Saturday, February 23, 2013

I Am Not Watching the Oscars! (And You Can't Make Me!)

Right after this, I switched over to PBS . . . .

I said it last year. And the year before that. And the year before that.

And I will say it again:

I am not watching the Oscars.

And you can’t make me.

Why should I—or anyone outside the movie business—waste three-plus hours of earthly existence watching a parade of over-dressed, half-talented, face-lifted, bulked-up, non-entities squeal tears over some gold-plated hat stand while making lame in-jokes about people we’ll all forget the next day as we suffer through songs that fornicating cats wouldn’t howl to.

No. I am not watching the Oscars.

Instead, on Sunday night, I am going to watch a movie. AND a TV show!

Further, I’m going to suggest—no, urge—no, DEMAND—that, instead of watching the Oscars, you at least consider watching one or more of the following movies (plus one TV show), whether you pipe it in over your computer, or trundle over to your local DVD rental store. (I have two in my neighborhood.)

Real movies that will feed you body, mind, and soul in ways that your fruitless wait for Angelina Jolie’s boobs to pop from her dress will not.

Even better, none of the four movies (and one television show) discussed below ever won Oscars. They may have been tossed a nomination or two—like a bone thrown to a spirited, three-legged dog—but these films were either completely ignored or went home empty handed, forgotten by the clique of cool popular kids (who, by the way, all grew up to be pimple-faced, sad-sack used car salesmen—oh, is my bitterness showing? Sorry!).

Snark aside, I’m not a bit mad none of the movies won Oscars, and don’t you be either. They all deserved better fates and met them—to be remembered as good, even great, movies, loved and admired years after most Oscar winners have been forgotten. (Come on. When was the last time you actually even considered watching Oliver? Really!)

The Oscars say nothing about whether a movie is actually good or great. It’s Hollywood’s party: If they want to award Silent Hill: Revelation 3D Best Picture of 2013, I say go for it, Tinseltown! I’ll back you all the way! To the bitter end!

When I first saw Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane on a Green Bay TV station one Sunday afternoon in 1971, I mistook it for an extraordinarily atmospheric horror film (which in a way it is).

Then, as I was transfixed, I realized just how bad those network TV series I had been watching until then were. I didn’t watch another TV series for over 20 years.

Citizen Kane remains the best movie I’ve ever seen and I’ll say that ‘til I die.

This thinly veiled biopic of media mogul William Randolph Hearst (the Rupert Murdoch of his day) is a feast for the senses, from your eyes to your toes, and your mind and soul, too. Full of dash, invention, and energy, it has not aged a day, not in its technique, not in its writing, performances and not in its bright dancing spirit.

Kane makes all those ten-best-ever lists for the simplest of reasons: It belongs there. It earned it. The Sight and Sound ten-best-ever list may have erred in dropping it to second place behind Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but it still embraces me completely every time I see it.

The Black Book (Reign of Terror), from 1949, makes history into a perfect subject for a film noir. Set during the French Revolution (the one with powder-wigged heads rolling off guillotines), it’s a gory, exciting, eye-popping delight.

Robert Cummings plays D’Aubigny, a French patriot who dives into a whirlpool of conspiracy and bloody murder concerning a black book. The black book is full of names, names of those slated to be sentenced to the guillotine by fiendish dictator Maximillian (“Don’t Call Me Max!”) Robespierre (brought vivid raging life by Richard Basehart). This key to Robespierre’s power disappears and it must be found before it’s too late!

Save a few plot stumbles, The Black Book is a feast all the way, one of the trippiest, the most beautifully shot noir of its era, as visually dazzling as Kane. Photographed by John Alton and directed by Anthony Mann on a $40,000 budget—peanuts--it shows what can be accomplished by great talents working from small purses.

Cummings seems a little miscast, but he’s more than compensated for by the performances of Basehart, Norman Lloyd, brutish Charles McGraw, and best of all, little-seen Broadway actor Arnold Moss as the smooth-tongued devil Joseph Fouché, the chameleonic head of Robespierre’s secret police and, eventually, the Minister of Police for Napoleon.

Leonard Maltin calls it right: in Reign of Terror every shot is a painting, stark compositions of light and shadow through which weave a thrilling story leading to a wild and wonderful movie. Here, the blood runs black like the shadows of that terrible event.

“I don’t want the monster to die!” a friend said.

Most critics point to 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein as the best of the James Whale/Boris Karloff trilogy, but my heart goes to the first one, released in 1931. In fact, Frankenstein may well be the best film from those early years when Hollywood was clumsily coming to grip with the emergence of sound, for one of the strongest impressions left by the film is a lonely, scary quiet.

With Whale at the helm and Karloff behind the makeup, Frankenstein is stark, bleak, and touching. Its haunting images reflect the humor, horror, and sadness at its heart and seem to be an influence on films as diverse as The Seventh Seal and, most obviously, The Spirit of the Beehive.

The absence of a music score, I believe, is a strength, giving its fantastic story an eerie, somber verisimilitude.

Especially memorable are the opening sequences in the cemetery as Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive, also excellent) and Fritz (indelible Dwight Frye) hunt for body parts and the brain that will bring Henry’s vain dream to dreadful fruition. The creation sequence is classic and the monster’s first encounter with the sun is one the most tender, beautiful moments in all film. The final confrontation between Henry and his Monster at the top of the windmill still brings tears.

“I don’t want the monster to die!” a friend cried when I showed it to her for the first time.

As for Boris Karloff, it is impossible to praise his performance too much. That it has survived decades of parody and has overwhelmed all other comers, is the highest compliment I can pay.

Whatever you think you know about James Whale’s ground-breaking horror classic, when you see it you’ll realize that you know very little. Frankenstein is a film that needs no monument, no statues, but itself.

You’ll have noticed that this list, so far, as shown a distinct prejudice toward black and white movies made before most of you were born.

Yes, I am being thoughtless and insensitive to my younger readers. To make it up to you, I will compromise and actually recommend a movie shot in color from just a few years ago.

So it is, I think you should watch Into Great Silence, a transcendent two-and-half hour documentary about the lives of Carthusian monks in their faraway home high in the Swiss Alps.
It’s a movie about people who choose to live quiet lives far apart from the clangorous grime and jittery bustle of the modern world, in the faith that they are drawing closer to something larger.

The most thrill-packed sequence comes when the monks are taken on their annual afternoon ski-shoe trip on a small hill a short drive away. The men seems so happy with this small pleasure, it left me smiling for days.

It’s said that the Divine is best encountered in stillness. This lovely movie proves it. It also shows how critics who refer to Die Hard movies as “meditations on masculinity” or whatnot haven’t the slightest idea what “meditation” means. This movie does.

Now, for that TV show (because, these days, TV is where the Art can really be found).

Girls, the funky, controversial HBO cable series, may not be the absolute best of this Golden Age of TV we’re in right now, but it’s on at the same time as the Oscar telecast, so, when that moment finally dawns on you—and it will, trust me--that oh-my-God, you really are bored . . .

(Note: In case you are concerned, I watch Girls under the strictest supervision, namely my wife’s, who stands ready to rip the remote from my hand the second I start breathing hard; say, when I start rewinding to the sex scenes “so I can see how good the acting is.”)

Honestly, this really is a very good show: sharp, witty, and poignant; well-directed, and very well acted by its entire cast, including show creator Lena Dunham, who plays dilettante writer Hannah. (Am I the only one in the world to cop to the idea that Hannah is no writer at all? Discuss!)

Though this comedy of rude manners focuses on a narrow slice of the world—wannabe twenty-something artists in a Brooklyn neighborhood—it resonates, even with a pair of 50-somethings a continent away. It even creates suspense: after all, what are these foolish people going to do with their lives? Even this grayhair recognizes the overwhelming confusion and terror experienced by many characters from his twenties. (Sorry, high-minded do-gooders: their foolishness is what makes it a comedy.)

Girls is not as innovative as some critics think—its roots in Seinfeld, Frasier, and, of course, Sex in the City, show everywhere. (The second Hannah finds her Ricky Ricardo, those roots will really show.)

Girls is one more sign that feature movies have lost their power, their edge, and their innovation. Most all the artistry has moved to television.

What other excuse do you need for not watching the Oscars?

(re-edited 3/5/13)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Burchfield at the Bijou: Parker versus Parker

Still too damn nice.

When the fresh-faced kid behind the box-office window offered him the matinee senior discount, Burchfield told him to go to hell.

“Screw you, buddy!” the cashier yelled. Burchfield took the ticket, spat on the window and entered the theater lobby.

Burchfield stopped at the snack counter, paid $10.00 for a small Coke and got back $10.00. The scotch-tape-on-the-fingertips trick still worked.

Then he stomped out his e-cigarette, spat on the door leading to a showing of Les Misérables and strode into the theater.

The theater was small, had a single aisle down the middle. It was the way Burchfield liked it. Empty. Like his mind. In the night. While watching American Idol with the sound off. Or sitting in the dark, thinking of nothing.

Two more guys came in. That was all. One sat right across the aisle from Burchfield. Their eyes met in the dark. Burchfield’s hand moved toward the holster under his coat. The guy got up, moved five rows down.

When you sit in a near-empty theater with Burchfield, you’d better sit in front of him. So he can keep an eye on you.

Then the commercials and coming attractions started. It had taken years for Burchfield to stop himself from marching into the projection booth and threatening the projectionist to hurry it up or else. Now it was pointless. Everything was run by computers. The machines just sat and blinked when he barked and waved his gun at them.

He could have shot the machine, shot it dead, but then he would have missed the entire movie. In the end, he decided, commercials were the cost of doing business.

Finally, the silk red curtain rose like a whore coyly lifting her skirt. The movie began.

The movie was called Parker. It starred Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Chiklis, Wendell Pierce, Bobby Cannavale, and Nick Nolte. It was directed by Taylor Hackford. The picture was adapted from a novel called Flashfire by Richard Stark. It was the first movie to be adapted from a Stark novel since Stark vanished forever on New Year’s Eve, 2008.

It was the first movie from a Stark novel to use Parker’s name, instead of making one up, usual a weak, stupid-sounding name like “Walker”, “Porter”, or “Dortmunder.”

It sounded like a promise that the Parker in Parker would be just like the one in Stark’s twenty-four Parker novels. It would capture the spirit of original character. Parker fans would know they would get the same thing. The true Parker.

But it wasn’t. This Parker, played with a British accent by Statham, smiled when he didn’t have to. He bragged about his ethics (as though marketing himself as the Thief You’d Most Want to Be Robbed By.) He held therapy sessions with his robbery victims. He was sincerely nice to sick people. He smiled at Jennifer Lopez’s mother. He gave away the treasure he worked so hard to steal. He struck fear only in the bad guys, in no one else, least of all Burchfield.

Worst of all, Parker made friends with a dog. A tiny, yapping dog.

As the dog wagged its tail and barked and barked and barked, Burchfield recalled wise counsel from a famous comedian: “If you can kick it for distance, it’s not a dog.”

Burchfield leaned forward, anticipating the moment when Parker would kick the dog through some convenient goalposts. But the moment never came.

This Parker also killed many many more people than the literary Parker would have found necessary to complete his business. He was a very unbusiness-like Parker.

Burchfield was no touchy, obsessive fan boy. He got it that every movie from a novel had to stand on its own as a movie. Settings have to be changed. Plots have to be reworked and telescoped, characters, even good ones, have to be put down, brutally. In the case of a bad or mediocre book, Burchfield didn’t give a damn what they did, so long as the movie was good.

But a good book has a spirit to it. That’s why they want to make it into a movie in the first place—or should. A good movie adaptation of a good book may change a lot, but it keeps that spirit, makes it glow in the dark, even if it is a fire from Hell. The reason they decided to make a movie of the book survives and prospers. Look at The Maltese Falcon.

The spirit of Flashfire, of the Richard Stark novels, Parker himself, wasn’t the Parker of Parker. Probably couldn’t be helped. It was an expensive movie. Nowadays, the more expensive the movie, the wider the audience has to be to pay for it. The knife must be dulled, the edges softened. Otherwise, not enough people will come.

Hence the warm, sincere smiles, the moral vanity, the giving of money away.

And the dog. The damn stupid dog.

Not that Burchfield thought Parker a bad bad movie. He thought it was a well-made pulp crime movie typical of today: glossy, loud, clangorous, every punch ringing like a hammer on a bell, blood running like cherry syrup. Except for Ms. Lopez, none of the other actors and their characters were given much to do, besides curse and yell and then fall down and bleed all over.

At one point, Burchfield worried that Nick Nolte would burst into song. Good thing that didn’t happen.

Sometimes, it was funny as though another writer had applied his pen from somewhere. It became more like something written by that writer.

People who knew little or nothing about Parker wouldn’t know, wouldn’t care, would actually like this Parker. They’d think they were seeing the real Parker. They’d think it was the same thing.

Richard Stark and Parker, in their cold-eyed spirit, may not be at home in a big-budget A-movie. Parker needs an independent B-picture, or an HBO/Showtime movie, to be Parker, pure and simple, this ornery emblem of unbridled criminality.

“Who the hell’s Donald E. Westlake?” Burchfield growled as the credits started to roll. He rose, spat on the carpet, and strode grimly up the aisle. At the door, the usher stopped him, told him that it was against the law to spit on the floor.

So what?” Burchfield said.

He left the usher with his feet sticking out of the trash bin. He hurried home, made it just in time to watch David Suchet as Poirot on public television.

At least they nailed him.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield recently finished writing Butchertown, a 1920s gangland shoot-'em-up. He also “friends” on Facebook and tweets on Twitter. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.