Posts Tagged ‘1999’

When I was doing the whole Sick Desperation In Your Laugh thing, I’d hoped to include Beau Travail, Claire Denis’ adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. Though I’d never seen the film before, I’d heard wonderful things. Problem was, Beau Travail isn’t exactly one of the most readily available films out there, so I didn’t get a chance to watch it until it Turner Movie Classics aired it earlier this week.

Toward the end of my first viewing, I was thinking that even though I admired Beau Travail, I probably wouldn’t’ve included it in Sick Desperation In Your Laugh anyway. While I thought the film was quite good, pretty dark, and even hypnotic at times, overall it was rather humorless, and not terribly subversive– and therefore it would’ve been somewhat out of sync with the vibe I was looking for in my exploration of the cinema of 1999.

And then, after it looks like Sgt. Galoup (Denis Lavant) might commit suicide as a result of his court martial, effectively ending the film on a tragic note, the film ends instead with this magical scene, so out-of-nowhere baffling and so reach-to-the-heavens joyous and so completely-and-utterly 1999 that it literally made me stand and applaud:

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(The 40th and final chapter of a year-long series)

Edward Norton Fight Club

It was right in everyone’s face; Tyler and I just made it visible. It was on the tip of everyone’s tongue; Tyler and I just gave it a name.

Narrator (Edward Norton) 

The movies of 1999 were brimming with life, but Fight Club actually felt alive, a sentient being unleashed into the collective unconscious, taking leaks in our brain stew and splicing subliminal porno into the reels of our childhood memories.

In the fall of ’99, I remember talking with one of my film school bros who, like me, had seen Fight Club multiple times in the theater. Of course we knew (unlike most of the movie’s harsher critics) that it didn’t exactly endorse the hyper-rebellious terrorism of Project Mayhem, the army of angry white men spawned by the Narrator’s alter ego Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). And yet, my schoolmate and I semi-sympathized with it, while sharing a dread that maybe it was already too late, that Tyler Durden’s nebulous fury had already infected us, and unlocked the very same nebulous fury that had been festering in the angriest chambers of our young male American hearts. “You think it’ll make guys wanna start their own Fight Clubs?” my schoolmate asked me. From the hook in his eyebrow, I could’ve sworn that beneath his question was a tacit invitation, like he was extending a feeler to gauge my interest in the Fight Club/Project Mayhem he’d been daydreaming about starting. I paused, because despite how wrong I knew it would was, my 18 year-old self also knew how amenable I might be to such an idea. All I could say was, “Who knows?” After all, I didn’t want to die without any scars…

14 years later, real-life Fight Clubs have become a thing, and yet the closest thing we’ve had to a real-life Project Mayhem in this country was the disorganized pseudo-nuisance known as Occupy Wall Street. In a sense, this is a complaint. Not that I had hoped Occupy Wall Street would literally blow stuff up, but was it unrealistic to hope they would’ve at least shown a little menace? Mayor Billionaire must’ve been somewhat afraid of them, otherwise he wouldn’t’ve ordered his Brute Squad to sweep them out in the dead of night. But Mayor Billionaire and all the other wealthy politicians should’ve been trembling in fear of working class outrage. No wonder it’s all still business as usual. The pissed-off revolutionaries were supposed to crash the economy, not the apathetic money-snatchers. We were supposed to take Tyler Durden’s philosophy, chuck the fascism and misogyny and nitroglycerin, and channel it into a new world where capitalism and socialism weren’t antithetic but symbiotic. Now, “What Would Tyler Durden Do?” is a website that exists mainly to ridicule Kardashians. By the end of the decade, You Are Not Your Fucking Khakis will be a tagline in an Old Navy commercial. Months ago I swore I’d close my HSBC account and join a local credit union, and yet I haven’t even brought myself to do that because it would just be such a hassle, you know?

When Tyler Durden tells the Narrator in their first official meeting that “You have a kind of sick desperation in your laugh,” he says it more like a question. Like, “Have you not noticed before how pathetic you sound?

Later, Tyler shows the Narrator what Sick Desperation In Your Laughter’s supposed to sound like. The Narrator’s laughter was feeble, phony, eager-to-please. Tyler’s laughter is a bloody middle finger straight up The Man’s butt.

It’s very difficult for me to find movies that are less violent than Fight Club in a lot of ways. Fight Club is a movie that has a kind of psychic violence to it, because what it’s really going after is not, ‘I can bruise you,’ it’s saying, ‘You’re a fraud and you should know it. Here are some of the fraudulent things upon which your life is based.’ Which puts people in a more defensive position than just to say, ‘You’re a wimp, and I can kick your ass.’

David Fincher, quoted in Sharon Waxman’s Rebels On The Backlot

A lot of us are still living in fraud, and now we’re aware of it, too. (Fincher himself made Benjamin Button.) Too often we’re laughing like the Narrator, and too rarely do we laugh like Tyler. Maybe we could live “realer,” but how much realer? And how much more can we really do about it? Tyler saw us “pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway.” Sure, it was an extreme prophecy from an imaginary lunatic, but poetic all the same. On one end, we’re running from mass-market consumerism, raising rooftop gardens and homebrewing beer. On the other end, we’re more materialistic than ever, camping on lines for golden iPhones. In this life, in these times, maybe the best you can do is keep growing up, keep dreaming of a better world, and find someone who’ll hold your hand as the skyscrapers come tumbling down.

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(Part 13+13+13 of an ongoing series)

Who do you think those people were? Those were not just ordinary people there. If I told you their names– I’m not going to tell you their names– but if I did, I don’t think you’d sleep so well.

Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack)

“He is morbidly afraid of giving away any of his secrets,” says Eyes Wide Shut co-writer Frederic Raphael of Stanley Kubrick, “the best of which may be that he has none.” Raphael and I agree that Kubrick was a genius, and the Best Director despite never winning “Best Director,” though I’d add that Kubrick’s most genius gift was his ability to create the illusion– nay, the unshakable certainty— that his films contain galaxy-sized rabbit holes teeming with secret meanings, hidden agendas, conspiracy revelations, occult mysteries, coded confessions, esoteric symbolism, and arcane wisdom.

As the recent documentary Room 237 shows, viewers have concocted all kinds of elaborate speculations as to what Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining is really about, from the Holocaust to the genocide of American Indians to Kubrick’s alleged fakery of the Apollo 11 moon landing.* It’s doubtful any of said speculations would’ve been inspired solely by readings of Stephen King’s original novel; similarly, no one ever would’ve dropped Kubrick’s name into their moon-landing conspiracy theories if 2001: A Space Odyssey didn’t feel so uncannily like a space travelogue. Kubrick’s legendary fastidiousness and reclusiveness may have added fuel to this fire of overzealous theorizing, but there wouldn’t have been any sparks to begin with if he didn’t fill every frame of his films with authentic, palpable mystique.

*One night in college, I watched The Shining on repeat for like 10 hours to write a paper for some class with the word “Narrative” in its name. The result was 12 pages on the film’s parallels to the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.

How deliciously appropriate, then, that Kubrick’s final work was an endlessly fascinating, immensely analyzable, Illuminati-laced joint called Eyes Wide Shut.


Simply search “Eyes Wide Shut” on YouTube and your results include “The Hidden Messages In Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut,” “Eyes Wide Shut Unveiled, Decoded & Explained,” “Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and Illuminati Symbology,” “Eyes Wide Shut – a steganalysis,” and “Kubrick & The Illuminati–” and that’s just Page 1. Of course, when the centerpiece of your movie involves a ritualistic orgy with super-rich folks in masks and robes listening to backwards Latin chanting, you’re begging the conspiracy junkies to watch it frame-by-frame and leap to their own paranoid conclusions. Which, if I may add my own wild conjecture, may have been Kubrick’s intention all along, his own trollish way of singing The Walrus was Paul!

Eyes Wide Shut (an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s novel Dream Story) is the tale of Bill Harford (Tom Cruise), an Upper West Side doctor who spirals into a surreal psychosexual odyssey after his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) confesses fantasizing about another man– an odyssey that eventually leads him to the aforementioned orgy. According to Frederic Raphael, the idea of the orgy being organized by a clandestine association of wealthy amoralists was his own purely fictional creation. Funny thing is, when he faxed the idea to Kubrick in the form of a classified FBI report, the director actually got a little paranoid himself:

FR: Get the material I faxed you?

SK: That’s the thing. Where’d you get this stuff?

FR: … Where do you think?

SK: This is classified material, how’d you get hold of it? I need you to tell me.

FR: You’re kidding.

SK: I don’t think so. Where’d you find this stuff? Did you hack into some FBI computer by chance, or what?

FR: Hack in? Are you crazy? I can’t hack into my own work without help. You asked me to give you some background on Ziegler and company. I gave it.

SK: Freddie, I need you to tell me totally honestly where you got this stuff. This is potentially…

FR: Stanley, totally, honestly, I got it where I get everything: out of my head.

SK: You’re telling me you made this up?

FR: But only because it’s true. You asked for it, I did it. I enjoyed it, as a matter of fact.

SK: It has no basis in fact?

FR: Stanley, I made it up, okay?

SK: How did you do that?

FR: Making things up is what I do for a living. It’s pretty well all I do. I write fiction. I make things up. I look at the world and… I make things up on the strength of what I see and hear, and guess. I do not mend fuses or water-ski or have a pension scheme. I made it up. It was fun; much more than fun…

SK: Okay as long as we’re not… on potentially dangerous ground here. It’s pretty convincing, you know that?

FR: Nice of you to say so. Think of it as an example of what I do when I’m free to play by myself. An apple for the teacher.

SK: And it didn’t come from anywhere that might be… you know… embarrassing?

FR: Look, it came out of my head, fully formed. How embarrassing is that? I made the whole damn thing up. It was not a big problem.

SK: How long did it take you?

FR: Maybe an hour, but I’m never going to tell you that.

from Frederic Raphael’s Eyes Wide Open: A Memoir Of Stanley Kubrick

Yet even though the whole Illuminati angle sprung from Raphael’s imagination (unless Frederic Raphael IS a member of the Illuminati spreading disinformation!), that doesn’t mean Eyes Wide Shut isn’t one of the most subversive films of 1999. There’s plenty of legitimate evidence that the film is thick with overtones echoing the oppression of the masses by sinister, ultra-powerful elites. Its messages are just a bit more subtle than those in SUBVERSIVE!!!! 1999 movies like Fight Club or The Matrix, a bit harder to notice amid all those sexy, naked women.

Then again, Kubrick’s depiction of sexy, naked women in Eyes Wide Shut is awfully subversive too. 1999 was a breakthrough year for unsimulated sex in non-pornographic films, thanks to Leos Carax’s Pola X and Catherine Breillat’s Romance.  It’s hard to tell for sure if those couples are truly copulating in Kubrick’s climactic orgy (even when they aren’t shielded behind digitally-inserted bystanders), but it’s still pretty hardcore stuff for a big-studio Cruise/Kidman summer multiplex vehicle. (Link EXTREMELY NSFW.)

The subversive use of sexy, naked women doesn’t stop there. While a lot of the sexy, naked women are here for erotica’s sake, Kubrick features others to provoke more complicated responses. We see sexy, naked women in settings that are clinical (receiving breast exams in a doctor’s office), macabre (a hooker unconscious after an overdose, and later dead at the morgue), and borderline incriminating (15 year-old Leelee Sobieski, though not technically naked, struts around scantily clad for all her screen time).

All of which serves to tease and intensify the Sick Desperation of Dr. Bill. Like many straight white males of 1999 movies (Fight Club‘s narrator, American Beauty‘s Lester Burnham, Being John Malkovich‘s Craig Schwartz), Dr. Bill’s Sick Desperation involves a struggle against feelings of jealousy, sexual frustration, and emasculation. The more he tries to transgress the sexual boundaries of his marriage as a means of avenging himself against Alice’s fantasy, the more he fails, the more he’s taunted by strange flesh he can never possess. And to add insult to blueballs, Dr. Bill doesn’t even get the cathartic release of a good Sick Desperate Laugh; he merely gets to hear the Sick Desperate Laughter of Alice as she dreams of cuckolding and humiliating her husband.

Dr. Bill finally achieves closure by learning some valuable secrets, but not the kind of secrets he thought he wanted, the kind that get naughty in Masonic Long Island mansions in the abysses of night. Because, despite all the occult symbology and class warfare that may or may not exist in this movie, it’s ultimately about marriage. It has to be about marriage. It’s right out there in the open. Kubrick’s simply making a film about marriage in a mythical way, where the mundane concerns of mere mortals get caught up in the epic, dizzying dream logic of the gods.

Once again, Frederic Raphael: “…like a man stirring in his sleep, S.K. almost faces the mundane American reality which says that a couple like [Bill and Alice] would ‘get a divorce.’ Yet he has become enough of a European for the marital myth to have leeched onto him. (We are probably the two most long-serving husbands in the movies.) He cannot quite see that the durable myth is pretty well autonomous, and its plot, however elasticated, largely determined: Oedipus and Jocasta will never be able to avert trouble by spending more quality time with the kids…”

The lesson, I suppose, being that love and marriage can survive much more easily when partners are honest and unashamed of their primal desires. Only when deceit and transgression come in to play is love seriously in peril. And even if the world is truly haunted by shadowy, amoral cabals, then you can always take solace in some good make-up sex.

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(Part 38 of an ongoing series)

tom hanks green mile

We’re not your classic heroes… we’re the other guys.

The Shoveller (William H. Macy), Mystery Men

Having spent the past year revisiting the movies of 1999, my heavily-biased belief that 1999 was cinema’s most exciting year to date has only grown stronger.  Alas, not all the movies I’ve watched for this series possessed enough Sick Desperation in Their Laughs to crack my Top 40. But some of those also-rans still deserve a quick mention, honorable or otherwise:

But I’m A Cheerleader (directed by Jamie Babbit)

The main goal of But I’m A Cheerleader is to ridicule those “ex-gay” ministries that foolishly try to turn gay people straight. The film also has a pretty sweet love story between Megan (Natasha Lyonne), a high school cheerleader coming to terms with her sexuality, and Graham (Clea Duvall), an out-and-proud rebel. These parts of the movie are awesome, and totally 1999. Problem is, this movie should cut like a chainsaw, and instead it merely bops like a wiffle-bat. It kept making me fantasize about how much harder this premise would’ve hit had it been handled by John Waters. But perhaps even more troubling is its depiction of gay men. While lesbians Megan and Graham feel like living, breathing people, pretty much all the guys in this movie are reduced to prancing, cock-hungry sissies. It’s cool to play with stereotypes, yet when it comes to gay men, But I’m A Cheerleader seems to content to simply reinforce certain stereotypes– which essentially cancels out most of its mind-opening, tolerance-preaching intentions.

Sleepy Hollow (directed by Tim Burton)

Sleepy Hollow is frequently creepy, occasionally funny, and always gorgeous as heavenly hell. It may also contain the precise turning point in Tim Burton’s career, the point where he went from gothy maverick to tired hack. Sleepy Hollow starts promisingly yet ends in somewhat uninspired fashion– much like a career that began with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands, but since Sleepy Hollow, has offered forgettable remakes like Planet Of The Apes, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, Alice In Wonderland, Dark Shadows

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (directed by Jay Roach)

1999 also saw a turning point in Mike Myers’ career. In his earlier, funnier movies (Wayne’s World, So I Married An Axe Murderer, Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery), he definitely utilized catchphrases, call-backs, and gag-milking even more than the average SNL player. Yet there was usually a great humility in his humor. Then the first Austin Powers became a sleeper hit that demanded a sequel, and suddenly it seemed as if Myers’ humility vanished, replaced with a conviction that audiences really wanted to see every single silly idea that popped into his head. No doubt The Spy Who Shagged Me has some hefty belly-laughs. But it also has an unhealthy number of sequences that go on so long they’d make Seth MacFarlane check his watch, and they foreshadow the caravan of lackluster vehicles Myers would unleash in the ’00s (Goldmember, The Cat In The Hat, The Love Guru).

Catherine Zeta-Jones dips beneath the lasers in Entrapment

I haven’t seen Entrapment since 1999, and all I remember about it is Catherine Zeta-Jones’ butt. Adam from Workaholics knows what I’m talkin about; dude wrote a song about it:

American Pie (directed by Paul & Chris Weitz)

American Pie gave us so much: John Cho popularizing the word ‘MILF,’ Jason Biggs boning an apple pie, Shannon Elizabeth going topless, Alyson Hannigan getting freaky. But I’m not sure American Pie gave us enough of that Sick Desperation in Our Laughter. Maybe it would have if it had raised the raunchy-comedy bar set one year earlier by There’s Something About Mary. Only American Pie didn’t exactly raise that bar, it just kind of limboed underneath the bar and nudged it with its boner.

Tumbleweeds (directed by Gavin O’Connor)

It’s a moving story of the relationship between a flighty, freewheeling, single mother (Janet McTeer) and her coming-of-age daughter (Kimberly J. Brown), it’s just not very 1999. Though there are flashes of Sick Desperation in McTeer’s outstanding performance.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (directed by George Lucas)

Without a doubt the most disappointing movie I’ll ever see three times in a theater. I kept going back, assuming my initial disappointment stemmed from setting my fanboy standards impossibly high, and that eventually I’d grow to love Episode I as much I loved Episodes IV, V, & VI.  Alas, just like everyone else not named George Lucas, I have only grown to dislike this movie more over the years– except for the pod race and the Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan/Darth Maul lightsaber battle, which still kick ass.

Mystery Men (directed by Kinka Usher)

It seems so 1999 in theory: a subversive superhero riff starring Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Hank Azaria, Paul Reubens, Janeane Garofalo, Geoffrey Rush, Eddie Izzard, Greg Kinnear, and Tom Waits, to name a few. Unfortunately, the script could’ve used a punch-up or two; the jokes’ hit-to-miss ratio is far lower than this premise and cast deserved. Macy’s line at the end of this scene was one of the few that made me laugh out loud:

Go (directed by Doug Liman)

“OK, I know ripping off Pulp Fiction got old like two years ago, but what if we did, like, a Pulp Fiction thing but with, like, ecstasy, and Vegas, and Amway?”

“YES! But we also need a scene in a diner where a drug dealer has one of those Tarantino monologues about that comic strip Family Circus, ’cause I was in a diner this morning and I’d just done a couple bumps and I was reading the paper and I saw Family Circus and I thought to myself, ‘Why hasn’t Tarantino written a monologue about Family Circus yet?”

And the nominees for Most Oscar-Hungry Picture of 1999 are…

Leaving the theater after seeing Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock, I was convinced it would get like 12 Oscar nominations. Not because I thought it was that great a movie, but because this star-studded, lefty-friendly, semi-musical, Depression-era historical drama seemed like it was shovel-feeding the Academy exactly the kind of stuff they love to heap awards upon. I was way off on that prediction, but the rest of the 1999 Oscar-darlings weren’t that hard to foresee– like Lasse Hallström’s adaptation of John Irving’s novel The Cider House Rulesa weighty-but-not-too-dark period drama with a lefty-friendly capital-M Message about the necessity of abortion.  And while I’ve got mad respect for Michael Mann’s The InsiderI have to admit that this ripped-from-the-headlines docudrama with a lefty-friendly David-vs.-Corporate-Goliath agenda was fishing hardcore for Oscar gold.

I wouldn’t say I have mad respect for Sam Mendes’ American Beauty; it’s more like reserved respect. Its Oscar-hunger is shameless (especially in Annette Bening’s performance), and it leans awfully hard on its lefty-friendly suburban ennui. Still, it’s funnier and sweeter and more haunting than most of its detractors give it credit for. There are at least 25 movies from 1999 that I would’ve voted for “Best Picture” above American Beauty, but its victory doesn’t offend me nearly as much as, say, Crash‘s victory did.

Yet the award for Most Oscar-Hungry Picture of 1999 has to go to Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile. It was as if Darabont was so sore about The Shawshank Redemption losing to Forrest Gump five years earlier that he tried to make the most snub-proof Oscar-bait he could imagine. So he did another prison drama based on a Stephen King story, only this time it would star Oscar-magnet TOM FREAKING HANKS. And it would be anti-racism AND anti-death penalty. And there’d be magic, but with religious overtones, yet not so Jesusy as to alienate non-Christians. And finally, it would be three EPIC hours long.  Of course, all this calculation came to naught, and The Green Mile couldn’t generate enough buzz to outfox American Beauty. But for what it’s worth, Mr. Darabont, your film is the winner of The Sick Desperation In Your Laugh Award for Most Oscar-Hungry Picture of 1999 in a goddamn landslide.

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(Part 37 of an ongoing series)

mr. death

I have often been asked, generally by some type of adverse party, whether I sleep at night or how well I sleep at night. And my answer is always the same. I sleep very well at night and I sleep with the comforting thought of knowing that those persons that are being executed with my equipment, that those people have a better chance of having a painless, more humane and dignified execution.

Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

I don’t think any state should administer capital punishment, not so much because it might be cruel and unusual, or because it doesn’t seem to deter a whole lot of murder. The main reason I find capital punishment so asinine is because it’s the most irreversible kind of punishment there is. That’s bad enough when the person executed is actually guilty of murder, and it’s infinitely bad when the person executed turns out to be not guilty of murder, which has happened more than a few times. So to all you bloodthirsty, Old-Testament-God types in favor of capital punishment, how about we compromise? Let’s say we abolish capital punishment for now, and then when science is finally able to bring humans back from the dead, then fine, we can start executing again. I think that’s plenty fair.

For the first half hour or so that I was watching Errol Morris’ documentary Mr. Death, I kinda liked its subject, Fred Leuchter. He may be an unabashed proponent of capital punishment, I thought, but as long as the death penalty exists in this country, I felt glad Fred was there not only to build machines that death-penalize prisoners as painlessly as possible, but to take into account, say, how the expelled urine of an inhumanely executed prisoner might create hazardous conditions for guards and other prisoners.

But then Mr. Death takes a hard left turn (at least for viewers like me who weren’t already familiar with Leuchter’s story), and soon he’s using dubious scientific methods to deny the Holocaust.

At which point Leuchter’s image morphs from “morbid old geek whom you wouldn’t mind chatting with at a bus stop” to “deluded, egotistical, neo-Nazi-hero whom you wouldn’t want to be photographed in the same room as.” And yet it’s hard not to feel pity for Fred. I may disagree with his silly theories that Auschwitz gas chambers never existed, but I agree with his assertions that he isn’t anti-Semitic. He just seems a little bit lonely, and a little too desperate for recognition. Or, kind of like how Hannah Arendt described Adolf Eichmann in Eichmann in Jerusalem: “…[E]verybody could see that this man was not a ‘monster,’ but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.”

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(Part 36 of an ongoing series)

julien donkey-boy

The Father is compassionate, and His rain falls upon the just and the unjust. His sun shines upon the good and the wicked, because that’s how He is. God is good, and God is love. There’s no room in God for looking upon a child of His with disgust, or wanting to cast him out from the body of Christ, or something like that.

Unidentified Priest in Julien Donkey-Boy

It’s easy to smear Julien Donkey-Boy as condescending trash that revels in gawking at weirdos and snickering uncontrollably, different from today’s reality-TV trainwrecks only in its frequent art-house pretensions, and the fact that some of the scenes aren’t actually staged.

And yet amid all of director Harmony Korine’s snickering and art-house nonsense, there’s also a profound pathos at its core that’s closer to Tod Browning’s Freaks than TLC’s Honey Boo-Boo.

Key to the movie’s sympathy is Ewen Bremmer’s unflinching performance. As I started watching Julien Donkey-Boy, I kept wondering if Korine actually cast a mentally ill young man in the lead. It wasn’t until about halfway through that it dawned on me that Holy crap, that’s Spud from Trainspotting!

Julien Donkey-Boy also benefits greatly from what I call “The Herzog Principle,” which states that any stretch of film in which Werner Herzog is involved must be, to some degree, inherently awesome.*

*Note: I have not yet seen Herzog’s performance in Jack Reacher, which I have heard on good authority is a waste of Herzog’s inherent awesomeness; nevertheless, I can’t imagine said performance isn’t at least a little awesome.

Though it’s far from the weirdest part of this weird-ass movie, the scene that best sums up Julien Donkey-Boy is when Herzog’s character describes the “Do I Feel Lucky?” scene from Dirty Harry to explain why it’s better than Julien’s “artsy-fartsy” poem: 

I can’t tell what Korine’s trying to do with this scene. Maybe he wrote that dialogue for Herzog’s psycho character as a way to baldly criticize that kind of artificial Hollywood filmmaking. Or maybe Korine genuinely enjoys that scene from Dirty Harry, and he’s trying to use this scene as a way to annihilate the boundaries between so-called “high” and “low” art. Or maybe he simply doesn’t give a fleck about Dirty Harry one way or the other, and just thought it would be funny shit for Herzog to say.

Whatever Korine’s motivation is this scene, and for Julien Donkey-Boy as a whole, it’s arguably the most honest and most complex expression of sick, desperate laughter that 1999 had to offer.

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(Part 35 of an ongoing series)


You could see the sea out there if you could see it.

Eduardo Roel (Luis Guzmán)

Lem Dobbs, screenwriter: “I’ve always thought one of the great cliches of filmmaking that you hear people say constantly, that I don’t think is true at all, is that unlike novels, in films you can’t show thinking. That is a total lie! I think movies are brilliant at showing someone thinking! I mean, I think what I particularly encouraged [Steven Soderbergh] to do was… put in the movie more shots of Terence Stamp just being meditative, just sitting in a chair thinking. Smoking. Reflecting. You may not know exactly what he’s thinking. I think you can pretty much infer what he’s thinking… It’s very novelistic to do this kind of fragmentation. People talk about it as being cinematically stylish, and I think it’s really almost more of a literary device.”*

What’s in Wilson’s (Terence Stamp’s) head? Plotwise, it’s revenge on Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), the douchey, music-industry bigwig who killed Wilson’s daughter. But there’s so much more: flashbacks (or are they flashforwards?), conversations pieced together from various moments (did we talk about that here, or there?), wish-fulfilling fantasies (or maybe little universes spawned from possible outcomes, like Hugh Everett’s many-worlds metatheory). The film constantly calls attention to itself being a film, especially in Sarah Flack’s editing. That’s cool, though, because I can’t readily name another film that does a better job depicting the way our brains think (or at least the way my brain thinks), while still telling a coherent narrative. (Granted, I haven’t seen a whole lot of the French New Wave movies that Soderbergh’s drawing from here.)

Terry Valentine’s introduced with what Soderbergh calls a “trailer” for his character, soundtracked by The Hollies’ “King Midas In Reverse.” This trailer includes moments that will reappear later in the film, and it ends with an American Express billboard featuring Peter Fonda that actually existed for real. This is one of the most amazingly brilliant sequences in the history of cinema.

I never got around to seeing The Limey in theaters. I didn’t see it until 2003, when I rented it from Netflix. I’m pretty sure I fell asleep when I watched it the first time, not because I was bored, but because I started watching it very late at night. The last moment I remembered from that first viewing was when Wilson throws the dude off the balcony. I could’ve sworn I finished watching the rest of the film the next day, and yet as I re-watched it for this review, I slowly realized I couldn’t remember anything about the second half of the movie. How the hell did that happen? This movie is excellent. If I didn’t finish watching it in 2003, why didn’t I? I And if I did finish watching it in 2003, why didn’t I remember what happened after Wilson throws the dude off the balcony? Stupid brain.

Violence shouldn’t be funny, but sometimes you can’t help but laugh. When I was working in a bookstore, a big heavy book fell on my good friend Maura’s head and my first reaction was to laugh. Then I asked if she was OK, and she was just fine, and then my boss scolded me for laughing even though I couldn’t help it and I quickly asked if Maura was OK and she was. But I get why my boss scolded me. Even though the violence in The Limey is fictional and intentionally funny I still feel a little guilty laughing at it, and it makes me think of that big heavy book falling on Maura’s head.

What I thought I wanted wasn’t what I wanted. What I thought I was thinkin’ about was something else… Bide your time, and everything becomes clear, and you can act accordingly.

In a scene originally filmed for Ken Loach’s Poor Cow, Wilson performs Donovan’s “Colours” and sings that the word “freedom” reminds him of the time when he was loved. Screenwriter Lem Dobbs wonders if “Memory is the path not taken.” Soderbergh says The Limey‘s essentially about the look on Terence Stamp’s face when he realizes the truth behind his daughter’s death. The Limey reminds me of so many things I remember and a few other things I don’t remember.

*From the filmmaker’s commentary track of The Limey DVD. Like other commentaries for Soderbergh-directed DVDs (particularly Schizopolis), this track is itself a work of art. Aside from simply offering many valuable insights into the creation of a great film, the actual form of the commentary reflects The Limey‘s themes (memory fragmentation, reality layers, dimensions of choice), as well as playfully deconstructing the concept of DVD commentaries.

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(Part 34 of an ongoing series)


In the end we had pieces of the puzzle, but no matter how we put them together, gaps remained. Oddly shaped emptiness mapped by what surrounded them, like countries we couldn’t name.

Narrator (Giovanni Ribisi)

The Virgin Suicides captivated and frustrated me, which I guess is the point. Eternal chasms of misunderstanding lie between boys and girls, and between suicides and survivors– especially when those boys and girls are writhing in the rut of puberty, and when those suicides plunge into the void just when it seemed they were on the verge of escaping it.

Sofia Coppola illustrates these mysterious chasms as poetically as she can (drawing, of course, from the poetry of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel), though I found myself wishing she better illustrated the three Lisbon sisters who aren’t Cecilia (Hanna Hall) or Lux (Kirsten Dunst). While I was horrified to see Bonnie’s feet dangle into the frame as her body hangs from the basement ceiling, my sorrow was undermined a bit as I started to think, Wait, which one’s Bonnie again?

Then again, maybe it was Cecilia and Lux who should’ve been less developed. The Virgin Suicides isn’t about individual characters so much as it’s about how grief infects a community, and how budding young men flirt with the tender unknown.

The boys’ naivete gives The Virgin Suicides much of its humor, and helps insure the movie isn’t a total pity party of amorphous, woe-are-we suburban malaise. Then there’s the high school dance sequence, perhaps the heart of the movie, injecting the film with a dose of euphoria right before it slides past the point of no return. It also does the best job of capturing that teenage feeling: we know the darkness of reality is out there, lurking in the corners of the future, waiting to pounce, but for now, for one giddy, fleeting moment, that can’t stop us from dancing beneath a balloon cascade to “Come Sail Away.”

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(Part 33 of an ongoing series)


There’s no excuses, Paul. No one has ever, ever paid admission to see an excuse. No one has ever faced a black screen that says: “Well, if we had these set of circumstances, we would’ve shot this scene… so please forgive us and use your imagination.” I’ve been to the movies hundreds of times. That’s never occurred.

Mark Borchardt

I can’t stress enough how thrilling it was to be a freshman film student in the fall of 1999. In the spring of that year, most of us aspiring movie-makers had been terrified and delighted by The Matrix: terrified by the idea that we might be unwittingly imprisoned in an artificial reality controlled by hostile machines, and delighted by the idea that we could shatter the boundaries of cinema just like the Wachowskis  (at least if we were lucky enough to get our paws on some big-studio blockbuster money). Then in the summer of ’99, most of us aspiring movie-makers had been terrified and delighted by The Blair Witch Project: terrified by the idea that America’s Middle-Of-Nowhere was truly haunted by devious demonic forces, and delighted by the idea that hey, maybe we could make our own boffo blockbusters with little more than chump change and a few brilliant ideas, just like Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick.

Then there was Chris Smith’s documentary American Movie, which delighted and terrified us aspiring movie-makers in a different way: delighted us with the addled antics of aspiring movie-maker Mark Borchardt, and terrified us with the implication that for most of us, our cinematic endeavors would actually go a little something like this.

Granted, movie-making has become considerably easier since the late ’90s, with the proliferation of digital cameras and the internet, but the message still rings true: you’ve gotta be a fool to try and make it in this business- or any artistic field, for that matter. 

One of the most insightful things about American Movie is its subtitle, “The Making Of Northwestern.” Northwestern is a feature film that Borchardt sets out to make, a personal, dramatic film based on the experiences of his young adulthood. Yet very early on, the documentary’s focus shifts away from that passion project and toward the making of Coven, a short horror film that Borchardt decides he must finish in order to do Northwestern. After all, aren’t most of us with artsy-fartsy dreams perpetually making a Coven in order to make a Northwestern? Or, as Borchardt’s girlfriend Joan puts it: “He wants to be somewhere where he’s not. But then, don’t most people want to be somewhere where they’re not?”

Yes, American Movie milks a lot of laughter from Borchardt’s foibles and failures, but it doesn’t come off as mean-spirited or condescending. The film not only has deep affection for Borchardt, it seems to have great admiration for him too. So what if after 15-plus years, Northwestern is still “in production” (according to Wikipedia)? By the end of American Movie, the dude finished Coven and eventually outsold his goal of 3,000 copies at $14.95, even if he had to literally clean up other people’s shit to do it. In a way, that’s more inspiring than The Matrix and The Blair Witch Project combined.

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(Part 32 of an ongoing series)


I heard about a lot of bad shit that happened in Kuwait.

Sgt. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg)

Yeah, bad shit happened. I’m not proud of that… Maybe Saddam is very crazy. But then you are crazy for bombing all of Iraq.

Captain Said (Said Taghmaoui)

1999 was loaded with movies both of their time and ahead of their time, but few of those movies embodied the present and future as well as Three Kings. Hollywood-wise, it was a breakthrough for George Clooney and writer/director David O. Russell. Hard as it is to imagine, there was in fact a time when Clooney wasn’t yet the mega-star we knew he’d eventually be. Three Kings didn’t exactly catapult him to the A-List the way Ocean’s Eleven did, but it did definitively prove he could be a cool-yet-authoritative leading man, building on the momentum he gathered in 1998’s Out Of Sight, and clouding the memories of missteps like 1997’s Batman and Robin.

Three Kings was also a milestone for writer/director David O. Russell, who made great films before (Spanking The Monkey, Flirting With Disaster) and since (I Heart Huckabees, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook), yet nothing quite like this. It can’t be easy to make a thrilling action-adventure heist wrapped around laugh-out-loud war satire; Three Kings not only pulls off that feat, it might be the best action-adventure/war satire ever.

While Three Kings foreshadows the future success of Clooney and Russell, it’s even more prescient as a sociopolitical statement. It may not explicitly predict the post-9/11 world, but the implications are there, simmering in the subtext like a cluster-bomb baking under the desert sun. Even though we knew back then that there were plenty of Middle Easterners who hated America with violent passion, Three Kings puts a human face to that hatred, and reminds us how our government’s greed and apathy could come back to bite us in the ass.

Naturally, Three Kings was utterly ignored by the Academy when it was first released. If it came out today, however, you better believe it would be an Oscar juggernaut come winter.

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