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

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

How I Spent My Memorial Day Weekend

I did a lot of non-cinema activities over the three day weekend. (Actually, four day, since I didn’t work on Friday, either.) I got food and drinks with people on a couple occasions. I finally played Wii. I visited friends I haven’t seen in ages. I went to an MD party where, on three separate occasions, groups of us left the hordes to go play basketball and some made-up wiffle ball thingamajig. I lost a game of Pig to an 11 year old.

But as far as this blog cares, I plowed through ten movies. Apart from catching William Friedkin’s partly awesome Bug and going to a long-awaited Alejandro Jodorowosky double feature (which I'll go into later), the holiday siege was all about catching up with DVDs I either bought recently or needed to ship back to NetFlix.

Let’s do this shit.

In his NYT DVD column a couple weeks back, Dave Kehr went mad for Canyon Passage (1947, B+), a western from the French-born Jacques Tourneur, who’s best known for Out of the Past and being the prize horse in Val Lewton’s stable of directors (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man). I initially skimmed the rave, so I wasn’t sure what made Kehr so frothy. I couldn’t quite place what it was till late in. For the longest time, it seemed like just a case of humanism. In short, this is a western without any clear-cut baddies or goodies -- where the “hero” is kinda sketchy, where his best friend has a dishonorable streak, where whatever villains there turn out to not be so evil. It’s easy to overrate these things. I know I have.

But there’s no reason to overrate Canyon Passage, because it’s not humanistic -- it’s realistic. Dana Andrews plays a taciturn, tough guy businessman as he returns to remote, developing town of Jacksonville, OR. There, he gets embroiled in a series of events, ranging from romantic triangles, vigilantism and an Injun siege. Plot isn’t Canyon Passage’s strong suit, and that’s just fine -- Tourneur’s after the rhythm and textures of his town, which is open enough to include both hothead Lloyd Bridges and wandering minstrel (er, fiddle-player) Hoagy Carmichael.

Its appeal can be best summarized by a comparison someone made on Kehr’s blog to McCabe & Mrs. Miller, to which Canyon Passage is like a grandfather. (I was going to say prototype, but that feels condescending.) Though Jacques Tourneur possesses little of Robert Altman’s wise-acred cynicism, the two films share a need to debunk western tropes, and to establish a feel for how communities try to find a balance. There are many moods in Canyon Passage; a typical passage finds Tourneur working up a lather with a cabin-raising party, only to stroll off with Brian Donlevy’s banker and Susan Hayward's longtime-g.f. as the former remarks, crankily, “There’s so much of this world we’re missing.” The film doesn’t have anything like McCabe’s devastating arc, but that may be because I haven’t found it yet amongst the riches. I can’t wait to start watching Canyon Passage for the rest of my life.

Paired on the same disc with Canyon Passage was King Vidor’s 1936 docudrama The Texas Rangers (1936, B), so why not? Luckily, it’s very ‘30s -- fast-paced, quick-witted, clever, not much for bloat and, for the most part, fairly unsentimental. Fred MacMurray and Jackie Oakie may eventually turn into noble heroes worthy of statues, but not before logging time as vile, snickering bandits who, upon being recruited into the fold, initially try to use their power for their own needs. Had this been made a decade later, it would have been grandiose and bloodless. But it wasn’t made a decade later.

Kehr’s Canyon Passage gushing aside, the real eye-opener for me was Sam Fuller’s Fixed Bayonets! (1951; A-), which I had always assumed was somewhere in the middle of its director’s oeuvre. Oh my, no. This is Fuller on all cylinders, mixing high octane incident and troop repartee even more effectively (arguably, I guess) than he did with The Steel Helmet and The Big Red One, with which it shares similar concerns (Richard Basehart plays a weak-willed gunman who freezes when he has a perfect shot). Moreover, it projects a more affecting dissection of how war is fought -- the ethics of survival; the need for working with blinders; killing as a job the need for fun and banter amidst the horror. Did Béla Tarr rip off the nighttime tracking shot, with each character lapsing into narration before the climax, for Sátántangó?

I also saw Fuller’s Hell and High Water (1954, B), which, like Fixed Bayonets!, was released just in time for our war-themed holiday. Apparently this was purely for-hire, the studio asking Fuller to test out the new cinemascope frame on a submarine set. But it’s still pretty good. Reuniting with his Pickup on South Street director, Richard Widmark is awesomely sour as a sub commander, and Fuller manages a couple bits of purple prose. (The opening credits feature a mushroom cloud.) It’s a lot fatter than a Fuller should be, which is to say, really, that it strikes equilibrium between Fuller and The System. Gene Evans is totally wasted, though, which is sad. Aside: Godard must have been homaging this one’s red-filter scenes in Pierrot le fou’s party sequence (which featured Fuller). That’s so like Godard.

The less said about Let’s Go to Prison (2006, C), the better. Bob Odenkirk, how could you? Subversive but almost never funny, it reconfirmed my suspicion that the whole The State/Reno 911 troop, members of whom wrote it, just aren’t funny, and prone to wasting promising subjects. It also reconfirmed my suspicion that Dax Shepard is kinda awesome. With this, Zathura and Idiocracy, me and Dax are three for three. Dare I rent Employee of the Month? (A: I daren’t.)

Lastly, I finished up my Mario Bava Box Set (or “Bava Box,” as the top lid reads). I haven’t yet written about Bava, the famed Italian genre director, but the Box -- which includes five, rather randomly selected ‘60s works, including Black Sunday and the ur-giallo The Girl Who Knew Too Much -- makes him come off like the missing link between the minimalist horror of Val Lewton and the baroque gore of Dario Argento.

The Lewton comparison aside, Bava hasn'talways much for subtext, but he’s a whiz with resourceful, striking and transporting mise-en-scène. Black Sunday (1961) -- in which Barbara Steele’s executed Satanist threatens to take over another, more innocent Barbara Steele -- always seems on the verge of sneaking in some feminist statement, but whiffs in the end. That’s okay -- it looks fucking great. Kill, Baby...Kill! (1966) comes awfully, frustratingly close to being a rich portrait of man snuffing burgeoning female sexuality. That’s okay, too -- it looks even fucking greater. (I love how the opening fifteen minutes of this film have a cheap, faded auburn sheen, while the rest of it is one of the most overly-colorful films this side of a Vincente Minnelli musical. Dig the OCD staircase shot, above.) Thematically, Knives of the Avenger is the richest, taking Shane and turning it into a swords and sandals epic starring a guilt-ridden knife-thrower. But it’s also not as fun, slightly deficient in the action category.

None of this, by the way, is meant as a diss on Bava, who’s clearly one of the great technical directors -- a master of color, B&W shades, camera movement and mood. Bring on the one with the vampire aliens.



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