Johnny Guitar

Joan Crawford, like Marlene Dietrich, was almost too powerful a force to be contained by the boundaries of the film frame. Few films serve her quite as well as Johnny Guitar, which allows Crawford to dart between contemptuous courage and existential fragility within the space of seconds.

After a brief prelude, Johnny Guitar initially unfolds as a tense and invigorating one-room stageplay, expertly and precisely staged by director Nicholas Ray as a ballet of wills and longings and violence (both latent and expressed). A suicidal energy cuts through each interaction. Every character here stands poised on the brink of combustion.

That’s an excellent space for Crawford, in particular, whose Vienna has clawed her way up from the streets and hitched her dreams to the westward expansion of the railroad. She made her way through the seedy underbelly of the old America and dreams of building a new one.

Sterling Hayden, a master of wry delivery, appears in the title role as Vienna’s former lover. His Johnny, a self-destructive gunslinger who has come to the end of his tether after a history of wanton bloodshed, represents both the culmination of Vienna’s dreams and the threat of its collapse into the wreckage of the past. They carry their wounds with them, and each might find their own demise in their acquiescence to the other.

This ballet, always in danger of transforming into a death-dance, plays out against the backdrop of a frontier turf war. This war between old and new Americas eventually breaks out from Vienna’s would-be enclave, the casino she’s built beside the future path of the railroad, into the unforgiving terrain of that frontier.

As with nearly all of the great Westerns things come together in a tense shootout. If victory remains elusive for any of the film’s characters, the next best thing is remaining alive. If Vienna cannot build the new America, she might survive the pangs of its birth.

The Trouble with Harry

Unfairly dismissed as a film of minor pleasures, The Trouble with Harry is in reality far from minor. Coming from a director of ambitiously structured thrillers, it’s subtle and humble, but it’s also one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most assured, coherent pictures, and stands as his most full-bodied statement on the paradoxes of human nature.

Set in beatific, beautiful Vermont, Harry unfolds as a light comedy about how small-town charm can coexist with indifference towards violence. The charming and twisted opening scene, which stages the birth of a winter romance over a corpse (with one character casually stepping over the body as they go to make their exit) sets the tone.

Here, Hitchcock lavishes his attention on his characters’ idiosyncrasies (he may have famously referred to actors as cattle, but Hitchcock does love to revel in actorly mannerism as a cinematic effect unto itself). Every one of its protagonists are simultaneously sweet and mercenary: self-deprecating and generous and casually cruel and complicit in crime and its coverup.

The policeman is cast as the story’s antagonist (Hitchcock claimed to fear policemen above everything). He’s as uncompassionate and arrogant and unlikable as our complicit band of small-town maybe-murderers are charming. It’s the band of small-town, accidental crooks who have our sympathy. Therein lies the joke. Murder only troubles us when we dislike the murderers.

Alien Resurrection

The woefully misbegotten and mostly tedious Alien Resurrection has only one truly vivid, uncanny, destabilizing moment, and that is when Ellen Ripley (now resurrected as an alien-human hybrid clone from her sacrificial death at the end of Alien 3) encounters a room full of unsuccessful attempts at Ripley’s resurrection.

Ripley’s sacrificial death led not to some dreamy heaven, but once again to another layer of the nightmare. This hall of half-human, half-alien horrors extend neatly from the biomechanical nightmares of the original Alien, and this moment of confrontation dramatizes what the prior trilogy had already signified: the alien had eclipsed all of Ripley’s hopes and dreams, and now she has finally been remade in its terrifying image.

Neither director Jeunet (whose stylized, comic sensibilities jar with the material) nor the screenwriter, Whedon, properly capitalize on this profoundly unsettling turn for Ripley, which is a shame: it offered fertile ground for a series that had seemingly come full circle.

Weaver, constrained by the film, still finds the character within. She was and is, for all intents and purposes, the heart of the series because she can so uniquely express the bitter fortitude that can only come with great trauma. The first film may have been a haunted house movie driven by a sense of the ethereality of outer space, but both Aliens and Alien 3 found their momentum in Weaver’s face and the profound depths it suggests. No actress has ever recoiled in horror with more conviction.

The Big Lebowski

The Coens make better “termite” than “white elephant” pictures (to borrow Manny Farber’s useful, if nevertheless overworn and somewhat dubious, dichotomy). The Big Lebowski is the kind of peculiarly towering work that achieves greatness through its own effortless oddball-ness, the sort that can only emerges when an artist (or, in this case, artists) are motivated primarily by their own idiosyncratic amusement.

A Gen X Long Goodbye, this hazy, somewhat wistful take on American idiocy and confusion by way of the Bush Sr. era of politics, offers a farcical take on Chandler in which America just don’t make sense, man. (Burn After Reading is its acid-tongued cousin, a spiritual successor linked to the next clear phase of the Bush political dynasty.)

Its facetious, but nevertheless oddly resonant, thesis is that in stupid, cruel, criminal times, there needs to be a constant, something to stabilize the chaos: someone with little ambition who will kick back and bowl and drink a White Russian.

The brilliance of Lebowski lies less in what it says than in how it carries itself, which is with the same unimpeachable casual exuberance and weirdness that runs through Bridges’ central performance. It’s the equivalent of a night out at your favorite neighborhood dive bar (which is to say a night spent reveling while in the eye of the American storm).

The Big Sleep

No cinematic Chandler adaptation had successfully channeled the same psychic forces that propel his Marlowe novels (in my estimation, the Mitchum-starring Farewell My Lovely comes closest, even if it gives us Chandler by way of Nathanael West). The Hawks adaptation of The Big Sleep keeps the narrative outlines, but it’s a Hollywood glamour vehicle (even if it has a seedy side).

Bogart excelled at conveying self-destructive psychology, so it’s a shame that Marlowe’s essential cynical loserdom isn’t in evidence. Here, he’s in charismatic heartthrob mode, a kind of James Bond P.I. Still, you could do worse; Bogart is a joy to watch, especially when he shares the screen with Bacall.

Bacall comes from some other planet, a young dynamo that’s all desire and contempt and fortitude. If Gene Tierney was the ultimate self-destructive femme fatale, a woman who would inevitably combust in spectacular fashion, Bacall’s film noir women would survive everyone (including the men they loved).

A Touch of Zen

King Hu’s great wuxia feature, A Touch of Zen, may be cinema’s greatest expression of human spirituality. Certainly, no other film has so perfectly embodied the concept of “holiness” with such force and such effortlessness.

Hu presents transcendence as both tangible and ineffable, all the while suggesting that it is profoundly effortless: to live a holy life is to live the most natural and sensible life.

“The sea of suffering is boundless. Arise and come ashore.”

Showgirls

In Showgirls, some people become has-beens, some become grocery clerks, some become forgotten victims obscured by PR cover-ups, and some skip town and head for Los Angeles.

It’s a garish, vulgar, unsubtle epic, but it’s not senseless. It takes talent and chutzpah to make something this brazenly ridiculous, this unflinchingly earnest, and this strange. It’s a movie made for people who, like me, can laugh and cry at the same time.

The Swimmer

No film channels late-summer existential malaise quite like The Swimmer, one of the strangest and most arresting films to come out of late-1960s Hollywood.

Awash in high-art pretensions and tacky period affectations–literary pedigree, quasi-psychedelic transition montages, a heavy-handed Marvin Hamlisch score, unsubtle symbolism, untamed melodramatic gestures–The Swimmer somehow survived a troubled production (after clashing with Burt Lancaster, director Frank Perry was pushed off of the project after assembling his first cut, with Sydney Pollack reshooting portions of the film and assembling it into its finished form) to become a vessel for the failures of an American generation, or at least some of them. Set in the midst of wealthy Connecticut, The Swimmer offers a portrait of a masculine mind in crisis, disconnected from time and social structures, frantically tumbling into the liminal regions between hope and delusion and despair. Everything about The Swimmer could easily ring false if it all wasn’t so sincere.

That sincerity extends directly from Lancaster, who gives the greatest performance of his career as Ned Merrill, a proto-Don Draper without any of Draper’s cynicism. Lancaster’s Merrill wholly believes in his own mythology. Lancaster looks and speaks like a god from Olympus; if anyone might speak a daydream into existence, it would be him. But he’s more akin to Sisyphus than he is to one of the Olympians, trying to achieve the impossible through sheer will, only to find that his feats of strength and determination lead him right back to where he started.

But to analyze The Swimmer is considerably less interesting than actually watching it. Its observations about class and race and gender and generational shifts sit on the surface; what makes them powerful are the spiritual energies that flow beneath them. To describe The Swimmer‘s dramatic conceits would fail to capture anything of the film’s uncanniness, in the way it makes its own literariness fluid and vital, in the way it finds both hope and sadness in the promise of summer sunlight, in the way Lancaster’s blue eyes strain to see a world that does not and cannot exist.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

“Time is just memory mixed with desire…”
~ Tom Waits, “The Part You Throw Away”

Languorous and fluid, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood floats along currents of longing that seem to come to us straight from deep in Tarantino’s psyche, a place where the Los Angeles of 1969 is real and alive and appealing and sad. Broadly, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is about Hollywood the Dreamland and Hollywood the Reality and the impossibility of reconciling the two. Or, to take a different perspective, it’s about the impossibility of Tarantino reconciling himself to himself.

Much has been made of the film’s rewriting of history, but I think to receive the climax of this film in the way that you might receive the ending of Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained completely misses the way this film, unlike those, goes to great pains to set-up its resolution differently; in Basterds and Django, their resolutions were the natural outgrowth of a clear build towards a narrative goal, an expression of catharsis that the entire film had been building toward. This film has no such clarity in trajectory; it ambles about from scene to scene, sequence to sequence, before the finale arrives. When it does arrive, it does so with a sharp tonal shift, and, unlike the prior films, goes out of its way to underline just where this film is breaking away from history. In case you missed his maneuvers before, Tarantino concludes his motion picture with the plaintive, ghostly strains of Maurice Jarre’s cue, “Miss Lily Langtry” (lifted from The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean), before “Once Upon a Time…” appears on the screen.

Some commentators have lamented that Tarantino isn’t interested in Sharon Tate as a person, but Sharon Tate the Human Being could never be reanimated by a filmmaker, and Tarantino himself is assuredly aware of that fact. One of the film’s most memorable scenes presents us with Margot Robbie-as-Sharon Tate watching the real Sharon Tate on-screen in a film, celebrating the real Sharon Tate while clarifying that whoever Margot Robbie is playing is very much not the real deal. He applies a similar exaggeration to every other “real life” figure that appears in this movie (among them, Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee): these figures are the screen icons that live in Tarantino’s mind, not the persons who live and breathed and died.

Protagonist Rick Dalton, a second-rate actor in the midst of a breakdown, is directly fictionalized, but he, too, is a creation drawn from the biographical details of real-world also-rans that filled Hollywood, as is his stuntman and best-friend, Cliff Booth. Theirs is a dysfunctional, broken bromance, a struggle to navigate a dysfunctional, evolving Hollywood by clinging on to each other. The Hollywood they navigate is Tarantino’s Hollywood: a place alive with the pop culture miscellany that Tarantino adores. Real life intrudes on the nostalgia: this is the home of alcoholics and maybe-murderers, haunted by the dark menace that lives in the abandoned film sets on the fringes of Los Angeles, but it’s also the place where people could drive in cars with the radio blaring and might end up at a theater or drive-in with a luminous marquee that happened to be showing a beat-up film print of a Spaghetti Western. The latter mightn’t balance out the former, but that doesn’t change the depth of love Tarantino has for it.

The fantasy of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a fantasy that the also-rans of culture that Tarantino cares about–not just the actors that nobody talks about anymore, but the shows and old theaters and even the radio commercials–actually matter. But in the end, it’s just a daydream, as flimsy as daydreams are. Reality is what it is, and no level of imagination can change it. That won’t stop Tarantino from trying.

A Unified Theory of the Daniel Craig Bond Films

Due to other commitments, my ongoing “Facts of Death” series, in which I laboriously examine the four existing James Bond films that feature Daniel Craig as the deadly spy, is on hold for the foreseeable future. However, seeing as production on Bond 25 (its official title is yet to be determined) is underway with a planned release in April 2020, I wanted to share with you my reading of the overarching trajectory of the Daniel Craig era to date.

For all of its fluctuations in tone and aesthetics, the Daniel Craig films have a fairly consistent sense of its protagonist’s psychological crises and construct a relatively consistent dramatic and thematic arc around it. The fundamental concern at the heart of the Daniel Craig Bond films is the notion of family, or, rather, the lack of it. In these films, “James Bond” is not a stable identity but a kind of constructed persona adopted by a man in a state of psychological and emotional turmoil, and the films dramatize its protagonist’s attempts to reconcile himself to himself.

In Casino Royale, we meet James Bond, one of the many “maladjusted young men” with a death wish swept up into the secret service to give his life on behalf of his country. An orphan with great ambivalence about authority and mistrust of personal relationship, Bond relies on MI6 as a surrogate family. Judi Dench’s M serves as the pivotal mother figure that he both rebels against and whom he seeks to impress. In the course of Casino Royale, Bond meets Vesper Lynd and contemplates abandoning his surrogate family to establish a life with her, and then recoils when that possibility is taken from him.

Quantum of Solace deals with the aftershocks of that loss, and over the course of that adventure, Bond meets his double, Camille. She, too, has lost her family. Together, they wander a family-less wilderness of grief and violence, and neither is able to wholly reconcile themselves to it or to each other. At the climax of Quantum of Solace, they find that the pain is too great to allow them to build a connection (family) with one another, and so Bond reintegrates himself with his surrogate MI6 family and once again submits to his “mother,” M.

Skyfall finds Bond questioning his submission to that surrogate family as, following a perceived betrayal at the hands of his “mother,” he becomes entangled in a battle with one of M’s previous surrogate sons. The course of the battle forces him to revisit the formative trauma of his youth, the death of his parents, which bleeds over into the battle of the present. He defeats his “sibling” and proves himself to be the “true” son, but the battle still costs him his mother.

Not unlike how Quantum of Solace traced the shockwaves of trauma from Bond’s loss of Vesper, Spectre follows where Skyfall left off, depicting Bond as grappling with the loss of M and the subsequent corruption of the secret service in her absence. Bond pursues her last wish as he hunts down the mysterious organization that orchestrated her demise. That quest for answers brings Bond into contact with another person in need of a family (“orphan” Madeleine Swann falls in love with Bond in part because he is a representation of her father) and brings him face to face with his archnemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Here, Blofeld is quite literally made into a sibling for Bond, a kind of onetime brother for the young, traumatized Bond, who, perceiving Bond as a rival, effectively orphaned himself and attempted to create himself anew. Having reconstructed his own origin story, this Blofeld overtly relishes the opportunity to rob Bond of any possibility of establishing a new family with Madeleine. At the end of Spectre, Bond triumphs over Blofeld by abandoning the role of state-sponsored assassin, leaving his surrogate MI6 family to build a new life with Madeleine.

Where Bond 25 proceeds from here, who knows? What little we know about Bond 25 suggests that his tranquil retirement with Madeleine will be short-lived. But, given the trajectory so far, I have a suggestion: if Bond 25 is to continue this arc, might it not make sense to see Bond become a parent? This has some level of precedent in the source material; Bond fathered a child in Fleming’s You Only Live Twice, although Bond was unaware that his child existed.