Sunday, October 14, 2012
With Paths of Glory (1957) Stanley Kubrick directed what's probably the greatest anti-war film of all time. Three decades later, Kubrick returned to his favorite area with Full Metal Jacket, but this time with different intentions.
Full Metal Jacket is a war movie, but not an anti-war one. There are indications that American involvement in Vietnam was a giant folly, but Kubrick does not moralize and instead provides an objective view of what war is.
The essence of the story concerns all wars, and not just Vietnam.
It's about the capacity within one human being for both good and evil, something psychiatrist Carl Jung labelled "the shadow": the subconscious aspects of one's personality.
Kubrick said he does not view the characters in the movie in terms of good or evil, but rather in terms of good and evil.
The message is conveyed most explicitly in Vietnam when a superior officer confronts Joker about his wearing both a peace button and a helmet reading "Born to Kill."
Joker can't explain exactly why he's expressing these inconsistent ideas, but says it might have something to do with "the Jungian thing . . . the duality of man."
Full Metal Jacket begins with United States Marines recruits getting their heads shaved -- a loss of individuality, the first step of a dehumanization process intended to turn these men into killers.
(Dehumanization and its effects are recurring themes in Kubrick's movies.)
The first third of Full Metal Jacket is dedicated to boot camp at Parris Island. R. Lee Ermey plays Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (which can sound like "hard man") in an incredible performance.
Much of Hartman's dialogue was improvised by Ermey, and several one-liners will make your jaw drop as you howl with laughter.
Ermey speaks with a cadence and color that turns his remarks into poetry.
In furtherance of the military's goal of dehumanizing the recruits, Hartman orders them to give their (phallic) rifles a female name.
Their rifles are as close to women as they'll get.
Hartman tells them their "days of finger-bangin' ol' Mary Jane Rottencrotch through her pretty pink panties are over!"
He forces the recruits to recite a creed to their weapons, and has them repeat a military cadence concerning their rifles and guns, only the guns are not literal but a symbol for their genitalia.
Hartman contemptuously refers to the recruits as ladies, and hurls homophobic slurs at them.
By the end, Hartman's misogyny will be revealed as ironic: the sniper taking out trained soldier after soldier turns out to be a Vietnamese female civilian, something Hartman would never have been able to process.
The stand-out recruit is Gomer Pyle, played by Vincent D'Onofrio.
Pyle stands out because he can't do anything correctly, and D'Onofrio brings a real pathos to the role.
Every time Pyle screws up, Hartman humiliates him, at one point having Pyle march with his pants down, sucking his thumb.
Hartman appoints Joker as mentor to Pyle, and Pyle makes progress, until Hartman catches him with a jelly doughnut in his foot locker.
From that point on, when Pyle screws up, Hartman punishes the recruits collectively, because they haven't given Pyle the proper "incentive" not to screw up.
The recruits throw a blanket party, beating Pyle with soap wrapped in towels.
Each recruit hits Pyle once. Joker initially hesitates, but then beats Pyle several times, worse than any of the others.
That's the duality of man as seen through Joker, and though he's not quite there yet, he's on the path to becoming a killer.
Pyle turns out to have an affinity for marksmanship but he unravels after being beaten by the other recruits.
The night of boot camp graduation, Pyle has a breakdown in the bathroom, and starts loading his rifle with ammunition. In a chilling and unforgettable scene, Pyle kills Hartman and then himself.
Joker witnesses the murder-suicide, and realizes he's in "a world of shit."
As I've said a few times, the military's goal is to turn the recruits into killers.
Pyle has become exactly what Hartman wanted him to become, and that's not an exaggeration.
Right before the murder-suicide, Hartman speaks to the recruits about Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald; Hartman heaps praise on them and takes pride because the Marines trained them to become riflemen.
Hartman says that Whitman and Oswald showed what "one motivated Marine can do," and with a close-up on Pyle, he claims that before they leave Parris Island they'll all be able to do the same.
Not only could Pyle do the same, he did do the same. Pyle fulfilled the promise of boot camp by shooting Hartman and becoming a killer.
It's not that much of a stretch to envision some other sergeant praising Pyle in the same way Hartman praised the mass murderer, Whitman, and alleged JFK assassin, Oswald.
Immediately after Pyle kills Hartman and himself, Kubrick leaves Parris Island and enters Vietnam.
It's a jarring cut and many viewers don't like the Vietnam portion of the film, but it's an important part of the story.
With the exception of Pyle, Vietnam is where the others will fulfill the promise of becoming killers.
Joker is the main character once we enter Vietnam, and the movie becomes his story.
There's also a Marine called Animal Mother played by Adam Baldwin, who bears a resemblance to Vincent D'Onofrio.
Is the message that had Pyle lived, he would have been Animal Mother? That the soldiers are no longer individuals, but types?
Animal Mother is among the crazy brave, and perhaps Pyle would have been as well had he gone to Vietnam.
The film culminates with a sniper shooting several marines dead, with the remaining ones finally confronting her in the fiery building (clearly a representation of hell) she's been firing from.
Chaos ensues and the seemingly harmless Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard) shoots the sniper, critically wounding her, as Joker's nerves make him fumble and drop his weapon.
The Marines are surprised to find that the sniper is a woman.
She pleads with the men to end her suffering, but they're inclined to let her rot.
Joker objects, and Animal Mother says if Joker wants her killed, Joker is going to have to do it.
Joker's face betrays conflict, but he shoots and kills the sniper.
The question is whether Joker acted out of mercy or wrath. Kubrick wisely chooses not to answer, and my interpretation is that Joker acted out of both mercy and wrath.
The final scene sees the Marines marching and singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme.
There are many ways to view this. It could be a yearning for the innocence of childhood after all they've been through; or perhaps the "club" they're referring to is the US Marine Corps; or the club could even be seen as the United States, Mickey Mouse being quintessentially American.
It's the second reference to Mickey Mouse in the movie, the first coming when Hartman asks Pyle "What's this Mickey Mouse shit?" right before Pyle shoots him.
The title Full Metal Jacket refers not only to a bullet, but also to masturbation ("jack it").
Hartman's obscenity-laced tirades support that reading, as do the details about "Handjob," who is
discharged from service due to chronically jerking off.
Kubrick loved making references to his prior movies, and there are a few minutes near the end when in the background a black building burns, looking suspiciously like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The monolith in 2001 was the source of all human evolution, and here it burns.
When human beings kill each other, it's a giant leap backwards, it's devolution.
Friday, October 12, 2012
Once upon a time there was an Italian named Sergio Leone who was so fascinated by the mythology of the United States that he directed two meditations on that mythology.
The first, Once Upon a Time in the West, explored the birth of industry and the destruction of the way of life of the old West.
The second, Once Upon a Time in America, looked at early twentieth century poor Jewish immigrants and what amounted to the betrayal of the promise of America, the American dream.
In Leone's words, it's about "time, memory, and the cinema."
Both are among the greatest films I've ever seen.
Once Upon a Time in America had a tortured history. Leone originally envisioned splitting the movie into two three-hour parts, but the studio insisted it be a single film.
By the time it debuted at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, it was 3 hours and 49 minutes. That's the version that ran in Europe.
Against Leone's wishes, the movie was cut to 2 hours 19 minutes for its US run, and by all accounts that version is an incoherent mess.
Leone died of a heart attack in 1989, and many of those closest to him attribute heartbreak over the mutilation of his masterpiece as the cause. Once Upon a Time in America indeed proved be his last film.
The movie begins and ends with renditions of "God Bless America." In between, there's a complex flashback narrative covering three time periods: 1921, 1933, and 1968.
(Not so coincidentally, Once Upon a Time in the West was released in 1968.)
The movie begins in 1933. A woman is murdered by thugs in the opening scene, and the next scene sees low-rent Jewish gangster Noodles (Robert De Niro) taking comfort in an opium den.
There's a good argument that everything that happens after Noodles smokes opium is a dream -- Noodles dreaming the American dream. Leone himself endorsed this view.
A mist is a constant through all eras, which adds to the dreamlike quality of the film. It's all a foggy memory.
The movie plays on memory triggers. A phone rings twenty-two straight times, leading Noodles to ponder the night he phoned the police to rat on his friends.
One thing to note is that even if the 1968 part of the movie is literal and not Noodles's fantasy, the 1933 and 1921 portions of the movie are still merely memories.
Memory is a tricky thing, and Noodles might not recall the events from earlier eras exactly as they occurred.
Noodles remembers the last night of prohibition, the night he ratted.
Noodles's best friend Max (James Woods) has conceived a plan to rob the New York Federal Reserve, and in order to prevent Max from following through with the crazy scheme, Noodles informs the police about a liquor run he and his buddies are planning.
Noodles believes two years on a prohibition charge is better than decades for armed robbery. Things go very wrong and all his friends are killed.
As it turns out, Max orchestrated the disaster and faked his own death, but Noodles blames himself.
Everything that happens in the movie is a product of the guilt Noodles feels over responsibility for the deaths of his friends.
Come 1968, thirty-five years later, Noodles is summoned by the mysterious Secretary of Commerce for the United States.
It turns out that the secretary is Max, who faked his own death and stole $1,000,000 from a communal pot of money.
If this is an opium dream, it's a way for Noodles to clear his conscience. Max is the one to blame.
Max has gotten himself in trouble with bad people, and asks Noodles to kill him. Noodles refuses the job and finds redemption, at least in his fantasy version of reality.
For me the movie is at its best when it's 1921 and we see the future gangsters as kids.
These are poor kids living in the ghetto. Crime is a way out of poverty.
Leone's attention to period detail is mind-boggling, and every shot seems to be a painting. It's breathtaking.
As a kid, Noodles has a crush on a girl named Deborah, played by a young and beautiful Jennifer Connelly.
Deborah likes to dance, and to let Noodles spy on her as she does it. In 1968, she has become a successful actress.
What Noodles's friends have done with their lives come 1968 is strongly informed by what we see of them as children, again lending credence to the fantasy interpretation.
They have become what Noodles expected them to become, they are a product of his psyche.
Max fakes his own death, which is something he does in 1921 as well, tricking Noodles into believing for a moment that Max has drowned.
Max and Noodles's relationship is complicated and there's more than a hint of homoeroticism to it.
Max gets visibly annoyed when Noodles wants to spend time with women, and sleeps with every female that Noodles beds (and has trouble getting it up for the first girl in 1921).
It seems like the person Max really wants to screw is Noodles, though, again, these are Noodles's memories, and perhaps he's projecting his own feelings on to Max.
Time is a recurring theme. Watches and clocks abound.
Noodles even has a key to a clock that he's held for thirty-five years. He returns it to its owner in 1968, who re-starts the clock. Time has literally frozen in the interim.
The time and memory motifs are accentuated by Ennio Morricone's elegiac and nostalgic soundtrack, with "Deborah's Theme" providing the most direct link to the earlier Once Upon a Time in the West.
I've only seen the 3 hour 49 minute version of Once Upon a Time in America. Martin Scorsese is working on securing the rights to footage that would allow restoration of Leone's 4 hour 29 minute cut.
Scorsese himself paid homage to Leone in the Boardwalk Empire pilot, which includes a funeral procession for a bottle of alcohol on the eve of prohibition. In Once Upon a Time in America, it's a funeral procession for prohibition, the night before its demise.
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Sylvester Stallone and Rocky might have taken the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1976, but it's Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver that's remembered not only as the best movie of that year, but of the entire decade. Taxi Driver is also Scorsese's towering achievement, his greatest film, his dark, expressionist masterpiece.
Scorsese's follow-up to Mean Streets is the portrait of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a lonely man driven by his failures to make human connections (in his words, to become a person like other persons) and sexual frustrations to a violent, orgastic rampage that ironically leaves him a hero to the public.
De Niro as Travis is so disturbing, so real, he hardly seems to be acting at all, and this is the performance (after Mean Streets and Godfather II) that put De Niro on the map as one of his generation's greatest actors. De Niro so embodies Travis that if you were to see him on the street after watching the movie, you might run the other way. He's that good, that intense.
Travis is a New York City cabdriver who, due to insomnia, has begun working both day and night. In the opening shot, Travis's checker cab (among other things, Taxi Driver provides a glimpse of a pre-Giuliani Manhattan) emerges from a cloud of steam, and we're immediately aware that this is the taxi from hell.
Bernard Herrmann's jazzy soundtrack (which he completed the night he died) adds to the sense of isolation and pessimism that surround the film.
The opening sequence also sees the first of several close ups of Travis's eyes in the rearview mirror, and at many points in the movie we are seeing things not as they necessarily are, but through Travis's subjective point-of-view.
Travis claims to have been a Marine, but aside from what could be symptoms of post-traumatic stress, there's no corroborating evidence of his service; he certainly has no interest in firearms until the thought is implanted in his head as he's already begun breaking down mentally.
We see Travis walking the city streets, alone. He seems to have no friends.
While driving a cab, Travis is willing to travel anywhere and pick up anyone, including "spooks."
That's as explicit as Travis's racism gets, although his body language during other scenes implies that Travis does not like black people.
There's almost a sense of Travis as God's (or Satan's) avenging angel, and Travis foresees a "real rain" -- something of Biblical proportions -- coming to wash the "scum" off the streets. By the end of the movie Travis will be seen by himself and others as that metaphorical rain.
Travis spends his off hours going to porn movies. He tries to flirt with the concession stand attendant, who blows him off strongly, wanting nothing to do with this porn theater patron.
Travis watches the movie, but achieves no sexual release. This is an important detail as Scorsese has discussed what he calls "Deadly Sperm Build-up" ("DSB") in relation to Taxi Driver.
The DSB theory assumes that a male unable to find sexual release will explode violently. The massacre at the end is therefore Travis's orgasm (there's what amounts to a pre-ejaculation earlier in the movie, when Travis shoots and kills a would be robber).
Travis meets with other cabbies on break getting coffee at a diner, Travis sitting at a bit of a distance from the others. One of the cabbies suggests to Travis that he arm himself with a gun. While the cabbie makes the suggestion, we see Travis's drink bubbling, as he begins to lose his mind.
Travis has been watching (not in a healthy way) a woman named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) who works on the Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris) presidential campaign
We never learn Betsy's last name, which keeps an air of unreality about her, and we usually see her through Travis's idealized point-of-view. Shepherd offers a sly performance, with subtle hints that Betsy is a snob. For Travis, she's the Madonna portion of the Madonna-whore complex.
Travis works up the courage to walk into Palantine campaign headquarters and ask Betsy out. Travis tells Betsy she's the most beautiful woman he's ever seen, and although there's a sweetness in how Travis goes about this, there's also something obviously off about him.
Betsy is flattered, and either intrigued by Travis or slumming, she agrees to go out with him.
Travis jokes that he's there to protect Betsy. Betsy laughs. The joke won't seem so lighthearted come the end of the movie, when Travis "saves" Iris (Jodie Foster) a 12-year-old child prostitute.
Travis and Betsy meet for coffee, and Travis makes odd conversation, expressing hostility towards a male colleague of Betsy's from the Palantine campaign (Albert Brooks). Betsy agrees to go to a movie with Travis on his day off.
Travis picks up Palantine for a cab ride, and something is again obviously off about Travis, which Palantine picks up on.
Iris then briefly enters the cab, we get a close up of Travis's eyes, and her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel), pulls her out of the taxi. Palantine and Sport are now linked in Travis's mind.
Travis takes Betsy to a porno, and when she walks out of the theater, into a cab, and out of Travis's life, he doesn't understand what he did wrong.
Travis has no social intelligence, and as ridiculous as it is to take a date to a dirty movie, this was the era when Deep Throat was a mainstream success. When Travis tells Betsy he sees couples at these movies, it's probably the truth.
Travis uses a payphone to call Betsy to apologize, but she's through with him. As Betsy rejects Travis, the camera turns from him to a long hallway, much like a shot we'll see at the end during Travis's massacre. Viewers watching this scene can't help but feel sympathy for Travis.
With Travis's failure to make a lasting connection with Betsy, he becomes completely unhinged.
Travis picks up a passenger (played by Scorsese) who has been spying on his cheating wife, and the passenger speaks of what horrors a .44 magnum can do to "a woman's pussy." Sex and violence are linked again.
Travis turns his sights on Iris, the literal and also figurative whore of the Madonna-whore equation. Travis has idealized Iris as well (we don't learn her last name until post-massacre), and wishes to rescue her from prostitution. (This part of the plot is borrowed from John Ford's The Searchers.)
Travis buys several guns from a black market seller, with the camera eyeing the phallic guns as if they were penises.
Travis is seen getting into tremendous physical shape and taking target practice.
He goes to a porn movie and pantomimes firing a gun, again stressing the nexus between sex and violence.
In one of the most famous scenes in cinema history, Travis eyes himself in the mirror and delivers the "You talkin' to me" monologue.
De Niro improvised here, probably borrowing "You talkin' to me?" from the movie Shane, which contains similar dialogue.
Travis watches television while holding his gun fetishistically. He pushes the tv stand with his foot back-and-forth as if performing sexually, until the tv falls over and breaks in a metaphorical climax.
Travis buys time with Iris, who Sport explains is available for any sexual act Travis might desire. Travis does not want time with Iris for sex, but rather wishes to talk her into leaving Sport.
With Iris's blonde hair she looks like a younger version of Betsy, and Travis wants to remake Iris from whore to Madonna. Iris, however, wants to stay.
Travis shaves his head into a mohawk and heads to a rally to assassinate Palantine, but is thwarted by security.
Unable to get close enough to kill Palantine, Travis instead sets off to kill Sport and "rescue" Iris. Travis kills Sport and several others in a bloodbath, while suffering serious wounds himself.
Travis then tries to kill himself but the chamber is empty. Leaning against the wall, Travis pantomimes shooting himself in the head.
What follows is something some viewers interpret as Travis's fantasy, but I believe the better interpretation is literal.
Iris is returned to her parents, who write a letter of gratitude to Travis, who has become a public hero for rescuing the 12-year-old hooker.
Travis, who had been in a coma, recovers and returns to cab driving. He picks up Betsy as a passenger. Betsy's aware of Travis's "heroism" and seems to flirt with him, but Travis does not respond.
Betsy exits the cab and we get a final close-up of Travis's eyes.
Those eyes inform us that maybe not tonight, maybe not tomorrow, but one day Travis will go on another killing spree, because for this lonely, disturbed man, it's the only release he knows.
Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ is a movie that never received a fair shake. Its release in 1988 came amidst vehement (and in the case of Paris, France, violent) protest from Christian fundamentalist groups, with many theaters choosing not to screen the movie to avoid controversy.
It's too bad, because if they had given it a chance they would have seen a challenging but canonical interpretation of Jesus's life. I was so intrigued when viewing it a first time as an 18-year-old Jewish kid with no knowledge of Jesus that I spent the better part of the following year reading books about him. Temptation carries with it baggage that has limited if not prevented criticism of it for what it is, as opposed to looking at it through the prism of faith.
Temptation is based on the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazanzakis. In the movie, Jesus, played by an extraordinarily focused Willem Dafoe, is at first uncertain if not fearful of his role. He goes so far as to build crosses for Romans to crucify fellow Jews. With the help of his best friend and favorite disciple Judas Iscariot (Harvey Keitel), Jesus comes to accept his place as sacrificial lamb for humanity. As much as this is Jesus's story, it's also Judas's, and the entire film is anchored by Keitel's incredible performance.
Judas is a patriot, waiting for a Messiah to deliver the Jews from the hand of the Romans, by sword. The twist here is that Judas loves Jesus, and Jesus has to convince him to turn him into the Romans because that's Judas's role. Without Judas delivering Jesus, there's no sacrifice. Jesus explains to Judas that Judas carries a heavier load than Jesus's.
The source of the controversy comes from what happens after Jesus is placed on the cross. Jesus is visited by what he believes to be an angelic young girl, who tells him that the sacrifice is unnecessary, that God is sparing his life as he spared the life of Isaac, Abraham's son. Jesus believes the girl and comes down off the cross.
We then see Jesus leading a normal life. Among other things, he has sex with Mary Magdalene (the part of the screenplay that led to the protests).
Jesus eventually sees Paul publicly speaking about Paul's being blinded by Jesus on the road to Damascus (when he was Saul, he then changed his name). Jesus argues with him, claiming to be the person allegedly crucified. Paul says he doesn't care whether Jesus died on the cross, that it's unimportant whether the Christ story is true, what's significant is what it represents to people.
Jesus grows old and is visited by his former disciples, including an angry Judas (who feels betrayed by Jesus's non-sacrifice). Jesus explains that an angel told him the sacrifice was unnecessary, and Judas responds that the girl is no angel, but Satan. Jesus begs God to place him back on the cross, who grants his wish, and Jesus overcomes his final temptation.
Scorsese, who attended Catholic school growing up, insists his film is not blasphemous. The whole idea of Jesus is that he was at once all God and all human being, and subject to the temptations of this world. Jesus doesn't really sleep with Mary Magdalene, rather he's tempted by it; in the end, he resists the temptation to lead a normal life, and winds up back on the cross.
(It's possible to view Jesus as a raving lunatic who hallucinates the entire final temptation, though he'd have to have some powers of prophecy to hallucinate an accurate portrayal of Paul.)
Last Temptation is a flawed masterpiece. At 163 minutes, it's too long and drags during the second half, particularly when Jesus has his 40-day battle against Satan in the desert (which contains some almost laughably cheesy special effects).
Temptation is too long but still a great film. The atmosphere is like that in no prior Biblical epic, with Scorsese making you believe you're in Palestine in Jesus's time 2,000 years ago. This feeling is accentuated by Peter Gabriel's soundtrack, which enhances the mood of the film (I can't imagine the movie minus the soundtrack). As I mentioned earlier, Harvey Keitel steals the show as the red-headed Judas (there are a lot of deep reds in the movie, usually associated with turmoil), and Willem Dafoe is an intense, conflicted Jesus. Last Temptation doesn't rank with Scorsese's best, but it is at least as thought provoking as anything he's directed.