Sunday, September 27, 2009

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (or however it's spelled)

My Quentin Tarantino jones is fading.

Late to the party as always, but I finally got around to seeing INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS this week (I'm still not sure what the deal is with the wonky spelling). Despite the mostly glowing reviews, I'd shied away at first, worried it would follow the trend of recent QT films, ie. non-stop homages to other movies and directors and lots of "cool" flashy violence, none of which seemed to involve characters recognizable as actual human beings.

I thought RESERVOIR DOGS was brilliant when I first saw it (though I watched it again recently and didn't feel it aged well, perhaps a consequence of it having been imitated so often). I thought PULP FICTION was one of the best films of 1994 - and one of the best dark comedies ever. I loved JACKIE BROWN, in which it looked like QT was moving in a new and exciting direction, marrying his hotwired idiosyncratic direction and dialogue to a story about real people. Samuel Jackson's Ordell Robbie is funny and profane through much of the film, but by the end, he's scary and dangerous - as he should be (that's the film Jackson should have won an Oscar for. It's a beautifully nuanced and textured performance). Sure, there were references to other films (including borrowing the title song from 1972's ACROSS 110TH STREET), but they never got in the way of the story.

I found the two KILL BILL films diverting but empty. My friend, film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, perfectly summed them up when he said it was like having Tarantino show you scenes from his DVD collection at random. Look, there's a reference to Brian DePalma! Hey, it's got the old Shaw Bros. logo! Isn't that the theme song from LADY SNOWBLOOD? Wow, he's using Ennio Morricone's NAVAJO JOE score here!

Like the cliche about Chinese food, KILL BILL 1&2 mostly left me wanting to see a real movie an hour later. Or just watch LADY SNOWBLOOD again.

Then came DEATH PROOF, QT's half of GRINDHOUSE, which, despite some great car stunts and authentic '70s ambiance, seemed endlessly dull and talky, filled with dialogue no one would ever speak except in a Tarantino film (when was the last time you heard a sweet 20-something make a ZATOICHI reference in casual conversation?).

So I approached INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS with some trepidation. Well earned, as it turned out. I thought parts of it were brilliant in a meta sort of way, especially the idea of cinema as a metaphor for war ("Film is a battleground," director and WWII vet Sam Fuller used to say). The performances were almost uniformly excellent, especially Christoph Waltz (right) as Col. Hans Landa, "The Jew Hunter," who all but steals the film. That opening scene in a French farmhouse is a brilliant model of quiet suspense punctuated with humor. If it feels a little familiar, it's probably because it seems to be patterned after an early scene from Sergio Leone's THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, in which Lee Van Cleef quietly menaces a Mexican family on their sleepy farm. Tarantino even layers some Morricone on the soundtrack to cement the connection.

A scene in a basement tavern midway through the film is another terrific set piece, building the tension as a clever German officer become suspicious of a soldier at a nearby table whose accent is just a little off. It's a great scene, even if it doesn't make a lot of sense (why would a double agent plan a secret meeting with undercover Allied commandos in a rathskeller that just might be full of German soldiers at the time?)

Not that I expected the film to be much concerned with verisimilitude. It begins with the title card "Once upon a time in Occupied France ...." so we know right away what we're getting into. Certainly, 64 years later, there's no reason not to make a fairy tale about WWII, or, more accurately, about WWII movies (though the nod is to Leone as well). The film never really overtly references the Holocaust though, and wisely so. The whole ridiculous souffle would collapse in the context of that reality. Instead, we have a troop of mostly Jewish-American commandos killing, scalping and mutilating German soldiers as revenge for the generic crime of "killing Jews."

Despite the title, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS doesn't really spend much time with the commandos themselves. And what we see is pretty thin. They're essentially ciphers led by a caricature, Brad Pitt as "Lt. Aldo Raine." The only one we see much of is Sgt. "Donny" Donowitz, played by HOSTEL director Eli Roth (in fact, we see too much of him, while real actors like Til Schweiger are mostly wasted in minor roles). In an early scene, Roth's character graphically beats a helpless German soldier to death with a baseball bat, and then cheers as if it were a home run at Yankee Stadium. All that's missing is a 1940's-era high-five with his fellow GIs. Are we supposed to laugh at this? Cheer him on? Should we be equally amused when Pitt uses a bowie knife to carve a swastika into the forehead of a pleading prisoner who's already given them the information they want? (I'm curious how the film plays in Germany). Is that sort of cruelty on the part of the film's ostensible heroes meant to be entertaining? Invigorating? Instead, it reeked to me of the phony fanboy violence so many of Tarantino's imitators have indulged in for the last 15 years.

It's obvious Tarantino is aware of these ironies. He gives the doomed soldier some moments of silent bravery before the bat connects with his skull, and a later scene has a German audience cheering and laughing at a propaganda film depicting American soldiers being gunned down by a German sniper. But is INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS "morally complicated," as QT maintains in interviews? Or just "morally bankrupt," as my former colleague Stephen Whitty would have it? I'm leaning toward the latter.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Almost a book

Also, I'll be dusting off and updating the site over the next couple months. If you have any suggestions for something you'd like to see more (or less) of there, or have ideas for possible additional features, drop me a note either here or there (I'll be turning comment moderation back on for this one. I'm no fool).

Monday, September 14, 2009

Jim Carroll 1949-2009

Teddy sniffing glue, he was 12 years old
Fell from the roof on East Two-nine
Cathy was 11 when she pulled the plug
On 26 reds and a bottle of wine
Bobby got leukemia, 14 years old
He looked like 65 when he died
He was a friend of mine

Those are people who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died

– Jim Carroll, "People Who Died"

Who would have thought a punk song reciting a litany of tragic deaths could be so macabre and touching at the same time?

"People Who Died" was the best-known song from Jim Carroll's 1980 album "Catholic Boy," and sadly it's the one that springs to mind after hearing of his death from a heart attack Sept. 11 at age 60. A privileged prep school kid and star athlete who fell into heroin addiction and gay hustling before resurrecting himself as a poet and punk rocker, Carroll wrote songs about surviving. There's nothing ironic about "People Who Died." All the names belong to real people, and the song is Carroll's tribute to them. He lived the same lives they did. He just lived long enough to tell about it.

Most people know Carroll - if at all - from the 1995 film THE BASKETBALL DIARIES, based on his 1978 autobiography of the same name (Leonardo Di Caprio played him in the film). In addition to two memoirs, Carroll published six books of poetry. And although he made a half dozen albums, his first, "Catholic Boy," is the rawest expression of his talent. The playing isn't always inspired (it sometime sounds a little too much generic bar band proto-punk), but the lyrics snap and tear. I haven't listened to the album in years (I only have it on vinyl), but complete verses are still lodged in my memory.

For example, from the title song:

"I make angels dance and drop to their knees
When I enter a church the feet of statues bleed
I understand the fate of all my enemies
Just like Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane ....
I was a Catholic Boy
Redeemed through pain, not through joy."

Why Abel Ferrara didn't work this into the soundtrack of BAD LIEUTENANT will always be a mystery to me.

Carroll's history and past lives are well documented. He hung out with Andy Warhol, partied with Lou Reed and was close friends with Patti Smith, who encouraged his music. Allegedly, it's Carroll's voice that can be heard during between-song chatter on The Velvet Underground's classic "Live at Max's Kansas City" album from 1970, inquiring after some Tuinals and a double Pernod. Though he'd kicked heroin in 1973 after nearly 10 years (he'd started at age 13), Carroll was always gaunt and pale, and had become even more skeletal and haunted in recent years. If anyone had been casting a film about the last years of noir writer Cornell Woolrich, they would have needed to look no further.

But what I'll always remember Carroll best for is a poetry reading he gave at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., in 1983. The buzz over his first two albums had died out and he was still in the studio recording the third, so he'd faded from public view. The reading was held in a tiny room in the old College Avenue Student Center, about 30 chairs in all, only half of which were occupied when he took the small stage. To everyone's surprise, he brought along Lenny Kaye, guitarist with the Patti Smith Group (and a Rutgers grad), who'd been working with him in the studio that afternoon.

After reading several poems (the one I remember best was titled "Your Clitoris," the final lines being "Your clitoris/Is a monument/To my boredom"), Carroll brought Kaye on stage. He plugged his electric guitar into a small amp and they proceeded to premiere songs from the still-in-progress album, "I Write Your Name." This to a room of 15 people, Carroll gripping the mike and prowling the stage, Kaye playing scorching guitar behind him through a single tiny amp. When the power outlet to the stage blew out with the overload, Carroll continued to sing a cappella, moving out into the audience, snarling his lyrics, any dividing line between poet and rocker long shattered. It was one of the seven top music moments of my life.

**** Above, Patti Smith, left, and Jim Carroll in 1969. Photo by Wren D'Antonio.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Just an American Boy

It's a brief scene, barely four minutes long, but it's one of the most memorable in American film.

A slowly unraveling New York City cab driver (Robert De Niro) meets a sleazy, motor-mouthed gun dealer in a cheap hotel room. The dealer reels off the attributes of his various armaments (".380 Walther ... isn't that a little honey?") while the camera lovingly lingers on all that gleaming steel and wood. De Niro's character buys four guns and accoutrements, to the tune of $900. But even while the dealer's packing them up in a handy gym bag, he continues a steady stream of pitches for other contraband ("Crystal meth? I can get you crystal meth. Nitrous oxide, how about that?").

The movie of course, is Martin Scorsese's 1976 classic TAXI DRIVER, and the scene offers one of the few laughs in the film. The dealer - referred to as "Easy Andy, the Traveling Salesman" - is played by Scorsese's friend and collaborator Steven Prince, a non-actor whom the director brought in for a cameo, and in doing so immortalized in film history. But Scorsese wasn't done with him. The following year he made Prince the subject of a documentary, AMERICAN BOY, filmed over the course of a single evening at the L.A. home of actor and Scorsese regular George Memmoli.

Shot handheld by cinematographer Michael Chapman (who also lensed TAXI DRIVER), the documentary is essentially 55 minutes of unfiltered Prince, interspersed with home movies and photos from his childhood. He talks about being a 21-year-old road manager for Neil Diamond, a nightclub and concert promoter and all-around show business jack-of-all-trades. He speaks equally candidly about his years as a heroin addict, recounting an incident where a woman overdosed at a shooting gallery and he revived her with an adrenaline shot to the heart, a story Quentin Tarantino borrowed in its entirety for a scene in PULP FICTION. Most harrowingly, Prince recalls shooting a man to death at a Barstow, Calif., gas station, where he worked during an Easter vacation from college.

For many years, AMERICAN BOY has been Scorsese's lost film. It didn't get a theatrical release and, outside of poor-quality bootlegs, hasn't been available on home video since the days of laserdisc. Plenty of filmmakers have seen it though. In addition to Tarantino's lift, director Richard Linklater got Prince to repeat the gas station story verbatim for his 2001 digitally rotoscoped film WAKING LIFE.

For the last year, AMERICAN BOY has been available in its entirety on YouTube, divided into six parts. It's compulsive - and compelling - viewing, especially for its behind-the-scenes look at Scorsese and company (in addition to Memmoli and Chapman, also visible on screen is MEAN STREETS and RAGING BULL co-writer Mardik Martin). It's of a piece with Scorsese's 1974 doc ITALIANAMERICAN, and was often paired with it at film festivals.

Thirty years later comes director Tommy Pallotta's follow-up, AMERICAN PRINCE. A sometime Linklater collaborator, Pallotta stumbled upon Prince by accident in Austin, Texas, a couple years back. Pallotta befriended Prince - who now works as a general contractor and manages a medical marijuana shop - and eventually convinced him to sit for another filmed storytelling session.

As opposed to the rail-thin, hollow-eyed Prince of 1977, the 2009 version is amazingly healthy-looking and youthful (he's 61). His nasal New York whine has softened somewhat, but he's as animated as ever when it comes to talking about his eventful life, his friendship with Scorsese and Band frontman Robbie Robertson (at one point all three shared a house on Los Angeles' Mulholland Drive) and his own responses to the 1978 documentary. He also dishes some less-than-flattering stories, especially one about star Liza Minnelli having affairs with both Scorsese and De Niro while shooting 1977's NEW YORK, NEW YORK, a film Prince appeared in and crewed on.

Without a distributor or theatrical release (or rights clearances), Pallotta's film has been kicking around on the web, and is on-and-off YouTube (currently on, you can see it here).

The two films are excellent companion pieces. Both are light on biographical details, aside from the brief unconnected anecdotes Prince relates about his childhood and parents, but the stories speak for themselves (watch BOY first though, as Pallotta's film contains spoilers for stories in the original documentary). Seen back-to-back, they're amazing time capsules as well as oral histories. And for anyone interested in Scorsese or Hollywood in the 1970s, they're required viewing.