A new feature where I make brief observations about a bunch of different things I’ve watched recently:
Carnage (Roman Polanski, France, 2011) – Theatrical viewing. Rating: 7.3
After two kids get into a playground fight, their yuppie parents get together to have a “civilized” discussion about it. I’m conflicted about this one. The main criticisms aimed at it are that it fails to transcend its theatrical origins and that it’s not believable that the couple played by Kate Winslet and Cristoph Waltz would not have left the apartment belonging to the couple played by John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster much sooner. Neither of those things bothered me. What I had a problem with was the very conceit of Yasmina Reza’s clever but lightweight stage play. It is obvious in the opening minutes of the film exactly where Reza/Polanski’s narrative arc is headed and it proceeds to head exactly there and nowhere else: the parents end up getting drunk and behaving less civilized than their kids, new allegiances are formed, and yadda, yadda, yadda. Still, Polanski gets a lot of mileage out of the claustrophobic location (I especially liked the offscreen barking dog and Polanski’s own cameo as the neighbor, both of which put me in the mind of his early work). The cast is also uniformly good, as one would expect, and the last shot is actually kind of sweet, putting an optimistic spin on the story in a way that the stage version never could have.
Flesh (John Ford, USA, 1932) – DVD rental
Now here’s a genuine oddity: a wrestling movie directed by John Ford, starring Wallace Beery and co-written by an uncredited William Faulkner. The inspiration for Barton Fink, anyone? Knowing that Faulkner had a hand in this before I watched it, but not exactly sure how, I assumed that he was one of the two credited screenwriters writing under a pseudonym. One of the writers does, after all, boast the hilarious, curiously literary mash-up name of “Edgar Allan Woolf.” But, no, a quick check of the old imdb.com reveals Faulkner was indeed uncredited and Mr. Woolf was a very real person with an extensive list of credits, including The Wizard of Oz, to his name. The always helpful imdb also contains the fascinating nugget that Woolf died in 1948 “in a fall when he tripped over his dog’s leash and fell down a long flight of stairs.”
Flesh came in the middle of one of John Ford’s fallow periods, between his masterworks of the late silent era (3 Bad Men, Hangman’s House) but before the folksy Foxes of the early sound era (Pilgrimage, the Will Rogers comedies) that pointed the way to his mature masterpieces of the late Thirties. Ford directed Flesh for MGM in 1931 just one year after he had been fired by the very same studio for walking off the set of Arrowsmith and going on a bender. But studio boss Sam Goldwyn knew that Ford was worth it and convinced him to return to helm this unlikely melodrama. Having said all that, Flesh is surprisingly effective as a story of redemptive love. It’s the tale of a simple, good-hearted German wrestler (Beery in a role for which Ford would’ve obviously preferred Vic McLaglen) who is double-crossed by his wife and her lover who is pretending to her brother. In addition to some nice Expressionist touches, especially in the German pub atmosphere of the early scenes, Flesh also contains an ending that is, visually and narratively, shockingly similar to Bresson’s Pickpocket. The version of this that I rented – from a well-known Chicago video store, god bless ’em – was recorded on a DVD-R and has the logo of a well-known cable channel occasionally pop up in the bottom right corner of the frame. A must-see for Ford aficionados.
Naked (Mike Leigh, UK, 1993) – Blu-ray purchase
I didn’t watch Criterion’s superb Blu-ray of Mike Leigh’s best film until after the New Year but had I seen it sooner it would have unquestionably made my list of the best home video releases of 2011. What has made this pre-Y2K apocalyptic drama age so well with time, and what seems more obvious now in hindsight than when it was first released, is the extent to which it functions as a critique of the socio-economic fallout of Margaret Thatcher’s England. (Is it any coincidence that Ewen Bremner’s character is looking for an absentee girlfriend named Maggie?) Leigh’s ability to dramatize social problems and moral dilemmas within such a naturalistic framework that viewers are barely aware of his agenda is impressive in the extreme. (Contrast this with the simplistic/in-your-face/”Racism is bad” message of a Hollywood movie like Paul Haggis’ Crash.) What one suspected in the 1990s that is also confirmed today is that David Thewlis’ genius lead performance as Johnny, a howl of despair occasionally leavened by a survivalist’s razor sharp wit, ranks alongside that of Renee Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc as one of cinema’s greatest. And finally, Andrew Dickson’s hypnotic original musical score, dominated by harp and cello, sounds incredible on blu-ray. The cello chords in particular are beautiful and fat as rendered in Criterion’s two channel DTS-HD Master audio.
Dylan/Scorsese – Live television
The one saving grace of this year’s otherwise painful-to-endure Critic’s Choice Movie Awards was the incredible segment where a Music + Film Award was given to Martin Scorsese. The award, according to the Broadcast Film Critics Association, “honors a single filmmaker who has touched audiences through cinematic storytelling, and has heightened the impact of films through the brilliant use of source and original music.” That sounds like Marty to me.
Honoring Scorsese was none other than Bob Dylan, who performed a spare, darkly beautiful rendition of his masterpiece “Blind Willie McTell,” a legendary outtake from the 1983 album Infidels that was first released on Vol. 3 of Dylan’s Bootleg Series and later featured in Scorsese’s The Blues documentary on PBS. The song’s live chorus is rendered “I can tell ya one thing / nobody can sing / the blues like Blind Willie McTell.” It was a fitting choice not only because Dylan and Scorsese share a love of blues music but also because Dylan’s lightly coded message seemed to be that nobody can make a movie like Martin Scorsese.
Other Dylan/Scorsese connections:
– both began their artistic careers in Greenwich Village in the Sixties, Scorsese as a film student at New York University, Dylan as a singer in the neighborhood’s pass-the-basket coffeehouse folk scene.
– Scorsese’s original screenplay for Mean Streets was prefaced by a quote from Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: “Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift.”
– Scorsese’s 1978 documentary The Last Waltz, widely regarded as the greatest concert film of all time, climaxes with Bob Dylan’s performances of “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” “Forever Young” and “I Shall Be Released.”
– Scorsese’s terrific 1989 short film Life Lessons, a segment of the omnibus film New York Stories, features an angry, cathartic live recording of “Like a Rolling Stone,” from Bob Dylan’s Before the Flood album, on the soundtrack.
– In 2005, Martin Scorsese directed the three and a half hour documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, the definitive account of Dylan’s early life and career, made with Dylan’s participation.
You can watch Dylan’s performance of “Blind Willie McTell,” a fitting tribute from one American master to another, at the Critic’s Choice Awards here: