Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

It's interesting to note that more than one film combines the Spanish Civil War with the secret life of children--as though the War itself were a child's game, played in the woods without parents to oversee, interfere, or protect; someone could get hurt. Pan's Labyrinth (2006) comes easily to mind, but so does another Guillermo del Toro picture, The Devil's Backbone (2001).

I don't know enough about Spanish cinema to explore this too far--but The Spirit of the Beehive seems far enough. At its core is the experience of movie going--the child's experience of seeing James Whale's Frankenstein--and if you're lucky you recall how mysterious the movies could be in your partial understanding, how dim but lasting in your memory. The film itself is beautiful to look at--or at least beautifully atmospheric--in the service of the attempt to film experience as memory. At times it reminded me of René Clément's Forbidden Games (1952), about France and World War II, as seen from down there among the table legs, the orphan and her temporary brother assembling the pet cemetery in the barn.

The Spirit of the Beehive has its barn as well; this one, though, seems something else than a memorial. Maybe a doorway of sorts--perhaps to adulthood, but certainly one of many portals leading to a miniature Gothic, an expanding place of secrets. As G. M. Hopkins says to the little girl, Margaret, in his poem "Spring and Fall," "What heart heard of, ghost guessed." Holy Ghost for him, I think; but in The Spirit of the Beehive, I'm not so sure.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Inland Empire (2006)

In the conclusion of his Message on his website, The David Lynch Foundation, David tells us,
Thank you very much for your interest. And please remember that Consciousness-Based education is not a luxury. For our children who are growing up in a stressful, often frightening, crisis-ridden world, it is a necessity.
Of course, Lynch is intimately familiar with this world: He filmed much of its salient features in Inland Empire, with Laura Dern as his Lewis & Clark/Klaus Kinski, the two of them stepping into the deep woods with a small light, so that the image is grainy and smeared, fraught with anxiety and imminent horror.

Inland Empire is another Lynch film that shows you what happens when you don't meditate--or maybe when you do, "diving within"--too far, breaking on through to the other side, turning so quickly as you stand before the mirror that you see the back of your head--and there is a wound there, an opening you'd never noticed, and nothing seeps out--oh no, you seep in.

I have nothing definite to say about this film; some will assure you it has a plot, it reveals a pattern, it makes sense, if you squint just so. I can't go that far. But I will say it works for me as a perfect Instant Play movie, each scene searchable, so that they stand alone as small experiments in tonal narrative and sonic atmosphere, not so much a movie as an exhibition, a long look inside. I had to take it off my Queue; it kept calling to me, like The Fly, in a high-pitched voice filled with terror and entreaty, drawing me--the opposite of silencio, so important in Mulholland Dr., here abandoned. At the end, everyone gets together to dance and sing, Nina Simone hysteria yelping undulations up to God--Who comes into the room in flashes, illuminating Laura's smiling face.

Monday, March 29, 2010

For All Mankind (1989)

John F. Kennedy certainly understood Frederick Jackson Turner, whose "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" famously concludes,
From the conditions of frontier life came intellectual traits of profound importance ... and these traits have, while softening down, still persisted ... . The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom ... . Since the days when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World, America has been another name for opportunity, and the people of the United States have taken their tone from the incessant expansion which has not only been open but has even been forced upon them. and ... the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise. ... And now, ... the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.
Kennedy, however, wanted no part of a closed frontier, at his inauguration announcing, "We stand on the edge of a New Frontier--the frontier of unfulfilled hopes and dreams, a frontier of unknown opportunities and beliefs in peril. Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space ..." A little later in the decade Capt. Kirk called it the "final" one--"a new sea," as Kennedy put it--words Al Reinart uses to open and close his impressionistic documentary of the Apollo missions--"because there is new knowledge to be gained and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all mankind."

For All Mankind knows that space is not only a frontier but, as the re-release posters for 2001 announced, "the ultimate trip": Renart's film looks on silently as some of the most amazing things occur, and listens carefully to every sappy/sentimental/transcendent word the Apollo astronauts had to say. The images are at once familiar and re-imagined--as a shared experience, a "restless, nervous energy" that is much of what Turner had to say, and more: humbled in the face of silent travel at 25,000 miles an hour, the Moon in the little window looking back in, the sight of the lunar lander as the astronauts rover back, the knowledge that the Earth is "this thing out here ... that's alive."

Reinart splices together the various missions, leaving us with an idea--or at least a feeling--but not history, exactly. Or maybe the distilled moonshine of history, crystal clear in a mason jar, a warm kick under cold stars.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)

NOTICE: Good news: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is back on Instant Play.

Sidney Lumet, still barreling along, directs another misbegotten robbery movie--and this just a year after the satisfying Find Me Guilty, in which Vin Diesel reminded us he is one charming guy.

No charm, though, is evident in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. The brothers--Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke--who decide to rob their parents' jewelry store are so morally constipated they cannot express one clear thought. Instead, they simply doggedly advance, and screw everything up, and spend much time paying, the kind of thing Lumet is good at--I remain an admirer of Prince of the City, especially Treat Williams' breathless would-be hero.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead has a few smeared lines, but between the cast (which also includes Albert Finney and Marisa Tomei) and the appalling mess those brothers make, their own dog day afternoon waning, Sidney Lumet once more makes a crime movie that's about a lot more than crime--and that knows there are all kinds of crimes, enough to go around for all of us.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Dark Corner (1946)

Henry Hathaway (Call Northside 777/1948, Kiss of Death/1947) directs The Dark Corner with many requisite dark corners--and that's no joke: Half the time the characters disappear into darkness, become shadows on the wall--sometimes one person manages to find a bar of light to stand in, but the darkness creeps up on him anyway; but again, despite the persistent gloom, the movie is full of life--especially in one's ears. It's a noisy picture, with a real New York all around: trains squealing and buses hissing, car-horns honking, kids playing, and many many radios supplying a musical score. Hathaway works hard to paint the screen black, then surprises us with all those people and their clacking, crying, whistling, singing selves. What a relief it was, in a movie that tried to drag everybody into its dark corner.

--Except for the private dick's secretary/Girl Friday, played by Lucille Ball as one cute tomato with wide-eyed, matter-of-fact pluck. It took me fifteen seconds to like her, and just a few more to depend on her: I felt that as long as the movie didn't kill Lucy there'd be hope the shadows would recede.

The private eye, Mark Stevens' Brad Galt, needed all the hope he could manage. And that was another pleasant surprise: a gumshoe with the jitters, playing tough but inside frazzled--the girl noticing it before we did. Of course, we also get the usual suspects: the smooth blackmailer, the Oscar-Wilde-ish rich guy (Clifton Webb leaning hard on his accent as he complains that he hates the dawn because "the grass looks like it's been left out all night"); the wife he dangles like a watch-fob, bright and necessary; and once more, William Bendix as the muscle, his white suit smeared with ink, his instincts perfect but his reflexes a bit too slow to keep up. But it's Galt's game to lose, and Lucy's picture--except for all those Caligari shadows and the hubbub of the city, a window away but of no real help as the bodies pile up.

Shameless Plug: This is adapted from my Big Blog, The Constant Viewer.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Altered (2006)

Eduardo (Blair Witch Project) Sanchez directs an SF/horror film the old-fashioned way: with an improbable plot, hand-made gore effects, and a generous measure of suspense and shocks. Altered's mood varies from thrill-ride fun to grim, from wide-eyed panic to action-heroic--with welcome doses of humor and good-ol'-boys(-n-girl) characters that are surprisingly non-annoying; the script knows they're rednecks, but doesn't laugh at them.

If you can stand the gore and enjoy horror comics and The X-Files, this one is comfort food. And it's the kind of direct-to-video title Instant Play was made for; one can only hope that Altered inspires more would-be grindhouse auteurs.

I'm sorry to note that I wanted to recommend another low-budget horror gem, Splinter, but it's off the Instant Play--although you can rent the disc. Please, Netflix, extend those licenses!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Grey Gardens (1975)

Before you watch the Drew Barrymore-Jessica Lange HBO docudrama, Grey Gardens, check out the Maysles brothers' documentary of the same name. Albert and David follow aging Big Edie Bouvier (of the Jackie O. Bouviers) and her daughter, Little Edie, as they wander around Grey Gardens, their Shirley-Jackson-esque American Gothic estate, planted in the midst of East Hampton.

But the Edies have aggressively turned their backs on the Hamptons — and the rest of us, lost in their mutual dependence and resentment. The Maysles brothers' films are famous for getting uncomfortably close to exploitation, but as I watched Grey Gardens I found myself moving beyond the queasy pleasures of voyeurism to a sense of tragedy, as though Death of a Salesman had somehow shed all its pretensions and murmured, "I told you so": The American Dream sits in a room filled with rubbish and cats and croons a sad song no one wants to hear — and dances with its eyes closed, so it doesn't have to see.

If you want losers to laugh at, Grey Gardens will feed that need and make you a worse person. But if you can manage pity and fear, then it will make you a better one for enduring it.