Tuesday, January 31, 2012

DVD of the Week: Godzilla: Criterion Collection

Godzilla is more than just some guy in a cheesy rubber suit terrorizing badly dubbed Japanese actors and stomping miniature cities. The original film, made in 1954, is actually a tragedy of epic proportions, a potent warning of an escalating nuclear arms race and messing with atomic power. Of course, Godzilla mainly works as an entertaining monster movie, too.


When a 7,500 ton freighter is mysteriously lost in the South Seas off Japan, the authorities are baffled. Soon afterwards, a fishing boat is destroyed in the same manner: from an underwater explosion. It is a mine? An underwater volcano? There are only a few survivors and one of them claims to have seen a creature in the water. Some elderly citizens immediately claim that it was Godzilla, a creature that lives in the sea and occasionally surfaces to feed on mankind when food in the ocean is scarce.

Sure enough, late one stormy night, something destroys several houses in a village in such a way that it could not have been the result of natural causes, like a hurricane. Director Ishiro Honda wisely prolongs the first actual appearance of Godzilla for 21 minutes, cleverly employing traditional horror film techniques to create tension and build anticipation. We never actually see the monster in the initial attacks – just a hint of him but nevertheless his presence looms large, much like with King Kong (1933). When we finally do catch a good glimpse of the creature, it is little more than a head but it is a fantastic shot that effectively establishes his massive scale and is more than enough to send the locals running for their lives.

The country’s leading scientist Professor Yamane (Takashi Shimura) theorizes that Godzilla is the result of atomic testing, a mutation that exists to punish his country for dabbling in the dangerous waters of atomic energy and radiation. Naturally, the Japanese government wants to destroy Godzilla but Yamane respects the beast and wants to study it. Yamane represents a sobering humanistic voice that mirrored Honda’s own beliefs and acts as a sharp contrast to the government’s foolhardy shoot first, ask questions later attitude.

Look past the guy in the rubber suit and the obvious miniatures and you’ve got atmospheric black and white cinematography by Masao Tamai that is haunting, especially the night scenes with an almost silhouetted Godzilla destroying Tokyo that is a devastating site to behold.

Godzilla was born from the ashes of A-bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the fallout of which Honda witnessed first hand. In fact, the film’s opening scene, where a freighter is destroyed by an explosion from under the water, was a reference to an incident in which a tuna trawler got too close to an H-bomb test courtesy of the United States and its crew became sick with radiation poisoning. With this knowledge, it’s hard not to see Godzilla’s swath of destruction through urban Japan as a metaphor for the A-bomb and a powerful critique of the dangers of atomic radiation. This is what elevates Godzilla above countless other monster movies from the 1950’s and has inspired countless sequels that have transformed the giant monster into a pop culture icon. The Japanese version is the way this film was meant to be seen with all of the stark footage of the dead, maimed and shell-shocked and numerous the A-bomb references – something that is missing from subsequent sequels that have turned into admittedly entertaining battle royales.

Special Features:

A few years ago, Classic Media released an excellent special edition of Godzilla with an unimpressive transfer and a decent collection of supplemental material, none of which has been carried over to the Criterion Collection’s new and improved edition so completists may want to hold onto that previous incarnation. As you would expect, Criterion’s transfer is near flawless and a significant improvement on the Classic Media version, making it more than worth the upgrade.

The first disc features an audio commentary by film historian David Kalat who provides a nice mix of analysis and production information. He goes into great detail examining the relationships between the characters and their purpose in the film. Kalat also touches upon the difference between the Japanese and American names for Godzilla. He also good-naturedly addresses the absurdity of the oxygen destroyer and other scientific inaccuracies. At times, he comes across as a little too enthusiastic but this is tempered by his encyclopedia knowledge of all things Godzilla.

“Photographic Effects” features effects director Kawakita and effects photographer Motoyoshi Tomioka revealing how some of the special effects for Godzilla were done with examples from unused footage. They point out the extensive use of matte paintings and composite shots.

Japanese film critic Tadao Sato examines Godzilla’s role in Japanese culture. He remembers seeing the film when it first came out and recalls his first impressions. He also points out how aspects of the film evoked memories of the atomic bomb attacks on Japan.

“The Unluckiest Dragon” is a 2011 audio essay about the Daigo Fukuryu Maru fishing boat tragedy that inspired parts of Godzilla. The crew witnessed a powerful U.S. atomic bomb test and became sick with radiation poisoning. This essay examines the socio-political implications of the incident.

Also included is a theatrical trailer.

For completists, both versions – the original 98 minute Japanese version and the 80 minute Hollywood version, entitled Godzilla, King of the Monsters – are included, each on their own disc, but after seeing the original it is really hard to go back to the other. American movie producers acquired the North American rights and promptly Americanized the movie, inserting a reporter played by Raymond Burr with only 60 minutes of the original film intact, the rest was cut and new footage shot. Criterion has also included a trailer and David Kalat returns for a commentary where he starts off by providing the brief backstory to the nuclear arms race between Russia and the U.S. He discusses the Americanization of Godzilla including its unusual structure of flashbacks, which he explains may actually be reminiscent of film noir.

There is an interview with actor Akira Takarada who talks about his experience working on Godzilla. He talks about his initial impressions of the screenplay and tells several filming anecdotes, including working with the legendary Takashi Shimura (The Seven Samurai).

Godzilla performer Haruo Nakajima (who played the creature in 12 films) talks about the challenges he faced playing the iconic monster. He recalls being told to study King Kong for how to move like a mythical creature. He talks about what it was like moving inside the suit and how he had to adjust his performance.

Features effects technicians Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai talk about their work on the film. They start at the project’s origins and go all the way through production providing invaluable recollections on how the various effects were achieved.

Composer Akira Ifukube talks about his long, illustrious career and, of course, his groundbreaking work on Godzilla. He talks about his humble beginnings in forestry to how he eventually got involved in scoring films.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Color of Money

The 1970’s saw the rise of the Movie Brats, a collection of filmmakers that had grown up watching and studying films. They made challenging films that reflected the times in which they were made and were revered by cineastes as much as some of the actors appearing in them. Directors like William Friedkin, Francis Ford Coppola, Hal Ashby and Martin Scorsese made intensely personal films that blended a European sensibility with American genre films. However, the one-two punch of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) and the failure of expensive passion projects like New York, New York (1977) and Heaven’s Gate (1980) ended these directors’ influence and saw the rise of producers like Joel Silver, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, and movie star-driven blockbusters in the 1980’s and beyond. It got harder and harder for the Movie Brats to get their personal projects made. Most of them went the independent route, making films for smaller companies like Orion and doing the occasional paycheck gig with a Hollywood studio.


For years, Scorsese had been trying to fund a personal project of his own – an adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ. It was a tough sell and he ended up making After Hours (1985) and The Color of Money (1986) as a way of keeping busy while he tried to get Last Temptation made. At the time of The Color of Money much was made of it being Scorsese’s first movie star-driven film and some critics and fans of the director felt that he was selling out. It would not only be promoted as a film starring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise (and not as a Martin Scorsese film), but was a sequel (something that the director was never fond of doing) of sorts. Newman had been interested in reprising his famous role of "Fast" Eddie Felson from The Hustler (1961) for some time but he had never met the right person for the job – that is, until he met Scorsese.

The Color of Money begins twenty-five years after the events depicted in The Hustler and we find that Eddie (Paul Newman) is enjoying a comfortable existence as a savvy liquor salesman with his bar owner girlfriend Janelle (Helen Shaver) and occasionally fronting a pool hustler. His current investment, a cocaine addict named Julian (played with just the right amount of sleazy arrogance by John Turturro), is getting roundly beaten by a young turk named Vincent (Tom Cruise) who catches Eddie’s attention with his “sledgehammer break.” He becomes fascinated watching Vincent play and his cocky behavior between shots, like how he works the table. Eddie also watches the dynamic between Vincent and his girlfriend Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). What really catches his attention is not just Vincent’s raw talent but also his passion for the game. He’s even willing to play Julian after he’s won all of the guy’s money because he just wants his “best game.”

There’s a nice bit where Eddie tests Carmen’s skill as Vincent’s manager, exposing her lack of experience and schooling her on the basics of pool hustling in a beautifully written monologue by Richard Price that Newman nails with the ease of a seasoned pro. We get another healthy dose of Price’s authentic streetwise dialogue in the next scene where Eddie takes Vincent and Carmen out for dinner and continues to school his potential protégés: “If you got an area of excellence, you’re good at something, you’re the best at something, anything, then rich can be arranged. I mean rich can come fairly easy.” The scene is also nicely acted as Tom Cruise plays the cocky upstart with just the right amount of arrogant naiveté without being a typical goofball. As Eddie puts it, “You are a natural character. You’re an incredible flake,” but tells him that he can use that to hustle other players. The ex-pool player lays it all out for the young man: “Pool excellence is not about excellent pool. It’s about becoming something … You gotta be a student of human moves.” And in a nice bit he proves it by making a bet with them that he’ll leave with a woman at the bar. Of course, he knows her but it certainly proves his point. This is a wonderful scene that begins to flesh out Vincent and establish how much he and Carmen have to learn and how much Eddie has since The Hustler.

The young man is a real piece of work – brash, directionless but with raw talent. It is clear that Eddie sees much of his younger self in Vincent and decides to take the young man under his wing and teach him "pool excellence" by taking him and Carmen on the road. It’s an opportunity to make some money while also getting back Eddie’s passion for playing pool. The Color of Money proceeds to show the three of them on the road for six weeks, getting ready for an upcoming nine-ball tournament in Atlantic City. Of course, there are the predictable bumps in the road as Vincent’s impulsive knack for showing off costs them money and Eddie feels like the young man’s not listening to him. It’s a formula we’ve seen used in countless films but Scorsese does everything he can visually to keep things interesting, especially in the dynamic way he depicts the numerous games of pool, the use of music (for example, one game is scored to “Werewolves of London” by Warren Zevon) and the actors that play some of the opponents along the way, like a young Forest Whitaker as a skilled player that manages to hustle and beat Eddie at pool.

However, it is the camerawork by veteran cinematographer Michael Ballhaus that impresses the most. He and Scorsese depict each game differently, employing a variety of techniques, like quick snap zooms in and out, and floating the camera gracefully over the pool table or gliding around it. He even has the camera right on the pool table following the balls around. The camera movement and editing rhythm of each game is dictated by the mood and intensity of each match, like the grandiose techniques employed when Vincent shows off during a game of pool. As he revels in his own showboating moves, the camera spins around him as if intoxicated by his bravado. However, much like the chaotic pool hall brawl in Mean Streets (1973), the camera movement goes nowhere symbolizing the futility of Vincent’s actions. Sure, he beat the top guy at that pool hall but in doing so scared off an older player that had much more money.

While The Color of Money was made fairly early on in Tom Cruise’s career, his relative inexperience actually suits his character. His youthful energy mirrors Vincent’s. It is his job to come across as an arrogant flake of a human being, which he does quite well (too well for some who were unimpressed with his performance). Cruise has always been an actor that performs better surrounded by more talented and experienced people and with the likes of Paul Newman acting opposite him and Scorsese directing, it forces the young actor to raise his game. One imagines he learned a lot on the job much like Vincent does in the film. Scorsese knew exactly what he was doing when he cast Cruise and got a solid performance out of him. In the late ‘80s, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio acted in a series of high profile roles like The Abyss (1989), The January Man (1989) and this film. She’s given the thankless job of the girlfriend role but manages to make the most of it. One gets the feeling that Carmen is a fast learner and smarter than Vincent. She is much like Eddie in understanding the business side of pool hustling.

Naturally, Newman owns the film, slipping effortlessly back into Eddie’s skin after more than 20 years and it’s like he never left. The scenes between him and Cruise are excellent as the headstrong Vincent bounces off of the world-weary Eddie. Over the course of the film something happens to the elder pool player. As he tells Vincent at one point, “I’m hungry again and you bled that back into me.” We see that youthful spark fire up in Eddie again after so many years dormant and Newman does a fantastic job conveying that. While many felt that his Academy Award for the performance he gives in The Color of Money was really a consolation prize for a career of brilliant performances, this does a disservice to just how good he is in this film and how enjoyable it is to watch him get to work with someone like Cruise and Scorsese, watching how their contrasting philosophies towards acting and filmmaking co-exist in this film. There is an energy and vitality that Cruise brings and Newman feeds off of it and Scorsese captures it like lightning in a bottle.

When Paul Newman read Walter Tevis’ sequel to The Hustler it made him wonder what “Fast” Eddie Felson would be doing now and wanted to revisit the character. He had seen Raging Bull (1980) and was so impressed by it that he wrote a letter to Scorsese complimenting him on such a fine piece of work. The director was just coming off of After Hours and was attached to several projects, including Dick Tracy, with Warren Beatty, a fantasy film entitled Winter’s Tale, Gershwin, with a screenplay written by Paul Schrader, and Wise Guy, a book about the New York mafia written by Nicholas Pileggi. However, they all took a backseat when Newman invited him to direct a sequel to The Hustler. The actor had been working on it for a year with a writer. Scorsese was interested but didn’t like the script Newman showed him because it was “a literal sequel. It was based on at least some familiarity with the original.” Scorsese felt like he couldn’t be involved with the project if he didn’t have some input on the original idea of the script.

Scorsese wanted to go in a different direction and brought in a new screenwriter, novelist Richard Price who had written The Wanderers and also a script for the director based on the film Night and the City (1950). Scorsese liked the script because it had “very good street sense and wonderful dialogue.” For The Color of Money, Price and Scorsese’s concept was basically what became the film, exploring the director's preoccupation with redemption but with what Newman saw as "recapturing excellence, having been absent from it, and then witnessing it in somebody else." Newman liked it and Price and Scorsese came up with an outline and began rewriting the script. Price studied pool players and wrote 80 pages of a script. They took it to Newman and got his input. By the end of nine months, Price and Scorsese decided to make the film with Newman.

For Scorsese this was the first time he had ever worked with a star of Newman's magnitude. "I would go in and I'd see a thousand different movies in his face, images I had seen on that big screen when I was twelve years old. It makes an impression.” As a result, Scorsese and Price made the mistake of writing for themselves when they should have tailored the script to suit Newman and his image, or as Scorsese later said, "we were making a star vehicle movie." The actor wanted to explore aging and the fear of losing his “pool excellence.” He also wanted the character of Minnesota Fats, played so memorably by Jackie Gleason in The Hustler, to return but Price couldn’t get the character to fit into the script. He and Scorsese even presented a version of the script with Fats in it to Gleason but he “felt it was an afterthought,” said Scorsese.

It was Newman that suggested Cruise for the role of Vincent to Scorsese. The young actor had met Newman before when auditioning to play his son in Harry & Son (1984). Scorsese cast Cruise before Top Gun (1986) had come out but he was a rising movie star thanks to Risky Business (1983). He had seen the young actor in All the Right Moves (1983) and liked him. The project was initially at 20th Century Fox but they didn’t like Price’s script and didn’t want to make it even with Cruise and Newman attached. Eventually, it went to Touchstone Pictures.

Newman was not fond of improvising on the set and suggested two weeks of rehearsals before filming. Scorsese wasn’t crazy about this and found them “aggravating. You are afraid that you are going to say ridiculous things, and the actors feel that way too.” However, he agreed to it and brought in Price so that he could make changes to the script. Fortunately, everyone felt secure in character and with each other. Price and Scorsese didn’t have the film’s ending resolved and felt that they had written themselves into a corner. The studio wanted them to shoot the film in Toronto but Scorsese felt that it was too clean and chose Chicago instead. Both Cruise and Newman did all their own pool playing with the former being taught how to do specific shots that he played in the film with the exception of one, which would have taken two additional days to learn and Scorsese didn’t want to spend the time. Cruise had dedicated himself to learning how to play pool: “All I had in my apartment was a bed and a pool table.” He worked with his trainer and the film’s pool consultant Mike Sigel for months before shooting started.

In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “The Color of Money isn't Mean Streets or Raging Bull. It is, however, a stunning vehicle – a white Cadillac among the other mainstream American movies of the season.” Time magazine’s Richard Schickel wrote, “There is a ferocity in Cruise's flakiness that he has not previously had a chance to tap. That, in turn, gives Newman something to grapple with. There is a sort of contained rage in his work that he has never found before, and it carries him beyond the bounds of image, the movie beyond the bounds of genre.” The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott wrote, “It may be true that in gambling money won is twice as sweet as money earned, but in art, only the earned has savor; The Color of Money earns enough of it to turn most other movies persimmon with esthetic envy.” In his review for the Washington Post, Paul Attanasio wrote, “But in the final third of the movie, the real drama takes place within Fast Eddie himself, as his dissatisfaction with what he's become almost imperceptibly grows, and he tries to decide, in middle age, who he wants to be. That involves a shift in the movie's focus to Newman alone; and if what's lost is the excitement that Newman and Cruise had generated together, what's gained is a kind of depth another, simpler story wouldn't have had.” However, Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, “Maybe the problems started with the story, when Newman or somebody decided that there had to be a young man in the picture; the introduction of the Cruise character opens the door for all of the preordained teacher-pupil clichés, when perhaps they should have just stayed with Newman and let him be at the center of the story.”

Some Scorsese fans marginalize The Color of Money as one of his paycheck films – the first he did for the money – and while it may not have the personal feel of a film like Taxi Driver (1976), it still has its merits, a strong picture that fits well into the man's body of work. I would argue that it is one of his strongest films stylistically with some truly beautiful, often breathtaking camerawork capturing all the nuances of playing pool: the energy and vitality of the game is there without sacrificing any of the story or the characters. This film also shows how a director like Scorsese can take a hired gun project and make it his own. It looks, sounds and, most importantly, feels like one of his films and not a commercial studio picture. Others must have agreed as the film not only became Scorsese's most financially successful film at the time but a critical hit as well. The director proved to the studios that he could deliver the goods at the box office while to himself he was still able to invest the film with some of his own personal touches. Ultimately, The Color of Money is about Eddie’s redemption and rekindling the spark he had in The Hustler before the screws were put to him. As with many sports movies, the story builds towards the climactic big game or, in the case of this film, the big tournament but Price’s script offers a slight twist in that Eddie’s victory is a hollow one and the real one is at the very end when his love for playing pool has finally come back completely. He is reinvigorated and excited about where his life and game will go from here and this is summed up beautiful in the film’s last line – “I’m back.”


SOURCES

Ansen, David. “The Big Hustle.” Newsweek. October 13, 1986.

Forsberg, Myra. “Three Men and a Sequel.” The New York Times. October 19, 1986.


Thompson, David & Ian Christie. Scorsese on Scorsese. Faber & Faber. 1996.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Lost Highway

After the critical and commercial beating David Lynch took with Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), his next film Lost Highway (1997) was seen as a comeback after a dry spell of five years. At the time, there was certainly a strong push in appealing to a young, hip audience with a splashy cover story in Rolling Stone magazine (Lynch even shared the cover with Trent Reznor) that drew attention to the film’s soundtrack featuring then popular musicians Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and The Smashing Pumpkins. However, this did little for the film’s potential mainstream appeal as Lynch delivered another nightmarish neo-noir tale of jealousy and murder that may or may not be taking place inside the mind of a killer. In some respects, the film anticipated Lynch’s later masterpiece Mulholland Drive (2001), it too is a mystery that appears to take place within the fevered imagination of its protagonist.


Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is a musician whose wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) may be cheating on him. We’re not really sure and neither is he. One day, a videotape shows up on the steps of their front door in a plain brown envelope. When they watch it there is grainy camcorder footage of the outside of their house. They don’t think too much of it but another tape arrives and this time there is footage of the inside of their house and, most chillingly, of them asleep in bed. There is definitely some tension in their relationship judging from all the pregnant pauses in what little conversations they have. Or it could be Fred’s inability to perform adequately in bed, which she responds to with a condescending pat on the back and a, “It’s okay.”

Two police detectives investigate and in typically amusing Lynchian fashion are useless. Their ineffectual nature anticipates the equally useless cops in Mulholland Drive. Fred and Renee attend a party at Andy’s (Michael Massee), a friend of hers and someone Fred saw leaving with his wife one night while he was performing at a nightclub. At the party, Fred encounters a mysterious man (Robert Blake) dressed all in black and with Kabuki white makeup on his face. He walks right up to Fred and asks, “We’ve met before, haven’t we?” Fred doesn’t recognize him but the man says that they met at the Madison’s house and, most disturbingly, he’s there right now. Of course, Fred doesn’t believe him until the man calls his house and he responds. Fred is understandably unnerved after this creepy conversation.

He and Renee return home to find no one else there but we see a light moving fast through the upper floor of their place. The first half of Lost Highway is an unsettling slow burn of uncomfortable silences and a feeling of paranoia and dread in the Madison house. Fred often disappears into darkened hallways that almost feel like the recesses of his mind. Lynch accomplishes this through very little light and a subtly disturbing soundscape of atmospheric noises. The last videotape that arrives features Fred next to the badly mutilated dead body of Renee and before he knows it he’s on death row for her murder. This is where things get really strange as at some point Fred transforms into a young man named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty). The authorities are understandably mystified and let Pete go.

He goes back to living with his parents, going out with his girlfriend Sheila (Natasha Gregson Wagner), and working at a local auto shop. On the surface, Pete is the opposite of Fred – he’s young and virile, having sex with not only his girlfriend, but a beautiful blond woman named Alice (Arquette again). He’s also friends with local mobster Mr. Eddy (a ferocious Robert Loggia), an intimidating guy who loves his car (“This is where mechanical excellence and one thousand horsepower pays off!”) and does not tolerate people who tailgate. However, Pete also gets involved with Alice who just happens to be Eddy’s girlfriend. Over time, Fred’s world slowly seeps into Pete’s. For example, Fred’s gonzo saxophone solo from the first half of the film plays over a radio as Pete works on a car and it gives him a headache.

The first and last line spoken in Lost Highway is "Dick Laurent is dead." Initially, it seems no more important a line than a simple teaser to draw us gradually into a dark, atmospheric world. However, much like the severed ear found lying in a field in Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), this phrase is the key to unlocking a mystery that lies at the heart of Lost Highway. The mystery that is central to this film seems to be a conventional one — nothing more than a man accused of killing his wife. This is only a superficial reading, however. Look a little deeper and it becomes apparent that Lynch has swathed this mystery up in layers of abstractions and contradictions that makes watching Lost Highway akin to solving a riddle. Another key line that I believe is crucial to understanding what happens to Fred is when he tells the cops, “I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.” So, the second half of Lost Highway could simply be him remembering things his own way.

While on death row, Fred tries to escape his fate by creating a fantasy world where he’s everything he’s not – a stylish neo-noir filled with dangerous gangsters and sexy women but this is only a temporary reprieve as the problems that he had bleed into his fantasy world. Like Fred, Pete wanders the darkened places in his home. He is Fred’s idealized image: young, strong and virile. He even has control over Renee’s doppelganger, Alice but this is fleeting and she once again exerts her dominance, this time as a dangerous femme fatale. She ropes Pete in on a dodgy job of robbing an associate of Mr. Eddy’s and predictably it goes bad but with a Lynchian spin where even his characters die in weird ways (it involves furniture). The sequence evolves into a surrealist nightmare. More importantly, this scene is where Fred and Pete’s worlds bleed together and it becomes obvious that Fred isn’t going to escape his fate.

This culminates in a scene where Alice and Pete make love in the desert while waiting for the man who will fence their stolen goods. It is one of the most beautiful and chilling moments in any Lynch film. He lights their naked bodies to the headlights of a car while the hypnotic “Song to the Siren” by This Mortal Coil plays over the soundtrack. Lynch then turns this beautiful moment on its head when Pete passionate tells Alice over and over, “I want you,” to which she replies by whispering in his ear, “You’ll never have me.” She walks off and once again Fred has failed to control the object of his affection and frustration, even in his own created fantasy world. It is inevitable that these two worlds collide because Fred is consumed by the guilt of what he’s done. Ultimately, he is unable to escape his true nature as symbolized by the film’s rather abstract climax.

From the powerful shot of a car speeding down a darkened, deserted stretch of highway at night that begins and ends the film, Lost Highway contains many stunning visuals (courtesy of cinematographer Peter Deming) that will haunt you long after seeing the film. For example, the use of light, or rather, lack of it adds to the mysterious atmosphere that envelopes the film. Characters disappear down darkened hallways only to reappear later on. Many of the scenes in the film are lit in such a way that they almost resemble a painting that you could reach out and touch. There’s also the fantastic introduction of Alice captured in slow motion as Pete sees her climb out of Eddy’s convertible to Lou Reed’s cover of “This Magic Moment” and we can see why Pete is immediately attracted to her.

Lynch's films are also known for their rather complex soundscapes. In one way or another, the director has always taken a personal approach to the use of sound in his work and how it matches with the images on the screen. Lost Highway is no exception and may well be the best use of sound in his films since Eraserhead (1977). The film's soundscape quite often layers sound upon sound with incredible effect. It may only be the use of minimal sound effects buried in the background to suggest a feeling of ominous foreboding in a scene or a piece of music brought to the foreground, threatening to overwhelm everything else. And for the music Lynch not only continued to work with his longtime collaborator, Angelo Badalamenti, but also enlisted the help of Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and British musician Barry Adamson. Together, they take Lost Highway to new levels of menace that the filmmaker was never able to achieve before. Their contributions greatly enhance the film's already impressive soundtrack.

The origins for Lost Highway started with something strange that happened to Lynch. A stranger rang the director’s doorbell, pushed the button of the intercom and told him, “Dick Laurent is dead.” When Lynch walked to the window and looked out he didn’t see anybody. This understandably troubled him for some time. On the last night of filming the Twin Peaks movie, he had a brief vision that would become roughly the first third of his next project: “It was like the first third of the picture maybe, minus some scenes we had in the final script ...This thing I had went all the way up to the fist hitting Fred in the police station – to suddenly being in another place and not knowing how he got there or what is wrong.” A few years later, Lynch read Barry Gifford’s story Night People and at the end of the first chapter two characters talk about a lost highway. Lynch loved those words and contacted Gifford who suggested they write something together.

A year later, the two men sat down and began to exchange ideas they had for the film. Both men had their own notions of what the film should be and these differed quite radically – to the point where they rejected each other's ideas and eventually their own. "Then I told Barry about this series of things that came to me one night. The very last night of shooting Fire Walk With Me these things shot into my head. I was driving home with Mary Sweeney and I told her about them. What I told her sort of scared her and it sort of scared me too. And when I told them to Barry he said, 'Jeez, I really like that,' and that was the start of a brand-new direction.” Gifford and Lynch decided that at some point in the story a transformation should occur and it would result in another story but have connections with the first one. Within a month, they had written the screenplay.

Lynch always wanted to work with Bill Pullman and so when it came to casting the role of Fred Madison, he was the first actor he thought of to play the role. The director felt that Pullman had a “pretty intense side to him which wasn’t exploited in his previous roles.” Furthermore, Lynch saw in the actor’s eyes, “intelligence and a vein of madness inside them. And to force it to come out I pushed during rehearsals.” Another significant bit of casting was Robert Blake (In Cold Blood) as the Mystery Man, the creepy figure who may be a part of Fred’s imagination. The veteran actor was responsible for the look and style of the character. One day, he decided to cut his hair short, part it in the middle and apply Kabuki white make-up on his face. "And the makeup people said, 'You're going crazy, man! Nobody in this movie looks like that; everybody looks regular!' I said, 'Leave me alone; just give me some shit.' I put this black outfit on. I walked up to David, and he said, 'Wonderful!' and turned around and walked away." Blake clearly knew what he was doing as his character exudes a sinister vibe every time he appears on screen.

The first cut of Lost Highway ran just over two-and-a-half hours. After a screening with fifty people, Lynch cut out 25 minutes of footage. Not surprisingly it received mixed to negative reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it two out of four stars and wrote, “I have nothing against movies of mystery, deception and puzzlement. It's just that I'd like to think the director has an idea, a purpose, and an overview, beyond the arbitrary manipulation of plot elements. He knows how to put effective images on the screen, and how to use a soundtrack to create mood, but at the end of the film, our hand closes on empty air.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “More in its imagery than in its baroque plotting, Lost Highway is best at creating a sense of unease. Working with cinematographer Peter Deming and longtime composing collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, Lynch has put together some thoroughly spooky situations. In the hands of this crew, even something as straightforward as a ringing phone in an empty room can create the feeling that the most awful thing is about to happen.” The Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, “Highway, which Lynch has pretentiously dubbed ‘a 21st-century noir horror film,’ is nothing more than a 20th-century cul-de-sac. The maker of such great works as Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks has finally run out of road.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “By the time the film reaches its heart of darkness (it has something to do with a porno movie), Lynch, for the first time, seems to be using avant-garde tricks to pass off as 'taboo' what looks to the naked eye like mere routine sleaze. Lost Highway has scattered moments of Lynch's poetry, but the film's ultimate shock is that it isn't shocking at all.” Long-time Lynch supporter Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “Despite the shopworn noir imagery and teenage notions of sex, this beautifully structured (if rigorously nonhumanist) explosion of expressionist effects has a psychological coherence that goes well beyond logical story lines, and Lynch turns it into an exhilarating roller-coaster ride.” Finally, in her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “A structure that begins and ends at the same moment in time, with a debt to the Mobius strip (or to Pulp Fiction), is another intriguing feature. But the film has more of these touches than it has explanations. Eventually it raises the overwhelming possibility that nobody is entirely in the driver's seat.” Most interesting, Lynch took Siskel and Ebert’s thumbs down verdict as a badge of honor and plastered it large on newspaper ads for his film.

So what is Lynch and Gifford’s take on what the film means? The director said in an interview, “It’s Fred’s story. It’s not a dream. It’s realistic, though according to Fred’s logic.” During filming, Deborah Wuliger, the unit publicist, came upon the idea of a psychogenic fugue, which Lynch and Gifford subsequently incorporated into the film. "The person suffering from it creates in their mind a completely new identity, new friends, new home, new everything – they forget their past identity,” Lynch said." In addition to being a mental condition, he also discovered that a fugue was also a musical term. "A fugue starts off one way, takes up on another direction, and then comes back to the original, so it [relates] to the form of the film.” Gifford took the idea of a psychogenic fugue and ran with it. "This was something I researched with a clinical psychologist at Stanford, so we had some basis in fact here. After we found that freedom, more or less it was just a matter of creating this surreal, fantastic world that Fred Madison lives in when he becomes Peter Dayton."

Ultimately, what makes Lost Highway so good are the risks Lynch takes. After the crushing commercial and critical defeat of Fire Walk with Me, one would think that he would have take the safe route and made a conventional film. No way. As he did with Blue Velvet, Lynch decided to follow his muse and make a film on his own terms. Lost Highway is easily Lynch's darkest, bleakest film since Eraserhead. There are no happy endings in this film. No one escapes into radiator heaven. Characters that stray onto the lost highway simply stay lost with no chance of escape. While watching this film, you must be prepared to think as Lynch constantly questions how you perceive things — both people and events. What is real and what isn't? He also plays around with the notion of déjà vu by not only repeating images but also dialogue which forces you to pay close attention to what is going on. Lost Highway really is a film that you have to see more than once just to get all the little details that you missed the first time around.


SOURCES

Henry, Michael. “The Moebius Strip.” Postif. November 21, 1997.


Strauss, Bob. “America’s Most Enigmatic Filmmaker Chases His Demons Down a Lost Highway.”

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Big Lebowski

I’ve always wondered if The Big Lebowski (1998) was an attempt by the Coen brothers to address their critics, chief among them J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, who accuse the filmmaking duo of anti-semiticism in films like Miller’s Crossing (1990) and Barton Fink (1991). This is a rather odd charge considering that Joel and Ethan Coen are in fact Jewish. Keeping this in mind, one has to wonder what to make of Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), a character in The Big Lebowski who is proudly Jewish and even married and converted to Judaism for his wife. Then, when they were divorced, remained Jewish, defiantly so.


Clearly, the Coens were playfully thumbing their noses at Hoberman and Rosenbaum and this is further reinforced in the faux scholarly introduction to the film’s screenplay, which claims that it won the 1998 Kochba Award, “honouring achievement in the arts that defy racial and religious stereotyping and promote appreciation for the multiplicity of man.” Yeah … right. Furthermore, the unidentified writer (probably the Coens) goes on to explain the nature of humor with a hilariously in-depth analysis of what makes The Three Stooges funny and thereby making the point that if you have to explain why something is funny to someone else then they’ll never get it. So, are the Coens saying that critics like Hoberman and Rosenbaum don’t “get” their films?

Set in Los Angeles during the first Persian Gulf War, the Coens weave a decidedly unconventional tale about a man known as The Dude. Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is a laid-back kinda guy, an aging Hippie who spends his days drinking White Russians, smoking pot, and bowling with his buddies — Walter, a bitter Viet Nam veteran, and Donny (Steve Buscemi), a not too-bright surfer. One night, two thugs invade the Dude’s home, rough him up, and urinate on his rug. It seems that they have him confused with another Lebowski, a rich millionaire (David Huddleston) whose young trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) owes money all over town. Bummed at having his prized rug ruined, The Dude decides to contact the other Lebowski and in doing so becomes immersed in a very strange, convoluted plot that involves nihilists, a kidnapping, Busby Berkeley dream sequences, British performance artists, and, of course, bowling.

I’m not going to write my usual in-depth article with production information, as that has already been done and better than I ever could. Rather, here are 24 of my favorite moments:

1. The Two Dumbest Flunkies. You’ve got one who pees on The Dude’s rug and the other who’s apparently never seen a bowling ball before. I love the one’s reaction when he realizes that The Dude’s humble abode does not resemble that of the wealthy millionaire they’re looking for.


2. The introduction of Donny, Walter and The Dude is awesome in how it shows the dynamic between these friends, like how The Dude and Walter bicker like an old married couple while Donny is the conversation cheerleader, occasionally commenting on what’s being said, like “a child who wanders in the middle of a movie,” as Walter puts it.

“Forget it, Donny. You’re out of your element.”
 3. I love the scene where The Dude first confronts the other Lebowski and after schooling him on how he prefers to be addressed is then chastised by the blustery rich man – “The bum’s lost!” This sets up a class struggle between haves like Lebowski and the have-nots as represented by The Dude.

“…or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.”
 4. “I’m just gonna find a cash machine.” Bunny Lebowski’s offer of oral sex comes at a high cost and Brandt’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) reaction is hilarious (“That’s marvelous.”). Hoffman is so funny as the terminally uptight toady Brandt.

"That's marvellous."
 5. “If you will it, it is no dream.” This is the first declaration of Walter’s Jewish pride as he quotes Theodore Herzel but this is unfortunately quickly forgotten when he freaks out all over Smokey’s (Jimmie Dale Gilmore) breaking of the rules of bowling. After all, this isn’t ‘Nam. This is bowling. There are rules. Fortunately, Smokey narrowly avoids entering a world of pain.


6. The Dude’s easygoing nature deflates the other Lebowski’s theatrics as he tells of Bunny being kidnapped by the nihilists. Jeff Bridges’ reaction shot at one point as he takes a drag off a joint and says, “Fuckin’ A,” is hilarious. Hoffman is also excellent in this scene as Brandt acts all upset over the news but as soon as he’s required to spring into action drops the act.

“This is a bummer, man.”

7. One of the greatest introductions of a character that has absolutely nothing to do with the plot ever. John Turturro makes the most of this scene as one of The Dude’s bowling opponents, from the licking of his ball to the little dance moves he pulls off after bowling a strike. The long pinky nail (for cocaine) and hairnet are nice touches as is the music that accompanies his intro – a cover of “Hotel California” by the Gipsy Kings. I also love The Dude’s laidback retort to Jesus’ bowling taunt: “Yeah well, that’s just, ya know, like, your opinion, man.” We even get a brief insight into Jesus’ life as a convicted pederast. Eight year-olds, dude. It is these little details that make this film so enjoyable to watch as even minor supporting characters are given a rich backstory.

“Nobody fucks with the Jesus!”
 8. After The Dude’s team advances to the next round in the bowling tournament (amazing considering that Walter pulled a gun on a fellow bowler), Walter loses his shit when Donny tells him that their next game is scheduled for Saturday, the Jewish day of rest thereby forbidding him from bowling on that day.

“Shomer shabbas”
 9. Logjammin’. Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), a feminist performance artist/painter, shows The Dude a cheapo porno film that Bunny starred in with her nihilist boyfriend Karl Hungus (Peter Stormare) in which he plays a cable T.V. technician who arrives to “fix” her cable. When she scoffs at its predictable plot and how it will end, The Dude deadpans, “He fixes the cable?”


10. The Dude is suddenly manhandled by the other Lebowski’s burly limousine driver causing him to spill a glass of one of his beloved White Russians.

“Hey, careful, man. There’s a beverage here!”
 11. The nihilists bust into The Dude’s place (“Hey, this is a private residence, man.”) and interrupt his relaxing bath by throwing a ferret into his bath water, thereby blowing his high and then threatening castration. Peter Stormare and Flea’s Eurotrash German accents sound like they came straight from the Saturday Night Live skit Sprockets!

“We believe in nothing!”
 12. Ah, Sam Elliott as the film’s narrator known as the Stranger and who makes an appearance in full western garb to give The Dude some sage advice and comment on his usage of cuss words. With his awesome mustache and deep voice, Elliott is ideally cast as a mysterious cowboy cum Greek chorus.

“I like your style, Dude.”
 13. And just what the hell is David Thewlis doing in this film as video artist Knox Harrington, armed with an annoying high pitched laugh and shaved head? Nothing really except yet another oddball that The Dude meets along the way. Knox and Maude seem to be sharing a private joke in their scene together, much to The Dude’s chagrin.

“Who the fuck are you, man?”
 14. “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” I love the use of this fantastic Creedance Clearwater Revival song in the scene where The Dude tries to evade a mysterious car that is following him. The little yelp that Bridges lets out when his character drops a lit joint in his lap while driving is priceless.

15. Goodman’s best scene in the film is when Walter and The Dude visit an insolent high school kid they believe stole his car and a million dollar ransom that was intended to free the kidnapped Bunny. The scene becomes funnier the more frustrated Walter and The Dude get as the kid refuses to buckle under their “intense” questioning culminating in Walter’s memorable insult, “This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass!” over and over while trashing a sports car he thinks the kid bought with the ransom money.

“This is what happens…”
 16. Ben Gazzara as Hugh Hefner. The John Cassavetes film veteran turns up late in the game as a classy smut peddler Jackie Treehorn who drugs The Dude. I love the way Gazzara says, “feelings,” when he tells Bridges how the porn biz has changed over the years. This scene is also notable for showing The Dude doing some actual detective work. Too bad it amounts to nothing.


17. Gutterballs. While there are two dream sequences in the film, this is by far the best as a drugged Dude dreams of teaching Maude how to bowl while a chorus line of beautiful women engage in a Busby Berkeley style dance sequence all scored to “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” by Kenny Rogers during his psychedelic period. Oh yeah, and Saddam Hussein gives The Dude bowling shoes and the dream ends with him being chased by the nihilists wielding huge scissors in a sequence that Freud would have a field day with.


18. The Dude hates the Eagles. Man, I’m so with him on this one.

19. I love the moment between Jeffrey and Maude where they bond after having sex. It’s a nice, quiet and amusing scene as we take a break from all the crazy people The Dude encounters and learn that he was briefly a roadie for Metallica (“Bunch of assholes.”). He was also a member of the anti-war group the Seattle Seven and helped write the original Port Huron Statement – not the compromised second draft. The chemistry between Bridges and Julianne Moore is excellent and The Dude’s reaction to Maude’s true intentions for their sexual rendezvous is funny. Plus, she helps him free up his uptight thinking about the mystery he’s embroiled in.


“Jeffrey, love me.”


20. Long-time Coen brothers collaborator Jon Polito pops up as a “brother shamus,” a private snoop trailing The Dude in order to find Bunny who has run away from home in Minnesota. The Dude tells him to back off from his “lady friend” (a.k.a. Maude) and alas that’s the last we see of Polito for the rest of the film.

“Like an Irish monk?”
 21. “3,000 years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax…” We get Walter’s full-on justification for why he still practices Judaism despite being divorced. There’s something admirable about his devotion to this religion.

22. Why’d they have to kill Donny? Poor Donny didn’t hurt anybody and is taken out when he suffers a heart attack as the nihilists confront him, The Dude and Walter outside of their beloved bowling alley, which leads us to…


23. Donny’s Eulogy. Walter delivers a heartfelt if not misguided eulogy to Donny. Due to their modest means, Walter and The Dude transport their friend’s ashes in a Folgers coffee tin to a cliff where they plan to scatter his remains. However, the wind blows some of them back into The Dude’s goatee. Fortunately, not even Walter’s ineptitude ruins this poignant moment.


24. Despite Donny’s death, The Dude and Walter advance to the next round in the bowling tournament and our hero is visited by the Stranger once again. As The Dude departs to bowl another round, he offers the parting words of wisdom, “The Dude abides,” and the Stranger wraps things up and brings the film full circle to the soulful strains of “Dead Flowers” by Townes Van Zandt.

“The Dude abides.”
 The Big Lebowski is my favorite Coen brothers film. For me, it is the perfect mix of their flashy style, eccentric characters, and distinctive dialogue. It is a rare comedy that can be watched over and over and never gets old. They have created a richly detailed world that is so inviting and entertaining that you want to revisit it again and again.

So, what are some of your favorite moments/scenes/lines of dialogue from this film?


NOTE: Screencaps from this film came from THE best Coen bros. site - You Know, For Kids!