Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese (1973)

My 1970’s mini-festival continues. I’d forgotten what an intimate affair this movie is; with its small cast and constricted sense of space (almost everything happens in the bar where the guys hang out) it could almost be a play. I guess I’d always unthinkingly classified Mean Streets as a bloody shoot’em up gangster picture, but it really isn’t at all. You don’t see a gun until more than 45 minutes into the picture, and you can count the number of bullets fired in the entire movie on your fingers and toes. Can you imagine a contemporary movie about small-time hoods taking that long to start up the blasting? It’s also just fascinating in general to see how big a deal it is to have a gun in this movie. When one does appear, everyone gets absolutely reverent. How things have changed! These days guns are as unremarkable as toothbrushes. Actually, you probably see far more guns than toothbrushes on the screen.

Anyway. The movie’s really about the relationships between a handful of desperately bored friends obsessed with finding ways to amuse themselves and impress each other. Weirdly, it kept reminding me of college. Tightly confined spaces both physical and social, lots of intense relationships, lots of booze, constant oscillation between hysterical self-confidence and crushing fear, going deeply into debt with no foreseeable way of ever getting out. Above all: the insane conviction that self-destruction is the best escape from banality.


Badlands, Terrence Malick (1973)

“You want a second chance, then listen. Twelve noon, Grand Coulee Dam, New Years Day, 1964.”

This script is so brilliant. I keep pausing every five minutes to write down lines and think of what excellent epigraphs they’d be.

Nice companion, in a way, to Mean Streets. Young people without a thought in their heads or a qualm in their hearts destroy themselves and others pretty much just out of boredom.

Malick is much more the poet than Scorsese, though. The musical counterpoints in Mean Streets are designed to make you squirm–a lesson which Tarantino took to what I hope to God is the ultimate extreme in Reservoir Dogs [don’t click that unless you’re a glutton for punishment]–and the occasional arty nonsequitur shots in Malick seem much more part of the fabric in Malick than in Scorsese, where they feel like an assignment for an admired but hated professor.

Fuck, what’s to say. This is the Bonnie and Clyde we deserve and are.

It Happens Every Spring, Lloyd Bacon (1949)

Charming. A baseball-loving chemistry professor (the under-appreciated Ray Milland, who always looks to me like he’s dying for a drink) accidentally discovers a compound which repels wood, and quickly realizes its potential: a little dab in the pitcher’s mitt, and no hitter will be able to connect. Goes on to win 30-odd games and the championship for St. Louis, and his girlfriend’s father’s begrudging admiration to boot. Interestingly, at no point, ever, does the movie contemplate the fact that our hero is a cheat. Who cares! He’s a winner! Barry Bonds would enjoy this.

Heaven, Tom Tykwer (2002)

An unfortunate oil and water collaboration between Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The Princess and the the Warrior), who directed, and Krzysztof Kieslowski, who wrote the script. Tykwer’s specialty is stylish romanticism, Kieslowski’s is stony morality tales, and the movie is a confusing collision of the two. An English teacher living in Italy (Cate Blanchett) seeks to avenge the deaths of her junkie husband and her drug-addicted students by murdering a drug lord, but she accidentally kills four innocent bystanders instead. That’s a classic Kieslowski setup; it could be a story from the Decalogue. But then the Tykwer vibe takes over: a manchild police officer falls in love with Blanchett, engineers her escape from custody, and then the two of them go wandering around the stunning sunburnt hills of Umbria like a couple of drunken angels, staring into each others’ eyes, getting matching haircuts, and generally acting ineffable and dreamy. These scenes are lovely to watch–I’d be happy watching Cate Blanchett do her laundry–but they feel totally disconnected from the moral problems of Kieslowski’s story. I’m not opposed to dreamy romances–I will confess that I loved The Princess and the Warrior, maudlin as it was–but this one’s too inconsistent to get properly lost in.

The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo (1966)

I’ve seen this devastating mock-documentary about the Algerian War for independence several times; its force remains undiminished. Unfortunately, the Iraq coverage on CNN resembles this film more and more every day. A western Christian country occupies an Islamic country, secular nationalist rebels are squashed by the occupier leading to a growth in anger and religious fundamentalism. The rebels (I’m so sick to death of the word “insurgents,” aren’t you?) practice hit and run assassination techniques and then melt back into the crowded and chaotic neighborhoods. So the occupier sets up a fortified green zone with checkpoints where the locals are searched for weapons before passing through, but of course this only increases resentment and creativity among the rebels. Throughout all this, it should be noted, the commanders actually on the ground evince a much stronger grip on the grim realities than do the ideologues and politicians at home. Finally, out of frustration, the occupier resorts to torture of prisoners (“detainees” is another Orwellian euphemism I’m trying to purge from my vocabulary). Thus in the end, the occupier, in its supposed effort to bring humanism, democracy, and open society to the occupied, ends up inhuman, totalitarian, and closed.

The New York Times reported in 2003 that people were watching this movie in the Pentagon in order to learn how to win hearts and minds in Iraq. It’s a nice story, but I don’t think anyone was paying much attention.

ATL, Chris Robinson (2006)

The plot here is blandly earnest as an Afterschool Special, or American Graffiti or Diner: a group of typical American high school seniors–the brain, the cutup, the romeo, etc.–fall in and out of love and struggle with a variety of obstacles as they contemplate their futures. Boring, right? It would be, if it weren’t for the fact that this banal story is populated by black kids from a economically depressed section of Atlanta (a.k.a. “ATL”). The movie’s message works in the negative. Watching it, you realize that almost always, when you see black teenagers on a movie or TV screen, they’re antagonists: the boys criminals and/or misogynists, the girls bitter scolds or tramps. Or otherwise, they’re pathetic characters, heroic and golden-hearted, but brought low by abuse, poverty, racism. How sad that it’s so striking to see a movie where a bunch of average black kids get to play the roles of average kids. The climactic scene is a rollerskating competition! It’s a boring movie as a movie, but it’s exciting to see a movie which, I suspect, reflects the realities of growing up African American more accurately than does an episode of The Shield.

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Albert Brooks (2005)

I admire and enjoy post-comedy comedians like Larry David, Gary Shandling, and Sarah Silverman, each of whom in their own twisted ways seek to implode the ancient setup/punchline paradigm. But I would submit that Albert Brooks, alone among comics, has dared to take comedy all the way through the tradition, on through the anti-tradition, and into the ultimate comic space: unfunniness.

This is, on its face, an awful movie. Stupid setups, lame jokes, draggy pace, contrived situations. But there is, I think, a kind of transcendent genius in it. Brooks plays a comedian named Albert Brooks, a half-talented Hollywood comic with a stalled career who happens to have starred in all the same films that Albert Brooks has starred in. The State Department phones to let him know that he’s their last choice (all the people they wanted for the job were too busy to do it) for a project to find out what Muslims think is funny. (Fred Thompson, an actor playing a politician who became an actor playing a politician and now wants to be a politician again, is chairing the project, which is a nice addition to the irreal feeling of the movie.) Brooks is daunted but too vain to say no, and flies off to India to try to make Muslims laugh. The movie’s premise is itself a solid metaphor for Brooks’ comic style: it seems a little stupid but a little smart, a little serious and a little funny, a little misguided and a little insightful. The scene where Brooks puts on a one-man showcase of comedy styles for a New Delhi audience as a sort of humor allergy test–he wants to see what kinds of jokes get a reaction–is sublimely strange.

Like just about everything I’ve seen Brooks do, this movie struck me as both tedious and insanely clever. Such a strange dude.