Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Alternative Canon

My alternative canon #10: Miami Vice

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Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell in Miami Vice

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. For the last two weeks, I’ve been looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here

The most striking quality of the movies of Michael Mann—who is probably the strangest living director to be consistently entrusted with enormous budgets by major studios, at least until recently—is their ambivalent relationship with craft. It’s often noted that Mann likes to tell stories about meticulous professionals, almost exclusively men, and that their obsession with the hardware of their chosen trade mirrors the director’s own perfectionism. This is true enough. But it misses the point that for his protagonists, craft on its own is rarely sufficient: a painstaking attention to detail doesn’t save the heroes of Thief or The Insider or Collateral, who either fail spectacularly or succeed only after being forced to improvise, and their objectives in the end aren’t the ones that they had at the beginning. This feels like a more faithful picture of Mann himself, who over the last decade has seemed increasingly preoccupied with side issues and technical problems while allowing the largest elements of the narrative to fend for themselves. It’s often unclear whether the resulting confusion is the result of active indifference, uncompromising vision, or a simple inability to keep a complicated project under control. The outcome can be an unambiguous failure, like Public Enemies, or a film in which Mann’s best and worst tendencies can’t be easily separated, like Blackhat. And the most freakish example of all is Miami Vice, which is either a botched attempt to create a franchise from an eighties cop show or the most advanced movie of the century so far. But as Mayor Quimby says on The Simpsons: “It can be two things.”

I’ve watched Miami Vice with varying degrees of attention perhaps a dozen times, but I’m not sure if I could accurately describe the plot. The script and the dialogue seem to have arisen like an emergent property from the blocky, smudged images onscreen, which often threaten to push the story off the edges of the frame entirely, or to lose it in the massive depth of field. Frederik Pohl liked to describe certain writers as fiddler crabs, in whom a single aspect of their work became hypertrophied, like a grotesquely overdeveloped claw, and that indisputably applies to Mann. These days, he seems interested in nothing but texture: visual, aural, thematic. Digital video, which allows him to lovingly capture the rippling muscles on Jamie Foxx’s back or the rumpled cloth of Colin Farrell’s jacket so that you feel like you could reach out and touch it, was the medium that he had been awaiting for his entire career, and he makes such insane overuse of it here that it leaves room for almost nothing else. The film unfolds only on the night side of the city in which it supposedly takes place, just as it appears to have shot roughly half of a usable script. (This isn’t necessarily Mann’s fault: Foxx abruptly departed toward the end of production, which is why the last scene feels like a bridge to nowhere.) As with The Night of the Hunter and Blue Velvet, Miami Vice is one of those movies in which it can be hard to tell the difference between unintentional awkwardness and radical experimentation—which is inevitable when you’re forging a new grammar of film. It looked like a failed blockbuster, and it was. But you could also build an entire art form out of its shattered pieces.

Written by nevalalee

June 17, 2016 at 8:15 am

My alternative canon #9: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

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The Life Aquatic

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. For the rest of the week, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here

Over the last twenty years, Bill Murray has been quietly building a body of work that amounts to the most surprising third act of any actor in recent memory. Murray always had a tendency to float through his roles, and one of the pleasures of a movie like Ghostbusters or Groundhog Day is the chance it affords to watch him maintain his sardonic equanimity through the strangest of circumstances. Yet it took the combined insights of Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola to realize that there was a darker, more wounded side to his persona. The quintessential Murray character is so detached from his surroundings that it might well lead, after a decade or two of smart remarks, to a graying, wistful cynic bewildered by his own lack of human connection. There had already been hints of a great character actor in the making in the string of small parts that he took starting with Ed Wood and Wild Things, and when combined with this newfound sense of melancholy, it became clear that something special had emerged: a performer whose history as a star could enlarge the emotional scope of a movie in a handful of scenes. (You see a similar phenomenon with Sean Connery in The Untouchables and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which make him seem like the most valuable supporting actor who ever lived.) Murray has filled a corner of most of Anderson’s movies since Rushmore, and in some cases, as in The Darjeeling Limited, it feels as if the director just wanted to have him around on the set—and who could blame him? But it’s only in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou that Murray takes center stage, and the result is both Anderson’s greatest commercial failure and a movie that seems to get richer, funnier, and more moving with time.

The Life Aquatic inspired one of my favorite reviews by the late Roger Ebert, who said: “I can’t recommend it, but I would not for one second discourage you from seeing it.” Earlier, Ebert wrote: “My rational mind informs me that this movie doesn’t work. Yet I hear a subversive whisper: Since it does so many other things, does it have to work, too? Can’t it just exist?” And the fact that it exists at all feels like a weird kind of miracle. It’s a film that seems to have been written and directed by a couple of bright twelve-year-olds, and I mean this as the highest possible praise: few other movies have come so close to putting the inner world of my childhood on film, shot through with veins of something sadder and more regretful. (I’m also inordinately susceptible to the world of Jacques Cousteau, and I wrote an entire novelette, “The Boneless One,” in homage to the fantasy of taking to sea in a research yacht.) But none of it would hold together without Murray at its heart. It takes his air of a man without a country and makes it wonderfully literal, and its star is too wry a performer to allow the story to become overly sentimental or precious: Murray knows that Zissou is kind of an asshole, and the improvised moment when he casually pulls a gun on Cate Blanchett to prove a point provides a necessary grace note to a movie that might otherwise have become insufferably whimsical. Anderson has said that he was inspired to make it by the mental image of the yacht seen in cross section, and it’s undoubtedly a lovely sight. But if the result works at all, it’s because it gives us a glimpse of the inside of Murray as well.

My alternative canon #8: Down with Love

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Ewan McGregor in Down with Love

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. For the rest of the week, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here

I didn’t see Down with Love when it first came out in theaters, almost exactly thirteen years ago, and at the time, it seems to have puzzled most viewers and critics. By the time I finally caught up to it on video, Mad Men had been on the air for several seasons, which went a long way toward making Peyton Reed’s unlikely gem more comprehensible: on its release, it seemed like an abandoned orphan, or a dead end, while hindsight has transformed it into a necessary transitional stage between The Hudsucker Proxy and the world of Sterling Cooper. As a result, it’s easier to appreciate now, and you don’t need to be familiar with the Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies it’s ostensibly parodying—I’m certainly not—to enjoy its surface delights. The look of the early sixties is reproduced with a precision that Matthew Weiner would have reason to envy, and the film can indulge in the kinds of sight gags that he never could, as when Barbara and her friend Vikki march into a party wearing houndstooth and canary-yellow coats, respectively, and then remove their outer layers in tandem to reveal complementary outfits underneath. (Vikki, incidentally, is played by Sarah Paulson, who is unforgettably funny here a full decade before her big breakthrough.) Its canny visual pleasures, from the smutty use of split screens to the cheerful fakery of the sets, accomplish with seeming effortlessness what One From the Heart, for all its agonized labor, never could. And when the two leads burst into song over the closing credits, it’s a joyous, inevitable climax that I’d take over all of Chicago or Moulin Rouge!

But the real reason I love this movie is because of a pivotal scene that qualifies, I think, as the weirdest and gutsiest moment in any mainstream comedy of the last twenty years. (Please note that a big spoiler follows.) In a static medium shot that lasts an unbelievable three minutes, most of it without any music, Barbara delivers an epic confessional monologue to Catcher Block, her romantic target, explaining that the film’s entire plot was the result of an insanely convoluted plan to get him to fall in love with her, starting with the simple first step of writing “an international bestseller.” At a time when extended takes and tracking shots have become increasingly routine, this is the only one that still fills me with awe. It strands the movie without a backup plan, depending on an irrational faith in the screenplay, in Renée Zellweger’s performance, and, perhaps most crucially, in the cut to Ewan McGregor’s bewildered reaction. A lot of movies pretend to take showy risks, but this is the real thing, a shot that blows up the entire story and can’t be fixed in the editing room. Maybe the lightness of the surrounding material has kept it from receiving its full due; more plausibly, maybe it just didn’t work for a majority of viewers. But it sure worked for me, in large part because it zeroes in, almost by accident, on the ludicrous fallacy of every writer’s life—the idea that the solution to all of your personal problems lies in writing a bestselling book. Barbara’s plan is crazy, but it works. And here’s a related confession of my own: I conceived this whole alternative canon mostly just as an excuse to talk about Down With Love.

Written by nevalalee

June 15, 2016 at 8:31 am

My alternative canon #7: Vanilla Sky

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Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz in Vanilla Sky

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. For the rest of the week, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here

I’ve always been an unabashed Tom Cruise fan, less for the actor than for the world’s finest producer and packager of talent who happens to occupy the body of a star, and after Edge of Tomorrow and the last two Mission: Impossible films, there are signs that the overall culture is coming around to the realization that he’s simply the most reliable brand in movies. Over the last decade, though, he has shown signs of diminished ambition. Cruise seems increasingly content to be nothing but an action hero, and there’s no question that he still delivers great entertainments. But for a while, starting in the late nineties, there were tantalizing hints of something more. Between 1999 and 2004, he made a series of movies that were essentially about being Tom Cruise, beginning with Eyes Wide Shut, a grueling experience that seems to have catalyzed his interest in pushing against his own aura. Stanley Kubrick always knew that he wanted a married couple to play Bill and Alice Harford, and the result is a movie that only becomes more complex and intriguing—at least to my eyes—the more we learn about how that marriage unraveled. Cruise never quite managed to pull off the same trick again, but his performances in movies from Magnolia to Collateral feel like a series of exploratory maneuvers, played out for an audience of millions. After War of the Worlds, the effort faded, and he spends most of his time now leveraging his history and presence in ways that are more obvious, which isn’t to say that they aren’t effective.

But I miss the Cruise of the turn of the millennium, a peerless creation that received its definitive statement in Vanilla Sky, which I still regard as criminally unappreciated and misunderstood. It feels like a snapshot now of a lost moment, both in history—you can see the Twin Towers looming in the background of a crucial shot—and in my own life: I saw it just before moving to New York after college, and it’s my favorite portrait of that city as it existed in those days. I’m not sure what drew Cruise to attempt a remake of Abre Los Ojos, or to recruit Cameron Crowe to direct it, but the sheer impersonality of the project seems to have freed Crowe, who transformed it from a straight thriller into a pop cultural phantasmagoria. It’s really an allegory about how we all construct ourselves out of fragments of songs, album covers, and old movies, and it captured something essential for me in a year when I was building an adult life out of little more than a few precious notions. (I ended up seeing it four times in the theater, a personal record, although it was mostly just so I could listen again to the first five notes of Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” as they played over the opening cut to black.) And it wouldn’t work at all without the presence of the world’s biggest movie star. Cruise plays much of it in a mask, a visual device that appears in films as different as Eyes Wide Shut and the Mission: Impossible franchise, but as time goes on, Vanilla Sky feels like the movie in which he comes the closest to revealing who he really is, even if it’s nothing more than the sum of his roles. But isn’t that true of everyone?

Written by nevalalee

June 14, 2016 at 9:00 am

My alternative canon #6: The Limey

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Terence Stamp in The Limey

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. For the rest of the week, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here

The Limey, like many of the films of Steven Soderbergh, works brilliantly despite its best intentions. Not much happens, at least not by the standards of the average crime movie: it’s ninety minutes of scrambled footage spun from little more than style, atmosphere, clever locations, canny music choices, and the electric charge of a willing and able cast. Yet every frame pulses with life. It’s impossible to believe any of it, any more than we can believe in the plot of, say, Haywire, but what’s real enough is the obvious pleasure of everybody involved. Terence Stamp is sensational, of course, but so are Peter Fonda, Luis Guzmán, Nicky Katt, Barry Newman, and the rest. And for all its ravishing tricks with editing and time—as when Fonda is introduced with what amounts to a miniature trailer for his character, or how the film uses archival footage from the vintage Stamp vehicle Poor Cow to show the protagonist in flashback—it isn’t afraid to deliver juicy set pieces, including the single best scene in Soderbergh’s work. I’ll go even further: I don’t think there’s a more exhilarating moment in all of movies than when Stamp, beaten up by goons and dumped on the sidewalk, staggers to his feet and totters back inside to wreak an unseen revenge. (It’s a sequence that turns, crucially, on Stamp’s age: you can almost feel his bones creaking as he straightens up.)

What’s funny about the scene, of course, is that it’s an immensely satisfying moment in a movie that seems otherwise determined to frustrate our expectations. It’s as if Soderbergh inserts it here just to prove that he can, in much the same way that he tosses off a genre piece like Contagion every few years simply to remind us that he’s better at it than pretty much anyone else. As a matter of narrative strategy, though, it’s a shrewd, even essential choice: once the scene is over, we’re willing to follow the movie wherever it wants to go, no matter how much misdirection and digression it throws at us in the meantime. As it stands, we barely even notice that this is a revenge movie without the revenge, or that its stylistic innovations, as delightful as they are, don’t have much to do with the bones of the story. (The writer Lem Dobbs wasn’t pleased with the result, and he airs his grievances in a famously combative commentary track with Soderbergh, which hasn’t stopped the two men from working together again.) Yet that’s also Soderbergh’s greatest strength. He knows how to use star power and conventional narrative payoffs to enable his loonier experiments, and he’s constantly looking to see how much or how little he can get away with using. When it misfires, it’s usually because the proportions are wrong, which is often in the eye of the beholder: Ocean’s 12, for instance, strikes me as a fascinating effort to spin a feature film out of as little substance as possible. If you make twenty movies like this in a row, eventually, you’ll end up with one in which the balance is perfect. Viewers probably won’t agree on which one it is. But for my money, it’s here.

Written by nevalalee

June 13, 2016 at 9:00 am

My alternative canon #5: The Last Temptation of Christ

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The Last Temptation of Christ

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. Over the next week and a half, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here

With the passage of time, most of the great scandals of film history start to feel positively quaint, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that if The Last Temptation of Christ were released again today, it would be the most controversial movie of its year. Even if you were to subtract its most obviously inflammatory scenes—the early sequence of Jesus as a crossmaker, the fantasy of his marriage to Mary Magdalene—you’d be left with a work of art that commits the ultimate sin of religious cinema: it engages the message of Jesus on its own terms, rather than as a series of sedate picture postcards. As studies like The Five Gospels and The Acts of Jesus make clear, one of the few things we can say for sure about Jesus of Nazareth is that many of those around him believed that he was insane, and when we watch Willem Dafoe in the title role, we can begin to remember why. This isn’t to say that I necessarily regard Scorsese’s, or Kazantzakis’s, vision as historically accurate: the idea of Jesus as a failed revolutionary who finally came to terms with his divinity makes for a nice three-act structure, but I’m not sure if it’s sustained by a close reading of the gospels. But the movie’s agonized effort to reimagine the most familiar story in the western tradition is unbelievably important. It’s the only Biblical movie I’ve ever seen that tries to stage these events as if they were happening for the first time, and the experience of watching it forces us, at every turn, to confront the strangeness of what it might mean to be both fully human and fully divine. The movie never doubts the divinity of Jesus: it’s Jesus himself who does.

And the fact that this film exists at all is something of a miracle. It was Scorsese’s second attempt to adapt Kazantzakis’s novel, and you can tell that it was shot on a shoestring. If it succeeds far more often than we’d have any right to expect, it’s thanks largely to the script by Paul Schrader, which is the best he ever wrote. (Among other things, it’s often genuinely funny, which is incredible in itself.) It’s full of fine performances, including a nice little cameo by Irvin Kershner, but my favorite is Harvey Keitel as Judas Iscariot, a role that is inevitably charged by our knowledge of the actor’s history with his director: in the scene in which the aging Judas accuses Jesus of having abandoned his mission, Keitel asked to deliver the speech to Scorsese, who is lying just out of the frame. It may not be my favorite Scorsese movie—these days, it’s a tossup between Taxi Driver, Casino, and The Departed—but it’s the one that continues to mean the most to me. I’ve watched it many times, and it rarely fails to move me to tears, although never in the same place twice. These days, the moment that haunts me the most comes after a beautiful young angel has taken Jesus down from the cross, inviting him to look at the world with fresh eyes: “Maybe you’ll find this hard to believe, but sometimes we angels look down on men and envy you. Really envy you.” The angel, of course, turns out to be Satan. And the movie’s central accomplishment is that it makes the last temptation, with its vision of an ordinary life, seem very tempting indeed, which only reminds us of the courage required for any man to reject it for something more.

Written by nevalalee

June 10, 2016 at 9:00 am

My alternative canon #4: One From the Heart

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Nastassja Kinski and Frederic Forrest in One From the Heart

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. Over the next week and a half, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here

Your feelings toward a movie can evolve over time, as in any other kind of romance. Occasionally, you can be persuaded to fall halfway in love with a film before you’ve even watched it, with a critic or an enthusiastic friend serving as the equivalent of a matchmaker, and that initial glow can blind you to even the most glaring of faults. Sooner or later, though, you start to see it more clearly, and you realize that it wasn’t meant to be—even if you’ll never forget how it once made you feel. One From the Heart, which in itself is a story about the ups and downs of a longtime relationship, is that kind of movie for me. I doubt if many viewers still seek it out these days, but for a few years in the early eighties, it was one of the biggest stories in Hollywood. Francis Ford Coppola, coming off the hell and unlikely vindication of Apocalypse Now, had envisioned a new kind of movie studio, in which artists of all backgrounds could come together in a process of ongoing collaboration: it would be part theater troupe, part circus, part laboratory for audacious experiments. The test case would be a modest screenplay by Armyan Bernstein about a bored couple, Hank and Frannie, who take other lovers for a single night, then drift back together again. It’s a trifle of a story even by the standards of romantic comedy, but something in it seized Coppola’s imagination: he decided to set it in Las Vegas, which would give him an excuse to build gigantic sets at the Zoetrope Studios, and to test his new technology for computer-assisted review and editing. (Or, as an industry wisecrack quoted by Roger Ebert put it: “[Coppola] took an $8 million project and used the latest advances in video to bring it in for $23 million.”)

In other words, it was just the kind of doomed, lunatic project that excites me as a moviegoer, and it was even a musical, too. Not surprisingly, after my first viewing, I was convinced that I loved it. Over time, the flush of enthusiasm faded: the plot is so inconsequential that it seems to evaporate as you watch it, and most of the visual and aural delights on display never quite land as intended. (The one exception is the soundtrack by Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle, which I still think is one of the greatest ever recorded. It deserves to be part of everyone’s musical life.) But I can’t quite forget it, either. I was first turned onto it by a pair of reviews by Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times, the first of which was a rave, the second—written a decade later—a mediation on her own disillusionment. In retrospect, they anticipate my own experience with One From the Heart with eerie accuracy. When Benson first saw it, she thought it was “enchanting,” but a return visit brought her to her senses: “But ah, my foes, and oh my friends, the stuff that sticks the marvelous bits together now seems, frankly, strained beyond the most passionate loyalty.” That’s pretty much how I feel about it today, too, even if its immaculate opening credits and gorgeous title song still fill me with a wistful sense of what might have been. Few other movies have left such an incongruous dual legacy: it’s both a lightweight, frothy confection and the film that derailed the career of the most promising American director since Orson Welles. But it’s still worth seeking out. As Benson concludes: “Who knows, it may become the love of your life.”

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