Heavy [1995)

Holidays are hard for many people.

Perhaps we think of who we’ve lost.

But also there’s the pressure of the days themselves.

Christmas.  New Year’s Eve.

Even times like the 4th of July.

I didn’t set out to write a heartrending post, but I don’t always know what it is I’m about to watch.

In general, Heavy is not a sad film.

It’s a masterpiece of minimalism.

Every shot…every movement in this movie is lovingly made.

James Mangold created a world which corresponds to the understated expressions of silent films as much as it does to the desperation of everyday life.

I’m sure some people have very happy lives.

But what Mr. Mangold has given us is a look at extreme awkwardness.

Loneliness.

Do you ever feel awkward buying something?

I do.

Every time.

It’s the interaction with people.

It comes and it goes.

But for our protagonist Victor, it mostly comes and stays.

I can’t recall an actor (Pruitt Taylor Vince) getting so much depth out of so few words.

No film I’ve ever seen handles shyness quite like this one.

Victor is a cook at his mom’s little tavern.

It’s the kind of place you’d find in Woodstock.

Kingston.  Poughkeepsie.  West Saugerties.

Though the setting is never named, these are what came to my imagination.

Those places that inspired Mercury Rev to create their masterpiece Deserter’s Songs and, before them, The Band.

But whatever this fictional town, it is positively not cool.

It is in the middle of nowhere.

And so a feeling of desolation pervades this picture.

Victor cares for his mother (played brilliantly by the late Shelley Winters).

They live together…just the two of them.

There’s a little dog.

It’s a quiet life.

Sure, it’s sad.

But it’s life.

Life goes on.

Every day.

Open the tavern.

Pay the delivery man.

Cook the pizzas.

Clean up the broken beer mugs.

It just so happens that the place has a waitress/bartender.

And the actress playing this role indeed had experience.

Max’s Kansas City.

That’s right, Debbie Harry.

Debbie plays Delores.

She’s just as feisty as you’d expect.

She doesn’t put up with any shit.

And so the world goes on.

Day after day.

Status quo.

But one day, a ray of light enters lonely Victor’s world.

Liv Tyler.

You can imagine.

Liv was 18 when this film was made.

Which brings us back to Woodstock proper.

Liv Tyler was born Liv Rundgren.

As in Todd.

It’s a complicated story, but this future actress/model knew Todd Rundgren (producer of The Band’s Stage Fright which was recorded at the Woodstock Playhouse in 1970) as father until well into her life.

Todd, of course, was also a resident of the area.  This was back in the days of Albert Grossman’s Bearsville Records.

Which brings us to another fascinating little town:  Bearsville, New York.

But Liv was obviously the daughter of Steven Tyler (lead singer of Aerosmith).

Liv didn’t find this out till age eight.

Back to our movie…

Into lonely Victor’s life walks a new waitress whose real life genes were those of lippy Steven Tyler and Playboy Playmate Bebe Buell.

That’s no ordinary gene pool.

But this is no ordinary romantic comedy.

In fact, it’s not a romantic comedy.

It’s not funny.

It’s deep.

[He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother]

Because Victor is a portly fellow.

And this bothers him.

It’s something he tries to ignore, but living at home with mom…and being fat…and being shy…

It’s enough to give a guy a complex.

And this is not a rich family.

No psychiatrists here.

Just get up and go to work every day.

Cook breakfast for mom.

Feed the dog.

Go to the little grocery store.

Get some eggs and orange juice.

So I wasn’t sure what I was getting with this movie.

But I’m so glad I watched it.

I wouldn’t really call it an uplifting story, but that’s not the point.

It is cinéma vérité in the truest sense.

And the world needs these kinds of films.

There are no explosions.

Maybe there’s not even a happy ending.

I will leave that for you to discover.

But there are certainly very few cliches.

And so this picture spoke to me in a very deep way.

To reach out to anyone on the Internet who might be reading this.

This is a film about problems.

Not crippling problems which require literal crutches, but crippling all the same.

Pink Floyd summed it up as well as anyone when they sang about “quiet desperation”.

It may be “the English way”, but it’s not a uniquely British phenomenon.

I hate to talk about the “human condition”…because I fear I will sound like one of the putzes who pens the elevator pitches which adorn every film on Netflix [who writes those things?!?], but James Mangold did something very significant with this film.

Even the music is subtly artful.

We can thank Thurston Moore for that.

And so little harmonics and behind-the-bridge pings give depth to Victor’s struggles.

It’s quietness.

Standing by the staircase.

Staring up.

Is mom coming down?

Will the dog come eat his food?

There are heroes in this world.

And sometimes they are right under our noses.

Victor is one of those.

 

-PD

Fargo [1996)

America is getting crazy.

Perhaps we’ve always been crazy.

But it seems like people are flipping out for a multitude of reasons.

Life is unpredictable.

We can only plan so much.

And then random events impress themselves upon us.

In America we had pre-election stress.

Very immense.

And now we have post-election stress.

Perhaps one half of the country was more stressed before, and the other half is more stressed now.

But the side which is stressed now (the losing side) is really pissed off.

And they are baiting.  With night crawlers.

And racing.  With illogic.

It’s a sort of contagion one must be removed from often in order just to survive.

This tension, as it turns out, is aptly symbolized by the film Fargo.

I have never reviewed a Coen brothers film on here till now.

And this is a good one.

I hesitate to call it great.

It’s a little too self-conscious to be great.

But it is a compelling watch nonetheless.

Our director is Joel Coen.  Ethan was producing.

1987.

A tangled web woven by a rather mundane fellow named Jerry Lundegaard.

Up in the Scandinavian north of the USA.

A piece of shit towing a piece of shit.

Fargo, North Dakota.

It’s a sad story.

But funny in its idiosyncrasies.

The everyday life of the Dakotas.

Minnesota.  Iota.

It’s edgy.

Murders.

But in steps the marvelous Frances McDormand.

Such a humanizing presence here.

To draw out “funny-looking”…just “funny-looking”…other than being uncircumcised?

Steve Park is excellent as Mike Yanagita…with a Minnesota accent.

We don’t think of these things as possible.

Down here in Texas.

Like getting cut shaving.

Ouch.

And then a Paul Bunyan axe.

But the bizarre calmness of William H. Macy might take the cake.

Calm until the very end.

Perhaps we would call it bourgeois denial.

And so perhaps panic is natural.

When we see a complete lack of panic replaced by the Nile.

“Funny-looking” comes back.

In several feet of snow.

It might get cold tomorrow (!)…front blowing in.

One socked foot.  Like a periscope.

The sweetest thing is the romance between McDormand and John Carroll Lynch.

At the buffet.  Smorgasbord.  The Swedish meatballs.  Watching TV in bed.

Every night.

And waking up together, every morning.

It is quaint.

It is America.

It is the electoral college.

You have 50 states to which you must appeal.  Convincingly.

Buscemi is pretty priceless.

Foulmouthed small-time criminal…in over his head pretty quick.

Peter Stormare, as it turns out, is actually Swedish.

And taciturn.

And of course we can’t forget the brief candles of José Feliciano.

Not a masterpiece, but strangely compelling.

 

-PD

Umberto D. [1952)

Unglamorous stories.

That is what Italy brought us in the post-war years.

And every “new wave” which has followed owes a debt to the masters like De Sica.

Perhaps you know Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves).

Don’t stop there, dear friend.

Because here we have the precursor to Dante Remus Lazarescu.

Sure.  There is some humor in Umberto D.  A very, very dark humor.

As with Moartea domnului Lăzărescu.

But mostly there is beauty.

Sadness.

Reality.

Cinema.

There is the little dog Flike.  Not Flicka, but Flike (rhymes with psych).  Or bike.

Flike.  Like Céline’s cat Bebert.

And then there is the stunning (STUNNING) acting of Carlo Battisti as Umberto.

There are few performances which can equal it.

Ioan Fiscuteanu did it as Lazarescu.

And that’s about it.

Rarefied air…these two actors.

Let me put it another way.  Umberto D. was Ingmar Bergman’s favorite film.  Do you know what I mean?

The director of Smultronstället and Sommaren med Monika.

Picked one film.  And this was it.

Appropriately, this was Carlo Battisti’s only film role ever.

As the star of Umberto D.

He wasn’t an actor.  He was a linguist.

God damn…

It’s just unreal how good this film is!

But we must also give credit to the indispensable Maria-Pia Casilio.

It is through her eyes that we see the ants…formica in Italian.

In English, we think of a hard composite material.  Formica.  A table top.

But a sort of false cognate brings us back to the archetype which Dalí and Buñuel so evocatively exploited in Un Chien Andalou.  That was 1929.  A film.  The famous eyeball which gets “edited”.  And then the ants were back in La persistència de la memòria.  A painting.  Soft clocks.  You know the one.  And the only differences between Spanish and Catalan in this case are the diacritical marks.

But she burns paper.  To chase the ants.  And the stray cat prowls the roof at night soft as a snowflake.  And the grated skylight is her canvas to dream stretched out in her bed.  And nothing is more morose than a contemplative face at the window looking out on a dingy world.

We sense it did not go easily for Italy.  After the war.  Because when you choose the wrong side you will be punished.

And though Germany was divided and Berlin was the most surreal example of this (being wholly within East Germany…like a Teutonic Swaziland–a Lesotho leitmotiv), Italy still suffered.  We see it in Rossellini.  And we see it here.

Neorealism.  A update on the operas of Mascagni and Leoncavallo.  A continuation of Zola.  A nod to Dostoyevsky.

Verismo.

The star is an old man.  He is not really a hero.  He doesn’t save the world.  There aren’t explosions.

But (BUT)

he does something most extraordinary.  He survives…for a time.  What a miracle!

Ah!  The miracle of everyday life.  We have survived another year.  Another day!

Do you think there will be a war?

[Shame.  The shame of having to ask for help.  Begging for the first time.]

When your bed is a joke.  Newspapers and dust.  And there is a goddamned hole in your wall.  Perhaps.

A missile.  Or The Landlord’s Game (which became Monopoly).

When you are cold with a fever.  As an elderly person.  All your glamorous days have passed.

And you need your coat just to provide a little more warmth.  On top of the blanket.  To make it through the night.

As long.

As long as this film survives, humanity has a chance.

Really.

-PD

Passion [1982)

All you need is the first word.  The first sentence to get you going.

You can meditate.  Think too hard.

And now that it’s started it is gloriously ruined.  Like Kind of Blue.

Miles Davis would tell his players…one take.

Perhaps there were caveats.  But Bill Evans was ready.  Coltrane…

It is the same with “Sister Ray” by The Velvet Underground.

One take.  Make it count.

Everything proceeds from the first word.  But don’t take it too seriously.

It is like many other first words.  “Once upon a time…”

From a mist rises Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.  Bruckner would use the same device many times (no doubt in honor of Ludwig van).

Yes.  We say Ludwig Van in honor of Mauricio Kagel.  And the entire spirit of everything here might be compared to Joseph Beuys.

And just like that <bam> we go over-budget.

Jerzy Radziwilowicz plays the Jean-Luc Godard character here (with the wardrobe ostensibly taken right off the back of Jacques Dutronc).  Thus Godard still creates a distance between his story and THE story.  The whole bit about Poland is made to throw us off the scent (a bit like the glorious obfuscation of Joyce in Finnegans Wake).

We find Godard to be right.  The available forms are too mundane.  The audience stops thinking when they are comfortable.  So we must disorient them a bit–prod like a brainiac Hitchcock.

You see, the most important thing is not who acted in this film.  Rather, the crucial component is the juxtaposition which allows for revelation.

We see the most perfectly-placed tableaux of human paintings.  Come to life.  The proper term is tableau vivant.  Maybe you see them at Christmas.  Perhaps a manger and the Christian genesis.

Ah, but with Godard it is Delacroix and Rubens and Rembrandt etc.  I assume Ingmar Bergman missed this Godard film because the former had already made up his mind regarding the latter.  And thus the admiration flowed in one direction alone.  We see the delicacy of Bergman–that technique of the long shot (temporally speaking).  You can almost imagine Godard telling his cast of thousands in this mini-epic to have no expression at all.

There is a connection to Stravinsky.  Neoclassicism, but really a radical belief in the purity of music.  To paraphrase Igor, “Music doesn’t have meaning.  A note is a note.”  Perhaps I have done the great composer an injustice with my memory.  Yet, a paraphrase is a paraphrase.

We humans are not computers.  No matter how many books we have.  No matter how steel-trap our memory.  No matter how fast our Internet.

And thus, that which is juxtaposed against the meticulous composition of the tableaux vivants?  Everyday life.  Careless shots.  The beauty of the sky.  The natural sway of a handheld camera.  The sun as it burns up the lens upon peeking through the bare trees.  Hanna Schygulla running through the snow with a lavender umbrella.

Real life.  Labor.  A factory.  And who is the real star?  Isabelle Huppert.  Her character in Sauve qui peut (la vie) was not a sympathetic one.  Can we say?  WE had no sympathy for her.  Very little.  Not none.

Yet here…she is the lamb of God (of which she speaks).  Huppert is the labor element.  Workers’ rights.  It is intimated that her monotonous job has caused her to stutter.  Why?  Because it is not easy to talk about the factory.

And why, she asks, are people in films never shown working?  It is not allowed.  Filming in factories.  Indeed, I believe there is a specifically French meaning here.  [And Swiss, as the film is shot in Switzerland.]  But the real shocker?  Work and sex (“pornography”) are equally prohibited on the screen.

Only Godard would find this fascinating link.  And that is why we love him.

But mostly it is another thing.

Life is so much richer in the films of Godard.  Sure, there are some exceptions, but the exceptions themselves are merely the process being revealed.  It is “the thinking life” to paraphrase Henry Miller.

Once you have been there, you don’t want to go back.  Or you can’t go back.  But we do go back.  Thinking is hard work.

And as the world bemoans what havoc Europe has wrought, let it be noted…the Beethovens, Mozarts, Dvoraks…

This is the humanism which little by little comes to occupy the mature films of Jean-Luc Godard.

Most importantly, he never stopped being a critic.

And his film reviews?  They are his films themselves.

-PD