December 3, 2016

Bear Food

Nobody connected with True Heart (1997) appears to be even casually inclined to make a decent movie: not the people behind the camera, not the people in front of the camera, not even the bears.

Apart from all its other failures, this waste of celluloid has two of the most manifestly unappealing actors in the whole country: Kirsten Dunst and Michael Gross.

Jawdroppers. Zachery Ty Bryan and Kirsten Dunst

Dunst plays one of two siblings lost in the Alaskan wilderness. She and the other kid let their lower jaw drop in moments of dramatic suspense. Now that I think about it, they both use that trick to express a broad array of emotions, from happiness to frustration to befuddlement to surprise at falling backward over a cliff.

As actors, they give their jaws a pretty good workout.

May 30, 2016

The Razor's Edge

Shenanigans. Elliot Gould, Tom Skerritt, Donald Sutherland
Those of you who think that movies are entirely a visual medium, and that the script is nothing more than a springboard—a prop in a stage play—just try imagining Robert Altman's MASH (1970) without the script (credited to Ring Lardner Jr., who won an Oscar for it). The constant hubbub of overlapping dialogue, the profanity, the screaming, the cockeyed optimism—this corrosive, kinky screenplay does more than delineate character and set situation in the traditional commercial-movie way (advancing the narrative by having the characters "talk" the plot). The screenplay—about Army medics trying to save lives and stave off despair a few miles from the fighting front during the Korean War—binds the visual madness together into a cohesive, realistic world. Lardner and Altman make the movie a critique of highfalutin and hypocrisy—it's blackly funny but not cynical.

Other American movies of the time reflect the Vietnam War, dirty politics, and the country's disgust with itself—Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1967), Irvin Kershner's The Flim-Flam Man (1967) with George C. Scott as an M.B.S., C.S., D.D. confidence man ("Master of Back-Stabbing, Cork-Screwing, and Dirty-Dealing"), Blake Edwards's draggy and tasteless What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966), Ted Post's Hang 'Em High (1968), Don Siegel's Coogan's Bluff (1968). Many of these movies simmer with corruption, cynicism, and often what feels like gratuitous bloodshed (although the carnage in The Wild Bunch is a far more sophisticated, ambivalent violence that makes the audience question cherished beliefs about "civilized" manhood). Altman could have gone entirely cynical, too, but what makes MASH so satisfying is that he expresses a realistic idealism—the moviemakers keep their sanity, the way the medics keep theirs, not by a Frank Burns sort of preaching, but by demonstrating integrity and compassion, and disdaining hypocrisy and phoniness. MASH is a picture of redemption.

The bloody work of an army surgical unit is shown in a new way—not for didactic distancing (the way wounded men in war movies in the Forties and Fifties were used as homilies, swollen with sacrificial virtue), and not for the repellent gross-outs and shock effects of movies that use violence pornographically. In MASH, the blood-spattered surgical gowns, scalpels, and clamps are filmed for balance (and mostly in medium shot); the talented medics are humanized by working feverishly in rotten conditions to staunch bloodflow or save limbs (sometimes unsuccessfully). Even the satiric butts, like the prissily bossy "Hot Lips" O'Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) and the sanctimonious hypocrite Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), are picked up and dusted off after being scraped across the gravel (although Altman perhaps mishandles Burns's departure by stripping him of any vestige of pride he had—the scene goes for a cheap laugh at the character's expense). The surgery scenes give weight and purpose to the sexual shenanigans and practical jokes. The MASH campground resembles Freedonia, the mythical kingdom of wartime mayhem in the Marx Brothers' great Duck Soup (1933), only it's a Freedonia without the loopy Dada.

Altman's direction is excellent; he and his cameraman abruptly pan and zoom in and out to punctuate visual and verbal jokes, and the hip actors in the cast (who seem to know they're making movie comedy history) take advantage of Altman's generosity by improvising some bits. If the screenplay is a springboard for anything, it's improvisation, and it has the same tone as inspired improvisation. The story goes that Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland quarreled with Altman on the set. But their performances are marvels of corrosive wit, and reflect a cathartic release of tension.

The Last Supper.

The miracle of MASH is that it so successfully combines the taboo breaching of gallows humor—laughing at suffering to stay sane—with the naturalistic coarseness of low comedy: the movie balances bone saws and foul mouths, and spills off the screen in torrents. Although Korea is the ostensible setting, you know that the movie is really showing the madness of Vietnam, and telling America that it's possible to do good work and sustain your sanity and humanity amid the senselessness of bloodshed and strangling bureaucracy. The effect is restorative, a work of humanism. MASH is a Rabelaisian black comedy, and one of the most sensible American movie satires ever.

May 18, 2016

Out of Italy

The celebrated partnership of Vittorio De Sica, an actor who became one of Italy's—and the West's—most revered directors, and Cesare Zavattini, a screenwriter and film theorist, was inaugurated in the movies with the luminous The Children Are Watching Us in 1944, although the two knew each other for more than a decade prior. Together, their collaborations of Italian neorealism were more mystical and sometimes allegorical than the harsher social portraits of corruption and decay in the work of other Italian neorealists like Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini. The De Sica-Zavattini films are smaller-scale studies in frailty and innocence; they paint not society but individuals in unselfconscious strokes, like prose poetry. When we've forgotten the scenes of wartorn Rome and its political infighting in Rossellini, we remember the disillusioned faces in De Sica.

Scenes from childhood. Luciano De Ambrosis
Zavattini's realism is an homage to the nineteenth century Russian novelists, particularly Turgenev and Tolstoy. (Jean Renoir paid tribute to the Russian and French realists in much the same way.) De Sica, a great director, uses actors' faces and classic narrative conventions like linearity and situational irony to tell stories of the bereft—losers, dreamers, and children enduring the cold hopelessness of loveless lives. He hits his mark, too. The emotional impact of these movies wells up like a rising tide, evenly and surely. In the final scene, the camera fixes on the back of the abandoned child as he trudges away, and the indictment of all squabbling, selfish, vain adults is complete.

The De Sica-Zavattini collaboration produced about twenty films, including the hallowed masterpieces Shoeshine (1946), Bicycle Thieves (1948), Miracle in Milan (1951), and Umberto D. (1952). The Children Are Watching Us isn't quite one of the masterpieces, but its incandescence and almost Petrarchan sweetness can't be shaken off easily. It points the way to the fables of Truffaut, the Taviani brothers, and Shunji Iwai.

April 16, 2016


What made Rex Harrison want to be in Dr. Doolittle? Was he strapped for cash? Did he screen Barabbas or Fantastic Voyage or The Vikings and have an overwhelming urge to be on a set with Richard Fleischer? Was he hankering to speak dialogue written by the insipid Leslie Bricusse, or sing-speak Bricusse's mind-numbing songs about the virtues of vegetarianism, with their canned Broadway blandness? Did Harrison think that his style of drawing-room wit would be complemented by the obnoxious Anthony Newley, whose acting career was distinguished by broad yuk-yuks and refrigerated ham?

Did Harrison think that audiences in the late Sixties—hip college audiences who were getting turned on to European directors and experimental styles—wanted gut-busting dances and stale, phoned-in stupidity from a bygone age of movie musical crap, an anachronistic studio production that's too long for kids to sit through and too asinine for normal adults to stand?

Maybe Harrison had a more practical motive. Did 20th Century-Fox agree to put his grandkids through college?

Seal abuse. Rex Harrison
This monstrosity of a movie musical achieves a dubious distinction, even in an age of awful musicals coming from many of the major studios at the time: it's utterly and completely charmless. Not a single scene, not a single song, not a single sentence, not a single conception has any of the light, carefree style and breezy satire of good musicals like Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and It's Always Fair Weather. That's hardly surprising. But even most of the other blubbery movie musicals at the time of Dr. Doolittle that all helped to sink the big Hollywood studios financially—Camelot, The Happiest Millionaire, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Hello, Dolly!, Paint Your Wagon, Sweet Charity—have moments with some appeal: a passable number here, a clever performance there. Dr. Doolittle stands apart in such a dull crowd; it's devoid of anything good from start to finish. It may be the worst stinking musical of its time.

Every response you're likely to have, scene by scene, song by song, seems inadvertent. Watching the posh, sexless Harrison in his silk opera hat sing a love song to a seal doesn't exactly generate tender emotions in you; you're more likely to react with revulsion. For hapless viewers, this beached whale of a movie is human-animal abuse.