Cruising is a bait-and-switch of a movie. It lures you in with its smell of leather and sweat and poppers, and sends you home with a hand job. The underground gay clubs that serve as the backdrop in the movie are there to shock and titillate, certainly for audiences of 1980 who hadn’t even heard of, nor even imagined these places existed at the time. The years since have made these scenes seem tame by modern viewers. Remove the carnal lust, handcuffs, and jockstraps, and you’ll find there’s really not much of a thriller here. The life-support of this movie are those S&M scenes.

Director William Friedkin isn’t a stranger to the gritty police procedural. This is after all the man responsible for one of the most iconic cop pictures of the 1970’s (The French Connection), if not all time. I was also surprised to learn that Cruising was not his first entry into the gay world. He had previously directed The Boys in the Band (1970) which is one of the founding films for the gay cinema movement. In Cruising he tries to marry these two worlds to uneven results.

The setup is the stuff of pulp fiction. A killer is stalking gay men in New York’s West Village. The complacent, homophobic NYPD is getting heat from the Mayor’s office to resolve the murders before the upcoming National Democratic Convention. Enter Beat Officer Steve Burns (Al Pacino). Because of his near identical looks to recent victims, he’s the perfect man to go undercover and root out the killer. He’ll have to do the job weaponless and under complete anonymity. Not even his girlfriend (a terrific but completely underused Karen Allen) can know of his assignment. Officer Burns accepts the challenge in an all-to-brief scene because this will be his chance to earn his “Gold Shield.”

As Officer Burns descends into this leathery Hell, Friedkin throws absolutely everything on the screen to shock the viewer. Water Sports? Check. Fisting? Check. Gangbang? Check. It’s all here in its slow-motion color-coded hankie glory – jockstraps, uniform fetishes, simulated oral sex, real oral sex, whips, lips, nips, hips and pits. Everytime the movie breaks away from this world, it’s all too anxious to get right back into it. And it’s because of this that Cruising suffers its first major problem. It’s just too damned dependent upon this setting. Anything else that happens outside this world of hedonism absolutely pales in comparison and is just not that interesting.

But the second and even larger problem is how ambiguous the entire movie is. Many would probably find this to be the end-result of a real auteur. I find it to be sloppy and pretentious filmmaking. Friedkin uses the same three actors to play the role of murderer and victim for the killings that take place on screen. In each of the murder scenes, the same actors would switch roles. For what purpose? To suggest there’s more than one killer? If this is the case, how is it possible each killer would sing the same trademark nursery rhyme just before taking their next victim’s life? Or is Friedkin offering a pessimistic view on the cycle of violence – capture one killer and another will easily replace him.

Cruising ends with two big question marks. First, Steve Burn’s friend and neighbor, Ted Bailey (who’s sunshiny, “normal” persona serves as a counterbalance to the gay shenanigans we’ve witnessed on screen so far), is found brutally murdered after the gay killer has been caught. It’s suggested that a jealous Burns (Pacino) may have been the one to do it. But then it also leads the viewer to believe the real gay killer is still on the loose. And finally, what of that final shot of Burns looking at the audience through his reflection in the mirror? It’s with this final freeze frame that Cruising wants you to think this is a man gone to war, done battle, and barely made it out with his life. His mission into the gay underworld has damaged him so much he’ll never be able to completely return to his hetero-lifestyle. But Cruising doesn’t deserve to end on this kind of cogitative thought. It hasn’t earned it as scenes of character development are incredibly underplayed if non-existent altogether. But, if Cruising does get one thing right it’s a perfectly accurate time capsule of gay New York City clubs in a Pre-AIDS era.

P.S. I didn’t get a chance to mention how excellent the music was in the movie. The club scenes feature a ton of Post Punk bands including The Cripples, Germs, Mutiny and more. Well worth the digging to get your hands on this gem of a soundtrack.


friday classic film blogging

Lolita. (1962). Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Vladimir Nabakov, Stanley Kubrick. Starring James Mason, Shelley Winters, Peter Sellers, Sue Lyons.


Lola (1980)

Brecht, Sirk, Marx: That’s basically what you need to know about thematic ideas when going into a Fassbinder film. Sometimes there are other influences, sure – couldn’t talk about Querelle without mentioning Genet, for example – but the roots of everything he does is a solid mixture of those three names, including 1980’s Lola, his tribute to Josef von Sternberg’s classic The Blue Angel which basically remakes the story of a young cabaret singer (here more openly shown as a prostitute) who ruins a straight-laced professional (there a professor, here a medium level city planner). But it’s like this – every film of his starts from a grounding in the Brecht/Sirk/Marx triumvirate and then he finds a story (based in post-WWII Germany) that appeals to him that will navigate a new course through their works and put his stamp on the synthesis.

Let’s start with Marx here. I’m trying to think of a Fassbinder film that doesn’t at some level deal with class conflict rooted in the effects of capital and can’t come up with one. He had this as a subtext earlier on and brought it to the fore by the end of his career. It’s especially notable here, with explicit and pervasive references to capitalism and the way it can pervert and destroy relationships – personal, public, etc. – and the particularly oily and manipulative character of Schukert to embody its worst excesses, even going so far as to offer money to the opposition to his causes just to cover his bases. But no one is immune to its effects and while Lola is far more sympathetic a character than Schukert, or even than the character of her mother who is infatuated with the perceived class and status of the new official Von Bohn, she still uses all the means at her disposal – primarily sexual – to seduce, entrap and ruin the official. The effect of the film is particularly nasty, with the worst instincts of Lola and Schukert (with the complicity of most every other character in the film) given free rein and in the end, triumphant over the seemingly normal and moral character of Von Bohn, who succumbs utterly to their influence. It’s a brutal comment on the classes and the ambition of the underclass to join to upper classes by any means they have.

Sirk and Brecht go hand in hand in the film, even though they’d seem to be at polar opposites. Sirk’s modus operandi is to create a melodrama skirting on the edge of believability that sucks you into the lives of his characters regardless because he’s consistently critical of the social traps that the upper classes face; bound up in their worlds, they are forbidden to transgress them. And while this sort of storytelling that gets you so would up in the story is the seemingly antithesis of Brecht’s style, in which the viewer in constantly aware of the artifice of theatrical gesture so that the ideas being pushed in the work remain at the fore of the consciousness, the pure artificiality of the melodrama offers up the same effect. Lola's candy colors, the intrusive scores, the overly enthusiastic performances (in some scenes) – it all adds up to a façade that feels as false as Fassbinder’s earlier antiteater tricks, with actors reciting blandly into the camera.

So far this is a review that could’ve plugged in any Fassbinder film and altered details to fit the specifics, but the meaning would be the same. It’s a problem you encounter with true auteurs. When a director explores themes over and over, it’s tough to find something different to say about it the 26th time out. I’m a believer in a lot of what Fassbinder has to say, though I think I’m far less pessimistic about how things work in the real world. But I enjoy his provocative tricks, even the 26th time out. The circumstances portrayed in this film can be extrapolated out of postwar Germany being rebuilt into a modern world where corporate greed and big business take precedence over anything vaguely resembling human emotion and kindness and even the supposed resistance can be co-opted (exemplified by Lola’s on and off boyfriend Esslin, who proves to be readily available to Schukert’s bidding) for the right price. In short, it speaks past the time and place of its setting to the present (and the foreseeable future as well), which says that it’s a work of art worth attending to.

Is it my favorite Fassbinder? Is it his most effective screed about greed and corruption and class conflicts? Not for me. I can think of a handful of other films of his I prefer to this, ones where the devastation wrought by the central characters’ greed hits me more fully even while making sure that you don’t miss the political ideas he’s promoting. But it’s a solid one for sure, a fitting example of his later, more assured style, where Brecht and Sirk sit comfortably alongside each other while Marx, as ever, hovers in the background.



Akira Kurosawa 1985 Japan 160 minutes

My interests lie nowhere near 16th century feudal Japan, epic war films or Shakespeare. So far, they lie nowhere near Akira Kurosawa either. After Ran, my interests pretty much stay where they have always been.

This is not to say Ran is not epic in scope, well photographed and all those other overstated superlatives given to most films showcasing bloodshed on a grand scale. Ran is all of those things. Yet after laboring to sit tight for nearly three hours and keep my mind from wandering to what was going on pop culturally in the world in 1985, I cannot help but assess Kurosawa’s Ran as, well... trite.

Sure, I get the somewhat profound message that human beings are responsible for our own hell on Earth. Sure, I can see the complex familial relationships that come boiling to the surface once Lord Hidetora gives his thrown away. I can even see why this film is considered an aging director’s final pessimistic assessment of human nature since no one of any importance survives and its final portrait is of a world obliterated by war. Yet I do not get anything from Ran other than a small satisfaction that I have put another Kurosawa movie behind me.

Everything about Ran comes across as artificial: the acting, the cinematography, the music, you name it. I cannot take anyone seriously who shouts with the utmost conviction the simplest lines: “There goes so-and-so!” or “Have some rice!” need not be played all the way to the back row. This is something I’ve noticed throughout Kurosawa’s work: exaggerated performances, the worst of which lie in Rashomon. It always feels one is watching a play instead of a film due to a massive vein protruding from the player’s foreheads akin to a Shakespearean actor. I also fail to see what is so remarkable about the cinematography. To me it looks fake, overly composed and full of primary colors that have little to do with the thematic concerns primary colors introduce (Raoul Coutard’s photography in Contempt is a much better example of primary color use).

Battle scenes fail to really impress me, especially nowadays after our bombardment of historical war recreations and glorified Greek mythology. I have quickly become desensitized to such pyrotechnic displays and cannot help but yawn when someone harps on how difficult it was to pull off a battle scene like that. However, to its credit the production design and value of Ran can be seen as a precursor to future extravagant war films, such as Platoon, Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan, even though Ran is a Japanese/French co-production. It is Kurosawa’s influence on the Western aesthetic that matters most. I’m certain Ran did rather well in a 1980’s America; how could it not? He is without a doubt the most Western of all Japanese filmmakers, all the more apparent in this film due to the odd decision to use Hollywood-esque orchestral music over battle scenes (for me, it does not work but only makes these scenes look that much cheaper).

Ran tastes a little overdone, similar to Scorsese’s Gangs of New York or Coppola’s The Godfather III. Like those films in relation to their creators, Ran gives the sense of an artist trying to recapture the days of his youth and the thematic concerns he once flourished in. For my money and willfully limited knowledge of Kurosawa, Seven Samurai is still the smartest, most efficient of his samurai films.


Joaquin's 10 Greatest Narrative Films of the 21st Century (so far, of course)

1. Talk to Her (2002) - I can never decide if All About My Mother or this film is my favorite Almodóvar. One thing is certain by a small margin: Talk to Her is his masterpiece, Spain’s enfant terrible at his most subtle, graceful and mysterious. He can take a rape, make its intentions come from love and deliver it to an audience so earnestly that we never question whether or not the criminal is a good person. We are convinced he is nothing short of an angel. That’s bold. That’s dangerous. That’s masterful storytelling. Almodóvar has an effortless control over this film that remains unmatched in his work, an auteur who listens to the organic heart of a story and then follows with his direction. His confidence and consistency make him the greatest European filmmaker of today.

2. Punch-Drunk Love (2002) - Paul Thomas Anderson exalted Philip Baker Hall in Hard Eight, made us pay attention to Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights and in Magnolia gave Tom Cruise the rare chance to personify the misogyny his franchise perpetuates. Now the comedic mogul Adam Sandler plays the loner, misfit angry man he always has, yet this time it’s heartbreaking. The harmonic forces of a blonde woman persistent to get a date, a peculiar small piano, a trail of pudding leading to Hawaii and brilliantly functional cinematography collide to save Barry Egan from himself. Equal parts Adam Sandler romantic comedy, New Wave and Warner Bros cartoon, Punch-Drunk Love is a breath of fresh air in our cynic-ruled climate. Simply put, it makes me believe in true love again.

3. In the Mood for Love (2000) - The language of this film defies time. I’m convinced if one were to watch every shot in reverse order (or any, for that matter), it would remain the same film and may perhaps even improve. It’s all about its tenor, that aching, bittersweet yearning for someone you have enough love and respect for to leave alone... or perhaps not. Do Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan consummate their affair? Wong Kar-Wai keeps this mystery preserved, creating an ageless, amorous, microcosmic enigma that easily earns its place among the greatest love stories ever told. So far and for good reason, In the Mood for Love is the only 21st century film to make the coveted “gold list” in Paul Schrader’s monumental effort to establish a true film canon.

4. Brokeback Mountain (2005) - Finally, the gays have their Gone With the Wind, their Titanic, and their place in the Hollywood conscience. Ang Lee’s approach to a closeted gay cowboy love story is stubbornly classical and abides by all the rules. This is precisely what makes Brokeback Mountain unique. For better or for worse, all the conventions and platitudes of heterosexual romance movies can now belong to Queer Cinema. This is exactly what we needed: an established, popular director to make a movie that grabs the attention of the masses and proves to them any form of love is valid and more in common with their own than they are lead to believe. It’s a miracle how good this film really is and how well it was received.

5. Dogville (2003) – Lars von Trier takes down the U.S. in a single blow with the first installment of his America trilogy. Dogville is long overdue karma, a scathing indictment of our small town mentality and exploitative disregard for the immigrant. Stripping away all the aesthetic fluff of narrative film shows what really matters is performance, which become all the more revelatory in their isolation from one another. This film is a sickening and engrossing Brechtian science experiment, similar to observing scared lab rats negotiate their way through a maze. Von Trier solely and justifiably bases this nightmarish vision on the imperialist media we are so hell bent on spreading worldwide. A foreign POV on the hypocritical myths we champion proves both refreshing and humiliating.

6. Children of Men (2006) – Kubrick’s 2001 and this film are the only science fiction movies that truly terrify me. Alfonso Cuarón gets the future right in Children of Men better than most filmmakers. Devoid of the genre clichés of flying cars, elaborate cityscapes and electronic gadgets galore, the future is accurately portrayed as our crumbling present day world suffocated by LCD and plasma screens advertising a government endorsed suicide. The ceasing of human reproduction often feels like the only fictional element of the film. All the violence, panic and desperation running rampant throughout possess a Direct Cinema quality most documentary filmmakers can only dream of. Cuarón’s vision of a rapidly disintegrating world in chaos is a plausible prophecy I can buy.

7. Far From Heaven (2002) - Todd Haynes’s tribute to Douglas Sirk is so faithful it hurts. Every detail is just right, from the blood-orange, Connecticut autumn leaves down to the aqua trim tablecloths. Watching Far From Heaven is a visual feast, a lesson in how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. And in true Hollywood melodrama fashion, the film is borderline psychotic. I’m madly in love with the Sirk aesthetic for all its garishly masked melancholy, its emotional alliance with Earth’s seasons and its heroines caught between a rock and a hard place. Melodrama is a tricky business, understandably shunned as misleading and banal. But when done right as in this film, I can only afterwards sigh and wonder when and where my Rock Hudson or Dennis Haysbert will find me.

8. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) – A stickler for details, Anderson is something of a nerdy alchemist obsessed with concocting the perfect grandiose vision only equal to the sum of its boundlessly diverse parts. The Royal Tenenbaums is a children’s storybook come to life, full of pretentious and wondrous archetypes who persist in staying locked in their failed dreams, crippled by their own shortcomings. At the end of the opening prologue, a young Richie Tenenbaum sets his hawk Mordecai free to the crescendo of “Hey Jude,” sending out an SOS for help from his family’s sinking battleship of squandered potential. How curious, classic and medieval a bird in flight over a New York skyline can become. For me, this is the most touching moment in Wes Anderson’s oeuvre.

9. The Incredibles (2004) - When Brad Bird and Pixar get together, I surrender to the so-called CGI revolution. I care about the Parr family. I understand their battle for and against familial conformity. I too want to be the greatest superhero dad in the world. All this from synthetic layers of shading, morphing and rendering? You bet. Most CGI cartoons stay afloat with gag after gag of endless pop-cultural references while Brad Bird’s visions strive for a real connection with our humanity. The likes of Shrek and Beowulf miss the mark entirely. The Incredibles is a prime example of how the instrument can only serve the artist, in this case the sharpest animation studio reaching its full potential in the hands of a master cartoon storyteller. CGI never felt so good.

10. Half Nelson (2006) – The setup is pure Disney: white, middle class basketball coach serves as guiding light to inner-city junior high students. The end result, however, is anything but. More naturally than most films, Half Nelson captures what it means to be stuck. All characters are imbued with an equivalent sense of anguish, the role of guru in constant flux between a coach with a drug habit, the drug dealer who indirectly feeds his problem and the at-risk adolescent girl they both want to save. This film balances the playing field within narrative territory typically forged for easy didacticism, forcing us to empathize with equally beaten citizens. Pious authority has no place here, only an unpretentious, surprising look at people reckoning how to break the hold their circumstances have them in.

friday classic film blogging