Friday, October 22, 2010

Film Forum’s Heist Series

For those who haven't been to the Film Forum, it is a movie theater in SoHo (literally on the south side of Houston) that specializes in second run and art films. I have always loved it and I would say that my experiences there are the ones that I most associate with what is wonderful about this city (as well as The Met). 

The first film series I saw at Film Forum was Fellini, and it was the experience from which I drew all judgments on Fellini (later work, generally overrated, early, strong). This Heist series has had a similar meaning for me. I think that I have always thought that heist films are the core genre in film and if I did some research I might be willing to try to defend that claim.

This series has an excellent selection of films. This is not to say that all of the films are good.  Several are probably choices based of availability and budget (like The Anderson Tapes, which is really forgettable), rather than cinematic virtue.  For example, one great heist film is Spike Lee’s 2006 Inside Man, but this was not included. Or Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), which is probably one of the best heist films. Or The Getaway (1972) or Out of Sight (1998). Etc.

Here’s a rundown of what was shown.

Among those I had seen before are:
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974): Good, with Walter Matthau, back when he was a kind of sex symbol … yeah? … and Robert Shaw; certainly much better than the tepid remake with washed-out Travolta and old-earnest-kept-down Denzel Washington (the same character is better in Inside Man).
The Anderson Tapes (1971): A Sidney Lumet film with Sean Connery that is underwhelming.
The Thomas Crown Affair (1968): Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, but generally an uninteresting story (and the remake is worse, in my view, mainly because of Rene Russo, but assisted by Denis Leary [who let this guy in front of a movie camera?]).
Reservoir Dogs (1992): A great film with unforgettable performances by everyone.  Even the guy who loses his ear.
Kansas City Confidential (1952): An interesting narrative arc, with a totally creepy Lee Van Cleef, but otherwise predictable pulp.

The Killing (1956): Great early Kubrick film, with Sterling Hayden, whose character should lead, but is in fact displaced by the brilliance of other, seemingly minor characters. Every character is so filled with longing and tragic fate. 
The film starts with Johnny Clay (Hayden), just out of prison, and Fay, and he explains how his next heist is going to work and the mistakes he made last time, and she says she can't bear to be away from him again, because she's not pretty or smart. I mean, right there, you are caught. But then you've also got this weird, homoerotic money man (Jay Flippen), a skeevy sniper (Timothy Carey), an existentialist, chess playing strong man, and the most pathetic man on the planet who is being relentlessly emotionally assaulted by his two-timing wife.
I shall write more about this film in the next post.

Le Cercle Rouge (1970): Fucking Melville.  If you don’t like this shit, check your pulse.
A Fish Called Wanda (1988): Hilarious, with great performances by everyone.  There really are not any bad scenes in this movie. 
Thief (1981): by Michael Mann (one reason to see it, the other being an actual good performance by James Caan, who is otherwise mediocre)
Bob Le Flambeur (1955): Again, Melville. Cool and good.
Violent Saturday (1955): I think I only saw the latter part of this, but it has Lee Marvin (enough said) and some Amish dude sticks a gangster with a pitchfork.  Price of admission right there.
Jackie Brown (1997): Categorizing this as a heist film is kind of insulting, although this could be said for several of the films in the series.  This is a great movie and demonstrates Taratino’s incredible sensitivity to gender and race.  Everyone, even fucking Bridget Fonda, is good in this movie.

The films that I hadn’t seen:
Charley Varrick (1973): Now I see why Clint loves Don Siegel so much.  This is a good, fun-to-watch film. Walter Matthau as a sex symbol? What? But it develops its tension well.  Although I read this elsewhere, Joe Don Baker is clearly the archetype for Anton Chigurh, although Anton Chigurh would make Joe Don Baker run back to his mama.
The Hot Rock (1972): A strange inertia moves this film, but the heist business is all pulp in relation to the performance by Zero Mostel, which makes the movie worth watching.

Sterling Hayden
The Asphalt Jungle (1950): A film so good that I feel embarrassed for not having seen it before, especially since it’s a Huston film and I loved Key Largo and the Maltese Falcon (Y and I saw this in Paris on our first trip there together and we both loved it …).  Stars Sterling Hayden, who is the unexpected emotional core of this film, although he plays the role of the muscle, as well as Marilyn Monroe, John McIntyre and Sam Jaffe. The trajectory of this film is assured, but you want to watch every minute of it.  It's the kind of film that you realize, while watching, this is really good ... and maybe you don't know why.  That is an exciting feeling.  
I will write more about this in the next post.

The Sicilian Clan (1969): Camp and a half. Alain Delon without any charm.  Jean Gabin with the largest nose in Europe and no charm.  Lino Ventura, fucking hilarious with the quitting smoking bit. This combination should be genius … is not.  Is one to watch, but basically a camp commentary on other heist films.
Classes Tous Risques (1960): Fucking Lino Ventura is beautiful, always. That guy is like the Toshiro Mifune of France—has incredible range, always impressive. This film has weight and a great narrative. The desperation and pathos is palpable and beautiful. Jean-Paul Belmondo is a little too self-conscious of himself as JPB, at the beginning, but he grows into this character appreciably throughout the film. And the ending is brutal and right.

What I didn’t see, but still want to:
Un Flic (1972): Melville, with Delon and Deneuve.
Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (1954): Lino Ventura, Jean Gabin, and a young and breathtaking Jeanne Moreau.
Rififi (1955): by Jule Dassin.
A Band of Outsiders (1964): Godard.  I’m really embarrassed about this.  I’ve only watched the first 30 minutes.
Criss Cross (1949): by Richard Siodmark, with Burt Lancaster and Dan Duryea.
Nightfall (1956): by Jacques Tourneur, with Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft.
Vera Cruz (1954): by Robert Aldrich, with Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster.  A western heist film! And an evil Burt Lancaster!
Colorado Territory (1949): by Raoul Walsh.  I’ve just got a feeling about this one.
Topkapi (1964): by Jule Dessin.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What is Philosophy?

Because it is unfortunately that time of year and the state of the world is what it is, I am going on the market. This activity requires revising a "teaching dossier" in which I talk about my teaching style and pedagogical principles, etc. This year, in revising it, I am treading the same path that I have pursued in the past by defining philosophy ... and I find this task making me wonder, in a way much like my erstwhile colleague Dr. J, who has recently done so on her blog.
She has challenged myself and others to provide an explanation in 200 words, to avoid terminological pedantry and to distinguish between the profession and the discipline

On my account, philosophy has two aspects and these aspects are actually not complementary, but indicate an internal conflict.

On the one hand, philosophy is an activity, by which I understand the skills of "critical thinking." That is, so as to counter the natural tendency of students to believe that philosophy is an abstract matter, I  stress that as an activity philosophy depends upon the skills of reading, writing and discussion, which are skills that we use everyday, although not in the "critical" mode.  I say a lot about the conditions for this critical thinking, but here I will only say that it should inspire "intellectual curiousity". Intellectual curiousity is a state, in which we encounter the world with the greatest of fascination. The accumulation of knowledge could allow our expectations and assumptions to make us bored with the world. Intellectual curiousity, by contrast, is a state in which we find the world fascinating, so as not to allow the possible cynicism of certain wisdom to afflict us.

On the other hand, philosophy is a vibrant historical discipline, meaning that it has passed down practices of thinking and questioning, determinations of appropriate objects, the canonization of important texts and philosophers. This history develops and changes in relation to the events that occur within philosophy, the academy and outside. Being a philosopher means knowing that history, appreciating it and contributing to it.

Now for the interesting part. I think that many contemporary philosophers accept the former description, presuming that philosophy inquires into meta-disciplinary areas, some traditionally occupied by philosophy (metaphysics) and others new (philosophy of science), but that they see themselves as related to their past as merely a narrative about what happened before. What is more, they liken their activity to the activities of theorists and scientists in other disciplines.

But I think those philosophers would be uncomfortable by the philosophers who work from and in the historical institution (I am one of those). That is, I am dubious about the scientific-like assumptions of philosophy as an activity, and instead perceive my work as reading and developing the history of philosophy. The big problem is this: I think that should be an end without being legitimated by possible application. In other words, I think that history should be done for its own sake--the antiquarian, I believe, that Nietzsche critiques in his famous essay.

A last brief note: I have no idea how to distinguish the discipline from the profession. The former it seems to me is the activity and the historical institution. My inclination is to hold the profession to be the conferences and professional societies and journals and publications.  But it is equally reasonable to say that the profession is very much about teaching in the university system.

A pickle, as a Romanian philosopher used to say.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Revisiting Barton Fink (1990)

Why has Barton Fink (1990) not weathered time well? This may be a completely subjective and/or personal question and among film historians or theorists the film may still hold its worth.  But I suspect that many of the later works by the Coen brothers, particularly Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007), have eclipsed this film. 
One reason simply may be that the latter won Oscars for Best Picture and while Barton Fink was not nominated for those awards (although it did win at Cannes for Best Director and Best Actor, and Cannes is a slightly more reliable criterion [and yet, The Ladykillers (2004) was also nominated and won, in the categories of Best Director and the Jury Award respectively … and I think we can agree that the film was a complete catastrophe]). The Oscars seem to mean a great deal when worthy films grace its award and mean nothing when lesser films do (Titanic? Crash?).
Perhaps this is a useless question. But the question is about trying to intimate how time and culture will treat a work of art.  What is obscure or mediocre now may, in a new light, become terribly important.  No Country for Old Men is an important film because it is timely (i.e. Mexico), because it is based (almost verbatim) on a book by a probably first-order contemporary American writer, because it contains one of the most terrifyingly provocative characters to greet the screen since Orson Welles’ “Captain Hank Quinlan”, namely, Javier Bardem’s “Anton Chigurh”, because it does this while meaningfully narrating the anxieties of an old man, no longer welcome, Tommy Lee Jones’ “Ed Tom Bell”.  And it has an unsettling, serious ending.
Barton greets the subject of his hotel room painting.
Whereas Barton Fink is lighter fare. It has no serious ending, but rather ends in an unrealistic, somewhat comic manner, with a man contemplating a scene he has seen before, in a painting on the wall of his formerly transient, now residential, hotel room. And this man carries a box which we can only conclude contains the head of a woman  that he made love to (perhaps the only one) a handful of nights before. Yet he claims that he does not know what is in the box, and as he has not looked in the box, this is at least apodictically true, albeit not probablistically.
One of the reasons for the decline of Barton Fink’s fortunes may be an aesthetic shift, away from a style of artistic craft that weaves ideas and images together, but without closure or, possibly, basic synthesis. You can see an example of this in the episode “Crocodile” from the first season of Dexter, which begins and ends with an image of someone their head halfway submerged in the water. In the episode there actually happens to be a crocodile, which is supposedly the lure for a would-be killing, disturbed by the goodie Dexter, who then accidentally stumbles into the former.  The title of the episode is a reference to images bookending the episode, as well as one of the momentary subjects of the episode, but lacks any meaningful thematic synthesis.
Barton Fink, thankfully, does not traffic in this reductive version of the non-synthetic (nor analytic), non-cohesive style.  Instead, it concerns itself with the ironic search of a playwright turned screenwriter for the “theater of the common man”, a murderous everyman character, the soul-pulverizing forces of the early film industry, and haunting images. But it does allow a significant amount of screen time to be spent on this closing image of a woman sitting on the edge of the surf.  This image is some kind of focal point, among a series of events of varying gravity, to give the eponymous character some evanescent stability while the world that he knows slowly collapses.
Barton Fink lacks a moral center and it intentionally avoids judgment by settling for a elliptical, oneiric vision. The most sympathetic character appears to be a friendly albeit stressed door-to-door salesman, but is then discovered to be an axe-murdering Nazi (John Goodman as Charley Meadows, a.k.a. “Karl ‘Mad Man’ Mundt”.  The main character is a pretentious, snobbish intellectual of sorts who believes that he writes from the vicissitudes of emotional conflict in attempt to contribute to the humanistic mission of a “theater of the common man.” He claims a moral obligation to this working class fellow, but repeatedly fails in the basic attempt to “listen” to him, as Charley/Karl eventually points out. And of course, there is nothing more ironic than the fact that Fink strives for a theater of the common man, seeing screenwriting as merely means to that end, completely oblivious that film is the only remaining “theater of the common man.” There is no way we can identify with Fink.
Does this mean that Barton Fink has been passed aside in favor of Fargo and No Country for Old Men precisely because of the moral judgments of the latter? Have we unwittingly become fiends for moralistic art?