More (Not So) Short Shorts
The Aristocrats (Paul Provenza) [B]
All together now: the punchline ain’t funny; the middle section’s a sort of rite-of-passage; the whole thing’s not unlike jazz; vulgarity = funny. Not much there that isn’t repeated ad nauseum, and the film’s more funny as a giant block than it is in bits and pieces; it’s more about the power of hearing “fucking and sucking” over a thousand times in a short span than the little details. (A shocking development considering it’s all about the teller, not the song.) But there is a warming sense of community here -- an insider’s world where Carrot Top can be sadly self-deprecating, and living jokes Gilbert Gottfried and Bob Saget get talked about in ecstatic tones. Even the endless repetition is part of the film’s themes: the anxious cutting may break up most of the comics’ flow (George Carlin, one of the few who gets through it without the slicing and dicing, fares best.), but it shows how certain jokes become part of the collective baggage, passed down, sometimes, with a startling lack of degradation. As for the politics, or lack thereof: well, being apolitical is political, too. It’s pretty good, and I chuckled lots, but all things considered, I think Penn Jillettte should’ve pushed aside Provenza and taken over the reins.
Last Days (Gus Van Sant) [B+]
Van Sant’s new wave continues apace, and I keep wanting to write the whole thing off as a simple template: combine bald appropriations of Bela Tarr, self-conscious avant garde tropes, and vaguely distasteful jokiness, particular in the way it introduces glib insights only to reveal themselves as attacks on those who believe in them. (Most notably: the sequence in Elephant where it goes down a checklist of blame game causes.) Also, omigod, didn’t this dude make Finding Forrester?! Thing is, he keeps chosing good topics, or at least ones he can get the most out of. In a way, it’s wrong to call his last three films minimalist. While he definitely strips things down, the devil is in the details: his tangents, his ommissions, the flights of fancy. Last Days could’ve easily turned into a simple hang-out session with a dead man walking, and frankly, that would’ve been fine. In fact, when it is just that, it’s very affecting, particularly because of Michael Pitt’s unaffected performance. But while Van Sant doesn’t try to overstate the similarities between Pitt and Cobain, there’s some infrequent attempts to chip away at the mystique. In one oft-cited scene, Van Sant parks us in front of a TV, where we unblinkingly catch the second half of the video for Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee." You could read this as just long take/real time business, but as the mind wanders, it becomes more than just a spate of Nothing. On the most basic level, it offers us a look at the musical detritus he was competing with during his stint. And, of course, the overly-passionate paens to reawakened love and on-a-dime forgiveness presents the opposite of what Nirvana stood for. (Surely Van sant means to imply it’s the song that made him pass out prior to this.) But even then, wasn’t this worst-case-scenario bleakness, while refreshing amonst a landscape of phony triumphalism, to some degree about as phony? And can we really subscribe to the notion that Cobain’s death somehow validated his band’s worldview? As with Elephant, you could call Van Sant’s diss of reading into these events as anti-intellectualism -- his movies nowadays are In Praise of Ambivalence. But in both Columbine and Cobain’s death, he’s chosen very private occurances that have been swarmed with lazy readings and taken the events back to the messy, maddening ambiguity that they deserve.
Major Dundee (1965, Sam Peckinpah) [B]
Was thinking this would turn into a ragtag, sloppy masterpiece for its first two hours. Then it ended, without, incidentally, an ending. Less a dry run for the likes of Pat Garrett and Alfredo Garcia than (for the most part) one of those films itself, Dundee tries to usher in the age of pomo-westerns by force, offering up the dirtyness, moral gray areas increasingly weary tone and suffocating nihilism he would soon trade in regularly. Except for slo-mo bloodshed, everything’s in place, held back only by studio interference. Even Heston fits right in. Peckinpah does everything he can to turn the square-jawed one's standard image inside out; even his usual impassioned monologue sings the praises of hard boozing and partying -- all things anti-Heston, basically. “That is the secret of my success: I drink,” he says, then adds, “But not enough.” Heston’s cynical, lazy Dundee isn’t a hero, likeable or in any way admirable -- his realization is that he’s a mediocrity, a tough guy shown up by actual tough guy Richard Harris. As noted elsewhere, the movie keeps heading for the apocalypse, then settles for a quick cap-off, though even that has its merits, the arduous journey leading only to a big fat anticlimax -- Heston, in effect, obsessing over next to nothing. Not quite the lost masterpiece that was hoped for, but, then again, the masterpiece is not even lost -- it was never completed.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973, Sam Peckinpah) [A]
That shot of Kris Kristoferson sipping whiskey and staring out as the wind blows dust around hours before his assassination is fawesome.