Thursday, May 29, 2008


Cinemetrics is a website devoted to compiling Average Shot Lengths, or ASLs, of films both new and old. It is by no means complete, as it consists of user submissions, but it's fascinating nonetheless. It's interesting to see the difference between silent classics like The Great Train Robbery (ASL: 49 seconds) and newer films like Land of the Dead (ASL: 2.5 seconds). Some directors are more extreme than others. Avant Garde filmmaker Jan Svankmajer actually manages to break the two-second barrier, while Andrei Tarkovsky, a personal favorite of mine, comes in at a whopping 70 seconds per shot. Pre-1960, the average for all the films listed is roughly ten seconds-- only the Russian proponents of montage like Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein get below 3-- but from then on it goes down by half to around five seconds. A sign of technical progress, or merely reduced attention spans?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Frustrating Film Career Of Albert Brooks

I like Albert Brooks as an actor and a comedian. I think he’s a smart guy with a sense of humor that you don’t find that often in American movies. With this in mind, I find it strange that Brooks-- whose career began with a series of shorts on Saturday Night Live and includes films like Lost in America and Defending Your Life -- has never made a film I really love. His acting is fine, his dialogue is snappy, and the plots of his films usually seem well-conceived, but for me there’s always something that feels wholly unsatisfying about his movies.

Brooks is often described as a forgotten auteur of American cinema, a statement that I find both accurate and possibly misleading. It is certainly true that he occupies a fiercely unique position in modern film. Not only does he write and direct all his movies, but he also stars in them, usually playing a strange amalgam of himself (sometimes literally) and a fictional character. More than any filmmaker I can think of, Brooks has taken the Woody Allen style of filmmaking and run with it. But despite establishing himself as one of the most idiosyncratic comedians around, he’s never gained the commercial or artistic notoriety that has always followed the likes of Allen or other actor-directors like John Cassavettes.

Some of this is undoubtedly due to Brooks’ sly, low-key style, which combines cerebral humor and a whopping dose of irony. As a stand up comedian he was known for his self-reflexive routines, which often revolved around confusing his audience with what appeared to be a failed performance before bringing down the house with a well-timed punchline (he performs just such a routine in a segment of 2005’s Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World, with mixed results). He is a comedian unafraid of letting his jokes fly over the heads of his audience members, so it’s no surprise that he appeals to a niche fan base.

The problem with Brooks is that he tries to bring such a free-form style-- which may very well work in a stand-up setting-- to his movies. While this kind of drollness is undoubtedly what gives him some of his charm, it’s also why his movies never work as consistent pieces of entertainment. It’s as though he makes a movie for the sake of committing a few good scenes to celluloid, and then halfheartedly fills in the gaps. The result is that his movies drag a great deal, and are often filled with ill-advised plot twists that rob the stories of their inertia.

Such a scene occurs midway through Brooks’ Lost In America, a movie that many consider to be his best. The story follows a couple (Brooks and Julie Haggerty) that take off on the road in an RV after quitting their jobs and rejecting their middle-class lifestyle. It's quite funny for its first half, with Brooks the suburbanite lamely truing to model his life on Easy Rider, but before the film can really explore the complexities of this concept, it falls off the rails. In a wildly unoriginal plot twist, the two gamble away all their money in Las Vegas and end up penniless and stranded. From there on the film devolves into half-baked attempts at satire of the American Dream, but it never regains the momentum of its earlier half. The problem is that this kind of shoddy plotting isn't confined to just this film. Similar moments can be found in Mother and Modern Romance, and really the less said about Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World and The Muse, the better.

Not surprisingly, the two best Albert Brooks films are the ones that rely on the most high concept plot devices: his film debut Real Life and 1991’s Defending Your Life. Both films are so tied to a dramatic conceit-- a mockumentary and a lighthearted exploration of the afterlife-- that they manage to work as more than the sum of their parts. Defending Your Life has a near-perfect cast and manages to be the most charming and all-around watchable of Brooks’ films, and Real Life is an incisive satire that managed to anticipate the reality TV craze a whole two decades before it really caught on. Its documentary framing technique works with Brooks’ self-referential style as well as it ever would on film, and it probably has the most laugh-out-loud moments of any of his movies. The special model of camera the crew uses to simulate human vision and hearing is enough to make me laugh every time:

One would've hoped that Brooks would continue in this same vein of bizarre, postmodern comedy, but that was not to be the case. For whatever reason, his directorial career just sort of fizzled out after Defending Your Life, and if his last two efforts are any indication, it shows little promise of picking up. Who knows? Maybe he found so much success as a character actor that his own films just became an afterthought. Whatever the reason, Brooks is still a filmmaker worth recognizing, if only for the distinctive way that he has decided to stake out his career. And in this respect, I suppose he is something of an unrecognized film artist.

Monday, May 19, 2008

"It's Over, I Think": Casualties of War (1989)

Made in 1989 on the heels of the flashier, bigger-budget efforts by Coppola, Stone, and Kubrick, Brian De Palma’s Vietnam drama Casualties of War has fallen into abject obscurity over the years. This is unfortunate, because while the films by those other directors are all significant achievements in their own right, Casualties may well be the movie that delivers the most affecting take on the moral, ethical, and spiritual sacrifices of that particular war. A humanist vision of the Vietnam conflict, it falls somewhere between Apocalypse Now’s nightmarish surrealism and Full Metal Jacket’s cynical detatchment, yet manages to be more personal and self-contained than Platoon (which for me seems to hold up less and less with each viewing). Whereas the Big Three were all more sweeping, operatic takes on the horror of combat-- I almost hesitate to call Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket "Vietnam movies" at all, since they focus so much on war and violence in the abstract-- Casualties is insular, focusing on one man’s experience of a single incident. This is itself an anomaly in all war movies, most of which span large periods of time in an attempt to capture the spirit of a conflict as a whole. The genius of Casualties of War, as in a film like Paths of Glory, is that it manages to use a seemingly minor event as an illustration of the insanity of the War at large-- and in doing so makes a rather chilling statement about what is truly won and lost on the battlefield.

The film, which is based on a true story, stars Michael J. Fox-- whose career before and after its release have no doubt led to its not being taken seriously by some-- as Chris Eriksson, a family man who is less than a month in-country at the story’s beginning. He has been assigned to a squad led by Tony Meserve (Sean Penn), a New York native whose brash courage and seeming invincibility on the battlefield-- he saves Eriksson’s life in the film’s harrowing opening sequence-- have seen him promoted to Sergeant despite being scarcely over the age of twenty. After Meserve’s good friend Brown is killed by a Viet Cong sniper attack only days before the completion of his tour, the Sergeant becomes bitter, and his disgust with the locals he feels are conspiring against him turns to outright malice. When the squad returns to the field, Meserve surprises his men, especially the green Eriksson, by kidnapping a local girl to bring along as “portable R & R.” While the other soldiers’ reactions range from detached bemusement to outright bloodlust, new father Eriksson balks at what he realizes is nothing less than premeditated rape and murder. When Meserve actually follows through with his vile promise, Eriksson is forced into a crisis of conscience, torn between remaining loyal to his brothers in arms or bringing to light the blatant immorality of their actions.

De Palma, whom I’ve admittedly never been much a fan of, directs the film with a kind of measured energy that adds volumes to the intensity and emotional impact of the conflict. He’s always had an eye for composing interesting shots, but too often in his films they feel hollow and devoid of meaning-- stylistic flourishes present for their own sake. But here he seems to have finally found the right environment in which to unleash his gliding steadicam, point-of-view shots, and dutch angles-- all of which he uses to create an engaging opening combat sequence that does about as good a job of recreating the feeling of actually being in a firefight as any film I can think of. Similarly, when the terrifying scenes of the girl’s assault finally occur, he does a fantastic job of putting the audience in Eriksson’s shoes as he witnesses the crime. The way he handles space in the scene is impeccable. The audience feels separated and sickeningly involved in the act at the same time, and the result is perhaps the most disturbing scene that De Palma has filmed in his career.

Though he initially seems out of place in such harsh terrain, Fox, one of the great everyman actors of his time, proves to be the perfect actor to play the noble PFC Eriksson. At the time of the film’s release (and probably today as well), it was often noted how seemingly miscast he was in the role of a soldier, when that is the very point. Fox isn’t John Wayne, and neither was the average American soldier. He is only a normal man pushed into extreme circumstances, placed in situations where he has no control. He is the audience’s moral compass, and his personality--both that of his Eriksson and of Fox the individual-- seems the perfect vessel through which to mirror and filter the audience’s own disgust and impotence at having to be privy to such acts of horror with no way of stopping them.

Eriksson is a moral man who has suddenly found himself in a situation where the rules that he has been taught to live by no longer apply. “Just because each of us might at any second be blown away, we act like we can do anything,” he tells a friend who scoffs at the death of a new recruit. “But maybe just because of that we gotta be extra careful...maybe it matters more than we even know.” The chance-driven carnage dealt out by the war has created a kind of existential environment, where men like Meserve feel like they have the run of the place and can do as they please without fear of reproach. As the Sergeant says when threatening Eriksson for not participating in the rape: “Anybody can blow anybody away here at any second. Which is the way it ought to be. Always.” In the end, Eriksson’s choice comes down not just to a matter of conscience, but of whether or not he will allow himself to sacrifice his own humanity or that of the Vietnamese people that earlier in the film he so innocently stated it was his job to protect. De Palma and screenwriter David Rabe seem to assert that this sense of right and wrong, of good and evil, is the first and most lamentable casualty of any war, and that it is up to people like Eriksson to try and reclaim it.

Because of its brutality and it’s extensive moral implications, Casualties of War may very well be the most “anti-war” of all the major Vietnam movies, though that distinction has always been a shaky one, at best. In an oft-quoted argument, Francois Truffaut once said that no war film can ever be truly anti-war, because combat played out on screen is always so kinetic and exciting to watch that it seems glamorous. But of all the films that have tackled the Vietnam Era, Casualties of War seems to be the most successful in reigning in that sentiment and showing conflict in all its naked ugliness. If there is a truly “anti-war” film in the whole sub-genre, then this is it.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Orson Welles Commercials

Poor Orson Welles. The guy was one of the few indisputable geniuses of cinema, but had trouble financing nearly every film he tried to make post-Citizen Kane. In the late seventies, he became the voice of a number of national ad campaigns and even shot some commercials, many of which have ended up on YouTube. Here he is in his rotund later years trying his damnedest to do a commercial for champagne. Looks like he sampled a few bottles before the shoot:

But wait, there's more. Here's a now-classic recording of him trying to do a radio commercial for frozen peas and getting mad at the idiotic ad copy:

Of course, none of this compares to his last film role as Unicron in Transformers: The Movie. Here's a short video that tells the whole story:

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Joe (1970)

To watch most of the films that came out of the late 60s and early 70s, you’d think that the whole of America was jamming to Hendrix, getting stoned, rebelling against the establishment and dropping out of society. Films like Easy Rider, Gimme Shelter, Medium Cool, and Midnight Cowboy have so ingrained an image of that specific time and place (a lot of it no doubt untrue) in the collective unconscious that it has become a sort of de facto reality. With this in mind, it’s easy to forget that the radical shift going on in America at the time was only half the story, and that even as the younger generation was shaking up the culture, there was a large part of society that was still clinging to the old ways, resentful of all the sudden changes.

As played by Peter Boyle, the title character of 1970’s Joe represents that strata of society as much as Fonda and Hopper’s Wyatt and Billy represented the counterculture. A hard-working WWII veteran and pro-establishment right-winger, Joe Curran is disgusted by the peace and love generation, by blacks, gays, and liberals-- anyone that doesn’t embody the old-time patriotic ideals that he sees as making America great. He is the very picture of intolerance and bigotry. When he’s not at home in the basement of his modest home-- which he has turned into a shrine of patriotism complete with war memorabilia, flags, and a large collection of firearms-- he’s getting drunk at the American Bar and Grill (where else?) and ranting to the bartender about the dismal tide of hippies that have hijacked his country, spouting off lines like “forty-two percent of all liberals are queer. The Wallace people did a poll.”

It is at this bar that Joe first encounters Bill Compton (Dennis Patrick), a wealthy ad-man who seems to share his views. Compton’s daughter Melissa (Susan Sarandon in her first role) has shacked up with a smooth-talking hippie--a sometime painter and full time drug-dealer--and has developed a heroin habit. When an infuriated Compton goes to confront the boy, his disgust and rage get the better of him, and he inadvertently kills him. Panicked but not altogether distraught, Compton confesses his crime to Joe, who proves to be a most sympathetic listener. “It was like being back in the war, wasn’t it?” Joe tells his fellow veteran. “After, you feel bad and good all at the same time.” Joe sees the murder as nothing less than a humanitarian act, an extermination of a bothersome pest. For him, one less hippie on the streets is nothing to grieve over, and his encouragements help to soothe Compton’s conscience and stir up the other’s own disgust with the counterculture that claimed his daughter. Despite their different social backgrounds, the two quickly form a friendship based around their mutual discontent-- a bond that bridges even the biggest social gaps. So when Melissa goes missing after discovering what her father has done, Joe, now complicit in the crime, is the first to step up and lead Compton into the wilds of Greenwich Village in search of her.

Although the years have dated it quite badly, from its overuse of music to the often-silly photography, Joe is a thoughtful and not easily pinned-down look at the turbulent times of the late-60s. More than perhaps any film I’ve seen, it manages to capture the ambivalence and chaos of the split between the establishment and the counterculture with a respect and subtlety that’s not often afforded movies about the period. Upon first hearing Joe’s twisted, epithet-laced rant at the film’s beginning, I was worried that the movie would be so heavy-handed and didactic as to be unwatchable, but after this fiery opening it falls into a rhythm of surprising realism.

What makes Joe such an excellent film is that it constantly complicates and reinterprets its theme and its characters in such a way we can come to no easy answers or conclusions-- it’s a film that understands that it’s operating in moral and political gray areas, and director John G. Avildsen (Rocky, The Karate Kid) respects his audience enough to let them enter that realm along with the characters. We quickly come to detest and perhaps pity the ignorant Joe, but thanks to Boyle’s brave and detailed performance, we are never able to completely write him off. Just when you are ready to declare him an evil bastard, he’ll be given a line of dialogue or a moment that reasserts his humanity, as in a scene where he and Compton compare their respective careers and a drunken Joe solemnly asks “do you ever feel like your whole life is just one big crock of shit?” Boyle’s biggest accomplishment is that he manages to hint at all this despite presenting the most despicable and intolerant of outside appearances.

It is this uncertainty about their own viewpoints and identities that makes the scenes between Compton and Curran so effective. Compton, for instance, realizes the hypocrisy of his comfortable office job, which he describes as an ongoing race to see who can push the most paper, but like Joe, he sees it as a sacrifice he made in order to provide for his family. If any explanation can be given for why the duo has such disdain for the youth movement, it boils down to a certain bitterness and envy-- the kids aren’t playing by the rules that the older generations have begrudgingly been obliged to follow. When during their search for Melissa the men find themselves at a drug-fueled orgy (which Joe comically calls an “or-gee”), they don’t hesitate to join in. As this and some of their lines seem to hint at, what really bothers them about hippies is not the excessive lifestyle, but the sense of entitlement-- what Joe sees as the conceit that they believe they deserve such a way of life. While this realization certainly doesn't exonerate either man for his despicable behavior, it is yet another way in which Joe repeatedly complicates the accepted premise of what the struggle of the 60s was really about.

For all its thematic realism and its 60s excess, Joe eventually comes to what was for me an unsatisfying conclusion. It’s neat, clever, and utterly terrifying in its implications, but it seems to run in a different thematic direction from what had preceded it. It’s a great ending that ends up feeling like it belongs to another movie. In the end, the film’s overarching theme, which had been somewhat amorphous throughout, comes dangerously close to just being outright muddled. But even though Joe is an imperfect film, it's should still be considered a substantial accomplishment, if only for the honest and brutal way that it approaches its subject matter. For all its flaws and outdated style, Joe is a film that deserves to be watched and placed alongside Easy Rider and the others in the pantheon of great films about the 60s. It's a perceptive and complicated movie that shouldn't be written off as a mere relic of the time. It’s rare that you see a film that is so honest with the evils--however horrifying-- of all its characters.