This is the second installment of “Odds and Ends,” wherein I make brief observations about a bunch of different movie related things:
Bernie (Richard Linklater, USA, 2011) – Theatrical viewing / Rating: 9.0
Richard Linklater has described his latest movie as his version of Fargo, an intriguing analogy that makes sense when you consider what they have in common. Both are black comedies based on “true crime” stories whose central purpose is to portray a tightly-knit small-town community whose unique regional flavors have traditionally been ignored by Hollywood — rural Minnesota in the Coens’ case, behind the “pine curtain” of northeast Texas in Linklater’s. The most crucial difference is that Linklater has taken the warmth that the Coens only showed to Francis McDormand’s police chief character and courageously extended it to his entire cast of local yokels (many of whom are playing themselves). The result is a deceptively light film that poses complex moral questions about the interrelationships between individuals, the society in which they live and criminal justice. Is Bernie a diabolical manipulator or an essentially decent person who was pushed too far by his victim? To what degree should the answer to that question have influenced his sentencing? Should public sentiment ever be allowed to play a role in a criminal trial? Rare among contemporary American directors, Richard Linklater respects the audience enough to allow viewers to make up their own minds. Yet another way to describe Bernie via a movie analogy would be as an alternate universe version of Sunset Boulevard where William Holden kills Gloria Swanson instead of the other way around. Did I mention this is a Jack Black vehicle?
David Wants to Fly (Sieveking, Germany, 2010) – Streaming / Rating: 5.0
Making a very quiet local premiere this past Wednesday night at the Chicago Cultural Center was David Wants to Fly, a feature debut doc by young German director David Sieveking that fascinates and irritates in equal measure. This begins with unemployed film school grad Sieveking on a quest to meet his idol, the great, eccentric filmmaker David Lynch, at a Transcendental Meditation conference in Fairfield, Iowa, but then transforms into an exposé and denunciation of the entire “TM movement.” The film is given a degree of credibility by the fact that Sieveking started out as a true believer who only gradually became disillusioned with the cult-like movement during the three years he was in production. But Sieveking’s arty persona (he wears fedoras and occasionally plays the harmonica in public) can be annoying and, speaking as someone who also attended the 2006 Fairfield conference, I long ago came to the same conclusion he did about TM after only a few minutes of Googling. Still, David Lynch fans will want to seek this out, especially those who haven’t yet learned to separate the artist from the art. Anyone who missed the screening can stream the film for free for a short time here: http://www.linktv.org/programs/david-wants-to-fly
The More the Merrier (George Stevens, USA, 1943) – DVD rental
I stumbled upon this superior but too-little known example of the genius of the Hollywood studio system when looking for new screwball comedies to show in class (after having already overdosed on The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby and The Lady Eve). A single woman living in Washington D.C. (the glorious Jean Arthur) ends up with two male roommates during a wartime housing shortage. She bickers relentlessly with the younger of the two men (Joel McCrea), which, as any screwball fan knows, is a sure sign of romantic chemistry. The other man (Charles Coburn, who deservedly won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance) consequently finds himself playing cupid to his new roommates in what amounts to an enormously entertaining, extremely witty and perfectly paced 104 minutes. The thing that really makes this film stand out when viewed today though is its unabashed eroticism. The scene where McCrea walks Arthur home, temporarily forgetting that it’s also his own home, is almost unbelievably sensual in the way the characters flirt with each other and, more importantly, interact physically; McCrea, one of Hollywood’s most reserved and laconic actors, continually paws Arthur (who, at 42 years old, never looked sexier), seductively encircling her waist and neck with his hands as she half-heartedly resists his advances. The More the Merrier was very well received in its time but is probably unknown today because George Stevens, the solid craftsman who directed it, is not an auteurist-approved figure. This is unfortunate because if a more erotic film was made in Hollywood in the 1940s I have yet to see it.
Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director – Nonfiction book by Marilyn Ann Moss
To accompany the Raoul Walsh retrospective that’s still ongoing in my apartment, I recently read with relish Marilyn Ann Moss’ superb 2011 biography of the very colorful and self-mythologizing man who directed, among many other classic titles, The Thief of Bagdad, The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra, The Strawberry Blonde and White Heat. The fact that this is the first such book written about this old Hollywood master, whose life was as interesting as his movies, is just one indication of how sadly undervalued his massively important and influential body of work continues to be. Although I could have done without the dollar-book Freud of the opening chapter, which imagines Walsh’s grief over his mother’s death as the catalyst for his adventurous brand of filmmaking, this is still an impressive work of scholarship and analysis (I particularly enjoyed her observations about Walsh’s female characters) and an essential read for anyone who loves classic Hollywood movies. I will have two lengthy posts concerning Walsh in the coming weeks.