Movie Roundup: Beat Slovenia Edition

Dirty Harry – Clint Eastwood stars in another of the late-60s/early-70s cycle of cop film, an interesting period that seems to have evolved from the darkest strains of film noir (Kiss Me Deadly or The Big Heat, say) into outright vigilantism. Released the same year as The French Connection, but pulpier and less self-consciously arty, and even more ideologically problematic. Eastwood’s Harry Callahan (nicknamed because he gets all the “dirty” jobs) is on the trail of a Zodiac-inspired serial killer (cleverly disguised as “Scorpio”). While attempting to apprehend him during a ransom payoff (the killer has told the cops that the girl he’s kidnapped will die in a few hours unless he gets paid), Eastwood stabs him in the leg, but Scorpio escapes. After a doctor treats the killer’s leg, he calls the cops and tells Callahan he thinks the killer lives in the old football stadium across the street (Kezar Stadium: like Bullitt, this film is set in San Francisco, epicenter of hippieness). With only an hour to spare, Callahan rushes to the stadium, breaks into the killer’s residence (without a warrant) and apprehends him. With the killer howling for his lawyer, Callahan steps on his wounded leg until he gives up the girl’s location. This all happens with 40 minutes left in the film. We’re then treated to what appears to be the film’s political message: the DA releases Scorpio for two reasons: 1) the search of Scorpio’s residence was illegal and 2) the charge of brutality against Callahan makes the confession inadmissible. Point 1 is clearly nonsensical, and after being made a big deal of, apparently solely for the audience’s benefit, even the DA admits that exigent circumstances obviated the need for a warrant. Point 2 makes more sense, but is rather unrealistic. Even now, in the post-Rodney King era, charges of police brutality are hard to prove and not particularly likely to win in front of a jury. And given the nature of the crimes Scorpio admitted to, the fact that it’s his word against Callahan (a decorated and admired police officer), it is extremely unlikely that any DA would refuse to prosecute based on that.

So what, then, are we to think of the politics of Dirty Harry? On the surface, it’s a reactionary argument against Miranda rights and the coddling of criminals nascent in the late 60s liberal era. However, it stacks the deck so ludicrously against said liberalism that the question of whether it’s actually satire has to be raised. Is director Don Siegel actually lampooning the critics of Miranda and other constitutional protections by reducing both their argument and their idea of what a police officer should be to absurd extremes? Callahan, by the end of the film, has become superman, leaping off bridges onto moving buses, rescuing school children and dispensing his own brand of justice with a .44 Magnum and a canned speech.

I think so, that like Starship Troopers 20 years later, Dirty Harry is a satire that is almost indistinguishable from that which it is satirizing. Both films were taken as straight at the time of their release. I suppose it can therefore be taken as a sign of progress for our society that while Dirty Harry was a smash hit, Paul Veerhoeven’s masterpiece utterly failed to appeal to the popular imagination. The #9 film of 1971.

The Puppetmaster – The life of a puppeteer parallels the history of Taiwan during the first half of the 20th century, when it was run by Japan. Events from Li Tianlu’s life are enacted in Hou’s unique style (long, distant shots on a constant plane with little camera movement) interspersed with Li himself telling stories about his life, sometimes as narration, sometimes as on-screen interview. Li’s stories are more or less related to what is about to be dramatized, more often it explains what we had just seen. It’s fascinating for its whole 2 1/2 hours, one of the most interesting approaches to the biopic genre I’ve seen; it’d make a great double feature with another great biopic from around the same time, Stanley Kwan’s Centre Stage. The DVD is cropped to 1.33, which sucks, but the movie still looks pretty great and it seems like most of the pertinent information (plot-wise) is shown, what we don’t get is the full artistry of Hou’s compositions. The #7 film of 1993.

Life on a String – A old blind banjo player and his young blind apprentice wander the countryside, waiting for the old man to break his 1000th string so he can open his banjo and find the cure to his blindness (seriously). Stopping off in the desert, the young one hooks up with a local girl while the old man breaks up a gang fight by singing a song that’s got terrible lyrics by even Chinese pop standards. Written by Chen himself, the song’s about why can’t we see that we’re all brothers, etc, pounding that metaphor like a mediocre 8th grade creative writing student. Visually, Chen makes nice use of the desolate landscapes and cool locations. But all the drama is undone by the silliness of the plot and bluntness of the metaphors. After watching this, I read Jonathan Rosenbaum’s capsule to see why he liked it. My only guess is the version he saw didn’t translate the dialogue and lyrics correctly. The #45 film of 1991.

Movie Roundup: Beat England Edition

Hard to believe it’s World Cup time again. Hopefully the US does better this year than at the last one. I’ll have a wrapup of what I saw at the San Francisco International Film Festival eventually (keeping in mind that it only took eight months or so for me to recap the Vancouver Film Festival), but I did write about some of the films I saw there at the Metro Classics website. In the meantime, here’s a few other movies I’ve seen over the last couple of months. Not that many actually, as vacation and a stolen TV and tivo catchup and a relatively minor case of Doctor Whoitis have limited me to only seven new movies seen since mid-April.

Woman in the Window – Fritz Lang’s entry in first great year of film noir (joining Double Indemnity and Laura) stars Edward G. Robinson (who also starred in Indemnity) as a comfortable middle-aged man who meets the mysterious woman in a painting (like Laura) and gets himself caught up in an accidental murder, a subsequent coverup and the inevitable blackmail. Robinson is wonderful, as usual, never quite as smart as he thinks he is. His panicked befuddlement as his plans seem to unravel is a joy to watch. This early in the genre’s development, there isn’t quite the sense of desolate misanthropy one finds in the 1950s films (like Lang’s own The Big Heat). Instead the film has the air of an almost comic murder mystery. Whatever steps Lang takes to darken the film’s tone are undermined by the ending, assuming it’s to be taken at face value. I’ve seen a lot of Fritz Lang movies, but I still don’t think I’ve got a handle on his sensibility as a director. He seems interested in systems and the way they trap and victimize individuals, lending many of his movies a kind of suffocating fatality. I think that’s why I admire, but don’t really love, his films. The #10 film of 1944.

Land of the Pharaohs – An oddity from director Howard Hawks in that it’s supposedly a big period epic along the lines of Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments or something, but feels closer in sensibility to a Roger Corman/Vincent Price film. Maybe it’s the lackluster cast or the mediocre writing (co-written by William Faulkner, but who knows how much was actually written by him). Anyway, Jack Hawkins’s Pharaoh wants to build a thief-proof tomb, so he finds a brilliant architect amongst his slaves and agrees to free the slave’s people if he gets the pyramid he wants. Meanwhile, his second wife, Joan Collins, is evil and schemes to get the pharaoh’s treasure (instead of it being buried with him) and kill a few people along the way. It has some really cool sequences (the finale as the pyramid’s defenses fall into place, for one), but the period setting inhibits the snappy Hawks dialogue that helps make his films so much fun to watch and rewatch. It never really degenerates into camp though, and the story of the architect is quite moving. In all, it just doesn’t hold together as well as it should. The #23 film of 1955.

35 Shots of Rum – This highly acclaimed film from director Claire Denis is her tribute to the films of Yasujiro Ozu, and that influence is quite obvious. Like many an Ozu film, it’s the story of a father (Alex Descas, in a terrific performance) and a daughter and the father’s wishes for the daughter to marry and move out of his house (so she can be happy and get on with her life). In keeping with the current international style, Denis’s film is much slower and rather more obscure and somber than Ozu ever was The sense of light playfulness in Ozu, helped by the jazzy scores in so many of his films, is almost entirely missing here, but that’s OK, I guess. On the other hand, there’s a sense of warmth and community in a couple scenes in this film that are increasingly rare in contemporary film, and an underrated aspect of Ozu’s films, one that, as I recall, is mostly absent from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Ozu tribute, the otherwise superior Café Lumière. This is my second Denis film, and while I liked this a lot more than Friday Night, I don’t love either film, though I can see why some folks do. The #23 film of 2008.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – The second time Basil Rathbone played Sherlock Holmes (after The Hound of the Baskervilles, released five months earlier). It’s not much of a film really, based on a play about Holmes rather than an actual story by Arthur Conan Doyle and it shows: the mystery isn’t very mysterious and the villain, Prof. Moriarty, isn’t particularly smart. It’s a shame really, because the film also features a great performance from Ida Lupino as the woman who hires Holmes to protect her and her brother from a scary flute player. The direction by Alfred Werker is mediocre; it’d be hard not to get at least a little atmosphere out of the black and white London fog, but Werker tries his best. The #28 film of 1939.

The Secret of Kells – The surprise nominee for the Best Animated Film Oscar last year was certainly worthy of that honor, with its highly stylized telling of an Irish folktale. Brendan, a young monk growing up in a monastery dominated by fear of Viking invasion, longs to become a scribe and help the new monk in town write his Book. He ventures into the woods, befriends a fairy and endures the wrath of his uncle, all the while with the barbarians lurking on the borders. The hand-drawn animation is stunning, the closest analogue is a fancier, Celtic version of the great TV series Samurai Jack, at least in its angular character design and abstract backgrounds. There are few better films about keeping knowledge alive during the medieval period, and it’s admirable that even though it is essentially a kid’s movie, it never quite overplays its illuminated text vs. dark ages metaphor. The #17 film of 2009.

Walkabout – A bit less thematically subtle, while just as pretty-looking a film is this one by Nicolas Roeg. A teenaged girl and her six year old brother go for a picnic in the Outback with their dad, who promptly blows up their car and kills himself, leaving the two to find their own way back to civilization. They almost don’t make it, but for the timely intervention of a young Aborigine boy on his titular trip. The three becomes friends and have an idyllic time wandering through nature, until they inevitably get back to the modern world, where they have to go the separate ways. While the pretty nature vs. ugly modernity theme is a bit heavy-handed (and has only become more obvious in the 40 years since the film was made), Roeg must be commended for focusing almost as much on some ugliness bits of nature (bugs eating dead animals and such), though ultimately those shots are overwhelmed by the lengthy scenes of the three beautiful kids surrounded by beauty and being beautifully free and all that. The bitter ending firmly underlines what side of the debate Roeg wants us to fall on. But while I liked the ambiguity of his next film, Don’t Look Now, a lot more, I’d much rather watch this one again and again. The #3 film of 1971.

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? – I guess it should have been obvious that Tony Randall was a poor man’s Jack Lemmon, seeing as how he played the Lemmon role in the TV version of The Odd Couple, but somehow I’d never connected the two before. However, the opening of this film is so reminiscent of The Apartment, the Billy Wilder film Lemmon would star in three years later that the comparison finally became obvious enough for me to see it. Randall stars as an advertising writer about to lose his job who hits on the idea of getting an actress (Marilyn Monroe-ripoff Jayne Mansfield) endorsement for his firm’s big client, a lipstick company. When he goes to ask her, she uses him to make her muscle-bound boyfriend Bobo Branigansky (love that name) jealous. Word gets out and overnight Randall becomes a world famous lover. This is great for his professional career and standing with women and teenaged girls in general, but lousy for his girlfriend, who almost kills herself doing pushups in the hope they’ll give her a more Mansfieldian figure. This being a Frank Tashlin film, there’s a lot more craziness than that (some of the funniest bits being the commercial parodies that open the film). It has a whole lot in common with his previous Mansfield film, The Girl Can’t Help It, and like that one there’s a serious grounding of melancholy and 1950s dissatisfaction under all the zaniness. But I don’t think Randall’s got the depth to quite pull that off, though he is better than Tom Ewell was in the earlier film. It’s a shame Tashlin couldn’t get Jack Lemmon for those parts, he would have been perfect. The #11 film of 1957.