Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Sopranos and the Anxiety of Decay


(warning: the following essay contains spoilers. If you don't want to know who does or does not get whacked in The Sopranos, I suggest you wait to read this. It's not going anywhere.)

Over coffee this morning, I read a piece in the Style section of the Washington Post questioning the gloomy nature of so many recent films. "Bleak is chic" it said, implying that our current cinema's existential anguish was something of a fad. The irony of this, of course, was that the rest of today's massive Sunday edition was one big bundle of bad news. There were articles about the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the ever metastasizing economic crisis, and the inevitable success of Iran's nuclear program. Hell, there was even an article about this year's mysterious shortage of acorns from the Midwest to the east coast. There is a lot of bad news out there. Is it any wonder that our movies are gloomy?

The last seven or eight years--let's call them the "Bush years" for short--have been rough by anyone's estimation. In those years, we suffered the worst terrorist attack in our history, launched two wars, lost trillions of dollars, and watched our once Colossus-like status in the world diminish on nearly every front. The long wars have undermined our reputation for military dominance, while the economic meltdown that is ravaging every market in the world has soiled--if not ruined--our reputation as the masters of finance. These have been dark times, and our art (from Cormac McCarthy to The Dark Knight) has reflected the deepening anxiety of the time.

Thinking about it, though, has any work of art captured the Bush years like The Sopranos? The run of the show (from 1999 to 2007) fit snugly into the era, beginning with the outgoing Clinton administration and ending just as the Bush administration was imploding. When you look back over the show, you see how clearly creator David Chase and his writers and directors captured the times they were living through.

The Sopranos was a show about many things. One could start an inventory of the themes it addressed either explicitly or implicitly in its eight year run: family, crime, sexism, racism, homophobia, psychotherapy, violence. One could keep this list going because more than most works of cinematic art The Sopranos cast a wide net. Chase utilized the 86 episodes of his show to dramatize the complex overlapping of the personal, the social and the political. Yet the reason I started thinking about the show this morning is because its overriding theme--the constant thread running through all the others and binding them together--was the anxiety of decay in modern America.

It's funny that I've been talking about the show in past tense when, really, we must now think of it like an era-defining novel, alive and always unfolding, a piece of time captured for us by a great artist and his collaborators.

1. The Certainty of Loss

“Things are trending downward,” Tony Soprano says in the first episode of the series. This fear of impending doom is there at the beginning and it will be revisited time and again over six seasons (spread out over eight years). On one level (the mob level) the characters live with the fear of being murdered. Over the course of the series many important characters—Ralph, Adriana, Christopher, Bobby—die violently. These sudden violent “whackings” and the tension and horror which accompanies them is, of course, a major staple of the mob movie genre The Sopranos ostensibly belongs to, and they are no doubt part of the excitement of the show. Yet it is important to note how often the show concerns itself with more ordinary, in no less harrowing, forms of decline and death.

The series begins, after all, with Tony having a MRI to diagnose the cause of his fainting spells. Uncle Junior, who for the first four seasons at least is the most verbally entertaining character in the show, gradually declines and eventually gives way to dementia. Paulie Walnuts, at once the toughest and most insecure of Tony’s crew, is a cauldron of phobias and neuroses, chief among them a fear of germs and cancer. Johnny Sack, Tony’s adversary for much of season five and a man who knows how to smoke a cigarette, dies of lung cancer. For a non-medical show, The Sopranos spends a lot of time in hospitals and not just for gunshot wounds.

But the anxiety found within the show is about more than just illness. More specifically, the major undercurrent of the show’s psychology is the certainty of loss. From the incessant gorging on food, the constant chasing of sexual release, the boozing, the gambling, the drug abuse, and the pathological pursuit of financial gain, to the more respectable, and perhaps healthier, outlets of religion, art and psychiatry, the universe of The Sopranos is filled with characters who are always attempting to distract themselves from their absolute knowledge of their own eventual decline. They all know the end is coming, but no one wants to face it.

2. “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed”

In the final season this fear reaches a fever pitch as The Sopranos fully embraces a post-9/11 paranoia. Tony’s fears of terrorist infiltration are addressed many times, and in an interesting and telling twist his prime adversary in the FBI, Agent Harris, is taken off his case and moved to counterterrorism (where, we note, he begins to unravel and becomes in many ways one of Tony’s henchmen). Nowhere is the post-9/11 anxiety felt more acutely than in the subplot about “the two Arabs” who hang around the strip club for a time and then disappear. The show’s final episodes find Tony and Agent Harris discussing the two “suspect” men more and more often until the fear of terrorist attack hangs over everything like a cloud that never rains.

The anxiety extends even into the family, where Tony and Carmela live in constant fear of the imminent collapse of their world. The most fascinating example of this tension is the development of their son Anthony Junior. From a sweet—though self-centered—youngster into a vacuous teen, and finally into a troubled young adult, AJ is a ship without a mooring. Despite having an intact, loving (if deeply flawed) set of parents, despite having money and notoriety as the son of a famous gangster, despite having a religious (if hypocritical) upbringing, AJ has, by show’s end, become a mass of fear, rage and depression.

He is not unlike his father in these ways, of course. Yet, as even Tony points out, AJ is not able to “handle” these pressures like his father. That Tony handles his own fear and rage with violence, overeating, drugs, booze and an endless series of extramarital dalliances is precisely the point. AJ is both better and worse off than his father. When in the depth of his son’s depression, Tony tells him “Go out. Get a blow job” and arranges for AJ to hang out with a band of racist, drunken frat boys, Tony is only prescribing a cure which, to his limited understanding of his own psychosis, has “worked” for him. That it does not work at all for AJ is to AJ's credit. But there is nothing there to fill the void. He reads Yeats’ “The Second Coming” and trembles in terror at the apocalyptic vision of a blood-dimmed tide and the rising of the rough beast in the Middle East.

When, in “Made In America”, the final episode of the series, AJ decides to confront his fears of nuclear annihilation by joining the Army, his parents intervene to stop him by arranging a job on a movie set. The fear and sense of hopelessness which has beset their son nearly all his life, and which drive him to attempt suicide, are dealt with in the end—after all the talk of school, ambition and responsibility—by buying him off.

Just as AJ’s problem with crippling anxiety in these final episodes rings true of his character throughout the series, so to does his parents’ solution to it. Tony and Carmela have always thrown money at their problems. Their marriage, by season six, is as much a financial arrangement as it is loving partnership. When Carmela becomes overly interested in the strange disappearance of Adriana, Tony essentially buys her a career in real estate to keep her distracted.

They both face a particularly bourgeois dilemma at the intersection of their post-9/11 anxiety and their son’s directionlessness and anxiety. They fear terrorist infiltration and attack, the disruption of their personal and material security, and they support the Bush administration and the “War on Terror” (Tony says at one point that he would elect Dick Cheney “president of the universe”), and yet they do not want to see their son involved in the fighting. They would rather buy him a new car and get him a flashy job with promises of his own dance club down the road.

3. The Cut to Black

Will it work? Chase’s final masterstroke is to end the show with all its anxiety intact. Things are still trending downward. The Arabs still haven’t been found. Carlo is missing and is probably with the cops. Christopher is dead. Bobby is dead. Silvio is in a comma he will probably not pull out of. The violence with New York may or may not be over.

In the final scene, Tony is at a diner waiting for his family. Everyone is running late. He plays a song on the jukebox. A man comes in and sits down at the counter. He glances over at Tony. Carmela comes in, apologizing for being late. AJ wanders in. Outside, Meadow tries to parallel park. And there is still that man at the counter, looking over at Tony and his family as they eat onion rings. The man at the counter gets up. He walks to the bathroom. Meadow rushes in. Tony looks up.

Cut to black.

With this ending (invoking the diner assassination in The Godfather) Chase is not simply trying to wrap up his story (nor is he simply refusing to wrap up his story), he is dramatizing the state of fear we live in, the fear which has been mounting in the series, and in society, since the series began. The events of September 11th and the violent drudgery of the Iraq war are not simply the cause of these fears, they are the quickening of fears built into the modern American psyche. Tony and his family and friends all fear they are living in an America trending downward and coming apart at the seams. Chase offers no relief from this fear. He just shows us the seams stretching.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Dead Reckoning (1947)


God, this movie is a miserable piece of shit.

Dead Reckoning is so profoundly bad that it may take multiple viewings for all its badness to sink in, but I would not suggest you subject yourself to repeated viewings just to grasp how deeply it sucks. It may be worth seeing once, however, if just to know how low the genre can go.

Oddly enough, on paper, Dead Reckoning sounds promising: it stars two of noir's greatest icons, Humphrey Bogart and Lizabeth Scott. It’s directed by John Cromwell, director of the brilliant Caged. And the plot isn’t terrible: Bogart plays an Army captain just back from the war who is trying to solve the murder of his best friend. His search leads him to a sexy nightclub singer played by Scott. It also leads him to the sleazy owner of the nightclub (Morris Carnovsky) and a psychopathic goon played by Marvin Miller.

With those elements the movie should be good, so why it is so awful? Well, for starters, it never gets beyond the point of being a cobbled together mess of elements. The whole movie is warmed over Bogie highlights stolen without much skill from John Huston and Howard Hawks. As more than one fan of The Maltese Falcon has noted, Dead Reckoning lifts entire passages out of that movie’s dialog (Falcon: “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.” DR: “When a guy’s pal is killed, he ought to do something about it.”). It’s discomforting to catch Bogart attempting to be Bogart. At his best, there was no greater movie star, but Bogart could be shockingly lazy. He’s being really lazy here, rehashing old lines in bad copies of old scenes. He never really let go of this laziness, and throughout the rest of his career, he would alternate fresh triumphs like In a Lonely Place with banal Casablanca-knockoffs like Tokyo Joe. His tendency to cannibalize his past successes began with this film.

Part of his problem here was that he just didn’t like Lizabeth Scott. At the time this picture was made, she was being billed by producer Hal B. Wallis as “The Threat”—or, as you might also put it, the “new” Lauren Bacall. Since Bogart had just married the old Lauren Bacall, it’s doubtful he was very interested in helping along Scott’s career.

Which leads us to the big problem with the film, the overriding problem which transforms it from being merely a cheap Falcon rip-off and turns it into something truly repellent. This is one of the most misogynistic movies ever made. If Dead Reckoning has a theme, the theme is this: women are no goddamn good. It’s not just that Bogart makes a monotonous series of allusions to “babes” and “dolls” and treats every woman on screen like a slave on an auction block (he shuts the door of a phone booth in one woman’s face, and then cracks, “Sorry, gorgeous, I didn’t see what you looked like”). His dialog goes beyond chauvinism or objectification. This character is obsessively fixated on demeaning women. Besides the plot, it’s pretty much all he talks about. The low point comes when Bogart is given a long, creepy monologue wherein he relates his fantasy of shrinking a woman down and sticking her in his pocket to keep her quiet until he’s ready to have sex with her. It’s impossible to watch this scene without squirming. It is the nadir of the Bogart persona.

Tellingly, Dead Reckoning is a movie populated almost entirely by men. Except for a brief appearance by Ruby Dandridge as a housekeeper, Lizabeth Scott has the only female speaking part in the film. This means that all of the film’s bile is directed at her. Scott responds by giving probably the worst performance of her career. By all reports, she didn’t like Bogart any more than he liked her, and the only time she seems to wake up in the film is at the end when she tries to kill him. What is sad about all of this, of course, is that Lizabeth Scott is one of the truly great women of film noir, yet because of Bogart’s star power, it’s a pretty safe bet that most people will see her for the first time in this movie. That’s a shame, and such viewers are urged to make haste to a copy of Pitfall or Too Late for Tears or Stolen Face. Hell, even Desert Fury.

The final point to make about Dead Reckoning is to note how its misogyny grows out of its laziness. Someone involved in this movie obviously watched The Maltese Falcon and noted how tersely Bogart treats Mary Astor. What they failed to realize was that a) Bogart treats everyone in that movie tersely, b) his terseness is a defensive mechanism, and c) he isn’t mean to Mary Astor because she’s a woman, he’s mean to her in spite of it. That’s what makes him great. He can’t be swayed by feminine wiles any more than he can be frightened by goons with guns. Someone on Dead Reckoning confused that stoicism with a contempt for women as blatant as an open sewer.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

James Bond's Quantum of Solace

When I was a kid, I loved action movies. I suppose that puts me in some pretty voluminous company, and it might even seem to qualify me as a fanboy. After all, I grew up on Star Trek, Star Wars, comic books, and cartoons. I collected graphic novels and stood in line to see Batman three times in 1989. But, alas, I'm really not a fanboy. I was 14 in 1989, and I'm glad to say that I moved on. As I peruse the film world today, I see that the fanboys have damn near taken over. I wish them well, but I am not one of them. When I discovered Bogart in high school, I started to lose interest in summer blockbusters. When I discovered Welles and Hitchcock and Bergman, I realized that movies could be about a lot more than exploding buildings.

However.

I don't want to make myself out to be more of a film snob than I am. (Understand, I am absolutely a film snob and happy to be one. If you don't understand that the Spider-Man movies sucked, or you don't understand that the Lord of the Rings were beyond shitty, then we will have to work on our definitions of "entertainment" and "movie"). While I am a snob, I still like the occasional action film. The energy released by their stories and the craftsmanship of their making still impress me. Raiders of the Lost Ark and the original Die Hard are both, I would submit, good movies. The best action film I've seen of late--and I think I would put it up there with Raiders and Die Hard--is The Bourne Ultimatum. It's a fine piece of work, with thrilling set pieces and perhaps the single best fight scene I've ever seen.

All of which brings me to this piece of news: today I saw the new James Bond flick. I went to see it despite the generally bad reviews it's gotten. I guess I was just in the mood for a big budget action movie. I'd just finished writing a piece about film noir's greatest brawls, and, oddly enough, it put me in the mood for Bond.

First let me say, the film is better than a lot of critics have suggested. Almost all of the negative reviews I've read (including the Ebert review I linked above and Dana Stevens' piece over on Slate) have lamented the lack of the old Bond touches. The new film not much fun, they say.

What's true is that the film is much darker than any Bond film that has come before it. Daniel Craig plays Bond as a killing machine, and, yes, he has more in common with Damon's Jason Bourne than he does with any Bond who has proceeded him. Part of the reason for this is that for two movies now the filmmakers have placed Bond in an actual story. Quantum of Solace is a sequel--not just a follow up--to Casino Royale and it continues the story that began there. If you haven't seen Casino Royale lately--and I watched it last night to catch myself up--you will probably not know what's going on in this movie. Of course, narrative cohesion has never been a big part of a Bond movie, but here there's more of a plot (of sorts) to follow. Bond is
investigating the betrayal and subsequent death of his girlfriend, Vesper Lynd, from the first movie. This leads him to the discovery of a secret organization called Quantum. A bunch of action follows. Just about every scene ends with Bond beating the hell out of someone, usually just before he kills them.

But Daniel Craig remains a compelling actor. He's the first actor to play Bond who has an essentially sad persona, and he gives the character a gravity it's never had before. Is this a bad thing? Many critics seem to think so, but I'm not so sure. I have a theory that your conception of James Bond owes a lot to the actor who originated the role for you. I began with Roger Moore who often played the character as an almost campy parody. I loved it as a kid, but have you seen those movies lately? The Spy Who Loved Me, Octopussy, A View To Kill...and let's not forget Moonraker (which maybe the worst Bond ever, though Live and Let Die has the added strike of being racist). These are not good movies. They do not hold up well. The best Moore movie is For Your Eyes Only, which has its hokey moments but also tries to achieve a certain level of tension and pathos (remember Bond at his wife's grave?). I liked Moore--a charming, lightweight actor--but I don't have a lot of nostalgia for his Bonds or their progressively building cheesiness. Craig and the handlers of the franchise have made the decision to ground the series somewhat (this is relative, of course, because through the goofy gadgets have been downplayed, Bond himself is now capable of superhuman speed, strength and endurance). Craig's Bond maybe even more of a superhero physically, but he's also perhaps the first plausible human being. What's happening to the character is what has been happening to superheroes in graphic novels for at least the last two decades, he is acquiring more and more of the psychological trappings of reality.

Another aspect of the series that's changed is a shift away from misogyny. Craig's Bond seems as obsessed with women as his predecessors, but he's not out for conquest. His relationship with Vesper in Casino Royale was the most emotionally interesting relationship the character's ever had with a woman (a large part of the credit for that goes to Eva Green's performance as Vesper). In this film he's paired with Olga Kurylenko. She's beautiful and charismatic, but there has been some criticism of their relationship because as at least one critic put it "Bond doesn't sleep with her", oddly lamenting, in 2008, that man isn't the subject and the girl the object. What's different here is that they have an actual relationship. Bond seems, gasp!, interested in her. You know, like one person being interested in another person. He's not turning into a monk--he still "beds" a pretty girl in the middle of the film, but even that relationship has more depth than we're used to from Jimmy B. The new series, at least for these first two installments, doesn't view Bond the way it used to, as that playboy ladykiller who essential raped Pussy Galore at the end of Goldfinger, which itself was a step up from Fleming's original novel in which Bond, ah, cured Pussy Galore of lesbianism. Call me a wimp, but I'm thrilled James Bond isn't raping lesbians anymore. Craig's Bond actually seems to like women, and that's an improvement.

After this, I'll go back to not thinking much about big budget action flicks for a while, but I will be interested to see where the character goes from here. When is the last time anyone said that about James Bond?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Report From Noir City DC

Yesterday I went to the AFI Silver (located in downtown Silver Spring, MD) to see a couple of the best noirs ever made. The films were part of a series the AFI is running called Noir City DC. The films they were showing were The Prowler by Joseph Losey and Raw Deal by Anthony Mann. I'm a big fan of both of these movies, but you rarely (i.e. damn-near never) get to see them in the theater.

The Prowler is a full-tilt masterpiece, a black-as-midnight story about an unhappily married woman named Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) who calls the cops after she spots a peeping tom outside her window. The cops show up to investigate, but unfortunately for Susan one of them is a charming rake named Webb Garwood (played by the congenitally underappreciated Van Heflin) who takes one look at her and decides she belongs to him. This film is a gorgeous piece of work, lovingly restored by the Film Noir Foundation, a nonprofit outfit that saves these beautiful old, largely forgotten crime flicks. The film isn't available on DVD, but bootleg versions are floating around out there and, of course, the FNF sponsors showings in different cities. Try to find it if you can. Losey's direction is subtle (we're never exactly sure what Webb's game is, though we're sure he has one), and the script by blacklisted Dalton Trumbo is a sophisticated piece of work that keeps getting more complicated as the film progresses. Both Susan and Webb continue to surprise us, their characters changing in relation to each other until the very end of the film. What, for example, does Susan want from Webb? It's hard to say--in many ways, she's as complicated as he is--but what's easy to say is how extraordinary Keyes is as Susan. Her performance here is exhibit A for my theory--born out by 99 River Street and The Killer That Stalked New York--that Evelyn Keyes was the most underrated actress of the 1950s.

The second film on the bill was Anthony Mann's Raw Deal. Mann is most famous today for his Westerns with Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, but among noir geeks he is generally considered one of the masters of the classic era crime flick. His work was heavy on ass-kicking (his rough-and-tumble movies are among the most violent in the genre, up there with Karlson and Fleischer) and they were also enlivened by the work of cinematograper John Alton. Here's another theory for you: Alton was the most important artist in noir. Bar none. No director, actor or actress was greater than Alton. His films will remind some newbies of Sin City, and it's clear to see his influence on Miller's original graphic novels as well as the film. Believe me, though, Alton is better. See Raw Deal--available on DVD--to see what I'm talking about. It's gorgeous piece of work, featuring Clarie Trevor and Marsha Hunt as two women in love with the same escaped convict (Dennis O'Keefe). The three leads are terrific and Mann's direction is brutal and immediate (he loved to move action up until it nearly touched the camera lens). Alton's lighting is stark and gorgeous, no one did high contrast black and white like this guy, and his work is here is among his best (He Walked By Night, T-Men, and the imperfect-though- underrated I, The Jury). If all that isn't enough, the movie also features perhaps Raymond Burr's best villain performance.

The program yesterday also featured introductions to the films by Foster Hirsch and Eddie Muller. Hirsch is the author of a terrific noir book called The Dark Side of the Screen as well as the biography of Otto Preminger, one of the genre's great practitioners. He's a semi-regular at the AFI. I saw him introduce Preminger's Fallen Angel and Angel Face.

Eddie Muller is a hero of mine, a great author and a hell of a activist. He wrote the single best--and certainly the most entertaining overview--of film noir out there, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, as well as Dark City Dames a collective biography of Evelyn Keyes, Ann Savage, Marie Windsor, Colleen Gray, Audrey Totter and Jane Greer. He's also the author of a couple of good noir novels and the director of a short film called The Grand Inquisitor, which was screened after Raw Deal (it's a fun piece of business featuring a creepy performance by Marsha Hunt). His most important work, however, might be as a preservationist of classic film noir. He's the founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation. I got to speak with him before the showings, and he told me that he felt chief job was to be an advocate for these films, struggling to get the studios to see the goldmine they had in their vaults. I asked about Too Late For Tears--a personal obsession of mine and one of the very best noirs ever made--and he said it was next of FNF's list of films to restore. That means that you and I might one day get to see Liz Scott's best movie projected in a theater. This is due to the efforts of Eddie and his organization.

To learn more about the Film Noir Foundation (including how to lend support) check out their website:

http://www.filmnoirfoundation.org/


Quite honestly, this festival, which started Oct. 17th has exceeded my expectations. They had Farley Granger in town to attend the showing of Strangers on a Train, screened the incomparable Detour (not a great print unfortunately, but still...), showed Mann's great Side Street, and unleashed Tomorrow is Another Day, a Steve Cochran thriller which is obscure even by noir standards. They also showed a couple of overrated classics, Double Indemnity and They Live By Night. All in all, the festival has been a raging success, and still to come are Kiss of Death and Night and the City.

If you live in the DC area, you owe it to yourself to try to make it out to the remaining days of the festival. The AFI is the best theater in the country, and their presentation of these great films is topnotch (the pristine print of Raw Deal was on loan from the Library of Congress). In his closing remarks about the festival, Eddie referred to it as the "first" DC Noir. That's a good sign. Maybe next year we'll get some Liz Scott.