The single best American fiction film of the past 25 years

(Note: It's a hugely limiting question--if I were to pick the single best film of the past 25 years, it wouldn't be American at all, but this film, presently showing at this film festival (catch it if you can, I urge you).)

From Andy Horbal's film blog No More Marriages:

What is the single best American fiction film made during the last 25 years?


This is a riff on the very similar poll that the New York Times conducted in regards to books a few months ago. You're on your own defining "American," "fiction," and "last 25 years," but I'm going to insist on that word single. It's this restriction that makes this question so interesting to me.


Road to Guantanamo (Michael Winterbottom, 200)

Michael Winterbottom's Road to Guantanamo (2006) is terrific, a scathing indictment of the US Government's malevolently nebulous policy on terrorist detainees.

These aren't the worse prison conditions I've ever seen; they aren't quite concentration camps, geared towards systematic genocide. And even as detention facilities I could think of worse--say, Filipino prisons where the fellow prisoners prey on each other as much as the guards do (Mario O'Hara's Bulaklak ng City Jail (Flowers of the City Jail, 1985) comes to mind). But that a developed, supposedly advanced country organized this--worse, one that proposes to be a vanguard of democratic principles--the monumental scale of the hypocrisy, that's the real shocker, the true obscenity (I think it can be argued that this is mostly the Republican's doing--but then, where were the Democrats?).

I don't have a problem with the three youths not quite registering onscreen--truth is, they come off as shallow at first, they don't seem worth committing to memory; it's when they're being dehumanized and treated worse than animals that their identities, their very humanity, comes to fore (In a way, the film's title is brilliantly chosen, evoking as it does the Cosby-Hope "Road" movies--this is a lark, an adventure gone horribly wrong).

I don't have a problem with their motives being not that clear either--I don't think their guilt is the point, and I believe Winterbottom took care to leave their reasons as vague as they themselves allowed it to be. The point is the treatment of these prisoners; guilty or not guilty, they don't deserve this treatment, not from a civilized nation.

And that I suppose is yet another point--that with Guantanamo, the United States (or at least this Republican version of it (with the Democrats in absentia)) reveals itself as less than civilized. The early interrogations seemed not only sadistic, but incredibly inept--they appear to have been staged not to gather information but to allow these amateurs (in military uniform instead of the clothes of real intelligence operatives (those appear later, with subtler techniques)) a venue for venting their anger at the people responsible for 9/11. It's the United States trying to get a bit of its own back, and as a result perpetuating the cycle of violence.

Arguably, Winterbottom's use of both documentary and drama--re-enactments mixed with interviews of the actual detainees--is a weakness, taking away from the intensity of the re-enactments, but it does have one effect that may not be possible any other way: looking at the interviewees, it was a shock to realize that the man speaking in front of me was the smooth-faced, callow youth in the re-enactments. You wonder: what happened to him (beyond the obvious fact that, yes, they used actors (mostly non-professional) for the re-enactments)? The cliche 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger' pops up, but seeing this contrast of faces, you feel as if you've witnessed the actual, working principle; you know these men have grown into their present strength. They looked like unlikely material for revolutionaries then; they seem more ready to stand up and struggle now--and that's the real danger of these detention camps.

It's interesting that Winterbottom includes scenes of the intelligence people trying to undercut the case for the detainess' innocence; they make a fairly good job of it too, or as good as they can (the three were released without any conviction, two years after they'd been captured). You get the sense that Winterbottom doesn't want to whitewash these youths, that he includes their flaws and police records and all, and at such a time--late in the film--when it would be most damaging (we've taken to them, we trust them, and it turns out they might be guilty after all?). It's arguably propaganda, but not simplistic propaganda; Winterbottom's smart enough to present the prosecution's case as well.

All in all, it's as good a film, I suspect, as we're going to get on the subject for some time. If the film hasn't made a bigger splash, well, I suspect I know the reason why: no one is eager to hear an unpleasant, unwanted truth.


Hollywoodland (Allen Coulter, 2006)

Allen Coulter's Hollywoodland is good, but good as a collection of performances than an actual thriller, and far better as the story of George Reeves than a noir. Adrien Brody's a terrific actor, but when someone compared him to Ralph Meeker, I wanted to laugh (okay, it was probably meant to be ironic--but I still wanted to laugh); the rest of his co-actors don't really make much of an impression (although Diane Lane makes a devastatingly sexy elder matron). 

It's when the movie goes into flashbacks that it really comes to life, and it's amazing that Ben Affleck, of all people, comes through best here. He probably doesn't capture the real Reeves (I haven't seen all that many episodes of the show, just enough to get a faint impression) so much as he creates a Reeves we can all identify with--ambitious, not a bit unscrupulous, charming nevertheless, and overall--and this is the tragedy of his life--haunted by the sense that he's not really as good as he makes himself out to be.

He does get to humanize what's essentially a cardboard character and a two-bit actor's interpretation of it: just before jumping into action in a children's party, he looks down to his crotch and asks (with apparently sincere interest) "does my penis show?" During the show's filming, he grabs Lois Lane and starts humping her saying "Here's the Man of Steel!" and "More powerful than a locomotive;" the actor playing Perry White makes his entrance and can only say "Great Ceasar's Ghost!" Affleck's Reeves gives us a hint of the things an adult, playing what's essentially an absurd children's show character, might think or feel underneath the relentlessly wholesome exterior. 

But the real thrill is seeing this man of flab (Affleck bulked up for the role) step into the costume of the Man of Steel, and somehow, as if by magic, his back straightens, his face brightens, and he seems to put on an air of invincibility--this was the kind of transformation I saw Chistopher Reeve do in his Superman movies and what I failed to see Brandon Routh fail to do in his Superman movie (Routh seems incapable of slouching, much less transforming); it's something of a treat for Affleck to throw in that same conceit here, with his small-screen Superman, that the costume--that hot, smelly, heavy outfit Reeves hated so much--somehow has the power to change someone, even if only for a time.

The picture isn't crazy--it doesn't have the exuberant sense of style or spirit of experimentation of De Palma's The Black Dahlia (I know, I'm in the minority on this)--but through Affleck (I still can't get over it) it does tell the story of one man's low meteoric trajectory. This is easily the best, most moving Superman film I've ever seen. Well, maybe not--I still have a weakness for Richard Lester's funny, sexually sophisticated Superman 2--but I'd say this comes a close second. And Affleck, after Reeves in Superman 2, is easily the best Superman I've ever seen.


Sven Nykvist 1922 - 2006

Cinematographer Sven Nykvist dies at 83

It's hard to imagine the great cinema of the '60s--or any great cinema, for that matter--without the work of Nykvist; he's practically defined the look of the period for many of us, particularly the kind of spiritually austere, introspective psychodrama he and filmmaker Ingmar Bergman were working on at this time. From the "Trilogy of Faith" (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence), to the experimental Persona, to the horror-film Hour of the Wolf to the great Shame (my favorite of his films of this period), he's lit many a classic with that unique frosted-glass look of his, as if sunlight was cold instead of warm; as if it were filtered through a chilled windowpane, darkly.

Maybe the single most amazing trait of Nykvist's was that he achieved many of those magical effects through mostly simple techniques; as Bergman once said of the man in Bergman on Bergman: "All he needs to work is three lamps and a little greaseproof paper." He could in effect sweep aside all the technical paraphernalia associated with his trade, home in on the dramatic essence of the scene, and capture it on film for his director. 

He worked for other directors, most notably Roman Polanski (The Tenant), Woody Allen (Crimes and Misdemeanors), Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being); his finest non-Bergman work is arguably Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice, with its final six-minute shot (the first take of which had famously jammed, requiring a very expensive reconstruction and reshoot). If Nykvist had been known only for these films, he'd probably be considered a great cinematographer; as is, he is legend. The world is all the dimmer without him.

The Black Dahlia--masterpiece or monstrosity?

Brian De Palma's latest film The Black Dahlia is taking a lot of flak from critics, even traditional De Palma fans. Is it one of the worst films of the year or one of the most interesting? Matt Zoller Seitz's take on the film. The comments are worth reading too, I think (shameless bit of self-promotion, there).


Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock, 1972)

Revisited Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock, 1972), and noted with a shock that this was written by Anthony Shaffer (Why did I forget that? Has it been that long since I've seen it?).

Noted with surprise what the film's really all about--the possibility or impossibility of conducting a normal, healthy relationship between men and women. Couples abound, and even the first victim--or first character we come to know who becomes a victim--heads a marriage arranging service (the putative hero describes himself as one of her failures--her ex-husband, Richard Blaney (Jon Finch). Mr. and Mrs. Blaney's is an unhappy but not necessarily abnormal marriage: two basically decent people whose relationship couldn't survive the pressures of a (as Richard puts it) 'run of bad luck.' Their dinner together establishes that they do care for each other, but even caring can't stop the man from losing his temper.

Running counterpoint is Blaney's relationship with Babs, a barmaid he works with; their relationship is more easygoing and carnal, possibly because Babs is more at Richard's level (Mrs. Blaney seems too classy for him; possibly some upper-middle class princess he had dazzled with his military record). She trusts him too; when he presents his case for innocence, the facts as they are aren't too convincing; it's his likeability--and her affection for him--that wins her over. I don't know if it's intentional or not, but it's possible Blaney pushed her wife away because he thought she was too good for him; it's his screwed-up yet likeable sense of integrity that's doing him wrong.

Set that relatively healthy relationship alongside the more tense, more Hitchcockian Porters. Billie Whitelaw as Hetty Porter is positively full of sensible, if selfish, common sense, and she's furious at her husband's impulsive act of bringing a hunted criminal to their home (never mind if he's an old war buddy). They're moneyed, classy, well-traveled, and about as warm and compassionate (Hitchcock just loves dysfunctional upper-middle-class couples); any decent impulses in them reside in the husband (played by Clive Swift), who, when push comes to shove, readily gives in to his wife.

Maybe the oddest couple in the picture is Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) and his wife. They seem to be pretty much normal, but the wife insists on torturing her husband with baroque dishes out of a gourmet cookbook. It's a wonderfully odd love, with her getting off on the unholy messes she serves on silver platters, and him going through all kinds of contortions (sneaking the soup back in the serving bowl, spitting a pig's foot bone on his plate) to avoid said concotions--you might say they communicate through a kind of gastronomical S & M.

What makes it all funnier is how dated the film's notion of weird food is--duck with cherry sauce? Pig's feet? Child's play (she even serves a 'margarita'--a drink made of tequila, triple-sec, lime, and salt--menu items that are almost de rigeur in Hard Rock Cafe or Ruby Tuesday (double irony, they're just as indigestible when served in those places)).

All of which contrast with Barry Foster as the charming Robert Rusk. He's all friendly bluster and affable respectability, and he seems to have a close relationship with his mother (alarm bells going off in Hitchock afficionados' minds), but it's his otherwise inability to have a normal sexual relationship with a woman that sets this whole film going.

Tonya J: "Maybe the oddest couple in the picture is Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) and his wife. They seem to be pretty much normal, but the wife insists on torturing her husband with baroque dishes out of a gourmet cookbook."

Love those scenes.

What's so sad about the food is that I doubt if anyone really thought it grotesque--I think Hitchcock is sophisticated enough to enjoy such fare (I suppose I need to read his biography to really find out). The problem may be that she seems to be applying English-style cooking to the dishes, boiling them and heating them until  it all seems to have been reduced to the same uniformly muddy grey. Except the Margarita, of course, which looks a bit like baby pee.


Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993), Battleground (Brian Henson, 2006)

Finally convinced the kids that Groundhog Day might actually be worth watching (everytime I mentioned the title in the past their faces made this look, as if they had to eat fried toenails). They sat down quiet long enough to reach the point when Murray repeats the day for the first time, then they were hooked--'Why's that happening? When will he stop repeating himself? How can he get out of it?' Ultimately, they liked it, but it was a damned hard sell, and part of the pleasure is in finally saying 'Told you it was good.'

Which made me ask myself: what's the appeal of this picture? Partly I think it's seeing a metaphysical question--an idle one at that--made real (what if you had to repeat a day over and over again?); partly it's seeing a man wield the powers of god--or a god, anyway; partly it's the pleasure of watching Murray riff for the length of a picture on a single comic premise and all its surprisingly complex consequences, winning Andie McDowell (who is unusually lively and charming here) as first prize.

The younger pointed out the obvious right off: "He'll keep repeating till he gets his act together." But the film goes through so many permutations, and does so in so inventive a manner, that you forget the ending's inevitability, or choose to forget that ending, and allow yourself to be charmed by it when it finally happens. That's the film's achievement, I think.

Finally saw Brian Henson's "Battleground," the premiere episode of Stephen King's Nightmares and Dreamscapes, with a Richard Christian Matheson (son of THE Richard Matheson) script from a story by Stephen King. Better than I expected, with the nice conceit that not a single word of dialogue was spoken (mostly grunts and all), and that for a reasonable amount of time, the assailants are more suggested than shown, and that they retain their essential toyness.

I do wish they had shown the camp described by King's story, complete witha medic treating the wounded. And that the ending wasn't so attenuated. And that the 'special with this box' addition had a recognizable shape--not some obscure backpack--and that the classic mushroom cloud had been achieved.

I can see a problem with this series compared to, say the Masters of Horror series--that has some of the best names in the business (Carpenter, Gordon, Cohen, Dante, McNaughton, Hooper) working with a variety of writers, this one has some lesser filmmakers (Rob Bowman, Brian Henson) working on the stories of just one writer. You get less visual and verbal variety all around. At least "Battleground" was satisfying--but it had a good premise, of course, and a nice twist ending.


Coconut oil helps against heart disease, HIV

Now this is the view of a few experts; it isn't accepted by the establishment yet, I imagine, but it's interesting food for thought...

Docs support VCO (Virgin Coconut Oil)


Two by Hubert Cornfield: The Night of the Following Day (1968); Pressure Point (1962)

The Night of the Following Day (1968)--director Hubert Cornfield in the DVD commentary notes that this was a property Kubrick wanted to get for his Hollywood debut (but couldn't, forcing him to do The Killing instead, leaving Cornfield to finally adapt it years later). It's Brando at his least mannerly brooding best, and he's matched point-for-point by Rita Moreno as his junkie girlfriend (they have this marvelous scene together where he walks in and tries to calm down her jealous rage, and the speed and surprise with which he does it is startling), and by Richard Boone as his psychopathic colleague (it isn't so much the sadistic, irrational things Boone does, really, as it is the playful manner in which he does them).

Maybe the film's most notable for the atmosphere Cornfield evokes, more moody and surreal than in your standard-issue crime caper. The camera seems often handheld, in a state of free-floating anxiety, much like Polanski's in Knife in the Water and Repulsion, as ready to catch a stray psychological nuance as catch plot details.

The ending should really be a surprise and a twist, but considering the state of one's consciousness as you sit through it--the sense of sitting half-awake through a nightmare laced with odd details (like Brando and Moreno naked in a sensual clinch, fading in and out of the big screen; or the Magrittelike man in raincoat and bowler walking across the beach); the lighting being consistently half-darkened, as if the cinematographer was intensely reluctant to intrude into your drowsiness--that particular ending ultimately comes across as the only natural, inevitable direction the picture can take.

Pressure Point (1962) is, I think, simultaneously worse and much better than that later film. It's yoked with Stanley Kramer as producer, and he probably wanted the speeches clear and morally defensible, but Cornfield (I'm guessing) undercuts Kramer's twelve-step agenda with wild hallucinations and dream sequences, and strange transitions from reality to memory and back (a boy speaking in a man's voice, or a camera that swoops up and down, like a hawk at its prey) that move too smoothly not to make you suspect someone with a real visual imagination was at work.
Best of all is an incredible Bobby Darin playing one of the most persuasive and charismatic sociopaths I've ever seen, matched against a grim Sidney Poitier who feels not a little intimidated by the man's formidable intensity. And for all its melodramatic sturm und drang, I'd dare anyone to find a better or quieter scene of subtly sketched racial hypocrisy than Poitier's showdown with his white bosses over Darin's possible release.

I might add, googling around, that Richard Boone apparently directed parts of The Night of the Following Day, and that Stanley Kramer directed the sandwich scenes that turned Pressure Point into one long flashback (no question who did who there--it goes from flat to interesting back to being flat, with music that shifts from melodramatic to strange back to melodrama).

The final line, describing the fate of Darin's character, is a total sellout: it undercuts the awful power of Cornfield's final scene (where the forces of 'evil' hold sway), and injects a tinpan note of hope into the whole thing (very Kramerlike, I might add).

Still can't get over the uncanny resemblance between Darin and Spacy; no wonder the latter obsessed over the former. And I'll bet Spacey modeled much of his acting style on Darin's in this picture.


Espiritu de la colmena (Spirit of the Beehive, Victor Erice, 1973)

First saw Victor Erice's Espiritu de la colmen (Spirit of the Beehive, 1973) maybe seven or so years ago, on a poor video projection with a standing crowd in the way, and it looked impressive, but I wasn't moved--which was a pity; in a thirty-three year career, Erice has made only one film a decade, starting with this one (he makes Terence Malick look prolific). Saw it again in TCM recently (I just caught it by accident) and it's just tremendous--he plays with the metaphor of the Frankenstein creature, transforming Shelley's myth of hubris and failed responsibility into one of the lonely outsider (which is more in line with Whale's vision, and with what kids readily respond to). Over that is the metaphor of the beehive, which Erice has Fernando Feran Gomez looking at repeatedly like a god observing his subjects under glass. And over that is the developing consciousness of the children, which sees all through enchanted eyes, transforming the Spanish countryside into a fantastic dreamscape.

It draws from disparate sources: Spanish political history, Grimm fairy tales, Mary Shelly's novel, and I would say Swift in Gulliver mode (the creature is to the girls as the girls--or the father--is to the bees; perception shaped or modified by perspective), and I suspect Rene Clement's Forbidden Games. In turn, it has probably influenced films like Cinema Paradiso (a coarser, more sentimental treatise on the power of the cinema to fascinate the youth), My Neighbor Totoro (two girls exploring a lovely countryside, and encountering a mysterious figure (both have their threads of pathos, which the creators take in different directions)), much of present-day Iranian cinema (especially those that deal with children) and even The Shining (dysfunctional family in a large habitat; plus a shot of Ana at the typewriter, hearing a strange noise, moving away (along with the camera) from the typewriter into a series of doorways, to glimpse something terrifying behind a closed door). 

 Incredible complexity, and yet it comes across as hushed, simple, moving: you choose to see the connections if you so wish, but it works supremely well as the story of a young girl who wishes to make a friend and finds one, with all the attendant consequences.

Some notes: Erice rhymes and repeats images, sounds, textures, emotions. The day after the children watch Frankenstein, a schoolteacher unveils the figure of a man without internal organs; her lesson consisted of the kids putting the correct organs in place, a schoolroom parody of Dr. Frankenstein's work method. The sequence ends with Ana putting in the crucial component--the eyes--with which the figure, previously a collection of colored cardbored cutouts, suddenly acquires life and expression and perhaps even a soul. Ana looks on her creation with an ambigiuous expression: just what is she feeling? Longing? Fear? Pride? A masterful example of child acting (the actress, incidentally, made just one other film). The mother writes to a French lover, posts the letter at a drop box by a train's side, spots a handsome young man seated in a cabin. When her husband prepares for bed, the camera remains focused on the mother's face as she pretends to sleep, the father heard clomping around much as Frankenstein's creature does; when he finally climbs into bed, we hear a train whistle, and we're almost certain we know what--or who--she's thinking about.

Erice creates incredible imagery (with the help of the great Luis Cuadrado, who started to go blind during this production, and took his life in 1980). There's one that stays with me, even if it has little other significance: the father comes out of the house, the day just dawning, the the windows still lit, the house beautifully framed in the strengthening light; we follow him as he crosses down the path to the fields beyond and suddenly it's another composition, this time of the sun breaking over the horizon, the camera moving slowly past some tree branches to get a better view.

I read a college website that considers Ana a representation of the innocent Republicans, the older Isabel a representation of the corrupt, materialistic Nationalists. Possible, but I can't help but recoil from such bald symbolism. Isabel tells lies and teases Ana, but they both seem equally innocent, equally caught up in their childhood world (Isabel just seems more capable of using it to her own ends). One startling image of her developing beyond childhood is a scene of her with the cat. She strokes it lovingly, then in a fit of childish pique or excess affection, squeezes it; it hisses and bites her finger. She goes to the mirror and, looking at her face, spreads the blood across her lips. Remarkable image of oncoming sexuality, with the blood on her lips forshadowing the blood that will come forth another time. 

This is considered by some the greatest film ever to come out of Spain. I don't know if I disagree; at the very least, I think I understand where such people are coming from.