A Streetcar Named Desire, Elia Kazan (1951)

This movie’s become such a touchstone, I think many people, myself included, assume they’ve seen it even if they haven’t. If I have seen this before, it was prior to my taking up residence in the South, and also, in some respects, prior to my ascension/descension to adulthood. It is, as you know even if you haven’t seen it, a hugely histrionic and overheated movie, but it’s also fully genuine and fascinatingly weird. I hit this on a whim and am a bit flustered now; I’m afraid of what my dreams will bring tonight.


The Rack, Arnold Laven (1956)

One of the saddest movies you’ll ever see. It has the awkwardness and claustrophobia of a funeral from the very first frame. Paul Newman spends two years in a North Korean prison camp. When he gets home, he’s charged with collaborating with the enemy. It becomes clear that if he did provide aid and comfort to his captors, he did it to protect his comrades and/or because he’d been driven insane by torture. The tragic logic of the prosecution is eerily reminiscent of so many contemporary stories. Why was Muhammad Ismail Agha, fourteen, sent to Guantanamo? Because he’s a terrorist. How do you know he’s a terrorist? Because he was sent to Guantanamo.


Sometimes the rate of my consumption of culture outpaces my capacity to reflect upon it. Here’s what’s passed through my head of late:

The Wire, David Simon et. al. (2002-2008). I believe this displaces The Sopranos as the best television I’ve ever seen. If you’ve seen it you already know what I’m talking about; if you haven’t seen it, you should. There were of course some passages that were more successful than others–I for one found the invented serial killer idea too clever by half–but on the whole this is a masterpiece. I was very sorry when I ran out of episodes, but then I realized that this story is of course far from over; all you need to do is read the Sun paper now and then and imagine the episode Simon would have wrought from the day’s news. Here, this one took me about forty seconds to start scripting in my head.

Just Before Dark, Jim Harrison (1999). What a pleasure to read Harrison’s collected nonfiction about Leelanau by a lake just northeast of Muskegon on a July afternoon.

We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, Joan Didion (2006). What a pleasure to read Didion’s collected nonfiction in the air over California’s central valley. Old and new favorites. Too bad this edition’s pages are so thin.

The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil (1930-1942). Oh my stars. I’m only on page 500 or so of the some 1200, and I’m going to have to put this away now that school’s started, but I feel like it’s OK not to read this straight through, and I also, frankly, feel like I’ve mostly gotten what’s on offer here, namely deliciously incisive diagnoses of a grand society striding confidently toward the edge of a cliff. I can’t think of any other novel that so decisively nails the 20th century’s disastrous obsession with progress. “With a little attention, one can probably always detect in the latest Future signs of the coming Old Times. The new ideas will then be a mere thirty years older but contented and with a little extra fat on their bones, or past their prime, much as one glimpses alongside a girl’s shining features the extinguished face of the mother; or they have had no success, and are down to skin and bones, shrunken to a reform proposed by some old fool who is called the Great So-and-so by his fifty admirers.” Paging Ross Perot.

The Ghost Writer, Roman Polankski (2010). Whew, Polanski’s just oozing decadence these days. This is supposedly a thriller about a CIA plot to, you know, take control of everything, but Roman can barely be bothered to flesh out any of the absurd plot points; he’s too busy setting up beautifully lit shots of fog and sad adulterers. Beautiful photography, but not really a movie. The amazing house on the beach at Sylt receives more attention from the director than do any of his stars.

The Green Zone, Paul Greengrass (2010). Essentially a continuation of Greengrass’s Bourne movies, in that Matt Damon takes on the entire corrupt U.S. military-industrial complex and wins. This one is purportedly set in the “real world,” though, namely Baghdad’s green zone. The movie is absolutely absurd, but the takeaway for the action movie crowd at the mall is that their government lied to them about Iraq, and that’s a truth I’m delighted to see promulgated as widely and effectively as possible.

Who Killed the Electric Car?, Chris Paine (2006). Muddily structured but useful. I really had no idea this was going on when it was going on.

The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke (2009) does for 20c European history what Bergman’s so-called “trilogy of faith” (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence) did for God. Namely, shows it to be incomprehensible and cruel, but absolutely beautiful to look at in luminous black and white. Go back and look at those Bergman films, though, and then look at this again, and see if you don’t feel, as I did, how creepily clean Haneke’s images are. Maybe I’ve been spending too much time in Lightroom, but The White Ribbon feels like a masterpiece of post-production as much as anything.

Colorado Territory, Raoul Walsh (1949). Walsh remakes High Sierra as a western, with Joel McCrea in the Bogart role. Nice enough for a Sunday afternoon, particularly if you like Virginia Mayo, which I do, but a minor Walsh by any measure. I like the hideout in the ruined village of Todos Santos.

Bad Day at Black Rock, John Sturges (1955). Sturges also directed The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and The Eagle Has Landed, among many others. Notice a theme? Manly men in conflict with other manly men. This one fits. A strange and small picture, in which Integrity (played by Spencer Tracy) squares off with Deceit (Robert Ryan) and comes out ahead. Atmospheric and nice to look at for a while, but finally the claustrophobia that Sturges is trying to engender just turns into tedium.

A Single Man, Tom Ford (2009) has its affecting moments, but is mostly, probably predictably, an exercise in style. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if the style brings pleasure. Some here does–lots of beautiful California summer light, lots of fantastic bric a brac to ogle–but someone really should have steadied Ford’s hand on the post-production dials; the gimmick where he keeps making people pale when they’re sad and rosy when their faith in humanity (and/or libido) is restored is tacky and emberrassing.

Band of Brothers, various authors (2001). The Pacific is way better, and do you know why? Because this is pre-9/11 triumphalism, and that is post 9/11 realism. That’s oversimplifying, but really, the difference is amazing. In Band of Brothers, PTSD is represented as tough luck that befalls the weak. In The Pacific, it’s clearly shown that those who appear not to have PTSD are the truly weird ones. Like I said, The Pacific‘s a great example of how our understanding of historical realities is shaped by our present historical circumstances. So is Band of Brothers, unfortunately.

Music in rotation: Tosca, Up Bustle & Out, Jazzanova, Cal Tjader

The Asphalt Jungle, John Huston (1950)

Some noirs excite and energize; others depress and enervate. I tend to prefer the former films, but I make an exception for this beauty, one of the most laconic and unforgiving heist films I know of. It’s nearly classical, the way you can see the disaster coming from the very beginning, and know there’s no way to avoid it. Poor Doll Conovan, poor Angela Phinlay, poor Dix Handley, poor us all.

On Dangerous Ground, Nicholas Ray (1952)

A formulaic, even hackneyed noir in terms of its plot and script, but the mise-en-scène, even in this muddy crap copy on TCM, is exquisite. In the gritty city, space is terrifyingly claustrophobic and dark; in the wintry countryside, space is terrifyingly desolate and blinding. As complex and pure as a glass of water or a Freudian case study. Ida Lupino!

Bob le Flambeur, Jean-Pierre Melville (1956)

Not an American gangster movie, and not a Godard-like parody of American gangster movies, and not exactly an homage to American gangster movies, either. I guess I’d have to call it a kind of translation of American gangster movies into French, since Bob and his compatriots are so utterly French in the way they conduct their affairs, and make and carry out their plans. Can you imagine an American movie gangster sitting around chatting over coffee this much? No way. Here guns are afterthoughts rather than the stars, your style matters more than your actions, and the talking! These guys love talking so much, it’s a miracle they ever remember they’re supposed to be out doing crime.

Tons of fun, great to look at. Isabelle Corey is a fox.

Smiles of a Summer Night, Ingmar Bergman (1955)

Say “Bergman” and most folks will think of Death leading his charges to the underworld in The Seventh Seal, or maybe Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann driving each other insane in Persona. Here, though, we have one of the warmest, sexiest, cleverest, earthiest romantic comedies of all time; it’s a Bergman too often overlooked. It was this, not Shakespeare, that Woody Allen paid homage to in his Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. Beautifully shot and packed with delights. If possible, see it in a hayloft with your sugar dumpling, with a bottle of schnapps to split.