Monday, December 22, 2008

Gus's New Groove: "Paranoid Park"

I was a little confused when I first heard about Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park, because it sounded like it was done in the same style he used in Gerry, Elephant and Last Days. Thing is, those movies were always discussed as a trilogy, the "death trilogy," so I was wondering what was up with there now being a fourth. I really, truly think that Elephant and Last Days are great films, but it seemed like Van Sant had took the style as far as it could go. All three films are slow, sparse and even minimalistic, with little dialogue, often shot in long takes where little "action" happens. As much as I love them, I wanted Van Sant to move on... I couldn't imagine the flashy stylist of Drugstore Cowboy making movies like this for the rest of his career.

So I'm pleased to report that Paranoid Park is something new, a kind of blend of the older, flashier, expressionist Van Sant with the newer, slower, more meditative Van Sant. Paranoid Park still has the slow, poetic feel of his last few films, but with a stronger narrative thrust, more dialogue, more music. And the effect is much different.

Elephant and Last Days were, I believe, both films about the unknowability of their subjects. The characters and stories were distant and deliberately unexplained. Elephant was about a Columbine-esque school shooting, but provided no answers for why the killers did what they did. Last Days is about the death of a Kurt Cobain-like rock star, but gives him no dialogue of substance, and even skips over his actual death, just showing his corpse at the end and not even making it clear that it was suicide. The films are about their own lack of insight.

Paranoid Park, though it too deals with death, is a much more intimate film. The pace here allows us to get into the head of the main character, Alex, a quiet teenager who is being eaten apart by guilt for reasons that only gradually become clear. Whereas the "Death Trilogy" films keep the characters at arms length, here Van Sant gives us access to Alex, via a confession he reads as the film's narration. Though slow and meditative like the other films, they created empty external worlds, and this one creates a rich internal life. The long, quiet tracking shots and extended periods without action establish a similarly somber mood to the "Death Trilogy," but also serve to contrast with the internal drama of the film.

After 3 films that were (for lack of a better word) realistic in their depiction of every day life, with a lack of visual flash and a kind of objective regard for the events of the story, Van Sant ended Last Days with a bizarrely expressionist touch: we see what appears to be the soul of the protagonist climbing a ladder up to heaven. And I think that was a sign from Van Sant to his audience that he wasn't going to be so matter-of-fact any more, and was going to throw a little more flash in. Paranoid Park ain't exactly Goodfellas, but it's more expressionist than the "Death Trilogy," where the visuals are more influenced by the emotions of the film.

Actually, even though this film is certainly not everyone's cup of tea, it's a lot more accessible than his last few films. Beyond the fact that there is a stronger narrative with more dialogue here, there's also a unexpected amount of humor and warmth. Even though we're often watching the seemingly innocuous day-to-day moments of the protagonist, there's a certain amount of observational humor, where we laugh because we recognize moments from our daily lives: Alex bobbing his head to some rap music while driving around in his mom's car, Alex's mom's reaction to an obvious but seemingly unimportant lie he tells her. Best of all is a scene, maybe 2 minutes in length, where Alex's little brother quotes and acts out a bunch of scenes from Napoleon Dynamite to him. I mean, we've all been there a million times, but I can't remember ever seeing it in a movie before.

I don't think this is a great film, it lacks the uncompromisingly single-minded vision and message of Elephant and Last Days, but it's still a damn good one. Van Sant captures the lives of outsiders better than anyone else, and like in Elephant shows an affinity for capturing teenage life in all its mundane glory. This is probably too slow of a movie for most teenagers, but I imagine those with artier tastes might really connect with the material.

This year also brought us Van Sant's Milk, which was entertaining and showed that he stills knows how to make a mainstream entertainment, but had a lot of the typical biopic flaws, including trying to cram too much story in to too little time, making some of the movie feel underdeveloped. It displays great filmmaking, but is far from a great film. Paranoid Park falls short of his best work, too, but I think represents the greater achievement. It shows the style he developed in the "Death Trilogy" evolving into something new, something more emotional and expressionistic. And if he keeps working on it, I think he might really turn out something great next time.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Memo from Dan to "Once Upon a Time in America": What the Fuck's Up With the Dump Truck?

So I'm on board with the theory that the 1960's sequences in Once Upon a Time in America are just an opium induced fantasy going through Robert De Niro's mind back in the 30's. Anachronisms be damned, I don't care if De Niro would have no way of knowing about TV or the music of the Beatles. It works as a beautiful expression of De Niro's feelings of guilt, his conflicted feelings towards James Woods' character, his nostalgia, etc etc. It explains why one character doesn't seemed to have aged much in 35 years, while everyone else looks ancient. It explains why one character's child looks exactly as they did when they were young. And it explains why no explanation is given for what happened to De Niro during the 35 years the film skips.

I think it's pretty sweet that a 4 hour long gangster movie ends in ambiguity and mystery. Sergio Leone was a ballsy director. Still, I'm fascinated by some of the final images yet I can't piece together exactly what they might mean.

In the 2nd to last scene in the film, the final scene set in the 60's, old De Niro leaves James Woods mansion. It is night time, and he walks alone outside. A figure that appears to be Woods (although, according to the documentary on the DVD, is actually a double dressed as Woods) watches him.) Then a dump truck drives past Woods, and he vanishes. Something, it's not clear what, is being ground up in a thresher (or something) in the back of the truck. The truck drives off into darkness until all you can see are the tail lights. Then, the tail lights turn into the headlights of an oncoming car, which turns out to be an old tymey looking car like from when De Niro's character was a young man, and the people in the car seem to be of that era as well.

So most obviously, this could just be De Niro's fantasy breaking down, and his return to the real world. This is supported by the unexplained arrival of the old tymey car. There also appears to be an Asian-looking pavilion in the background, which could be representative of the Chinese opium den at which De Niro was getting high.

But what's up with the truck? Why does Woods disappear? Is he being ground up in the back? Curiously, the truck has the number "35" painted on it... the same as the number of years that the movie has supposedly passed over. Is it this fantasy being ground up? Something else? Is it the loss of his memories? The loss of his innocence?

For a movie about bad people, it's shocking nostalgic. But maybe there's a tinge of cynicism in the nostalgia. What do his memories represent, other than a brief escape from his misery? They are just an illusion, like the shadow puppets in the Chinese theater.

I think it's also a movie about movies. It starts and ends in a theater, and De Niro's escape from reality is not unlike our own when we go to the movies.

Also there's a pretty sweet part where they shoot Paulie from the Rocky movies in the eye, if you like that sort of thing.

Monday, December 8, 2008

You're a Good Man, Charlie Manson

Shenan read Helter Skelter a while back, and pretty much became obsessed with the whole Manson Family debacle. She'd start mentioning little details about the murders in conversations, or tell little anecdotes from the book. She even downloaded one of Charles Manson's songs to her iPod, the one that Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys rewrote and put on a Beach Boys' album. I think she's really getting into this true crime stuff... the same thing happened after we saw Zodiac, she went out and got the books and really started digging deep into the subject.

Look, I have some weird hobbies too, okay? Like, for a while back in college I couldn't stop watching all the Slumber Party Massacre and Sorority House Massacre movies. I even went to the trouble of watching tangentially connected movies, like Cheerleader Massacre, or even worse Hard to Die, which is a near scene-for-scene remake of Sorority House Massacre 2, shot back-to-back with the same cast. I've seen Slumber Party Massacre 2, my favorite in the series, at least 3 times, so I can't really criticize how my girlfriend spends her leisure time.

Well, I mean, I can criticize her if I want to, but I'm a good guy so I don't. Instead, I magnanimously extended the olive branch of romantic harmony (or whatever), and suggested combining her love of Charles Manson lore with my love of staying in the apartment and not having to get up off the couch. So over the span of a week, we watched 3 different movies depicting the Manson Family murders.

First up was Helter Skelter, a 3 hour TV movie from the 70's, based on the book. I'll go ahead and say this was probably the best all around of the Manson movies we saw. After a horror-movie-ish opening (the score even reminded me a bit of the Friday the 13th score) showing the build up to the murders, the movie then shifts focus to the long and complicated investigation and prosecution of the murders. This structure, along with the film's interest in weird side details and anecdotes and it's attempt to try to piece everything together, makes it feel a lot, at times, like an early precursor to David Fincher's Zodiac. Minus the ambiguity, and not nearly as good, but similarities exist.

The filmmaking is not the most exciting in the world. Visually, there's not much going on here, in fact probably 1/3rd of the movie is made up of people standing around in an office talking to each other. Still, the story itself is fascinating enough that you're compelled by default, and the movie's strategy of slowly but steadily revealing the facts about the Manson Family and the murders helps, too.

If there's a major problem with the film, it's the point-of-view, or perhaps lack thereof, on the Manson Family. It just doesn't understand what made them tick, and can't begin to explain why a bunch of people would fall under Manson's influence. The guy who plays Manson is effectively creepy and intimidating, but no effort is made to give Manson any charm or magnetism. It shows that he had a powerful influence over his followers, but doesn't begin to explain how. He's portrayed as a complete looney, with no sense of the real person inside. It's entertaining to watch this nut spouting off shit like "I'm not on trial, you're the one on trial" and trying to attack the judge, but the movie doesn't provide any insight into his character.

This may be because the movie is based on the book by Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor in the Manson case. The narration at the end of the film, a weird sort of last minute attempt at relevance by warning viewers that the Manson case could be some sort of harbinger of doom, suggests Bugliosi didn't really see Manson as anything but pure evil. It's also pretty comical, since this movie is 30 years old, hearing a prediction (that the Manson Family's crimes may inspire generations of young hippies to follow suit) that very obviously didn't come true. It's like if you found some old TV clip of someone calling the Beatles a flash in the pan, or whatever. The irony that they thought Manson would be some sort of influential cultural figure in the future is too rich.

To be fair to Bugliosi, I haven't read his book, so I'm not sure if he paints Manson as a cartoonish villain like this movie does. But if the ending narration really comes from his book, then he must be some sort of crabby, cantankerous, "get off my lawn!" style old man.

Almost 30 years later, they remade Helter Skelter, still based on Bugliosi's book, but this time the story is told more from the Manson Family's POV. This was the 2nd movie on our list. It's not as fascinating as the earlier film, I think due to the fact that the narrative is told more straightforwardly, in a linear fashion. Instead of learning about the events after the fact, we watch them unfold. So we get a lot of the same facts, hear a lot of the same quotes, etc etc, but since we are seeing them in the framework a more standard narrative, they have less impact. The big moments feel less like "shit that actually happened in real life" and more like "shit that happened in this movie." It's about a true story, and hews as close to the facts as the other film did, but it's structure and style make it feel more like fiction. There's some awkward expository dialogue, and not as much dramatic momentum as the earlier film... we're watching a lot of weird stuff, but we're not really invested in it.

So it's not as good of a movie, but there is one massive accomplishment that it has all over the original Helter Skelter that makes it worthwhile, and that is it's depiction of Charles Manson himself, and Jeremy Davies performance in the role. Davies is great in this, and the real trick to his work is that he gives Manson an off-handed charm and sense of humor, while still making it clear that he's a dangerous weirdo. You actually understand why people would like this guy and want to hang out with him. This movie shows Manson as an ace manipulator, who uses a laid-back exterior as a way of getting others to drop their defenses, so he can insinuate his will on to their own. They make especially clear how he was able to manipulate the women, offering his love and compassion to weak willed, vulnerable girls who in turn start to idolize him. Maybe Davies isn't as creepy or threatening as you'd expect in the role, but he feels much closer to an actual human being.

Finally, we watched The Manson Family, a low budget, horror-movie-ish take on the same tale. As we've established, the Manson story has already been told as a police procedural, and as a drama told from the family's perspective, so filmmaker Jim Van Bebber logically tells the story in the only genre left to tell it in: the faux-documentary cum acid freakout cum borderline supernatural horror movie cum behind the scenes story of the making of the faux-documentary cum speculative fiction about a cult of Manson imitators, all edited together as one narrative. Exactly the approach Kenneth Branaugh used when doing his version of Hamlet.

Perhaps I need to explain this further. So there is some TV news dude who is making a documentary about the Manson Family. We frequently see clips from the (fake) documentary, but then sometimes the movie jumps back in time to show us the "actual" events happening. It's a re-enactment for the movie, not for the movie within the movie, and it's a mix of fact-based stuff with weird flights of fancy into what was going on in everyone's head while they were tripping out on drugs. Then, meanwhile, there are some weirdo Manson worshipping heroin addicts hanging out in a basement somewhere, including a dude with an American flag colored dildo strapped to his face, and they are planning to kill the TV news dude for making the documentary. This part also contains weird, abstracted, and I guess drug-induced hallucinations.
Right, okay, if my description still doesn't make any sense, that's because neither does this movie. I'm not going to pretend that this is a good film in the traditional sense. It's confusing, pretentious, the acting isn't very good, and there are a lot of unintentional laughs. Even though it contains a lot of the same facts and details as the other two movies, I don't think you get hardly any insight into Manson or the family. Yet, if I ever watched one of these 3 Manson movies ever again, this would be the one. It's just so god damned weird, and so committed to it's terrible, nonsensical vision that it's fascinating and maybe a little awesome. It's like someone took the strangest parts from House of 1000 Corpses, removed all the polish and stretched it out to feature length. Worse, it's like they took Rob Zombie's style and kicked it in the head until it got brain damage, then gave it a bunch of acid to drop and read Helter Skelter out loud to it, and this is what it was imagining.

So maybe it's a bad movie, but that's a meaningless distinction here. It has like 8 gratuitous orgy scenes, including one where Manson turns into Devil, complete with goat horns. Every now and then people's voices are dubbed over with creepy demon voices. I already mentioned dildo-face, but he hangs out with naked drug addicts who shoot each other up, and there's some dude in bondage gear strapped to his bed. One of the killers in the Manson documentary is being interviewed is in a church dressed as a priest and it's never explained. So what if it's terrible? It's the most remarkable movie I've seen in a long damn time.

I have no idea what the director was going for here. It seems like maybe he's trying to make some sort of statement about the popularity and/or commercialization of Manson's image/status as a public figure, or maybe he's making an ironic statement about people's supposed fears about Manson's influence on the youth. I don't know, this movie isn't coherent enough to figure any of that out. Most reviews I read of this mentioned that the movie was genuinely disturbing. I don't agree. It's not convincing enough, and at times too silly, to disturb. But I guess I will give it some credit for being the only one of the three Manson movies we watched to deal with all the sex and violence graphically. It doesn't gloss-over anything, and doesn't try to present its tasteless material in a tasteful manner, which adds a weird honesty/purity to the movie, if nothing else.

So the first Helter Skelter was the best movie we watched, the remake had the best acting, and The Manson Family was... something else, to say the least. I get the attraction to the material... it's just a damn gripping, strange story, but all three films fail to ascribe any real significance to it. Not that there is anything wrong with telling a good yarn, but none of these filmmakers really cracked why this is an important story to tell. Maybe it's not one. The original Helter Skelter makes a misguided rant against youth culture that falls flat at the end. The remake seemed to try to show Manson becoming a cultural icon, but doesn't really explain why that would happen or what it means about this society. And The Manson Family, I mean I honestly don't know what the fuck that was about. The main common point between all three movies is that the murders were awful, shocking acts. So maybe the Manson saga is more becoming a shared American myth about evil, more than any sort of morally or socially relevant message. And that's cool, maybe Charles Manson is the American boogeyman, and we'll be telling our grand kids about him a hundred years from now.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Final Count

I haven't double checked this yet, but I believe that the final tally is:


Woo woo!