Sunday, September 11, 2011

Screening Notes #7

Scarface (1932): Paul Muni's turn as the immoral, faux-Italian, pseudo-philosophizing titular character in Howard Hawks' Scarface is a classic bit of scenery-chewing, a performance so unhinged and ridiculous that it suffocates the film that surrounds it until there's hardly anything left. Hawks' film is so compromised, so unevenly paced and clunky, that it never gels as a complete work, reducible only to a smattering of scenes here and there with any cinematic qualifications, but Muni chugs on through like a bull in a china shop, seemingly unaware of the camera and all too aware of it at the same time. That might sound incomprehensible, but it merely takes a few scenes in Scarface - his philistine presence at a show on Broadway, the final meltdown with his sister - to be rendered passive by Muni's ludicrous excellence. Had Hawks brought the visual care and wit of the opening shot to bear on the entire film, Scarface might be a different story, but as is it's a fairly banal, if radical for its time, gangster yarn.

Apocalypse Now (1979): This is the piece that has both confirmed and complicated my feelings towards Coppola's legendary Vietnam War epic, which I just saw for the first time (I know, apparently it's sacrilege) and fell asleep to. I will need to revisit it with undivided attention before I can develop any concrete argument for/against it, but I must say that I was both livid and entranced by the parts I did catch. Interestingly enough, Jameson finds fault in the final act, which I found to be the most convincing portion of the film, the part where Coppola's woozy narrative progression and disjunctive images of madness and "horror" (vague, I know) felt most earned. It's true that Coppola's "motifs don't grow, they merely recur"; Apocalypse Now is nothing if not a more successful and morally respectable precursor to Michael Bay, an example of a camera simply recording explosive and hallucinatory shit happening in front of it. I found its ending to terrifically lay bare the sludge and slime of war, while Coppola's earlier attempts to do so was like diving straight into the deep end of a pool without any floaties, but its general dearth of specific significance becomes retrospectively annoying.

The Baxter (2005): In the end it's an optimist's comedy, or in other words, the kind of comedy I can't quite warm up to. Michael Showalter tames down the polite vulgarity most hilariously displayed in Stella to leave behind a performance that is so irritatingly even-tempered and smiley that it hardly registers any solid laughs. One can sense the sickly romantic sap early on, the Hallmark platitudes about finding the right one and searching for the heart rather than the looks, particularly in Showalter's preachy and inconsistent narration. But there are still some genuine outbursts of humor here and there, traceable mainly to Justin Theroux's suave and sensitive lady-killer. There's a moment in the first act when his high school sweetheart tells Showalter there's no chance she'd ever see Theroux again, and then he shows up on the spot. Sure, it's cheap and silly, but Theroux pulls it off with such conviction.

Rango (2011): The question is, is there any such thing as a children's film anymore or have children's films always been this subliminally heady and postmodern and I just didn't know it (because I don't watch many children's films these days)? Get this for attention-grabbing: Rango spends its first ten to fifteen minutes with an unapologetic and rather in-your-face discourse on the nature of narrative where its reptilian and amphibian characters bounce lofty questions off each other. It certainly wasn't exciting for children, and the failure to contextualize this straight-faced intellectualism didn't work for me either. Eventually the film settles into a conventional underdog tale, meanwhile flimsily attempting to connect its initial ideas to the progress of the story, but the intended balance is never achieved and the film reaches neither absorbing feel-good narrative qualities and character development nor rewarding subtexts. What it does have going for it is the textured, grotesque close-ups of seemingly limitless desert creatures.

Louie (2011): Forget what I said about how this show isn't consciously funny this season; the recent episode involving the anti-masturbation, puritan Christian girl is the funniest thirty minutes I've spent this year. In a season preoccupied by grave themes of life and death, war and xenophobia, and love and rejection, Louie suddenly embraces the fart joke, entangling it with sex in the most outrageous way imaginable. What's more, he follows it up in a back-to-back night with the scariest episode of the season, a descent into depression and suicide that resolves none of its frightening implications, and yet a week later, with an hour-long episode delving into the Iraq War in a manner refreshingly free of didacticism. It's further proof that Louie's still aggressively pushing the boundaries of cable television.

Curb Your Enthusiasm (Season 7 and 8): Those who know me know that this is my favorite show on television without question, but I've been mildly let down by the latest season, which isn't partitioning its virtues as wisely as I'd like. No longer pursuing Cheryl, Larry's at his freest and most balanced state yet, and as a result his dissections of quotidian etiquette are at their most ludicrous. What's more, the funniest character on TV, Leon (J. B. Smoove), isn't getting enough screen time, and when he does, Larry's stakes are so low that the pleasure of watching Leon casually and unintentionally destroy Larry's life is nonexistent. That being said (a turn of phrase hilariously deconstructed at the end of the brilliant 7th season), I enjoy getting into Larry's mind more than any other performer in comedy television, Louie included.


JeanRZEJ said...

'its general dearth of specific significance becomes retrospectively annoying.'

For someone who just saw a film and actually fell asleep during it I'm not sure that your pronouncements of depth are all that deeply founded. What is the point of such pronouncements, anyway? All they say is, "This is all I have managed to find at this point in time", never "This is all that there is to find." The former should always be said humbly, I think, lest one content themselves to making such a status permanent. Immediate reactions to a film you just watched are the chatterings of someone at the mouth of the river, not in the belly of the jungle. This is not to say that you will think anything more of the film in the future, but I think it's best to at least leave the possibility open to think more in the future.

Carson Lund said...

Jean, I called this series of posts "Screening Notes" because they are exactly that, a gathering of notes and impressions on films I see. I really don't always mean for them to be final says, or all-encompassing in any way, which is what I aim for more in my longer-form essays (though even those are subject to shifting thoughts). So when I say that I felt a lack of specific significance in Apocalypse Now, I'm only meaning to catalogue a feeling I had while watching it for the first time, because I think that every reaction to a film is valid. By mentioning that I fell asleep, I'm deliberately poking fun at myself. I know that my feelings are far from concrete. That being said, I felt that Apocalypse Now was more about a general, nonspecific sense of wartime horror than anything else, certainly not a radical statement about the politics of the time or about the moral predicament of America's involvement in Vietnam. Which, I should add, is not necessarily a bad thing.

As for the future, I'm planning on re-watching Apocalypse Now as soon as I can get my hands on a copy.