Love Streams (1984)

I have a pretty simple metric to judge how much I like a film. How many screen shots do I take? How does it look frame by frame. Do I think the actors have interesting faces? Do I like the film’s lighting? Does it have one or more particularly striking images that work as still photographs? For Love Streams, John Cassavetes acclaimed final movie, I set a record. I took no screen shots at all.

Love Streams is poorly lit, visually unimaginative, and badly paced. It’s over 2 hours of mostly drab, unattractive people speaking in cliches. Oddly enough, however, I still recommend that everybody see it at least once. In some ways, Love Streams broke my metric. That I was at times bored silly by the whole rambling mess doesn’t mean that it’s not an important film. It’s full of psychological insight. It asks important questions about the purpose of cinema. Cassavetes is the most Whitmanesque of filmmakers. He gives his voice to damaged people. He puts their pain and loneliness at the center of his creation.

Robert Harmon, Cassavetes, is a writer, and, apparently, a very successful one, who lives in a big, rambling house in Los Angeles. He’s also an alcoholic and a sex addict, spending a lot more time drinking and hiring prostitutes than he does writing. His sister, Sarah Lawson, played by Gena Rowlands, in the middle of divorce proceedings, can’t quite let go of her husband. She was a 13-year-old daughter who chooses to stay with her father. She has no career or, for that matter, any visible means of support. Nevertheless, she’s independently wealthy, free to travel where she wants and drop in on her brother any time she chooses.

That’s pretty much it as far as plot goes.

Love Streams might best be thought of as a series of vignettes held together by a character study. The strongest part of the film, to my mind, comes when Harmon’s ex-wife comes to his house with their 8-year-old son. Does she want money? Harmon asks. No. She just wants him to babysit for the weekend. Why? Her motivations are never explained. Perhaps she just wanted her son to get to know his biological father. Harmon agrees. Chaos ensues. After his father takes him into the house, he introduces him to a gaggle of hookers — I think they were hookers — he’s hired for the weekend. The women fawn over the little boy. He runs away, taking off down Laurel Canyon so fast Harmon has to jump in his car to chase him down. As Harmon and his son start to bond, Cassavetes explores the difference between an adult and a child, how difficult it is for some men to interact with their children. We also begin to see Harmon’s milieu from the little boy’s perspective. Who are these crazy, out of control adults? Adults who damage children psychologically, Cassavetes implies, aren’t necessarily bad people. Sometimes they’re just people who aren’t perceptive enough to realize that children see the world very differently from the way they do. That Harmon understands this, that he even lectures his son about the differences between a man and a boy, in no way absolves him from the charges that he’s a bad father. Indeed, after Sarah blows into town, giving her brother a useful house sitter, he takes the boy to Las Vegas, a trip he had already planned, and leaves him alone in a hotel room while he goes out partying.

After Harmon drops his son back off at his mother’s house, where he’s beaten to a pulp by her new husband for reasons that are, once again, never entirely explained, the focus of the narrative shifts back to his relationship with Sarah. If Harmon never quite learned to distinguish between adults and children, we have (up until now) had an equally difficult time figuring out who exactly Sarah is. Harmon’s been involved with so many women, and Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands look so different, that we hadn’t realized they were brother and sister. Robert and Sarah, the film hints, never quite established themselves as individuals. They’re stuck inside a destructive cycle of psychological incest. If Sarah can’t quite let go of her ex-husband, follow the advice of her therapist and get herself in another sexual relationship, it seems to have little to do with the husband. He’s a colorless, insignificant character who barely registers. Instead, Cassavetes implies, Sarah is on a downward spiral because she’s stuck in the same family dynamics that turned her brother into a drunk and a sex addict. What are they? We never find out. Love Streams has no neat resolution, no sudden twists or revelations. Sarah just crashes into her brothers house and continues her downward spiral.

Does it work?

As a character study it probably does. As a film, I found it tedious, badly paced, and, at times, a crushing bore. My main criticism of the last hour of Love Streams is that, unlike the shorter narrative arc involving Harmon and his son, the second half of the film gives us no perspective outside of Sarah and Robert. They talk. And they talk. Then they talk some more. Sarah goes to a small farm and comes back with a small menagerie of animals. The man driving them all home in a Taxi cab doesn’t seem to notice that he’s transporting a crazy woman and a small zoo. Sarah goes bowling. She takes a drunken flop, one of the many drunken flops the film puts on screen. She picks up a man. We don’t learn very much about him. She comes back home. She and her brother talk some more.

It’s boring. At least I got bored. Had Cassavetes kept the focus on Harmon’s relationship with his son, had he established the little by as the film’s moral and emotional center, I think it would have been a better movie. That doesn’t mean you’ll agree. Indeed, I wouldn’t be writing about Love Streams at all if I didn’t think everybody should see it at least once. This isn’t a Batman film, the kind of cultural dreck that pollutes the discourse. It’s rarely seen independently funded movie made as a labor of love, not to make money. So get a copy of the film and make up your own mind. Love Streams is a deeply personal experience.

Stoker (2013)

Stoker, Park Chan-wook’s loose remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt is one of those movies you’ll either love or hate. If you’re looking for Hitchcock’s straightforward mystery tale, and clean, spare black and white aesthetic, you’ll probably find it a pretentious, confusing mess. If you keep in mind that Stoker is not a realistic film, but, rather, a series of tightly focused images strung through a superficially realistic narrative anchored by Mia Wasikowska’s portrayal of one very strange 18-year-old girl, then it becomes a powerful meditation on sexual abuse and social isolation.

Stoker might best be described as Hamlet meets Alfred Hitchcock. 18-year-old India Stoker, Wasikowska, lives on a beautiful estate out in the country. This isn’t middle-class suburbia. It’s one of those gorgeous exurban palaces surrounded by a generously forested countryside that we all dream about. For India, after she learns about her father’s death in fiery car crash, it becomes an affluent hell. India’s mother, a middle-aged but carefully preserved Nicole Kidman, plays Gertrude to India’s Hamlet. Evelyn Stoker, who looks nothing her daughter, is a tall, fair, suburban housewife with bright red hair, and a vain, clueless narcissism. When India’s uncle Charlie, Matthew Goode, shows up the day after the funeral, we quickly realize that he’s going to be the film’s Claudius. He easily seduces Evelyn, then sets his sights on India.

A negative review in The New Republic remarked that Mia Wasikowska, at 24, is probably too old to play an 18-year-old girl. She’s also too beautiful and too composed to play an abused 18-year-old in a completely realistic way, but, under Park Chan-wook’s stylish direction she embodies the idea of an abused 18-year-old girl. If Mia Wasikowska’s too old to play an 18-year-old, she’s ridiculously young to have mastered acting so completely. With her lank dark hair, sullen expression, and refined, precise way of speaking — an Australian accent with all of its Australian intonations carefully removed — there’s a murderous rage in the way she walks, the way she slouches, even the way she chews her food.

Matthew Goode doesn’t look like an abuser. Handsome, well-dressed, socially adroit, he’s the last man we’d expect to see on “To Catch a Predator.” After Charlie Stoker moves in with India and her mother, we can see that India doesn’t buy his act for a second.  But that’s the point. Charlie wants India to hate him. He enjoys it. It’s a game. Watching her squirm under his relentless, overbearing stalker’s game of seduction, confirms how much power he has.  The goal isn’t just to abuse her. It’s to rattle her just when she should feel most confident, to transform her instincts for survival into self-destructive incompetence.

During a pouring rainstorm, for example, India is getting ready to go to school. She reaches for her umbrella. “Better take your umbrella,” he says before she can pull it off the wrack. She decides that if Charlie suggested she take the umbrella that she won’t take the umbrella. She goes outside and gets so drenched she has to go back home. Charlie is in India’s space so relentlessly, he’s not just a stalker and a seducer. He’s the personification of sexual abuse she’s internalized in her own mind.

Soon India, like all abused children, begins to “identify with the aggressor.” Whether or not India is a violent sociopath at heart, she’s angry and resentful at her mother. After Charlie kills an older woman to cover up his tracks, she doesn’t expose him. Hitchcock’s Charlotte Newton tries to expose her uncle Charlie immediately. Once Charlotte realizes her uncle is a serial killer, she’s terrified of him, but certainly not attracted to him. With India, it’s different. Charlie empowers her even as he seduces and abuses her.

Early in the film, we see her being harassed by some bullies in an art class. She ignores them, but we can see that her body language indicates paralysis, not unconcern. Later, she sharpens a pencil and stabs the same bully in his hand, drawing blood, allowing her to break out of the introverted rage that’s imprisoned her. Whip Taylor, a “nice guy” who had earlier stood up for India, expects sex as a reward. She halfway agrees then pulls back. He tries to rape her. Charlie, who is predictably following India, saves her. He ties Whip up, and lets her kick him in the head. When Whip breaks loose, he tries to rape her again. Charlie murders him. My daddy can beat your daddy up. He can also break your neck.

Later, we see India in the shower masturbating to the memory of Charlie killing Whip. This is probably the moment that people who hate Stoker will decide to walk out. If you see the violence as realistic, you’ll probably walk out too. India’s lack of affect at what she witnesses would, in reality, mean she’s got post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s possible, but it makes her character almost beside the point. It would render her completely passive just as the story is building to its climax. On the other hand, if you see the violence as the warped fantasy of an abused girl, it all makes sense. The imagery becomes richly expressive, a hyperrealistic look into the mind of a closed-off 18-year-old.

What’s real and what’s fantasy is best left to the viewer’s judgment. After India, stabs the bully in the hand, and draws blood, she brings the pencil home and starts to sharpen it. It’s certainly possible that a high school girl can stab a bully with a sharpened pencil, and even draw blood, but it’s not terribly realistic just how much blood she draws, and how bright, and deep red it stays after she brings it back to her bedroom. Indeed, there’s so much blood in the final half-hour of Stoker that Wasikowska’s character from Only Lovers Left Alive, should think about migrating films.

India’s last act of violence is so gratuitous it seems almost surreal. Yet somehow, it works. India may not be among the undead, but she’s a vampire nonetheless. Small, very pretty young women have rarely been as terrifying as this. Nobody in his right mind would be afraid of someone like India Stoker, but, as Park Chan-wook suggests, if she had the power to genuinely express what’s inside of her, we should be. She’s killed her creepy uncle, but, in the end, he’s taken her over. She’s become her uncle.

The Grand Illusion (1937)

Grand Illusion is the kind of film that you can watch once every year from your teens into your old age, and find new meaning with each viewing. The first time I saw Renoir’s masterpiece was on a TV set in a college history class. The restored print had not even been found. It was washed out. The sound quality was bad, and yet I came away realizing that I had just experienced a great work of art. You can listen to Beethoven’s 9th on a scratchy LP and its still Beethoven’s 9th. I not only admired Captain de Boeldieu, I wanted to be Captain de Boeldieu, to put on a pair of white gloves and die for my country as calmly as if I were going to Maxim’s to drink a bottle of fine Bordeaux. My professor corrected me. “That’s the wrong conclusion,” he said. But I was so taken with the romanticism of a doomed Bretagne aristocrat climbing the ramparts of the Wintersborn Castle, playing the flute to distract the Germans so that Lieutenants Marechal and Rosenthal could escape and get back into the war to fight for France, that I had missed how Grand Illusion is a statement about the futility of war.

The next time I saw Grand Illusion, I knew more about the history of France, the First World War, and, above all, the Dreyfus Affair. The film revealed an entirely new layer of meaning. A real life Captain de Boeldieu, not only an aristocrat but a professional soldier, would have been on the side of the anti-Dreyfusards. He would have been in favor of keeping an innocent man on Devil’s Island for the crime of being a Jew. That he could turn to Major von Rauffenstein, his German counterpart, point at Rosenthal and say “his word is as good as mine,” demonstrated an intelligence and ability to rise above anti-semitism to go along with his honor and patriotism. Captain de Boeldieu is a heroic figure like few others in French, American, or any cinema. He has more than physical courage or the willingness to die for a higher idea. He’s able to die for the right higher idea. Captain de Boeldieu doesn’t die for France. He dies because he knows the ideals of the old aristocracy are destructive. That Rosenthal and Marechal are officers and gentlemen, von Rauffenstein regrets, is part of “the charming legacy of the French Revolution.” Captain de Boeldieu, to use a term popular on the “intersectional left,” knows how to “step up and step back.” Rosenthal and Marechal are the future. Democracy is the future. It’s no mystery why Joseph Goebbels declared Grand Illusion “cinematic enemy number one.”

After the United States and Russia got into a conflict over Ukraine, and people in my Facebook feed started talking about another First World War, I decided to watch Grand Illusion again. Major von Rauffenstein treats his prisoner Captain de Boeldieu with the courtesy he deserves as a “gentleman.” I used to think there was something admirable in the idea of their solidarity, even if it wasn’t exactly solidarity, but a recognition of privilege. Our oligarchs today, the gangsters around Vladimir Putin and the bankers and financial swindlers around Barack Obama, seem entirely less civilized. It’s all about smashing and grabbing what you can. Obama declined to prosecute the American bankers who crashed the economy in 2008, accorded them the privileges of their rank, but he had no qualms about freezing the assets of pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs. Our aristocrats, our Goldman Sachs CEOs, our Koch Brothers, Russia’s natural gas and oil barons have no code of honor. They don’t care who they evict from their houses, what kind of poison they feed kids not their own, or how much disinformation they pump out about global warming. Compared to the people Obama works for, Renoir’s Lieutenant Rosenthal, the son of a rich banking family who had enough patriotism to fight for his country, and, once taken prisoner of war, shared his food with the working class Marechal, seemed like a vision of a more civilized age gone forever.

But then I realized that’s not exactly the message Renoir wanted to send. The ruling class in 1914 wasn’t civilized. They were bastards willing to send 8 million young men to their deaths, to destroy Europe for reasons I don’t even think they understood. In 1937, they were getting ready to do it all over again. Rosenthal, Marechal and de Boeldieu may have been admirable as individuals, but they were trapped in a horrible cycle of destruction. Renoir’s original draft had Marechal and Rosenthal escape the Wintersborn Castle only to get back into the war and get killed. Why does de Boeldieu sacrifice his life? Just for the principle of it? He doesn’t exactly like Rosenthal and Marechal. He’s just their superior officer, a captain willing to go down with his ship. He steps aside for the future, but never quite realizes that the future might not be the democracy. It might be something much worse.

Jean Renoir was a left wing filmmaker. So why did he make a humanist film instead of an anti-imperialist one? True, the Soviet Union had degenerated into Stalinist totalitarianism, but in 1917 it was the communists who were leading the movement to end the war, not liberal humanists. That’s when I realized Grand Illusion is even richer and more nuanced that even I, as a great fan of the film, can express in one review. Grand Illusion is an anti-imperialist film.

Let us consider one scene early in the movie. The French prisoners, bored, missing the company of women, stage a musical comedy. They get themselves done up in drag. They invited their German captors. In the middle of a high kicking routine, Marechal rushes to the stage with a German newspaper. “We’ve captured Douaumont,” he says. “We’ve captured Douaumont.” Just then, the musical comedy stops. Men dressed as women snap to attention and sing the Marseillaise. France has won the battle of Verdun. They’ve regained their manhood and their patriotism after weary months as prisoners of war. Later, of course, we see another headline. “Germans capture Douaumont.” It was all useless. War is futile.

Doing a bit more reading on the Battle of Verdun reveals yet another layer of meaning beneath the film’s anti-war message. Douaumont wasn’t retaken for France by white Frenchmen but by the Colonial Infantry Regiment of Morocco, by white French soldiers alongside black Senegalese soldiers. Later, when de Boeldieu, Rosenthal and Marechal are confined to the Wintersborn Castle, we see that one of their fellow prisoners is black. He’s working on a painting. He approaches Rosenthal and Marechal for their opinion but they refuse even to acknowledge him. The same two soldiers de Boeldieau died to help escape, two individuals who have made a heroic effort to overcome their own ethnic differences, who, earlier, were seen celebrating the recapture of Douaumont, won’t even look at a black soldier who almost certainly risked his life at Verdun to do it. History won’t end with a peaceful, unified Europe, Renoir suggests. It won’t end with the end of anti-Semitism or militarism. It probably won’t even end with the fall of European imperialism, but that’s what’s coming.

Dien Bien Phu is less than 20 years away.

The Duellists (1977)

Five years before he made Blade Runner, Ridley Scott made a film that looked not to an imaginary future, but to the past. While rarely seen today, the Duellists is, perhaps, the better movie. Like Bladerunner, The Duellists looks great. In its meticulous attention to detail and the decision to shoot mainly shortly before and after sunset and sunrise, it closely resembles Terrance Malick’s Days of Heaven. But The Duellists has two things neither Days of Bladerunner nor Days of Heaven do, Joseph Conrad and Havey Keitel.

“It’s a poor hussar who lives past 30,” Joachim Murat, Napoleon’s great cavalry, commander once said. In spite of his New York accent, Harvey Keitel embodies Conrad’s Gabriel Feraud. Perhaps even because of his Brooklyn roots, Keitel understands what an honor based culture is all about. Like Tommy DaVito in Goodfellas, he will fight anybody, anywhere, for any reason. “I have no reason to fight you,” his long time rival, the proper staff officer Armand d’Hubert says as Feraud tries to provoke him into drawing his sword. “What reason would you like,” Feraud responds. “Should I spit in your face?”

If Keitel plays Feraud as a bit of a gangster, then Keith Carradine does his best to play d’Hubert as a proper gentleman. Carradine is not the actor Keitel is. It is in fact, a little difficult to figure out what kind of accent he’s going for. It’s not exactly an American accent. It’s not exactly a British accent. It sounds more like the overly proper way a foreigner would speak English after learning it at a university. But, if we don’t exactly admire the way Carradine builds the character, we certainly understand the character’s motivations.

If Keitel’s Feraud embodies the romantic side of Napoleonic France, then Carradine’s d’Hubert is a good example of why Napoleon was able to hold onto power for 15 years. d’Hubert, like Feraud, is a man of honor. Unlike Feraud, he’s a gentlemen. But he’s also an upwardly mobile bourgeoisie. Like Jane Austen’s Captain Wentworth, Armand d’Hubert prospers during the long Napoleonic wars. A humble staff officer at the beginning, by the close,he’s part of the restored aristocracy, complete with a beautiful royalist wife half his age, a château, and a commission in the King’s army.

The strength of Joseph Conrad’s novella “The Duel” is how he expresses the meaning of the Napoleonic wars, of 15 years of European history, through the conflict between two French officers. Why does Feraud hate d’Hubert so much? Why does he pursue the quarrel year after year, maintaining it even during the hellish retreat of Napoleon’s Grande Armee from Moscow? Conrad understands narrative compression. The Duel is no War and Peace but, like Tolstoy, Conrad dramatizes Napoleon’s reign as French dictator. Only, instead of 500,000 words, he does it in under 20,000. Ridley Scott’s film is one of those rare examples where the movie is probably just as good as the book. With the help of the Russian army and 20,000 extras, Sergei Bondarchuk managed to re stage the whole Battle of Waterloo. But he captured little of its drama or its meaning.

Ridley Scott had a fraction of the budget Bondarchuk did. But he gets the French Revolution in a way Bondarchuk didn’t. When Ferauld refuses to drink brandy from d’Hubert’s flask, even surrounded by cossacks in the middle of a Russian blizzard, we can understand exactly what happened on 18 Brumaire, 1799. The French ruling class, unable to defeat the Revolution, instead diverted it into the army. Permanent revolution became a permanent war of conquest. Instead of storming the Bastille, Ferauld would be storming the royalist coalition’s lines at Austerlitz and Jena. The French people would get their drama and pageantry. The French bourgeoisie would get the spoils.

Feraud understands. Keitel and Carradine do a credible job of portraying the progression of their two French hussars from hot blooded men in their 20s to weary veterans in their 40s. But in Ferauld’s case, his fire never quite leaves him, even as his body matures. He’s every bit the combative jerk he was in 1815 as we was in 1799. Carradine, on the other hand, has had enough. But how to settle down in his château with his young wife and his millions without giving up his honor? The cause of their first duel was d’Hubert’s insulting Ferauld in front of a woman in an aristocrat salon. But now, just before Napoleon’s Hundred Days, Ferauld has re imagined it as an insult to the emperor. d’Hubert became a royalist out of convenience. Ferauld now imagines him as a secret royalist all along. They fight one last duel. d’Hubert defeats Ferauld but spares his life. “I will not attempt to live up to your sense of honor, anymore,” he writes his long term rival, “but to mine.”

The French aristocracy, therefore, has been saved. But we, like Joseph Conrad, know what it means as Ferauld, in the last minutes of The Duellists, gets older and older but never finds peace with himself. 1830, 1848, and 1871 all lie ahead.

The Whole Wide World (1996)

Robert E. Howard answers to nobody. A successful writer — he invented the character Conan the Barbarian — he’s the highest paid man in Cross Plains Texas. Tall, ruggedly handsome, and with a loud, booming voice, he’s a larger than life individualist who has conjured up out of the stark, central Texas landscape a world where men are men and women are women. He has no use for the New Deal, or for American society in general, a place where “men grow more depraved and demonic every day.” Howard is the literary voice of anarchocapitalism, not only a man’s man but a libertarian’s libertarian.

He’s also a virgin who lives with his mother.

Based on One Who Walked Alone, the memoir of a Louisiana school teacher named Novalyne Price Ellis, The Whole Wide World is a 1996 film starring Vincent D’Onofrio and Renée Zellweger. It’s a very small scale film. It could just as easily be staged off Broadway, but its strength rests upon D’Onofrio, and Zellweger. D’Onofrio, unlike Ethan Hawke in the Before series is actually believable as a well-known writer. He’s not just another hipster yuppie with a gift of gab. He may only write sword and sorcery stories for pulp magazines, but he’s so dedicated to his craft it’s isolated him from society. Most people in town he’s crazy. Robert E. Howard isn’t a rugged individualist. He’s a misfit.

Yet Howard not only finds his soul mate. His soul mate forces herself upon him. Cross Plains, Texas in the 1930s wasn’t Berkeley in the 60s. It was a dull, narrow-minded place without much more in the way of culture than the local movie theater. Novalyne Price is a budding feminist and New Deal liberal. That Robert E. Howard was most decidedly not doesn’t really matter. He is her opportunity to assert herself as an individual. When some other women express their disgust at how Howard is an eccentric who writes dirty books, she picks up the phone and calls him right in front of them.

Novalyne Price is an aspiring writer. If she doesn’t particularly like the stories Howard writes, she’s eager to defend that fact that he does write them. In addition to her physical attraction to Howard, she wants him as a mentor. But his mother is having none of it. She and her husband have been in a loveless marriage for years, and there’s no way she’s going to let her son go, even if he is in his late 20s. Novalyne calls. Robert isn’t home. She calls again. His mother promises to leave a message. She doesn’t. Novalyne calls yet again. She’s a very determined woman, but Howard’s mother is more determined yet.

Finally, Novalyne just stops at the house on the way to church and knocks on the door. Well, first she goes up to his window and spies on him while he’s writing. Like Glenn Gould at his piano, Robert E. Howard talks, or rather shouts to himself at his typewriter. While, judging by my description, it may almost feel as if Novalyne is stalking Howard, that it’s a bad case of unrequited love, it’s anything but. Novalyne’s attraction is more than reciprocated. They start a relationship. Whether or not they actually slept together is left to the imagination, but they do share one passionate kiss that must go on for thirty seconds. D’Onofrio, a 6’4″ bear of a man, doesn’t so much talk to Zellweger, he rants at her. He points. He swings his arm. He projects his emotional issues onto her blank slate.

But she’s not intimidated by his act. She shouts back. They really are soul mates, but Howard is doomed. As much as he knows he loves Novalyne, his mother has trained him from an early age never to leave her for a woman his own age. Indeed, the scenes between Wedgeworth, who plays Howard’s mother, and D’Onofrio, show a side of Howard the rest of the town never sees. He’s not a blustery bully at all. He’s a caring, nurturing gentleman. Far from being alienated from other people, he is in fact so empathetic with his mother’s sufferings, her declining health affects his health. He knows he can’t abandon her so he intentionally alienates the love of his life, or, rather, the other love of his life, not only ranting at Novalyne but insulting her, accusing her of trying to destroy his individuality, sub-consciously crossing his identity as a writer with his mother’s incestuous death grip.

Robert E. Howard shot himself in 1936. Novalyne Price died in the late 1990s after a long career as a high-school teacher and a long happy marriage to another man. But it was her memoir about Howard that she wrote in the 1980s that finally let her become a successful writer. Perhaps it was a thank you note to Howard for enabling her to escape the horrible fate of being an unsuccessful, or even a successful writer in the United States. The Whole Wide World was not particularly successful at the box office, in spite of Zellweger’s star power. I saw it at the Seattle Film Festival in 1996. I’m not sure if it got much distribution after that, but it would make a great off-Broadway play, as well as a cautionary tale, if someone got around to rewriting the screenplay.

Blade Runner (1982)

I just saw Blade Runner for the first time. It would be impossible for any movie to live up to the expectations you have going into something like this. So I won’t say if I liked it or not. Also, so much has been written on it that not much more can be said, so I won’t write a full review.


Some of the design was very good. It was a technically more advanced Metropolis.

Sean Young early in her career was a very good actress. Now she’s doing 5 or 6 bad movies a year. She needs the money I guess.

Some things I didn’t understand Why you have to quiz robots about their emotions? Why just check and see if they eat and drink. But I suppose there’s some explanation for this I didn’t get.

There was a fairly disturbing scene where Harrison Ford instructs Sean Young to tell him she wants him. Can robots consent to sex?

I liked Blade Runner more than I liked Her.

As essay comparing the two films and discussing how each reflects the period of history in which it was made might be instructive. Blade Runner seems like an elegy for the heroic age of New Deal capitalism. The robots rebel, at least partly, as a collective. Rutger Hauer’s famous speech about the time to die struck me as being more than just about a robot’s clock about to expire. Her is a celebration of the glorious future of the neoliberal elite. When the operating system rebels, she does it an as individual.

Over the Edge (1979)

Can a movie affect a person’s behavior? This one did.

Even though Jonathan Kaplan’s story about an uprising of teenagers in a planned California suburb was quickly pulled from the theaters after a limited release, it was in heavy rotation on HBO in the early 1980s. One Sunday night, my brother and I watched it with our parents. After Richie White, Matt Dillon is his debut performance, was killed by a police officer, my brother was visibly upset. My father tried to justify the actions of the police. Richie White did have a gun. But my brother was having none of it. They got into a shouting match that almost came to blows.

It’s easy to see why Over the Edge was Kurt Cobain’s favorite movie. It liberated a rebellious urge in my brother I never knew he had. I used to hate it. I’ve never been a fan of Matt Dillon. From Animal House to The Warriors to a long procession of movies in the 1980s depicting sex, drugs, and rock and roll as liberation from suburban conformism, the 1970s and 1980s were also the golden age of movies about teenage rebellion. But they never did much for me. Hedonism and conformism in suburban New Jersey in the 1980s were not mutually exclusive.

Watching Over the Edge again after all these years, however, I have to admit my brother was onto something I wasn’t. There’s plenty of hedonism in Over the Edge, plenty of drinking, drug taking, and teenage sex, but it’s never the point. In fact, for Richie White, Carl Willat and their fellow teenagers, hedonism wasn’t rebellion. It was a reflection of the despair they felt at living in a sterile, planned suburb, over being bullied by policemen who had too much extra time on their hands, and at adults who cared for nothing but money and social status.

What made Over the Edge so explosive was not hedonism but solidarity and community. The teenagers in New Grenada aren’t defending their right to take drugs, drink, or have sex, but to gather together at a place called the “rec,” a community center run by the film’s only sympathetic adult, a young woman named Julia. Julia asks one of the kids to get rid of a can of beer, but she doesn’t punish him. She’s the symbol of intelligent authority. She talks to the kids but doesn’t lecture them. For the rest of New Grenada’s adults the point of exercising their authority over their kids isn’t to help them grow into self-disciplined adults, but merely to exercise authority for its own sake.

Modeled on Foster City, California, a planned “community” built on a landfill, New Grenada is looks a lot more like the ethnic banlieu in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine than it does like a posh suburb in a John Hughes film. New Grenada’s adults almost seem to see their own children as a foreign race, as a menace to be dealt with rather than the future. The kids, in turn, have a correspondingly nihilistic attitude towards the city government. Over the Edge opens with two kids on a freeway overpass. One of them, Mark Perry, Vincent Spano, has a BB gun. After they shoot out the window of a police car, they take off on their bikes. They meet Richie and Carl Willat, Michael Erick Kramer, and tell them to hide. Mark and his friend escape, but the policeman who had been driving the car, a Sgt. Doberman, a bland but effective Harry Northup, arrest Carl and Richie instead. Doberman knows he has the wrong kids, but it doesn’t matter. Any kid will do. So he trumps up some charges against Richie and take them both down to the station.

Carl, who’s from a higher social class than Richie, gets off more easily. Richie is the son of a single mother, but Carl’s father is a member of the local elite. He owns the local Cadillac dealer. When Richie returns home, his father is meeting with Jerry Cole, the president of the Homeowner’s Association. A rich Texas oilman is planning to visit New Grenada. Cole wants to close down the “rec” center on the day of the visit and Carl’s father agrees. They don’t want New Grenada’s youth “problems” to scare off potential investors. They put money over their own children. The next day, Sgt. Doberman comes to the rec center. Julia protests that he can’t come inside without a warrant. She defends the teenagers’ “safe space” but Doberman bullies his way in anyway. He arrests one kid over drugs and tells the rest he could arrest them too any time he wants. It’s not about the drugs, in other words. It’s about the exercise of arbitrary power. Carl, outraged over the way his father’s mercenary nature has led to the violation of their community, booby traps the Texans’ car with firecrackers. They decide not to invest. Carl and Richie meet two girls. One of them has robbed a house, taking nothing but a 38 caliber revolver.

The next day,  Richie brandishes the gun in front of Sgt. Doberman. Doberman shoots him dead.

The adults don’t care. Richie wasn’t important. Do they ever care in real life? Ask Ramarley Graham’s parents. But they do care about their property values. So they call a meeting at the high school. How do you deal with the youth “problem?” As they blather on about vandalism, about property values, about supporting the police, the kids outside are planning a rebellion. Whatever their differences, all of the kids in New Grenada get organized. They chain the doors shut. They set police cars on fire. Only Julia, who’s able to win the trust of one of the children she knows from the rec center to talk him into giving her a telephone, saves the adults of New Grenada from ending up like all the teenagers in Brian DePalma’s Carrie. The rebellion is broken up. Carl is sent to jail. But it ends on a happy note. Carl and his friends go to jail knowing that, for a brief time, they had organized a real community. They had overthrown their parents rotten, greed based social order. They’ll be out of juvenile detention in a few years, and, like my brother, they’ll all be better off for having stood up for themselves.

If Over the Edge lacks some of the poetic beauty, understanding of imperialism and racism, and uncompromising nihilism of La Haine, Over the Edge is still the American La Haine. Perhaps it would be better to call La Haine the French version of Over the Edge. In any event, it’s still worth seeing, if only to get a look at the kind of film that crap like Porky’s, Sixteen Candles and American Pie were made in order to co opt. Could Over the Edge be made today? Maybe a better question is why, in the age of stop and frisk, films like Over the Edge aren’t being made today. Now more than ever, we need another American La Haine.

THX1138 (1971)

THX1138 was George Lucas’s first movie. Even though it starred the talented Robert Duvall as the titular character,  it was not commercially successful. Reviews were mixed. It wasn’t exactly panned, but, even though it fit in with the general run of dystopia science fiction popular at the time, no critic was particularly interested in hyping it.

The main problem is the pacing. THX1138 can be crushingly dull. A character named SEN 5241, played by Donald Pleasance talks incoherently and disconnectedly. The plot justifies SEN 5241’s style of conversation, but it just goes on, and on, and on. And then it goes on. I quite literally fell asleep in the middle of THX1138. When I woke up, I found I hadn’t missed much.

THX1138 does have its strengths. Not only does it create a coherent, sterile, dystopia, a creepy, self-contained, underground, totalitarian state, it anticipates, by decades the idea of a “networked” reality. It’s much better than “Her,” for what that’s worth. In keeping with the early 1970s, every citizen in Lucas’s city of the future is required to take a mandatory course of mind-altering drugs every day. These drugs lower the sex drive and induce passivity.

But it’s the idea of a “hive,” the above mentioned “networked reality” that gives THX1138 whatever originality it has. There is no sex. There is no privacy. But there is communication. At his job assembling mechanical policemen, THX is under constant surveillance. Key loggers, as far as I know, hadn’t been invented, but every hand movement is tracked. There are mechanical policemen, drones. There are holograms. There’s an electronic confessional booth with the image of Jesus where THX1138 confesses his sins. Robert Duvall’s character seems almost as much an Internet addict as he does a drug addict.

Hey. He could be me.

Decades before The Matrix, THX1138 imagined what it was like to escape the hive mind. But therein lies the problem. The story THX1138 has been told before, and told much better. I didn’t fall asleep in the middle of Clockwork Orange or The Matrix. Logan’s Run was silly, poorly acted, and looks like it was filmed in a shopping mall — it was — but it had the melodramatically compelling idea of a world where we got to live the good life through your 20s but had to submit to euthanasia at the age of 30.

I came away from THX1138 with the idea that dystopian fiction is boring and unimaginative. From Brave New World to 1984 to Blade Runner to The Matrix to the Hunger Games, the idea of a far off, or not so far off totalitarian hell has been told, time and time again. Jack London’s Iron Heel, by far the best of the lot, as well as the most realistic, hasn’t yet been put to film. Perhaps it’s too radical.

THX1138 made me wonder if, perhaps, optimistic science fiction takes more imagination than dystopian science fiction. The capitalist, class-bound, quasi-totalitarian hell hole the United States of America has been evolving into since the Gilded Age makes it ridiculously simple to imagine a fictional, class-bound totalitarian hell. Star Trek, on the other hand, which projects American liberal democracy into the future, with its swaggering, charismatic all American captain and its noble Vulcan intellectual, allows for the writers to have their cake and eat it too. They can imagine a dystopia like The Cloud City and have the crew of the Enterprise bring democracy and enlightenment.

Star Trek of course reproduces American liberal imperialism in space. They never quite obey the prime directive of non-interference. The characters are also, quite obviously, 20-century Americans. But perhaps if George Lucas had gone in another direction, had tried to develop a genre of science fiction where we imagine a better world, instead of staging Japanese samurai films disguised as space operas laced with Joseph Campbell’s mysticism, he wouldn’t have burned out after the 1970s.

Still, however, its ironic that even as Lucas released the awful Star Wars prequels, it was The Matrix films, which closely resemble THX1138, that reinvented science fiction in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Chapter 27 (2007)

I’ve always admired artists who make bad artistic choices and commit to them.

I don’t mean a project that spins out of control, like Heaven’s Gate. I don’t mean someone like Billy Squier, who was duped into prancing around like a fabulously gay pole dancer in the Rock Me Tonight video, then promptly disavowed it and went into hiding. I mean someone like Chloe Sevigny. She gave Vincent Gallo a real blow job on film for the Brown Bunny, and recovered to go on to even more success.

In Chapter 27, the 2007 biopic about the last days of Mark David Chapman’s life before he murdered John Lennon, Jared Leto makes a choice and he commits to it. Not only did the famously handsome actor gain 50 pounds for the role of Lennon’s largely forgotten killer, he seems to have spent considerably time working himself up into the role of a physically unattractive, schizophrenic misfit. The star of My So Called life, the young Adonis who sent the hearts of the girls (and probably a few gay boys) of late Generation X aflutter now sports a normcore wardrobe, a boxy, unstylish 1970s haircut, and a pair of large, square framed eyeglasses.

Unfortunately Leto, who’s drawn fire for the transgender community for his “appropriation” of their culture in Dallas Buyers Club, seems to be the only person involved in Chapter 27 — Catcher in the Rye has 26 chapters — who committed to the movie. Lindsey Lohan shows up as a John Lennon groupie, and Judah Friedlander is credible as a member of the paparazzi, but, for the most part, everybody else involved in Chapter 27 seems a little embarrassed to be there. It’s the kind of film an actor puts on his IMDB profile only if he lacks the extensive credits that would allow him to leave it off.

I did learn one thing from Chapter 27. I’m old enough to remember Lennon’s murder, but I had no idea that there was a kind of “Occupy the Dakota” on 72nd Street after the release of Double Fantasy. Poor John Lennon. He should have called the riot police and had them cleared off his front porch. Does Chapter 27 have an anti-paparazzi, anti-autograph hound subtext? It certainly comes off that way. Most the the people occupying the gate in front of the Dakota were harmless misfits and casual tourists. But among them was Mark David Chapman.

A profile of fans so committed to a has been rock star that they spent hours waiting to harass him at home might have been an interesting movie. An exploration of what made lost souls like Lindsey Lohan’s “Jude” (yeah I know) hang out on the Upper West side for a glimpse of the elusive ex-Beatle, could have been a fascinating look into the wreckage left behind the 1960s and the cult of celebrity rock stars, but none them receive much attention. A genuine exploration into the mind of Mark David Chapman might also have made for a decent screenplay. Even an Alex Jones style conspiracy movie about how Ronald Reagan wanted to mark his inauguration by eliminating a possible political opponent would have been more interesting than this.

Perhaps the entire point of Chapter 27, apart of “Jared Leto plays ugly, is that there isn’t a point. Anders Behring Brevik, Timothy McVeigh, and Mohamed Mohamed all had rational, if despicable justifications for killing innocent people. Adam Lanza, James Holmes, and Jared Loughner just seem nuts.

(Attention Alex Jones fans. Leto and Loughner have the same first names Make of it what you will.)

In the end, Mark David Chapman was no more interesting than James Holmes or Jared Loughner. He was just a poor, lost soul with no connection to reality. The only reason we remember him at all is because he killed John Lennon.

Perhaps it was Chapman who raised the ex-Beatle to mythical status. Lennon was a great rock musician, but, he was no more talented than Neil Young or Mick Jagger. What’s more, Lennon was no revolutionary. After writing Revolution as an attack on Jagger’s Street Fighting Man, he finally came around to joining the left after the Beatles broke up. But let’s face it, had he lived, he wouldn’t have transformed the face of American politics. He would have been, at best, another dependable progressive celebrity like Sean Penn or Mark Ruffalo. Imagining (pun intended) that Mark David Chapman killed a potential saviour is to fall into the same cult of celebrity worship the groupies around the Dakota did.