Jaws – The USS Indianapolis (May 21, 2017)
If you’ve seen Jaws, you’ll remember the nighttime scene in Quint’s boat, the Orca, in which the three protagonists get drunk and sing songs, trading stories, until the subject of the USS Indianapolis comes up.
Indianapolis was the warship that delivered parts for the atomic bomb nicknamed Little Boy to the Pacific island of Tinian in the Marianas, where bombers of the 509th Composite Bombardment Wing waited to launch the first atomic raid. She was a heavy cruiser, and on the return trip provided a juicy target for a Japanese sub that sent her to the bottom. Ships of that era had enormous crews, and Indianapolis went down with 300 drowned and 900 left floating in the water for days, where many were eaten by sharks, or died of other causes. Only a few over 300 survived.
This is the subject of Robert Shaw’s famous monologue, when Hooper, played by Richard Dreyfus, is playing a game of one-upmanship with Quint about their respective scars, inflicted by various encounters with eels, sharks, and Mary-Ellen Moffatt, and Chief Brody, played by Roy Scheider, asks Quint about a scar on his arm – and this one turns out to be from a tattoo removal. Hooper jokes “Don’t tell me – Mother“.
“Mr. Hooper, that’s the USS Indianapolis.” Hooper is a young but educated man, and knows just what Quint is talking about, and it’s a nice touch that Quint, who has to this point denigrated Hooper for his girly-man book-learnin’, obviously knows that Hooper will understand. Things get deadly serious in just a second or two.
This scene is notable not just for the mesmerizing manner in which Robert Shaw delivers his lines, but also for the way that Dreyfus and Scheider say nothing, nothing at all, yet convey a world of dismayed and somber awe. As Quint’s story unfolds, the two others exchange glances, the warm buzz of their little booze party falling away. This is a horrifying tale. Terrifying. Men were in the water, helpless, as sharks devoured them piecemeal, screaming, trying to group together as if there might be some safety in numbers, pounding on the water to try to scare the monsters away. Well, sometimes, the sharks would go away. Sometimes they wouldn’t go away, and then you’d hear that horrible, high-pitched screaming.
Jaws was the first proper summer blockbuster. Unlike so many that followed, it worked because you really came to care about these three guys out hunting a monstrous Great White in their boat that seemed, as events unfolded, to be just too damned small for the task. You got to know them, and their distinct personalities. You very much worried over their fate. Here they were, bonding over the most terrible of stories, and we were suddenly afraid for them. They were all alone out there. Maybe they too would witness, as the last thing they ever saw, those horrible eyes of the shark roll back in its head as it delivered the killing bite, those lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes.
In this scene, Jaws stopped being just a horror movie, and turned into something else entirely. A master class in acting.
United 93 – The Passengers’ Revolt (May 23, 2017)
United Flight 93 was one of the airliners hijacked on 9/11, on its way to D.C. when it went down in Pennsylvania. It was the last to crash, and its passengers, in contact with the ground via cell phones, were the first of those whose planes had been turned into cruise missiles to realize that they weren’t involved in an ordinary hijacking. Wives and loved ones conveyed the heartsick message that the hijackers were crashing the airliners into landmarks and important buildings.
There were many heroes on board that day, but the one that sticks out in my mind was a big, strong, affable guy named Todd Beamer. He was a quintessential American as they like to imagine themselves, the kind of solid masculine guy who wore plaid shirts and baseball hats, a former college athlete who knew how to handle himself, but wasn’t looking for trouble. Upright, decent, a family man. We know, from the testimony of loved ones on the other ends of phones, that Todd was among those leading an effort to take the plane back by force, or die trying.
One woman, speaking to her husband, heard Beamer in the background just as they made their move: “You guys ready? Let’s roll”.
Beamer and his new band of brothers were the first group of passengers to understand what was really going on, and they wouldn’t stand for it. It’s thought they rushed to the front using a drink cart as a battering ram, and Beamer’s wife is quite sure that he broke at least one terrorist in half when they got to the cockpit door – the cockpit had guards posted outside, and somebody must have dealt with them. Probably Beamer. The passengers can be heard on the “black box” cockpit recording, breaking the door down, when the terrorists decide to crash the plane. From their flight path, their mission was plainly to hit something in Washington, maybe the Capital Building, maybe the White House. Beamer and the others wouldn’t have known the specifics, but from their conversations with the ground they understood full well that something of national significance was in the cross-hairs, and they wouldn’t have it. They had a faint hope of seizing control of the jet, as they had among them a private pilot, but really it came down to this: they would rather die on their feet than let the worst happen. There was nothing else for it, and time was running out, so: let’s roll.
Meanwhile, two F-16 pilots who’d been preparing for a training sortie rushed to get airborne in a pair of fighters that had been fuelled for the training mission, but were of course unarmed, and there was no timely way to do anything about that. They roared into the sky, pushed close to supersonic, and formulated a plan to collide with the airliner in order to stop it. They were the last military line of defence. The only available armed “quick reaction alert” F-16s on air defence duty that day had sped out to sea, as per their standing orders – any aerial threat had to be coming in from the ocean, right? – and were thus out of the play. It was up to these two pilots, one of them a member of the USAF’s first generation of female combat aviators, to execute what amounted to a kamikaze mission in their unarmed jets, and they didn’t hesitate. One resolved to clip the airliner’s tail, the other would go for the cockpit. As they sped towards their quarry, they expected to die. But the passengers of United 93 had already done the job.
The clip above is the climax of the astonishingly moving film directed by Paul Greengrass, and while it will certainly break your heart, you have to see the whole movie.
Also, this is worth a read:
Wall-E – Define Dancing (May 25, 2017)
There are so many scenes you might pick from Pixar’s poignant, hilarious, sometimes emotionally wrenching masterpiece Wall-E. There’s the early sequence in which a woozy Wall-E wakes up, staggers on to the roof of his container like a sailor with a hangover, recharges via his solar panels (in an homage to Apple, when fully charged he emits the same musical chord that Macs do when you boot them up) and goes about his business. It’s such a joy to watch him sift through the trash for interesting items before he crushes civilization’s endless detritus into tight little cubes. His confusion over which bin best suits a “spork” he gathered up among the day’s haul of curiosities and knick-knacks, all his little treasures impeccably organized by category inside a library of little containers, is at once funny and endearing. Is it a fork? A spoon? Then there’s the shot where he finds a diamond ring in a jewel case, discards the ring, and keeps the case (it opens and closes on a hinge, cool!). I love the moment at nightfall when he wanders out on to the boarding ramp of his little abode and looks up at the stars, plainly in awed contemplation of the infinite. Or you might pick his enraptured viewing of an old VHS tape of Hello Dolly that he’s somehow rigged to play, sitting there, mesmerized by the love song It Only Takes a Moment, and obviously so terribly lonely that it breaks your heart.
My own favourite, linked above, is the scene that follows Wall-E’s apparent destruction, when he blasts back towards his sweetie, the robot EVE (obviously an Apple product), and turns out to have saved not only himself, but also the movie’s McGuffin, the precious plant the retrieval of which is EVE’s sole design function.
EVE is ecstatic. What follows is a glorious, graceful sort of minuet among the stars, as EVE and Wall-E soar to the accompaniment of Thomas Newman’s brilliant score. It’s a moment of pure romance and elation, while we in the audience watch rapt, and believe absolutely that two machines could fall in love.
There’s a final grace note when Wall-E’s propellant runs out, and he floats gently towards EVE. She gathers him in, cradles him like a baby, and says “home”. That’s where she means to take him, and nestled in her pristine angelic arms, that’s where Wall-E feels he is already.
Bullitt – the Car Chase (May 28, 2017)
In 1968, Warner Brothers released Bullitt, the progenitor of every cop movie that followed it, and it starred Steve McQueen – the coolest dude who ever lived – as a San Francisco cop in the middle of a criminal and political shit storm involving mafia drug kingpins and ambitious candidates for office. In many ways, particularly in its dry depictions of meticulous police procedure, its authentic scenes in hospital emergency wards, and its matter-of-fact dissection of the politics that infect every bureaucracy, it remains unsurpassed.
All anyone remembers, though, is the 120 MPH car chase as McQueen, doing his own driving for much of it, pursues a honking great Dodge Charger in his fastback Mustang, all over the hills of San Francisco. Much of it was filmed at normal speed, with no video tricks to make it look like the cars are going faster than they really are, and you can tell by the way these muscle cars bounce on their shocks, leave the ground as they go over humps, and shed hubcaps as they heel over in tight turns. The jaded modern viewer may say he’s seen it all before, but nobody in 1968 had ever seen such stuff, and I don’t know, there’s something about it.
Heat – the Shoot-Out (June 1, 2017)
Man, they’re so close. They’re just about to pull off the heist of a lifetime, almost in the clear, when the cops get there.
This is easily, to my mind, the greatest shootout ever depicted on film – and for that matter, what am I doing using a diminutive word like “shootout”? Shootout? This is a firefight, it’s Black Hawk Down transposed onto a busy city street, with the same havoc, confusion, collateral damage, and casualties of a savage military battle. It feels real.
One of my pet gripes for many years now concerns the way that Hollywood usually depicts gun violence. Don’t get me wrong, this is no manifesto against using violence in drama, violence has its place, it’s part of life and often an essential part of compelling storytelling, just ask Shakespeare. My beef is that TV and movies are always making it look like sidearms are fairly innocuous in their effects, and worse, that rifles of terrifying power can be used without really doing all that much damage. Automatic weapons fire is sprayed all over the place, and nobody gets hit. People take shelter behind car doors, refrigerator doors, flimsy up-turned wooden tables, and are thus made safe from the bullets that whiz all around them. If anybody does get hit, heck, they’re OK, it’s just in the shoulder or the leg, and after a few moans and winces they’re up again, still able to function and back in the fight.
Now and then, usually after seeing some ludicrous exchange of ineffective gunfire in some show the previous night, I’d ask somebody in the office, my assistant, say, or a student, how fast they thought a bullet fired from an assault rifle would actually be travelling. It’s not that none of them knew the right answer – why should they have any accurate knowledge about a thing like that? – it’s that none of them had even the merest intuitive sense of it. Their under-estimates were astonishing: maybe a couple of hundred miles per hour? Maybe a hundred? One person guessed ninety miles an hour – ninety.
That’s the speed of a major league fastball. A mere human arm can hurl a projectile faster than 90 miles per hour.
Nearly everyone was inclined to think I was bullshitting them when I’d respond that no, a bullet leaves a common civilian-owned assault weapon like an AR-15 at a muzzle velocity of something approaching 3,200 feet per second, maybe a little more, supposing a standard 20-inch barrel. That’s closing in on 2,200 miles per hour, about Mach 3 at sea level. A round spun out of a rifled barrel at that velocity flies true, and hits with enormous kinetic energy. Even if you’re wearing ceramic armour on top of Kevlar, on impact it will hurt like almighty Hell, like you were just hit with a nine-pound sledge hammer, and it’ll knock you flat on your ass, maybe crack your ribs. If all you’ve got is the Kevlar, no ceramic, that AR or AK round is probably going right through.
So no, a car door or a kitchen table won’t stop it. Depending on the type, a cinder block won’t stop it. Slam your front door in the face of a guy armed with an assault rifle, and he’ll simply blast you out of your slippers straight through the flimsy wood. Take a round to the shoulder, and it probably shatters your collar bone on the way in, and leaves a big nasty hole in your shoulder blade on the way out, so no, you aren’t getting back up and rejoining the fray, you’re lying there in unbearable agony, bleeding out, with that whole side of your body ruined for life, supposing you live. It only hit you in the leg? Yeah, well, at a minimum it just tore out fist-sized chunk of flesh, and if you’re lucky it didn’t shatter your thigh bone or sever the femoral artery, an injury you’ll survive only if there’s a combat medic handy with the presence of mind to tie it off immediately with a tourniquet.
Look, kids: a modern firearm like an AR-15 or AK-47 is horrifyingly accurate, and sickeningly damaging. In the right hands, or even an amateur’s hands, one can be used by a single shooter to kill dozens wholesale – we saw that in Orlando. We saw that at Sandy Hook. In Viet Nam, soldiers were shot despite hiding behind tree trunks. If you’ve ever seen the film of the ATF storming the compound of the Branch Davidians at Waco, you may have registered that federal agents were being gunned down from the inside by bullets ripping right through the exterior walls.
People need to understand this, far better than they obviously do, and it might help if Hollywood showed them the destructive power that military-grade weapons actually possess. Maybe then they wouldn’t think that owning one for “home defence” was no big deal. Maybe they’d shrink from the possibility that if they ever fired one, and missed the intended target, the bullet might sail another 500 yards and blow some grandmother’s brains out as she sits watching America’s Got Talent. Maybe they’d develop some thoroughly rational fear of these devastating infantry weapons, and question why anybody actually has any need, or right, to have such a thing in the living room.
Maybe I’m dreaming my little dreamy liberal dreams, as I’m wont to do, but I’d love to run the educational experiment, and one reason I’m so enamoured of the firefight in Heat is that director Michael Mann, for once, pulled no punches. The bank heist scene and its aftermath, masterfully shot, indeed demonstrates just what an assault rifle will do.
It all starts with Robert De Niro’s crew infiltrating the lobby of a big, posh-looking bank branch. These guys are no rank amateurs, and this is no witless smash and grab. They’re efficient, organized, ruthless, and violent, but no more violent than they have to be. We want to hurt no one, De Niro yells at the supine civilians. We’re here for the bank’s money, not yours. Your money is insured by the Federal Government. You aren’t going to lose a dime. By this point in the film, the viewer knows that if you put their backs to the wall, every member of this crew will drill hot lead into anything that walks or crawls, and this adds to the inherent tension. No quarter will be given or accepted, it comes to that, but such is plainly nobody’s wish. They don’t want it to go that way. Sitting there watching, you don’t want it to go that way. Maybe this will go according to plan? Please, God, this goes according to plan.
A pulsing, rhythmic piece of music by Brian Eno, titled Force Marker, does its bit to heighten the suspense.
The crew executes its mission with flawless precision. They’ve got no time for tills and tellers, no time for safe deposit boxes, they go straight for the vault, and are exiting the bank with enormous duffel bags full of currency, making for the getaway car, when Al Pacino’s team of cops arrives.
Each contingent is about as well armed as a Company of the 1st Marines. As soon as he spots the cops, Val Kilmer, on De Niro’s crew, starts laying down a hail of suppressing fire. The first of Pacino’s men to go down, a character we’ve come to know at this point, is dropped in his tracks within seconds, despite his Kevlar vest. Bad luck. He caught one in his exposed throat. Guns are blazing every which way. As the battle grows in intensity, it begins to look like nobody is going to get out of it alive; the getaway car is halted when the driver is killed, cops start dropping like flies as the running firefight, now prosecuted on foot, gets ever more desperate, and Kilmer et. al. are emptying clips at a furious rate. A phalanx of cop cars is shredded, the bullets tearing straight through them, and crouching street cops in uniform are soaking up rounds right, left, and centre, despite the meagre protection afforded by their vehicles. A nice touch: the exchange of fire mimics what those of us who’ve watched real life firefights on the Military Channel have witnessed many times. The bad guys are firing on full auto, hosing the whole area, not quite in an undisciplined way, but obviously indifferent to whoever might be caught in the crossfire. The good guys, Pacino and his men, are firing in semi-auto, squeezing off single, carefully-aimed shots. Nobody who dreads missing the proper target uses full auto. The kick-back spoils your aim.
The sound in this scene is amazing, and I’ve read that Mann decided to ditch the results of the usual Foley work, and stick with the audio they recorded live, the echoing booms of the gunfire in the concrete canyon sounding far more effective.
Both sides are bloodied terribly in this firefight. Characters that you’ve probably come to like and root for, cops and robbers alike, are mowed down as if they never mattered. The sense of loss is almost overwhelming. This guy is dead. That guy is dead. They’re not coming back. Their story arcs are finished. All around is devastation.
That’s what assault weapons can do.
Dr. Strangelove – the Phone Call (June 6, 2017)
Nearly every scene is great in the 1964 Stanly Kubrick black comedy Dr. Strangelove, in which a preemptive nuclear war is initiated by a rogue American bomber base commander (General Jack Ripper), in order to destroy the Soviet Union before the dirty Commie plot to fluoridate civic water systems can be brought to fruition.
There are some vignettes that seem particularly and hilariously dry, as Kubrick inserts the mundane, reflexive habits of civil social discourse into situations in which the stakes are incomprehensibly huge.
Take the moment when Peter Sellers, playing Group Captain Mandrake, an RAF officer on exchange with Strategic Air Command, realizes that General Ripper has gone rogue and launched his bomber wing on his own authority. Mandrake has found a transistor radio, and the emergency broadcast system isn’t in effect, it’s just pop tunes, which would mean that there was no Russian attack underway, no war, except the one Ripper was now starting. Ever the consummate Englishman, Mandrake remains scrupulously polite throughout, as the truth dawns slowly upon him. It’s a beautifully understated, stiff-upper-lip-old-boy performance.
Ripper: Group Captain, the planes are not going to be recalled. My attack orders have been issued and the orders stand.
Mandrake: Well, if you’ll excuse me saying so, sir, that would be, to my way of thinking, rather… well, rather an odd way of looking at it. You see, if a Russian attack was in progress we would certainly not be hearing civilian broadcasting.
Ripper: Are you certain of that, Mandrake?
Mandrake: I’m absolutely positive about that, sir, yes.
Ripper: And what if it’s true?
Mandrake: Well I’m afraid I’m still not with you, sir. Because, I mean, if a Russian attack was not in progress then your use of plan R, in fact your orders to the entire wing… oh…
There’s the scene as Major Kong, piloting one of the B-52s that Ripper has hurled at the Soviet Union, tallies up the contents of the crew’s survival kits:
Kong: Survival Kit contents check. In them you will find: one 45 caliber automatic, two boxes of ammunition, four days concentrated emergency rations, one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills, one miniature combination Rooshan phrase book and Holy Bible, one hundred dollars in rubles, one hundred dollars in gold, nine packs of chewing gum, one issue of prophylactics, three lipsticks, three pair of nylon stockings — shoot, a fellah could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff…
Everything that comes out of George C. Scott’s mouth, playing General Buck Turgidson, is hilarious – it’s the performance of a lifetime. Meanwhile, Sellers, playing mad German strategic theorist Dr. Strangelove to the hilt, keeps calling the President “Mein Fuhrer”, while one of his arms, apparently not under his own conscious control, keeps giving the Nazi salute.
Part of what makes this movie so wonderful, apart from the acting, script etc., is that Kubrick clearly had an expert understanding of the deadly logic of then-current deterrence theory, the very stuff I was studying at the time I first saw the movie. He also clearly understood that despite what civilians might think, owing to repeated suggestions from some quarters that there’s always something fraudulent about the transactions between defence contractors and the government, you could rest assured that real hard-core military hardware, far from being the $12,000.00 toilet seats and ashtrays of legend, not only works, it’s unstoppable – in the movie every effort to shoot down a single B-52 fails despite the exertions of the entirety of both militaries, the bomber evading defences and protecting itself just as it was designed to do. As Colonel Kong’s crew goes about the task at hand, within a superb mock-up that precisely mimics the actual interior of a B-52, it becomes obvious that the crew members are proficient and resourceful, their tactics flawless, their plane, a Boeing-built masterpiece, itself rugged and powerful. They may be nuts from Cold War brainwashing, but in no way are they incompetent. In fact, they’re masters of their apocalyptic instrument. That’s the horror of it. Once tasked, they will sure as shit get the job done, and the wondrous technology at their disposal will function just as planned – even the auto-destruct switch does its job to literal perfection, by blowing itself up. The CRM-114 radio receiver discriminator, designed to screen out false radio command signals from the enemy, performs its function by not receiving anything at all.
But could just one bomber penetrate the massed forces of the entire Soviet air defence system? Hell yes, enthuses Turgidson, warming to the topic. “Aw, you should see it Mr. President, a big plane like the ’52 flying in so low that its jet exhaust is frying chickens in the barnyard!” He’s dead right; Major Kong’s bomber is assailed by surface-to-air missiles, shot up, starts losing fuel, but keeps on going, inexorable, and when it can’t reach its designated primary, secondary, or even tertiary targets, it goes for the first “target of opportunity” – and then the bomb bay doors won’t open. Battle damage. No problem. Kong, played by Western movie regular Slim Pickens, crawls down into the bay, sits astride the thermonuclear weapon (“Hi There!” written on the warhead), hot wires the doors, and plunges out, hooting and hollering.
My favourite scene, attached above, occurs earlier in the War Room, as President Merkin J. Muffley, also played by Sellers, enlists the help of the Russian ambassador to phone Soviet Premier Kissoff so he can try to explain the situation. It’s absolutely priceless. Kissoff, drunk in his dacha, has to be told to turn the music down, and then Muffley tries to handle him with kid gloves, like a contrite suitor trying to explain a screw-up to his angry girlfriend. One of our base commanders went a little, well, funny, Muffley explains, and well, he did a silly thing…
Thief / Drive – Men at Work (July 27, 2017)
Thief, Michael Mann’s early 1980s masterpiece of mood and cinematography, might just be the most stylish movie ever made, with its pulsing electronic score by Tangerine Dream, and its extended shots of dark, lonely, and very soggy night-time roads and alleyways. It’s said that to get the right look, Mann had water trucks follow him around from shot to shot, keeping the streets all good and reflectively drenched.
Attached is the virtually wordless opening scene, and it sets the tone from almost the first frame. This is a movie about professionals, master criminals who specialize in high-end heists that involve technology, skill, and teamwork – and absolutely no violence, no drama. Guns and screaming are for punks. They come in the dead of night, alone at the scene, spoofing alarm systems, monitoring the police bands, and deploying exotic tools to get the job done quickly and cleanly. Don’t you just love that drill-press that attaches to the safe by way of its integral electromagnet? Isn’t it great how James Caan operates with all due speed, but in a thoroughly dispassionate and economical way, wasting no time, taking no false or unnecessary steps? He just gets the job done, and this clearly isn’t his first rodeo. Note how he disdains all the baubles in favour of boxes full of uncut diamonds in tidy little envelopes, utterly untraceable. Then, the unhurried getaway, the team members splitting up, discarding coveralls, switching cars and going their separate ways in silence, each fully versed in the drill.
They’re just so totally cool.
Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding paid obvious homage to this scene about 30 years later, in the opening of 2011’s Drive. The beginning gives off the exact same night-time vibe, with a cool criminal expert going wordlessly about his business, monitoring the police bands and executing his getaway with consummate professionalism, all of it set to a pulsing electronic score.
Winding even tips his cap to Mann with the neon graphics of the opening credits:
Style over substance? Not in my book, not for either movie. These are compelling dramas, very film noir despite being in colour, and anyway, what’s wrong with style?
Planes, Trains and Automobiles – Do You Think This Vehicle is Safe for Highway Use? – (November 23, 2017)
I read an article yesterday on how the John Hughes comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles is the best movie ever made about Thanksgiving:
I bet you’ve seen it multiple times, like I have. There’s so much to like about this buddies-on-the-road story about two guys trying desperately to get one of them home in time for Thanksgiving. It’s hilarious, and never gets old. The script is terrific, and both leads are at the top of their games, as their characters ride an emotional roller coaster, by turns ecstatic, bitter, morose, frustrated to the point of apoplexy, and even, at times, scared out of their wits (see the scene when they’re driving the wrong way, according to the guy shouting at them from across the median).
Steve Martin is perfect, but there’s something especially endearing about John Candy’s performance as Del Griffith, an itinerant salesman who supplies the little plastic rings that keep shower curtains up. His portrayal goes well beyond farce and pratfalls into territory supposed to be the preserve of “serious” actors; Del can make you want to scream, but he also makes you want to cry. There are dozens of little moments when your heart goes out to him: his crestfallen humiliation when Martin’s character flays him with the famous “Chatty Cathy” rant, his loneliness at the station as he waits for a train to nowhere, all by himself, the way he smiles through his tears and clutches his hat when his travel buddy finally makes it into the warm embrace of his loving family, it all just breaks your heart. Del is a sorrowful wreck willing himself to see the bright side, taking joy in little things, and forging ahead in a spirit of almost tenacious optimism. He’s so determinedly upbeat that you want to punch his silly smiling face, until you catch a glimpse of the wounded soul behind the facade. Candy makes you feel glad that you’re not Del, and a little bit ashamed of that feeling.
The scene above, with Del trying to persuade a cop that his burned-out car with the melted dashboard is still good to go, has always been a favourite. There’s no bullshit to Del, no guile at all; when asked if he has any functioning gauges of any sort, he cheerfully answers “No, not a one”. He figures that if you just tell the truth and explain your predicament, you’ll get by on the innate decency of others.
If that doesn’t make you cry, what will?
Top Gun – Why I Hate Top Gun (November 24, 2018)
This is an odd topic for a blog post, I guess. I don’t know how it came up today, but I’ve ranted on this subject for years, and today Kathy, my thoroughly wonderful and I’m guessing long-suffering wife, who’s been listening to my crap on this subject for going on 27 years (!), told me I should write about it here. Maybe she thinks it’ll finally purge the topic from my system.
It was way back in 1986 that the hugely successful action movie Top Gun hit the theatres. It doesn’t seem possible it could have been so long ago. Directed by Tony Scott (Ridley’s brother), and beautifully filmed, with magnificent aerial sequences, it’s a movie I was cracking to see, and should have loved all to pieces. I can remember feeling full of giddy anticipation when I settled into my chair at what was then the grand old Runnymede Theatre, popcorn in hand, happy as a clam. The opening sequence was great, too, filmed in the dim light of the “golden hour”, as was Tony’s wont, and very promising indeed:
Carrier ops! Yeah! The subtle, dangerous, awesome choreography of the flight deck, the massive power of the jets, oh boy oh boy!
But then came the rest of the film, and, well, I didn’t love it. I wasn’t even neutral about it. I flat-out hated it. Passionately. In fact, I’ve never despised a movie so much.
Let me explain why this is surpassing strange. I’m deeply interested in military history. As part of that, I’ve been fascinated since early childhood with military hardware, the way some boys are enthralled by cars, and I have a particular interest in military aircraft. I’m also very keen on navies and naval technology, naturally enough given my upbringing in a navy town, and these two fascinations melded to give me an intense interest in naval aviation and aircraft carriers. Over the years I grew particularly expert on the products of the Grumman aircraft company, the greatest of all naval aviation design houses, whose many “cats” – Wildcat, Hellcat, Bearcat, Tigercat and so on – were for decades the gold standard for naval fighters. Grumman’s aircraft, produced in a facility in Bethpage, New York known as the “Iron Works” for the toughness of its designs, were beyond legendary. They gave aircraft carriers the ability to launch fighters that were better than all comers, from land or sea – which was nigh on impossible, given all the design complications imposed upon aircraft that had to sit out there in the briny toss, being robust enough to both launch and recover from heaving decks, and built rugged to stand up to salt corrosion, while folding up neatly for convenient storage to boot. The F6F Hellcat pretty much won the Pacific campaign all by itself, shooting down over 5,100 enemy planes while boasting a kill ratio of 19:1.
The last, and I think the greatest, in the long line of Grumman cats was the F-14 Tomcat, an extremely powerful and sophisticated fighter interceptor with computer-controlled swing wings, capable of over 1,500 MPH. The Tomcat was armed with unusually large and deadly air-to-air missiles known as “Phoenix”, guided by a weapons system that could launch six at a time. These things travelled at Mach 5 out to ranges over 100 nautical miles, and cost a million bucks a round (and those are great big 1980s bucks). Somehow this twin-engined monster, which weighed over 58,000 pounds even before you loaded it up with weapons, also managed to be highly agile, and a deadly customer in close, visual range combat.
The F-14 Tomcat was, in short, the balls. I loved it. Loved it. Still do. I damn near wept when they took them out of service.
Top Gun is all about Tomcats and Tomcat pilots. It’s stuffed full of footage featuring real F-14s engaged in real air combat maneuvering. How could I hate such a thing?
Well, I’ll tell you.
- It portrayed the Top Gun program as some sort of hormonal adolescent intramural championship. Top Gun is the nickname for a real Navy training program run out of the Fighter Weapons School, which grew out of an analysis of the rather dismal air combat results being experienced in Vietnam. Its goal was to train pilots in close combat against threat aircraft that performed similarly to the MiGs they were encountering over South East Asia, with the aim that when they entered the fray, they would already have, in effect, their first 15 or 20 combat missions under their belts. It was a rip-roaring success. What it most decidedly was not was a frickin bantam football tournament with a cheesy goddam trophy awarded to the champ:
NO NO NO. There is no Top Gun trophy. Top Gun is no contest. It’s no game. It’s a carefully designed training syllabus, like fighter pilot graduate school. It even has classroom work. Besides, nobody would be so utterly insane as to throw a bunch of fighter jocks together and tell them to compete for a frigging trophy, for the love of God. Those guys would do anything to win, and would likely get each other killed. Top Gun is the opposite of a contest, being clinical, sober, and full of safety protocols. Rivalry and competition are assiduously downplayed. You’re there to learn, gentlemen, and rest assured you all have something to learn. Hot shot antics are not allowed, and anyway, by the time the truly shit-hot in-house “aggressor” pilots are through with you, you’ll be nothing but humble.
- It portrayed Naval Aviators as the sort of witless frat boys who’d do something as stupid as “buzz the tower”. It’s one of the most famous scenes in all of action movie history:
It was by all accounts a ball to film, and personnel at Miramar Naval Air Station crowded the apron and took to rooftops to watch it. Why so fun to do? Because no fleet pilot has ever done such a thing. Why so cool to witness? Because nobody had ever seen anything quite like it before. It’s absolutely out of the question. Period. You wouldn’t do it at an air show, let alone in ordinary operations. Yet zoooom, there they go! Wheeeeee!!! The movie even has Maverick deciding to perform the hotshot flyby after the tower has expressly forbidden it, owing to a packed landing pattern. He does it anyway! This would be insanely dangerous, and anybody who would take such a risk for kicks – and such morons would have been weeded out of flight school long before they got to the Tomcat community – might yell “Yeeeee-hawwwwww!” and “Great balls of fire!” like the witless Goose and Maverick do, but upon landing they’d be promptly stripped of their wings, court-martialled, given dishonourable discharges, and might even find themselves invited to spend a few years making little ones out of big ones at Leavenworth. Mere pud-knocking civilians like thee and me can’t even begin to comprehend what it takes to earn those coveted golden wings, or what it means to bask in the special honour of being counted as a Naval Aviator. No such pilot would ever risk losing all that. Not even if he was otherwise the sort of clown who’d take his 70 million dollar national asset at high speed and low level through a crowded landing pattern, which he wouldn’t be, because dickheads like that didn’t get to fly Tomcats.
- It gets lots of easy things wrong. I’m willing to concede, I guess, that it’s getting picky to gripe about something like the cockpit radar display as portrayed in the movie:
Fighters, of course, don’t have circular displays with a rotating radar at the center, because fighters don’t have rotating radars. Fighters of that vintage had a flat plate in the nose that scanned back and forth across a pie shaped field of view, and the display in an F-14 looked like this:
And perhaps it’s churlish to note how impossibly stupid this would be:
That’s an image of two aircraft irretrievably on the cusp of a catastrophic mid-air collision. In real life, if the canopies of an F-5 and an F-14 got that close together, the rest of the planes would look like this:
Picky, picky? Fine. But how about this: the arch-nemesis of the F-14, the MiG of all MiGs, is identified in the film as the MiG-28. The MiG-28! Folks, there are no even-numbered MiGs, and never have been! MiGs in the jet age have been numbered 15, 17, 19, 21 and so on, right up to the current MiG-35. Any kid with a passing interest in military aircraft knows this, yet there these dummies were, making the movie within arm’s length of technical advisors from the fleet, and they go and give a MiG an even number!
- It’s full of stupid action movie tropes that bear all the fingerprints of Jerry Bruckheimer. Bruckheimer was the producer, and his special variety of bullshit is all over this production. The dialog is stupid, the character’s motivations are clichéd and stupid, everything is stupid. I quote a fellow blogger:
I’m sorry, but what in the fuck? Top Gun is nothing but wall-to-wall male bonding, which would be fine, if there were anything resembling interesting characters, which there isn’t. All you need to know about the main players is in their call signs. Maverick is the rebel who plays by his own rules. Goose is the funny best friend. Ice Man is the one with a stick up his ass. Riveting. Magic Mike XXL is plot-lite bro bonding, too, but at least it has jokes.
Watch one of these instead:
- It features a god-awful song that won a goddam Oscar. Yup, “Take My Breath Away”, by an outfit named Berlin, not only gets its gooey syrup all over what’s supposed to be a war movie, it actually won an Academy Award, proving, were further proof needed, that the Oscars are full of old rope. Here, suffer along with me:
Oy, what a fragrant wedge of runny cheese.
I was stunned, sitting there in the theatre, thinking: the Navy gave its full cooperation so they could make this malodorous heap of dog droppings? Maybe they didn’t read the script. Or maybe they thought that it was bullshit story telling, and wildly inaccurate adolescent propaganda, but good for recruiting, which I guess it was.
Fine. But depicting the Navy’s pilots as a bunch of horny Phi Delta Omega types who’d horse around in their precious aircraft as if there weren’t any rules, all so they could win a stupid-looking trophy that wouldn’t be impressive enough for a peewee baseball tournament, with its ridiculous little gold-plated model F-14 glued on, was a mortal sin. It was just a terrible, terrible mis-characterization, rendering silly a most emphatically not silly group of aviators whose mission is dangerous, technically challenging, physically arduous, deadly serious, and certainly beyond the depicted acumen of beach volleyball jag-offs like Maverick, Goose, and Ice Man.
While it’s perhaps not decent to revile Tony Scott, since he was a troubled man who ended up killing himself in 2012, a pox on all the rest of them.
Also, can anybody stop the release of the sequel, which will be out soon? Haven’t I suffered enough?
Oh, I do feel the need, I surely do. I need you to stop.
Searching for Bobby Fischer – You Have to Hate Them (September 27, 2021)
Great Movie Scenes was a Needlefish series way back at the beginning, like Songs of the Day, but after a little while I stopped doing them because nobody ever read them. Last night, though, Kathy and I rewatched one of our old favourites, the endlessly beautiful 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer, and I felt compelled to share some thoughts about it, figuring as well that hey, if lack of readership puts the kibosh on posting, I should wrap up the whole blog and take up rug-hooking or something instead, right?
Based on the true story of American chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin, Searching for Bobby Fischer is the spiritual ancestor (and I’ll wager at least partial inspiration) for 2020’s Netflix sensation The Queen’s Gambit, and remains the superior drama, despite the undoubted excellence of the more recent production. Almost unbelievably, it was writer Steven Zaillian’s directorial debut. The performance of child actor Max Pomeranc never ceases to amaze, capturing, often with just a flicker of his gentle green eyes, the boy’s rich inner life, and the deep fount of empathy that colours his appreciation of the world around him, and especially of other people and their feelings, as he copes with his initiation into the obsessive, emotionally toxic, and maddeningly competitive world of tournament chess. As we keep seeing throughout, people go nuts trying to master this game and its ruthless logic, and little Josh, despite his preternatural gifts, isn’t necessarily cut out for the sort of blood-sport matches his vast talent allows him to command.
Because, given what he’s up against, little Josh struggles with what’s almost a tragic flaw: he hates inflicting pain. He has no taste for the jugular. He’s kind, sensitive, and sympathetic, and for him winning has an unhappy cost, because you can’t win unless you’re prepared to make others lose. You see it when his team comes out on top in a Little League match, won off of his own bottom-of-the-ninth clutch hit, as he turns his back on his celebrating team mates and looks sadly at the dejected losers leaving the field, crestfallen – you can practically hear him thinking I did that to them, and feel his regret – and you see it most powerfully in the first clip attached above, in which his chess teacher, Bruce Pandolfini (another real-life character, artfully played by Ben Kingsley), tries to instil the killer instinct. You have to have contempt for your opponents, he tells the boy. You have to hate them. But Josh objects; he doesn’t feel that way. They hate you retorts Bruce, flatly, as if that settles things, but Josh, bless his heart, makes a small, wordless, almost resigned little gesture, raising and lowering his hand in a way that tells us everything we need to know about the child: so be it. If they do, if they really hate him as Bruce claims, it changes nothing. He won’t hate them back. He can’t.
Not gonna lie, that little scene always brings me to tears.
The second attachment is the movie’s climax, in which Josh faces off against his arch-rival, a nasty, arrogant little brat who’s been groomed for competitive chess since before he could walk, and our boy seems up against it. I can’t beat him, Josh admitted to Pandolfini the night before, and Bruce had to tell him he might be right. Now the overconfident bully has him cornered, apparently, but then Josh sees it: twelve moves to checkmate. Out here in the audience our spirits soar, but not so much on screen, because there it is again, that remorseless logic, and it’s going to crush his opponent, who never loses, probably has literally never lost a game in his life. So Josh does what comes naturally. He offers the kid a tie, looks him right in the eyes, extends his hand, and says take the draw and we’ll share the championship. Your heart just bursts, especially when the punk won’t go for it, and Josh cuts him off at the knees, methodically and scientifically, with that typically sad, utterly un-triumphant look in his eyes. Winning, as ever, comes at a price.
Everything about this film is excellent. The supporting cast is terrific, especially Laurence Fishburne, playing the Washington Square speed-chess hustler who becomes Josh’s unlikely mentor and dear friend (a career performance in my book), but all of them, really, it’s one great moment after another from each of them in turn, I mean, tell me you don’t cry just like I do when Joan Allen, playing the world’s greatest Mom, cuts husband Joe Montegna like a knife with her fierce defence of her boy’s emotional well-being, yelling he knows you disapprove of him. He knows you think he’s weak. Well he’s not weak. He’s decent. And if you, or Bruce, or anybody else tries to beat that out of him I swear to God I will take him away. Or how about the sheer joy expressed by Fishburne’s character as Josh trounces him in a speed game, each slapping the clock while the boy moves his army relentlessly down field: Yes! Better! You’ve got me on the run now! That’s right! Where can I go? What can I do? Meanwhile, the mise–en–scène is gorgeous throughout – the film was nominated for, and should have won, an Oscar for best cinematography – and composer James Horner contributes what I’ve always thought was his best, most emotionally evocative score, Titanic notwithstanding. You’ll never find a movie that offers greater depth of character, supplies more emotional satisfaction, or breaks and then mends your heart more thoroughly than this warm and infinitely humane portrayal of a beautiful child’s innate and total incapacity for cruelty.
Stand By Me – No Ace, Just You (October 2, 2021)
I saw Stand By Me in the theatre, way back in 1986, projected onto one of those wee little screens at the Eaton Centre Cineplex that was then reckoned to be one of the wonders of the age, with something like 21 screens in one complex, each seeming about the same size, from the perspective of where you sat in the miniature odeon, as the flatscreen in your living room does today, except with poorer sound and a crappier armchair – but oh, the popcorn. That popcorn drenched in hydrogenated palm oil, OMG, yum, you just can’t replicate that at home, in fact, I think it’s actually illegal to try, at least here, under Health Canada rules, or possibly it’s some UN Convention we signed on to, something about the environment, general human welfare, or maybe weapons of mass destruction, something like that.
Yuuuuummmmmm….fluffy popped corn kernels drenched in buttery hydrogenated palm oil…..
Where was I?
Oh yeah, Stand By Me, directed by Rob Reiner, based on a short story by Stephen King, which featured outstanding performances by the kids on screen, whose boyish, pre-adolescent interplay, all the squabbles, affirmations, and emotional outbursts, made most of us guys feel as if we were back in our own childhoods, with our own best buddies from when we were kids, obsessing over stupid boy things, singing TV themes, walking the train tracks (such a huge part of my own childhood), and learning hard lessons about honour, decency, courage, and how hard it was to have any of any of those attributes, or to do what’s right when the bullies come to push you around. My own youth was a years-long festival of being humiliated by bullies, so for me it was one of those indelible theatre moments, sitting there, watching young thug Kiefer Sutherland putting the knife to brave River Phoenix’s throat, feeling all the old, sickening fears, when suddenly comes that moment of sweet salvation: little Wesley Crusher, er, Gordie LaChance, levelling the barrel of the gun he took out of somebody’s dresser drawer at home (hey, it’s America), and forcing the much older, malevolently menacing punk to back the fuck down, and eat shit while he’s at it.
At the climax of the confrontation, Sutherland, “Ace” in the film, gestures to his little gang of thugs, and says “What’re you gonna do, shoot us all?”.
No Ace, responds Gordie, just you.
I can think of maybe a half dozen times in my whole life when anything made me feel that gratified.
The China Syndrome – Turbine Trip (October 16, 2021)
In many ways, it’s the dramatic and emotional climax of the film, yet it occurs near the beginning, with Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas portraying a local news crew visiting the new “Ventana” nuclear plant, intending to produce a sort of puff piece on modern energy generation. They’re toured around the facility by one of the plant managers, and wind up watching from an observation gallery as routine operations in the control room are overseen by Jack Godell, formerly a nuclear sub commander, played by the great Jack Lemmon. It’s all very uneventful, the scene below calm and quiet. Then something goes wrong.
The China Syndrome debuted in 1979 amid much controversy, with voices on the right, backed by industry, decrying what they criticized as a naive and inaccurate attack upon the nuclear power industry, touted at the time in some quarters as the best hope to solve what was then referred to as the “Energy Crisis”, a matter of obsessive concern in a nation still reeling from the 1973 oil embargo. The technology is safe and incredibly powerful, they insisted, echoing sentiments expressed in the movie by Lemmon’s character, actually, but the critics were missing the point, and the much more nuanced argument that the movie was making. The film makers mostly agreed with the critics, and with Jack Godell, on one point, even though the harrowing depiction of the close call in the control room highlights the risks inherent in operating such complex and potentially lethal systems: yes, the technology could be made safe, and the system can work, as indeed it does, ultimately, when Jack and his team, despite everything, avert disaster. Decades of reactor operations on board the ships and submarines of the U.S. Navy had amply demonstrated as much. The thing is, though, that a technology like nuclear power is safest when it isn’t operated by capitalists motivated to make profits. Running a reactor to make scads of money creates all sorts of perverse incentives to cut corners on the extremely rigorous, costly, and time-consuming procedures, like the repeated x-raying of vital welds, that must be performed to keep the complex and dangerous machinery within safe operating parameters. Jack Godell, a veteran of the nuclear navy, assumes that private concerns will approach nuclear energy with the same rigour and safety-consciousness drummed into him by Admiral Rickover and his hand-picked protégés. Instead, he discovers that the company operating Ventana has been skipping the many required checks and faking its maintenance records, creating a terrible hazard, and in the end his attempts to expose this cost him his life.
He first twigs to the problem in the attached scene, when he looks down at the coffee oscillating in his cup, and realizes that something deep within the plant is putting out the sort of vibrations that can only occur when something critical – and just about everything in a nuclear reactor is critical – is malfunctioning. All the routine reports indicate everything is fine. Yet that can’t be right. It just can’t be. After that, it’s not about the technology, not really. It’s about corruption, and corporate greed.
Mind you, the point that even the most exquisitely sophisticated systems will toss out failures, a sobering, frightening thought in this context, is also well made, and was certainly well taken by an 21-year-old Graeme, biting his lip and holding his breath as the control room scene unfolded. I was on the edge of my frigging seat, just about ready to piss my pants, when I first viewed it (on a VHS tape, if memory serves). The tension as the technicians work their way through the “routine turbine trip” ratchets up to an exquisite, almost unbearable level, as Godell and his underlings grow increasingly desperate to dump cooling water from what their gauges indicate is a dangerously over-pressurized system surrounding the nuclear core. It’s an incredible moment of horrified epiphany when Lemmon and Wilford Brimley lock eyes, and we see the thought occurring to them simultaneously; Lemmon steps over to the water level indicator, gives it a little tap, and oh, shit. The gentle tapping un-sticks the needle, and the gauge plummets. By furiously dumping water to relieve the falsely indicated pressure, they’ve almost exposed the reactor core. Once you’ve seen it, you can never forget those terrible, indelible moments of waiting; Jack Lemmon leaning on a console, terrified, praying silently, with nothing now left to be done, nothing except wait, and listen for the various system annunciators to declare whether the incident is over, or, just as likely, that a melt-down is now underway, and a huge swath of California is about to become a mass graveyard, rendered uninhabitable for the next few thousand years.
Life is funny, isn’t it? Sometimes it really does imitate art, as it did back in 1979, just 12 days after the film’s release. Even as various pro-nuclear pundits howled that nothing like the event depicted on film was even remotely possible, there was a very real near nuclear catastrophe at the Three Mile Island facility in Pennsylvania, a partial melt-down and subsequent venting of radioactive gasses outside of containment that was much worse, actually, than the film’s fictional incident. The accident arose from circumstances eerily similar to those depicted in the movie, involving both ambiguous readouts and some bad human-machine interface issues. This is from Wikipedia, based on an official post-mortem on the real world event:
The accident began with failures in the non-nuclear secondary system, followed by a stuck-open pilot-operated relief valve in the primary system, which allowed large amounts of nuclear reactor coolant to escape. The mechanical failures were compounded by the initial failure of plant operators to recognize the situation as a loss-of-coolant accident due to inadequate training and human factors, such as human-computer interaction design oversights relating to ambiguous control room indicators in the power plant’s user interface. In particular, a hidden indicator light led to an operator manually overriding the automatic emergency cooling system of the reactor because the operator mistakenly believed that there was too much coolant water present in the reactor and causing the steam pressure release.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – Off the Cliff (October 18, 2021)
Whenever I see Redford in this movie, I think of E.E. Cummings, and Buffalo Bill’s Defunct: Jesus he was a handsome man. So much so, you could almost miss how good an actor he was, and how great his comic timing, as he bantered with not-exactly-hard-on-the-eyes-either co-star Paul Newman in this, surely the greatest buddy movie of all time, with only 1988’s marvellous Midnight Run (in which Charles Grodin proves the perfect deadpan foil for a perpetually frustrated Robert De Niro) its only possible rival.
The dialogue in this little scene is for the ages. There they are, cornered, trapped, the situation hopeless, and Butch is still scheming: “the next time I say let’s go someplace like Bolivia, let’s go someplace like Bolivia.” Next time, snaps Sundance, in an exasperated tone that acknowledges that of course there’s never going to be a next time – but then maybe there will be, because Butch has another of his bright ideas: they’ll jump off the cliff into the rocky rapids far below. Of course! That’ll work for sure, if the water’s deep enough, and they don’t get squished to death, right?
Butch: They’ll never follow us!
Sundance: How do you know!?
Butch: Would you make a jump like that, you didn’t have to?
Sundance: I have to, and I’m not gonna.
It turns out the Kid’s main objection is that he can’t swim, upon which comes the punchline, as Butch points out how absurd that quibble really is, being as the fall is going to kill him. Classic.
I could have picked a half dozen other scenes. There’s the famous Guns or Knives, Butch? confrontation with the insurrectionist (and monstrously intimidating) Harvey:
…in which Harvey proves correct that there aren’t any rules in a knife fight. Or there’s the train robbery, and think you used enough dynamite there Butch?
…which explosion is caused by an excessive amount of dynamite thought necessary by Butch, noting how the ever-dedicated Woodcock, stalwart employee of railway mogul Mr. E.H. Harriman, has fortified the safe after the last time they robbed it; there’s the entire chase scene, in which the crack dream team posse of trackers and bounty hunters proves unshakeable, which is how the boys wind up cornered on the cliff face in today’s selection (who are those guys?); the tryout to serve as a Bolivian mine operation’s payroll guards, run by a skeptical Strother Martin, who only wants to know if Sundance can accurately shoot a gun, please, and let’s leave off with all that gun-twirlin’ gunslinger stuff (I’m better when I move); Sundance confronting Butch as he playfully woos girlfriend Katherine Ross, Butch flat-out declaring “I’m stealing your woman” (Sundance with a dismissive wave: Take her. Take her.) ; the sheer comedy of their arrival at the train station in Bolivia, where they find themselves deposited at a sort of Nowheresville that still has a ways to go before it can boast of being a one horse town; and so many others. Take your pick.
It’s such a beautifully shot movie, too, and while it doubtless sugar-coats the exploits of the protagonists – one doubts that the real Butch and Sundance were quite so affable, charming, and fundamentally decent while they robbed all and sundry at gunpoint (and they sure as shit weren’t that good-looking, first because nobody is regardless, and second because in real life they were actually rather ordinary-looking) – but it had the guts not to contrive a happy ending, and stuck to the consensus view that the pair met their doom down in South America. There’s actually good reason to suspect they might have faked their deaths, and got away after all, but the filmmakers likely didn’t know this, and anyway it was the late Sixties, and a new, brief era was dawning in which dark, unhappy (or at least vaguely unsatisfying) endings became common (think Easy Rider, Klute, French Connection, Chinatown, Dog Day Afternoon, etc.), a trend that 1977’s Star Wars decisively reversed, maybe permanently.
Reaction to Butch Cassidy was so positive that the Hollywood mavens itched for a sequel, tough to do since Butch and Sundance get killed at the end, which is how we ended up withThe Sting. It wasn’t bad or anything, but there’s nothing like the original, I guess because you can only catch lightning in a bottle so many times.
Pulp Fiction – the Saga of the Wristwatch (October 23, 2021)
Christopher Walken. There never was anybody quite like him.
Pulp Fiction is another one of those films in which any number of scenes rates special mention, from the wild episode when the boys have to revive an overdosing Uma Thurman by plunging a syringe filled with adrenaline directly into her heart muscle, to the held-captive basement horror show (and its gloriously violent resolution) with “the Gimp” and his pals, to the final showdown at the diner, when cool-as-a-cucumber assassin Samuel Jackson, having turned the tables on the punk holding a gun in his face, tells the pair of armed robbers that “normally, both of your asses’d be about as dead as fried chicken, but you happen to be pullin’ this shit while I’m in a transitional period”, then offers them his wallet, which is the one that says Bad Motherfucker on it (which indeed it does, all nicely embossed in the leather). It’s one great little set piece after another, presented, for maximum disorientation, out of chronological order.
The purely tangential back story of Bruce Willis’s precious watch, though, is something else again, a flashback in which his character, an aging boxer, remembers the time when he was a young child, and an Air Force officer visited to fulfill his sacred duty to deliver a family heirloom his dead father wanted him to have: a strapless, beat-up wristwatch that’s been passed down through the generations, bought originally in a little general store in Knoxville Tennessee, and made by the very first company ever to manufacture them. Walken is absolutely mesmerizing, relating the saga of the timepiece as it made its way through history, how the boy’s great grandfather wore it during World War I, after which his grandfather had it during the battle of Wake Island, but bailed it to a gunner on a departing transport plane – a young man named Wanaki, whom he’d never met before – to take back to his family Stateside when the situation became hopeless, because none of those Marines, explains Walken, with all appropriate solemnity, had any illusions about ever getting off that island alive. Wanaki was as good as his word, and thus the watch made its way to his father, who wore it every day, right up to the one when his plane was shot down over Hanoi, and he ended up being taken prisoner. Now, Dad knew that his captors would take away that watch unless he hid it somehow, so…
Almost all the way through, it’s truly a beautiful story, touching, full of authenticating detail, written in prose the like of which any fine playwright would be proud to have authored, but then it veers off so sharply, so fast, that it leaves your head spinning.
Incredibly, this was filmed in one afternoon, over a limited number of takes on the final day of production. Walken never so much as saw any of the movie’s other actors, he was just in and out, like a session musician who comes in to the studio for a little while after everybody else has gone home, and lays down a discrete backing track.
In less than five minutes he pretty much steals the movie, and Pulp Fiction is an awfully tough movie to steal.
Fargo – A Little Bit of Money (October 31, 2021)
There are so many great performances in the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece tale of a harebrained kidnapping scheme gone terribly wrong – William H. Macy’s turn as the beleaguered, increasingly desperate, trapped-like-a-rat Jerry Lundergaard is a slow-burning marvel of psychic torment – but the beating heart of this funny, sad, upsetting, and ultimately profoundly philosophical film is Frances McDormand’s Oscar-winning portrayal of local police chief Marge Gunderson, who finds herself unravelling an ugly set of murders perpetrated in the dead of night in her out-of-the-way jurisdiction of Brainerd, Minnesota, the fabled home of Paul Bunyan. We don’t get to meet Marge until over a half-hour in, and at first she seems an unlikely nemesis for the stone-cold, ham-fisted killers that Lundergaard somehow recruited to abduct his own wife, being pregnant, a little awkward, and by all appearances more than a little out of her depth, almost a comic figure when, as she tries to set off, her frozen police cruiser won’t even start. As she begins her preliminary investigation of the sort of crime scene that small town cops like her must almost never encounter, you expect her to be flummoxed and overwhelmed, yet she susses it all out straight away, all matter-of-fact, as cool and competent as any veteran of the NYC murder police: the State Trooper, dead beside his patrol car, was undoubtedly shot by whoever he pulled over in a roadside stop, then came the unexpected arrival of the unlucky passers-by, and the subsequent high speed chase, culminating in “this execution-style deal here” with the poor murdered couple lying dead near their car off the side of the highway, a bloody little stain amid the endless, desolate whitescape of the winter flatlands. It’s all there in her mind’s eye, clear as day, exactly as it all went down.
Our Margie, it quickly becomes obvious, has a whole hell of a lot going on beneath that unassuming, aw-shucks midwestern exterior, with her goofy-friendly accent, and her banal midwestern idioms (a mode of speaking referred to in those parts as “Minnesota Nice”), even as she shambles about in her overstuffed parka and struggles not to throw up all over the forensics when momentarily overcome by a bout of morning sickness. Scene after scene, we see the crisp, keen, analytical intelligence working behind her often bemused eyes, as she deals with the vaguely uncommunicative, sometimes dimwitted locals; sure, she sounds just like them, but you get the sense it’s a bit of a facade, an attitude she affects, not at all unkindly, just to put others at ease, the better to fight the uphill battle of teasing out whatever they might know:
Oh yeah, the little fella was funny-lookin’, more than most people even. God, I just love that.
It’s more than brains, though. Marge, we discover, has soul. She’s fundamentally decent, compassionate, empathetic, favouring a light touch when others might tend towards harshness. You see it in the gentle way she corrects her subordinate for not understanding (as any competent cop surely should) that “DLR” on a licence plate signifies temporary tags applied by the dealership, and how she softens the criticism with a little joke:
You see it in the delicate way she handles the unwanted advances of old high school acquaintance and manifest misfit Mike Yanagita, in a scene that some feel is a pointless aside, but which tells us so much about Marge’s inner workings; you see it again in the way she consoles her husband, whose artistic submission to a Post Office competition has been relegated to the less prestigious, little-used three-cent stamp; most of all you see it in the aftermath of the climactic “wood chipper” scene, with Marge sitting there in her Prowler, the apprehended mook in the back seat, waiting for reinforcements to arrive and take the murdering dumbass away. Finally, she’s worked it all out, the crime is solved, but a mystery remains: why, for the love of God? She knows, of course, but still – why? All the bodies this dull-affected cipher left in his wake, the state trooper, the unfortunate couple that happened to drive by at the wrong moment, a random parking lot attendant, both Lundergaard’s father-in-law and poor innocent wife, “and I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper”; all those lives eradicated, and for what? A little bit of money. How could that possibly have been enough to cause all this? It’s beyond her. She honestly can’t make sense of it, the sheer, pathetic tragedy of the whole mess, and all for nothing but money, it’s almost more than she can bear in that moment, talking at the mute, manacled wretch in the rearview mirror as if hoping to reach him somehow, knowing she’s never going to. He’ll never understand how much more there is to life, how much more there could have been for him, but now it’s too damned late, and he’s going to spend the rest of his days in a cell in some lightless supermax, his life ruined too, and here it is, a beautiful day, something he’s probably never appreciated and now never will, because he’s never going to see one again. For me, it’s one of the saddest lines in all of cinema, that superficially offhand, deceptively fraught little observation: “And here you are… and it’s a beautiful day”. That any of this was even possible, that people can demonstrate such witless avarice and pitiless cruelty, oblivious to the beauty all around them and all the world’s unexplored possibilities, just breaks her heart.
The Iron Giant – No Following (November 4, 2021)
“What if a gun had a soul and didn’t want to be a gun?”
Brad Bird’s pitch to Warner Brothers Studios
Brad Bird’s brilliant, touching, animated fairy tale of a boy and his found robot friend from outer space, his directorial debut, landed without much of a splash in 1999, despite (or perhaps on account of?) dealing artfully and movingly with some rather profound questions about love, loyalty, xenophobia, violence, the price of non-comformity, the permanence of death, every conscious being’s capacity for both good and evil, and an individual’s inherent right to self-determination. The huge amnesiac machine that little Hogarth Hughes stumbles across in the woods one night is in fact a terrifying extra-terrestrial weapon, programmed originally to mete out apocalyptic doses of hight-tech destruction under combat conditions, but which, in its post-crash, rebooted state, no longer knows where it came from or what it really is. Child-like and innocent, the Giant learns about the world around him with the little boy as his guide, and along the way discovers what he wants to be, which is no sort of doomsday machine – having learned some painful lessons about what guns do, and what it means to kill and die, he very much prefers to be the hero, the guy who saves the day, like the Superman character in the comic books Hogarth reads. I not gun, he says at one point, even though by design that’s exactly what he is. In the climactic scene above, having been pushed to the wall by a U.S. military that’s discovered his presence, and means to destroy him, he rejects his programming and chooses his own path.
And oh boy, when the Giant makes up his mind to sacrifice himself, and instructs Hogarth no following – a command he’s received many times from the boy, in the struggles to keep his existence secret – there ain’t a dry eye in the house.
Grosse Pointe Blank – The Hallway Brawl (November 22, 2021)
An enormously witty dark comedy about a hit-man, Grosse Pointe Blank follows the homicidal exploits of killer-for-hire Martin Blank, played by John Cusack, as he combines his latest assignment with a tenth anniversary high school reunion, stalked all the way by a rival assassin, a couple of CIA spooks, and a business competitor acted delightfully by Dan Aykroyd (who’s clearly having a ball with the role). Martin’s walking down the familiar hallways of his alma mater and having a nostalgic moment in front of his old locker when one of his antagonists, an extremely nasty character of indeterminate European extraction, finally catches up with him.
The average viewer probably doesn’t associate Cusack with Van Damme-level physical prowess, but in fact he’s an expert martial artist with a sixth-degree black belt in Ukidokan kick-boxing, and that’s actually his long-time instructor, a guy named Benny (The Jet) Urquidez, himself a full contact karate champion, on-screen sparring partner to Jackie Chan, and every inch the dangerous badass he appears, who’s going at it with him hammer and tongs. Thus the utter credibility with which these two very quickly beat the living beJesus out of each other, trading, so the story goes, a few actual blows to heighten the reality.
It’s rare that a film pulls off such a shocking, sudden, adrenalized change of pace, switching in the wink of an eye from light comedy to deadly-serious mortal combat, almost literally pulling no punches, the effect of which is mightily enhanced by the inspired soundtrack choice of the English Beat’s spooky, frenetic Mirror in the Bathroom, echoing from downstairs at the reunion dance. It’s at once frightening and exhilarating, and highlights the complete incongruity of the various worlds in which Blank operates. One minute he’s wooing his former high school sweetheart to the strains of the golden oldies, the next he’s dispatching his would-be killer with a ballpoint pen to the carotid.
The Naked Gun 2 1/2 – The Blues Joint
I laughed myself stupid the first time I watched this hilarious depiction of the most clinically depressed blues bar on Earth, with the camera panning over wall art featuring pictures of the San Francisco Earthquake, the Hindenburg blowing up, the Titanic going down, and then a beaming Mike Dukakis, whose run for the White House was then probably the greatest catastrophe in living memory. As the assembled drunks lapse into coma, the lounge singer plods through a dirge that includes lyrics like wish I was dead / hope you do too, and a noose or a gun / will get the job done. Best of all, the waiter, after executing a typically ludicrous sight gag, breaks the fourth wall to assure the viewer that no, on second thought he won’t be jumping all over the chance to pull another even dumber one, after the downcast Frank Drebin, played with exquisite deadpan by Leslie Nielsen, rejects the oiled up body builder in favour of a Black Russian.
Alien – Setting the Tone (January 26, 2022)
There’s the mundane establishing shot, and then there’s the mood-setting mastery with which we’re introduced to the gloomy workings of the interplanetary commercial towing vehicle Nostromo, one of the greatest sets ever constructed for the movies. It’s often noted that at its core, Ridley Scott’s Alien is an old-fashioned haunted house movie, and oh, what a haunted house it is, this vast, claustrophobic interior composed mainly of dimly-lit nooks and cramped cubbyholes, the whole connected by twisty, labyrinthine corridors, utterly silent save for the constant hum of the great machine’s physical plant, and completely still except for the odd vibration and occasional disturbance from the breeze of artificially circulated air. It feels like midnight, somehow, dark and foreboding, and in just a few seconds, without a word of exposition, the viewer gathers something vital that underpins everything to come: this ain’t the Starship Enterprise. In complete defiance of the sci-fi paradigms established by TV shows and cemented by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, there’s nothing of the brightly-lit, antiseptic spaces we’ve come to expect, no immaculate, hi-tech crew stations surrounded by shiny buttons and glowing screens, no wondrous devices contrived to boggle our 20th Century minds. Instead, we’re immersed in a functional environment better suited to steam gauges and monkey wrenches. The Nostromo, plainly, is a workaday merchant vessel, the front office of an industrial complex plodding between the stars like some sort of space-faring oil refinery, grubby, worn, technologically austere, and dripping at the joints. Whoever crews this thing, they don’t get from A to B via transporter, their food doesn’t materialize out of replicators, and they probably don’t comport themselves smartly in colour-coded uniforms; we won’t be at all surprised to learn, when the shit hits the fan, that they don’t have phasers, either, and will have to make do with whatever sort of half-assed weapons they can cooper together out of ship’s stores.
And hey, speaking of crew, where are they anyway? It’s like we’ve stumbled across a latter-day Mary Celeste. As it wanders about the vessel, the camera reveals only emptiness, empty walkways, empty chairs, empty workstations, and a lonely pair of mercury birds dipping their beaks in the middle of an empty mess hall table, until some sort of message arrives, flashing across the screen of an unattended computer, witnessed only by an empty helmet. The sudden intrusion of light and sound is like an alarm clock going off. Uh-oh. Somebody just poked the sleeping machine with a stick, and we sit here, feeling a vague sort of dread, knowing something is about to happen.