Thursday, September 30, 2010

Trust the Hitch

Alfred Hitchcock said:
The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.
 He was looking at you, James Cameron.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Psycho: 4 or 5/5


Psycho is probably my favorite Hitchcock.  I've read that he directed it in the aftermath of North by Northwest (not my favorite Hitchcock) and wanted to do something cheap and fun.  He secured an itty bitty budget, borrowed a production crew from his TV show, and headed out to Arizona (maybe it was California).  Next thing you know, we have one of the best horror films ever made.

Three Up

1.  Starting small, there's a great scene with Arbogast that is full of Hitchcock's dry wit.  Arbogast is visiting the Bates Hotel for the second time.  You'll remember that, during the first visit, Arbogast had really pushed Norman's buttons.  This time, he bypasses Norman and goes straight for the house.  He opens the door without knocking, but takes his hat off before entering.  Yes: Arbogast has enough manners to take his hat off inside, not enough to knock.

2.  Another piece of dry humor: The movie starts off with Marion stealing $40,000.  She can't make it all the way to Fairvale, so she takes a nap on the road side.  She sleeps all night and gets awakened by a cop.  He is pretty clearly (to us) trying to make sure she's OK, but she obviously thinks he knows about the money.  Later, after Norman kills her and Arbogast comes by, Norman thinks that Arbogast knows about the murder when Arbogast is really only investigating the missing money.  A little comment about how we're always a step behind real life, perhaps?

3.  I've always wondered how Psycho survives so well without any real protaganist.  First, we have Marion Crane, but she dies only halfway through.  Then, we sorta have Norman, but his major screen time doesn't last long.  Then, we get Arbogast, but he gets killed.  Next, we switch to Sam and Lila hunting down Arbogast, but in the last scene, they give way to the psychiatrist explaining Norman's condition.  And in the final scene, Mrs. Bates takes the stage and chills us to the bone with that look of hers.  This parade of 6 characters--or, shall we say, "personalities"--shuffle onto the stage and fight for control of the movie.  Sorta like how Norman and Mrs. Bates fought for control of his psyche, eh?

I don't have three down.  That's how much I like this movie.  They say it's not his best, but I'm really having trouble finding something I don't like about it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A little too Byronic

Poetry is more than rhyming words. That's why I love these three lines by the master of Byronic poetry
This is the patent age of new inventionsFor killing bodies, and for saving souls,All propagated with the best intentions.
That stop?  That line break after "inventions"?  The expectation that builds up (and the next line ironically knocks down)--and the good sense to write it down--is why he will be remembered as long as people speak English and you and I probably won't be.

The Third Man: 3/5


The Third Man (1949) is my first exposure to Carol Reed and my second to the Joseph Cotten/Orson Welles duo.  Graham Greene wrote the screenplay (and simultaneously released novelette).  The basic premise is that Holly Martins (Cotten) reports to work in post-war Vienna only to find that his best friend and employer, Harry Lime (Welles), has been run over by a truck in front of his house.  But something is amiss in Vienna, and Holly, a penniless Western pulp writer, tries to play sleuth and figure it out.  Along the way, he kills his best friend and tries to steal his girl.  He fails, so he ends up penniless and friendless.  But he has the esteem of the British government, so that's nice.

Three Up

1.  The best part of the movie is its ending.  Holly lures Harry into a trap, helps chase him into the sewers, and eventually fires the shot that kills him.  After Harry's second funeral (a nice bookend), Holly and Major Calloway drive past Harry's girl Anna (Alida Valli) walking back to the city.  Holly gets out and waits for Anna.  He's ready to inherit Harry's girl, but she walks right past him without even a sideways glance.

Why is that so awesome?  Well, it suggests an answer to the film's central question: whether it is OK to kill one person so thousands may live.  Reed doesn't tell us.  Instead, he reminds us that, either way, there are consequences.  Society's anonymous and short-lived appreciation but the condemnation of your friends and loved ones, or the opposite.

And second, it suggests a difference between men and women, Americans and Eastern Europeans.  Men and Americans stereotypically view the world romantically, while women and Eastern Europeans stereotypically view the world pragmatically.  Anna doesn't embrace Holly as the hero who saved countless children's lives; she rejects him as the bastard who trapped and killed the love of her life.  And it is beautiful.

2.  The unusual soundtrack is great.  Anton Karas composed and performed the soundtrack on a zither, a native Austrian instrument.  Sometimes, the jangly upbeat music jars with the noirish atmosphere, but it belongs to the scene.  I also liked all the untranslated speaking in German.  Not only do we see weird visuals, but we hear unfamiliar sounds.  The cumulative effect is to help put us in Holly's shoes: we, too, are strangers in a strange land who (literally) don't know where to turn.

3.  Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) is a great, great character.  I know that Harry Lime is probably the most famous character from this movie (and even had his own radio show spin-off), but I preferred Major Calloway.  He personifies the romantic pragmatism of the British so perfectly.  Most movies that deal with the conflict of romanticism and pragmatism present one side as obviously right and the other as obviously wrong.  Without Howard's suave performance as the British major trying to make Vienna safe for children, this movie would fall into the same trap.

Three Down

1.  Meaningless name mix-ups.  Holly kept calling Calloway "Callahan."  Anna kept calling Holly "Harry."  And Holly kept pronouncing Dr. Winkel's name wrong (with an American W instead of an Austrian V).  As far as I can tell, these three don't do anything more than (a) show Holly's disregard for Calloway, (b) show that Anna still loves Harry, and (c) show Holly's stereotypical American ignorance.  Faux symbolism annoys me, but accidental symbolism is even worse.  Graham Greene and Carol Reed are professionals.  They should have known the value of names and done something with it.  They should have known that doing it three times makes me think it's worth something.

2.  Some people love the almost constant Dutch angle.  I don't.  I get the artistic choice, but I don't dig it.  That's all I got on that one.

3.  I realize this is a classic film noir, but there was a little too much noir for my taste.  I dig the deep blacks of film as much as anybody, but it annoys me when I can't figure out what's going on (not metaphysically; I mean I literally couldn't tell what was on my screen at some points).  Blame it on my TV, blame it on Netflix Instant Queue, blame it on the bossanova, but I don't like it.

Closing Statement

The Third Man is regarded as a film noir classic.  It's # 65 on IMDb and # 534 on FlickChart.  The AFI ranked Harry Lime # 37 in its list of the top 100 villains in cinema, the movie # 57 on its first list of top 100 movies, # 75 on its list of top 100 thrills, and the # 5 mystery in its 10 Top 10 list.  The BFI called it the greatest British film of all time (at least through 1999).  There are probably other accolades to recommend it; you don't need mine.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Fahrenheit 451: 3/5

Fran├žois Truffaut is one of those guys who is more familiar to me because of a side project than for his main thing.  But I love Ray Bradbury's classic story, and I had heard that French cinema was interesting, so I thought I'd give it a try.  The results?  Not as good as I would have liked, but better than I expected.

Three Up

1.  Julie Christie was nominated for the BAFTA for best actress that year for her roles as both Linda Montag and Clarisse.*  The best way I can do justice to her performance is to point out that I had no idea she played both roles until after the movie was over.  In my mind, there is no single higher feat in acting than to portray two characters so independently that nobody can tell.  Plus, it makes me wonder what Truffaut was trying to tell us with that.

*Notably, she was nominated twice that year: for her role in Doctor Zhivago and her role in F-451.

2.  Maybe it's a French New Wave thing, maybe it's a Truffaut thing, maybe it's an homage-to-Hitchcock thing, but I really dug the longer cuts.  Sometimes I like to count off seconds between cuts while watching boring movies.  This movie wasn't boring, but I noticed that the cuts were unusually long, so I tried to count.  I lost count.  And I was awesome at seeking in hide-and-seek, so you know I can count pretty high.  But neatness isn't greatness.  The long cuts became great because they contributed to the story and broke down walls between the audience and the characters.  By keeping us in one place for so long (actually, we were moving around like somebody in the room), Truffaut tried to help us forget about the fourth wall.  It felt more like we were actually in the room observing the events first-hand rather than outside the room observing the events through a TV.

3.  Finally, I loved the deep irony about a movie that presented as dystopic a future where people only watch TV.  Granted, the TV was terrible (with terrible acting and terrible storylines).  So maybe Truffaut was trying to suggest that an appreciation for great books (like Bradbury's classic) leads to the making of great movies?

Three Down

1.  Although I liked Montag, he never broke through for me.  He never became more than a guy on a stage.  His passive response to Linda's betrayal left me cold.

2.  Although I generally liked the long takes, I don't get the point of the long takes of the fire trucks.  I mean, it seems like the fire company was driving way the heck away from the firehouse, but why was that important?  Was Truffaut fluffing?  What's going on with that?  The film is only 112 minutes long . . .

3.  I found the "video wall" disappointingly small.  This is supposed to be the future, and the illusion is supposed to actually convince us.  There's just something not convincing about a little bitty screen.  I know they had projection technology back then (as in, you know, movie theaters), so it's not a question of technology and effects.  It seems to me that Truffaut made a choice with which I disagree.  And I hate him for it.  No, actually, I hate him for the long takes with the fire trucks.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Thoughts on Championships

I grew up rooting for the Rangers, and I’ve only recently developed an affection for the Orioles (definitely post-1983), so I’ve never known what it’s like to win a World Series.  But I also grew up rooting for the Dallas Cowboys (I played my first games of street football in the early 1990s), so I know what it’s like to win a Super Bowl.
Stephen King writes:
[W]inning the Super Bowl isn’t the same as winning the World Series.  Not even in the same universe as winning the World Series.
King wrote that in May of 2004.  The Red Sox were still five months away from winning their first World Series in a while, but the Patriots had just won their second Super Bowl in three years and were about to win their third in four.  He didn’t know what it was like to win the World Series, but he knew what it was like to win the Super Bowl.
So what do you think: jealousy?  Wanting what he can’t or hadn’t had?  
What do you think, part B: Which tastes sweeter to kiss, the Lombardi Trophyor the Commissioner’s Trophy?  Maybe the Larry O’Brien Trophy?

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

This is Birdland

The Beach Boys once sang about loyalty:
When some loud braggart tries to put me down
And say his school is great
I tell him right away
Now what's the matter buddy
Ain't you heard of my school?
It's number one in the state
I was one of 18,247 people who saw the Orioles beat the Red Sox fair and square on Tuesday night.  A brief visual survey suggested that perhaps 12,000 were Red Sox fans, 6,000 were Orioles fans, and at least one guy was a Twins fan.

Brian Matusz started the top of the 7th by walking J.D. Drew.  The Buckwalter Show visited the mound, and Jim Johnson jogged out to keep the Orioles' 3-2 lead safe.  A Jed Lowrie single and a Bill Hill sacrifice put runners on 2d and 3d for Daniel Nava (pinch hitting for Darnell McDonald).  After two pitches, Johnson was ahead in the count, 0-2.  Two of the next three pitches were balls (and one foul), so after five pitches, the count stood at 2-2.  With the go-ahead run in scoring position, we started to hear this mysterious chant:
Let's go, Red Sox
[clap, clap, clap clap clap]
Let's go, Red Sox
The chant began in one guy's lungs but was quickly taken up by the crowd, and the strength and volume of the chant made me fidget in my seat.  The guy behind me started yelling things like, "Let's go [Nava]!!"*  And most of the crowd agreed.  If you've ever attended an Orioles-Red Sox game at Fenway Park Camden Yards, you know exactly what I'm talking about.  You start looking around for the Green Monster.

*He actually yelled, "Let's go, J.D.!!" about eighteen times before somebody corrected him about who was batting.  I kinda thought I was at a Lakers game in the Staples Center for a second.  (Since that guy was probably a Celtics fan, did I just compare a Celtics fan to a Lakers fan?  I think I did.)

So I did what any self-respecting Orioles fan should do in that situation.  I stood up, I clapped, I whooped, I yelled encouragements to Jim Johnson.  I made people behind me start calling out "Down in front!"

Wait a minute.  You want to come into my house, wear your nasty dark blue and red (and green), chant your chants, and sing your songs?  Fine.  But now you want me to take it sitting down?

Don't tread on me.

I turned around:
Me: "Hey---you're in Baltimore.  You wanna support your team, you can stand up, too."
Red Sox fan: "Well, do you wanna be a jerk about it?"
I guess that depends.  Do you want to be a jerk about coming into my house, wearing your nasty colors, and chanting your stupid chants?  Then, yeah, I want to be a jerk about coming into my own house, wearing my own colors, and chanting my own stupid chants.  Yes, I will be a jerk.  It's called "loyalty."  I think you're familiar with it.  It's the kind of thing that makes you drive 400 miles to see your home team.

So, Orioles fans, listen.  I know the glory days are all in the past.  I know that you may not be the biggest fan of the current ownership.  I know that you hate paying money to see your team lose.  But you should hate even more that Red Sox fans feel welcome to come into our house, wear their colors, and chant their chants.  You should hate even more that they chant and cheer and jeer louder than we do.  You should hate even more that they're starting to think of this as their house, their home away from home, where they can give you dirty looks and tell you to sit down because you're making too much noise for the other team.

You should hate even more that "Let's go O's" gets smothered by "Let's go Red Sox" every f'n time.

So, Orioles fans, there are 15 home games left, including two against the Red Sox and three against the Yankees.  Show up in droves.  Wear our colors.  Chant our chants.  Give Camden Yards its name back.

This, mis amigos, is Birdland.