Barney’s Version, based on a book I haven’t read, isn’t a very good movie. It’s a kind of legitimization of self-hatred and an apotheosis of The Curmudgeon As Suitable Suitor. The mid-movie revelation of the main character’s looming Alzheimers and the last minute litany of good things bestowed upon mankind by him all seem tacked on to make sure we get the point, which is this: there’s nobody in the world so ensnared by their loathing of themselves and others that they can’t be redeemed by a swelling orchestral cloud over their backlit headstone.
Mike Leigh’s new film, Another Year, is nominally a reflection on the ways in which we cultivate the relationships around us, but more so it’s a dissection of the prickly dynamic between the emotionally strong and weak. Fortunately the film overcomes the prosaic symbolism of a garden, managed over the span of a year, by burrowing into the disparity between those who wish to give others help and those who clearly cannot be helped until they first help themselves. It’s a set up of character conflict that promises drama, but Leigh doesn’t seem as interested in anything as fabricated as drama, in the sense of any “movie” drama we’re trained to expect. Instead, the four pieces of his story – each corresponding to a season of the year – demonstrate the filmmaker’s gift for recording simple life moments, some triumphant, some humiliating, all of it true and awkward and real.
Watched The Last Temptation of Christ for the first time recently. Made a murky impression on me. Thought it might be good to work that out. Not a lot of answers here, just some questions and observations. If you have any thoughts, find me. It’s an important movie. For those who believe, it challenges who we think Christ was in terms of his humanness rather than in the typical terms of his divinity. For those who think it’s all hokum to start with, it at least stretches out the plastic idea of Jesus the doe-eyed peacenik.
ROBERT HORNAK wanted Ray Harryhausen to come to his ninth birthday party. When he didn’t show, he cried. Later, he found out there were more than monster movies in the world. He picked up some real love for Woody Allen, the Coen Brothers, Preston Sturges, and Howard Hawks. He has a deep love for Truffaut, Buñuel, Bergman, and Kurosawa, which helps balance his devotion to the Marx Brothers. His goal in life is to write a single Chayefsky-worthy scene. He will watch an old movie before a new movie every time, and a satire before a drama. Robert also likes tennis, Chipotle, and Merle Haggard. At the same time, when possible.
Robert Hornak wanted Ray Harryhausen to come to his ninth birthday party. When he didn’t show, he cried. Later, he found out there were more than monster movies in the world. He picked up some real love for Woody Allen, the Coen Brothers, Preston Sturges, and Howard Hawks. He has a deep love for Truffaut, Buñuel, Bergman, and Kurosawa, which helps balance his devotion to the Marx Brothers. His goal in life is to write a single Chayefsky-worthy scene. He will watch an old movie before a new movie every time, and a satire before a drama. Robert also likes tennis, Chipotle, and Merle Haggard. At the same time, when possible.
Hank Quinlan is a border town cop bloated by secrets swallowed. Mike Vargas is a Mexican drug enforcement officer riding his career on the momentum of his perceived integrity. A jazzily meandering tracking shot brings them together in the firelight of an official’s exploded car, and together they play out the universal allegory of good versus evil.
Welles lowers his story into the pulpy darkness of hypocrisy, murder, sex, drugs, desperation, and revenge, and never brings it back up for air. It is a claustrophobic world, stinking with death, where the liveliest moments come from a pianola played by no one, where a smug, lurid chuckle barely masks the condescension of institutionalized corruption, where “intuition” is as good as justification, and where even the man for whom all the busy police work is set to avenge (the city elder expended in the opening scene) is himself a brazen philanderer estranged from his family.
But Welles does it all with incredible style, upgrading what is, as he even called it, a B-movie into that which cannot be ignored for its visual power and its ever-resonating thematic punch.
The melodrama is as corpulent and sweaty as Quinlan, so thoroughly shot through with dread and dirt, it renders even more disturbing the already blunt dialogue: “An hour ago [he] had this town in his pocket… Now you can strain him through a sieve;” “We don’t like it when innocent people are blown to jelly in our town.” And running underneath, seething racism, all of it subtle. Vargas’s newlywed wife, embarking toward an American motel while Vargas diverts back into Mexico to investigate the explosion: “I’m just going to an American motel for comfort… not for safety.” Quinlan to Vargas: “You people are touchy.” And Vargas’s own reverse racism, contained quietly in his observation that the idea of peace, in the form of a 1,400 mile border without a single machine gun in place, is “corny” to his American bride, as if American hubris is uncomfortable with the idea of going warless for so long.
But the film is also stilted up by the themes of duty and idealism. Quinlan, as few scruples as Falstaff, but none of the fun, orders his world of planted evidence upon a simple and good philosophy: “When a murderer’s loose, I’m supposed to catch him.” And this reasoned exchange with his partner:
MENZIES: You’re a killer.
QUINLAN: I’m a cop… I don’t call [my job] dirty, look at the record. All those convictions.
MENZIES: Convictions, sure. How many did you frame?
QUINLAN: Nobody… nobody that wasn’t guilty.
MENZIES: …Faking evidence –
QUINLAN: Aiding justice, partner.
Evil there, but with good in the balance: the borderline self-righteousness of Vargas. The slow show of Quinlan’s dark deeds often stirs Vargas into sanctimonious diatribes. To Quinlan: “In any free country a policeman is supposed to enforce the law, and the law protects the guilty as well as the innocent… A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state. That’s the whole point, Captain. Who’s the boss, the cop or the law?” And to Quinlan’s partner, laying it on thick: “What about all the people [Quinlan] put in the death house. Save your tears for them.” In fact, the greatest fault of the film is that it allows Vargas, the mouthpiece for glib, nickel-plated platitudes, to finally elude the moral griminess of the real world. Though he is touched by evil (or rather, it is his wife who is groped by evil, and he is only threatened by the possibility of being forever associated with evil), he is never fully in its grasp, never made to suffer the crush of evil, the kind of evil that creates the Quinlans of the world. He even makes his exit before Quinlan’s death plunge, falling into his wife’s exonerated arms, speeding away into marital bliss, so that he doesn’t have to personally bear witness to the final, bloody result of his revenge.
Bonus reasons to love the film:
The first image of the movie, fingers twisting a timer on a homemade bomb, feels akin to someone winding up a toy and watching it go.
Quinlan’s pitiful entrance, attempting to pull himself out of his police vehicle with all his tremendous girth holding him back, is a wonderful counter to Harry Lime’s magnetic, stylized hero’s entrance in The Third Man less than a decade before.
Marlene Dietrich’s small role – and enchanting eyes – provide the perhaps unwanted evidence of Quinlan’s former love life… and a great excuse to use chili as a euphemism for sex.
Uncle Joe Grandi, the comic embodiment of inept local power by birth, manifested as a self-important devil on Quinlan’s shoulder, allows for a scene illustrating Quinlan’s heavy, sweating denial of his own capacity for “making deals,” though that is exactly what he’s doing.
The five-and-a-half minute, one-shot scene in the heart of the movie (inside Sanchez’s one-room apartment) that tracks the emotional movement of characters as beautifully as the opening shot tracks physical movement.
The visceral swamp of images in the Grandi death scene.
Despite Pauline Kael’s rebuke, the final Quinlan epitaph, remarked by Dietrich at the close of the film: “What does it matter what you say about people.”
THEN, OUT OF NOWHERE: A POLITICAL AFTERTHOUGHT
There is no escaping the resonance of the film in a post-Bush world. A story of a dirty cop planting evidence in an assumed guilty party’s home and behaving with the cavalier assumption that the act is justified based on intuition of guilt is one that seems tailored to rouse an audience trying to live beyond the Administration that authored the war in Iraq. An interesting, if easily unrecognized, thing happens when viewing Touch of Evil today. The somewhat tacked-on resolution of the Sanchez story (he who blew up the car but maintained his innocence throughout the film) is said to have finally confessed his guilt to Quinlan’s men. This is presumably meant to layer the end with irony, that all of Quinlan’s hunches were correct, and that planting the evidence (and indeed his very death) was unnecessary. But in a media environment saturated with debate on the legality and dependability of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a modern audience is left with an even murkier ending, one that calls to question if the confession drawn out of Sanchez under duress can be trusted to be true, or if he just said what was needed to be said to abate the fists. It is wonderfully, terribly fascinating to consider that, even as often as art influences society, it is also true that society can forever alter the meaning of art. And in this case, the mystery of meaning can make Touch of Evil, to use Welles’s own words, “just exactly a thousand percent more effective.”
I’ve been trying to figure out why I love The Big Lebowski so much. Better to say, I’ve been trying to figure out why a movie I didn’t like at all on first viewing is now on my list of all-time repeat-watch comedies. Many elements by themselves aren’t appealing to me in any way. Rampant toking; rampant f-bombs; rampant loudmouthed fat guy. So why did I come back… and why did I stay?
Here are some possible answers:
‘Cause I love the Coen Brothers.
‘Cause Jeff Bridges is awesome.
‘Cause it’s smartly funny.
But these answers are too easy, and are really just my opinions, forever defensible insofar as my passion for convincing you holds out, but they don’t get at the reason from underneath. The true attack must be upon the question: Why did my opinion change over several viewings?
I’ve admired the Coen Brothers from the first time I saw Raising Arizona. In all their movies, there isn’t much they can do visually that doesn’t make me keenly envious. There isn’t much they can do to twist the English language into yokel poetry/regional poetry/genre poetry that doesn’t make me want to sell my laptop out of frustration. There isn’t much they can do with a plot that doesn’t make me want to just give up.
So why did I crap out on my first Lebowski viewing?
ONE REASON: CASTING/PERFORMANCE CHOICES
1) Walter Sobchak. By the time the movie premiered, I was over John Goodman in general, so this role, specifically, was too much. Problem isn’t so much that he’s big, loud, and obnoxious – it’s that he has no heart. He’s the anti-Del Griffith. Not once does he rise above his own paranoid self-interest – not even, if you look closely, when he eulogizes his dead friend, Donny. One gets the feeling that The Dude and Donny are the only people on the earth who even pretend to listen to him. That should make him sympathetic. But his relentless, growling, know-it-all pounce renders him completely unlikable. Strike one.
2) Donny Kerabatsos. By the time the movie premiered, I couldn’t get enough Steve Buscemi. Living In Oblivion, Reservoir Dogs, Fargo. A frustrated, hyper-intelligent motor-mouth. Turn off his motor, give him a floppy haircut, make him kind of dumb, and what have you got? Buscemi-free Steve. The choices went against type, and were obviously an inside joke to his indie fans – I get it. But do something more with it, please. Let him go off on Walter just once… please. But he doesn’t. Strike two.
3) Maude Lebowski. Julianne Moore always makes me squeamish. That quasi-patrician, condescending eye-smirk makes me feel like she just found out I like the “South Park” where Cartman’s playing a video game so long he has to crap in a bedpan his mother provides. Some would say this is what makes her perfect casting as an ex-wife. Maybe, but to this day, these are the scenes I still skip. Strike three.
ANOTHER REASON: GENRE/STORY CHOICES
I’ve never been a fan of the crime drama. What? How do I like any Coen Brothers movie then, when so many of their films deal in some way with stolen money and murder? All I can say is, I may not be an apologist for the genre, but I like their treatment of it. Confession: it really comes down to the fact that I don’t follow plot very easily, especially if it involves a mystery of some kind. You know, withheld information, the like. I’m not in it to be confused. Which is why it took me a full five viewings of The Maltese Falcon (a movie I loved from the first viewing) before I could verbalize its story.
RELEVANT TANGENT: The Maltese example, I think, might be a key for me to understanding my Lebowski love. I didn’t get the story in Huston’s movie right away, but I was instantly impressed with the camerawork, the pace, and the attitude of the lead. That Spade could be so emotionally removed as to almost gleefully have his dead partner’s name scraped from the door, or that nearly every move he makes is orchestrated with blatant self-interest, or that he would send the female lead – and our expectations for that storyline – up the river at the end of the movie, was a revelation to me. And that Spade does all these things inside Huston’s frame, so fluid and sure, made the movie entertaining and satisfying, even without, for me, being initially decipherable.
Likewise – and this is me repeating what others have said over and over – the Coens know their frame, and that’s my front door into liking this movie. The slide rule exactness of their images and the pitch purity of their dialogue make any Coen Brothers movie impossible for me to resist watching again. (Though Burn After Reading is testing this once more.) Lebowski offered me at least that much on first viewing, so I dove in a second time… and a third.
WHAT I LEARNED
It wasn’t until that third viewing that I started to see past the things I found so off-putting. Those bumps were still there, but something more was rising up from behind the bombast. I don’t want to overstate it (it’s still just The Big Lebowski), but I started to understand the chemistry among the three lead characters. More so than the plot – it meanders – and more so than the secondary characters – they are ultimately just incredibly well-drawn ornaments – and more so than the infectious lethargy – it’s infectious, but still lethargic – it’s the very rigidity of the disparate sides of the central triangle that give the movie its fundamental strength. (There, I overstated it anyway.)
Meaning: Walter cannot stray from the belligerent ogre that he is; The Dude cannot stray from the cantankerous slug-abed that he is; and Donny cannot suddenly be “in his element”, without one of the basic tenants of the movie coming apart. And that is that friends are friends not because of their similarities – and not even because of the way they can “change” each other. Their similarities, a love for bowling in this case, can certainly bring them together. But what makes them friends is their willingness to remain together in the midst of a common, challenging goal – the search for the rug that dreams are made of – even while their weakest characteristics are at the fore throughout.
Finally, please don’t think I come back to the movie again and again because it reminds me of the perfect definition of friendship. No, I still come back because I love the Coen Brothers, because Jeff Bridges is awesome, and because it’s smartly funny. But recognizing the greatness of the film’s structure, and how all those beautifully rendered branches sprout from it, helps deepen the satisfaction of watching a guy take a crowbar to a Corvette.