Sunday, September 28, 2008

Paul Newman, 1925-2008

In a year that's seen some pretty major losses of Hollywood talent, here's another one. Paul Newman was the kind of guy that Hollywood was all about - tough yet sensitive, glamorous yet down-to-earth, one of the most successful stars of his generation yet still possessed of a remarkable integrity and taste for projects that rarely pandered to the lowest denominator. In other words, he was a one-of-a-kind, one of the all-time greats.

I regret to say that I haven't seen a lot of his classics (Hud, Harper, you're getting bumped higher on the to-see list). And while I love his performances ranging from the cocky, youthful brilliance of The Hustler to the wise charm of The Sting to the crotchety comedy of The Hudsucker Proxy, one performance that I want to single out for recognition is what Newman did in The Towering Inferno. It's a big, junky movie, one meant for a mass-market popcorn-chewing audience with very little pretense of quality (even if it did manage a Best Picture nomination). And I would say that it's almost more of a challenge to give a really good performance in a movie like this, with a just-adequate script and nobody really looking for 'quality'. But Newman gives a solid, professional performance, the kind that actually makes you believe in the absurd premise of being trapped in a skyscraper with no sprinkler system. Of course, I'm sure this movie paid a lot better than Nobody's Fool, but still: it's a sign of his consistency and his movie-star charm to shine even in junk. He'll be missed.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Canterbury Tales (1972) & The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)

Two more Pasolini movies before I try and make a stab at the feces-encrusted elephant in the room, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

Anybody who ever snuck a look at what Cinemax used to show late at night (do they still?) will be familiar with the style of Pasolini's The Canterbury Tales, which, alongside his The Decameron and Arabian Nights were pioneers of the softcore European skin-flick, tales of ribaldry with assorted glimpses of nudity justified by 'literary' content. Take some clueless husbands, mix one part randy wife with one part clever suitor and toss in a dash of Euro-humping. Of course, becoming a business rival to the Emmanuelle series was hardly what a gay Marxist like Pasolini had in mind when he was making these three films - after successfully annoying and frustrating audiences with difficult films like Teorema, his new goal was to make popular, sex-positive films reflecting the progressive mood of the times. And in addition, Pasolini works in some serious undercurrents to his sex romps. His version of Chaucer's Friar's Tale includes a lengthy addition in which a rich man and a poor man are both spied on in the act of sodomy and then threatened with legal exposure - the rich man bribes his way free, the poor man gets put on trial and burned alive before a crowd who munch on concession snacks. The end of the film, Chaucer's Summoner's Tale, concludes with a not-in-Chaucer episode set in Hell in which Pasolini stages a Bosch-esque panoply of demons and tortures, including the devil himself bending over and literally pooping out friars.

In spite of wonderful moments such as these, the film itself is a mixed bag, as most episodic movies are, and suffers from a rambling lack of structure. I definitely did not need to see Ninetto Davoli (one of Pasolini's favorites) doing a bizarrely anachronistic Charlie Chaplin impersonation in one episode. Also, Tom Baker is in this, and I never needed to see the naked body of '70s Dr. Who, ever.

I liked Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew more, as a pared-down, neo-realist story of the life of Jesus, and as an obvious inspiration for multiple Scorsese movies, plus of course a certain Mel Gibson film from a few years ago. But where Gibson emphasized the bloody death of Christ, Pasolini emphasizes his teachings, his sermons and revolutionary attitudes that made him the enemy of the Jewish and Roman power structures of the time, in true 20th-century Marxist manner. This isn't to say that Pasolini's version of Jesus is an unbearable hippie ideologue, but rather that he's a fierce opponent of the status quo, including the wealthy and the powerful. Jesus's trial, scourging, and crucifixion are depicted from afar, as if captured by a contemporary documentary camera.

In spite of its strengths, Pasolini's movie suffers from the same problem that I have with just about all Christ movies: Jesus never really is allowed to be an actual character in his own story, but rather just goes through the cinematic stations of the cross: Virgin Birth, check; meet John the Baptist, check; Sermon on the Mount, check; trial and crucifixion, check; resurrection, and we're out. Even though Pasolini was an atheist, he still doesn't really change the fundamental bearings of the supernatural/mythical narrative. I appreciate the gritty, down-to-earth, '60s rebelliousness that Pasolini brings to a genre which had been afflicted by Hollywood glossiness and shallow pieities for more than a decade. I wanted to like this more - I was hoping it would be the ultimate Jesus movie - but Pasolini still doesn't reinvent the Bible-movie wheel, as much as he just alters its tone and inflections, and Jesus wouldn't be an actual narrative character until Scorsese finally made his movie version (which has its own flaws) more than twenty years later.

The Canterbury Tales: 6/10
The Gospel According to St. Matthew: 7/10

Monday, September 08, 2008

Mamma Roma (1962) & Teorema (1968)

I've been watching some Pasolini movies for the last couple of weeks to gear up for watching the new Criterion DVD of Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

First, Mamma Roma, which is a sort of updated Neorealist parable about a middle-aged prostitute's attempt to break way from her sordid lifestyle, for the sake of her teenage son - do I need to say that it doesn't have a happy ending? What's most interesting to me about this film is the performance by the brassy, sassy Anna Magnani as Mamma Roma, the kind of virtuoso almost-over-the-top performance that only an experienced, trained actor can give. This is ironic since in most of his films, Pasolini preferred to use non-professional actors, or at least non-stars, and in his own words, Magnani took her performance beyond what he had in mind for it. And yet, probably because of the friction between Pasolini's detached direction and Magnani's empathic, expressive performance, this is the most emotionally affective Pasolini movie that I've seen.

Second, Teorema, which consists of a sort of detached analysis of a bourgeois Italian family who fall under the sway of a mysterious stranger (Terence Stamp) who has sex with everybody and seems to enthrall them before leaving abruptly, letting them flail about in his life-changing wake. This one falls into the category of 'more interesting than good'. It's a highly intellectualized, distanced film, the kind where you're not really supposed to identify with the 'characters' (who are all sociopolitical types anyway) and rather to ponder what it all means, perhaps in a bistro over tiny cups of coffee.

I didn't dislike it, and it has sporadic scenes that are as good as anything else I've seen by Pasolini - the sequences in which the family housekeeper retreats to a village and seems to become a saintly figure, capable of healing boils and levitating are especially good - but that's in large part because of the performance by Laura Betti, who we actively are drawn to and empathize with, not necessarily because of the atheistic/Marxist ideas Pasolini is playing with.

But anyway, that's one good sequence of scenes within a movie that is otherwise something of a slog.

Next up: The Canterbury Tales and Salo itself, wish me luck!

Mamma Roma: 8/10
Teorema: 5/10


First, sorry to whatever faithful 'readers' there are out there for the lack of posting for the last couple of months, a month of unemployment coupled with a two-week trip to Denver screwed with my schedule and sucked my will to blog. So I'll be trying to keep up a more even pace for the next couple of months - or a least, until my next bout of unemployment, currently scheduled for late October.

Next, Sarah Palin. It's obvious that she's blatantly unqualified to be a heartbeat from the Presidency - she doesn't know anything about foreign or military policy, she doesn't know that Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae aren't (or rather, weren't) taxpayer-funded agencies, and she wants to relaunch a Gingrich-style culture war, which is how the Republicans won the 2004 election. But more importantly than any of those things is the fact that we still barely know anything about her or what she would do in office, because John McCain picked her at the last minute, apparently having become convinced that picking Joe Lieberman would split the GOP in half. The big conclusion to draw about Palin is that her choice tells us that John McCain thinks the American people are stupid and that he's happy to make important decisions quickly and without full information. I used to think that a President McCain would at least be more competent and pragmatic than Bush, but now I'm not so sure.

So that, on top of the expected post-Republican Convention bounce that McCain-Palin have gotten, has made me very depressed about the possibility that they could actually win this thing. Never mind that the current administration has so heavily damaged this country through faulty, secretive decision-making, now it looks like a solid half of the country is ready to let them do it again.

I mean, what the fuck?

In other news, at least one hurricane didn't ravage New Orleans, although the season is still early...