We Can Still Think Our Own Thoughts
Put your shit on silent.
Crazy Rich Asians
If you go to a bachelorette party on an island and the other guests put a huge bloody fish head on your pillow, you are in a horror movie, not a rom-com. Maybe at this point in the history of capitalism there’s not much difference. Crazy Rich Asians looks more like a glossy tourist magazine produced for an international economics summit than a movie.
While Henry Golding just misses the mark at being an actual Anglo-Asian Cary Grant (maybe next time), Constance Wu, playing an Asian American everywoman, comes off generic, a paper doll dressed first as a professor, then as a Disney princess. Among the too numerous cast, Ronny Chieng and Victoria Loke stand out as a sarcastic, mean-spirited young husband and wife who despise each other, unlike the unmemorable Gemma Chan and Pierre Png, who play a more prominent, unfunny version of the same thing. I would gladly watch an entire movie about Chieng and Loke’s shallow, disrespectful, well-dressed irritants wasting their fortune while struggling to maintain their status.
The film is framed by a satirical lecture featuring Alec Baldwin as a John Birch Society racist and documentary footage of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which Heather Heyer was killed by someone who could be this Baldwin character’s grandson. What comes in between is an action-comedy that supposedly takes place in Colorado and mixes together, in standard Spike Lee style, police investigations, black-history lessons, ruminations on genre cinema, and a dismantling of The Birth of a Nation.
Complaints that BlacKkKlansman valorizes cops are moot, since this film could not exist without them any more than a Sidney Lumet film like Serpico or Prince of the City could. Just like in those films, the cops here are a rogues’ gallery of New York types, now transposed to Colorado. Their dialogue slips into a version of, “Eyyy, I’m John Turturro’s brother, are we gonna get these Klan scumbags or what?” Adding to this Brooklyn feeling, a triumphant scene takes place in Sunny’s waterfront bar in Red Hook. Lee establishes the scene with Sunny’s red-and-green anchor-and-dolphin neon sign, showing us that this is just one of those nautical-themed saloons you find a county over from the Rocky Mountains.
Lee made the didactic BlacKkKlansman to move audiences, which he succeeds in doing despite the feeling that the film has been stitched together from everywhere. If the love scenes between John David Washington and Laura Harrier fall flat (unlike their period hairdos), it’s because they are the bland good people in this movie, which foregrounds actors like Ashlie Atkinson, who plays the self-deluded, racist wife of a Klan goon like she’s a transplant from the Bensonhurst of The Honeymooners. The film works well when Washington puts on his white voice to prank call Klansmen. He aspirates the word white with the precision Diane Keaton brought to the word wheat in Love and Death, without the crutch of being dubbed by a white comic as in Sorry to Bother You. His phone routines could have gone on longer, which would have added to the satiric intensity of the movie more than Alec Baldwin’s slideshow meltdown.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Alec Baldwin is everywhere in 2018 as a bigheaded, squinty illustration of American authority’s collapse. In the latest Mission: Impossible movie he returns as Tom Cruise’s boss, the leader of a spy agency more rogue than the CIA. His confrontations with Angela Bassett, as the CIA’s head, are tepid. They distract from Cruise’s epic struggle to maintain his status as an action hero, a fight Cruise wins via grueling stunt work on the roofs of the world. Cruise is a live-action testament to his own ability to take punishment, a kind of human sacrifice. He is undiminished by both time and all the semi-comedy around him, which is the story of his career and his life.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout begins with a harrowing dream sequence, like Vanilla Sky. Called into question at his wedding as a failure who puts his loved ones in jeopardy, Cruise spends the rest of the film trying to make up for it by putting random people in danger, up to and including everyone in China, India, and Pakistan — a third of the world’s population and a substantial market for films like this. Everyone who is not in Cruise’s squad is formidable: Vanessa Kirby as a British arms dealer more threatening and coolly appealing than any woman in a recent Bond film; Sean Harris as a Steve Bannonesque alleged mastermind strapped to a chair. Watching Cruise relentlessly pursue and destroy Henry Cavill’s double-crossing CIA hunk, whose dialogue seemed dubbed, was really satisfying. If anyone has earned the right to victory over a British superhero actor twenty years his junior with a porn mustache, it’s the movie star who has managed to avoid the trite universes of DC and Marvel, even if it took being in that mummy film to do it.
The Equalizer 2
In the first Equalizer, Denzel Washington played an ex–intelligence agent working at a Home Depot in East Boston, Massachusetts. What made that movie work was how real Washington and director Antoine Fuqua made employment at Home Depot feel, as if someone involved had done time in the PVC pipe and lumber aisles. They had the layout down.
The new one starts with Washington disguised as an imam on a train in Turkey, with a big beard, a white skullcap, and black-frame eyeglasses, a look he pulls off better than anyone else in the past thousand years. While this is a change from working at Home Depot, The Equalizer 2 is not quite a Mission: Impossible movie. Soon he is back in Boston, where he now works as a Lyft driver and still lives alone in a small apartment. During one of his shifts, he breaks into the hotel room of a drunken misogynist fare, a finance bro, to teach him and his buddies a lesson.
Between the train scene and the Lyft driving, The Equalizer 2 begins with a lot of momentum. It dissipates as attention shifts to Washington’s former spy colleagues. Confrontations with them in a suburban driveway and at a beach house in a deserted seaside town during a hurricane indicate movement away from the working class, toward the kind of real estate ex–intelligence agents are more likely to inhabit. Fuqua stages it all with a kind of Anthony Mann intensity and attention to space, but The Equalizer 2 will probably end up being the only action movie to ever leave me wanting more scenes of the protagonist working for a rideshare app, or at least the only one since Jamie Foxx invented Uber in Collateral.
Leave No Trace
Will (Ben Foster), a veteran with PTSD, and his adolescent daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), live hard-core off the grid in a state forest in the Pacific Northwest. After yuppie hikers discover their lean-to and report them to the rangers, Will and Tom are relocated to a tree farm in an isolated community with a church and a school. There, Tom is exposed for the first time to people her own age. She makes contact with a dude who looks like a refugee from a Gus Van Sant film, or a guy from a grunge band like the Screaming Trees, a name that makes sense in this context. Tom wants to join 4-H with him so she can learn to take care of animals. Will, however, cannot abide the confinement of the small house he and his daughter have been assigned, nor can he tolerate the war-battle noise of the helicopters that haul away trees to be sold at Christmastime. “We can still think our own thoughts,” he tells Tom when they move in, but the conformity of the simple life blots out thought for him, a man for whom peace of mind is impossible in human society.
Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace is the director’s belated return to feature filmmaking after Winter’s Bone in 2010. Like Captain Fantastic from a couple of years ago, but with much more art, grace, and a sense of actual danger — perhaps because it is set among the homeless, perhaps because it was made by a woman — Leave No Trace restates the male Gen-X narrative of protecting children from the outside world and their eventual reintegration into it. For Foster’s Will, there is no redemption, unlike Viggo Mortensen’s character in Captain Fantastic. Will is a permanent exile who turns his back on the world, too damaged to change despite the chances offered him. Foster plays him somber and unlikable, in a performance of confusion and quiet self-righteousness that leads him to expose his daughter to frostbite, rides from truckers, and housebreaking. When Tom finally abandons him, he slinks back into the woods, a hermit turning his back on the film he’s in. Granik pulls away to a God’s-eye view of this figure as he disappears.
The enigmatic American filmmaker Rob Tregenza’s last feature film before Gavagai came out twenty years ago. As in Leave No Trace, in Gavagai a man (Andreas Lust) goes into the woods alone. Unfriendly and embittered, he arrives in a remote Norwegian town and hires a driver (Mikkel Gaup) to take him farther north for reasons he doesn’t explain. This is not a road film in which two men wax philosophical and overcome their differences on a journey through the European countryside, like in those Trip movies and TV shows with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, “from acclaimed director Michael Winterbottom.” Tregenza shoots quiet people in long takes with complicated camera moves. The two men barely speak and never quite bond. Tregenza is not sketching the wistful unhappiness of the moneyed creative class so much as staring into the divide between souls.
The man’s journey comes to an end short of his destination. In the rain on a cliff overlooking an expanse of forest, he rips up his late wife’s translations of the Norwegian writer Tarjei Vesaas and flings them into the wind. His anger, destructive and futile, seems to compound his wife’s death by destroying what’s left of her work. Gavagai is a film about the impossibility of closure and the endlessness of grief. The title comes from the analytic philosopher W. V. Quine’s Word and Object, in which Quine invents the word gavagai to use as an example of that-which-is-untranslatable. Tregenza and his coscenarist Kirk Kjeldsen have translated, it seems, the poems of Vesaas into mood and atmosphere. The poems haunt Gavagai in this confrontation with the void. Sometimes they appear in the form of the man’s wife, a ghost who shows up as an awkward memory-in-translation. In the end, the man and the film are both wise to abandon this image and return to life around a fire at dusk.
Let the Corpses Tan
This Belgian genre film, a delirious, unpleasant mash-up of a poliziottesco and a spaghetti western, shot in Corsica, is as violent as it is arty. A heist-gone-wrong set in and around a villa and a cave, it features a cast of treacherous, criminal zeroes, bohemians, and cops, and it doesn’t let up on the violence or the artiness.
While adapting Jean-Patrick Manchette novels for the screen is as inevitable as it is desirable, this one seems to exist only as a music video for Ennio Morricone’s score. As a music video, it’s a shocker but too long. As a feature film, it’s pointless and repetitive, especially the squeaking-leather-pants sound effect that recurs over and over again. Manchette’s novels are latter-day séries noires, fast-paced, destructive critiques of capitalism from the era of urban terrorism in Europe. Few of their characters survive. In Let the Corpses Tan none do, and the grimness is not ironic or critical, just maggoty. The film does give off that “I’m on drugs” feel (specifically of bad speed), but it’s so labor-intensive that, like many a trip, it should have ended a long time ago. Elina Löwensohn’s presence as a witchy bisexual and often-nude painter is almost as mysterious as Morricone’s contract must have been. I hope Löwensohn made money, because busy-bee deconstructionists with many-itemed shot lists like codirectors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani should pay their actors by the frame.
The cinema is moving in all directions as endless new content crams itself into every available space. This is leading to new kinds of international cross-border weirdness, as films, more than ever, are shot wherever the money is. It’s not just Belgians in Corsica imitating Italians, or Brooklyn playing Colorado, or North Carolina as California, or Toronto and Vancouver as anywhere else. Now, in Mandy, we get Belgium as both the Pacific Northwest and the bowels of hell, starring Nicolas Cage.
Emerging from the same cross-contaminated genre swamp as Let the Corpses Tan, Mandy achieves its goals with blunter and larger instruments, which is all the better, because where Corpses fails, Mandy succeeds. If Corpses was a music video, Mandy is a whole doom-metal opera in poisonous Technicolor, with an album cover depicting a landscape of magenta, indigo, and golden-yellow ruins. The film is like that Bell Witch album that only has one ninety-minute-long track.
It opens with King Crimson’s “Starless” on the sound track, playing before a clip from a Ronald Reagan speech about “spiritual awakening.” It’s 1983 and Cage, a lumberjack, lives in the woods with his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), a weird-fiction fan who works in a tiny country grocery store and speaks like Patti Smith reading the poem at the beginning of “The Revenge of Vera Gemini” — a British person’s version of unaffected Americanness. Riseborough’s slight New Jersey inflection points to where Mandy lets in real life. One of the film’s principle pleasures is that for all its splashy-morose color schemes and arty dissolves, its death cult maintains the feeling of unemployed oafs from Neptune, New Jersey, worshipping Satan in Ramapo Mountain State Forest.
The film is pure acid trip with a macaroni-and-cheese commercial thrown in. (TV commercials are the worst thing to see on hallucinogenic drugs.) Cage howls in pain and screams in despair, breaking out in occasional intelligibility only to say things like, “Don’t be negative.” By the end, as a grimy, wounded Cage stands with a chain saw in front of a burning car and still hasn’t avenged his girlfriend or saved anyone else from the drug-addicted demons/private-press recording artists, it becomes obvious what director Panos Cosmatos has delivered here: a parody of “the hero’s journey” on par with Kanye West’s use of that phrase in the Oval Office while describing Donald Trump to himself.
Panos Cosmatos knows a lot of things about making movies, including that you show the burning cars. And yet he’s no Lee Chang-dong, who fails to fully reveal a burning Porsche that’s an important plot point in his new film. Lee does show Donald Trump, however, on a TV in the protagonist’s apartment, using the original Cheddar Goblin to add to the sense of unease in this unique serial-killer mystery. And unlike Let the Corpses Tan, Burning raises actual questions about money and its effects on people’s lives.
Burning, like Psycho and L’avventura, starts off as a film about a woman, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), who appears to be its subject and star. While working her job hawking cell phone accessories in a miniskirt, she reconnects with Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a poverty-stricken aspiring writer she knew in high school. After they hook up, she leaves for a solo trip to Africa and returns with a new friend, Ben, played by the American actor Steven Yeun in a subtle, nuanced performance that shifts between friendly-classy and “I’m a secret arsonist.” Ben is a young member of Gangnam’s idle class, and neither Hae-mi nor Jong-su fit in there. After Hae-mi begins to date Ben, she disappears again. Jong-su quizzes Ben about her absence and slowly comes to realize something isn’t quite right with this slick, fashionable dude who starts reading Faulkner because Jong-su mentioned him, one of the film’s slyest condemnations of rich-person poaching.
Burning refuses to reveal what actually happened to Hae-mi, or what kind of person Ben really is, if he is any type at all, which leaves Jong-su in a terrifying moral limbo. All three of the film’s main characters are dispensed with by Lee in this unsentimental movie that shows human connection as fragile and masked when the friends are unequal. Hae-mi, dismissed from the film the earliest and seemingly with ease, in a way gets off the easiest of these characters, because there’s no way to know what happened to her. She’s kooky and a searcher but also just an innocent victim. But of what? With the men it’s all too clear.
Decline and recline
Cinephiles in New York have noted the difference between how 2018 began and how it is ending. In January it was possible to see a movie a day in almost any theater for $9.99 a month using MoviePass. It was possible to stream thousands of classic and foreign films at home through FilmStruck for about $8 a month. Now, out of the blue and with little explanation, but as the result of its monopolistic deal with AT&T, Time Warner has shut down FilmStruck. MoviePass still exists, but barely. For a while it managed to do something that seemed impossible: it changed theatrical exhibition for the better. Now it has (more predictably than the shuttering of FilmStruck, it must be said) become some new kind of con in which only the most mediocre and longest-running movies are available to see, and only three a month. Suddenly we are plunged into a world of $16 movies at theaters in a city with no video stores.
The cancellation of both services, at this point, seems like the end of the long tail. The blockbuster model has reasserted itself and as usual seeks to muscle everything else out of the way. At the height of corporate capitalism you pay full price for bad movies improperly projected in ugly theaters whose business is selling large sodas at a 1,000 percent markup. If you want to watch a movie at home, there’s Netflix, now mostly a streaming television service, or Amazon. It’s all an insult to cinephiles and to film history. Going mass means living in the moment and throwing away what came before. The moment is crap.
To rub it in, the large theatrical chains have implemented reserved seating policies, which, by slowing down ticket buying at the box office, herd filmgoers into making electronic purchases for which they have to pay an additional fee. Reserved seats are antithetical to moviegoing, which traditionally and democratically has been first come, first served. You could move to a different seat if a weirdo (or anybody) was sitting too close. This new nonegalitarian system is fancy and inappropriate. It takes too long and it huddles people together. Let’s just go to the opera at this point, instead of seeing The Girl in the Spider’s Web pinned in place next to someone texting “wyd?”
Meanwhile the ads shown before movies have gotten more aggressive about copping to how terrible and disgusting their products are. The one for Diet Coke with Netflix actress Gillian Jacobs is a masterpiece of the passive-aggressive come-on. “Look,” Jacobs begins, like a pundit on a TV news show, “here’s the thing about Diet Coke: life is short.” As well as nasty and brutish. Next she implores people who want to live in yurts to “yurt it up” and “just do you.” Yurt dwellers may not drink Diet Coke, but they still have rights. She concludes with a simple confession: “Diet Coke: because I can.”
Has freedom of choice ever seemed less appealing? At least that particular ad wasn’t made by a film student. The worst, most dystopian Coke ads shown in theaters — each one a little nightmare from a society that has gone full Clockwork Orange — are now also promos for higher education. They are contests that inculcate their lucky film-student winners into a world of meta-shilling, where the theatrical experience is reconfigured as an excuse to slurp Coke under dim lights. Doing that is so satisfying that the actors on-screen envy the soda guzzlers in their cushy seats with cup holders and reach out to grab their giant sodas.
This kind of audience flattery is a form of permission to use cell phones while the movie is on. If the actors are just dorks like you who need a Coke so bad, there isn’t any need to pay attention to them. When I went to see Crazy Rich Asians my date and I sat next to three other couples in a row with eight seats. The young women in the other couples texted throughout the movie (which was sold as an important cultural event) while their boyfriends, careful not to mess up a date, sat passively and stared at the screen as if their girlfriends were watching the movie with them instead of paying attention to other people who weren’t there.
I saw an Ingmar Bergman film at the Museum of Modern Art recently, where I was seated one row over from a family of four. The father texted throughout the first half hour of the movie, impervious to the nearby MoMA regulars hissing at him to stop. When they began turning around, jabbing their fingers in his face, and threatening to take his phone, he stood up, grabbed his children’s hands, and marched out of the theater in a huff, his wife trailing behind. Somehow, he had been wronged. Similarly, at the New York Film Festival screening of Burning, a man seated a couple of rows ahead of me texted on and off for the first twenty minutes of the film until someone got an usher to shine a flashlight in his face and threaten to remove him. I understand why the texters went to see Crazy Rich Asians. I do not understand what they were doing at MoMA and the New York Film Festival.
It’s true that excellent new theaters that show good movies have opened, and are opening, in New York City. They sell discount cards, and anyway, there are many different ways to see movies, some of them legal, without FilmStruck and MoviePass. But cash outlays for those discount cards are not small and the prices without them are steep. And when Venom came out last month to universal pans and no human being who liked it could be found anywhere, it still cleaned up at the box office. It’s still playing. I looked just now and it has passed $200 million in ticket sales. It must be a great movie for texting.
A journey to the end of the night set in Los Angeles, like Faces, Wobble Palace is an anti-rom-com of debasement. Unlike Faces its characters are petulant, underemployed young whiners instead of confused, middle-class, middle-aged drunks. Times have changed in Los Angeles. No longer Cassavetes’s city of nice houses with big dining rooms, Wobble Palace reveals LA living as downscale and codependent, even in open relationships. Scrolling text messages take up part of the frame sometimes and add to Wobble Palace’s mood of smarmy irritation. One gets used to them on-screen, where they are better than in the audience, but not to the artificial click-click sound of the keys. Put your shit on silent.
The Halloween night 2016 setting aids the film, as writer-director-star Eugene Kotlyarenko goes full Herzog’s Nosferatu as his costume choice for the scenes before the final breakup. It’s more flattering than the “fat Skrillex” look he is accused of sporting earlier. Costar and cowriter Dasha Nekrasova also gets to say things like “We’re gonna have our first female president soon” in her distinctive world-weary drone of postironic predisappointment. Like Viva’s bored drawl in the late 1960s Warhol films and in Varda’s LA-set Lions Love, Nekrasova’s voice is the voice of a generation — in tone at least. It is so distinctive I wish she would record the service interruption announcements on the subway so that the true sound of the stalled and waiting would come through the speakers.
Support the Girls
“No Drama” is posted as rule No. 1 for the servers at the Hootersesque restaurant in strip-mall Texas where Support the Girls takes place. Andrew Bujalski highlights his film’s commitment to that as a concept, even as star Regina Hall, as the restaurant’s manager, admits that banning drama is impossible with her half-dressed staff of twentysomething women. But when they get too provocative, she reminds them, “We are mainstream! We are mainstream!” Drama is mainstream, porn is not. Mumblecore isn’t either, so Bujalski, who is now one of the best directors of actors in American filmmaking, has designed this unique, low-key film as a vehicle for Hall, the excellent actress from the Think Like a Man and Scary Movie movies who was overshadowed by the discovery of Tiffany Haddish in Girls Trip.
While the film descends into a bar-top riot and ends with women drinking and screaming in rage and frustration on a roof, it is men who are more likely to violate the “No Drama” rule. The restaurant owner (James Le Gros), for instance, subjects a captive Hall to his pointless fury as they speed in his truck, with boat attached, to pursue another driver who has annoyed him on the road. When Hall and her staff move over to a corporate chain restaurant called Man Cave, an HR manager, played with polished friendliness by Brooklyn Decker, reveals the true drama of our time. “We’ve built this super-well-thought-out culture of respect,” she explains, “and we have a whole team of attorneys who are paid a crazy amount to make sure we lay that out clearly.”
Like the manager she plays, Hall is a team player to the end. I’m not sure the ensemble cast doesn’t overshadow her. Lea DeLaria as Bobo, a dyke regular at the bar, steals every scene she’s in. Shayna McHayle, a.k.a. the Brooklyn rapper Junglepussy, draws attention away from everybody else with nothing more than baleful stares and a self-contained sick-of-it-all attitude. If someone put McHayle and Dasha Nekrasova in a movie, they would become a bored, indie Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, at least for South by Southwest and Bushwick, if not the mainstream.
The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man
Ron Rice’s last film, unfinished at the time of his too early death, is an essential document of bohemian New York City in 1963 as it was lived and thrashed in cheap apartments and on the streets. Taylor Mead, its star, the ultimate weird boho-hipster of the second half of the 20th century, finished a final cut of The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man in 1981 after having screened other versions around the world for almost two decades. Mead’s version has now been restored by Anthology Film Archives.
The film’s black-and-white images demonstrate what the camp/avant-garde nexus meant in the Manhattan of Andy Warhol, Jill Johnston, and Frank O’Hara. The film was shot a year before Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” was published, but Rice’s movie is a living, breathing, leg-humping enactment more amusing, friendly, and connected to daily life than Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures. Smith, one of Sontag’s inspirations, appears in the movie and almost takes over its second half from the coy, shier Mead and from Winifred Bryan, the implacable, overweight black woman who is the Queen of Sheba to Mead’s Atom Man. The film, having established the bizarre relationship between these two mismatched oddballs, can’t stray too far from them no matter who piles on. The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man should be projected twenty-four hours a day somewhere in Manhattan, so that before we’re all pushed into the sea off Rockaway Beach people can be reminded of the strange form of life that once lived here.
The Jerry Lewis Gar-Ron movies
It turns out that self-conscious cinematic camp was not exactly invented by Jack Smith in New York. In an unimposing suburban home in Pacific Palisades, California, Jerry Lewis, unbeknownst to the avant-garde, had begun in 1951 to shoot black-and-white movie parodies and pre-Warholian color screen tests during his nights and weekends off from Paramount Pictures, where he and Dean Martin were employed as the nation’s most popular comedy duo. Shown only once to friends at premiere parties at the same house where they were filmed, Lewis’s Gar-Ron productions (named for his sons) remained unseen by anyone else until this past October, when the Lewis estate and the Library of Congress debuted them at the Museum of Modern Art. These films, which combine borscht belt humor and Mad magazine–style parody with vulgar put-downs and gay panic, reveal Lewis as a comic auteur and “total filmmaker” almost ten years before his official directorial debut, The Bellboy.
The Gar-Ron movies, like The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man, also document their time and place, which in this case is the sunny Southern California of Hollywood movie stars partying at home. If you had been waiting to hear Dean Martin, Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis, or Shelley Winters utter words like orgasm, cock, shit, and vomit, your wait was over if you made it to MoMA this past fall.
The series combined featurettes, shorts, and home movies from this period in which Jerry Lewis and America were both on the rise. Lewis’s well-known neuroticism and aggressiveness are less hidden and more integrated in these productions than in the Freudian constructs Paramount put together for him and Dean, or in the later work for which he was solely responsible. In fact, these movies present a happy Jerry, not the lugubrious interviewee America got to know from his films in the 1960s, after he became an auteur and a philanthropist. One home movie, shot at a 1920s-themed jazz party in the Lewis rec room, is positively giddy, with Lewis and Patti, his wife, and Curtis and Leigh doing the Charleston in boaters, spats, and flapper outfits late into the night.
The films themselves present popular movies of the day in “Jewish” versions. Sunset Boulevard becomes Fairfax Avenue, the story of a handsome young delivery boy (Curtis) from a kosher deli forced to write a screenplay for a washed-up star of the silent screen (Leigh, caked in face powder). In Come Back Little Shiksa, Martin is a doctor “struggling to avoid sobriety.” Each is like a Kuchar brothers film with big stars in it, too weird and offensive for TV sketch comedy, an emanation from a hip demimonde that only existed in Lewis’s house when Curtis and Leigh dropped by. The Milton Berle screen test, which poses Uncle Miltie against a bright-red backdrop as it scrutinizes his face so Lewis can pepper him with rude, absurd questions off-screen, is more out-there than any Warhol screen test. I’d say it’s one of the best films of the 1950s, and it clearly demonstrates Lewis’s way with color and his ability to capture stylized discomfort on-screen.
Slaps to the face
In the MoMA lobby between Jerry Lewis screenings, a basketball-stomached older man wearing a large newsboy cap introduced himself to me as Slaps Donovan. He cornered me to tell me he used to be the film critic on Jackie Mason’s radio show. Now he had a Broadway play and a reality TV series he was developing. “Hal Prince,” said Slaps, “has my play on his desk, but he’s booked up for the next three years.” This play, a musical, takes place during the Woodstock rock music festival in 1969, but doesn’t use any of the songs. It’s all new, original music that Slaps has written. His TV show, Celebrity Séance, involves unsuspecting contestants speaking to famous dead people through the medium of Slaps’s voice impressions, which he will provide off-screen.
At the very moment Slaps asked me, in the voice of Jerry Lewis, about getting some nookie, I got a text on my phone. A woman I know who works for Netflix was in town for the New York Film Festival. She was inviting me to meet her and two filmmakers for dinner at a fancy restaurant near Lincoln Center. While Slaps imitated Jerry Lewis and I looked at this text on my phone, a Brazilian artist named Romero Britto walked by dressed in a multicolored homemade suit and stopped to pose for photos fans of his wanted to take with him. The clowns had been sent in, and I was among them.
I couldn’t go to dinner. There was another Jerry Lewis movie in half an hour that I planned to see, and besides I wasn’t dressed for that kind of thing. If I had gone to meet my friend and two glamorous strangers, I would have become the Slaps of the dinner, explaining how I was a film critic.
That night, instead, I had committed myself to the bizarre and the asinine. Slaps exited onto 53rd Street, still doing his Jerry Lewis voice, and I went and sat down in the lobby to wait for the next show. A lady in a burgundy tracksuit sitting across from me pulled a container of macaroni salad out of a crinkly plastic shopping bag, pried off the clear plastic lid, and began eating it with a big metal soup spoon she had brought with her to the museum. At least I wasn’t wearing a funny hat.
The Other Side of the Wind
A truer séance of dubbed voices, forgotten faces, and witchy art, Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind brings a lost work back to life. By the time of his death in 1985, Welles had been working on the film for fifteen years and hadn’t finished it. Now it arrives complete, fully formed, a masterpiece and a shock to the system, courtesy of Netflix and all the money they have to burn. It is not a fragment like Welles’s It’s All True or Don Quixote. It is done. Never has a movie been as overwhelmed by the history of its production as this one, “this circus of scattered souls . . . a desperate venture shared by desperate men.” That doesn’t matter anymore. The desperate men and the scattered souls are now on the screen.
Near the beginning of the film, a busload of partygoers on the way to the desert house of the film director Jake Hannaford (John Huston) passes a drive-in theater where the huge marquee advertises two movies: i eat your skin and i drink your blood, fitting titles for this exposé of Hollywood vampirism. It’s filmed alternately like Zabriskie Point, random Eurotrash, Kenneth Anger–ian avant-gardism, 1970s porn, Cassavetes, and cinema verité. Like Faces it is another SoCal journey to the end of the night; like the Jerry Lewis home movies, it inhabits a vulgar-sophisticated world of homosexual panic, here partially masked by lots of naked hippie hetero sex in a steam bath, in a moving car, and on a back lot in Hollywood, abandoned and in ruins.
In The Other Side of the Wind, Welles purposefully synthesized every film style that had come along since the late 1950s, in a bid for relevance the film mocks when Hannaford is accused of doing the same. Where Hannaford crashes and burns, Welles succeeds with brilliance, adding to the sense of tragedy surrounding the film. It should have come out in its time.
The film swings wildly between tones and tempos, black-and-white and ultravivid color. Michel Legrand’s score and the other music in the film add to this. In the psychedelic film-within-a-film, Blue Cheer dominates the soundtrack like Can tried to at the beginning of Inherent Vice. In the party scenes, we hear the hip jazz pianist Jaki Byard, his music piped in as drunks spill booze on each other and sing “Glow Worm” in a haunting scene lit only by candles.
The film was cowritten by Welles’s companion, Oja Kodar, who also costars. She is often nude and plays a mute Native American who is mocked as “Pocahontas” while an underage blonde girl (Cathy Lucas), a nonactor in an archie bunker for president T-shirt, is passed from Peter Bogdanovich, as a director in the flush of success, to Huston’s Hannaford, a director who can’t get his film made in the New Hollywood of the time. It’s a sick, glorious movie that ends at another drive-in, a graveyard of the cinema with a train running past it, where Kodar, projected on the screen, stabs with scissors at these men’s fantasies and dreams.