Sunday, March 28, 2004

"If they move ... kill 'em!"

Following my recent obsession with things Walter Hill, I approached the local mom & pop video stores for Wild Bill - in vain, alas. So, against my better judgment, I watched Kevin Costner's recent oater, Open Range (Rotten Tomatoe's "ripe" prognosis can be read here).

I'll admit it wasn't all that bad. Kevin Costner plays Kevin Costner, and Robert Duvall does a fine turn at playing Robert Duvall, but the real surprise was Annette Benning. Not her performance, which paid the bills, but the lighting she was subjected to. The director of photography seemed desperate to bring out the age in her face, casting a hard, white light against every potential jowl and sag. She endured the indignity with stoic repose, while the fellas, meanwhile, basked in the usual back-lit amber-haze trickery. The only clue to their advancing years was their indisguisable hairlines.

If I sound bitter, I'm afraid my tone isn't going to improve. But just to establish the solitary positive note, I'll admit I was never tempted to turn it off or fall asleep, and I have the scenic vistas of Montana to thank for that. And yes, the climactic showdown was well-executed, giving the viewer a sense of how chaotic and ridiculous something like that might be, and also how pathetic, what with shot folks wallowing in the mud and all, and the hero tracking them down, considering whether he should shoot again or leave be. When it was all over, I shut off the DVD, feeling mostly satisfied with an evening's entertainment.

Unfortunately, TVO was just cueing up The Wild Bunch. Just seeing again the first five minutes of Peckinpah's masterpiece made me realize what emotionally fraudulant nonsense I'd just exposed myself to.

Every once in a while a person is witness to a work of art that makes them say, "This is it. Why would anyone bother trying anything like this ever again?" The Wild Bunch poses that brutal question for the Western, and I have yet to see a western made since that satisfactorily answers it (although Lawrence Kasdan's Silverado came close, by declaring, "We've forgotten how much fun this used to be." Unfortunately, what we hadn't forgotten was any of the by-the-numbers closing shootouts we'd seen 100 times before).

So why do Hollywood stars continually try their hand at the western? I'm inclined to think it's a personal ego booster. It doesn't matter if you're a gormless rider, you can't help but look good in the saddle. The dusty clothing, the thunderous boots, the facial hair all conspire to make a dude look downright useful, when we know for a fact that it's been a lifetime since either Costner or Duvall so much as mowed their own lawns.

No, give me The Wild Bunch over the mild bunch, please. Peckinpah's ego is there, no doubt about it, but it's as self-lacerating as it is self-congratulatory. The entire production is a highwire act over flames that eventually consume the whole thing. Just contrast William Holden's performance here, to Clint Eastwood's in Unforgiven. Clint still towers at the end of his movie thanks to the sort of moral sleight-of-hand we've come to expect from Hollywood. He acknowledges that the moral ambiguity you followed for the last 70 minutes was probably a mite tough to swallow, so he gives you 10 minutes of sugar: Clint, shootin' the bad guys up real good. Meanwhile Holden's flaws - his alcoholic rage and self-pity - are painfully harnessed and finally exhausted in a conclusive nihilistic howl. Holden never recovered; Eastwood strode on to make a dozen forgettable movies.

I know it's asking too much of our actors to kill themselves for a movie, but the least they could do is stop in their tracks for a moment before they make the next western.

And if they move ... kill 'em!

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Rock 'n the Vote

It always grieves me to hear a politician resort to radio anthems in an attempt to infuse a little energy into a limp campaign, but recent news of Stephen Harper's fondness for "Thunderstruck" by AC/DC truly saps me of my zeal for the steel. It's bad enough watching Mick Jagger reach the same age as my late grandmother, then dress like my grandmother, and chicken-strut to the cheers of thousands - now we're being asked to envision the recently elected leader of the Canadian Conservatives, a rather pedestrian (even by Canadian standards) bourgeois number-cruncher striding about in his green room, flailing his fist to the howls of Brian and Angus, all in aid of getting the pump for the stump. Ah, Rock & Roll - the harlot of Babylon!

(I hope it's not too late, but please don't click on that last link unless you're willing to be truly freaked out.)

I remember William Greider chortling during an interview with the newly-elected Bill Clinton that the "a-ha" moment for him (Greider) had been when Bill & Hillary had joined hands while Fleetwood Mac exhorted one and all, "Don't ... stop ... thinkin' about tomorrow." It was a divisive moment for me, because to that point I had rather enjoyed the deceptively light-weight stylings of Fleetwood Mac. I thought that, when contrasted to the bland offerings of airwave competitors like The Eagles, FM gave a serious, blues-like attempt at dealing with issues of love gone sour, abandonment, psychic-&-emotional addiction. But rock 'n roll doth make fools of us all - today's "Karma Cameleon" is tomorrow's "Crying Game".

Ambiguous anthems are the signpost of successful rock & roll, of course. U2 has made a career out of them, but they're hardly the first. Who can make sense out of "Stairway To Heaven" or, for that matter, "Helter Skelter" - either one of which is said to have inspired a homicide or two. Bono declaring "we're stealing (Helter Skelter) back" is all par for the course. George W. Bush or Stephen Harper or Whisky Prajer could do the same - the music is a malleable means to the end.

Personally, I'm for the sort of music/lyric that leans toward the culpable. "Thunderstruck" can spit forth, "I looked 'round, and I knew, there was no help, no help from you!" and inspire anyone from the self-styled political outlaw to the penny-drained divorcee. Eyeh, fine - the music amounts to a mood.

But if a politician were to get his pump from something like, say, Leonard Cohen's Here It Is, he'd be dealing with lyrical ambiguities like:

Here is your crown
Your seal and your rings;
Here is your love
For all things.

Here is your cart.
And your cardboard and piss;
Here is your love
For all of this.

What, exactly, is the appeal here? The appeal, I think, is in the acknowledgment that we're all one step removed from the truly pitiable. Ronald Reagan cannot be seen in public, thanks to Alzheimers. Pierre Trudeau, as he succumbed to cancer, took his deepest comfort from daily visits with his priest.

It's pathetic. But the degree to which we can connect with this, is the degree to which we can be truly effective human beings.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Hell & the Modern Citizen

Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver sits on my bedroom floor, serving for the moment as my bedside table. I was among the zealots who scampered out to get the book on the day of its release, very much despite the misgivings of Publishers Weekly, etc. The professional readers all kvetched over Stephenson's inability to edit his copious research of Enlightenment life. To me, this seemed attractive: I usually find myself mulling over Stephenson's legendary info-dumps long after I've finished his books and forgotten the names of his characters (although you're unlikely to find a more memorable name than "Hiro Protagonist," of Snow Crash).

Alas, a half-year later, the bookmark rests at page 300. I'll get back to it - I see Volume Two of The Baroque Cycle is due to come out in a few weeks - but I stopped after resorting to an hour of speed-reading. I don't mind speed-reading, but I'd much rather luxuriate, and Quicksilver wasn't giving me the motivation to slow down. The frequent ideological exchanges were tossed around as if it were all an intriguing parlour game, often with an undisclosed political significance to be revealed some point further down the road. My interest evaporated, and I gave no further thought to it until I read Simon Kinahan's comments (and thank-you, M. Blowhard). Kinahan notes that the characters treat religion, specifically, as an interesting personal choice - a very modern perspective - and not as a matter that exceeds all other values. A curious misstep from an author who proposed, in Snow Crash, that religions were an intellectual virus that functioned like a computer language, providing a unique ability to communicate invaluable concepts, at the cost of certain inexplicable "short cuts."

My problem: "political intrigue" is an oxymoron for me. Poor Daniel Waterhouse can be caught up in machinations beyond his (and my) ken, but my speeding eye only came to a skidding halt, then back-tracked, and proceeded again at a leisurely stroll when he witnessed the brutal murder of a Puritan. Sigh. It seems when it comes to maintaining my unevolved interest, intellectual parlour games are no match for mayhem and sheer physical danger.

So I gave up on the Enlightenment, where Reason disseminated itself with a dispassionate casualness among the tribal chaos, and focussed instead on Hell. Life is so much more interesting when Everything is at stake.

Hell is the gift that unbearably visceral movies like Jacob's Ladder and The Exorcist give us. Actually, I'll include the recent Errol Morris/Robert McNamara flick too, while I'm at it. They convincingly give us the impression of a reliable, reasonable world balanced precariously on the brink of absolute catastrophe. The three movies resolve differently, and I'd say of the three of them McNamara's resolutions are the most discomfiting, while Jacob's Ladder has the greatest intrinsic appeal. All three begin with a faith in reason, which is shaken to the core, and finally pulverized by unnaccountable forces (R McN might beg to differ, but I think this is the impression Morris would leave us).

It's interesting to me that for The Exorcist and Jacob's Ladder, salvation is embodied in children. In the director's cut of The Exorcist (dramatically inferior to the original, btw), the two priests take a little time-out from their exorcising to discuss their enemy's strategy. The real targets here, says Fr. Merrin, are the adults; the enemy wants to bring them to despair. When the conflict finally unspools, balance is restored: Regan is returned to a state of innocence, Fr. Karras is returned to his calling, and everyone is brought back to a pre-Vatican II faith (Mel Gibson might take note, the next time he chooses his movie material. In fact, this raises a provocative question: just what is it about Vatican II that so riles our movie makers?).

Jacob's Ladder isn't a story so much as it is an environment vigorously transforming itself into something personally antagonistic toward the hero. There are a few slender threads of hope for the titular philospher-mailman, including the chiropractic angel Louis, who exhorts Jacob to read his Meister Eckhart. Caught in a nearly uninterrupted onslaught of torment, Jacob doesn't have the luxury of time to read, but he somehow manages to intuit the road to salvation, and takes the proferred hand of his deceased son to begin his ascension, and leave his hellish environs.

So where does all this horror leave us? Beyond the obvious state of shock, I'm not at all sure. Roger Ebert says of The Exorcist that, "(Director William) Friedkin has the answers; the problem is that we doubt he believes them." Indeed, which becomes more frightening: the questions these movies raise, or the answers they offer?

Friday, March 05, 2004

Gangland Violence – "CAAAAAAN You Dig It?!"

There is a charming little park in San Jose, situated between the Shark Tank and the Guadalupe River, called (appropriately) Arena Green. It has the loveliest carousel I’ve seen (something I wouldn’t comment on if it weren’t truly remarkable), and a well-equipped playground that my kids are fond of. A year ago our family was there, enjoying the park on a Friday afternoon. A group of suburban-looking teens wearing the usual outlet labels and brandishing digital photographic equipment came in from the south. They horsed around, whooping it up for the camera. The old gent who ran the carousel grimaced, and apologized to me on their behalf. I shrugged and smiled. They weren’t especially reckless or violent; even their language was kept in check. They were just loud and stupid, trying to squeeze some fun out of stuff they’d outgrown, but could still remember enjoying.

Then I noticed a half-dozen "yoots" coming in from the north. They dressed in matching baseball uniforms, and they walked with a bit of swagger. When they reached the park, a guy and a girl took a bench and started making out, while the others made a very deliberate act of scoping out the entire park. One guy – the biggest – walked over to the kid with the film equipment. The kid shut up, and stood very still. The guy pointed at the camera, said something. They talked a bit, then the kid said, “Well yeah – sure.” The big guy signaled for the others. They sauntered over, and stood in formation across from the Shark Tank. The kid fiddled with his camera, shuffled around for the best perspective, then took their picture. He walked over to them and showed them the result. For the first time, the group from the north broke into smiles, and I relaxed. These kids had might have eschewed the messy pancake makeup, but the jet-black eyeliner had been applied to both sexes, and there was no mistaking it: I was looking at a bunch of Baseball Furies.

Walter Hill’s The Warriors has acquired a reputation as a pleasant bit of B-grade film-making from the 70s, best enjoyed as a piece of camp. A number of user reviews hoot over the different gangs and their attire, particularly the bat-wielding Baseball Furies. All I can say is, you don’t much feel like tittering when they show up at your playground.

Mimes are even scarier.
I was a paperboy when The Warriors opened. I read all the reports of gangland violence that occurred in big city theatres. I didn’t attend the movie at the time – my excursions to the cinema were limited, and I had to admit, that looked like one freaky movie. I may have been a small-town Menno, but I knew about gang violence. I had read The Cross & The Switchblade, and Run Baby, Run. I could describe how “chickens” got their “wings clipped” – a “shiv” up both the armpits – and lots worse. If The Warriors had any of that, I didn’t want to see it.

It doesn’t, of course. The violence is stylized and bloodless, even when people get shot or stabbed. Perhaps this was a concession Hill made to keep controversy at bay, but it's not out of keeping with the cinematic norms of the 70s. In any case, the bloodlessness does nothing to deflate the suspense of watching a half-dozen gang members forced to walk from the Bronx back to their turf on Coney Island. The action might be the stuff of comic books, but the tension has grit that is more in keeping with Taxi Driver than with, say, Logan’s Run.

I like the film. I like the look of it – the paranoia of the 70s parades by in all its grimy, post-psychedelic splendor. New York City is perpetually under siege. Regular folks lock the barricades, while gangs and cops prowl the streets, looking for any opportunity to make a hit. The dialogue is plain and primal, appealing directly to the base fears of the gang members. Only when the Warriors fragment finally reaches Coney Island does a larger perspective begin to seep in. The leader, Swan, looks over his shabby domain, and snorts, “This is what we fought all night to get back to?”

My encounter with the Baseball Furies concluded charmingly. Hey - two groups of kids from different sides of the tracks met and interacted without violence. This is not always the case, of course. Tonight Toronto is steeling itself against the possibility of another bloody weekend. And Swan's question is having difficulty being heard above the primal glory of gangland violence.

Defying Gravity

It’s a real treat to pick up my daughters after school and walk home with them, especially as spring works its way into their blood. They and their schoolmates are at the age (5-7) where the only way to get from point A to point B is to run, preferably over the wildest terrain possible. There was a stretch of years in my early adulthood when I had recurring dreams of defying gravity, a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Watching my daughters fly pal mal over the surreal terrain of melting snow-banks, I see where those dreams come from. They are completely heedless of gravity, sprinting over the crests, and careening wildly down the other side, picking themselves up and yelling, “I’m okay!” (Their pants, alas, don’t fare as well.) Delirious. Wonderful.