Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: Tales of Ordinary Madness

Charles Bukowski hasn't been a favourite of mine for over 20 years. I liked his books when I was 15 or so, but then they wore me out with their machismo. And then came Pulp, a very bad pastiche of hardboiled crime novel, which wasn't funny in the least. I might reread some of his novels in the near future, but we'll see if I really can make it. I remember, though, that Bukowski is a very easy and quick read.

All this leads me to the first film version of Bukowski's work. I saw Marco Ferreri's Tales of Ordinary Madness, based on a short story collection from the early seventies, already in 1986 or 1987, but just last night I saw it again. I didn't remember anything from it, save from the scene in which Ornella Muti pierces her cheek with a huge needle.

Tales of Ordinary Madness proved to be a pretty good film. Ben Gazzara is wonderful (if you can call him that) as Charles Serking (meaning Henry Chinaski, but they couldn't use the character's real name, due to the fact that Taylor Hackford owned it at that time). Serking is a sleazebag of a man, stalker, rapist, drunk, loudmouth, cynical asshole with nothing good to say about anyone. Yet we feel something for him, when he meets Cass, played by gorgeous Ornella Muti, a wreck of a human being working as a prostitute. Serking falls in love with Cass, and problems ensue. The film ends in a tragedy after Serking is lured to New York by a big publishing house, but he doesn't want to work for them.

Bukowski started where David Goodis left off. There's indeed something noirish in Tales of Ordinary Madness, its view of people of the streets, with no hope, with only their lust and booze. This is enhanced by Serking's hardboiled monologue with sentences out of a neo-noir novel. Gazzara's voice is low and brutal and he works well on those consonants.

Tales of Ordinary Madness, filmed in the US, but made with European money, is no B-grade flick. The decorations of Dante Ferretti and the photography of Tonino Delli Colli make sure it looks good even in the lowest depths of mankind.

More Overlooked Films here.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The left-wing and the right-wing definitions of noir

Here's Dave Zeltserman's (wonderful author) interesting essay on the definition of noir at the Artery site. Zeltserman emphasises what an individual, possibly or preferably sick or at least doomed, does to his or her own life. He argues against Dennis Lehane's social class theory of noir, where the failure of man is explained by the circumstances of life, which one cannot influence easily or not at all. Zeltserman is backed up by Otto Penzler, who says: "Noir is about losers. The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed."

Zeltserman's is what I should call a right-wing theory of noir. There's been a lively discussion over Zeltserman's essay at this Facebook site, and people like Vicki Hendricks (wonderful author) and Woody Haut (wonderful noir and pulp essayist) have been saying most interesting things. The Facebook discussion is public, so I thought I could link it here and quote it. Here's Woody Haut's comment (after which he says: "Does that make sense?") which, to my mind, illustrates what could be the left-wing definition of noir: "Taking into account society as a whole and the forces at work that produce a noir sensibility. To put it bluntly, social issues inevitably become individual issues. Penzler’s definition is as comprehensive as they come, and easier to digest, but only so far as the individual. On the other hand, that's what noir is invariably about. But, in the end, even though he expresses it in simplistic terms, Lehane’s statement ends up being a deeper concept, if only because the social and the individual can’t be separated."

Further on, Woody Haut says that the psychological struggle (that Zeltserman emphasises) and the social issues can't be separated, both affect each other. The background of many noir stories is minimal and sparse, like in Double Indemnity Zeltserman mentions in the discussion, but I don't think this is not not being about social or class issues. I think Woody Haut nails it when he says: social issues become individual issues. The anxiety of one's place in the society, the urge to move upward, even with the help of violence, the frustration or the anger of what one has become when not wanting to on in the society, these are both social and individual issues. In the right-wing theory of noir, these losers are losers because that's all they can do, in the left-wing theory, the same losers are losers because there's no other possilibity for them in the society, be they rich or poor.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Mark Coggins on The Long Goodbye

I was just writing on Chandler's The Long Goodbye for a forth-coming book I've started working on, and Googling for some references I found this interesting article by Mark Coggins on Chandler writing the novel. Well worth checking out!

(Sorry for not blogging. I'll try to get something done in the near future.)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Luis Buñuel: Él

I've always loved Luis Buñuel's films, they are very fluent and his direction is almost invisible, yet they are full of surrealistic imagery and atmosphere, even though the events in the films aren't necessarily surrealistic or even weird themselves.

One of Buñuel's best films, to my mind, is this weird little melodrama Él, made in Mexico in 1952. Buñuel's Mexican period clearly was one of his most creative periods, even though there were no dull phases in his career (saying this must mean he's one of the best directors in the history of cinema, almost everyone else had their dull phases). Él is a noir melodrama that's more noir that any American film noir made in 1952 - or any other year from 1933 to 1958 (I'm thinking Touch of Evil here). Él is a hard-hitting drama about a man so jealous he's willing to kill his newly-wed wife for no reason at all, he's just imagining all the things he says his wife is doing behind his back. Yet this is a very funny film, though there's nothing funny about the way the man acts. Buñuel wouldn't be Buñuel, if the film didn't also mock the society and the Catholic church that protect and almost encourage this mad behaviour. Él is a perfect analysis of the narcissistic mind, made almost 50 years before talk about narcissism became commonplace.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: The Glass House

I bought this movie not knowing what to expect, but it was cheap (probably 20 cents) and it had the name of Truman Capote on its cover. It was on VHS, but being an old TV movie that didn't matter much. The cast also was pretty strong, spelled wrong though some of the names were on the Finnish cassette cover ("Vice Morrow"!). The Finnish title means "The Law of the Strongest" (or "The Strong Rules"), and the description of the movie is as wrong as can be, making the film some kind of a vigilance fest.

The story behind The Glass House is interesting. Seems like Truman Capote wrote the original screenplay, but it was so bad another writer was called in, mainly award-winning Tracy Keenan Wynn, who'd written stuff like The Longest Yard and Night Moves. He tossed Capote's script out of the window and started from scratch. Because of the contract with Capote his name had to be kept on the credits (the Finnish cassette cover says it's from Capote's novel). The film was shot in a jail, with inmates working as extras and in bit parts. There's a really gritty feel to the story and atmosphere, and the ending is really bleak. No one would be able to make this on American TV anymore - or maybe, then again, a channel like HBO might. This is a very realistic movie about the jails and the struggle for power in them, and there are not many clichés in it, though there have been lots of realistic jail movies for decades. This is not action-oriented, mind you, it's more a drama with lots of violent tension in the air.

The actors are superb. Vic Morrow as the homosexual gang leader is brilliant, Alan Alda is his usual good self. Clu Culager is for once the good guy, but there are no easy solutions for him in the film. The directing is not very visual, but it's physical and effective. Tom Gries is not known for his insightful films, but his filmography might warrant a second look.

Seems like the film is easily available on DVD, but based on what I've read about other TV movies of this era (the golden era of American TV movies?), that's not always the case.

I don't know who collects nowadays the Tuesday's Overlooked Films posts, can someone shed some light on this? Todd Mason hasn't done a blog post in over a month.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Dan Gilroy: Nightcrawler

I've been saying this a lot lately: Hollywood handles neonoir pretty well these days. Just look at this list: Prisoners, Mud, The Place Beyond the Pines, Killing Them Softly, Out of the Furnace... Also End of Watch and A Walk Among the Tombstones prove my point. Even True Detective (a show I still have to write about) comes from under Ellroy's shadow.

One of these very good neonoirs from Hollywood is Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler that I finally saw the other night. I liked it a great deal - I knew going in I'd like it a great deal. It's a perfect case of noir: you know from the first minute everything is going terribly wrong, but you just can't turn your eyes away. (But saying this doesn't give away the film's superbly ironic ending.) Jake Gyllenhaal is masterful as a narcissistic sociopath who believes the neo-capitalist bullshit about how one can achieve anything if he just takes everything passionately.

Highly recommended. No easy solutions in this film, nor any genre trappings.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Killing of America

The Killing of America by Leonard Schrader and Sheldon Renan from 1982 is a controversial film that has - as far as I understand - never been seen in the US, save for some occasional screenings when it was just released. The American producers backed out on it, thinking it was too extreme and radical. In Finland the film was known mainly through the VHS cassettes that recycled from hand to hand with everyone whispering about the scenes in which real people kill real people.

The Finnish Film Archive has a beautiful 35 mm copy of the film and I just saw it last night. I was a bit surprised and disappointed at the same time. I went in thinking the film consists mainly of the serial killers being interviewed, but there's surprisingly little of this material, though there are some scenes. The Killing of America is a straightforward documentary about the gun culture in the USA, and possibly the anti-gun sentiment in it has made it a forbidden film in America.

But it's also a very grim film, full of shocking imagery and arbitrary violence, make no mistake. There are some scenes I wouldn't want to watch again, though this wasn't made for cheap thrills, like films of the Faces of Death ilk. The directors, Leonard Schrader and Sheldon Renan, approached the theme seriously, Schrader being a known screenwriter (and Paul Schrader's brother) and Renan being an expert on American underground cinema (he's written a book about it). The use of archive material - live TV, surveillance camera shots etc. - makes The Killing of America look at times like an experimental film.

There are, however, some serious problems with the film. The anti-gun sentiment is clear: why are there so few killing in countries like Japan and Germany? Because it's not easy to buy guns there, and families don't pack weapons at home. The Killing of America can't analyze this further, it just points it out. The killings depicted in the film should've been more tightly related to the gun culture of the US. So should've been the argument about the murders of JFK and Robert Kennedy causing a killing spree in the US. What Schrader and Renan are forgetting is the fact that the large media coverage of violence causes more violence, just like there are more suicides if there are more stories about suicides in the media. The Killing of America doesn't question its own role in this process, though one could ask: how should this thing be approached then?

These gripes considered, The Killing of America is still a fascinating film and remits a watch, if one can find a copy. The most fascinating part is the interview of Ed Kemper who talks about his killing spree in a jail. He's self-ironic and almost funny, yet deeply weird. With his new glasses he looks almost hipsterish... I was hoping the film would have more of this stuff.

As an interesting side note, some funny folks from the little town of Pori, Finland, where I grew up made this parody of The Killing of America - called Killing of Pori. Pori is a town of some 77,000 inhabitants, yet the statistics in the beginning of the film claim there are million people killed every year. (You can see the second part here.)

Edit: Oops, I totally ignored the fact that The Killing of America is available for viewing in YouTube. Check it out here. Some stupid commentary under the clip.