Saturday, October 31, 2009

'We are Lucifer': A Halloween Tribute (Sorta) to William Peter Blatty

"... two novels of the Humorless, Thudding Tract School of horror writing are Damon, by C. Terry Cline, and The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty - Cline has since improved as a writer, and Blatty has fallen silent... forever, if we are lucky."
-Stephen King, Dance Macabre

"It's a shame that people perceive Catholicism as Mel Gibson and not more often as Will Pete Blatty....He's the smartest Catholic in the media. When he goes who are we going to have?"
-Commenter on the Internet Movie Database

Say what you will about The Exorcist - book or film - for King to single out William Peter Blatty as humorless is like claiming Julia Child wasn't into cooking. A black Roman Catholic theologian-vaudevillian-playwright-author-filmmaker, Blatty's first moment of fame was as a contestant who won ten grand while impersonating a polygamous Arab sheik on You Bet Your Life, hosted by Groucho Marx. (So the story goes: "When Blatty revealed it was a hoax....he told Groucho he did it because [announcer/straight man] George Fenneman had said that Groucho was an expert at spotting phonies. Groucho replied, 'That is incorrect, because I've had Fenneman in my employ now for 14 years.'") Later, Blatty co-wrote the screenplay to Blake Edwards' A Shot in the Dark, the best and funniest of the Inspector Clouseau movies, featuring a memorable sequence where Clouseau goes undercover at a nudist colony. He wrote the novel that became one of two films he directed, The Ninth Configuration, an odd amalgam of long stretches of broad slapstick mixed with deep theological ruminations. His literary sequel to The Exorcist, titled Legion, offers more of the same blend of humor and profound insight. (Blatty also directed the screen adaptation, known as Exorcist III.) William Peter Blatty has often brought the funny. And, as the IMDb commenter noted, he is, at nearly 82 years old, one of the few remaining American Catholic hardcore thinkers to have received his formal education before Vatican II. Stephen King finds Blatty drearily serious. I'd counter that he's just serious enough to know when to laugh.

But, yes, he is less known for this - 

- than he is for this:

It is also true that the latter isn't exactly choc-a-bloc with laughs. (Those would be reserved, largely unintentionally, for John Boorman's loopy Exorcist II: The Heretic.) But my mother, who introduced me to Blatty, adored the novel's prose style, namely the opening prologue where Father Merrin encounters some ominous foreshadowing in the Middle East. Blatty wrote the script for the movie directed by William Friedkin, and the collision between Blatty's grace and reflection with Friedkin's feverish technique is what makes the film compelling. Friedkin bashing is a popular sport these days (and was originally with Pauline Kael, who mocked both him and Blatty in her review), but I'm with Harlan Ellison that "there is a subterranean river of dark passion running wildly in the subtext of all his films - both successful and disastrous - that clearly marks him as an artist almost manic to rearrange the received universe in a personal, newly-folded way." I had a sense of this the first time I saw The Exorcist; and I felt it again even at a rowdy midnight Halloween showing during my freshman year at a Jesuit university. (The movie played in the cavernous theater where many of us attended the loathed and feared Father Donnelly's core Western Civilization course, and when the exorcism sequence began the audience started chanting, "Donnelly! Donnelly! Donnelly!") By the time Father Karras (a riveting performance by Jason Miller) makes the ultimate sacrifice, the theater had gone eerily silent. Later that night, drifting off in our bunk bed, my roommate interrupted the silence by muttering, "I don't want to think about that movie."

Despite Kael's claim that Blatty's work is "Shallowness that demands to be taken seriously," William Peter Blatty is a heady thinker, at least by cinematic standards. I would also argue, based on the only two movies he has directed, that he is a rare writer who understands the visual medium. His rhythms are odd and original; his eye attentive, at times ravishing. Both films, The Ninth Configuration and Exorcist III, are incredibly uneven, but the best passages in them are breathtaking to watch.

The Ninth Configuration tells the story of an army psychiatrist (Stacy Keach) who arrives at a mental institution (a foreboding castle in the Pacific northwest) and engages in an escalating series of debates with an astronaut (Scott Wilson) who cracked up prior to launch. Leonard Maltin, a huge fan of the film, has marveled at its "eminently quotable dialogue," which recalls the nutball logic of Catch-22. ("I know my rights! I demand to see my urologist.") I recently saw The Ninth Configuration again for the first time in years, and the bizarreness of the enterprise came rushing back. What can be said about a movie that begins with a montage of the lush Oregon wilderness set to the country ballad "San-An-tone," or that stages its climax with a deadly brawl in what appears to be a gay biker bar, other than David Lynch owes an obvious debt?

Exorcist III pretends the first sequel never existed and makes a supporting character in the original movie and novel the central protagonist. Lt. Kinderman (George C. Scott) hunts a serial killer in Washington, D.C., an investigation that starts as a standard police procedural and concludes with elements of the supernatural. (Jason Miller's now-deceased Father Karras makes a demonic reappearance.) Blatty's movie ultimately bottoms out: Scott, who would have been ideal for the part about a decade earlier, has a sluggish, distracted air. But he achieves a couple of jolting shocks (watch out for one in a hospital) and astonishing images like a police helicopter flying over a church. As a filmmaker, Blatty is fascinated by conflicting imagery that intersects the spiritual with the secular.

What the movie lacks is the novel's collusion of ideas. Legion ends with Kinderman linking the theory of evolution with the Biblical Fall: "We are Lucifer," he posits - the shattered dark matter of the universe struggling to become whole again. I don't share the bulk of Blatty's beliefs. At his worst, his work is awkward and more than a little nutty. But he's an artist who has spent his career exploring, indulging and challenging his own obsessions, and that's no joke.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Culminating Experiences (A Serious Man, The Class, and Shotgun Stories)

(Spoilers for all.)

I fell hard early on for Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man. It may have been the thrilling transition from a Yiddish folktale to 1960s America via Jefferson Airplane that hooked me; or when Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) has to deal with an indignant student who won't take an "F" for an answer; or the time his encroaching, gun-toting neighbors return from hunting with a large bloody deer strapped to the top of their station wagon. While not Jewish, I have been accused of a persecution complex (they're always saying that!), have experienced emotional blackmail from undergrads (though, regrettably, not outright monetary bribery), and I once lived next to encroaching, gun-toting neighbors who tied a large bloody deer to a tree outside our door (in all fairness, it was Thanksgiving). A Serious Man proves the adage that by being as specific as possible art can become universal.

Lord knows the Coens are nothing if not specific. After fourteen films in twenty-five years, they have established themselves as enthusiasts of screwball comedy and film noir, masters of regional dialects, impeccable re-creators of cultural eras, traffickers of pitch-black humor in an uncaring universe. This last quality has earned them the frequent accusation that they have contempt for their characters. I don't think this is true, but A Serious Man is unquestionably their most personal film, as warm as it is merciless. Throughout, Larry is besieged by personal calamities (possible health problems and gathering storms), not insignificant injuries (infidelity from his spouse, anonymous hostile letters to his tenure review board) and petty insults (moving to a fleabag hotel, paying for his wife's lover's funeral). What's gone unnoticed in many reviews is that everyone else (his son, his brother) is enduring troubles as well. This gives Larry's determination to solider on a hint of backbone that compensates for his at-times infuriating meekness.

A Serious Man is, along with No Country for Old Men, the second Coen picture in three years to leave out their familiar stable of actors (Clooney, Goodman, Turturro, Buscemi, et al.), and the cast of mostly unknowns acquit themselves ably. Stuhlbarg is a winning, affecting presence as the tormented Larry; Fred Melamed is memorable as Sy Ableman, the unctuous lover of Larry's wife; Aaron Wolff, as Larry's son Danny, has a terrific sequence where he shows up stoned for his own bar mitzvah.

Perhaps it's the lack of stars that make the Coens seem more empathic this time around. Whatever the case, they've moved past their creative funk from earlier this decade (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers), have honed their craft to the point where their effects -- occasionally strained in the past -- now feel effortless. A Serious Man is a great comedy, a model of elegant structure, with "Somebody to Love" the most original use of an overly familiar pop song since Wong Kar-Wai employed "California Dreamin'" in Chungking Express. This song, its lyrics lined with lingering questions, underlines the recurring theme of the film -- the "uncertainty principle" at the basis of Larry's convoluted mathematical theorems, or the hilarious suggestion by one character that Larry stop trying to decipher a circular argument and simply "accept the mystery." I've been off and on about the Coen brothers for their entire career and frequently don't trust my initial reactions to their movies, but with A Serious Man I feel no such ambiguity: It's a masterpiece.

Laurent Cantet's The Class, winner of the 2008 Palme d'Or at Cannes and a Best Foreign Film nominee this past year, is fabulous in a completely different way. The teacher here, a Parisian high school French instructor Francois Marin (played by real-life version Francois Begaudeau, and as I write his name I can almost hear that old man from Amelie emphasize, "Begaudeau, not Bedaugeau"), is no mild mannered Larry Gopnik. Faced daily by an unruly melting pot of middle-school students, Mr. Marin creates an atmosphere of civil disobedience: by making them follow certain rules (no wearing hats, hands must always be raised to ask a question), he lets them argue their points with more freedom and vocality than you would expect. He's a gifted, challenging teacher, but also one who employs the kind of withering mockery that (he is told more than once) sometimes crosses the line.

As a fictional year in the life of actual teachers and students, it's only natural that The Class take a documentary approach to its subject, with hand-held cameras that blessedly don't draw attention to their jitteriness. Cantet's focus is entirely on the classroom dynamics, with intimations but no concrete revelations of the characters' personal lives. A question of Mr. Marin's sexual preference is deftly volleyed back to the student with a reply that may or may not be true. A once engaged student turns sullen and disrespectful and back again without explanation. A troublemaker in the back row enjoys a brief artistic triumph only to revert back to hostility.

The final act of The Class gets a little creaky with the plot mechanics, narrowing its expansive themes down to an expulsion hearing, but it manages to subvert expectations anyway. The anticipated Rousing Speech, followed by Slow Clap, never materializes. And the incident that leads to the hearing is ugly and ambiguous, with Mr. Marin sharing the blame. It's a fitting irony that an uncompromising language instructor would misunderstand a word he himself fatally uses. At the same time, when you're under siege as constantly as he is, it's remarkable that he didn't slip up sooner. The Class is a probing, troubling study of the high price of small mistakes.

The makers of Bubble and Old Joy must have watched Jeff Nichols's Shotgun Stories (2007) resembling the kind of slack-jawed yokels they depict onscreen. A movie about economically despairing Americans with enthusiasms, hobbies, interests! The central narrative -- a deadly blood feud between two sets of brothers following the death of their mutual father -- holds your attention the way an effective plot device should. Yet the lovely passages in between, where characters go to work, coach basketball, count cards, play movie trivia, and cultivate relationships form the film's real subject.

The main trio of siblings (played without a trace of condescension by Michael Shannon, Douglas Ligon, and Barlow Jacobs) is developed far more than the other group (from their father's second marriage), and I think Shotgun Stories would have been even better had we been given more reasons of why they loved their father as much as the former brothers hated him. It's still a terrific movie, though, reminiscent in tone to Carl Franklin's One False Move -- a "masculine" story that doesn't neglect its female characters, a depiction of squalor that still acknowledges the ravishing beauty of its rural Arkansas setting. Most movingly, Shotgun Stories depicts the tragic consequences of violence while also radically suggesting, in the end, that familial devotion needn't make one trapped by fate.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Strange Journeys (Where the Wild Things Are and Away We Go)

Somehow I doubt a child's imagination includes a shaky hand-held camera. That's my main beef with Spike Jonze's adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, a movie with reviews that are all over the place, but even the naysayers have found much to admire in Jonze's visual aesthetic while reserving the bulk of their ire for co-screenwriter Dave Eggers, whose contribution is reportedly as smug and twee as his literary body of work. Never having read anything by Eggers, I'll have to take his critics' word for it, but the script that he and Jonze fleshed out from Maurice Sendak's children's favorite (and one of mine as a kid) is elegantly structured with resonant thematic echoes. Nine-year-old Max (played by the natural young actor Max Records) is a creator of worlds -- of igloos and forts -- in order to compensate for feelings of powerlessness in the one he lives in. A child of a broken home, he loves his mother (Catherine Keener) to the point of overpossessiveness when she brings a new boyfriend home. A school teacher brings him worry with news about the sun dying out. Following a family squabble, Max flees by boat to an island populated by monsters whom he tricks into making him their king. Representations of people he knows -- and of his untamed id -- the creatures have been compared by more than one review to Dorothy's encounters in the Land of Oz.

The difference, however, is that The Wizard of Oz placed a striking visual demarcation between fantasy and reality, while Where the Wild Things Are is drab on both levels. Doesn't Jonze realize that Max's fantasy life should be more interesting, exciting, and easier on the eyes than his reality? The monsters are awfully downcast too. It's refreshing to see a movie where characters like these are played by giant puppets rather than consisting entirely of special effects, but between their unremarkable adventures and the undistinguished voicework (by James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O'Hara, Chris Cooper, and Lauren Ambrose), these supposedly badassed beasties are disappointingly tepid. In Oz, even the G-rated supporting characters had basic needs and desires. It's unclear what these Wild Things want besides sustenance; and even then they seem far too depressed to eat.

Eggers, along with his wife Vendela Vida, co-wrote the original screenplay for Away We Go, an amiable if ultimately forgettable road comedy directed by Sam Mendes in a rare non-Oscar-baiting mood. The premise contains a dash of autobiography mixed with screwball farce: An unmarried thirtyish couple (Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski) find themselves with an unexpected pregnancy, and travel the country to find the right place to start a family. Like many road movies, Away We Go is episodic and filled with a gallery of eccentric characters. I liked best Maggie Gyllenhaal's nightmare of a New Age mom, probably because she's the most vivid creation (more monstrous than anything in Where the Wild Things Are) and she brings the only major sparks out of Rudolph and Krasinski's performances. Not that they're bad by any means. The unconventional casting is a nice change of pace, yet while the two have a quiet chemistry I still found myself wishing for actors with a little more star power. Away We Go passes by harmlessly enough; too bad it doesn't get very far.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Lives of the Dead (Zombieland and The Girlfriend Experience)

It's appropriate that Zombieland, the surprise hit horror-comedy, climaxes at an amusement park. The movie is a "ride" in the best possible sense: fun, frightening, and moves like a breeze. Also fittingly, it stars Jesse Eisenberg in what is essentially a reprise of his sensitive intellectual virgin from Adventureland, and it's a welcome return. His character, named Columbus, is just as ungainly and abashed yet surprisingly resourceful. Throughout the film, Columbus explains the rules for survival in this post-apocalyptic zombiefied world, and by the end is forced to consider revising the most important one: Don't Be A Hero. Eisenberg is very funny, in a Woody Allen-in-Bananas kind of way, and he nicely sets the movie's tone: that struggling to survive shouldn't keep one from trying to get laid.

One reason why I hate the horror genre -- its grinding humorlessness -- isn't an issue in Zombieland. Like Shaun of the Dead, this movie is an example of "happy horror," and if it lacks the former film's satirical edge (i.e., Brits keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of being devoured), Zombieland's steady stream of gags moves it far away from torture-porn. Director Ruben Fleischer and screenwriters Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick give you just enough to care about the characters without making them a drag. And their central quartet of actors are game: in addition to Eisenberg, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin appear as a savvy pair of grifters named Wichita and Little Rock, while Woody Harrelson makes the most of Tallahassee, the gung-ho redneck who enjoys killing zombies a little too much. I find Harrelson hard to predict between two extremes. He's either terrific or terrible and he's wonderful here, one of the defining roles of his career.

I like how the characters are named after their hometowns, as if they are their sole surviving representatives. And, like Hokahey, I loved the vividness of images like the one of Breslin running in an Indian headdress, feathers flying in slow-motion. I wasn't too crazy about the big meta in-jokey cameo from a famous movie star about halfway into the picture, but it caps with a killer punchline. Zombieland is a silly, goosey trifle, but it has energy, humor and verve, rare qualities in our post-apocalyptic comedy wasteland.

The rampaging flesh-eaters of Zombieland have more of a pulse than anyone in Steven Soderbergh's recent HD movies about the living dead. His first, the atrocious Bubble (2005), hewed closely to the Kelly Reichardt/indie-arthouse view of small-town America as a hopeless vortex where nonsentient beings grunt and stagger in a dazed stupor and respond to news of a murder in their midst with a "Bummer, man!" shrug. (There are examples of this in areas where I have lived, but there has also been the occasional joke now and then.) The erotic cosmos of The Girlfriend Experience would seem to offer a better opportunity for this egghead auteur to show signs of life, yet it too is where joy and laughter go to die. Sasha Grey's high-priced prostitute wears a perpetually jaded expression, but her edges are dull; and the character's one quirk -- an interest in "personology" -- is for Grey as an actress one quirk too many. Similarly, her gallery of clients, including the man she falls for, are indistinct and ill-defined. One scene featuring real-life film critic Glenn Kenny's "Erotic Connoisseur," a sleazy reviewer of escort services, gives the dismal proceedings a triple-jolt of energy, appetite and malice, but Soderbergh disposes of him lest he threaten to make things interesting.

Set in New York around the time of last year's economic meltdown, The Girlfriend Experience makes a half-assed feint at topicality, its corollaries between prostitution and capitalism mapped out with more wit and insight 25 years ago in Risky Business. Soderbergh's flair for experimentation used to produce sensational amalgams of art and entertainment like The Limey and Out of Sight. Lately, though, his goal seems to be making films that are as off-putting as possible -- non-movies with non-stars resulting in non-experiences.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Wedding Party (The Office: Season 6)

In this season's premiere of The Office, Jim and Pam's efforts to conceal the latter's pregnancy are inevitably quashed, and hypersensitive Michael expresses hurty feelings that they didn't let him in on it. "You're right," Pam deadpanned. "We forgot that this is equally about you." A good zinger about Michael's narcissism, yet she was more right than she realized. I've written before about how this comedy series embodies David Milch's philosophy of community better than any show this side of Deadwood. The current sixth season is taking even further the notion of collective identity and adding to it the struggle for individuality. To put it another way: Can an office relationship truly be only about the couple involved?

The latest episode, "Niagara" (Parts I and II) explored this in the context of Jim and Pam's much anticipated wedding, with family, friends and colleagues joining them in Niagara Falls. "I like cheesy," Pam admitted in last year's buoyant "Cafe Disco"; and the wedding episode conveyed The Office's deep affection for American kitschiness without condescending to it. As Jim and Pam, John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer communicate a low-key radiance. (Krasinski's reaction to the news of Pam's pregnancy in last season's finale is his finest moment as an actor.) Distinct as individuals, believable as a couple, their relationship has remained compelling by ditching the boilerplate on-again/off-again TV template in favor of building comic tension out of whether they can build a life together while surrounded by nutcases.

These nutcases continue to form the best ensemble on television. Most shows are lucky to create one memorable character; The Office features around fifteen. Each of them were given indelible moments in "Niagara," but my favorite was the uproarious opening teaser, when Pam's morning sickness is via gag-reflex communally shared. It's miraculous that these moments of surrealism, exaggeration and caricature coexist easily within the documentary naturalism. It probably helps that Steve Carell and the writers have finally gotten a firm handle on Michael, the character who walks the line between these shifts in tone.

Of course Michael finds a way to insert himself into the ceremony. What makes him more tolerable and touching these days is his ego now makes room to include everyone. One of the first indicators of this was in "Cafe Disco," when the employees at the Scranton branch let go of their hostilities and got jiggy with it; and dancing is key again here when Michael along with Jim's jokester brothers decide to reenact the famous You Tube video of the wedding party dancing down the aisle. Paul Feig, the director of "Niagara," has a gift for musical interludes (in episodes like "Cleveland" from 30 Rock and "Discos and Dragons" from Freaks and Geeks), and his cross-cutting between the shenanigans at the church and Jim and Pam's surreptitious nuptials on the cruise ship is a transcendent sequence, joyous and unspeakably moving. "You do one for them, and then one for you," Martin Scorsese once said. He was talking about the art of filmmaking, the compromises between the professional and the personal. The Office embraces this compromise as part of the art of life.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

To Tell the Truth (The Invention of Lying and The Girl in the Cafe)

While a movie about a messiah complex can be funny, few things are deadlier than a writer of comedy with one. Such is what has become of Richard Curtis, whose script for the HBO original The Girl in the Cafe (2005) begins as a beguiling comic romance before degenerating into didacticism. Bill Nighy is Lawrence, a meek civil servant apparently afflicted by some kind of unmentioned social phobia. One day during lunch hour he shares a table with Kelly Macdonald's Gina, an unemployed young woman with hints of a troubled past. The two strike up an awkward conversation and develop a tentative friendship. So far, so Lost in Translation. Then Lawrence invites Gina to the G-8 Summit in Reykjavik, where the latter spends the second half of the movie haranging the former's boss, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and every other international bigwig about their willingness to compromise over the war on poverty. It's a one-person-can-change-the-world fable, where our leaders' annoyance at this gadfly gives way to anger before finally shame. And we all grew a little more. Roll credits.
Look, I'm all for a movie with the courage to take a stand, as long as it develops plausibly, compellingly and/or entertainingly through the narrative. Curtis, whose scripts for Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love, Actually, and other well-liked comedies show a gift for knockabout farcical situations and gentle satire of British manners, also frequently betrays a weakness for high-handed moral instruction. The Girl in the Cafe is his most egregious bait-and-switch yet, one that saddles Macdonald -- among the most gifted actresses of her generation -- with interminable finger-wagging monologues. Macdonald isn't a shrill overplayer, like Rachel Weisz at the start of The Constant Gardener; she communicates her feelings in a lower key, but her scenes are a hopeless task. (Naturally, she won a Best Actress Emmy.) Nighy, who seems to have replaced Hugh Grant as Curtis's muse, uses his gangly physique to great effect. Despite an underwritten, not entirely plausible part, he gives an amusing, touching performance. Yet the biggest talent that emerges is that of the director, David Yates, who followed this with his stellar work behind the camera in the last two Harry Potter pictures. His lovely imagery and sense of pacing almost help The Girl in the Cafe overcome its own flaws. Curtis's script is tone-deaf tripe. But Yates is the real deal, a filmmaker with poetry in him.

My plans to see The Invention of Lying were thwarted by a broken projection reel before the movie even started. I've heard this sort of thing happen to others, but first time for me. Ricky Gervais can't buy respect. If and when I catch up to it I'll add my thoughts here. Watch this space.