Here’s how I spent the last three months of the year, checking out some celebrated new releases and revisiting some old favorites.
There’s no getting around it. My summer viewing was piss-poor, almost indefensibly so. Along with that, I’ve let the blog falter longer than ever, and it’s left me unsure why I even still do it, or why I ever did. I’m not that anal about anything else, that’s for certain.
At any rate, I also lost the first version of this piece, so in order to post anything at all, I’m going to have to write extremely brief reviews of the films I watched this summer. Hey, that’s the trend on the web anyway, right? (Buzzfeed!) No one wants to read anything lengthy.
I was surprised how good I thought Paper Moon was. Like so many, I had become accustomed to the fall from grace narrative that has followed Peter Bogdanovich. His Sopranos appearances. His books on cinema. His incessant references to Welles, “Hitch” and others, always wearing the ever-present ascot. It’s all had the effect of someone playing a cameo in his own life, cobbling together bits and pieces of what he used to be.
But maybe Paper Moon shows us all that Bogdanovich ever was: a gifted critic with a gift for mimicry. The film feels something like The Grapes of Wrath played as a screwball comedy. John Ford fused with, I don’t know, Howard Hawks? There’s some Wellesian deep focus photography mixed in too. Bogdanovich’s influences are splattered everywhere. This was also true for The Last Picture Show and What’s Up, Doc? (both fine films in their own right). As the saying goes, you could do worse than to have Ford, Hawks and Welles as your influences. But which one was the real him? Or was it the director who later made At Long Last Love and Mask?
Paul Schrader’s characters fight their primary battles with themselves: Think DeNiro in Taxi Driver or Raging Bull as written by Schrader. They are plagued by guilt. They seek redemption. They’re at the mercy of forces that they can’t overcome—or sometimes perceive.
The films can be rough sailing, especially Schrader’s Affliction, which features a (never better) Nick Nolte muddling through life in such a manner that you’re either empathetic or exasperated. Nolte’s Wade Whitehouse Is a small-town cop and toady who seemingly has never gotten a break in his life, his fate apparently sealed because of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father (James Coburn). When I think of Schrader’s films, I think about men eternally at war with modern life, even those who seem to effortlessly sail through it, such as Schrader’s lead characters in American Gigolo and Light Sleeper, urbane sophisticates who believe they’re the players until the world flips over and crashes down.
As Rian Johnson’s Brick unfolded, I felt increasingly thrilled. To quote Ebert from way back: I had never seen this movie before. A neo-noir that suggests that high school is as rough and dangerous as any LA bowery where Marlowe may roam, the movie shines largely through its terse, coded dialogue.
The films Brick made me think of while I was watching: Bugsy Malone (kids as gangsters), A Clockwork Orange (an impenetrable youth culture with its own slang), and, of course, The Maltese Falcon. (Lukas Haas’ character has a walking stick adorned with a falcon.)
Schemin’ in the rain
Robert Altman does John Grisham. If that sounds like a combination made in Hell, you’re right. This was the late 90s, when Grisham ruled the best-seller lists and studios wanted a big cut of the action. Altman and big studios have never gotten along (see, Player, The).
I recall being confused about the link back the first time I saw The Gingerbread Man. What was Altman doing here? Gambling debts? Blackmail? No matter—the results are pretty much as you might expect: a legal thriller with a side helping of quirk. But make no mistake: It’s not even close to the other way around.
It’s done. How can summer be on its way out already? But then, an August that gave us here in Washington an earthquake and a hurricane perhaps deserves to be given the bum’s rush. (And as I write this, it’s almost 80 degrees and sunny in Washington, so maybe it’s not so far gone after all.)