Spies, Fritz Lang (1928)

Similar to the Mabuse movies in its concerns and mise en scène, but leaner. The secret services of Germany and Japan try to protect an alliance between the two countries from being exposed by the evil banker Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rouge, who also played Mabuse). But that’s hardly the point. You watch this movie to learn how to dress, disembowel yourself in shame, decorate, dine out and dance in a nightclub featuring live boxing matches, drink, and do your hair. There are lamps in here I’d trade a foot for. And when Haghi’s femme fatale goes to work, I cry to the spider, Oh, sting thou me! Sting me!

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Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

As in Remains of the Day, we have here a first-person narrator who has been defined by society as a servant, and who both relishes and resents the role. In this case the speaker is not a butler but a member of a race of clones created by modern science in order to provide organs for non-clone people who fall ill and need new livers, etc. The novel doesn’t satisfy as a Blade Runner or THX 1138 style dystopian sci-fi because the main point never seems to be social critique. Nor does it satisfy as a Remains of the Day-like repressed love story, because the protagonists have very small inner lives and even those come off as etherized. The only way I can have any fun reading this is if I think of it as an allegory about the English public school system. A minor and to be honest kind of nauseating book by an author I admire.

The Visitor, Thomas McCarthy (2007)

Rats, I saw this some time ago and wrote some notes but now I can’t find them. So an experiment in discovering what sticks. A sad sack college professor, newly a widower, goes to NYC for a conference, and discovers a Syrian man and his Senegalese girlfriend living in the pied-à-terre he’s owned for years but visits rarely. The couple have been scammed by a duplicitous real estate agent, to whom they’ve been paying rent. Professor of course kicks them out, but then feels bad and goes to find them and tells them they can stay until they find a new place. Then, predictably, in return, they teach him how to live for the moment, play exotic instruments, eat new foods, not fall prey to stereotypical assumptions (e.g., the African turns out to be the strict Muslim and the Syrian isn’t). Then the Syrian is stopped by the police for jumping a turnstile in the subway (he didn’t, of course: he was just trying (metaphorically) to get himself and his big native drum through the turnstile), and he’s sent to a detention facility to await deportation. His mother arrives from Detroit and stays with the professor. They try to get the kid out but guess what, the INS has heard it all before. The professor is bewildered that he can’t get his way even though he’s white and rich. The mother flies off to Syria to be with her son after he’s deported. The professor sells the piano he’s tried to learn and hated for years and gets into jamming in the Washington Square drum circles.

Ain’t that a tidy story? It’s the professor that does all the learning, get it? While there are some sweet, sensitive, and intelligent performances here, and the script itself is chockablock with subtle and genuinely moving moments, the overall rhetorical arc of the story is fairly disgusting. The besieged, belittled, terrified, and terrorized immigrant characters exist here only insofar as they are crucial to the professor’s education. The truly radical move here would have been to make the Syrian the main character, and the professor his narrative foil, instead of vice-versa. But that movie would never have been made.

Doubt, John Patrick Shanley (2008)

It’s difficult to get too worked up about this when your general feeling is that Catholicism is a racket; trying to decide whether the nun or the priest is the bad apple is sort of like trying to decide who was worse, Ken Lay or Jeff Skilling. This whole thing gave me the creeps. It was a lot like going to church, actually. It was very stern and important-sounding, and made me feel like a failure because I couldn’t believe in it.

Wheel of Time, Werner Herzog (2003)

Werner Herzog and half a million Buddhists journey to Bodh Gaya to observe Kalachakra, the Buddhist ritual where Tibetan Buddhist monks are ordained. The spectacle is overwhelming and humbling, and Herzog very rarely editorializes, directly or indirectly. Mostly, he just points his Steadicam at something amazing and lets it roll: monks in surgical masks making a mandala grain by grain, devotees making their way to Bodh Gaya overland on their hands and knees, a sea of pillows left behind after a service led by the Dalai Lama. Voyeuristic but not disrespectful, and fully irresistible.

The Prestige, Christopher Nolan (2006)

Speaking of Ricky Jay and David Mamet. Jay appears in the first scene of this Edwardian costume drama about two rival magicians determined to destroy each other. The plot’s a bit of a muddle, since it insists on SURPRISING! us with SUDDEN UNEXPECTED REVERSALS! about every ten minutes. Nolan could have a learned a few things about the satisfactions of the long con from Mamet’s seminal House of Games or Things Change. When the long con here is finally revealed–actually long cons, plural–it’s fun, but so baroque you’re more like, “hmpf” than “holy cow.” David Bowie is terrific, really terrific as Nikolai Tesla, the tragic father of electricity. (Thanks to Dan for that link.) And Scarlett Johansson is awful but who cares.