27 April 2009


As chance would have it, I've spent the last week with the Ripleys (in Alien, Aliens and "Purple Noon"). I find the English title Purple Noon mystifying, so I'm going to refer to the film in the French (Plein Soleil), which is more like Blazing Sun...I think. In any case, it's steamy hot, a nice contrast to the gasping dark of the Alien pictures.

When considering the capital-T Talented Mr. Ripley, I have to ask the big question first. Can Alain Delon out-sexy Jude Law?

That is a tough call my friends--Delon might get it because he spends more of his film with his shirt off. Of course, I'm comparing a Ripley to a Greenleaf here, but it's one of my favorite film hypotheticals to flip roles of Matt Damon and Law in The Talented Mr. Ripley. While Damon does a superb job as a man who murders in a momentary loss of control, Law is much more like Delon's Ripley: beautiful and vicious. I love Law playing a jovial game of bocce in his white loafers moments before giving Tom a raised-neck-vein dressing-down. If only there were enough creative juice in Hollywood to give Law the chance at Ripley (maybe in a few years, in one the sequels besides Ripley's Game, in my imaginary screening room).

The Talented Mr. Ripley and Plein Soleil both have excellent, color-saturated title sequences, and then diverge quite a lot, considering their identical source. PS jumps right into the action with Delon writing postcards in forged handwriting, while TMR meanders a bit through recital halls and flayed-hog alleys before Damon hits the beach in Mongibello in smashing neon lime swim trunks. From there, Minghella's film retreats into interior space--houses, hotel rooms, police stations. Even outside it is often cloudy, in shots of Rome and, especially, Venice. Watching PS we blister along with Delon's back as he's dragged behind Dickie's sailboat (named Marge in PS and Bird in TMR). He schemes under the sun, murders at noon, and is caught having an afternoon drink on the sunny patio.

It’s notable that Patricia Highsmith claims that Delon is her favorite Ripley—the most cold-blooded. I agree that he is the most Ripley, if not the best actor. Furthermore, Maurice Ronet is how I actually image Greenleaf being—he is far more physical than Law, truly loutish. (Delon and Ronet also met in another film under the sun, La Piscine. No, not the one with Ludivine Sagnier’s breasts--the one with Romy Schneider’s breasts. And, come to think of it, Ronet came up on the short end again there.) So how is it that I prefer TMR, since I just said both Ripley and Greenleaf are more accurate to the book in PS?

It's the supporting players and set pieces. Marie Laforet makes little impression as Marge (truly a great name--just listen to all the boys condescendingly purr "Marrrrge" in both films) and it’s impossible to overcome Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Freddy Miles (I like to think that Ripley really kills him because he dares question his interior decorating choices). I also appreciate the creation of Cate Blanchett’s character and the complications she adds to the plot. In TMR, we get the opera, the tense action on the Spanish Steps, the fabulous house in Venice where Ripley squeezes his razor a little too tight. PS is never as grounded in the continually evocative Italy of the 1950's, the locations I want to watch again and again.

PS also gets two important things wrong. The facts are: 1) Tom Ripley is gay. 2) Tom Ripley can never be caught! So a critical psychological undertone and the ending are manipulated. Could he not get away with homosexuality and murder onscreen in 1960? That's the only defense.

Onwards and upwards to a place that was much more surprisingly beautiful--the space and spaceships of the first two Alien films. Ridley Scott's Nostromo holds up very well; even though the video monitors and computer screens were probably the height of technology thirty years ago, their anachronistic look today reinforces the semi-forgotten feel of the crew's mission. Alien begins with the characters working their banal jobs and bitching constantly--it could be any working stiff's day to day. In fact, my favorite part of the film was the Office-style blunders by management that put the crew at risk.

Over and over in the films, we learn that if everyone just listened to Ripley, everything would be okay. She doesn't want to let the face-hugger through quarantine, she doesn't want anyone to go back to LV-426, she does want to blow up the whole damn planet of aliens rightnow, etc. It's a shame that James Cameron ruins her independent pragmatism with backstory about her dead daughter and the introduction of Newt. But he does get a gold star for giving us a future of fashion defined by all the managers wearing their suit collars flipped up.

Like the TMR/PS divide, Alien separates itself from Aliens with its supporting pieces. In the former: John Hurt, with that beautiful little monster springing from his chest, Ian Holm, as an actual robot(!), Tom Skerrit, looking like a captain but lacking the balls, Yaphet Kotto, chewing scenery, and Harry Dean Stanton, as the confused first man into the abyss. In Aliens...Bill Paxton is prominently involved. I did love the hot tamale Marine who litters our ears with oddly-accented “pendejos.”

The constant is Ripley, Sigourney Weaver. There’s something moving in her slow certainty (vocally and kinetically), her willingness to venture straight into the slick catacombs of the aliens. She's frightened but brave, more "real" than 95% of action heroes. Not to mention her continuing allegiance to wandering around in not-terribly-arousing space-age lingerie--there's a whiff of Target discount rack. Was this the height of sexiness in the 80’s? I don’t know, but I appreciate the strangeness of it today.

In conclusion: all characters named Ripley are good for the cinema.

13 April 2009


I know I shouldn't have but I've now seen the film version of Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.

It starts with the voiceover from sophisticated 1957, that hearkens back to that “bohemian time” in the 1920’s. The staid-to-the-point-of-parody narrating voice uses the terms "Left Bank" and “artists and poets” the way you might use "Mars" and “attacking space aliens.” There could almost be an biting comment on Ernest Hemingway as a conservative icon by 1957, but surely the director, Henry King (who, as far as I can tell, never made an interesting film in 117 tries), isn’t capable of that.

Any critique of TSAR has to start with Tyrone Power, who, somehow, some way, stars as Jake Barnes (despite my fascination with the subject, I will not be enjoying Power starring in King's Jesse James). I struggle but cannot come up with a worse example of miscasting (though I'm pretty sure Richard Gere would be involved...Breathless? Chicago?). While the rest of the actors are about ten years too old for their roles, Power looks like he's about 52, even though he was dead at 44 a year after he made a fool of himself here. From the first shot of his double-breasted suit we know he's all wrong. He spends most of his time looking like a stressed out businessman on a shitty vacation. Perhaps this is why Power, despite his matinée idol status, made zero movies that are well-regarded and watched today.

His Lady Brett is Ava Gardner in raspberry beret. I have to confess, I've never been a Gardner man, despite my usual preference to side with Frank Sinatra in all matters personal and artistic. She certainly doesn't have Brett Ashley's novel curves "like the hulls of a racing yacht." Watching her striking lack of chemistry with Tyrone Power, it occurred to me that the contemporary actors they most resemble are Catherine Keener and Dan Hedaya, who are definitely not the to people I pictured in my mind while reading TSAR in 10th grade. You can also picture them as the precise counterpoint to Bogart and Bacall's fireworks in Hemingway's To Have and Have Not.

I have to give it to Errol Flynn then--he at least looks the part as the badly dissipated alcoholic, Mike Campbell. He generates most of the scant humor in the film (the running shoeshine gag, his insistence on wearing a red tartan vest everywhere). He does more by doing less than Mel Ferrer (strident as Robert Cohn) and Eddie Albert (unnoticed as Bill Gorton).

King backgrounds his players with a mishmash of flat sets and documentary Fiesta footage shot from a distracting variety of angles. A central scene at the book, Jake and Brett visiting the church, is glossed over. A redundant flashback is added just so we can hear an anonymous doctor pronounce Jake impotent. Convinced that one of the most famous ending lines in western literature is insufficient, King has Jake mutter, "isn't it pretty to think so," in the Madrid hotel before getting into a cab, where he and Brett exchange some dialog so forgettable I can't remember a word they said. And I watched the movie yesterday.

If you've seen the film, you know I've saved the only redeeming factor for last: Robert Evans as the tall, dark and Spanish bullfighter, Pedro Romero! His performance is so bizarre, so gratingly brutal that it comes all the way back around to brilliant. He's unavoidable. His harsh accent makes you titter, his tiniest of tiny ponytails makes you laugh, his retarded, googly-eyed matador stare makes you roar all 4,000 times you see it in this film. The kid stays in the picture alright. He's the only reason to ever watch it.

And, of course, the moral is, see the documentary, The Kid Stays in the Picture, because it only gets better the more familiar you get with Evans' inimitable, transcendent purr. His story is all self-aggrandizing bullshit and I love him for sharing it with me.

01 April 2009

Have You Seen...? #1 (La Commare Secca)

In honor of David Thomson's bewildering and excellent book Have You Seen...?, I've decided to start highlighting a few worthwhile films that didn't make it onto his list of 1,000 "must see" films. First up: Bernardo Bertolucci's La Commare Secca.

Let's get the most disgusting thing out of the way: Bertolucci made this film when he was 21 years old. I prefer to wallow in my own inadequacy right off the bat. Pasolini wrote it and helped land Bertolucci the job but it's an impressive start regardless (at least he looks older in a turtleneck).

La Commare Secca opens with a great joke—the first man to be interrogated for the murder of a prostitute that drives the narrative says that on the morning in question he went to go get a letter of recommendation from a priest. We immediately see him greeted by a hoodlum friend who calls, “You’re late, you bastard!” And so begins the parade of remarkably unlikable usual suspects. This petty thief is joined by a platinum blond pimp, a soldier who spends his leave stalking women, two sexed-crazed boys, a dead-eyed, park-cruising homosexual and, most crucially, a smooth-talking drifter who always wears clogs (the click clack sound is wonderful because it is at once as spritely as Fred Astaire's tap shoes and as menacing as Robert Ryan's leg dragging in Act of Violence).

With the narrative resting on the testimonies of these lowlifes, it’s surprising to realize this is one the most beautiful films ever made. Rome is revealed brilliantly —Bertolucci moves seamlessly from the low grey slums to the Coliseum, trash-choked river causeways to tinkling park fountain statuary. The camera paces left and right, zooms in and out, as restless as in the best of Altman, perambulating around the park where the murder takes place. It’s as if Antonioni had sustained the momentum of his coda for L’Eclisse for the entire picture (there’s also the hint of Blow Up as the events in the park are rewound from every possible angle).

While Bertolucci claimed never to have seen Rashomon before making his debut, it's hard to see one without being reminded of the other. I would argue that La Commare Secca is the more successful movie because it is calmer than Kurosawa's stimulating but hysterically-acted investigation of unreliable memory.

The different witness testimonies in La Commare Secca are nicely timestamped by a recurrent passing rain shower. The most spectacular sequence features the unsettling, staring soldier taking shelter in a tunnel that we find, through a long backwards tracking shot, is filled with prostitutes. We can’t see the soldier’s sickly grin but we know it’s still there. During these interludes the camera returns to the rain on the window of the ill-fated prostitute. Each time we see a bit more of her mundane afternoon activities before she goes out to meet her appointment in the evening. We become very attentive to her surroundings—for instance, her wallpaper is in a kitschy pattern Almódovar might enjoy. There is an odd elegance to her movements (like combing her hair or moving a coffee pot) that combine with the plaintive film score to make her a sympathetic figure, even though she never speaks a word.

If nothing else, La Commare Secca shows that films with inventively overlapping storylines were being made well before Tarantino's "revolution." I have to wonder what happened to all that inventiveness in Bertolucci's 2003 film, The Dreamers, which manages to be quite boring despite the impressive anatomies of Louis Garrel and Eva Green. The only redeeming part of that film is the quotes from classic cinema sprinkled throughout--we could easily see a shot from La Commare Secca, perhaps the young boys out with their dates, lounging on the walls above a breathtaking Roman vista--but that would only make us more wistful.