Premiere magazine had a lot of editorial capital invested in Titanic. During its production the publication treated it to more than one story, including a very long on-set feature by John H. Richardson, one of the mag's more stalwart and protean feature contributors at the time. Then there were multiple front-of-the-book updates, and our coverage culminated in a cover story featuring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. In that story much was made of the Jack and Rose romance and of course one had to ask (I forget who wrote this particular profile-cum-making-of-story) if any sparks flew between Leo and Kate and young Kate just laughed "he'll always be farty, smelly Leo to me," which pronouncement I parroted to her after a Q&A for Revolutionary Road, which also paired her and DiCaprio, and she laughed and said something implying (not unaffectionately, I must add) that their latest collaboration had given her little cause to revise her prior assessment.
In any event, in the runup to the movie actually opening, there was a lot of anticipatory schadenfreude about Cameron's folly combined with the anticipation that once the end result was revealed, things would be EVEN WORSE for the filmmaker. I don't recall if the screening a bunch of Premiere staffers attended was before or after Richard Corliss' inaugural pan was published in Time, but there was much roiling, although of course said roiling can't even begin to compare with the sort of thing that goes on nowadays with digitalsocmediagoddamnkids and all that sort of thing.
The colleagues I sat with were—as was I—all provisional Cameron believers who understood, or positioned themselves as understanding, the filmmaker as a contemporary manufacturer of DeMille-esque spectacle. We were gratified to see Michael Biehn turn up in the film's opening minutes, a little let down when we realized that he was only doing a cameo, and positively mortified at the prospect of having Danny Nucci's Fabrizio, who made Chico Marx look authentically native Italian by comparison, as Jack's second banana for the remaining hours. On the other hand, he was the first character we looked forward to seeing drown.
For the remainder of the film, we took the good (great visuals, spectacularly deft narrative momentum) with the bad. There's plenty bad, of course, from the phony class consciousness to the abominably on-the-nose dialogue, the know-somethingish name drops of Freud and company, the shameless "Bobby McGee" lift, and so much more. But again, as appalling as that stuff was, my crew and I accepted it with little overt showing of pain. Dialogue in a Cameron movie isn't MEANT to be sparkling on any level; while I doubt that even with a gun to his head Cameron could concoct anything that approaches the level of wit of, God, David Lee Roth, never mind Whit Stillman, I don't think that he ever actually wants to. Everything that's said in a Cameron picture is either subordinate to, or merely meant to bolster or accent, the big thing that's already in the frame. Like I said, spectacle.
Anyway, my colleagues and I kind of loved it. One of us allowed that it seemed to be EXACTLY the film Cameron had wanted to make, with the egregious exception of that dreadful Celine Dion song at the end, which was clearly his sole capitulation to a more venal manifestation of commercial consideration. We seemed to be alone in our enthusiasm. The other journalists in the relatively small Paramount screening room were kind of beside themselves in either embarassed silence or outright amused snarling. I remember particularly encountering the ever-egregious Jeff Giles in the men's room, practically cackling over how the thing wasn't going to make a DIME and that it would bankrupt Paramount AND Fox AND Cameron and blah blah blah blah. What a dink. So remember, kids: it's not just in political punditry that you can be spectacularly wrong whenever it actually counts and still keep your job, as long as your job still exists.
I saw Titanic a second time at New York's Leow's Astor Plaza with my then-girlfriend, poor thing, and her almost 90-year-old grandmother, a dear woman with a spine of steel and, I suspect, a reactionary streak a mile wide. Although I never really got to test that suspicion, as the woman, a native of Naples, didn't speak or really understand a single word of English despite having lived in Manhattan for some time. And it was really pretty amazing to watch it with her, as she was rapt for every second of the presentation, and an emotional wreck at the end. I attempted to comfort her, and when she was feeling better, I asked her, through her translator (my poor then-girlfriend, duh), if she had any valuable pieces of jewelry that she was hiding. Anyway. This experience kind of confirmed my feeling that, whatever else it may be, Titanic is, like Hitchcock's Psycho, a verifiable, primal demonstration of the power of pure film language.
In a recent dripping-with-even-more-hateful-condescension-than-usual piece in Slate, reviewing the recent 3D re-release of the film, Dana "I Was Writing My Dissertation" Stevens admits to "dismissing" the picture on its initial release, but now sees the light, or a light, and describes Titanic as "a triumph of popular art—of folk art, really." Really? I think her use of the term "folk art" is incorrect (and wonder what the fuck her dissertation was actually on, anyway), as there's nothing particularly indigenous about Canadian citizen Cameron's picture. I think Stevens really wanted to say "art that lots and lots and lots of stupid people like" but seized up just a little at coming right out with "stupid people." Have to keep up liberal-piety appearances, after all. I, on the other hand, have no such qualms. And I think that the fact that stupid people the world over really, really love Titanic, and can love it without even understanding what the people on screen are saying (which is not to say that my then-girlfriend's grandmother was a stupid person, mind you; no, not a chance, but that's another story) is actually one of the things that make the thing an extremely noteworthy piece of cinematic, ahem, art.
I enjoyed the tricksy Cabin In The Woods (featuring Kristen Connolly, Jesse Williams, and a one-way mirror, all seen above) a whole lot more than poor cranky Rex Reed did, as my review for MSN Movies attests. But I'll defend the poor fellow's right to bitch about his unpleasant direct experience of it...well, not to the death, but, you know. Somewhat. Did anyone out there think he'd actually enjoy the thing? Anyway, as I've said elsewhere, had Kim Jong-Il had been made a fifth as upset by Rex's notorious Old Boy review as Team Cabin has been made by this, we might all be dead now. Even though I thought Cabin okay, the stuck-pig howls of uniformity-craving fan types over Reed's factually inaccurate (but not semiotically off-base, finally) negativity make me laugh. Cause I'm a sadist, I guess. Mister Wells' dis over at Hollywood Elsewhere doesn't even get the semiotics right, deigning to take the movie seriously. Kind of. It really is amusing when hate-everything-Jeff gets his panties in a bunch over the genre kids, and their chilly emotion-denying nihilism, man. He's like Quincy in that punk-rock-killers episode or something.
Less edifying fodder for discussions cinematic or semiotic, alas, is Lockout, reviewed here.
Because the Some Came Running readership demands it. Or requests it, or something. (And while I try to be accomodating, no I don't think Typepad is gonna let me allow commenters to have italics via markdown.)
And because it gives me an excuse to put up this screen grab in which the director's cameo is made manifest (that's him, as a grumpy neighbor—he even has a line, it sounds like "Jesus Christ," which is what I was about to say—framed between Jodie Foster's hands as Christoph Waltz's character looks on quizzically).
Busby Berkeley's immortal 1943 The Gang's All Here comes to New York's Film Forum in a really lovely new 35mm restoration starting April 20. You should totally go see it. It's an absolutely staggering piece of work, filled with amazing imagery (of which the above "ordinary" shot is but one example), and contains what's probably my favorite single shot in all of Hollywood cinema, the incredibly graceful crane shot starting with the view of a nude statue in the Greek style and ending with Benny Goodman finishing a verse of "Paducah." The restoration, I repeat, is a honey, and its existence suggests a future Blu-ray, a very devoutly-to-be-wished condition for a film that was once so difficult to see in ANY kind of format. But it's a fun picture to see with a crowd, in a real celluloid projection, so do catch it this way if you can.
I was thinking about writing at length about it, despite having done so a couple of years back for what was once The Auteur's Notebook. My good friend Keith Uhlich actually linked to that piece from his Twitter feed today, which compelled me to have a look at it, and I was happy to see that what I wanted to say this time, I had already said then, and not too badly at that, if I say so myself. So here is THAT piece. I'm glad that age has not withered nor custom staled my receptivity to Alice Faye's sometimes melancholy allure.
Literary men now routinely tell their readers about their divorces. In newspapers. In columns in newspapers. Special columns devoted to the personal papers of literary men. One literary man who reviews books wrote, in reviewing a study of Ruskin, that he had never read a book by Ruskin but that the study confirmed him in his belief that he didn't want to read a book by Ruskin. This man very often writes about his family life.
Is he a fool? No. Absolutely not. He is doing what is appropriate. He is following a sound instinct. Instinct is so important. You have to go with the gut feeling. The gut feeling is that nothing could matter less than Ruskin. The guy feeling is that there isn't any grid to support Ruskin. The two grids left are the grid of enormous success—the grid of two hundred million—and the tiny, tiny baby grid of you and me and baby and baby's problems and my problems and your problems and can we keep even this little baby grid together?
And comfort? What is comfort? It's focus. You bring this grid together with that grid, you get the images to overlap, and suddenly things have a bit of focus, as in a certain sort of 35mm camera. What shall we bring together? The two grids. You and me and baby and baby's problem breathing and the grid of two hundred million. It is such a comfort. So it is a comfort when the literary man who knows no Ruskin tells us how it feels in his marriage when a friend brings home a pretty young girl. And it is a comfort when a comedienne whom we know, whom we love, whom we've known for years and years, whom we've loved for years and years, tells us that there has been a drug problem in her family. Suddenly, the grids merge. You and me and baby and drugs together on the grid of two hundred million. It's so intimate. It's like waking up with a friend. But just for a minute.
—George W.S. Trow, Within The Context of No Context, 1981, Little, Brown. Originally published in The New Yorker; republished by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1997, with introductory essay "Collapsing Dominant"
I was lucky enough to get into a screening of Whit Stillman's 1998 The Last Days Of Disco at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this evening, and even though I have the very nice Criterion DVD it was a real gas to see it on a big screen and with a live and appreciative audience. What a fucking spectacularly good film it is. The dialogue is so fantastic, really right up there as far as I'm concerned with the classic stuff like Hecht and MacArthur and of course Sturges but filtered through something both more literary-classical but also literary-postmodern. People compare Stillman to Tarantino on account of the cultural references, but listening to the debate on Lady and the Tramp this time around—as great a comic set piece as anything in post-'70s American cinema, and you don't even really need to know the Disney film to "get" it—I was oddly reminded of Pynchon, at least in terms of the way the argumentation is framed. There are a couple of narrative leaps I still don't quite grok—Matt Keeslar's Josh suddenly wearing that harlequin costume, for instance—but overall, just great, up to and including the dance fantasia finale.
The movie is part of a series programmed by the multi-hyphenate Lena Dunham, whose HBO series Girls is debuting on a date that lives in inf...well, it's April 15, which falls on a Sunday this year. Anyway, her series is called "Hey Girlfriend" and features films she admires/was influenced by, and after this screening of Disco Dunham led a Q&A with Stillman and actor Chris Eigeman, who's appeared in three of Stillman's four films. Dunham led off by saying one reason she loved Disco was its portrayal of a "great female friendship," a description that made Stillman raise at least one eyebrow. The film's central relationship is between Chloe Sevigny's Alice and Kate Beckinsale's Charlotte. Charlotte's, as it happens, is one of the most hilarious archetypal underminers in the history of fiction, so blatant in her manipulations that the joke becomes (in my mind at least) how much Charlotte only thinks she's being something like passive-aggressive. Sweet and inexperienced Alice falls for Charlotte's nonsense with a credulity that would make her an utter dupe in a less nuanced film, and this credulity leads to such classic lines as "I think Uncle Scrooge...is sexy." But on reflection, it seems that the fact that Dunham takes the relationship in the film as a friendship is not unrelated to what makes Dunham interesting as a filmmaker. There's been a lot of ink spilled about Girls lately, the most confounding piece to my mind being Frank Bruni's "O tempora! O mores!" New York Times thumbsucker about these kids today with the meaningless sex. And I've written about how certain aspects of Tiny Furniture made this 52-year-old guy glad to be out of the demographic by which his gender is judged by Jezebel and such. (Incidentally, while I stand by all of the points I made in that piece, I allow right now that my overall tone might have been a little too studiedly acerbic. Or a lot too studiedly acerbic.) What I didn't get into as much is how Furniture depicted intra-female relations as head-spinningly alternating between abrasion and affection, competition and solidarity, and so on. Very few of the films I've seen by male filmmakers of Dunham's generation have any such concerns, but then again very few films at all have such concerns, or at least they don't articulate them in the way that, say, a film such as Disco, or, for that matter, Claudia Weill's Girlfriends, which also showed in Dunham's series, do. I mean, Girlfriends and Disco take VERY different formal approaches to that articulation, but they both share a similar sharpness and frankness (for all the artifice of Stillman's film, it also has a very definite adamance—and accent, if you will—on being about something real). As does Mike Leigh's great Career Girls, also part of the series and showing this coming Sunday. What I'm saying finally is that my main interest in Girls is in seeing where Dunham takes THAT theme. So I look forward to it.
In the interest of what they used to call full disclosure I'll tell you that a friend who was part of the event introduced me to Dunham after the Q&A and we had a very pleasant chat and I found her completely engaging and gracious.
I saw the other day that Criticwire had a post about "cinematic blind spots," which seemed kind of interesting as a concept. I took "blind spot" to mean something a given critic didn't actually get, couldn't find a viable access to, or something. I wondered if what I experience in relation to Moretti is a blind spot. His films are recieved by many critics with a great deal of enthusiasm, and of the three films by him I've seen, The Son's Room, The Caiman, and now, We Have A Pope, I think each subsequent one is even worse than the other, and I didn't think The Son's Room was that great to begin with. But this isn't a blind spot in terms of being unable to access Moretti's film's; I think I "get" them just fine. I just don't think they're any GOOD, and when I read other accounts of them that do advocate in their favor, I'm mystified, because whatever the other critic is praising, I've never actually seen it on screen. I remember The Caiman in particular seeming kind of promising—hard to screw up with something like Berlusconi as your subject—and then evanescing into a mist of bland postmodernism and pro forma filmmaker self-involvement. So why this stuff gets praised, let alone even minimally imported to the States...that's my blind spot.
As it happened, though, what the Criticwire post meant by "blind spots," were films the surveyed critics hadn't actually seen, and were ashamed of having not seen, and stuff. Which is, as far as I'm concerned, a less interesting topic, because, really, do you honestly believe that if,say, Christy Lemire finally sits in front of The Searchers, it's gonna rock her world to the extent that it'll actually change her way of seeing and writing? No.
Actually, when I filed my notice, I wrote to my editor, "Either this is a better movie, or I'm getting soft in my old age." He almost immediately responded, "You're getting soft." It's called tough love, people. In any event, watching American Reunion did not suffuse me with loathing, as I describe in my review for MSN Movies.
It was a mere 17 months or so ago that I waxed all delirious over at MUBI, or The Auteur's Notebook as it was called then, about what a crime it was that von Sternberg's immortal 1932 Shanghai Express was not yet available on domestic DVD, so I would be remiss if I did not point out that the film, along with its thematic companion piece Dishonored, is now out in a handsome package from the TCM Store, and that the restored/remastered Shanghai does indeed look pretty gorgeous, better than the prior foreign-region version, all we could ask for beyond this is a Blu-ray disc that we're not going to get, etc., etc.
Now I've been hearing a lot of talk from a lot of honkeys sitting on a lot of money (okay, maybe that last part isn't true) about how they maintain that chaos cinema is the future and beyond it is that we have to deal with it because it is the currency (whoever can name the three records that this passage is derived from gets...well, lots of brownie points with me), and fine, that may well be the case. But I'll just add as a personal note: I don't care how "slow" or "corny" or whatever you can make a case for its being, in my book if you can't get Shanghai Express you don't get movies or film or cinema or what have you and I don't want to have a conversation with you about it or probably anything else for that matter. There. I've said it. It's a tough stance but in some ways it makes life easier. It also deprives me of anecdotes about, say, being puzzled by a close friend who's quite intelligent and sharp and a real mover and shaker in today's new media landscape who couldn't relate to Psycho, and isn't that interesting, which I could use to pepper a thumbsucker for the glossies, but that's just gonna have to be my lot in life.
I haven't looked at Dishonored yet, but will soon. Here is an interesting passage from Luis Buñuel's My Last Sigh concerning a sojourn in Hollywood in the early 1930s. It contains "spoilers":
In my frequent moments of idleness, I devoted myself to a bizarre document—a synoptic table of American cinema. There were several movable columns set up on a large piece of pasteboard; the first for "ambience" (Parisian, western, gangster, war, tropical, comic, medieval, etc.), the second for "epochs," the third for "main characters," and so on. Altogether, there were four or five categories, each with a tab for easy maneuverability. What I wanted to do was show that the American cinema was composed along such precise and standardized lines that, thanks to my system, anyone could predict the basic plot of a film simply by lining up a given setting with a particular era, ambience, and character. It also gave particularly exact information about the fates of heroines. In fact, it became such an obsession that Ugarte, who lived upstairs, knew every combination by heart.
One evening, Sternberg's producer invited me to a sneak preview of Dishonored, with Marlene Dietrich, a spy story which had been rather freely adapted from the life of Mata Hari. After we'd dropped Sternberg off at his house, the producer said to me:
"A terrific film, don't you think?"
"Terrific," I replied, with a significant lack of gusto.
"What a director! What a terrific director!"
"And what an original subject!"
Exasperated, I ventured to suggest that Sternberg's choice of subject matter was not exactly distinguished; he was notorious for basing his movies on cheap melodramas.
"How can you say that!" the producer cried. "That's a terrific movie! Nothing trite about it at all! My God, it ends with the star being shot! DIetrich! He shoots Dietrich! Never been done before!"
"I'm sorry," I replied, "I'm really sorry, but five minutes into it, I knew she'd be shot!"
"What are you talking about?" the producer protested. "I'm telling you it's never been done before in the entire history of the cinema. How can you say you knew what was going to happen? Don't be ridiculous. Believe me, Buñuel, the public's going to go crazy. They're not going to like this at all. Not at all!"
He was getting very excited, so to calm him down I invited him in for a drink. Once he was settled, I went upstairs to wake Ugarte.
"You have to come down," I told him. "I need you."
Grumbling, Ugarte staggered downstairs half-asleep, where I introduced him to the producer.
"Listen," I said to him. "You have to wake up. It's about a movie."
"All right," he replied, his eyes still not quite open.
"Epoch—World War I."
"When the film opens, we se a whore. It's very clear she's a whore. She's rolling an officer in the street, she..."
Ugarte stood up, yawned, waved his hand in the air, and started back upstairs to bed.
"Don't bother with any more," he mumbled. "They shoot her in the end."
Of course, the beauty of the von Sternberg/Dietrich films is that the platitudinous machinations of plot are entirely subordinate to the insane glories of the shooting and mise-en-scene, as I hope I conveyed in the MUBI piece about Shanghai Express. Still. Pretty funny anecdote.