Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Friday, Nov 24, 2006


Jack Peterson is a pretty great guy. He has a job that he loves (he builds birdhouses), a best friend (a larger-than-life lothario named Alan) who thinks the world of him, and a nice little townhouse in a sleepy North Carolina city. The only thing Jack doesn’t have is…a wiener. A nurse accidentally cut off his woody when he was an infant, and ever since then, Jack has had to live sans schlong. And boy, oh boy, does Jack long for a replacement skin flute. He dreams about it, fantasies regularly over stroking and fondling his newfound noodle. He has tried plastic surgeons and every possible medical professional, but the best they can offer is a faux phallus made out of fat from his arm and stomach. But Jack doesn’t want a belly-based boner. He wants a real life lizard of his very own, and has more or less given up on ever having one.


Then, Alan gives him some good advice. A private doctor in town offers the chance at a new, experimental tool transplant. When a perfect donor is found, Jack will be reconstructed, made more or less normal above the nutsack. Naturally, the anticipation of a new lease on life, thanks to someone else’s surgically grafted groinage, becomes overwhelming. Jack is giddy for some girth. He is hyper for a hard-on. He even starts to date, hooking up with his nice neighbor Jenny. But as he waits for his new knob and starts to consider all the problems and possibilities, Jack starts to have second thoughts. Maybe he doesn’t want a pubic pole after all. Maybe life is just fine the way it is. After all, aside from sex, Jack’s existence has been pretty sweet, even if it has also been Ding-a-ling-Less.


Sounding like a dirty joke taken to a tacky extreme, but actually ending up rather resplendent and very funny, Ding-a-ling-Less marks a substantial turn of events for its writer-director Onur Tukel. Having previously helmed the horrible Drawing Blood (a vampire horror-comedy that was really none of the aforementioned) and the less than successful House of Pancakes (a tired tale of some housemates from Hell), Tukel finally hits a homerun with his third feature film offering, this slightly skewed romantic comedy about a dude in search of his missing manhood. Initially, it takes a little time to get into Tukel’s mannerisms and mindset here. The filmmaker loads his script with dozens of disgusting and dirty ways to describe a dong and the actions that such an appendage can be used for. Indeed, everyone in this fable-like fantasyland of a small town seems to sympathize with Jack and gives him equally course and vulgar advice. These crudity-laced sentiments are a little off-putting at first, but once you get used to their existence, Ding-a-ling-Less begins to fulfill its promise.


Ding-a-ling-Less also marks a turn in the acting fortunes for its lead, Kirk Wilson. Having been unfortunate enough to star in Tukel’s other failures, this film signifies the perfect role for Wilson’s usually forced forlorn wistfulness. Wilson is very adept at playing pathetic, and during the first half of the film, he really gets us sympathizing with Jack’s dilemma. Then, as the narrative continues and issues arise with the upcoming surgery, Wilson makes the change of heart seem natural and viable. There is never an awkward or arch moment in his performance, and it is excellent in its subtlety and sensitivity. Equally impressive in a far less friendly role is Robert Longstreet, as Jack’s womanizing pal Alan. Kind of like a combination of Hank Azaria and Chris Cooper, Longstreet gets the chance to chew a little scenery as he puts on the boyish bravado and tries to walk his buddy through the world of wang. We also get to see a different side of Alan when he describes to Jack what it’s like to have sex with a woman. Longstreet also gets an excellent speech in the final sequence before the surgery. Along with an ensemble of actors that really believes in this project and its premise, Ding-a-ling-Less turns from a juvenile joke into a thoughtful, complicated comedy right before our delighted eyes.


As he has done before, Tukel experiments with the film medium, augmenting his story with asides, blackouts, visual cleverness, and a style that recalls both vintage Woody Allen and modern indie cinema. Though working with a shoestring budget and limited resources, Tukel makes the most of his North Carolina setting, giving us a real feel for the small town location of his film. The director has also cleaned up his compositional act, framing his scenes in artistically interesting fashion. When Alan and Jack have a conversation in the middle of an alley, the actors are perfectly positioned in a long shot that takes in both the buildings in the background and the somber horizon above, creating an interesting canvas in which to have a conversation. Along with a serious message about meaningless sex and the value of human interaction, Ding-a-ling-Less gives us an unusual, unique take on the malady of the modern male. Indeed, most men at one time or another have felt unfulfilled, and wonder what life would be like if they were better endowed. Using this concept to craft a combination of “Jokes from the John” and insightful allegory, this movie marks Onur Tukel’s arrival as an effective filmmaker. All his other films aside, Ding-a-ling-Less is a wonderful, witty movie with good heart buried inside all the dick quips.


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Thursday, Nov 23, 2006


As your body continues to process all the L’tryptophan, animal fat and sucrose you’ve stuffed into it over the last few hours, and you’re holiday bloated carcass continues to swell up like a sea frog, what better excuse is there for spending a day recuperating in front of the old idiot box. In at least two instances, however, the premium movie channels still think it’s still Halloween. Actually, you could lump HBO’s offering into the general genre category as well, since it features wizards, magic and all kinds of dungeons and dragons styled rot. So unless you’re willing to give another noble variation of that classic tale of medieval lovers a try, one better prepare for a post-gluttony fright night. Besides, with many members of the viewing audience dreading the drive/flight/fight back home, a little spine-tingling terror may turn out to be the best recipe of the entire weekend. Unfortunately, you won’t find much macabre here – just a loose collection of scary side dishes and unjust desserts. For those still conscious after a fifth helping of Grandma’s glorious Sweet Potato and Pralined Pecan Pie (drool…), the movies offered for Saturday, 25 November are:


HBOHarry Potter and the Goblet of Fire*

Since founding franchise filmmaker Chris Columbus departed the series, critics have been more or less unanimous – the Harry Potter films have been getting better and better. Following the formula he developed for the Prisoner of Azkaban, screenwriter Steve Kloves pares author J.K. Rowling’s dense, interlocking narrative down to its instantly infectious ingredients while keeping the themes – good vs. evil, youth vs. maturity – perfectly intact. Though director Mike Newell (of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame) seemed like a strange choice, especially after the flare and passion shown in Azkabah by Y Tu Mama Tabien helmer Alfonso Cuaron, he managed to make a worthy successor. Elaborate, exciting and always engaging, it’s safe to say that all other tween oriented projects pale in comparison to this magnificent set of motion pictures. (Premieres Saturday 25 November, 8pm EST).


PopMatters Review


CinemaxTristan + Isolde*

James Franco may be a lot of things – handsome, charismatic, complex - but he doesn’t have that old world aura necessary to carry off a period piece. Similar to a certain Mr. Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (oddly enough, also directed by T&I helmer Kevin Reynolds), there is just something so contemporary about the consistently busy actor. Still, most critics found his turn as an orphaned swordsman presumed dead after being struck by a poisoned blade to be perfectly serviceable. It’s the rest of Reynolds’ cinematic circumstances that left reviewers unimpressed. Many felt his narrative drive was lazy and uninspired. Others thought his approach to the material was far gloomier than it should be. With a creative canon that includes Waterworld and Rapa Nui, it’s not hard to comprehend such complaints. Maybe a more timeless talent was the answer all along. (Saturday 25 November, 10pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzWhen a Stranger Calls (2006)

When it arrived in theaters in 1979, the original version of When a Stranger Calls had a horrifying hook that many in the audience were unprepared to consider. In the film’s classic creep-out moment, our heroine learns that the sinister phone calls she’s been receiving are actually coming from…INSIDE THE HOUSE! In the days before cellphones, that was a real shocker! Today, it’s nothing more than a shoulder shrugging moment. So how did the team involved in the remake revamp this idea? Well, they took out all the police procedural material (which was actually what the first film was all about) and expanded the whole “villain in the vicinity” idea. But since this is strictly PG-13 territory (you know, for kids!) the fear factors are amped way down past pabulum levels. The result is a toothless terror title with little reason to recommend its revision. (Premieres Saturday 25 November, 9pm EST).


PopMatters Review


Showtime2001 Maniacs

*
Outside of a dedicated group of exploitation fiends, Herschell Gordon Lewis is virtually unknown – and that’s sad, really, because this articulate and intelligent man produced some of the most mind-boggling bizarre films ever fashioned. One of his most famous was the “Brigadoon with buckets of blood” entitled 2000 Maniacs. Recently ‘re-imagined’ by first time feature director Tim Sullivan, this gore-laced groove will have you whistling Dixie in no time. The premise – a group of college kids accidentally arrive in a Georgia ghost town loaded with vengeful Confederates – is straight out of Lewis’ flick, and Sullivan wisely matches the legend’s own stylized sick humor as well. While devotees might pale at the thought of one of the grindhouse’s greatest hits getting re-tooled, most will be pleased with the amiable arterial spray provided here. (Saturday 25 November, 9pm EST)


 


ZOMBIES!

For those of you who still don’t know it, Turner Classic Movies has started a new Friday night/Saturday morning feature entitled “The TCM Underground”, a collection of cult and bad b-movies hosted by none other than rad rocker turned atrocity auteur Rob Zombie. From time to time, when SE&L feels Mr. Devil’s Rejects is offering up something nice and sleazy, we will make sure to put you on notice. For 24/25 November, the Cabbage Patch Elvis himself, Arch Hall, Jr. is the featured atrocity:


The Sadist
Talk about your suspension of disbelief – Arch is a homicidal maniac ala Charles Starkweather in this fairly effective JD (juvenile delinquency) joint.
(2am EST)


Wild Guitar
Pushing the limits of legitimate believability even further, Arch becomes an overnight pop sensation – yet has a hard time living the rock star celebrity lifestyle. Yeesh.
(3:45am EST)


 


The Cream of the Crop

In honor of IFC’s month-long celebration of Janus Films, SE&L will skip the standard daily overview of what’s on the other movie-based cable outlets and, instead, focus solely on what it and the Sundance Channel have to offer. Beyond that premise, however, we will still only concentrate on the best of the best, the most inspiring of the inspiring, the most meaningful of the…well, you get the idea. For the week of 25, November, here are our royal recommendations:


IFC

: Every Tuesday in November is Janus Films night. For the 28st, the selections are:



Ugetsu
It’s the trials and tribulations of life during wartime, as director Kenji Mizoguchi explores the Japanese civil war of the 16th Century.
(9PM EST)


Miss Julie
August Strinberg’s play about a mismatched love affair between the daughter of an aristocrat and a lowly servant gets a gentle touch from fellow Swede Alf Sjoberg.
(10:35PM EST)


Floating Weeds
The story of an aging acting troupe traveling across Japan is brought to magical life by legendary filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu.
(12:25AM EST)


Sundance Channel



26 November - Gimme Shelter
During the infamous concert at Altamonte, Albert and David Maysles captured the Rolling Stones in all their demonic glory – as well as the murder of an unlucky fan.
(6PM EST)


26 November - Grey Gardens
The Mayseles brothers make magic again, this time focusing on the forgotten relatives - Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale – of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
(7:30PM EST)


28 November -Riff-Raff
British bad boy Ken Loach explores his unique brand of socialist realism in this clever outing of England’s disenfranchised lower classes.
(10PM EST)


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Wednesday, Nov 22, 2006


In photos, he often appears as the wistful old uncle who shows up at reunions to regale the family with stories of wars he may never have fought in and meetings with people more imaginary than real. But that was the beauty of Robert Altman. He could be whimsical and mischievous one moment, dour and dark the next. At age 81, he remained one of cinema’s most accomplished artists, giving real credence to the use of the term auteur to define his filmmaking acumen. The past year had seen a resurgence in audience and industry interest. He took home an honorary Oscar (his one and amazingly ONLY Academy trophy) and saw his big screen adaptation of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion meet with an unusually warm reception. Unfortunately, here’s where the story must end. While in pre-production for a feature he was planning for a February 2007 start, Altman succumbed to an 18 month bout with cancer, and died.


His passing on 20 November is shocking for how sudden it seemed, but it really wasn’t unexpected. Altman surprised audiences during his acceptance speech at the 2006 ceremony by disclosing that, for the last ten years, he had been living with another human’s heart. In frail health during the ‘90s, the director had received a total transplant. The most amazing thing about the circumstance was not the surgery, but the fact that in a gossip hungry town like Hollywood, he managed to keep it a complete secret. Certainly there were rumors and rumblings – he was considered uninsurable for Prairie‘s shoot, and had to stipulate to having another director on set with him at all times. Luckily, he ended up with Altman aspirant Paul Thomas Anderson, responsible for similar styled efforts of his own like Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love.


In truth, the lack of limelight over Altman’s physical well being says something significant and extraordinary about the man as it illustrates the main issue with his entire career – when he was hot, audience and media interest was also. When his artistic indulgences turned off ticket buyers, this formidable American genius was all but ignored. It’s been that way ever since he started out in the business. Born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1925, the young Altman was Catholic school educated and Air Force trained. Hoping to combine his love of film with his fascination with sound, he headed off to Hollywood to seek his big break. There, he tried almost every facet of the industry before becoming disillusioned with his lack of success. Heading back to his hometown, he found acceptance in a local production company in charge of industrial and training films. It was here where Altman began to find, and fashion, his muse.


Thanks to the chance offer to direct a juvenile delinquency quickie (1957’s The Delinquents) Altman was again back in the movie business. This lead to work in the fledgling medium of television, and it was here where he really thrived. Over the next decade, he would contribute to almost every small screen genre imaginable, from live performances to war and western dramas. He was instrumental in steering the WWII-themed Combat through its initial phases, and guided audience favorite Bonanza through a few of its earliest paces.  But it wasn’t until 1968 and the space race saga Countdown, that Altman regained his filmmaker footing. In combination with the thriller That Cold Day in the Park, it gave the director enough of a profile to position him as a candidate for another military-based movie being considered by 20th Century Fox.


The making of M*A*S*H* has its own epic anecdotal history, a story worthy of, perhaps, an Altman-esque Hollywood satire? Originally positioned as the lesser of two combat comedies coming out that year (Mike Nichols 1970 version of Catch-22 was viewed as the preemptive favorite) Altman took his production under Fox’s fidgety radar, using the studios obsession over their own Patton and Tora!, Tora!, Tora! as cover for what he was creating. This didn’t mean the more avant-garde elements of his approach avoided scrutiny. Everyone, from Ring Lardner Jr. who penned the screenplay (most of which was discarded), to stars Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland, questioned Altman’s use of overlapping dialogue, extensive improvisation and the unorthodox conceptual ideas. Though it was set in Korea, Altman had purposefully removed all references to the locale, making his link to the then divisive war in Vietnam that much more potent. The studio, of course, insisted on a title card to clear up the confusion.


It wouldn’t be the last time an executive interfered with Altman’s ideas. But at first, such meddling didn’t matter. The amazing success of M*A*S*H* allowed the filmmaker the freedom to make whatever movie he wanted, and the follow-up remains one of his most unusual – and controversial choices ever. One of those typical ‘70s headtrips involving a boy who wants to be a bird and fly around his home – which just so happens to be the Houston Superdome – Brewster McCloud exposed the capricious side of Altman’s aesthetic, a foundational need for his own flights of fancy. It was an ideal that would come to clarify, and occasionally mar, the rest of his cinematic output. Tossing out reams of dialogue, keeping only the barest bones of Doran William Cannon’s original script, Altman also began another peculiarity that came to define his overall career and creativity. Resolved to make only the movies he wanted without exception, it was this maverick’s mannerism that would guide him for the next three decades.


MGM hated Brewster, and buried it with little fanfare. Frustrated, Altman next revisited the Western, giving the genre a meticulously reproduced period naturalism that the John Wayne-worn category had never possessed before. The result, the masterful McCabe and Mrs. Miller, saw the director battle with lead actor Warren Beatty throughout the production, a stand off that threatened to undermine everything. Of course, when the film failed to catch on with audiences, the superstar’s stance was indirectly vindicated, and led to a further distancing between Altman and the industry. Follow-ups, including the psychological thriller Images, the gambling drama California Split, and the exceptional noir revamp of The Long Goodbye were critical triumphs. But without the benefit of companion box office receipts, Altman started looking like a one hit wonder.

All that changed – albeit briefly – with Nashville. An epic dissection of middling America locked within the complementary – and complicit – worlds of show business and politics, Altman formulated the film around his own interest in country music. Featuring a storyline that suggested the general malaise and unease in the nation, along with a collection of cast-created songs, he forged an entirely new style of filmmaking. Using multiple stories that at times seemed completely unrelated to each other, the director found himself free to indulge in all manner of subplots, personalities and eccentricities. What started out as a meditation on performance and public accolade turned into a dense, in-depth look at the disintegration of the American dream. Praised for its innovations and insight, Nashville went on to win Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. But just like M*A*S*H* before, Altman’s inability to deal with the people in power may have cost him the award. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest dominated the Academy that year.


Again, popularity allowed Altman to do whatever he wanted. His response this time was a tone poem about the power of femininity drawn from one of this own dreams. Also touching on personality processing and the need for self-discovery, 3 Women arrived with little fanfare, and instantly became lost within an ill-prepared and indifferent populace. It is safe to say that, of his ‘70s period films, 3 Women is Altman’s best. Powerful without being intense, mysterious without being confusing, this seemingly simplistic story about a pair of spa workers on the outskirts of the California desert actually hid a multi-layered look at how we perceive ourselves. Featuring fabulous performances from Sissy Spacek and Altman discovery Shelley Duvall, the movie met with more myopic disinterest. It would be three more years before Altman’s name became associated with the mainstream again. And in typical style, it was mostly for bad, not good.


Altman had taken on the task of bringing E.C Segar’s comic strip sailor Popeye to the silver screen, mostly as a chance to experiment with something he called “fanciful realism”. His idea was easy enough to understand – take reality and tweak it just enough so that it suggests, not mimics, the world of animation. He built his own village on the Mediterranean island of Malta, approached Harry Nilsson and Van Dyke Parks about providing the studio-mandated musical numbers, and then went out and hired non-singers like Duvall and star Robin Williams to fill the lead roles. Rumors of natural disasters and cast infighting found their way into the then fledgling tabloid media machine, and Altman felt the press was preparing to doom the project before it was eventually released. So far ahead of its time that today’s comic book movies still only scratch the surface of the conventions Altman created, Popeye was popular, but it wasn’t the mega-smash high concept entertainment Disney was looking for, and even though it made money, the entire project was viewed as an albatross sized failure.


By this point, Altman was fed up. He hated functioning within a dynamic that suggested art was only as valuable as the money it could make, and he distrusted almost everything about a business that bolstered you one moment, only to tear you down the next. Like all mythological heroes, he set off to wander the wilderness of his own insular aesthetic. When he got the chance, he directed for the stage, even filming some of his efforts as a sort of a reminder and record of his work. A few of these experiments – Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Secret Honor, Fool for Love - kept him just on the edges of fame. There really was no need, however. With his past constantly revisited and remembered, Altman was never completely gone. But a great many of his contributions were definitely being forgotten.


The Player changed it all - again. Michael Tolkin’s exposé of Tinsel Town’s cutthroat creative corruption was a red hot property when it came out in book form, and Altman appeared an odd choice for the project. Granted, his anti-studio stance was well documented, but the director had also found his greatest personal triumph while working within the confines of industry. Thanks to a stellar cast and a sharp, satiric script, Altman had at least a partial last laugh. There were more Oscar nods (though no wins) numerous accolades and awards from around the world (Best Director at Cannes) and – in the standard pendulum-like swing of his career – rekindled interest in what he wanted to do next.


This time up, however, Altman was prepared. As he would for the rest of his career, he used the incalculable clout of decades considered one of cinema’s main masters to fulfill the personal promise of only making the movies he truly wanted. The Player was followed by the phenomenal Short Cuts (a brilliant breakdown of ‘90s neurosis that found their foothold in the literary brilliance of Raymond Carver’s short stories) and several personal projects, including looks at his interest in fashion (Prêt-à-Porter), his love of jazz (Kansas City) and his deep seeded desire to stay connected to the current trends in filmmaking (The Gingerbread Man, a big screen adaptation of the John Grisham story). With Gosford Park again stirring Academy buzz, it seemed that Altman could really live out the rest of his life doing only the projects he felt passionate about.


It’s too bad then that such a strategy was cut short. No one looking at something like A Prairie Home Companion was arguing that Altman was back, but then again, it’s really hard to say if he every really left. Words like iconoclast, renegade, rebel and dissident were frequently used to describe the director, but the bigger question remains what, exactly, was he rebelling against? Lousy scripts overflowing with clichés and formulaic flaws? Movies lacking heart, passion, artistry and intelligence? A system that sticks by a baffling business plan that rewards financial success without ever taking any other element of a film’s achievement into consideration? That lack of instant approval for the enormous amount of work that goes into making a movie? A fickle fanbase that slams you one day, only to coronate your creations long after their possible impact could actually matter?


No, Altman was not an insurgent. He wasn’t out to change the industry or pout until the studios came around to his way of thinking. No, what this singular cinematic voice was avoiding was the brainwashed belief that you had to give into the sloppy and sub par elements of the game in order to be a viable member of its unconscionable cabal. He refused to acknowledge the fad-oriented facets of the medium, making his own statements about issues and incidents without the slightest concern for populism or pragmatism. He was forward thinking in a system that consistently looks back, and brave without wearing his considerable courage on his frequently slapped wrist. To say that he will be missed is an understatement. No one, not even his impressive impersonators will be able to replace Altman’s integrity and importance. So with his passing, perhaps it’s time to put the whole revolutionary idea to rest. He wasn’t a rebel. In fact, he had the right idea the whole time.


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Tuesday, Nov 21, 2006


Love at first sight is such a frightening concept. The notion that, without warning, your emotional circuits could fire all at once, sending you off into sentimental fits so profound that you may never recover from them, is chilling. Some can mistake lust for love, or physical attraction for something far more ephemeral, but when a single glance creates infinite adoration, the possibilities are endless—and so are the potential problems. For you see, love is not an easy emotion. It does not translate well, nor does it affect every person the same exact way. We can try to allude to universal opinions, but the truth is that love means different things to different people. Passion may seem boundless, but everyone has their own set of borders. Crossing over into it can be the best—or the worst—thing that ever happens to you.


Like an elegy to the emotion it best exemplifies, Le Notti Bianche is a tender, bittersweet slice of unbridled radiance, an ode to the concept of the instant connection, and a prayer for a preference of the present over the past. Though it only deals with three main characters, it speaks for all individuals caught up in the perplexing feelings of devotion and attraction. It’s a visual representation of complicated thoughts forced into an ethereal, enchanted world. Italian master Luchino Visconti creates a lilting lullaby, a gentle breeze of a movie that wafts over your soul like a sudden zephyr on a hot summer day. Though taking place mostly at night, this is the bright side of love at first sight. Sadly, like clockwork, every evening brings the harshness of day. Just like any emotion, the brilliance of love can—and does—bring about the gloom of unsatisfied desire.


While strolling the streets of a Venice-like city late one night, Mario (Marcello Mastrioanni) runs into a sad and weeping woman named Natalia (Maria Schell). Instantly taken with her charms, he asks if he can escort her home. Reluctantly, she agrees. Over the next several nights, the couple meets—sometimes purposefully, other times by happenstance—and they soon begin to connect. Mario asks Natalia why she seems so sad all the time, and she tells a long, involved story about her present home life.


Her grandma is a near-invalid who repairs rugs for a living. She also takes in boarders to help pay the bills. Natalia helps her grandmother, as she is the last remnant of the old woman’s family (Natalia’s mother and father ran off years ago). She also feels trapped in her surroundings. But that is not what makes her unhappy. One day, a strange Tenant (Jean Marais) arrived at Natalia’s house looking for a room. The young girl, seeing the startlingly attractive older man, fell madly in love with him, and an unspoken affection began. Soon, the Tenant claimed devotion to Natalia, and the young woman, seeing a possible way out of her subservient life, clings to the hope that they will be together. Out of the blue, however, the Tenant announced that he must leave; he is in a lot of trouble and has agreed to go away for a year. The couple then makes a pact—if they still feel the same for each other a year from now, they will meet along the back-alley bridges of the city, where they will rekindle their bond. It has been over a year now, and Natalia has been back every night. That is why she is upset. She has kept her word, but the Tenant has yet to show.


This information complicates things. Mario wants Natalia all for himself. While she likes this new man, Natalia still sees the Tenant as the answer to her prayers. Mario will continue his pursuit, but Natalia will not let go of the past.


Le Notti Bianche is a tragedy. It’s the story of love unrequited and incomplete, set within the shadows of a gloriously gloomy locale. The dreamscape backdrop may suggest a sort of unkind fairy tale, a dour fable without a happily ever after, but the truth is a little more complex. This is myth masquerading as mystery, an enigmatic movie that reveals its layers in slow, deliberate stages. True, the main narrative thread is the poetic pursuit of a perfect, rhapsodic fidelity, but it is foolish to feel everyone in the film will find his or her own Prince/Princess Charming. At least one character seems settled at the end of the film, and the other two are prepared to live off the implications of that, if not forever, at least for the time being. The subject of the setback may seem novel, and the twisting of masculine/feminine roles may require a little getting used to, but Luchino Visconti—as he has done in several other sensational motion pictures—finds a way to shift and shape his story to fit the format of his feelings. Here, love is inscrutable and unobtainable, always interrupted by elements outside the lover’s control. So naturally, the setting should be surreal. Emotional barriers are a lot more transient than real ones.


The first thing you notice about this film is how inexplicably beautiful it is. Le Notti Bianche frequently resembles a series of sublime charcoal sketches come to life. Like walking through a divine gallery where, around every corner, a new masterpiece awaits, Visconti’s monochrome magnificence is heartbreaking. There are times in Le Notti Bianche when you don’t want the characters to move. The scenery is so stunning, so breathtaking in its interplay of shadow and light that you just want to sit there, drinking in the inherent drama and beauty until your unquenchable aesthetic overflows. It’s not just the places and the presence that is rapturous. Visconti employs three amazingly handsome actors—Marcello Mastroianni (looking better here than he did before, or ever will again), Maria Schell, and Jean Marais—and situates them as icons among the everyday people populating the city. As a result, our eye never wants to leave the characters. We want to experience their exquisiteness, and contrast their fantasy facade against the reality that surrounds them.


This juxtaposition is important, because it helps to emphasize the theme of isolation and loneliness in the film. Visconti wants his characters to be different and distinct, the better to keep them locked in their own often-oppressive world. Mario is a loner, a man who ran from home, kicked about the country, joined the military, got a job, and basically fends for himself. As the movie begins, he’s only just arrived in this vision of Venice, and it’s a daunting and intimidating locale. He is a stranger in a strange land, lost in his thoughts and sticking to certain areas to satisfy his casual curiosity. This is perhaps why he is so struck by Natalia. Aside from being lured by her looks, he senses her remoteness, her connection to something that is making her sad, and it stirs inside him intense, familiar emotions. The reason we buy the love at first sight angle of this film is that Visconti sets us up with characters who seem prepared—or at least predisposed—to such sudden emotional lightening bolts. Mario wants to care for Natalia the first time he sees her, just as Natalia wants to melt into the Tenant’s arms the minute she sees him. All three characters are lonely, not just alone. Such a shared personality trait brings the story’s triptych tendencies to the fore. This is not just a movie about Natalia and Mario. It’s a film about the Tenant as well, and what he means to the burgeoning couple.


It is interesting to note that, as melodramatic as the premise sounds, Visconti does not fill his film with histrionics. This is a movie about small moments, about the casual glance between hopeful lovers, the sharing of a word or the passing of the hour hand. Visconti avoids crowds at first. He wants his potential paramours to remain mysterious, distant, almost unapproachable. As their affection grows so do the number of people in the streets. In perhaps the most stunning sequence in the entire film, Mario attempts to avoid Natalia (he has his reasons) while strolling through a crowded market square. The press of people and the ever-present glances from other women seem to condemn the man, and Mastroianni orchestrates the sequence exceptionally well. Equally telling is a dance hall scene where Mastroianni thinks he’s won the battle for Natalia’s heart. As the music goes from classical to the slink and sexuality of late 50s rock (Bill Haley and the Comets kicker “13 Women (and Only One Man in Town)” is perfectly placed here), we sense the eventual consummation of the couple’s relationship. They dance with abandon and share a closeness that is almost stifling. Yet the minute Natalia hears it is after 10 p.m. (her ritualistic Tenant time), she completely changes.


Such a switch is at the core of Visconti’s vision. He wants to argue that love is not only blind, but cruel and calculating. Every character here suffers from sentimental shortsightedness. Mario believes he can win Natalia, Natalia thinks the Tenant will return, and the Tenant has either put all his faith in a fickle, unpredictable child, or has used his position of paternal power to turn the head of a naive young girl. No one is really focused on the big picture, of how their passions will play out over decades, not just days. Natalia never exhibits the kind of steadfast resolve we expect from someone convinced of their conviction. Instead, she constantly sways between mania and depression, giggling incessantly or weeping torrents. Mario wanders the streets in kind of a happy daze, never really illustrating his professed isolation. Sure, he seems to befriend anything in his path (including a hungry dog), but we never really feel that this minor man has a major problem. This is why the character of the Tenant is so important. He is a mirror and a blank slate, a way for both Mario and Natalia to project their own images of perfection. She sees him as love personified. He sees him as the mysterious object of an undying desire.


Visconti himself is also guilty of playing with our perceptions. He uses his backdrop deceptively, always hinting at unseen evil in the alleyways, untold vices going on in the barely perceptible shadows. As a filmmaker, he understands that the best fairy tales are crafted out of good and evil, not just straightforward virtue. There has to be a threat—a haunted woods, a wicked witch—to keep the fantasy definable. Visconti achieves this through his amazing visual work in the film. The night shots seem brighter than the day imagery. Crowded streets are claustrophobic and chaotic. Rain becomes a representation of the passion in the air, and a sudden snowfall in the final act seems to suggest a breakthrough in our lover’s lives. With the help of his excellent cast (Mastroianni is just superb) and controlled narrative desire, this is a movie that creeps up on you and steals away your subjectivity. When Le Notti Bianche starts, you want Mario and Natalia to find happiness. As the movie ends, you realize that such a goal was antithetical to what happiness really is.


Though there is a density to Visconti’s designs, Le Notti Bianche is not a deep movie. It is base and broad, a testament to the power of love and an indictment of the blindness in said bliss. It certainly functions like a fable since it appears to offer a sad, succinct moral to what, initially, appeared to be a typical boy-meets-girl panorama. Like that first great obsession that you never quite got over, or that intense emotional pull you experienced from someone who is now no longer part of your life, Visconti wants to exemplify the yin of pain to affection’s extreme yang. For every white night (the movie’s title translation), there’s a dark day, either of location or of spirit. Funny thing is, there is no difference between the two states of being. Both exist within the core concept of love. There is no happiness without sadness to signify the difference—and vice versa. For Mario and Natalia, they see salvation in the arms of another. For both Mario and Natalia, what they want may not be the best thing for them after all. That is the lure of love, and the problems of falling into it at first sight. That is also the message of Visconti’s moving visual feast.


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Monday, Nov 20, 2006


This week starts the hit or miss hodge podge that seems to signal the start of true holiday splurge spending. While you won’t see sunlight-lacking losers camping out to get any of these new releases, here’s SE&L‘s guarantee that at least a couple of the titles will be around a lot longer than some bug-filled video gaming fad gadget. So while you’re waiting for your Wii or wondering why you stood in line for 72 hours just to get another Sony product that requires tech support moments after it’s unwrapped, perhaps the purchase of a new digital product or two will cure that nagging buyer’s remorse. Criterion provides yet another stellar example of fine foreign filmmaking, and a former Presidential candidate argues for a more environmentally friendly approach to our destructive self-centered lifestyle (guess he’s happy about all that Styrofoam and cardboard packaging heading toward municipal landfills nationwide, huh?). Granted, there’s another example of microprocessor mediocrity posing as animation, and a couple of clunky comedies on tap, so beware. Specifically, the slapdash collection of titles for 21 November include:


The Double Life of Veronique: Criterion Collection

*
After his epic TV series based on the Ten Commandments (1989’s Dekalog), Polish director Krsysztof Kieslowski was looking for another way to explore spirituality and its place in the world. He decided to craft a complex exploration of duality and parallelism featuring two identical women living similar lives in different parts of the planet. Veronique/Weronika both have magical singing voices. They are also both burdened with a biological birth defect that eventually turns fatal. What follows is a mysterious meditation on the connectivity between human beings and the possibility of unlinked lives still being inseparable and intertwined. Though he followed up this film with his remarkable Red/Blue/White trilogy, many consider this to be Kieslowski’s crowning achievement. Criterion obviously believes so, considering the solid special edition treatment it gives the title.



H6: Diary of a Serial Killer

Here’s an unusual twist on the whole insane spree killer genre – a Spanish style Psycho. Antonio inherits a hotel from an unknown relative, and decides to use the place to “purify” his guests. Many critics call what follows a hacienda Hostel, with excessive bloodletting and vivisected body parts taking the place of cinematic subtlety and character development. First time director Martín Garrido Barón obviously believes that imitation is the sincerest form of cinematic flattery since he patently rips off several better known horror films. Gorehounds may groove on all the excess vein vodka tossed at the camera, and some may cotton to the overall atmosphere of dread, depravity and darkness. Still, this is a very one note nod to the worst parts of post-modern macabre.



Ice Age: The Meltdown

Just what sugared-up kids, already cranky over the impending holidays, need – more of Fox’s famously fussy (and unfunny) CGI candy. When we last left the characters in this quasi-clever take on prehistory, Manfred, Sid and Diego had just delivered the Eskimo brat to his beleaguered parents and all was right with the frozen tundra. This time around, the ice is melting and a massive wall of water is threatening the indigenous anthropomorphic population. Under-age aimed hi-jinx supposedly ensue. Responsible for the rash of clever creatures with famous voices phase of 3-D animation, Fox must feel really good about the bountiful box office receipts each installment of this franchise creates (yep – Part Three is on the way). But good cash flow does not a classic make. Instead, this is more of the same crude, crass commercialism that is more or less destroying the entire cartoon category.



An Inconvenient Truth

*
All jokes about former Vice President Al Gore, big screen idol aside (Futurama already confirmed his star power, after all) this intriguing documentary – really nothing more than Gore’s multimedia lecture presentation fleshed out for film – is a wake-up call for anyone on the fence about global warming. Showing how hurricanes like Katrina will become the norm, not the aberration, in coming years, as well as arguing for the flooding of major US cities should the polar ice caps continue to melt, this may be the most frightening cinematic experience of the year.  The scariest thing, of course, is that it all is scientifically provable. Argue over the man’s previous record as a member of Clinton’s clan, or challenge his way with words, but the plain fact is we humans are killing the planet in the name of our own sense of entitlement. It’s a thought that makes the title even more apropos.


 


A Miracle on 34th Street: Special Edition*
Hold up – don’t worry. This isn’t the irritating John Hughes remake from 1994, or the baffling TV version featuring David Hartman and Sebastian Cabot from the mid-‘70s. No siree, this is it – the resplendent real deal. Perhaps one of the best holiday films of all time, the original Miracle mixes the magic of the holiday season with the cynicism already creeping into the cultural mindset to create a classic comic entertainment. Edmund Gwenn is so convincing as the mystery man who professes to being the real Santa that he’ll even have you believing in his benevolent bowl full of jelly-ness. Thankfully, Oscar acknowledged his efforts with a much deserved Best Supporting Actor trophy. The rest of the cast ain’t too shabby either – especially little Natalie Wood as the precious little pessimist that eventually melts under St. Nick’s spell.



Scoop
When Match Point came out last year, you could hear Woody Allen fans worldwide exhale, releasing a significant sigh of relief. After a string of subpar films (Hollywood Ending, Melinda and Melinda, etc.) he seemed to have turned the corner and was back making important motion pictures again. Unfortunately, Scoop indicates that it may be time to take that deep breath back. Even with an amazing pair of leads (humans beings don’t get anymore attractive than Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson) and the familiar Allen setting of a murder mystery, the frequently inconsistent auteur created another creaky, stilted effort. Some fear that Allen, now in his fifth decade of filmmaking, has lost his artistic edge. Others feel that his “one film a year” schedule is responsible for his slumps. Whatever the case, there’s no need to stop the presses over this lame effort.


PopMatters Review


You, Me and Dupree
If there were such a thing as crudeness copyright infringement, the Farrelly Brothers would be up to their necks in proactive litigation right about now. Still milking the There’s Something About Mary school of basic bodily humor, the siblings Russo (Joe and Anthony) use the overdone concepts of non-erotic male bonding and arrested development to create another crass, humorless entry in the worn-out ‘wild and crazy guy’ cinematic sub-category. Heck, even Mary‘s Matt Dillion is along for the redundant ride. Instead of finding inventive ways to have title slacker Dupree interact with his old buddy (Dillion) and his newlywed wife (the completely lost Kate Hudson), the Russo’s rely on cliché and formula to find the funny. All they manage to uncover is the continuing funeral march that is the sound of big screen wit in creative freefall.



And Now for Something Completely Different:

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 21 November:


Grand Theft Auto: Tricked Out Edition*
Desperate to break into directing after years as a well-considered child star, little Ronny Howard struck a deal with Indie icon Roger Corman. If he starred in the producer’s car wreck actioner Eat My Dust, the mogul would give the kid a chance behind the camera. The result was a sequel of sorts, the vehicular quickie Grand Theft Auto. Typical of the mid-‘70s drive-in diversions that relied on stunts more than story to draw heavy petters to the passion pits, Howard actually showed some inventive cinematic style here, experimenting with shot selection and scene length to keep his narrative on maximum overdrive. While he’s now earned an Oscar and some critical kudos for his big budget Hollywood histrionics, GTA will always be a favored starting point. And this new DVD even features a Corman/Howard commentary – how cool is that?



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