Sunday, December 19, 2004

#7: A Night To Remember


You could fill a whole shelf with movies about the sinking of the Titanic. The first one was made in 1915, just three years after the ship actually sank. A Night To Remember (1958, dir. Roy Ward Baker, written by Eric Ambler from the book by Walter Lord). This one's mostly for the history buffs, I think. Lord's book is an exhaustively researched account of the sinking of the Titanic, and the movie crams as much of what actually happened as possible into its two hours of screen time. I think it's a much better treatment of the subject than the 1997 Titanic, but that's kind of damning with faint praise. Something I didn't know: Fox has produced at least two Titanic films; the first was in 1953 (and won a best screenplay Oscar). Like James Cameron's version, the 1953 film had a fictional love story set on the Titanic: the IMDB has maybe the best ending to any summary on this one: "Their problems soon seem minor when the ship hits an iceberg." That's about the size of it.

So: A Night To Remember. There aren't any fictional subplots in this version, although they do give Second Officer Lightroller all the good lines, whether someone else actually said them or not. The sets look pretty accurate, by which I mean they look just like the sets in Titanic. The grand staircase and first-class dining area get just as much emphasis in this film as the later one: you can see the staircase in the back of this still. The movie opens with a dedication ceremony for the Titanic that never happened, and you get to see the ship dragged out from the drydock into open water. They did this with archival footage of other ships, but it's really impressive. William MacQuitty, who produced the movie, actually saw the Titanic launched. Didn't see it sink, though.

One of the problems with writing anything based on actual events is that people who were there are going to be very concerned with how they appear in the movie. In this movie the big loser is J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line. I don't remember how he's treated in the 1997 version, but in this one, he's an ineffectual coward who sneaks onto a lifeboat at the last minute. Apparently his wife was none too pleased with this movie, for good reason. Everyone else comes off all right, though. My favorite character is Thomas Andrews, the designer of the ship. His last scene in the first class dining room is the one point where the movie achieves a real sense of tragedy. An honorable mention goes to the ship's baker, who gets increasingly drunker and drunker during the sinking: he has a bottle of whiskey hidden in a dresser drawer and keeps returning to it until his cabin is underwater. As it turns out, this actually happened: despite not being allowed to have alcohol on board per White Star policy, this guy did, and told people about it afterwards. He survived, of course: patron saint of drunks and all that.

Because the filmmakers where very concerned with accuracy and completeness, the movie spends a lot of time on boats that were near the Titanic when she sank, most notably the Californian. This is the boat that was closest, but didn't respond to wireless calls for help or distress flares. Actually, Cameron apparently shot a whole sequence on the Californian as well, but cut it from the film. These guys come off a little worse than Ismay: the captain can't be bothered to get out of bed, the wireless operator goes to sleep and misses the calls for help, and the crewmen who see the flares decide that the Titanic must be celebrating. These guys are my kind of sailors. That said, these sequences kind of kill the momentum of what's going on on the Titanic itself, and I don't think the movie would be worse for cutting them.

The special effects are pretty impressive: there are a lot of model shots that look passable, if not great. In addition, a gigantic replica of the center portion of the ship was constructed on land, and some shots were done with other ships painted to look like the Titanic. At the time this was made, people didn't know the Titanic broke in two before she sank, so that doesn't happen, but through the magic of a tilted set and even more tilted cameras, you do get to see the mad rush to the back of the boat as it starts going down, complete with people hanging from the railings and sliding haphazardly down the deck into the icy water. They filmed the engine room sequences in the last working engine like what was on the Titanic, on a dam somewhere in England. And all the other sequences that you'd expect are here: Captain Smith returns to the bridge to go down with the ship, Thomas Andrews stands in the empty first class lounge listening to the creaks of the ship as it goes down, Guggenheim and his valet dress formally to go down like gentlemen (I wonder what the valet thought of that, though; I think I'd quit at that point), Molly Brown is sturdy, vulgar, and American.

All the detail is kind of the problem, though: the movie feels to me like it's too much just one thing after another. And then this happened, and then that happened, and so on. I think it would be a wonderful movie if you knew a little about the sinking of the Titanic and wanted to learn more, or if you were already a buff. I'm not really in either of those categories, so I can't recommend the movie wholeheartedly.

Monday, November 29, 2004

#2: Seven Samurai


So, after a long delay thanks to Netflix sending me the wrong version, I've finally seen Seven Samurai (1954, dir. Akira Kurosawa, written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni). If you're a language purist, you can call it Shichinin no samurai, or for real deal insane purists, 七人の侍.

I've got a sordid past with this movie, actually. In fall of 1997 I took The Feature Film at Williams, which was a great class, despite being a gigantic lecture-type thing. Jim Shepard, Shawn Rosenheim, and Stephen Tifft taught it; they were great, the class was great, and what interest I have in film these days has a lot to do with that experience. If you'd like a taste of the class, here's Jim Shepard's review of Analyze This, which ends up being more or less about The Godfather and Goodfellas. I think he wrote a more recent essay about those movies in The Believer but I don't have that issue. Anyway, point is, these guys were solid; I never missed a lecture. For me to be up in the morning that fall was no small feat. So. As I recall, screenings of movies were Monday nights at 7:00 and 9:00, class was Tuesday & Thursday mornings, and we did a movie a week. Being the kind of slackass I am, I pretty much only made the 9:00 screenings. When Seven Samurai was showing, I came, as always, to the 9:00 screening. I was there a few minutes after 9:00, and the movie had already started. So I sat down and watched an hour and a half long movie about samurai. I didn't think Kurosawa did a great job developing the characters, but I enjoyed it. The next day in lecture, we watched a clip, which I'd never seen, and which was far too long to have been shown between 9:00 and 9:05. So I did a little research on the web and realized there'd only been a 7:00 showing; I'd been two hours late and had no idea. Point is, this is a long, long movie, a solid 207 minutes. So be prepared for that.

That said, watch it in one sitting, it's great. The movie suffers a little from the sense of belatedness that I talked about when writing about Grand Illusion, and I want to revise my comments there. I mean belatedness in the "arriving too late at the party to appreciate the innovations in the movie since I've seen them revised and improved upon since then" sense, if that is, in fact, a sense. For non-English majors, the English major sense of the word is "having arrived too late on the historical scene, at the end of a Western modernity that had completely mapped out the landscape in advance." Not my definition (stole it from here), but it's pretty good. It's usually a synonym for "why I can't finish my novel." Point is: when writing about Grand Illusion, I implied that belatedness was mostly a problem for technical innovations, and now I see that isn't true; narrative innovations suffer from it too. And I guess I mean narrative innovations in the sense of "plot points," not storytelling techniques. Seven Samurai has been ripped off more times than I can count. It's about a group of villagers in midieval Japan who hire a group of Samurai (one guess how many) to protect them from a roving gang of bandits. The first half of the movie covers hiring the bandits and building defenses around the village; the second half is all about the attack. There are entire scenes that have been lifted out of this movie into others; the whole sequence where the ragtag band of Samurai are recruited is in heist movies, escape movies, defend the village from the bandits movies, and so on and so forth. The samurai themselves have been put in other movies; there's:

  • Kikuchiyo: The wild and crazy guy who doesn't seem to have the discipline to be a samurai at first. Desparate to prove himself worthy. Has a mysterious past.
  • Kambei: The wise, older samurai who leads the group. He has a great sense of the absurd and tragic, but perserveres.
  • Heihachi: The guy who can always be counted on to make a good natured joke and brighten the mood when things seem hopeless.
  • Katsushiro: Rich, young, inexperienced, over-eager, he proves himself in the end

And so on. These characters have shown up in some version or other again and again and again. Kurosawa didn't invent these characters, but if you take any movie that features a motley gang facing impossible odds, from The Usual Suspects to Hard Ball (that's right, I said Hard Ball), you'll see these guys show up. And as Hard Ball taught us all, the most important thing in life is showing up.* Kurosawa does these characters better than most other people, but I've seen them before. So don't expect many narrative surprises from this movie.

The acting is solid straight through. Toshirô Mifune is a whole lot of fun as Kikuchiyo; he takes an insane amount of glee in causing chaos. There's a great sequence where he goes behind enemy lines to steal one of the bandits' three matchlock rifles. Kikuchiyo kills a bandit, wears his clothes, sits happily down next to another bandit on guard, who thinks he's one of them. The bandit says something about what a rough time they're having and Kikuchiyo says something along the lines of "Don't worry. Your suffering will soon be over." They have a whole conversation like that, and finally the bandit realizes what's up just in time to be gutted. It doesn't sound as funny as it actually is. Also, throughout the whole movie he torments Yohei, one of the most feckless of the feckless villagers, and his imitation of him is priceless. I'd like to see Mifune in other movies; I'm not sure if any of his other films are part of the collection.. Looking at his credits, I see he was cast as Admiral Yamamoto no fewer than four times; did he resemble him physically or was he just the go-to guy for Yamamoto impersonations?

The DVD includes the intermission, which has an overture. It's a nice touch. It reminded me of a question I've had for a while that isn't related to Seven Samurai. In Italy, movies are always shown with an intermission. Even if there's no break, they have a slight pause in the middle, and sometimes they break for as long as ten minutes. This is true when movies are broadcast on television as well; there's a break (and that's where they run commercials, about five minutes worth, but the rest of the movie is uninterrupted, which is much nicer than every fifteen minutes). Anyway, when I asked about it, I was told that the break in the middle was for a reel change. But reels of film are much shorter than 45 minutes to an hour, on any projector I've seen, and if they're using platters, they shouldn't need to change reels at all. So what gives? Are Italian movies projected on platters or with five or six reels like American ones? I thought projector designs were pretty standard internationally. Is the intermission just a tradition there? The break is actually on the films, it's not like they stop it arbitrarily; there's a title that comes up announcing the first part of the film is over. If anyone knows the answer to this, please let me know, cause I've wondered about it for years.

Back to Seven Samurai, random notes and observations.

  • Seeing the word "Sheeyit" in a subtitle (spelled like that) is an interesting experience.
  • Kurosawa does this thing where he cuts onn an action, e.g., you see Kambei draw his sword in a shot from behind and halfway through drawing it, you cut to a shot facing him and he charges toward the camera. I'm mostly interested in screenplays right now but if I ever start editing film that's a trick I'm going to remember, cause it makes the action seem very fast.
  • I've never seen a movie with more detailed tactical information about the critical battle. You're walked through every step of defending the village and really know all the weak points. I could draw a map of the village. The sequence where Kambei plans the defenses and simultaneously shows you each part of the village is really genius: it gets an incredible amount of information across but every scene in that sequence advances the plot; it's not exposition.
  • That said, the longer the battle for the village goes on, the more the tactics fall apart, and the end is just this giant mess of a battle. In pouring rain, which just makes it messier.
  • Kambei knows how many bandits there are, and he has a drawing with a circle for each one. Every time they kill one, he crosses out a circle. It's a really nice visual, and it also lets the audience know exactly where we are in the battle. The DVD menu mimics this: there's a circle for each menu item and you move a cross from circle to circle to select things. It's a very nice design job.

That's all for this one. The 400 Blows is going to have to wait until I can borrow the Criterion Collection edition from my friend Chad Shonk. So next will probably be A Night To Remember. Non-Criterion Collection recommendations: The Incredibles, Maria Full of Grace, and Final Destination 2. The last one less than the first two.

*N.B.: I don't actually like Hard Ball.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

#4: Amarcord

Amarcord (1974, dir. Federico Fellini, written by Federico Fellini & Tonino Guerra). This is a movie I've had the opportunity to see in the past and I didn't do it, pretty much strictly because of the graphic design on the poster—the seventies were not kind, as far as fonts go. Anyway, I guess I figured Fellini was right on the edge of being completely self-indulgent in , and I couldn't imagine he got more restrained in his old age. I was wrong, though; this is worth seeing.

Or at least it was worth seeing for me. I'm a sucker for Italian movies; I lived in L'Aquila from 1994–1995, and I miss the country and the language something fierce. So seeing anything shot there is nice for me; I always see something I'd forgotten about. In this movie, it was the obituary posters that people put up on city walls when someone dies. It took me a long time when I got over there to figure out what those were about; being American I figured they were ads, until I read enough Italian to put it together. I also really enjoy hearing the language again. It takes me about twenty minutes to reacclimate myself to it, and then I can understand it again. But back on point:

"Amarcord" is a dialect contraction of "mi ricordo," which means "I remember." Actually, looking at it, the dialect is probably from "a me, mi ricordo," which is the same thing, only even more reflexive. Gotta love Italian. The movie is pretty formless; it covers a year, from spring to spring; towards the end, there's a scene with a banner reading "VII Mille Miglia," which would be April 1933 (thanks, Google!). So let's say it's spring to spring, 1932–1933. Anyway, it's basically a year in the life of an Italian town at that time; there's a teenage protagonist who is in many of the scenes, but not all by a long shot, and although the plot mostly revolves around his family, it's pretty much just one damn thing after another; there's not much progression. I guess that is part of the point with a memory piece like that, though. This would be about ten years into Mussolini's rule, and the war that's on its way kind of hangs over the movie; it's never really mentioned explicitly, but you're always very aware that you're looking at a world that is now gone. The closest thing to it I can think of in terms of tone is In the Mood for Love, although that has a little more of a story (but is also more boring; go figure). Anyway. Fellini being Fellini, there are a lot of abrupt fantasy sequences, some of which are hilarious (e.g., there's a wedding between a fat kid and a cute girl his age, presided over by a gigantic (and really frightening) billboard of Mussolini's disembodied head). Scene for scene, it's pretty entertaining, which is often all I ask of a movie. But I wouldn't want to read the screenplay.

So why give a recommend to a movie with no plot? Cinematography, cinematography, cinematography. Giuseppe Rotunno shot this movie, and it's beautiful. He's worked on just about everything, although his most recent American work is, well, I don't know; maybe it's beautifully shot too, but I'm not going to watch the movies and find out: he did Regarding Henry, Wolf, and the 1995 version of Sabrina. But Amarcord is one of those very painterly 70s films. My roommate says it was probably done with Technicolor's "imbibition" process, a dye transfer that produced really rich colors. The Godfather, Part II was developed with that process, so if you think of the visual tone of that, you've got what Amarcord looks like: very rich yellows, and the whole screen kind of glows; it looks like everything was shot right as the sun went down.. Grab just about any still from this movie and it will look good. I'm not usually a nut for cinematography, and I'm much less of one now than I used to be, but man did Giuseppe Rotunno nail this.

Last thing: Fellini: not a fan of the Twiggy-style woman. And very much into the ass. I knew that from , but he really goes overboard in this one.

Monday, November 08, 2004

#3: The Lady Vanishes


Seven Samurai will unfortunately have to wait: Netflix sent me a different, non-Criterion edition (a real Japanese edition, from the looks of it). Oddly, the sleeve still said "The Criterion Collection," so I think that someone has been taking the Criterion editions and replacing them with cheaper editions of the same movies. So:

The Lady Vanishes (1938, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder from a novel by Ethel Lina White). This is a weird one: it starts as a comedy, turns into a thriller and ends up an action movie, albeit an early, pre special-effects and choreography action movie. The beginning is genuinely funny and the suspense part is genuinely creepy, but the end is kind of a drag. Margaret Lockwood stars as Iris, a young woman returning from a central European country to England to get married. Michael Redgrave is a music theorist; they're taking the same train back. Dame May Witty plays Mrs. Froy, the Lady in the title. As you might have guessed, at a certain point in the movie, she vanishes.

You could never get away with the structure of this movie if you were writing it today: the first twenty-three minutes are straight comedy, with a crazy ethnic hotelier, a pair of cricket-obsessed Englishmen, a hotel room full of scantily clad (well, for 1938) women, and lots of slapstick. Nothing even vaguely ominous or suspenseful happens until this long comedy section is finished: I can't imagine a script reader making it far enough to realize that this wasn't a comedy. And what McKee would call the "inciting incident" doesn't happen until later, at least thirty-five minutes in. Not to say that the beginning isn't funny: it is. Margaret Lockwood and Mrs. Froy hear odd banging noises from the room above them and send the hotel manager up to get the guest up there to shut up: he enters to find Michael Redgrave lying in bed loudly playing a clarinet while four elderly natives of the country perform a peasant dance with lots of stomping and clapping. He keeps stopping them to take notes (he's working on a book about native dances or something). Anyway, the scene is exactly what you expect is going on when people a floor up are making weird noises.

Once Mrs. Froy disappears, the movie really takes off. Iris takes a nap on a train; when she goes to sleep, Mrs. Froy is in the seat facing her. When she awakens, Froy is gone, and everyone on the train denies ever having seen her. It's creepy, and the other people on the train are all really grotesque. There's an Italian magician named Doppo who has this very threatening grin all the time, a bride-of-frankenstein looking Baroness who's always looking disapprovingly, a brain surgeon from Prague who has kind of a Dracula look about him; none of them are travelling companions you'd want. After Margaret Lockwood has been searching for Mrs. Froy a while, she reappears in the same sleeper car. Only it's not her, it's a woman who looks nothing like her. You see her first from behind annd she looks like the missing woman. The shot of her turning toward the camera is really striking; it's Freud's uncanny in action. There's also a really bizarre sequence where Mrs. F's face is superimposed on the face of the other people in the sleeper car.

Once the mystery is solved, there's a long, pretty much unnecessary sequence with a shoot-out and a train / automobile chase. It goes on too long and it doesn't really add anything. As train chases go, it's much worse than The General. All the major plot stuff has been resolved by this point. There are a lot of surprises and reversals until this sequence but this part is just straightforward. According to the commentary, this section was added by the screenwriters at Hitchcock's request. Maybe he really, really wanted to shoot something with trains and the production had some money left over; along with the comic opening, this part is really strange structurally.

The last weird thing about this movie from a plot perspective: nothing bad happens to the villians, which is really a shame; they're not exactly complicated characters, so they don't need a big realization of what they've done. But you would expect at least Paul Lukas's brain surgeon to meet some terrible fate: he really is a great villian and the story just kind of drops him. Everyone escapes, but that's it. Also, the bad guys are really terrible shots.

Despite the slow opening and unnecessary action ending, the movie's worth seeing for the middle part, which is ace suspense. I'd recommend steering clear of the DVD extras, though. There's a terrible demonstration of the restoration work, which (a) they didn't do a very good job on; there are a lot of visible hairs and scratches on this version and (b) the demo itself is terrible; it's just four sequences played in gradual faster motion, with no explanation of how the work is done, what print they were working from, or anything. The commentary is all right, but focuses more on the careers of the various people involved in the project than on the actual movie that's showing. Which is really all I'm interested in.

Final note: Margaret Lockwood and Linden Travers: stone cold foxes.

Friday, October 29, 2004

#1: Grand Illusion

Grand Illusion (1937, directed by Jean Renoir, written by Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak) isn't the kind of movie I usually go nuts about, but I did enjoy it. It's set, for the most part, in a series of German POW camps during World War One. Renoir got the idea for the story from a pilot he knew during the war who was shot down seven times, captured by the Germans seven times, and escaped from POW camps seven times. Renoir was himself a pilot; the DVD features a still of him in a completely ridiculous all-wooden plane. Anyway, the movie isn't really much like the idea; it's not a Stalag 17 or whatever. You only see one actual escape attempt (though a few happen off-screen). Mostly, it's about I'd seen one other Renoir movie before this one, The Rules of the Game. Which, incidentally, is fantastic.

Grand Illusion isn't quite my cup of tea. Renoir's thing is kind of elaborate shots that have been really carefully blocked out and framed. An example in this movie is a really neat shot where the camera circles around a dinner table; although the conversation seems natural, everyone who's talking is in frame as the camera goes counter-clockwise. It's really claustrophobic and cool; and it's also been copied and refined since then. Shoulders of giants and all that: Scorsese does the same stuff, but better. Not a fair comparison, because he had better equipment and much more money. But because I saw Goodfellas before Grand Illusion, I wasn't as surprised or amazed by the camera work as I might have been otherwise. And yes, yes, Scorsese wouldn't have been able to do his thing without studying Renoir and people who learned from him, but the end result is that although the camera work is really, really impressive in this movie, I appreciated it abstractly more than viscerally. T.S. Eliot (who I've been loathe to quote since a high school phase, but wait for it):

Someone said: "The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did." Precisely, and they are what we know.

So, you know, Renoir's got that going for him. I mean, Eliot's right, and it's the reason for studying older art generally. But in film more than other arts, there's a thrill in seeing something being done for the first time that can't be reproduced by watching a movie nearly seventy years after the fact. And I think it has a lot to do with the fact that film is so dependent on technology, in a way that literature isn't; writing hasn't really changed that much in the last thousand years. Don't get me wrong--there are techniques that are developed and refined over time, and writers build on their forebears. But it's still language; it's not like that has been improved on so much recently. Not like, say, Steadicams. The movies I think are really great are about narrative, not technique, and they stand up. Grand Illusion has a lot of very obvious technique, so some of it feels dated; what my friend Adam calls a "homework movie."

The acting is quality: Erich Von Stroheim is great as a German career officer. He shoots down the two main characters at the beginning of the war, and disappears from the movie till about the halfway point, when he's been seriously injured and is running a prison camp that's supposed to be impossible to escape from. Once injured, he limps around in a corset and neck brace, wearing white gloves to cover horrific burns. He's better in Sunset Boulevard but he's pretty amazing here. And the shot that announces his return is a classic horror-movie style thing; the camera tracks over all his (really bizarre) possessions, then settles on his orderly, getting his white gloves ready, follows him all over the room, and finally puts Von Stroheim in the frame. Picture worth a thousand words:

The DVD has a really cool extra on the restoration of the film; a little of the history. The movie was released in 1937. There was an American version, much shorter. Grand Illusion in this version screened at the White House on Eleanor Roosevelt's birthday--after seeing it, FDR said "Everyone who believes in democracy should see this film." I think politicians should endorse movies and books more often; this is a good start. The Nazis banned the movie, but they saved a print or two. When Berlin fell, these were shipped back to Moscow by the Russians, who looted the German film archives (well, not so much looted as "carefully catalogued," but still). In 1958, a restored version was made from a duped negative; it was very scratchy, and the whole right side of the film was blurry. Criterion did a restoration job on this version in the eighties, but it was still pretty scratchy and blurry. In the early nineties, though, the original camera negative (the film that was actually running through the camera when it was shot) was found in the Russian film archives, and that's what Criterion restored for this edition. The featurette shows each version; you see the scratches, hair, cigarette burns, and blurry focus disappear with each successive restoration.

Random notes and things I liked:

  • Some phrases stay in English, even in Europe, e.g., "Top Model." I was really happy to see someone credited as "Script Girl" in the otherwise all-French credits.
  • Not just FDR: Benito Mussolini liked this movie enough that he invited Renoir to lecture on film at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. Weirder still, he did it. No word as to whether the Duce said "Everyone who believes in fascism should see this film!"
  • Casablanca wasn't the first movie in which French patriots drown out Germans by singing La Marseillaise.
  • BONUS FEATURE: KNOW YOUR NAZIS!!!: The guy who does the audio essay on this DVD incorrectly identifies the song the Germans are singing in Casablanca as the Horst Wessel song. It's actually "Wacht am Rhein."
  • Clever dialogue from an aristocrat lamenting democratization: "The pox used to be our privilege, but not anymore. Cancer and gout aren't working class diseases, but they will be, believe me."
  • I can't stand scenes between lovers where they both are facing the camera. This works on stage but good riddance to this in film.
  • The narrative structure of this movie is very, very weird. It's three acts and an epilogue, I guess, but the third act (in which two of the main characters hide out with a German woman near the Swiss border) seems very out of place--the rest of it is all men, all the time. This last part starts about twenty minutes before the end of the movie, so you're not expecting a big shift in focus there. It's kind of like the early stuff in Mexico in The Wild Bunch, all of a sudden you're surrounded by domestic stuff that was completely lacking before. But it happens very late in the movie and really doesn't seem that connected to the rest of the story.

Next up, Seven Samurai.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

#258: Tanner '88

Robert Altman and Gary Trudeau collaborated on this HBO series, which follows a fictional presidential candidate through the Democratic primaries, from New Hampshire to the convention floor in Atlanta. Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy, who you might remember from Magnolia or Nashville) is a left-of-center candidate who goes to real campaign events throughout, from a meeting with a community group in the projects of Detroit to a fundraiser in Los Angeles. The joke is, they actually followed the primary campaign very closely, and so Tanner meets with all kinds of people who were players that year, from Bob Dole to Kitty Dukakis. In fact, it seems like Altman ambushed several of these people—Pat Robertson seems to have no idea who Tanner is, but he shakes his hand and wishes him luck.

The production values on this show are pretty terrible—it’s all shot on video using hand-held cameras. Apparently it was a very rushed and it looks it—Altman talks at one point about waiting anxiously by the fax machine for new plot points from Trudeau, who was writing at the last minute so he could respond to current events (and they do a pretty good job of this). It has that cheap-video sheen to the colors, which I find very hard to watch. And it’s typical Altman style on the sound mix, too, by which I mean muddy and confused; I found it easier to follow at many points if I had the subtitles on.

The acting is kind of suprisingly bad for such a good cast. Michael Murphy's consistently good, but a lot of it looks like improv that wasn't rehearsed enough. Which is probably exactly what it was. Cynthia Nixon is in this, looking about 14 (she would have just turned 22). Pamela Reed does a pretty good job too, as Tanner's campaign manager. The rest I could take or leave.

The fun of this isn't the actors, though, it's the background of the real campaign. There are some things that I think would have made more sense in 1988 (I have a copy of What It Takes, so I should know more about that year, but the fact is I've started it three times and never made it to page 100, so that's probably not going to happen). Anyway, I get the sense there are in-jokes. For example, at the New Hampshire campaign stops, Al Haig's supporters are always drunk and running through the hotels wreaking frat-boy-style havoc. No idea what that's about, but I like the sound of it.

There's also at least one secret history-type connection: After dropping out of the real race, Bruce Babbit did an extended cameo in which he gives Tanner advice on continuing to run; they both talk about how artificial the other candidates seem. Babbit says that he thinks that someone should ask one of them what the price of a quart of milk was, that none of them would know; they don't deal with that part of the world at all anymore. Four years later, somebody baffled Paul Tsongas at a campaign stop with that very question (I think he asked about a gallon, not a quart, but still). I'd like to think the questioner (some anonymous New Hampshire resident) saw Tanner '88 back in the day. Other cameos, all of whom are playing themselves: Jesse Jackson, Chris Matthews, Michael Kinsley, Ralph Nader, Gloria Steinem, Rebecca De Mornay, and Waylon Jennings. And those are just the ones I recognized. Like Wonkette says, there's famous, and then there's famous for Washington.

The show's not just a parade of cameos, though—although most of the show isn't especially moving or convincing, it does have a few scenes that are pretty amazing. The one that got to me most has Michael Murphy and Cynthia Nixon on the convention floor in Atlanta while they're still setting up, before the delegates arrive. He says something like, "We made it, honey," and she says "We sure did, dad." Then the camera zooms out as Tanner walks across the floor and climbs up on the still-under-construction podium: as he goes, in the background you hear exerpts from famous speeches by Democrats past: FDR, Adlai Stevenson (this one I can't find on the net, but it's the one where he talks about being governed at last by reason and by law), LBJ, Kennedy, and Cuomo, from just four years earlier. Anyway, I've linked to the speeches, but the passages themselves are pretty choice; e.g., here's the part of Cuomo's speech they use:

We believe as Democrats, that a society as blessed as ours, the most affluent democracy in the world's history, one that can spend trillions on instruments of destruction, ought to be able to help the middle class in its struggle, ought to be able to find work for all who can do it, room at the table, shelter for the homeless, care for the elderly and infirm, and hope for the destitute. And we proclaim as loudly as we can the utter insanity of nuclear proliferation and the need for a nuclear freeze, if only to affirm the simple truth that peace is better than war because life is better than death.

Oh, also, this series contains the worst wedding toast ever, given by Tanner's estranged father at his son's wedding; it's something like this:

100 years ago, after a particularly grueling session of Parliament, William Gladstone shouted across the aisle to his arch-rival Benjamin Disraeli, "You'll end up on the gallows or with venereal disease!" Disraeli retorted, "That depends, sir, on whether I embrace your principles, or your mistress." I bring this up because...

And then somebody cuts him off. Too, too droll. I leave you with a bit of Tanner in 2004, talking about losing:

There are no moral victories in politics. There's only winning. And if you have even the slightest doubt about that, you shouldn't be in it. You should move aside for those who care enough to do what it takes to win.

I didn't used to think that was true, but this election I'm not sure.


Hello, and welcome to The Criterion Contraption, the newest project in my campaign against spending any of my free time outdoors. Here's the way we play the game: I just subscribed to Netflix cause they lowered the price. I've put the entire Criterion Collection of DVDs into my Netflix queue, and I'm going to watch them all; I figure $20 a month is a fair price to pay for a basic grounding in world cinema. If you're not familiar, Criterion is a company that's been releasing high-end laserdiscs and DVDs for years; they're known for incredibly lavish extras, and beautiful film transfers & restoration work. The DVD part of their collection (I won't be watching the laserdiscs) can be found here. Here are the rules:
  1. I'm going to watch the movies in more or less catalog order (except the first one, which I'd been really wanting to see).
  2. If I can't find the Criterion edition, I'll watch whatever I can find. If you have any out of print titles you want to loan me, I won't say no.
  3. I'll watch all the extras and commentary tracks. Since I'm getting them from Netflix, however, I won't have access to any of the essays included on the DVD inserts.
  4. I'm going to write somewhere between 500 and 1000 words about each one. This is not, not, not film criticism, just trying to organize my thoughts after watching these movies.
  5. For the short-attention-span crowd, I'll head each post like it's coverage, e.g., RECOMMEND, STRONG CONSIDER, CONSIDER, MILD CONSIDER, PASS. From good to bad.
So. Welcome! UPDATE: Added a few rules, linked to the collection's website (H/T: Rog).