardline approach in the movie, lecturing the engineers on company policy, refusing to let the search crew back because Kane's condition places them all in quarantine (our first taste of Ash's ulterior motives comes from him letting them in). But that severity is often costly in the movies, and usually the most focused one ends up dying. As Roger Ebert astutely noted in his "Great Movies" entry on the film, the cast is, for the most part, skewed to middle age. The youngest two, Cartwright and Weaver, were 29 and 30, respectively. The rest vary from mid-'30s all the way into the early '50s. These are people who just want to go home: would a fresh-faced Luke Skywalker ignore a distress call? Of course not. Hell, even Han Solo wouldn't, though he'd make a big show of ignoring it before his conscience nagged at him. Even with ship ranks, there's no real leader here, no clear social strata. They have enough of a bond with each other that each death affects them on a slightly personal level, but they're distinct enough that the driving impulse is simply fear that they'll be next. Also, their separation allows them to turn on each other that much more easily.

Not until James Cameron resurrected the franchise nearly a decade later and developed the tendrils of Ripley's personality would she become a screen icon, but what Alien lacks in its protagonist's distinction, it more than makes up for with an atmosphere and a sophistication that none of the sequels could even approach. Cameron worked magic with the material but nevertheless had to wrench it almost entirely from its horror roots into more direct action territory. Scott's film lives on as the most nuanced of the four films -- let us count those Alien vs. Predator movies as some separate, not at all equal, property -- gently laying the framework for the ideas other movies would handle more explicitly, such as the third and fourth films playing with the idea of the alien's host dictating its evolutionary outcome, the brilliant anti-corporate thread involving Weyland-Yutani's constant interference with lives simply to get a weapon they could never control, the ruthlessness but also the humanity of its heroine.

revolves around these topics with the same fluid tracking shots that it uses to move through the Nostromo, and as much as I admire Scott's decision to leave science fiction after this and Blade Runner after guessing he could go no farther in the genre -- and thus far, no one else has really exceeded what he did with those two films -- I do so wish he'd made more space films. Rarely have I felt a chill run down my spine so disturbingly as I have when watching the captain, just before going to his death, asking the ship supercomputer, MU-TH-UR, "What are my chances?" After a brief moment, the screen returns with its reply: "Does not compute." In the intervening decades, Scott has proven himself to be anything but a master, connecting only occasionally, and often only with alternate cuts that never even hit theaters. Yet Alien is undeniably a masterpiece, one of those films that meets neatly at the nexus of genre entertainment and artistic endeavor, and whether those who enjoy it today do so for its ambition and vision or for the simply glee of its lasting scares, they're not missing the point.

*Addendum: I wanted to work this into the review proper, but I have such love for the marketing campaign that went into this film that I feel it should be its own separate thread. Today, the film's trailer is almost universally recognized as the greatest preview of all time. In the late '70s, films still often came packaged in the old-school way that went obsessively into detail in trailers, not so much about plot -- that came later when audiences seemed to react so viscerally against being surprised that the industry catered to their wishes to basically know the movie before seeing it -- but in the endless parade of sales pitches. Watch the original Star Wars trailer and listen to a flat voice drone endlessly about "a big, sprawling space opera of rebellion and romance," speaking about a raucous adventure with all the conviction of a police officer reading aloud the traffic report in court. The Alien trailer has no voiceover, not even dialogue from the film. This is old-hat today (the Coen brothers even did a funny version to advertise A Serious Man), but the crafting of the preview solely through the diegetic sounds of the film's atmosphere -- the echoing klaxon, the hissing stem, the shrieking cat -- gradually mounting until it becomes a horror film in miniature, is savagely brilliant and deeply ahead of its time. Then, of course, there is the matter of the tagline, "In space, no one can hear you scream." I would give that tagline the Nobel Prize for Literature. I am the sort of person who hates marketing. I hate trailers that give too much away, or that contain the distillation of a great idea that excites me for a full product that doesn't deliver (oh, Watchmen trailer, how you lied to me), but every now and then someone puts some thought behind how they sell a movie, and the results can be as engaging as the final product. Alien is one of a handful to get it completely right.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


If the word "ponderous" did not exist, one would invent it to describe Hereafter. "Ponderous" is such a great word: one cannot say it would communicating its meaning merely through diction. It forces one's register lower, forcing the short "o" sound out in booming baritone like the blast of a great war horn echoing around a mountain. It's such a noble word, in fact, that while anyone should be able to write it down, only the most refined and eloquent of British-accented speakers should be allowed to say it aloud.

If it seems I have lost track of the review before it has even started, that is because merely thinking about the word "ponderous" has given me more joy and provoked more thought than anything in the total of Hereafter's two and a half hours. If there is anything positive to be found in the movie's plodding, half-baked, hollow treatises on the possibility of life after death, it is that Clint Eastwood's lifeless direction may finally swing people around to my side. Perhaps America's most coddled filmmaker has at last pushed his luck too far.

It takes balls to open a film that has nothing to do with any real life tragedy with the real life tragedy of the Indian Ocean tsunami, and the shamelessness of the opening segment sets a low bar the film never manages to clear. Focusing on Marie (Cécile de France), a French television journalist on holiday, the sequence plays out in clumsily animated CGI that leads to a choreographed setpiece that appears to want to excite more than terrify. As the water carries Marie and everything else in its unstoppable crush, we get cheap glimpses of cars crashing into people and power lines falling into the water and zapping nearby souls. Worse still, the POV shots of the camera moving through the water feel like a flume ride at Disneyland, and they're about as spiritually rewarding. Worse still, Marie drowns and spends a few moments legally dead, during which time she crosses over to the other side and sees the stereotypical bright light. The digital effects here are distracting, if more cleverly done than the cheap wash of water previously seen, and the tease of the afterlife does nothing to spark curiosity, much less wonder. Eastwood is clearly out of his element here, but no other film has more sorely tested the idea whether he has any directorial element at all.

Jim Emerson recently posted some serious thoughts on Eastwood's supposed legacy as a director that track closely enough to my own that I need not enumerate my issues with him here (or at least, not again). Where I disagree with Emerson is in his claim that, apart from the classicist gloss Eastwood paints over his films, there's nothing in them to make any one seem, on its face, a Clint Eastwood film. That's largely true, but there are a few recurring themes. Chief among them in his modern work is the idea of lost innocence, a realm Steven Spielberg has been plumbing his entire creative life. Eastwood, however, tends to enjoy more critical adulation for his supposed maturity on the subject where Spielberg is too much of a man-child. As it so happens, I recently returned to Sir Steve's Empire of the Sun, a film that depicts the decay of a boy's innocence through separation and atrocity, told almost exclusively though visual means that blur the line between subjective romanticism and objective horror in a way that would not be equaled until Guillermo Del Toro took it to the next step with Pan's Labyrinth. When Eastwood wants to communicate lost innocence, he lets it be known that a child was raped, or killed (or both). I posit the question: which of these approaches sounds less nuanced?

Hereafter, a movie about the possibility of a life after death, must naturally also concern death, and one of the several diverging and converging storylines -- yes, Peter Morgan saw Crash and Babel and apparently thought the network narrative had not sufficiently been snuffed -- involves two adorable, precocious twin brothers. Is one of them abused or killed? Check. Oh, and they also care for a mother who's an alcoholic (and a junkie, because when it rains it destroys beaches in Thailand, killing hundreds of thousands pours). The surviving lad, Marcus, cannot cope with losing his brother, and his numb reaction to being placed in foster care matches up with Marie's distraction back home in Paris.

Then, Eastwood introduces the main arc, that of George Lonegan (Matt Damon), a construction worker who, we learn, has the ability to communicate with the dead. No, really. You'd be forgiven for thinking he was a fraud, for the yes/no questions he asks his clients are of the same sort that charlatans use to lead gullible and vulnerable payers. In fact, when Morgan's script addresses the frauds, it must paint them in the most absurd light possible just to make George's style plausible, calling into question how anyone could be fooled.

George, of course, just wants to leave that side of his life behind him, saying on two occasions that his ability "isn't a gift. It's a curse." He takes night classes on cooking, where he meets nepotism personified, Bryce Dallas Howard, who shows up late to the first lesson because she was playing the Anne Hathaway role in M. Night Shyamalan's remake of The Devil Wears Prada -- the twist is that it's actually the Devil! Howard brings all her halting, overacted anti-charm to the part of Melanie, whose presence is cut mercifully short when she gets close to George and insists he read her when she learns of his powers. I don't want to give away what the reading reveals, but if you've been paying attention so far you can guess when I say "double check."

The problem with network narratives is that it's difficult to transition between storylines without editing arbitrarily, and rarely has this flaw been so evident. Before we spend enough time with anyone to care about their issues and their pain, Eastwood leaps countries and continents to deal with the most tenuously related bullshit. I've often been nonreactive to something meant to be sad in a film, but never have I been so utterly unmoved by the death of a child on-screen. All I could think about was the absurd editing of a van with a large grill braking before striking the poor British lad, who then somehow flipped up and over the grill to smash into the windshield. I couldn't be expected to believe in this film's vision of an afterlife because it doesn't have any care for physics in its life-life.

That laziness is rampant in this picture. Eastwood needs to stop scoring his films. There, the end. John Carpenter has a way with electronic minimalism. Robert Rodriguez has a raucous Latin-rock-jazz flare. Clint Eastwood perennially sounds like he's tuning the instruments for the actual musicians who never arrive. I always hold out hope for the films he scores that the three-note guitar and repeating piano chord will morph into something atmospheric in the vein of Ry Cooder's Paris, Texas score or Neil Young's haunting work on Dead Man, then I remember that those two are accomplished musicians with a deep knowledge of the craft and not some guy on a power trip trying to prove he can do it all. All exposition is handled through dialogue, including a medical diagnosis for George's ability to speak to the dead, and just when you've gotten over the offensiveness of using the tsunami to suck people in, Eastwood chucks in the London Tube bombings for added offensiveness. When Marcus looks for videos on YouTube that talk about death and the afterlife, he first watches a video by a Muslim who speaks of the Qur'an, then Marcus watches another video, this time by an evangelical. If you pay attention to the text of the video description, however, it does not change when Marcus picks another video, so it still talks about the Five Pillars of Islam leading to salvation as a man talks about Jesus. That little moment summed up the entire film for me: no effort whatsoever.

Worst of all is the depiction of the afterlife. It may sound childish and direct to say this, but there is a great charm in the blunt honesty of childish perception. So here it is: I despise this vision of the afterlife. Christopher Hitchens once hilariously described the Judeo-Christian conception of heaven as a "celestial North Korea," in which the supposedly blessed were charged with singing homilies to the "Great Leader" for all eternity. I am reminded of the old stories of Stalinist Russia, in which audiences clapped for hours because the first one who stopped would be sent to the Gulag.

Peter Morgan's vision of a pan-humanist afterlife is even more dull. Voices do not stay with George long because they want to get back to the wonderful existence of the afterlife, yet whenever we catch a glimpse of the world beyond, we see only silhouettes of people standing idly in pure white as if waiting for George to talk to them. They have no real wisdom to impart, because they're trapped in a film that doesn't have anything to say either. They stand in the Elysian Fields waiting for anything interesting to happen. I wonder, then, if they're a reflection of Hereafter's audience.

This is cardboard depth, typified by the emptiness of the character-building traits used to try to make these characters appealing. Marie's experience makes her the one person most worthy of our attention, yet Morgan defines her character in the simplest means, focusing on her reputation as a hard-hitting journalist until suddenly he doesn't, suggesting a breakdown from survivor's guilt until explaining away all the bad things that happened to her as the result of the actions of others. George's quirk is that he loves Charles Dickens, the relevance of which is never shown. I did, however, perk up when Eastwood included a scene of Derek Jacobi, as himself, reading excerpts from Little Dorrit. With Jacobi's classically trained voice and the enduring majesty of Dickens' prose, I had the same look of wonder on my face as Damon and wished I could have listened to that autographed book-on-tape George picked up instead of watching this tired hokum.

And if network narratives diverge on the shakiest of grounds, they fare even worse when everything comes together. A film about death and the afterlife can have no truly explosive dénouement -- I was deeply amused, as ever, by David Edelstein, who wondered aloud if the film might have tried for a big ending by making a metaphysical version of the climax of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, of the characters stepping into a mother ship of death -- but the uneventful finale only underscores the uselessness of what preceded it. Hereafter doesn't have a damn thing to say about death, or life, or life after death, and the maudlin pablum Morgan uses to justify why people might need to believe in an afterlife serves only to throw his fellow atheists under a bus (at which point they would presumably somehow bounce back up into the bus' windshield). Eastwood gets more solid work from Damon, who can make a splash in seemingly anything, and his work with the young, non-professional actors who play the boys stands in sharp contrast to the atrocious job he did with child actors on Gran Torino. But it's all for naught, a decorative flourish on something terrible, like spraying Febreeze on dog shit. Earlier this year, I let Inception off the hook for some of its issues because the ambition and the effervescent cheek of it carried me past the tin-hollow psychology on its questions of reality and surreality.

The problem with Hereafter is that, for its weighty idea, there's no ambition on any level of the project. Not in the tack script, not in Eastwood's workmanlike direction, not even in the performances. It's as if everyone realized halfway through that this picture had no point and went right into CYA mode. The result is a rumination on mortality that makes The Five People You Meet in Heaven look sophisticated and genuine. If nothing else, its lack of narrative cohesion, two-dimensional characters, shameless attempts to elicit an emotional response and clueless depiction of the afterlife proved one thing: Clint Eastwood totally could have directed the finale of LOST.


I never could figure out where I stood on Catherine Breillat. Her daring meditations on sex fascinated me, but she always seemed to take it just that much over the line. At 75 minutes, Breillat's take on Charles Perrault's deliciously wicked, grimmer-than-Grimm fairy tale Bluebeard cuts the waffle. Maximizing her minimalist structure, Breillat subtracts the gore from her work and delivers what is nevertheless her most provocative movie to date.

Split between the tale set in 1697 and two young girls reading the story in the 1950s, Bluebeard's bifurcated story gets to the heart of her controversial views on sex with surreptitious wit, not blunt force trauma. Somberly, the film opens in the past timeline at a Catholic school as two sisters (little 's') are called to speak to the Mother Superior, who informs them that their father threw himself in front of a horse and carriage to save a child. The nun praises the man's sacrifice, but Breillat gets her jabs in early when the nun then says the girls must leave school because they can no longer afford it and a religious school is not a "charity case." Even wittier, the nun forbids them from crying over the matter, only for the director to cut to the girls returning home, dressed normally and finally getting out their pain like real human beings. Upon returning home, the girls find their mother unable to afford their already modest lifestyle, and the family sells all but the bare walls of their cottage.

Hope at last comes in the form of a courier who announces that Lord Bluebeard is interested in marrying, and that both sisters are to come to his palace. The only catch? Bluebeard has been married six times, and he's killed all six of his previous wives. When the younger sister, Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton) asks how he can get away with murders if everyone knows about them, the older sister merely responds, "Justice is for the rich, not for the poor."

Through Breillat's lens, the story of Bluebeard becomes almost explicitly about the compunctions and hangups over losing one's virginity, particularly from the woman's perspective. By including the seemingly extraneous storyline in the '50s, Breillat shows two even younger girls discussing the sexual symbolism of the story, symbolism they don't fully understand but indirectly touch upon anyway. The stereotype of old sex education for women is girls never being told about sex until mother vaguely mentions something about closing eyes and thinking of flowers, but Breillat demonstrates how women even today are conditioned early on to embrace their socially acceptable role. By setting this second narrative in the '50s instead of the present -- for there is no other reason to explain it -- Breillat dispels any interpretations that would have her blaming lax social mores in modern life that sexualize our children before they even reach puberty. The director points out that this is nothing new and even touches upon how young women used to be when they were married compared to average wedding ages now. "In those days, girls got married at birth," says the young sister when the elder protests the age of the girls in the story.

Breillat's mostly static mise-en-scène unfolds in darkly comic tableaux. While the other young women of the land meet at the castle and dance and frolic, Marie-Catherine wonders off and finds Bluebeard resting under a tree. Dominique Thomas, the actor who plays the murderous lord, was perfectly chosen by Breillat: as she has insisted in interviews, he really is that big. He is not so much fat -- though he is overweight -- as massive, a tall, hulking force whose gentler side clashes with the horror of the fairy tale and initially suggests Breillat might be softening her act. Instead, she complicates the psychology of the narrative: her gently composed juxtaposition of young, slim Créton next to the lounging behemoth suggests Marie-Catherine has an interest in the lord beyond setting up her family for life. "Don't I frighten you?" asks the lord. "No, I'm more afraid of hidden evil." Before the festivities end, we know Bluebeard will choose her as his next bride.

What Marie-Catherine, left without a father, sees in the hairy mass of testosterone could provide Sigmund Freud with a number of boat payments. The only significant camera movement of the film occurs once Marie-Catherine has been picked by Bluebeard, drifting with blissful grace around her as she twirls in the royal robe that's been made for her. Her innocence attracts the gentle side of Bluebeard, but as she spins around her older sister, feelings of Freudian lust, material greed and even oneupsmanship radiate from Créton off the screen. Upon arriving at the castle, she displays an instant ingenuity, as well as a confident feminism, by refusing to sleep in her husband's room in a miniature bed at his feet like a dog -- also, the size discrepancy makes her bed look to much like a crib at the end of daddy's mattress. Wisely, she moves her bed to the broom closet, a seemingly modest transition revealed to be brilliant when Bluebeard finds that he is too large to fit through the room's door, thus unable to come snuff her in the night. Marie-Catherine also refuses to sleep with him for several years, aware that the man will not kill the Madonna until he has turned her into the whore. Alternately, her flurry of excitement gives way to the nervousness of losing virginity, and the camera's return to static shots show the cooling joy. And if you can't catch the double entendre of Marie-Catherine's teasing "My husband is too big for me," just give up now.

The sexual imagery of Bluebeard is overwhelming in its sly brilliance. The wedding ritual between Marie-Catherine and Bluebeard involves spilling gold coins over the girl's head, a blatant acknowledgment of the lord essentially making a prostitute of the young woman. When Bluebeard leaves on a trip and gives his bride the keys to the castle with the mere caveat that she not enter a single room, Marie-Catherine of course waits just long enough for her husband to leave before running down to the room. Inside are the hanging corpses of Bluebeard's previous wives, their legs splayed open as clotted blood soaks the floor. With the corpses' legs open, the blood on the floor takes on a blatant metaphorical property, both for menstrual blood and for burst hymens. When the girl drops the phallic key in the blood and cannot wash it off later, the symbolism only deepens. (Interestingly, Breillat substitutes Marie-Catherine for the even younger girl reading the story, having her stumble around the dark, unsure of what's really in the room, communicating the little girl's own inability to process the meaning of the moment as Marie-Catherine literally doesn't understand what she's gotten herself into.

The blood also, of course, recalls Macbeth, while the labyrinthine structure of the castle -- created by some sly direction on Breillat's part, making what in reality is an unimpressive tower into something that feels far more vast -- duplicates the psychological corridors and dead-ends of Hamlet. When Bluebeard returns and discovers his wife's disobedience, he knows he must kill her, and he actually communicates that specific reaction: instead of flying into a rage, he signs deeply as if the totality of masculine (d)evolution forces him to take vengeance upon her. But he does come after her, and Breillat hilariously repeats shots of Marie-Catherine fleeing up a tower and Bluebeard giving chase as if making a Scooby-Doo cartoon.

The twist ending puzzles me -- partly because it's one that's genuinely surprising, but if I might offer an explanation that may not satisfy even myself when I go back to the film (and I will, repeatedly and enthusiastically), I would say this: the conclusions of both stories are a sly subversion of what we expect at the movies. One subverts the helplessness of the fairy tale heroine by proving her capabilities even when physically outmatched. The other shows the role of fantasy in life, which can be negative as well as positive. When the film abruptly cuts from its stunning climax to a haunting final shot, which lasts so long I wondered if it was simply a still until I saw the fingers of one hand gently moving, we've seen narratives in both timelines turned on their heads in Breillat's usually abrupt fashion, but for once I felt enriched by the experience, not cheated.

There is such cheek to Breillat's retelling that Bluebeard, for all its provocative imagery and suggestive themes, it may just be the comedy of the year. Breillat's dialogue is, as usual, stiff, but here it serves the narrative, casting the past as a fairy tale being read by children. Back in the 20th century, the two younger girls give remarkably natural performances, occasionally jumping off on such bizarre, raucous tangents that you wonder if Breillat simply let them roll. Best of all is when the youngest girl believes that homosexuality describes two people in love and adamantly defends her definition when the older sister specifies the true meaning.

It is a silly thing to wonder about the ranking of films, nothing more than a bit of fun that some people take far, far too seriously. Yet I found myself asking whether I'd place this above Inception on my meager list of favorite films of the year so far. Surprisingly, they're not that different: Christopher Nolan's blockbuster is about addressing hangups via labyrinthine dream navigation. Bluebeard is about specifically sexual hangups addressed through the safety of a fairy tale, which grows more and more complicated with each telling. By blurring the power of fantasy on real life and the ability to shape stories into tales that reflect real-life concerns even when the teller doesn't realize what he or she has injected into the story, Breillat dives into the psychology of her characters with more grace than Nolan, even if her budget likely couldn't cover the catering on Inception. At long last, I can embrace Catherine Breillat fully, and what a happy day it is.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

David Bowie — Station to Station

Station to Station is the only album that has ever truly scared me. For all its electronic processing and sonic layering, it is a record in the vein of a singer/songwriter confessional. What makes it terrifying is the fact that the confessor is so strung out he has no idea what he's letting the audience in on. Every spin of Station to Station throws you into the mouth of madness, wrenched open in a silent shriek of pain and despair, and the soul Bowie put into the record has nothing at all to do with the kind of soul he thought he was putting into it.

Released on Jan. 23, 1976, exactly three months before the Ramones unleashed the bubbling punk movement and over a year before The Clash and the Sex Pistols would finally put the London scene on wax, Bowie bypassed punk altogether and laid damn near all the foundations for punk's late-'70s evolution into post-punk. Station to Station contains jagged guitars, fractured lyrics and a vacuum that sucks out all the air and leaves only a faint chill as your lungs collapse. (It's a sound Bowie would also implement on his friend Iggy Pop's albums to revive Pop's dead career; incidentally, Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis was later found dead from hanging with a copy of Pop's The Idiot still spinning on the record player.)

Bowie's forte before (and since) lied in his ability to craft complicated but appealing pop tunes within the time limits of commercial radio. So the prospect of an album of his opening with a 10-minute cut must have appealing not even to his most devoted fans. Yet the title track is one of the great works of late-'70s rock and one of the few lengthy pieces of the era not to suffer from bloat and showboating. Starting with the faint sound of a train, "Station to Station" kicks into gear before a haunting sustained guitar chord and two-note piano motif jump into the mix in a manner that actually makes the track seem quieter and more minimalistic than it was. The band slowly falls into place around a plodding riff that continues for several minutes, rising and falling in the void, lost and bedraggled.

At last, Bowie enters, spewing some of his most obtuse lyrics. Presenting his latest alter-ego, the Thin White Duke, via a re-introduction, Bowie inserts such oddball lines as "The European cannon is here" (yes, that kind of cannon). Yet the track chugs for so long that he starts to give himself away, he rousing cheer of "Drink! Drink! Raise your glass! Raise your glass high!" taking on a more ominous, desperate tone. And when he hits the lyric, "It's not the side-effects of the cocaine/I'm thinking that it must be love," the cracks form in the dike.

Some cite the next track, the disco tune "Golden Years," as the misfit among the rest of the album's darker textures, but it follows naturally from the title track, which fades into the nothingness it flirted with for 10 minutes. Consider this stanza:
Some of these days, and it won't be long
Gonna drive back down where you once belonged
In the back of a dream car twenty foot long
Don't cry my sweet, don't break my heart
Doing all right, but you gotta get smart
Wish upon, wish upon, day upon day, I believe oh lord
I believe, oh Lord, I believe all the way
Come get up my baby
Run for the shadows, run for the shadows, run for the shadows in these golden years
Just as the most raucous lyrics in the title track were the most revealing, so too does the party mentality of "Golden Years" belie the mounting horror of Bowie's existence. This song, more than any of the others, is the only one that even gives us the hint that the singer is aware he's falling apart. Instead of doing something about it, though, he tries to dismiss reality as the whispers of a bad trip, so he dances and snorts all the harder in an attempt to outpace creeping madness.

When Bowie slows down, as he does on "Word on a Wing," he achieves a genuine emotion absent from his earlier, more Brechtian efforts. As if the coming down from his coke high, Bowie bottoms out for the first time on the album. Bowie's most beautiful ballad since "Letter to Hermione," "Word on a Wing" contains several religious lyrics, even an entreaty to the Lord. Yet what make it so affecting is that Bowie sings with a defeated croon that suggests a scoundrel who already turned to his last refuge and found no quarter there either. Bowie later said that he'd never considered religion until this time in his life, but even in his moments of semi-belief, he cannot commit to total faith: "Just because I believe don't mean I don't think as well/Don't have to question everything in heaven or hell." The religious conviction may be in question, but the passion is not. Only halfway through the album, the star teeters on collapse

The second side of the album shows Bowie snorting another line and getting a jolt. Where the lengthy "Station to Station" led into the rave "Golden Years" on Side One, Side Two reverse the structure. With the adrenaline rush, Bowie jumps right into "TVC 15," a paranoid, pre-Videodrome rocker about a woman being devoured by a television. Layered with conflicting sounds, shouts and rhythms, "TVC 15" is an entire party mix tape in one song -- funky, rocking, danceable -- with gobbledygook for lyrics that the people in the club can ignore even as they reveal the depths of Bowie's (and Iggy Pop's, as the inspiration came from Pop's hallucination) fractured mind.

The second long track on the album, "Stay," follows, and it's as exhilarating as it is nightmarish. Four minutes shorter than the opening title track, "Stay" manages to contain even less of the actual star of the show than the instrumental workout of "Station to Station." Bowie sings plaintive lyrics to an unknown partner, but his delivery clashes with the spirit of the song. As he cries "stay," he drifts further and further away. The end of "Stay" morphs into an extended jam featuring fiery fretwork courtesy of lead guitarist Earl Slick. Ian Mathers, writing for the late and lamented Stylus magazine, dug into the darker implications of this structural breakdown, saying, "David has left the building, he’s gone to Berlin. He couldn’t take it anymore. The music grinds on inescapably, outlasting the man." This is partially true: by the end of "Stay," Bowie has at last collapsed, though he still has one more song to sing, but it would be too optimistic to say he'd left for Berlin. He still had a world tour ahead of him, one that would only accelerate his downward spiral. This isn't the sound of Bowie checking out to go detox; it's just the sound of him checking out.

No wonder, then, that the album ends with a cover, allowing Bowie to give himself a rest from writing anything else as he falls apart. Yet the power of "Wild is the Wind" eclipses the Johnny Mathis original and the Nina Simone. Dimitri Thomkin and Ned Washington's spare lyrics are stretched even further apart, backed up by a simple drum beat and an ephemeral guitar lick. Even then, Bowie cannot stay with the band, throwing too many words into one line and slowing down to a crawl in others. It's the kind of song you expect to hear not in the stadiums where Bowie played before and after but in a damp, poorly lit nightclub on a Wednesday night, a sustained note of fatalism for all the people who couldn't even make it to the weekend to drink away their sorrows. By now, the nerves are dead, and the cocaine no longer has the effect. Only when he snorts enough of the stuff that he turns ashy and pale himself can he even feel. The Thin White Duke is back, but not for long.

Somehow, Station to Station stayed on the charts in both the UK and the US, where it actually placed higher than in Bowie's homeland. "Golden Years" surely got people to the record store, but the album is so out there, so desperate, so musically adventurous that it surprises me it stayed on the charts for months -- I played the album today for my mom, who had, as every heterosexual woman who grew up in the '70s, a mad crush on David Bowie. She only recognized "Golden Years." Maybe those who snatched up the album, like its maker, were just too far gone to realize what was being communicated in it.

Lester Bangs didn't miss it, though. Far from a Bowie fan, Bangs had been impressed by the dated Young Americans, but he piled on the praise for this. "[Station to Station is] an honest attempt by a talented artist to take elements of rock, soul music, and his own idiosyncratic and occasionally pompous showtune/camp predilections, and rework this seemingly contradictory melange of styles into something new and powerful." So strung-out and sped-up is Bowie that the titles printed on the album cover are blurred, spitting out "STATIONTOSTATIONDAVID-BOWIE," and in that desperation Bangs, as he always did, found the darkness that mirrored his own. At last, for the hardest man in rock to please, Bowie had proven himself.

Following the album's release, Bowie embarked on his largest world tour yet, revealing yet another side to the artist's endless reinvention in the form of minimalism: in place of an opening act was a screening of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali's short, surreal masterpiece Un Chien Andalou, and the show itself featured an unadorned band on a vast, mostly empty stage as a white light pulsated throughout the show. It's a miracle the concerts never became a farewell tour ending with a roadie discovering the star face-down in a pool of his own nose-blood. Amazingly, the tour went amazingly, and the recent remaster of Station to Station -- which is noticeably quieter than previous mixes but gives greater weight and clarity to the spaces between the jagged instrumentation -- comes with a fantastically cleaned-up version of the legendary bootleg of Bowie's show at the Nassau Coliseum. It's a white-hot performance that shows the touring band not only capturing the conflicting sounds of the album but enhancing them and retro-fitting them to old hits. (I was amused by Bowie's cover of the Velvet Underground's "Waiting For the Man," not only because Bowie never came closer to becoming his idol Lou Reed but because the line "$26 in my hand" is so inadequate for Bowie's drug of choice and the amount he buys: 26 bucks wouldn't buy enough coke for Bowie to get ready for the proper amount of coke he'd bought with thousands of dollars.)

Looking back now, many casual fans would say that Bowie had already peaked, that he'd recorded most of his hits and wouldn't come back until the '80s, when he presided over the New Wave and synthpop groups like a fashionable godfather. I, however, think that, while Bowie had made some great albums by this point and had established himself as the dominant pop star of the decade, Station to Station was his first masterpiece, and the launchpad for four subsequent classics through 1980's Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). Bowie always seemed comfortable in anyone's skin except his own, but he'd never been able to fully incorporate his two favorite influences: Lou Reed, and -- in much broader terms -- black music like blues and funk. With the Krautrock-flavored Berlin trilogy ahead of him, Station to Station announced a shift from removed Brechtian overtones into outright mechanization, yet he somehow finally made the raw power of the Velvets and the gripping, emotional heft of funk and R&B work in his new sound. There is no reason why the album should work, not from the lyrical standpoint of spiraling out of control and being too-revealing, not from the musical standpoint of throwing together electronic minimalism, disco, funk and acid rock. And yet, it does, and the fascinating, psychologically repellent results keep me coming back for more than with any Bowie album. For a time I considered Low, his subsequent album and a better mix of the darker thoughts here with the lighter side that sobriety and Brian Eno would bring, but not even that album holds me like this one. This, as much as John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, is the sound of fame eating a man's soul. John Lennon fought back through primal therapy and won. Here, David Bowie isn't so lucky.

Mad Detective

Johnnie To's Mad Detective is one of the most deliberately complicated police procedurals I've seen in some time. As an introduction to the wild Hong Kong auteur's canon, it can be a bewildering experience, but a rewarding one, allowing this writer to get at the heart of what makes To stand out from other genre filmmakers working today.

The first thing you notice is the camerawork. To has found a committed fan in David Bordwell, perhaps the most knowledgeable man in the world on the subject of mise-en-scène and the meaning of a shot, and one can see why instantly: setting up what might be a usual pairing of mismatched cops, the camera instead instantly subverts expectations. It moves with a fluid grace as it tracks over the sight of an older detective with a knife readied for a fight, only to reveal a swinging pig carcass that he stabs repeatedly to mimic a killer's attack. The camera cuts to reveal the previous moment to be a POV shot as a young cop, Detective Ho Ka-On enters the room to find the other cops staring at the spectacle.

Before five minutes have elapsed, To has taken the formula and muddied it, opening with those cliché establishing shots of a precinct and the rookie entering before splitting attention between objective and subjective shots. The only thing the audience can trust so far is the printing on the Kowloon District door: everything else already carries the possibility of fabrication. We subsequently learn that the older detective, Bun, stabs the pig and mimics another crime -- having Ho place him in a suitcase and throw him down some stairs -- because he is psychic and recreating the scenarios allows him to see what happened. This just opens the can of worms.

The entire department admires Bun, to the point that no one ever bothers to question how he can see people's inner selves. But they also fear his mental imbalance, and when he offers his retiring captain his own right ear as a "present," the rest of the precinct makes the not altogether unwise decision to send Bun to pasture as well. Only years later, when a cop, Wong, goes missing and his gun shows up in the use of deadly robberies does Ho go looking for the mad detective to get to the bottom of the crimes

What is also remarkable about Mad Detective is the emotional range it conveys. To juggles broad comedy, suspense, tragedy and cerebral psychological thriller deftly, and if the film is inconsistent in tone, as I have heard some say, that can only be because, for all the supernatural elements of the film, it is one of the few cop films to express any kind of believable emotion. And if emotion is believable and human, it is always complicated and conflicting.

Paired up once more with his writing partner, Wai Ka-Fei, To delights in poking fun at cop clichés without making an outright comedy. Where most buddy cop films pair a reckless rookie with a wizened old detective, To's film gives us two totally unique characters. The older cop is the crazy one, and the young one isn't particularly ambitious or adept. Late in the film, Bun sees Ho's inner personality, a frightened, insecure child whose angry front cannot remotely disguise his fear.

To's constant leap through perspectives brings out the complexity in Bun and the way he sees the world. He lives with his imaginary wife after his real spouse left him, and it's heartbreaking when the camera cuts from seeing her interacting with Bun to a more objective angle that shows a desperate man trying to keep up appearances. Perhaps the most memorable scene in the film has nothing to do with the corkscrewing narrative but an aside that shows Bun inviting Ho and his girlfriend to dinner, complete with Bun's "wife." Ho's girlfriend cannot take the absurdity and hides in the bathroom, but a sympathetic Ho makes a noble go of it, and the moment is surprisingly sweet. It's the one coherent bit of Mad Detective, and it's more affecting than the forced moments one expects of such thrillers.

Elsewhere, though, this is a pure exercise in style, and To's style is boundless. Wong's partner, Chi-Wai, is the culprit behind Wong's disappearance, and Bun sees seven distinct beings when he looks at Chi-Wai's inner personality, a person for each deadly sin and for major body parts. In the climactic shootout, the camera tracks through a hall of mirrors, alternating fluidly between objective shots of Chi-Wai moving through the room and subjective views of seven characters crowded around the one of them with the gun. Best of all is an overhead crane shot capturing shot and shattered mirrors on the ground reflecting the characters.

Mad Detective revolves around the MacGufffin of gun ownership. Chi-Wai got his gun stolen by an Indian thief, so he killed his partner and took his gun. When Bun heads out into the woods to recreate Wong's death, he confronts a spiritual vision of Chi-Wai, embodying the lost gun, taking the existential threads of a cop's badge and gun to an extreme, literal level. In the aftermath of the final showdown, the camera pulls back into full objectivity as the story moves into its most subjective and surreal moment, with guns changing hands so investigators will have an entirely different story than what we saw. I'm reminded of the climax of the Harry Potter series, which hinged on ideas of wand ownership, but To's film is sly and deconstructive where Rowling's ending was obtuse and clumsy.

"B-movie" continues to be used as a derogatory term, even a half-century after the director/critics at Cahiers du Cinéma proved that B-movies contained more ingenuity than the lavish prestige pictures, and Johnnie To may well be the filmmaker most qualified to continue demonstrating this today. Mad Detective is an off-the-wall cascade of pleasurable but conflicting elements that work only because they are unified by To's elegant style. Praise should also go to Sean Lau as Detective Bun: since his first acting nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 1995, Lau has received nine more in the last 15 years. He flawlessly embraces the absurdities and the severity of the script, crafting one of the most unique characters in modern film in a performance that would be worth repeat viewings even if everything around him was mediocre. Lucky for us, it's all great. I'm routinely inspired by Asian cinema's capacity for aesthetic beauty and emotional and thematic power, but sometimes I forget how entertaining the industry can be as well. Johnnie To reminds me.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Metal: A Headbanger's Journey

Like so many boys, I got into heavy metal as a teenager. I didn't do so because it gave me self-pity or a sense of righteousness -- as a teenager, I already had those traits. I really just enjoyed the songs, often had fun with the goofy lyrics and admired the talent of even the dopiest group of speed freaks.

It is that spirit that informs Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, the first documentary by Sam Dunn, who has since become the best cartographer of the genre on film. Dunn, a lanky Canadian with a friendly wit and an innate likability, could well have a film made about himself as the typical metal fan: not a Satan-worshiping, acne-covered misfit but a bit of a goof who found himself attracted to the fastest and heaviest music in the world.

Dunn confides in the audience at the start of the film that he majored in anthropology in college and even earned a graduate's degree and wrote a thesis. But here is his ultimate study, an overview of a small but intensely dedicated network of people around the world who speak different languages and have different perspectives but find common ground on one thing: metal.

So loyal are these fans, in fact, that heated debate exists over which bands can sport the label "metal." Dunn has great fun interviewing certified metal stars and throwing out names like Rage Against the Machine and Blue Cheer and seeing what happens. Slyly, Dunn assembles music historians who trace metal to down-tuned blues chords, tri-tones and even classical composers, leading to an ingenious fade from a recording of a Bach's harpsichord on "Prelude and Fugue in A Minor" into an Eddie Van Halen's "Eruption." There's no trace of irony in this comparison, nor should there be. Many of the more fantastical metal bands (generally lumped into a subgenre called "power metal") contains lyrics no more ridiculous than can be found in the mythologies in Wagner's Ring Cycle, and some players hone their craft as much as any virtuoso. (I would argue, however, that so many of these shredders lack the feel, which so many do not hear in classical music but is as evident as it is in blues).

The danger of a fan making a movie is that the temptation is often too great to simply sit back and enjoy the perks, to make a movie solely to get access to all the festivals and interviews a die-hard couldn't otherwise get. The flip side is that fans know more than a curious outsider, and Dunn exactly where to place the focus to wade through the tangled realm of metal and its endless off-shoots.

He provides a good cross-section of legends (Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi, Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson, Alice Cooper, Ronnie James Dio), survivors of the '80s pop metal boom (hair metallers Vince Neill and Dee Snider) and the extremists of modern metal (Cannibal Corpse, Mayhem, assorted Scandinavian acts). Each interview develops some thread of metal's appeal, such as its confused sexuality, supposed moral evil and roots.

Dunn gets the best out of his subjects, who are so off-the-wall that the film works as a sort of all-star version of Spinal Tap. Dee Snider of Twisted Sister hilariously and shamelessly promotes his minor role in the fight against the Parents Music Resource Center in the '80s, explaining his thought process at the time thusly: "Carry the flag? Hell yeah! Braveheart, baby...Braveheart wasn't even out then, but that was the mentality."

He also chimes in on the advent of hair metal and the tendency of L.A.-based bands to cross-dress and wear makeup, correctly pointing out the sexual implications of men dressing that way to play before an audience consisting mostly of men. A metal DJ relates stories from the day, including the chestnut "There were guys on the strip who wanted to fuck the chicks in Poison."

Best of all, though, is Dunn's cheeky touch when it comes to those who take themselves too seriously. He meets with members of the band Mayhem, possibly the most infamous band in the various subgenres, with a vocalist who killed himself via a shotgun to the head (leading the surviving band members to make necklaces from skull fragments) and a bassist, Varg Vikernes, who not only burned churches but killed the group's guitarist partly in competition to see who was more metal (he won). All Dunn finds are two drunken slobs who sound more like rowdy fans, screaming the F-bomb to vaguely defined enemies as they continue to coast on the infamy of the previous members of the band.

When Dunn finally travels to Norway to interview the Satanic bands, the film becomes farce. Jørn Tunsberg, a guitarist for Hades Almighty, speaks approvingly of burning churches, but he looks so much like Chris Elliot I laugh hysterically every time I watch the movie. Then, he heads to a dark, closed tavern to speak to a man who goes by the name Gaahl (I can't believe he had the Gaahl to call himself that!). He ominously swirls blood-red wine in a glass and intones the name Satan as if summoning ol' Scratch. "What does Satan represent to you?" a cautious Dunn asks. *long pause, more swirling* "Freedom." Oh, I forgot: the guy is in a band called Gorgoroth which, for those of you playing at home, is taken from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, meaning these supposedly enlightened and brutal men get their inspiration from children's literature. Excessively well-written children's literature, yes, but children's literature nonetheless. I personally cannot wait to see the black metal band Azkaban kicking around Scandinavia one day.

Alice Cooper raucously points out the inanity behind all their corpse paint and attention-baiting arson, noting how many of these hard, "evil" guys trip over their tongues when they meet the man they rip off for a living. "'Golly, Alice Cooper, it's so good to meet you,' " Cooper sarcastically recreates. "'Would you mind giving me an autograph and my mom's over there.' 'Aren't you guys supposed to be Satan?' 'Well, we are, but...'" Cooper is a gold mine of quotes when it comes to any artist out to shock people, as he's been there, done that, sobered up and turned to golfing to get his jollies.

Yet Dunn has a way of gently exposing this gut-busting nonsense while still embracing the lunacy, just as any metal fan should. He cuts through some of the more aggressive reasoning for listening to metal and finds the core of the audience: those who consider themselves outsiders and find a kinship in a global network. Some of them might still brag about not conforming, but many openly embrace the idea of seeking out others like them to feel normal. "No one wants to be the weird kid," Rob Zombie says. "You just one day find you're the weird kid." This thread connects metal fans across the generations: the great and unkillable Lemmy from Motörhead mentions hanging out as a lad around the village phone box because it was the only public place with lighting, and the members of Slipknot jump forward to the present to discuss desperate ennui in middle America, where teens, as crazy and insulting as it sounds, really do need a way to vent the anger that comes with growing up in a place like Iowa that offers them so little.

The metal community becomes something of a support group for its members, fans working hard to promote both established artists and up-and-comers with homemade merchandise and self-printed CDs, while the bands show a genuine and deep appreciation for the people who can still pack open-air festivals to see them play. Ronnie James Dio, an immensely talented man who only got better with age until he tragically passed away only a few months ago, looks as if anyone could walk up and shake his hand and hear one of his fantastic jokes, and hopefully one of his many digs at KISS mastermind and professional prostitute Gene Simmons. I already miss Dio for his talent, but his charming interviews here re-opened those wounds and reminded me how kind so many legends of the genre can be compared to the rock gods elsewhere who wouldn't be caught dead with a fan unless he got something in return.

"It's so huge but some people don't even know it exists," Zombie says of the metal movement, which Dunn and his crew capture in all its contradictory glory. Neither worshipful nor condescending, Metal: A Headbanger's Journey achieves just the right balance of metal's various emotions, and the director's restrained but obvious enthusiasm makes for an hour and a half that passes in no time. It's no wonder two of Dunn's favorite groups -- Iron Maiden and Rush, both profiled here -- snatched him up to follow them on tour. It does not go into all the nooks and crannies of the genre and its sociological interpretations -- no one film could -- but Metal: A Headbanger's Journey is an excellent starting point for the mildly curious and a knowing bit of fun for the fans. Even if you hate metal, you'll at least laugh your ass off while watching