The Last Days of Disco

(1998) Whit Stillman.

In New York City there often recurs a phenomenal thing, that when a flag of creativity is stook in an unknown, castaway community, it is soon dispersed and made popular by the those less innovative but just as eager for stimulation, until the system shuts the scene down and the movement chokes dead. These are the last days.

Disco - born as an underground scene in gay black dance clubs in post-industrial Brooklyn outlands - got big. Barnacled by two-tone collared, classically articulate New England collegiates looking for the glamour and edge of nightlife, the scene is kept alive by guys like Bernie, the peppery pony-tailed club owner, who says, indemnifying himself, "I used to be in advertising," like a shammo music promoter from Woodstock.

Alice and Charlotte find themselves unlikely friends. Though disparate and awkward at tony rebellious Hampshire College, the girls live together with a third roommate in an Upper East Side railroad apartment. They are always walking through each other's rooms at inappropriate times, and find asylum at the club, the umbrage of Xenonic strobes, where the girls bounce their own insecurities off one another, under “Doctor’s Orders.”

Charlotte’s idea of sly charm is to say things seriously as if “obviously a joke.” Alice is the character most grounded and humble and eventually the most successful, but she is also the most shamelessly confused. She hooks up with navy-blazer dicko Tom Platt. In the future one imagines Tom writing Op-Ed pieces in the Times which gain him a sociopathic following amongst liberals. Tom sidles up to the dance floor with his pennyloafer lack of rhythm and soul, his late entrance attractively picaresque for Alice, who still believes in novelistic romance. Tom thinks it is a profound thing to collect Scrooge McDuck memorabilia, and it seems as if the situation couldn't be more lame until poor Alice (too many whiskey sours) tries something she never learned at Hampshire - to talk naughty: "Scrooge McDuck is sexy."

Disco’s characters are all somewhat obsessed with the camaraderie and excuse for melodrama that a "scene" provides, though their emotions and intellect have been bred to expect the higher sanction of inimitable status without proof of action. Once they arrive in New York, expectations warp, and they pick up a modicum of survival skills - as when Jimmy Steinway has his elder WASP boss from the ad company take Jimmy’s raincoat, “Here, put this on,” so they won't get rejected by Van, the Blade Runneresque head bouncer. Jimmy is on thin ice anyhow, Van doesn't let them past the velvet ropes, and instead Jimmy sneaks his party in through the back.

At the end of the night, after the hermeneutics of a "gay mouth" and Lady and the Tramp exegesis, it is shack-up time, the "ferocious pairing off.” Alice falls into a lingering fling with Des, a lovably loquacious lech and Ivy League grad slumming the after-hours with an attuned coke habit. For Des, the new openness of gay-rights serves as a useful masquerade to extract himself from female relationships that become too real for his stunted ideology. When he is suitably disinterested in a woman, he confesses a new-fangled lust for the host of Wild Kingdom. Des is bewildered at the implications of being called a “yuppie” – a fresh catchy term - since he regards himself, though young, as neither upwardly-mobile nor professional. “Those are good things.” But it is because Des is decidedly not good that Alice starts hooking up with him. Des' fidelity to Alice is brief, though he seems to believe that he has truly changed, unlike Tramp. Alice turns her sensibilities to Josh Neff, a spy for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.

Disco was always comprised of a motley assemblage - trannies and Bay Ridge gavones rubbing polyester shoulders; Broadway dancers and anti-hippie rejects; the Andy Warhol hodgepodge of Brooke Shields and Dali and Schwarzeneggar and Halston; Dolly Parton's birthday when they decked out Studio like a barnyard. Such pop eclecticism hits the American imagination as it would have (among canonical others) at the last turn of the century, over Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders, who assaulted San Juan Hill in Cuba as aggressively as Jimmy Steinway marshals his entourage past the club door (at one point disguised in Wizard of Oz costumes). In the ranks of these heroes of the Spanish-American War were Yalies and Comanches and gold prospectors and bison-hunters. Indeed, the most deliriously enlightened scene in Disco occurs near the U.S.S. Maine monument at Columbus Circle. Josh and Alice step delicately along the Park and Josh confides to Alice his own history of madness. These 59th Street environs, from the Plaza Hotel west to Broadway, is favored territory of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and this scene in Disco near Merchant’s Gate is pregnant of that author’s intimations of epic youth and deep loss. “You think I’m a wacko?” asks Josh. Alice first shakes her head no before she nods yes. Josh is the paranoiac lyrical artist-type with blueblooded learning and a quick pedigree in seersucker espionage – the vocalizer for both the ecstasy of Disco and the glorious trauma of skittish love. He is also the agent of the club’s closing, which puts Van on welfare and Bernie in jail.

“The very early eighties,” as Disco’s opening titles indicate, are a time when New York is backlashing from the zombie vigilante midnight-movie reputation caused by the 1970s. Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau’s office is mobilized to prosecute the disco business, with Josh acting as the Elliot Ness. One might fantasize that a co-worker of Josh in Morgenthau's office is future Supreme Court Justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor, chain-smoking and equally forward-thinking. Morgenthau went after disco clubs as he did underground cinema in the 60s, impounding prints of Jack Smith’s glitzy gender-bender Flaming Creatures; and in the early 2000s, taking down the toga-clad CEO embezzlers of global manufactures conglomerate Tyco, International. The rest of the country despises Disco as the ultimate curse of good taste – the tripped-out crowd at a Chicago White Sox game burns piles of LPs as if books at a Hitler rally and take to the fields with baseball bats like mobsters. New Yorkers are still too unhinged from the Death Wish decade and don’t deal with things by ratiocinating. Soon enough a new neon decadence sets in, and the preppy ties and shaggy-flared hairstyles will devolve into hairspray flips and 80s womens jumpers.

Charlotte ends up hospitalized with "back spasms" when Jimmy ends their relationship ("she got her period" he explicates), and her recovery is fraught with self-consumption, blaming everything on Alice. She seeks new life in TV, “where my interests truly lie.” By now, Alice is over Charlotte’s continual berating co-dependency, and gains success in the book publishing industry. She has already admitted to Departmental Dan that her “dream book” would be to publish “anything that might become a best-seller.” Only aside from that might she hope for a shot at Salinger’s unpublished short stories. So it is not a surprise, but a heartwarming familiarity, that with her breakout book she “shifts the category from nonfiction to self-actualization," staking her own light flag in America's new consciousness-fad. Alice now offers lunch invites at Lutesse while the rest of the old gang picks up checks at the unemployment office. It takes slick bouncer Van to fess up the final reality, before heading to Florida: “Disco’s over. It’s dead. People aren’t just going out like they used to. They’re tired....”

Josh and Alice, on the subway love train, can only dance, and all New York City straphangers dance with them - like an Ed Koch-era Lotto ad or ’86 Mets promo on WPIX. Whit Stillman hallmarks unto the living American memory what only 20 years later is revealed as so richly spotlit, so vivacious of meaning.

Watch here: The Last Days of Disco.

The Crank Movies

Crank (2006) Jason Statham, German posterCrank 1 (2006) & Crank 2: High Voltage (2009) are loosely conceptual action movies that reflect, orgiastically, their own times. The newly familiar objects of U.S.A 2000 are accorded X/treme cybernetic special effects which draw from the amped-up template of The Matrix but dispense with the ideas, mystic philosophy, and costly sci-fi premise. Instead, the violence in Crank, which would have only previously seemed buyable in a sci-fi flick, is played out in the present-day and the patterns are sequenced against the same backdrops as tabloid snapshots and pre-gentrified industrial neighborhoods.

Chev Chelios, our hero - an aggrieved and persecuted Los Angeles gangland strong-armsman - plays the existential video game for an audience inundated by compulsive GPS locution, hyperdrive fitness fashion, Abu Ghraib-style sadism, and a deep precipitation of stylized movie violence from the late 70s onward. Chev is injected with a vague serum, referred to in occupational terms as "The Beijing Cocktail," that will kill him if his heart rate slows down. Of course, Chev gains this knowledge by watching a video on TV recorded by his uppity rival, Verona, a Chicano jangsta with a goombah name. Chev is poisoned, the chemical nature of which is explained as “that Chinese shit,” temporarily counter-activated by a substance given him by a Haitian cabbie, “some hardcore shit made from plant shit."

Chev is aided by his personal physician, Doc Miles, a source of the movie’s pan-fried biological information, played Method-style by Dwight Yoakam as a burnout crackhead heart-surgeon/pimp-daddy, less Dr. Oz than Dr. Benway from Naked Lunch. To keep his adrenaline up, Chev does cocaine off the floor and fucks his girlfriend in public before an audience of gawking L.A. Chinatownees. These are very good twists on the trials and tribulations of the One Man Army action hero, but seem to come from a directing team who never did blow and rarely got laid. Still, Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor treat drug-kingpin movie tropes the way Kenneth Anger did biker dudes in Scorpio Rising. Chev Chelios is naturally a man who takes life at mach speed, and his survivalist street nack gains him Puma sneaks, a retro tracksuit, and the ability to raid Kwik-E-Mart for limitless hi-energy drinks and neuro-enhancing pills. He is on the cannonball binge we all fantasize we were on, too.

Crank 2: High Voltage (2009) Jason StathamCrank 1 and C:2 embellish scenes with a cookie jar of hypertext: pop-up style addendums; gratuituous, faux-explicative subtitles; and a super-RAM’d Google maps-app that guides the viewer through Chev's vengeance journey. The controlling nihilism is a joke - at one point Chev’s desperation causes him to point his mammoth handgun at an innocent, gurney-stricken patient rushed to the emergency room - but we want to see Chev Chelios succeed. Don't we all imagine ourselves in a race against time terrorized by grade-Z stock scumatorium bad guys? It is mildly amusing that Chelios spends a chunk of screen-time in a hospital gown with his bum hanging out, and there is a nice gag about an Epenephrine-induced boner. Jason Statham tactfully plays the hard-ass deadpan that made Arnold Schwarzeneggar, in his day, so compelling and hilarious and iconic, and Chev’s East End limey accent is a helpful tinge, as J.C. Van Damme’s Belgian inflections were fitfully Borat-esque.

In all fairness, the filmmakers don't really save Chev at the end of C:1, though his eyes blink and nostrils flare after falling thousands of feet from a helicopter, on his cell phone no less, leaving a remorseful message for his girlfriend, to the placid yacht rock of "Miracles" by Jefferson Airplane. Chev bounces off the top of a car into the middle of L.A. traffic, back on his old turf. But the staggering implausibility shouldn't exactly be mistaken for innovation in the genre.

Crank (2006) Jason Statham“My strawberry tart!” Crank 2: High Voltage keeps the gags and zingers going with a few but not enough fresh twists. C:2 ups the Opti-Man conceit - once Chev's superhuman heart is extracted by sicko ghetto doctors, they next prioritize the disjunction of his One Man Army dick. Amy Smart is back again as Chev's ditzy, harangued ladyfriend (boned again in public, this time on the turf of Hollywood Park Race Track). In the climactic blinged-out rooftop showdown, it is revealed that Chev’s old enemy, Verona, is not quite dead. Verona’s fall from the sky was supposed to have killed him at the end of C:1 as it did not Chev Chelios – Verona exists now as a decapitated head floating in a jar of electron-induced fluid, a warped version of the New Human, gurgling trash-talk from a Creature Shop noggin with the equal wrath New Yorker readers regard Sarah Palin. But Crank: High Voltage is too much the “part 2” in a trilogy, with neither a satisfied cliffhanger nor any rounding out of the installment's story. Instead, C:2 juices up the obsession with defacement of sex organs, including chopped-off male nipples and silicone that bleeds from a stripper’s shot-up fake tits. An egregious Bai Ling (herself a walking & talking mutant sex object) is thankfully whammed in the air by a speeding car.

The Survivalist #6 - The Savage Horde, by Jerry Ahern, 1983Spoiler: C:2 ends with Chev cowled in flame after a peculiarly invigorating electric shock.  The Doc replants Chev's strawberry tart, and one can only assume that Poondong, played with cheap inconsequential camp by David Carradine – the B-movie guru’s final role - will feature more prominently in Crank 3. Did they cast Mr. Carradine as the arch-villain only after Warren Beatty backed out? Who will next play the mad and giggly Poondong? This author suggests a career-bending Ben Affleck. As the inimitable biblionaut Q.R. Markham postulates, Chev Chelios may very well return transcendentally in Crank 3 as "pure energy riding the power lines like a datastream lawnmower man."

We should enjoy the Crank movies now, because their inferior spawn will be glutting the multiplexes and online cable channels without psychic mercy in the not-at-all-distant future - no matter that Obama might intone a different paradigm than had before. The sensibility is already straight from a Cold War, Art Brut pulp paperback - Chev is directly incarnate of Mack Bolan, The Executioner, a Vietnam Vet vigilante, and Nick Carter, the inviolable Killmaster, an American grindhouse 007. These testosteronovels are innately descriptive by the name-dropping of luxey brands and gun jargon. John Rourke, ex-CIA survivor of a nuclear holocaust in the early-80s Survivalist paperback series, is armed with “Detonics stainless under his right armpit in the double Alessi rig.” Sunglasses and motorcycles are given similar schmancy cataloguing. In Crank, the placed products are things any urbo-buzzhead can find at Duane Reade, the Apple Store or on Ebay. Too bad though, that the old Anco Theater on 42nd Street wasn’t around anymore for 2AM screenings of these depraved extravaganzoids. . .

Martin Mull - Serial (1980) & Rented Lips (Robert Downey, Sr.)

Serial Martin Mull
Rented LipsMartin Mull, the comedic persona, plays best the sardonic professional whose common sense is tyrannized by an unruly, nonsensical world. In Serial that world is the New-Age ethos turning everyone into Esalen zombies; in Rented Lips it is Hollywood, a stand-in for all forces that apparently stifle creative expression. Mull does not countenance idealism and his call for order is not puritan or status quo. His characters are ever quicker than the audience, and no matter how self-deprecating or schlubby, he always has a smart-ass line that, even if it isn't his cleverest you want to laugh because it is Martin Mull saying it, from just below the tawny primmed mustache and professorially deadpan eyes, like a fed-up Roast-master. Much of Mull's schtick is derived from his starring TV turn on Fernwood 2 Night, as campy and haughty wide-collared talk show host Barth Gimble. He has a rich pedigree as a supporting character in 80s comedies, like the smarmy prick boss in Mr. Mom - and in TV, having showed up on the likes of transgressive sitcoms Dream-On (1990) and Get A Life (1990). Mull’s way is the believable weirdo with a bit of dimension: Pat Coletti, the millionaire next-door neighbor in OC & Stiggs (1985, R. Altman) who, when asked “What do you do?” answers, "Basically, I drink;" or Gene Parmesan, the abject master of disguise on Arrested Development (2004). This author has yet to view Mull’s performance as Colonel Mustard in the Clue adaptation (1985), but it suits the man that he would enliven a boardgame character.

The Serial novelSerial unravels in Marin County, CA, at the aftermath of the Me Me Me Decade. Martin Mull, as Harvey Holroyd, is the straight guy whose life comes homeopathically crumbling down: daughter joins a psycho love cult; a silly affair with the sultry orgy-queen; the old-fashioned friend with whom Holroyd commutes by ferry to work that ends up on a debauched suicidal Quaaludes binge; Tuesday Weld, as Mrs. Holroyd, beholden to the coked-out pill-pushing Frederick Perlsesque shrink; and a gay biker club headed by closet CEO Christopher Lee a/k/a 'Skull.' The romp is well-tinged by the Lalo Schifrin cheeseball lite FM theme song, and the Catskills zinger-style comedy applies to an ultra-contemporary satire which, today, almost 30 years later, has removed the movie from the pop discourse in ways that no-brainers (though classics) like Caddyshack and Vacation have lingered in influence. Very rarely has Mull been given the star power with which he shines in Serial, with a most apt predicament of the loose and sunny sham 70s stiffening into the glitzy and shammier 80s.
Serial Martin Mull VHS cover

In Rented Lips, Mull is Archie Powell, a loser who makes socially conscience documentaries and still lives with his mother. Shady investors agree to give Archie money to make his dream movie about Native American farming, on the condition that he also make a porno flick, and the hack actors involved will star in both productions. It is a problem for the movie that there is never any sex. A Mull fan would expect prodigiously smart and smutty gags upon such a premise, but a whole swath of pertinent trashy gags is lost. Instead, the movie does The Producers vein: silly musical numbers with Navajo and Nazi costumes set to a score by Van Dyke Parks. The script is credited solely to Martin Mull – perhaps the calamity in the movie apes its own making. The principled Artist stands for the purity of his Art within the shackles of an unfair and cruel system. It's the actor's territory surely but not one for the Mull canon.


(1971) Woody Allen.

Bananas Woody Allen VHS backcoverIt is easy to forget that Woody once was married to Louise Lasser, and accordingly she was featured in his early films. In Bananas, she is a young collegiate dabbling in lefty politics and Zen Buddhism and women's lib. Woody, as Fielding Mellish, just wants to get her in the mood: his response to Louise expounding upon her study of philosophy: "Do you like Chinese?"

Shamelessly knockabout when ladies are mugged on the subway:

Mellish is shamefully knockabout transacting porno:

Bananas is a ripe example of Woody putting his nightclub act into movie form - scenes are tied together with punchlines and zingers. Mellish has a recurring dream, where he is bound to a cross and carried on the shoulders of cowled figures down a NYC sidestreet - but his fantasy of religious sacrifice is thwarted when a rival crucifixion comes along and tries to take his own death pageant's parking space. It is as if a scene from a Woody Allen short story finding life in the script.

Woody's directing style is vintage late 60s/early 70s, hip and slapdash, delightfully old-fashioned though the political schtick is timeless - especially in the wise use of Howard Cosell, color commentating the Mellish honeymoon:

Mellish is put on trial for his treasonous activities and goes pro se:

Louise Lasser's Nancy is whiny, humorless, shallow and is only interested in Fielding when she mistakes him for a courageous revolutionary leader - she is one of Woody's least cerebral female relationships and the most marginal of his infamous companions; and it only emboldens Fielding Mellish as a classic total hysterical loser.

Observe and Report

(2009) Jody Hill.
Observe And Report.jpg
J.Hoberman, the critiquellisimo, writes that actor Seth Rogen plays main character Ronnie Barnhardt "with admirable disregard for audience empathy.“ It has taken eight years for the post-9/11 psychic effect on the average Joe to play out most expressively in mainstream movies. Assuredly, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour did it in 2002, but that was firstly a New York movie. Observe and Report takes place in Ex Urbania, U.S.A. Like any great work of art about war, the war is not mentioned or seen (like The Deer Hunter Pittsburgh sequences, and Hemingway’s quiet girthy tale of fishing on "Big River"). Ronnie is a gullible social neophyte who has latched upon an expectation of himself based on the boosterism of honor and duty but finds that the world doles out otherwise. Observe And Report.jpgCompounded by bipolar disorder, absent father, and a mother who recovers alcoholism by pounding beers all day and can still be fine - Ronnie is ripe to crack. He believes doubtlessly in the sincerity of his night out with Brandi, the cosmetics-counter skank (Anna Faris with a sly wink-wink performance), and it can be said that the conception scene in Knocked Up is as equally maladjusted a conjugal interaction as Ronnie and Brandi’s mawkish connubials. Seth Rogen is becoming poster boy for the awkward, gross hook-up to which most people can relate but suppress into murky memory. In Ronnie’s naively ill mind, it was a night of passion. He is inspired by the suddenly evolved camaraderie with Dennis, his Chicano recidivist co-security guard, and together they lay the punishing rod to parking-lot skateboarders. Is Ronnie really ignorant? An idealist victim?
Observe And Report Gil Jacobson.jpg

He is true to himself to the point of vacating his identity - the “real Ronnie” get-up for his date with Brandi is an elegantly sub-goombah goldchain ensemble, as is the bicameral mind costume of Ronnie’s climactic alias Gil Jacobson, with Kangold cap and fuddy-dud windbreaker. Each of these outfits are small masterful techniques of characterization, and they fool no one but Ronnie. Society has corrupted the young man - his glorification of justice through violence targets the current conservative enemies via Islamofascism & Illegal Immigration: Arabs & Latinos. He is convinced he passes his police psychological evaluation with flying colors by disclosing his dream of wielding "the biggest motherfucking shotgun you've ever seen" and blowing away the black cloud of "cancer and pus" that terrorizes Playground Earth (sounding alot like the smoke monster on Lost). Ronnie's soliloquies are infused with the cliched grandiose language of religion and New Ague self-help and 1980s soldier-of-fortune style pulp paperbacks: absurd, lyrical, complex sound collages for the new century. Like Dennis says, his anti-buddy, "Sometimes I drink from volcanoes."

Are we to be happy for Ronnie regaining his job, achieving the adoration of Nell - the more steady-headed gal, the scarred but smiling coffee-counter sweetheart (she recognizes her own reformed darkness in Ronnie), and winning approbation for gunning down the puddy-wang Mall Flasher? It is a Hollywood ending, and though Ronnie’s goals from the beginning are met, they accompany a severe harrowing of hell that most moviemakers relent to include (an exception being the Coen Bros, and Ronnie invokes John Turturro’s “The Schmatte” from Miller's Crossing in his mock supplication, "Look in your heart!" before thrashing his gangsta accosters led by picaresquely vulgar Danny McBride). Ronnie thinks he does inscrutable good, executing moral authority to the cybergogic Queen soundtrack of Flash Gordon, but his comeuppance is betrayal and psychotropic malfunction. In the end, the uppity news anchor finally gets Ronnie’s professional title correct, when in the beginning, to the tune of The Band’s jangly-wangly “Masterpiece,” not even Ronnie has it right.

The VHS Stack - Maniac Cop

(1988) William Lustig.

Maniac Cop (1988)Larry Cohen, the screenwriter of Maniac Cop and a frequent director of his own glib lurid scripts, has the ideal career - cranking out semi-artful, narratively whipcracked, socially conscious, B-movie genre pictures and TV shows, with a positivity of creative control, attracting a random stock of solid C-list actors (but A-list in the grindhouse), with minimal sacrifice to artistic code. Maniac Cop is a hulking uniformed police officer in the old-timey tunic and belt who stalks the empty, sinister late-80s Manhattan streets, killing innocent civilians with a saber drawn from his nightstick. The Larry Cohen punchline antics begin when a young girl flees muggers (down Prince Street, right outside the old Rocks In Yer Head record shop), and the girl encounters a cop but the cop senselessly murders her in Washington Square Park as the muggers hide and watch. After a spree of similar attacks on everyday citizens, the public no longer trusts the men in blue, and old ladies are soon blowing away traffic officers. Maniac Cop causes social distortion in his vengeance against the City. Instead of directly attacking the mayor & police commissioner (who eventually get thrashed by the saber) he starts at the pedestrian level, the most trustworthy of urban caste. A welcome new twist in the vigilante movie, a genre that works well in reference to its own immediate time and place. That is why The Brave One sucks, and Observe & Report is inspired.

The Limits of Control

(2009) Jim Jarmusch.

The Limits of Control, Jim Jarmusch

Jim Jarmusch is not a great moviemaker because of the way Ideas are postulated, but because of the craftsmanship of their scenarios. This movie is one lumbering scenario in the mask of an Idea, spiraling into tedium in its patterns and repetitions. The variation and routine is complexly laid out to little effect. The deliberately fuzzy aims become clear in the student-film level intellect and cheaply-wowed mystic spareness of the sequences and dialogue. Isaach De Bankole is a compelling, stone-chiseled countenance and infuses it with a delicate, spartan life, but the movie hardly supports him. The references to art, film, literature are all thrown bones with no marrow, footnotes of the moviemaker's imagination – as if the movie should be left in the bathroom stack for hunched readers to skim like a book of famous quotes. The dialogue is collectively trite and quips about hallucinogenic drugs and molecular science limply suck those subjects of any suggestiveness. It feels as if one is being whispered repeatedly, tortuously like MK-Ultra, what one already knows, desecrating the richness of experience, and so, among other things, the cinematography fails to capture the audiences’ awareness of the Spanish environs (see the opening five minutes of Whit Stillman’s Barcelona). The climax showdown with typical asshole American epitomizes the meek lefty's imaginary enemy. Is Jarmusch trying to make a movie from the perspective of an ill-informed Western European conspiracy theorist? The agent of the secret group for whom Lone Man kills speaks French to him, translated into English by a gold-chained oaf. Do the rest of the characters represent Euro-intelligentsia clich├ęs? If so, the movie is natural to the Jarmusch canon, but it would then follow that Jim's grave nods to the imagination should be deliberately trivial, which it cannot be said they are, and in effect one is embarrassed for them.

The Limits of Control, Jim Jarmusch, French guysBill Murray, the character called American, as always with all material whether Rodney Dangerfield or Shakespeare, is superbly in tune and makes the most with least. He tosses his toupee atop the decorative skull on his desk, and shares a quick stare with his own death-head that is more abundant with personality than most of the whole movie, and the excessive f-bombs are a welcome ring. Bill’s pedigree in sketch comedy - to work in context out of context - serves the movie’s groove that is otherwise mostly missed. Gael’s gaucho getup is enviably gritty and it seems John Hurt walks out of an Evelyn Waugh novel before hurrying back in, but, overall, a silly mod pop band from the late 60s could have taken this script and made it into a counterculture hit, just substitute the band for the Lone Man. The Limits Of Control puts Jarmusch in jeopardy of the Tarantino hero-worship syndrome – that obsessed fandom will let the moviemaker get away with any movie, and so the editing process in later work degenerates.

The theme of emptiness and dream-logic mystery peaked with 80s Cold War nuclear brinksmanship. The standards are different today. Good art about “nothing” can be engaging (like Naked & Seinfeld), but Limits seems to be a shoddy assemblage of discarded jots from the truly profound movies upon which Jim's rep is based - Dead Man, Ghost Dog, Stranger Than Paradise etc. Among the digital age of information mega-scope (whether the info true or false), the smoky beatnik style of incessantly flip cultural references seems more dorky than cool. Jim knows this - he spoke sardonically and rakishly about transcendent socio-aesthetic paradigms in the Q&A after a screening of The Limits Of Control at Lincoln Center on April 30.

*For a more relevant and resonant experience of how alienation, imagination and authority mix a volatile cocktail, see Observe & Report.

Harley Davidson & The Marlboro Man & Ishtar

Ishtar VHS front cover artThere was a period in the 1980s when the idea of the profane macho-man devolved, from movies made by grown men with adult minds to movies made by grown men with adolescent minds, and most likely because the audience got younger and hopefully not the minds of men – and men who grew up on 60s & 70s tough guy movies took their young sons to the new ones coming out in the 80s – whatever the movie, as long as there was a male lead, big guns, bad guys, bad words and fucked-up action. And usually an objectification of females. In 1987 these men never took their sired to see Ishtar.

Harley & Marlboro makes several nods to Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (a movie which is, equitably, rather chaste among many others in this canon), just as Ishtar nods off like a junkie to old Hope/Crosby capers. Beatty & Hoffman exude a certain shameless honesty, the male bonding that is both pathetic and exalting. Their songster schtick is out of whack and flat when merged with the silly 80s stagecraft, but these fashions become picturesque when Hoffman runs around Ishtar wearing a faux-futuristic Grace Jones-style headband.

Harley & Marlboro is just as shameless in its male-bonding scenario, and Crockett and Rourke’s pan-fried personas inspire a bit of trust in the subtext. These renegade pre-apocalyptic ramblers are out to save their favorite hangout, The Rock N Roll Bar & Grill, from the Great Trust bank, a financial conglomerate run by slick-haired, black shiny overcoat-clad android yuppies (a staple villainry of 1990s movies). One of the yuppies continually refers to Harley and Marlboro as “dilettantes.” Our guys just try keeping it real: classic Americans standing off in defense of hard-earned property. If the movie had been a hit, would it have spawned a series of blue-collar product-hero movies set in the not-at-all-distant future? Marlboro’s love interest is Virgina Slim (she’s a cop), and ex-WWF wrestler Big John Stud plays Jack Daniels (he gets blown away).

Harley Davidson & The Marlboro Man

The audience for Harley & Marlboro, at the time, surely expected nothing more from Don Johnson and Mickey. But the audience of Ishtar expected more from Hoffman and Beatty (neither Don nor Rourke had ever made award-winning Communist epics or been part of the Tootsie consciousness). Ishtar falls in the canon of screwball but the actors and director veer back and forth between the self-awareness of it and of not - and the flick only works engagingly when not: Beatty reaching out to Hoffman on the Upper West Side ledge where Hoffman threatens to cast himself off, the inverted ironical moment of intimacy, “You have the guts to admit you have nothing. . .” Hoffman auctioneering in nonsense Bedouin language and Beatty disguised as a sandman pretending to understand the dialect. A fine metaphor for the characters’ relationship. And their fantasy hit song, "Dangerous Business," passes the Old Grey Whistle Test with depressing catchiness, a real kneeslapper in the sequences of the two actors as failures composing it, mistaking the random for the inspired, until they are crawling deliriously around the desert, spouting inane Tin Pan Alley rhymes. Producer Warren has withdrawn the film from the data stream for fear of subsequent exposure[?], but Don Johnson basically mimicked his portrayal of The Marlboro Man weekly as Nash Bridges.

ps: The Shine Box screened Ishtar on VHS, Harley & Marlboro post-analog.


(1980) Anne Bancroft.

Dominick "Fatso" DiNapoli is not so fat - played with more pathos than bathos by a pre-Cannonball Run Dom DeLuise, he is not obese like his cousin Sal. When Sal and Fatso were alter boys together during Mass, Sal would secretly pass Fatso chocolates, and Fatso ate them. Sal dies at 39, slain by gluttony. Anne Bancroft, who wrote and directed the movie, plays Fatso's shrill cousin, wailing over the coffin and warning Fatso that he is next for the grave. Fatso mourns Sal in the only terms he knows, by imagining what Sal had on his last pizza.

Fatso has a knack for the art of topping a slice of Italian bread with marinara. He cries over Sal while stirring and salting the tomato sauce. He is not a vile eater but a constant eater. He is proud of the delicacy with which he prepares his pathological food, like the right amount of jelly on his bread to go with his eggs. Whereas Fatso is patient and genial, walking to work in the old Italian West Village and greeting neighbors on the street on the way to DiNapoli’s Card Store, his family and friends are stressed and overworked and unhappy Italianotypes, and pick on Fatso more than look after his welfare. After dabbling with Dr. Schwartzman, a diet quack on East 65th Street, Fatso finds the girl of his dreams, a shy little blonde pumpkin. In the end he’s still fat but less hungry.

The VHS Stack - Bound

(1996) The Wachowski Brothers.

boundLovelorn lesbo con-lady romp, giddy with parlor room mob noir mechanics, zazzy dialogue, hammy acting and slick late-90s special effects. Equal parts Brian DePalma & butch scrivener Pat Califia. When Joey Pants is about to chop Gina Gershon's fingers off, it has already been proven what special techniques those fingers have performed. . . down Jennifer Tilly's starved honeypot. . . Joey Pants artfully whacked in a symbolic pool of whitewash jizz. . .

The VHS Stack - A Fish Called Wanda

(1988) Charles Crichton.
wanda1 Watching it for the gazillionth time, still a pure gut-bust. High-art British masterwork screwball plotting the cross-eyed Reagan/Thatcher 1980s. Otto is a man whose mind has mixed up the whole of Western civilization, and acts it every scene (as in the ravaging inability to say "I'm sorry," and his knockabout act mimicry of foreign languages), and Jamie Lee the bravura sweetheart vamp, finding cues as would thespianess Miriam Hopkins.

Gran Torino

(2009) Clint Eastwood.

granAn exhultation of Clint's forebrow, the Eastwood squint has arched itself like a vortex into a confounded snarl, lucidly baffled, staunch, wrathful and crackling under U.S. history of the last 50 years. It looms over the opening sequence, the funeral for the wife of Walt Kowalski, a Korean War vet and retired autoworker whose sense of the twilight hour is told in the language and humor of blue-collar beer-can front porch politics. Kowalski vows to stay in the neighborhood in which he has dwelled for 40 years (an economically devolved Michigan inner exurb), and where he is now a minority. Old Walt's new neighbor is a family of three generations of Hmong, a people inadvertently become refugees of the Vietnam War. There is a good eye rhyme between Kowalski and his Hmong equivalent: a grumpy granny who matches Kowalski's spit of tobacco juice from her rocking chair, each of them abject over the state of their legacy. Like any first generation U.S. neighborhood, Kowalski's is fraught by gang violence. The Blacks and Latinos fuck with the most recent influx, the Asians. But no matter the bloodline, Kowalski has a derogatory phrase for it, and offers a roster that is copious but at times clunky and redundant.

Is Clint pining for the old, sluggardly, barrel-chested times? Is he wistful over the phase-out of Kowalski's bygone, bigoted, grizzled attitudes regarding manhood, patriotism & ethnicity? Not so much. And, fairly (both to the movie and its ideas), what Clint sets up to succeed Kowalski's generation is not encouraging: Walt's lame-ass, Dubyaesque sons, and the hopelessly twatty Spears/Lohan granddaughter. In Million Dollar Baby, the “white trash” characters are stereotyped and overdone - limp melodrama. In Gran Torino, Clint's grown children are nouveau upper-middle class fathers of their own with fat necks and cheap values, and they weave into the story as do the contrived ethnic slurrage and car metaphors, picturesque as propaganda without being propaganda.

Clint is bent on the afterlife in death, an issue over which Kowalski haggles with young redhead Father Janovich, whom Kowalski both berates and befriends, both men following an oath to Kowalski's departed wife. For Clint the afterlife is film: for Kowalski it is the reckoning of everyday violence. The only gunslinging Clint performs is with his cocked finger-and-thumb pistol. He maintains his real guns as museum pieces. It would seem overblown to suggest the film is an elegy if Clint himself didn’t sing the title song over the end credits. Gran Torino harks back to at least a couple of Old Hollywood traditions: the pre-Code 30s, when ex-vaudevillian scenarists populized melodramatic Americana precedents to tell an edgy story; and of course the 1970s, when bone-crunching tough-guy operas reached a peak of both maturity and brutality. If one had to be a crotchety old racist middle-class codger, then one would want to be like Walt Kowalski.

. . . a secondary theme song of the movie might be Clint's folksy duet with Ray Charles recorded for the bareknuckle orangutang-sidekick comedy Any Which Way You Can. . .

The VHS Stack - Johnny Handsome

(1990) Walter Hill.

Johnny Handsome.jpg

Mickey Rourke portrays a small-time New Orleans bank robber blessed with a saint's soul but disavowed by the congenital facial deformity of a warlock – even surpassing as an iconograph that which the actor in "real life" would later wreak both surgically and pugilistically upon his own countenance. The ironic “Johnny Handsome” is double-crossed on a bank job and ends up in prison, where an ambitious pointdexter surgeon (Forest Whitaker) attempts to perform radical Face-Off-esque treatment to restore Johnny with a humanable face – which turns out to be that of Mickey Rourke post-9½ Weeks. Johnny then returns to society, and though his face reforms his soul does not: he fails at innocent romance and takes revenge on those who betrayed him – scuzzbag maestro LanceJohnny Handsome 2.jpg Henrickson and marvelous pulp-bitch Ellen Barkin. Morgan Freeman plays a dapper folksy Bayou-cosmopolite detective, the one character who knows that Johnny ain’t really so Handsome. Walter Hill draws his metaphysics from the French but his colors from brute American precedents. And where to begin placing Johnny Handsome in the current hagiography of Mickey in The Wrestler? Johnny shows a man bounding back his new face into the old universe; Randy The Ram seizes an old face in an old place and causes it to transmogrify.

The VHS Stack

In the summer of 2008, a video store in Hell's Kitchen was having a VHS sale, 3 tapes for $10. Not the best deal for a near-fossilized modal of entertainment, but still your author participated during lunch break in between lecturing atop bus tours of Manhattan Island.

Frequent visitations were made to Video Cafe, where the premises hark way back to the hoary likes of Palmer Video & Joe's Video on Bloomfield Avenue in Verona, New Jersey, where as a lad your author first engaged the aesthetics of the VCR - the goofy staff, the chintzy wire racks, the bizarro consciousness-insinuating early box art, the chemic fragrance of outdated plastic packaging, the random sounds of whatever movie screened that hour from the monitors perched off the ceiling: maybe Stallone, maybe a stray disciple of the Brat Pack, maybe French, maybe the Resident Evil film.

The sale at Video Cafe was limited to drama, comedy and horror, which your author was not apprised of until after making picks from the classics and foreign section. Stalker and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? had to be put back on the shelf.

And so a memoir of watching that stack of movies bought. . . .


On the Town by Robert Towne

The Last Detail

Hal Ashby knows how to draw forth Jack's knack for the physicality of madness (Five Easy Pieces spazz-out in the front seat, axe work in The Shining ), Jack's raunch eloquence (Cuckoo's Nest hobohemian, camp bigotry of The Departed), and the cool, composed manner of ease when stuck with the insuperable condition of the world (varsity sweatshirt lawyer in Easy Rider, identity-thief media agent in The Passenger, King of Marvin Gardens maverick literati).  This is "Bad Ass" Buddusky.

A true counterculture movie, where the rebellion, alienation and urge to uprise is traced from the inside-out.  Three guys who have each chosen their own imprisonment in the Navy.  Otherwise the universe is chaos. Ecstasy is delivered from beating back those prison walls as if they were not the only choice for these sailors.  Buddy existentialism, just enough solemn and just enough hilarious.

The VHS Stack - Phenomena

(1985) Dario Argento.
Phenomena Dario Argento.jpg

A banal curiositaliana of the horror movie concept – throw in whatever deviant nutso idea that comes to mind in the writing process (insect mind-reading, a killer mutant dwarf, songs by Iron Maiden, Bill Wyman and Motorhead) and place at the crux of it all a teenage Jennifer Connelly victimized at an all-girls boarding school (plus a genius monkey who avenges evil with a razorblade).

Phenomena Dario Argento 2.jpg

The Truly Alienated - Movies in 2008

In 2008, The Shine Box saw a total of 36 new films in the theater, 40 revivals on the big screen, and 81 movies on the small screen (including complete TV show seasons, which count for '1').

Top 3:

1. My Winnipeg, Guy Maddin.
The "forks beneath the forks. . ." Guy Maddin explicates the hometown in a language he finds most truly and artfully explainable. If any “documentary” on The History Channel were made as this movie, the consciousness of civilization may yet take a prodigious step forward.

2. Mister Lonely, Harmony Korine.
An evocation of sympathy for the supremely alienated, on a mountain lake commune of voidoid superstar impersonators, a reshuffling of human symbols in the free market of signs and signifiers. Diego Luna is a wannabe Michael Jackson who is in fact the true portrayal of Michael Jackson, visiting the island of the live dead, himself impersonating one who himself impersonates the Human Being neither male/female, white/black, young/old. Replete with close-up bloodshot-eyed Abe Lincoln in strobe-light reciting the Gettysburg Address while spinning on his finger a red white & blue basketball. . . .

3. The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky.
A bravura biopic in the vernacular of industrial city event halls and Jersey Dollar and decrepit winter boardwalks and strip clubs called ‘Cheeks’ and wrestling action figures and 80s heavy metal, where an “old broken down piece of meat” re-ravishes his identity on and off the mat, taking staples in his broad ram’s back for the crowd’s roar (which sounding is not the same made by the customers at the supermarket deli counter demanding potato salad). Mind’s survival instinct to the gruel and rancor of the Body, Marisa Tomei’s Cassidy/Pam engaged with her own deep reckoning, ass to the greasy crowd, a nether rung of show business enjambing selves who are losing the ability to play by it. A French cahier du-boy might point out that twenty years ago Mickey Rourke starred with similar biomatic subtext as the title anti-hero in Johnny Handsome.

[in no order]

4. Four Nights With Anna, Jerzy Skolimowski.
see Guest Screenings

5. The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan.
An extravagant arabesque proof that Justice must cast itself as the enemy in order to deliver the City from its crimes. Where Batman Begins was a revelation of History, The Dark Knight is the excoriator of Morality. The Joker is played as the hero as Batman lopes among Gotham’s shadows meditating the counter-deflection of purple terrorist thunderbolts. And “Zeus” Lister proving the People’s crisis rightward. . .

ps: The wholehearted acceptance of this movie by both the general public and pop culture nerdlingers is a bit inquirable, if not unnerving, in that audiences - whether of the hawk or dove - have approved it seemingly without any question as to its consequential or philosophical merits, as most of the country did back in 2003 with the Iraq War. It is not so certain that the dense schematic of themes in The Dark Knight are resonating with viewers as much as the shock and awe of its spectacular FX histrionics and the macabre, carnivalesque treat of Heath Ledger (most duly garnered of course). This moviegoer awaits a more fleshed-out take on the movie after shelling out $16 for the IMAX re-release later this month.

6. Pineapple Express, David Gordon Green.
Mark gravely the remark that this hysterical para-macho buddy smash-up gemstone will be a culty “have-you-seen” fav within the next year or so!

7. Redbelt, David Mamet.
Redbelt’s is the premise in which we all imagine our ethical lives take place, the dearth of opportunity to prove what is pure. To employ what one does best against forces which ineluctably break one. Mike Terry's world is manipulated against itself, and so he manipulates his opposing world likewise (a world which is of course not without Hollywood), brawling outside the ring, and as the victor is given the redbelt.

8. Wall-E , Andrew Stanton.
Classic knockabout existential sci-fi, the last operable machine on a planet junked to death by technology who falls in love with his would-be assassin. A doomsday movie that stays true to its bleak premise, when a machine must teach tub o’lard humans how to be human, set against a gloriously ravished landscape that takes cue from the apocalyptic panoramas of psych-era paperback bookcovers. And no less frightening is Fred Willard the evil technocrat!

9. Boarding Gate, Olivier Assayas.
If a Vin Diesel-style 00s globetrotting thriller were made devoid of flash and glam starring hyper-abused Asia Argento - execution rooms in the back of Hong Kong warehouses, shoot-outs at prefab port terminal offices at night, drugged drinks at Hong Kong karaoke clubs, the failed revisitation of sex acts before the assassination of Michael Madsen, and a good Eno score.

10. Che, Steven Soderbergh; & 11. Milk, Gus Van Sant.
Che and Milk follow men driven by human ideals surrounded by a band of activist freedom fighters, and in each movie, in each band, there is one woman. Crusader movies based on an actual personage, Milk's guerilla territory is 1970s San Fran, Che's is both 50s Cuba and 60s Bolivia, and both figureheads are persecuted. Milk shaves his beard and ponytail, Che grows his whiskers longer. They each die by assassination from the gun of political agents. They are similarly styled, with rich, subtle soundtracks, a commanding male lead, a picturesque backdrop, and each a period piece of a recent decade past.

Che, ever cornered deeper in the Bolivian mountains, morale and provisions capsizing, calls on the influence of Sartre and Bertand Russell to corral the discourse in his favor. In Part I, we see Che in New York commingling with diplomats among the spacious LeCorbuism of the United Nations. He makes small talk with Eugene McCarthy at a Silk District cocktail party hosted by journalista Lisa Howard. It is an evocative flourish that Part II begins in the mode of a spy movie, Che infiltrating a distressed Third World nation in disguise - he even spends time with his family before the mission in his bald head and thick-rimmed glasses and potbelly. The movie, even at its length, is a fine-trimmed work of art, and succeeds to subvert the biopic. Che's methods work in one environment and fail in the other, and, as Howard Hawks often does, the events are sequenced to maximize the vigorous movement of many men in clashing scenarios, out in the wilds of nature, in space, against time. After the revolution, Fidel is broadcast on TV, the angle askance a nameless screen, while Che heaves for breath under the ensnaring jungle.

Milk is the Me Decade revolutionary, brutally honest, shameless of his faults: an outgoing, magnetized personality. His lovers – whiskerando James Franco and tortured, infectiously loopy Diego Luna - dramatize Milk’s public life played out in his private. Anita Bryant is a most formidable villain, her character shown only in site-specific footage - she is the Joker to Milk's Batman, and so Dan White is Two-Face, the tortured do-gooder whose identity-collapse effects evil doings.

In each movie an antagonist is ghostly manifested and the grand opposition is finally spiritual. Van Sant surely was personally strategic in making his movie, to its benefit - just as Soderbergh is not vested in Che as a textbook profile. Each moviemaker has proved they can tell a straight-up story (Drugstore Cowboy, The Limey, Sex Lies, Private Idaho), and Che and Milk can stand alone as melodramas rooted in the ideology of historical events. In this way, W. might as well have been an Adam Sandler romp.

12. Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman.
The paranoid artist dream movie where all fears make a narrative that slips again into where it began, a re-mapping of a self's space and time, two things death takes away, turning on its head the trope of Hollywood family/failure who makes good/inspirational genre, with zeppelins flying over the Brooklyn Bridge and grotesque physical afflictions and characters playing other characters until new characters for that character must be introduced. Crypytically measured, hypertexted, significantly acted, precisely designed, almost vividly edited, and mercilessly sucking all romance out of the life of the Artist who is ever compelled to remake the world within which he slugs by.

Not Best But Most Certainly Not Worst:

Step Brothers, Adam McKay.
The McKay/Ferrell/O'Reilly franchise contemporary vaudevillian domestic romporama. The opening George Bush quote propels the sociological framework for the world in which the movie takes place, as if a Twilight Zone episode. A swell hark to the clever episodic ribaldry of National Lampoon magazine.

Body Of Lies, Ridley Scott.
Highly wrought and twisty to the intellect, nailing the twists and the unraveling of the "body of lies," the action scenes are not Bauer/Bourne-ized, and the most visceral consequence is caused by a wild dogs bite, engendering rabies stomach shots. An Iraq war movie told by the ordnance of intelligence, an opening quote from W.H. Auden, capped by a new Guns 'N' Roses tune..

Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, Steven Spielberg.
The Indy team did right right by the series and played into the late 50s setting with an opening slam-bang nuclear setpiece that is self-consciously giddy and paranoid, the Indiana Jones homage to postmodernism. At the end, Mutt Jones is about to don the fedora as if the next generation taking over, but Indy is quick to grab that hat and put it back on his own head where it belongs. It cannot be said that the new James Bond movie did likewise.

Best Film Writing 2008
The inimitable avant-hermenaut J. Hoberman, "What We Learned about the Election in This Summer's Movies"

The Furies, by Brynn White.

Movies To See But Not Yet Seen
JCVD, Doubt, Frost/Nixon, Rachel Getting Married, Ballast, The Last Mistress, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Still Life.

2008 Revival House Movies

[in no order]

1. Rubin & Ed
Howard Hesseman & Crispin Glover buddy spirit jaunt through the Cali-jurassic desert caves of sleek desolate downtown districts and Gordon Gekko-trickle down Motivational Groups, the gags funny and strange eons beyond the veneer of a midnight straight-to-cable job. dir. Trent Harris, 1991, Walter Reade Theater.

2. Where's Poppa
The Borscht premise of a middle-age Upper West Sider living with his old crazy mother, the jokes transgressive (last scene sonny Segal mounting Momma) and mawkishly unsettling ("you the guy that raped the cop?"). An archaeologist may study it as evidence of a particular time and place on Central Park West that is continually phasing out of existence. Carl Reiner, 1970, Film Forum.

3. Kiss Me Deadly
A first and last word on pulp noir, a flyblown macho private-eye led to a small box that scorches you and when opened might have blown up the world, we are put in the experience of what sustains us as organic beings, the desperate breath, following a trail the end of which finds an ungodly power which destroys all matter, unleashed by a creepy, mannered, Count-like old man. Ralph Meeker pioneers a style and swagger not barely seen again until the 70s. Robert Aldrich, 1955, Film Forum.

4. Sword of Doom
As if S. Kubrick made a samurai movie at the far, black, cold arches of space – the hero sitting in an empty room with estranged wife, drinking sake, always staring hard in the Nakadai manner at nothing but the void, dispatching his attackers at the climax rampage as if every lunge is one of isopathic Judgment. Kihachi Okamoto, 1966, Film Forum.

5. Day of Wrath
Like Master Henry James produced a late medieval hellbent Scandanavian witch nouvelle. Carl Dreyer, 1943.

6. Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters
see Guest Screenings

7. Cluny Brown
see Guest Screenings

8. The Long Riders
New Wave Walter Hill Western micro-epic where the riders ride long in freakish slo-mo psychedelic bandit shoot-outs tho the potboiled egomaniacs characterized as stolid self-effacing fraternaholics , lets hope raids such as this movie depicts will not be enacted on Bank Of America's new One Bryant Park. Walter Hill, 1980, BAM.

9. Hatari
A spectacle of chasing rhinos and buffalo on the Tanzanian plain, exemplar of the greatest of Hollywood magic, the "Danger" (Hatari in Swahili) is pleasantly and riotously offset by the soap opera twixt the zoo-hunters, and a ripsnort opener customizes the Forty-Deuce marquee night-on-the-town audience for a nearly three-hour pastiche of Howard Hawks' filmmaking career in the guise of an imperialist African action comedy. The team are gathering animals for the San Diego zoo on the other side of the world. Perhaps this is the only job left appropriate for John Wayne's stereotype spotlight frontiersman? Your author wishes to have seen it at the Victory Theater with a cutie bobbysocker and went for coffee and sandwiches at the Automat afterwards... Howard Hawks, 1962, Anthology Film Archives.

10. Chafed Elbows
Somewhere between French 1920s surrealism, sixties NYC para-dadaism and Milton Berle - Catskillsesque gags for Warholesque premises, like the man with a gangster's drawl who approaches our hero, signs with white paint his initials on our hero's lapel ("A.W." of course) and calls this work "Man on Street" and gives our hero a litany of instructions to which he must violately adhere now that he has been rendered a work in the art world. And the "artist" looks like a shoddy tourist and talks like a Gambino. References to "Jesus Mekas." A true absurd picaresque journey, where cop-killing and incest jokes are made as lightly as the jabs at the art world and Hollywood. Soundtrack of drooly ur-jazz by Hair composer. Robert Downey, Sr., 1966, Anthology Film Archives.

2008 Good Movies on Video

[in no order]

zardoz.jpg1. In A Lonely Place, Nicholas Ray, 1950.
The writer victimized by his own pulp tropes and his own pugnacious romantic past, in Hollywood, Bogart's Dixon Steele scours his deepest Author's hyperfaculties, to prove himself to the Law, the Movies and his Lady Laurel Gray to whom he has already proven, and inspires a most ardent faith while seeming to lack any precedent for it. He burns, Nich Ray style.

2. All of Me, Carl Reiner, 1984.
Martin & Tomlin's mime caper. And who isn't a sucker for swami gags? "Back in bowl, back in bowl."

3. The Power of Nightmares, Adam Curtis, 2004.
Video essay ideogram on the multoid-cameral mind of the 20th Century human.

4. State & Main, David Mamet, 2000.
In light of the playwright-director's conversion to right-wingery (the cerebral timing as bad as Mamet's dialogue in the mouths of the wrong actors - not this movie tho!), State & Main is his rendering of U.S. bi-partisans, and masterfully so.

5. The 39 Steps, Alfred Hitchcock, 1935.
Begins in vaudeville, ends in vaudeville.

6. Artists and Models, Frank Tashlin, 1955.
A translateral Martin & Lewis musical romp about painters struggling in a cartoon world. And vintage Shirley MacClaine.

7. Trouble in Paradise, Ernst Lubitsch, 1932.
Magicianess Miriam and magisterial Herbert romance the grand confidence game.

8. The Thing, John Carpenter, 1982.
The shapeshifter that pits the trust of man against the trust of man, that makes a man seem not who he is, nefariously. A paranoid philosophical psychodrama premised at an Arctic outpost as if the first humans who find that they cannot identify each other and it leads to flamethrowers and psychic breakdowns and a monster made visible in the form of the familiar. Murky, sleek, icy atmospherics and lots of gored and gnarled mutating bodies.

9. Mr. Warmth, John Landis, 2007.
The ole showbiz now in its twilight years as personified by Harry Dean Stanton's opening harmonica riff. Don Rickles, a lifetime piety to The Act. . . Scorsese giggle-choked.

10. 25th Hour, Spike Lee, 2002.
The first great New York movie of the new century.

11. All That Jazz, Bob Fosse, 1979.
Does another film exist like it? No. An ecstatically troubling movie experiences ever, along the way Fosse innovates 80s music vid dance stylings in the cinematography of 70s New Hollywood histrionics by way of the beboppitybump of 50s musicals to the tune of 60s pop eschatology. And a revelatory Knnillssonn song to cap Joe Gideon's Perfect Day.

12. Wild Things, John McNaughton, 1998.
Film soleil mind-fuck grifter flick, director John McNaughton one of the shills. Dillon and Bacon in this movie as Pacino and DeNiro in Heat (then making Neve Campbell's Suzie character the comparable stand-in for L.A, Matt Dillon recitation of a "motherfucker" second-best all-time in movies to DeNiro's diner remark to Wangrove). Ripping thumping score, everything an giddy invidious stand-in for something else. . .

13. The Last Detail, Hal Ashby, 1973.
Robert Towne does On The Town.

14. Bug, William Friedkin, 2006.
Bug is what happens when the wrong man meets the right woman. Begins as a minimalist roadside soap opera evolving into a hypnogogic extravaganza of naked self-mutilation. The aphid trope is straight from 50s/60s Atomic Age, MK-Ultra grinders, but the ramifications play out like a James Purdy short story.

15. The Saddest Music in the World, Guy Maddin, 2003.
The world is sadder that movies are not more often made as the music of this spectronifying archivalist's fetish moto-collage.

16. Mad Men seasons 1-2, 2007-08.

17. The Last Days of Disco, Whit Stillman, 1998.
The Studio 54 disco mythos always had something of Teddy Roosevelt's "Rough Riders" about it, each a motley crosscurrent of sociological types and American classes (Navajos, Yalies, trannies). And so the USS Maine statue at Merchant's Gate in Central Park becomes a figure of frivolous existentialism for the college-buddy IRS spy - and Chloe is evermore disengaged by the guy's soliloquy. Plus all the subway dancing!

18. The Wire seasons 1-3, Ed Burns & David Simon, 2002-04.
Whipcrack-wound opus of action & reaction, of system & anti-system, the void & the hard fact. Some grand profanity is spewed by these characters, like Sgt. Rawls, who has it in for McNulty the way an old Irish cop hates a young Irish cop. "McNulty, you are a gaping asshole..." Nothing is ever played for its own sake and because the show is slyly patient then evolves the spectacle of drama.

19. Zardoz, John Boorman, 1974.
Visionary, hyper-informed, edited according to a translateral, kaleidoscopic logic and unduly ridiculed by modern film history. A precedent in the evolution of film cast in the myth of the New Man.

20. The Short & Curlies, Mike Leigh, 1987.
The giddy gravity of human interaction when other things are also being said, in that snappy, infatuatable British accent.

21. The Proposition, John Hillcoat, 2005.
Communion with the fourth dimension on cliffs above the bloody desert. As if Cormac McCarthy, Conrad and Kipling together went backpacking in Australia. The Brits and the Irish carry their epic conflict into the frontier nightmare outland, the evolving sinews of civilization; its methods, of folk lore and mystic teachings.

22. California Suite, Herbert Ross, 1978.
Neil Simon does 70s LA, Richard Pryor and Michael Caine and Jane Fonda do Neil Simon.

23. Baron of Arizona, Samuel Fuller, 1950.
The Baron invents a property for himself, and an identity for Sofia, 'The Baroness' de Peralta, they are both orphans on the edge of the southwest US, the nation still recognizing Spanish control of the territory. The Baron, an interloper of old documents and land grants, and John Griff, a dashing bibliographic debunker working for the government. The Baron sports the monk's robe, the tchotchke-laden costume of the gypsy, and the black wide-brimmed hats and capes of an outdated royalty transposed to the hot American frontier. At last, the love of Sofia and The Baron prevails, in that old tradition of older men marrying much younger girls. As crisp as a movie can be.

24. Serial, Bill Persky, 1980.
Martin Mull the straight guy as his life comes homeopathically crumbling down at the cusp of the 80s Me Decade aftermath in Marin County. Lalo Schifrin cheeseball lite FM theme song. Spot-on Catskills zinger scenarios and ultra-of-its-time satire, which may have caused the movie's unfortunate "dated" out-of-print, out-of-discourse status.

25. Impostor,’ Jim Carrey, In Living Color, 1990s.
Evidence of everything that is genius about Jim Carrey.

2008 Guest Screenings

The Shine Box attended several NYC screenings this year with guest appearances by artists and critics hailing from the sometimes rapturous, sometimes intolerably geeked-out world of repertory filmdom. . . .
Film Forum hosted "An Evening w/ Sidney Lumet," where the director conversed with folksy and erudite film historian Foster Hirsch. Several career highlight clips were played, and Sidney, though a bit canned with his answers, is infectiously respectable, a belabored artist of magnanimous NYC street pedigree. Check The Verdict and Serpico and most gladly The Wiz.

At Walter Reade Theater (Lincoln Center these days very much resembling a leftover setpiece from The Wiz) Crispin Glover introduced both the crowdpleasing Americana artifact The Orkly Kid and the Southern California late-80s schtickedelic road parable Rubin and Ed. Crispin did his routine Q&A afterwards, for which The Shine Box had already sat once before, at IFC, after Crispin's mesmerizingly disarming "Big Slide Show." Except for Crispin's tale of what really happened at his infamous Letterman appearance, which he told circuitously but lucidly unskinned (after some dweeb in the audience asked about it), the Q&A was a longwinded exercise.

At Film Forum, The Shine Box was privileged to have screened King Kong on its 75th birthday, with an audience that included 30 members of the picturesque and homely Sons Of Kong Club, riotously applauding Kong's both tropical and metropolitan victory. It was as if seeing this masterwork for the first time - indeed the first time projected on the big screen.

At BAM played The Driver, part of a Walter Hill retrospective, a gritty LA action car-chase flick as if an homage to post-apocalyptic Paris, with some brief commentary by charmingly wizened film exegete Elliot Stein.

Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell introduced Cluny Brown at Walter Reade, part of the Jennifer Jones series, the First Couple of film criticism, prolific veterans of New York's trade in Ideas. The hearts of all men at least once in their lives fall for a girl like Cluny, but rarely does a man ever see it come about as dashing as Charles Boyer.

BAM served up an Elliot Gould series, and The Shine Box made it to the Jules Feiffer 60s socio-caper Little Murders, followed by a Q&A with star Gould casually conducted by ex-Sun scrivener and A-Bones axman Bruce Bennett. The Shine Box accompanied to the screening legendary table tennis champion and ping-pong hustler Marty Reisman, who knew Elliot, and after the movie, at the reception, amidst the small flurry of Gouldists, these two arch-radicalists struck a dialogue in which The Shine Box happened upon participation. Marty had always told the story of a poker game that went on for years in some stogie-nosher's apartment in the Upper West Side in the late 60s, and that among the errant players were Walter Matthau and Elliot Gould. On the steps outside BAM Gould was humbly asked about the adventure. Marty provided the details, but Gould's memory was reluctant. "I was never good at poker," he said. "Because you have to bluff, and as an actor I can't lie. . ." And we all watch Elliot Gould movies because we all want Elliot Gould. In Little Murders we get Elliot, an artsy depressed mook processed into a pre-war high-rise sniper along with the rest of New York City's figurative population; plus Donald Sutherland as an East Village Plastic Inevitable minister, and Judge Lou Jacobi enunciating his Lower East Side immigrant story as if the riot act.

In the classically vast Ziegfeld Theater screened Four Nights With Anna, part of the New York Film Festival, with the movie's director appearing for the Q&A, imposing and rakish artist/lumberjack Jerzy Skolimowski. A love story between two rape victims set in the cold gray 21st century outlands of Poland, a lyric story epic in scope and not a scene or time scheme misplaced or without effect. Afterwards, Jerzy spoke no different from the way he had made his movie move. Before Four Nights played Pal/Secam, a short film introduced by its creator, Dmitry Povolotsky. A sort of 1980s Russian Superbad: horny well-meaning teen invites the dark elements of experience in pursuit of his lady, and suddenly his mom's living room is filled with creepy Moscow bums watching amateur porno. We know our hero is desperate – we first meet him in the bathroom humping the tub drain – and we are fighting for him and his infatuation with his Bollywood glam disco video (not so unlike the same coming-of-age conceit evinced by Slumdog Millionaire).

Also part of the NYFF, at Walter Reade, Guy DeBord's Situationalist metalogue In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, with a post-screening panel discussion: culture-wrangler Greil Marcus, the most acutely and revealingly spoken of the evening; moviemaker Oliver Assayas, impressionistic and exponential but in person not the devious chic greasemonkey who composed Boarding Gate; and Jean-Pierre Gorin, who bombastically excused himself twice during the discourse to leave the stage and go to the men's room, in which room The Shine Box had crossed paths with Jean-Pierre only moments before the discussion began. Jean-Pierre provided the evening's panel with the alienated flair and aggravation of the Artist (a former collaborator with Go-Go-Godard), and the man, ostensibly, had eaten bad Chinese food earlier that evening. In girum imus purports to give narrative life to the personal demons of civilization's zealous dweller. Battle scenes from old movies, docu panning shots of the cityscape, the manner in which one invents and destroys and re-invents their human environment. The age old problem of the middle-class taking over sacred districts when social prosperity renders the bohemian life an arm of Luxury's frankenstein.

Film Forum welcomed silver beard and thin bluejeans boho Les Blank, to introduce his Gap-Toothed Women and Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, and Les told the story of the the films' origins in the way he makes his movies, a peculiar, intangible logic that follows objects and people in the real world and is wry and gainful of the audience's trust. The Gap Toothed Women are as revealing of themselves as is the pontificator in the giant garlic costume.

Later that night, director Charlie Ahearn hosted Wild Styles with a lauded appearance by Fab Five Freddy, and an intro screening of Ahearn's 2005 Bongo Barbershop, where a young Tanzanian dude busting Swahili rhymes faces off with an old school NYC freestyler, both sitting in barber chairs in a "Bronx tonsorial parlor," a cinematic event of itself, and in the New York tradition of lyric modes bygone, since riffed off, where the true rousters of the art these days are working in a microcosmic storefront under an elevated subway in the outer boroughs.

An ice cold Saturday at the New Times Square New Times Tower found the American Museum of the Moving Image hosting Jerry Lewis interviewed by louche Peter Bogdanovich, and a schpiel by Jerry on the old Times Square it was. Jerry lashed out against re-excising the canned tale of he and Dean's etiology, but Jerry annunciated the spirit of just what it was like in show business at the top of 20th Century famedom as no other has ever known it but "Elvis, Sinatra & The Beatles" - except for the fact that the footage feed never ever captured it as did only the bristling crowds in line outside the Capitol Theater . . . the Hacker's Club of taxi drivers faring nightly their own microeconomy carting wowed post-audiences back to Bloomfield, NJ; Jerry Lewis doing impressions of Swedes doing impressions of Jerry Lewis; the cocky self-lambasting! All in all, a perfect short story of the wayward theater industry's surrealistic touchstone.

For one week Film Forum ran Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters, with two nights capped by a visit from writer/director Paul Schrader. The biopic to end all biopics in the 20th Century from where the 21st has yet to pick up. The self-destruction of the Artist is lusciously staged by elegantly edited nouvelles in and out of the writer's present, past and fiction. Schrader spoke with alacrity after the movie, nary a superfluous remark, about its making and his approach to its operatic suicidal themes. It would seem that a movie "based on a true story" should never be made otherwise. I'm Not There tried it last year but smothered itself with capriciousness. Mishima is as if carved by the sword which the man thrusts upon himself. . . harking the language of Bergdorf Goodman's best window artisanship.

.... and though it could not properly be defined as a "screening," The Shine Box had twosie balcony box seats for Liza's At The Palace, and Liza cried up from the red velvet abyss ecstatic renditions of the songbook - the frowzy resounding big band blams, the charming slapstick regarding Liza's lost footlight maneuvering, and the lady's voice still bounding back from that night's starblaze. The crowd, fitfully hysterical, included Mayor Bloomberg, whom Liza introduced before launching a one o' a kind "New York, New York."