THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED….AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (December, 2018 Edition)

Nov. 25-Henry V (1944, d. Laurence Olivier, Third Viewing)

Because I like Olivier doing Shakespeare better than I like him doing anything else even if he doesn’t break the droning mold the Brits have carved out for Shakespeare’s impossibly alive language. Everything is read like a sacred text (Renee Asherson, allowed to speak mostly French, comes off loosest and best). But the play-within-a-play narrative is ingenious and Olivier the director gave Olivier the actor a great stage with his stirring reenactment of Agincourt. Except for John Sturges in Escape From Fort Bravo, no one has ever caught the terror and excitement of a fleet of deadly arrows better. I’d be surprised if Sturges, one of the very greatest action directors, didn’t learn a thing or two from this one.

Nov. 26-Three Days of the Condor (1975, d. Sydney Pollack, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the great cast and tick-tock plot, of course. But, these days, mostly because I don’t want those evil bastards in the shadows to think getting away with it is the same as me not knowing they are there. Here of late, I try to watch either this or Wag the Dog at least once a month.

Dec. 2-El Dorado (1966, d. Howard Hawks, Umpteenth Viewing)

Heck, who doesn’t want to spend two hours with these guys, even if it’s to mark Michele Carey’s passing? Especially the “badge with a drunk pinned on it.” You can tell which one he is if you look close enough. Robert Mitchum was interviewed on late night TV years later and told the story of how he came to be hired. “Howard” he said, “What’s the story?” “Oh, no story Bob, just character.” I watched this with my Dad once and, when ithe credits rolled, he said: “What the hell was that supposed to be about?” I mumbled something that didn’t mean much. I forgot Mitchum’s story. It would have been the perfect answer. No story, Dad….just character. I guess where he is now, they’ve explained it all. ‘Cause I know they’re watching El Dorado.

Dec. 3-Live a Little, Love a Little (1968, d. Norman Taurog, Third Viewing)

While I was in a Michele Carey mood, I thought I might as well keep it going. She’s highly entertaining and Elvis seems to realize he might be on to something. Also better than usual music, including “A Little Less Conversation” which had to wait several decades for its time to come around. Dated, like all Sixties-Elvis movies, but fun.

Dec. 3-Girl Happy (1965, d. Boris Sagal, Umpteenth Viewing)

Maybe because it was the first Elvis movie I saw (on a black and white television, in 1976, after the lights were out), I have fond memories of this one. It was also the only Elvis movie I ever saw without being at all aware of any connotations that might come with the term “Elvis movie.”  That might be why it has held up whenever I’ve watched it on a semi-regular basis ever since. Elvis might have had better leading ladies than Shelley Fabares or Mary Ann Mobley…but he never had a better double-team. And I stand by “Wolf Call,” “The Meanest Girl in Town” and the title track as seductive, Devil’s Island pop-and-roll, I don’t care what anybody says!

Dec. 3-A Walk on the Moon (1999, d. Tony Goldwyn, First Viewing)

Because it was recommended over at Greil Marcus’s mailbag a while back and Diane Lane is a pretty good bet anytime. Diane Lane and Woodstock seemed an irresistible combination and it pays off in a lovely look at the limits of traditional family life colliding with the emerging counterculture. The best scene in the movie barely involves the fine cast. It’s a shot of nude bathers wandering into the upstate New York mountain not-exactly-resort lake where nice, working class Jewish families go to get away from the city. The director doesn’t overplay his hand. There’s a confrontation, but no “big scene.” Lane’s face is shown in reaction as she stands on the near shore, swathed in  safety. No dialogue. Just a glimpse of her face that says I wish I was over there. The implications of taking that step are the whole movie. It’s not a classic, but it’s a good film, and a rare look at what a revolution in mores really costs.

Dec. 4-Me Without You (2001, d. Sandra Goldbacher, Second Viewing)

Because it was time to revisit the lacerating performances by Anna Friel and, especially, Michelle Williams, as they come of age in end-of-the-century Britain. Williams was such an unknown (to me at least) and overpowering presence when I first saw this shortly after its release to video, that I didn’t fully appreciate Friel’s equally great performance, though I was aware it must have been better than good to have simply kept up. From this distance, I could see some of the plot machinations working themselves out, but it didn’t really matter. Once the characters are fully integrated into their own lives–and each other’s–the question of whether and how they can possibly remain friends is as fraught with peril as any “real” lives could be. Knowing how it ended did not make it less destabilizing. It was Goldbacher’s third feature. She’s made only one since. If making them takes as much out of her as watching this one does out of me, I’m not surprised.

Dec. 4-The Day of the Jackal (1973, d. Fred Zinnemann, Umpteenth Viewing)

For Edward Fox’s chilly and chilling performance as an assassin on the trail of Charles DeGaulle. I finally got around to reading the book in the last year or two and it proved even better–the question of whether “The Jackal” is a sociopath is held much longer, almost to the very end. But the suspense here–built by Fred Zinnemann’s docu-drama style–is real. Watching this always reminds me how little any of us know about what’s really going on. And you know how that twists my guts.

Dec. 5-I Know Where I’m Going (1945, d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Third Viewing)

To watch Wendy Hillerman and Roger Livesey play out one of the screen’s most realistically prosaic–and, paradoxically, hopelessly romantic–love stories. We know they’re meant for each other almost from the moment they meet. But do they know? Even on repeated viewings it’s not a settled question, perhaps because the evocation of the wild Scottish north country permits nothing to be taken for granted. Among the finest films in the English language, even if a fair bit of it is spoken in Gaelic.

Dec. 6-The Man From the Alamo (1953, d. Budd Boetticher, Fourth Viewing)

For another of Glenn Ford’s terse, un-heroic western heroes. Years before his collaborations with screenwriter Burt Kennedy and star Randolph Scott, Budd Beotticher proves he can get along without them (even if Kennedy is missed–there’s way too much exposition at the beginning). This one also shows he was a master of big action scenes before they gave way to the intimate, almost unbearably tense gunfights that were a staple of the films that later made his reputation. The story–of a man who leaves the Alamo in order to save his family, only to be branded a coward–is a good one and the climax is nearly as exciting as the best of John Ford or Anthony Mann. A good one to close the cycle on after subjecting myself to a more-than-usual amount of modern angst!

…Til next time!

UTOPIAS, DYSTOPIAS, MYOPIAS AND A BRIEF ROUNDUP OF THE USUAL SUSPECTS (Monthly Book Report: 8/15)

Since I’ve disconnected my television satellite and I’m not currently working on any side projects, I’m starting to have more time to read. I don’t know if the trend will last, but for now, I’m making two changes to the book report.

First, when there are more than the usual three or four books, I’m going to try to put them in categories, rather than simply reviewing by strict chronology according to the date I completed them.

Second, my policy with book covers up to now has been to post a copy of the edition I read, if I can find it. Seems like the more I read, the more of a chore and/or impossibility that becomes, so, starting now, I’m just going to use the cover of the edition I like best. Based on this month’s experiment, that will probably mean lurid for the pulp, stately for the classics, and functional for everything else.

So, sticking to the announced categories…

Utopias

Well, a pastoral anyway…

The Prairie (James Fenimore Cooper, 1827)

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And so, at long last, I fulfill a teenage promise to myself and finish the Leatherstocking Tales. This was the third written of the five, but the last chronologically for the character of Natty Bumppo. I’ve written at length elsewhere about the modern world’s odd and foolish neglect of Cooper, but I have to admit this was my least favorite of the series.

Cooper’s usual strengths, namely his unsurpassed descriptions of a wilderness Fitzgerald could evoke so swiftly and efficiently on the final page of The Great Gatsby in part because Cooper had done the heavy lifting for a century’s worth of readers in a pre-visual age, his action sequences, and his ability to wring real tragedy from melodramatic plots and a more than occasionally turgid literary style, are all present here, but severely muted.

Moving the setting from the upstate New York he knew like the back of his hand to midwestern plains he knew chiefly from the witness of others robs his descriptive passages of their authority.

Dealing with a landscape and tribal cultures he knew less than well meant he had to basically transport his stock characters into unfamiliar and sometimes ill-fitting skins.

With Chingachgook killed off and Natty aged out of both his heroic skill set and his appeal as a leading man (who broke a heart in The Deerslayer and had his broken in turn in The Pathfinder), the romances fail to spark.

And with the conflict between the woods and the town (or the fort) replaced by a roving fight between rootless and unsavory settlers, more unsavory Sioux, and noble Pawnees (standing in for the noble Delawares of Natty’s younger years), the great theme of civilization encroaching on the wilderness and vice versa never comes to life until the very end.

Even so, the book is hardly without worth. There’s some good comic relief from a naturalist who is Natty’s equal for stubbornness and pluck, though not for intelligence. (If classic Hollywood had taken on the story, Donald Meek could have played him perfectly).  And there’s a genuinely horrific scene, after the not-for-the-faint-of-heart fashion Cooper had mastered if not invented, in which the rude settlers are forced to punish one of their own for killing one of their own.

Plus, Natty’s long day’s journey into night is handled with grace and aplomb, a fitting end for the character, even if the series carried on until the 1840s and found its pinnacle in The Deerslayer, set first and written last, by which time Cooper knew a lot more than the thing or two that had already made him America’s first major novelist, and an undismissible guide to our national psyche, by the time this was written.

Myopias

Jake’s Thing (Kingsley Amis, 1978)

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Yet another reminder that, if satirists have their uses, they also have their limits.

Based on his famous and, as the English say, spot-on preference for John MacDonald (“by any standards a better writer”) over Saul Bellow (“a human heart chap”), plus happy experiences with The Anti-Death League (a genuinely great spy novel from 1966) and Lucky Jim (his misanthropic career maker from 1954), I’ve cut Sir Kingsley a fair bit of slack over the years.

That slack has now stretched to cover The Green Man (1969), The Russian Girl (1992) and this. And unless somebody can convince me he had another Anti-Death League in him–or at least a novel which isn’t yet another variant on Lucky Jim–I’m done.

I’m done even though this had a smile on nearly every page, a laugh on more than a few and a potentially intriguing premise: “Is male menopause any sort of crisis for a misanthrope?”

Amis was a Conservative Hedonist. He practiced a style of world-weary, seen-it-all, Englishness that probably reached its peak with Lucky Jim and had evidently worn thin by the time the Sexual Revolution got up a real head of steam. Conservative Hedonism was certainly preferable to it’s Liberal counterpart. Real Hate is more bracing than Fake Love in both Art and Life. But it’s lost its sting now that the age of cultural collapse it foreshadowed has arrived in force.

Laughter’s precious, alright, but it’s not worth the supercilious slog that Amis began extracting from his readers as the price of the ticket. And, God help him, somewhere along the way he started trying to invest in character development, almost always a deadly notion for a satirist.

One can ponder “Jake Richardson,” or Kingsley Amis, and get a glimpse into why and how civilizations fail alright. It’s when enough people who might have done better, don’t.

Not saying there’s no value in being reminded.

But one reason I never got into Seinfeld or Larry David or any other recent version of the lineage Amis the Elder (his son, God help us, writes too) had picked up from H.L. Mencken (a truly corrosive misanthrope who was evidently a frustrated Hedonist, always the kind who both start this sort of thing and are bound to be the best at it), is that, at some point, very soon after you take its measure, the corrosiveness is just plain tiresome.

Life’s too short.

Oh yeah. The “thing” is impotence…or lack of desire to perform even in the face of undiminished capacity….or the male member.

One of those. Or maybe all of them.

All nice subjects for satire. This would have made a great short story, so if I do try Amis again it will probably be through that route.

I’m old enough myself to have commitment issues whenever I get ten pages into a novel and realize it’s already going in circles around a very familiar track.

Dystopias

NOTE: I usually avoid dystopian novels written by anyone but Philip K. Dick, for the same reason I usually avoid novels about psychotics written by anyone except Patricia Highsmith. If a standard exists, met over and over by the standard setter, why bother with the rest? That said, the classics of certain genres do beckon when I’m in the mood to further my education, hence, the following:

Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1931) and Brave New World Revisited (1958)

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Huxley’s great insight was his recognition that the old truth about Religion and Art being incompatible with the New Age’s rising Gods (one of which is, amusingly, always called Science or, even funnier, Reason, the other of which, given that it covers everything from political boot-licking to industrial criticism, must never, ever be called anything as mundane as Journalism and therefor can never, amusingly or otherwise, be called anything at all) was reaching a new, feverish pitch, even when he knocked his original dystopia into a novel of sorts.

The world more or less survived the first go-round with Perfection. Fascism came and went. Soviet style communism was still going strong when Huxley “revisited” his own vision in the late fifties, but has come a cropper since.

We’ve found new ways to terrorize and undermine ourselves here lately.

Still, his vision was on-track in the macro sense. We’ve been fairly resistant to Big Brother, but we do love our machines and our drugs and we are using them to reshape ourselves into something already recognizable as the very subversions of “brave” and “new” that Huxley glimpsed in outline in the early thirties.

Like most dystopian novels (Dick excepted), Brave New World is a bit of a chore once the premise is established, but I’m glad I finally read it–sense of accomplishment and all–and I agree with those who insist it was a more likely vision of the future than Orwell’s.

Still, it’s less likely than the vision at the back of all the other western visions, laid down by John the Revelator after a mad dream incurred on the Isle of Patmos. Like I said. Only Philip K. Dick has got past him.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood, 1986)

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…And while I was in a dystopian mood, I thought I might as well tackle this one.

It’s a little more engaging than Orwell or Huxley. There’s an approximation of a human character at the center (she narrates) and a neat twist at the end. The vision itself isn’t very complicated or compelling. It’s made up out of bits and pieces of standard dystopian rubble and glued together by the even more standard Good Liberal horror of (and complete misunderstanding of) Evangelical Christianity. Anyone who has ever attended a Wednesday night business meeting at the local First Baptist, or understands even a little bit about how the chaotic anti-structure of Protestant sects actually works, will get a wry smile out of the notion that such folks will be running the New World Order, Star Chamber fashion, any day now. (The Handmaid’s Tale is set in what is supposed to be a disturbingly near future.)

On the positive side, the book is well written and there are a lot of sound general insights. Nothing that couldn’t have been gleaned from a good captivity narrative, mind you. (I know, because I just finished a captivity narrative myself and have been studying the sources.)

What really made this a grind, though, was that the specifics, despite being oh-so-carefully rendered, simply weren’t very convincing. It read like a philosophical treatise, not something the author felt in her bones.

So a lot like Brave New World–or 1984–after all.

The book was published in the eighties. If Atwood wanted to remain contemporary a generation hence she should have put jihadis in control of her world.

Of course, if she had, she would probably be dead or in hiding now.

I have no idea whether this was a failure of imagination on her part, or a failure of nerve.

And, despite her obvious skill, no desire to investigate further.

…the Usual Suspects

The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (John D. MacDonald, 1968)

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Jesus. The first half of this is so touchy-feely I thought I’d picked up a Harlequin Romance by mistake. There are letters for God’s sake, and no sign of the usual gimlet eye, sizing up the late twentieth century, let alone any sort of adventure going on.

It picks up in the second half. But even then is seems more like a misguided attempt to imitate Ross MacDonald than anything I’d want or expect from the McGee.

Weakest of the series so far.

Dress Her In Indigo (John D. MacDonald, 1969)

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I hate to say it, but the late sixties were not a good time for MacDonald/McGee. At least this time around he has the makings of a good story. even if it’s back to Mexico with not much to say that he hadn’t already said better.

There are too many twists and turns here and they don’t all make a lot of sense. When the bereaved father of a lost girl turns out to be not the out-of-shape midwestern businessman we’ve been led to believe but a stone cold torturer/murderer, the problem isn’t so much that it’s a stretch, or even that it’s a long stretch. It’s that the revelation comes as a total surprise to McGee, but not to the reader.

Believe me, I’m a pure sucker. You can have me agape with the least effort imaginable. But even I saw every twist coming, except for one very small, and genuinely unsettling one near the very end.

In short, too much sex therapy, as had become the norm (though at least this time around it’s the various fantasy women providing and McGee receiving). Too much intricate plotting (leave it to the other MacDonald, i.e. Ross, not to mention Agatha Christie, for they were good at it). Too much Meyer (I like Meyer, we all like Meyer, but McGee doesn’t need a true Watson). And yet again, no really memorable villain.

The McGee was clearly in a slump. The late sixties had thrown both him and his creator. I have fond memories of some of the books coming up so I’m looking forward to a rebound. This was a little better than the last one, but it’s also the first in the series that had me checking page numbers, which is the equivalent of checking your watch in a movie, wondering just how much longer until it’s over.

Eye of the Needle (Ken Follett, 1978)

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Having finally caught up last month with The Day of the Jackal, which story I knew from the fine film version, I decided to give this one, which inspired an even better film, a try.

Turns out the movie was a solid improvement (whereas the film of Jackal just held its ground). In part, because more liberties were taken.

The book is fine, a definite page turner, but it isn’t quite as good as Jackal, which was even better than the movie it inspired.

I don’t know if Follett was attempting a spin on Forsyth or anyone else, but coincidentally or not, his central track, in a story with an otherwise rather similar structure, ran opposite.

In Jackal, the trick was to keep the lone man trying to outwit the powers of the police state (in that case a paid murderer, who must necessarily be an expert in the craft of espionage) from being revealed as a sociopath until the last possible instant.

In Eye of the Needle, the trick was to keep the lone man trying to outwit the powers of the police state (in this case, a German spy loose in the England of WWII, who must necessarily be an expert in the craft of unpaid murder) from being revealed as something other than a sociopath. This is where the movie was an improvement (even though most critics didn’t get it…do they ever?).

Here, the murderous spy is merely cold-blooded, a standard Nazi-oid type most of us have encountered so frequently in fiction and film we’re bound to find ourselves stifling an occasional yawn by now, now matter how skillfully he’s rendered.

The film changed a few key sequences to hint at a man who got into it for excitement and love of country but knows he has lost his soul along the way. Given that for a premise, his affair with a lonely woman makes strong dramatic and emotional sense. In the novel, it’s far more mechanical and efficient. Still compelling, mind you, but the compulsion is strictly intellectual.

The movie of Eye of the Needle leaves an echo. The novel, well done as it is, is over when it’s over.