a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

i got the job because i was so mean, while somehow appearing so kind*

Thanks to one of my rommates, which is in turn thanks to his boss for calling fellow employees when they're teeming with the cold, I spent the last couple days in a delirious, weak, and moaning state. Luckily, not only is my hobby also my job, but my job (half of it, anyway) can be performed while in such a state. Here's how I passed the time:

a) Caught just in time for its 16-years later follow-up series to debut (tonight, in fact; Sundance, 9pm EST), Tanner '88 (1988, natch) is about six hours of Robert Altman. That's right: 360+ solid minutes of even-handed misanthropy, easily-distracted pans, cacaphonous sound designs, and a dense microcosm brought infectiously to life. When you're someone who loves to drench himself in such a director's work, more is always better, right? Almost. Though sporadically smug and self-congratulatory, the HBO miniseries (written, save for the usual improv work, by Garry Trudeau) earns much by being shot during the democratic candidate campaign of its titular year, breaking down the countless processes on the fly. Strangely, it's not at its best during its most hectic (i.e., the penultimate convention episode) but when Altman's simply dropping us into the milieu, coasting on the typically relaxed banter of Michael Murphy, an Amy Carter-ish Cynthia Nixon and a take-no-prisoners Pamela Reed, as well as Matt Malloy, Kevin O'Connor, Daniel Jenkins, Ilana Levine and Jim Fyfe. Most Altmanish moment (maybe): Murphy and Nixon walk out of frame during a father-daughter stroll and Altman holds on one of the security guards, waiting for him to (perhaps!) break out of his mold. How come no one else knows Harry Anderson can be so absolutely fucking frantic?

b) The creepy-eyed kiddies chiller Village of the Damned (1960; B+) is, in case no one told you, fairly damned creepy. Cribbing from Val Lewton, it relies on suggestion and subtlety rather than cheap scare tactics (no "boo!"s as I recall), and feels plenty jam-paced at a lean 77-minutes. Even the extensive opening, the genesis sequence, could stand alone as a mind-bending short film, while the ending is clever enough to avoid being anti-climactic. Can't say the same for Children of the Damned (1963; C+), except that it manages to mostly waste a fairly unusual excuse for a sequel: now the children are mutli-ethnic and have found a way to congregate in London. The photography's better and Alan Ladel manages to squeeze in some fun (he's almost better than George Sanders), but the climax is anticlimactic this time around and the whole thing smacks of disappointing slenderness. At least they stopped while they were behind.

c) Still a film away from figuring out what he was great at (i.e., a delectable mix of high camp and profound sincerity), James Whale offers only the former in The Old Dark House (1932; B), which literally plays like Grand Hotel as populated by assorted lunatics. Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Ernest Thesiger, and Lilian Bond all congregate in a decrepit maison, and the results are as nutty, and messy, as you'd imagine. Apart from some high-contrast lighting and an opening torrent of rain, Whale can't really be bothered to do much than observe the actors; it would take till the next year's The Invisible Man for him to care about assembling sequences with shape. Even without a shape, it's hard to look away.

d) The worst and the par-for-course of Michelangelo Antonioni are up for grabs in La Notte (1961; C+), his follow-up to L'Avventura, which seems to be the effect of him reading his own reviews. Skipping the hooky plot and diving straight into the alienated brooding, the maestro focuses on the crumbling marraige of Marcello Mastronianni and Jeanne Moreau, who, in typical Antonioni fashion, wander around Rome in seemingly real-time sequences, with pit-stops that only make them feel more lonely/apart. It's ironic that, given that he's the kind of filmmaker for whom dialogue is redundant (the images, of course, speak for themselves), the best scenes feature a dying friend and Monica Vitti; the wandering-about scenes pale in comparison to L'avventura (and, really, most of his other films), with the finale being the true nadir. Best read, if at all, as his reaction to La Dolce Vita: Mastroianni in the same get-up, a writer instead of a gossip journalist, hanging out with the same intellectual-devouring people (an old aristocrat brags that Hemingway claimed he'd shoot him if he ever saw him again), only now he just wants to get away from them. It's the same character, isn't it?

e) More Antonioni! I think I need to see Red Desert (1964; B) on the big-screen before I offer my official prognosis. Accompanied by harsh wind noises and sci-fi bleeps and wheezes, Car accident victim Monica Vitti wanders (again) an alien-looking industrial wasteland, the director having fully exhausted the alienating confines of big cities. Otherwise, it's largely the same as the rest: she's searching for love, possesses a negligent husband, meets a playboy (Richard Harris, filling in for Alain Delon) who will either brush her off or she him, lots of platitude-ish yammering, et al. What makes it unique is the aforementioned setting, as well as this being Antonioni's first dabble in color: apart from chosing colors for mood, his trick, it appears, is to place a blot of screaming primary color amidst a frame teeming with grey drabness. (Best is when he abandons everything altogether, taking us into a utopian fantasy about a girl living by herself on a beach.) As for Vitti's plight, maybe being consumed by the film (which screens in Philly next Wednesday night) will make me get care.

f) According to those who know, the Vice Presidential Debate doesn't really matter; it's rare that it has any impact whatsoever in the race. Lemme guess: this year's a touch different. Catch the slick John Edwards battle mumbling, paranoid cronie (or not?) Dick Cheney at 9pm EST. Then again, you already knew that. What you might not have realized (skip if you care not about point a)) is that this directly conflicts with the first episode of Tanner on Tanner. VCR it. Or just catch it (if you're on an easterner) on Sundance West at midnight. (Pointless question: does the West Coast get East channels? Probably not, but I never wondered to ask till now.)

* The more astute of you should recognize that as one of the countless throwaway lines in "Back In Judy's Jungle," the second track on Brian Eno's Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), which has recently undergone the fancy DSD remastering. Go buy it right now.


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