June 30, 2007

Warriors, come out to play-ay!

The Warriors
directed by Walter Hill, 1979

Watching this movie was a long-delayed fulfillment of an adolescent desire. When I was in junior high and high school, the movie played on late-night tv constantly. All the cool kids were allowed to stay up to watch it, and it was a sort of generational touchstone - catch phrases and worldviews came out of it which I absorbed somehow not ever having experienced the film myself. I'm happy to say that I watched it for the first time the other day, and it was pretty much what I expected it to be a couple decades ago.

This is an exploitation movie, plain and simple. It shows a New York City overrun by multicultural teenage gangs, the sort of representation that sank so deeply into the public consciousness that it got Giuliani elected mayor years later. Of course, most voters didn't envision the sartorial splendor of these hoodlums...

Yes, one of the most memorable parts of the movie is the costume department's conceit of having each of the many rival gangs dress up in different matching outfits. Each more ludicrous and more impractical than the last. It reaches a dizzying apex with the group of thugs who where Yankees uniforms and clown make-up.

Then again, there's no particular desire to remain grounded in realism here. Ibsen this ain't. What this is: male teenage anxieties writ unwieldly large. No wonder everyone in high school couldn't stop talking about it. I'm actually kind of glad I saw it as a (slightly) mature adult - for one thing I can see the misogyny for the cartoonish fear-exploitation that it is.

The most entertaining aspect of the film for me was the decision to show a New York in which adults don't exist. The gang members in the movie roam freely over a landscape nearly devoid of grown-ups. Those that do show up are shown in very brief glimpses, often faceless. They are obstacles to be avoided like subway turnstiles. At no time is there a sense that these kids are part of the community around them - that there's a human being driving the subway train that they wreck, that the driver might be the uncle of one of them. There are no obvious reasons why these kids would be in gangs in the first place, even. It's taken for granted that if you are in the right age bracket and live in the five boroughs, you will join the local gang.

This feeds on the paranoia of us older adults (that youth are on a rampage, and worse: that we are irrelevant). And it feeds on the paranoia of teenagers (that the world is dauntingly big, and worse: that they have power within it) at the same time. On that level, it's quite an achievement. Of course, none of that really amounts to anything in the end, except a general mood of fear and anxiety.

Fun piece of film, when you're feeling like something silly.


Hundred-Dollar Baby
Robert B. Parker, 2006

So as a pause in the middle of the Pynchon, I buzzed through this recent installation of the Spenser mystery series. I was hooked on these books for a little while when living in Japan - the writing style is so breezy you can finish a 250-page book in a couple hours standing up in the English-language section of the bookstore, and thereby avoid paying the price they'd charge for foreign books.

These novels follow in the pulp tradition in that the prose snaps, the structures are formulaic, there's a cast of recurring characters, there are just enough twists to keep each novel fresh, and you pretty much always know what you're getting into when you plunk down your $6.99. Spenser is a relatively likeable character, and you can always count on some witty dialogue (as well as some precious dialogue and some forced dialogue).

Parker seems interested in infusing the hardboiled detective novel form with a social conscience, and he seems to have found a formula that manages to get his points across with a minimum of clunkiness. In the earliest books, the prose style was dense, the plotting often intricate, and the big social/psychological ideas sometimes tackled obliquely. But he hit a stride at some point - the writing is loose and bright, the plots zip through their required turns, and the "issues" are spoken about bluntly when they need to be, and folded into the drama when they can be.

I'd say that Hundred-Dollar Baby is a middling entry in the series of books. A fun easy read that engages your higher faculties just enough so you don't feel like you wasted your time. It's a puff pastry, but with some tasty summer fruits on top. Definitely worth some of your attention.

June 21, 2007

Duck Soup

Duck Soup
directed by Leo McCary, 1933

I think I may make my way through a few of my favorite Marx Brothers movies, and I started with this one, which has to be one of the best political films ever. And I don't think I can do better than to just type out a few of my favorite lines here (excuse my poor memory if these aren't exact - I know there's no excuse in the internet age, but part of this blogging deal is that I want to write about things as I remember them). It's good to have a nice bracing dose of wordplay and semi-absurdity now and then.

- I suggest we sentence him to ten years at Leavenworth or eleven years at Twelveworth
- How about I take five to ten at Woolworth's?

- Why weren't the indictment papers placed in my portfolio?
- Well, I didn't think them important at this time, your excellency
- Not important? Do you realize I had my dessert wrapped in those papers?

- I am willing to do anything to prevent going to war
- Too late, I already put down a month's deposit on the battlefield

- What's a matter with you? Do you want to be a public nuisance?
- Sure! How much does the job pay?

- Here's the report sir. I hope you'll find it clear.
- Clear? Why, a four-year old child could understand this report. [aside] Quick, find me a four-year-old child. I can't make heads or tails of it.

- I'll have you know I danced before Napoleon! No, Napoleon danced before me. About 200 years before me, as a matter of fact.

June 15, 2007

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep
directed by Howard Hawks, 1946

[Side note: I've recently started the new Pynchon, Against the Day, which weighs in at close to 1100 pages. Most of my posts while I make my way through this behemoth will be of movies or the kinds of short things I read when I need a break from a long dense work]

I do enjoy this movie a lot. Probably not the very best Bogart-Bacall pairing, but definitely a good one. You've got your Faulkner-enhanced dialogue, your Hawks mis-en-scene and pacing, and you've got really excellent performances throughout. The changes made from the book used to bug me a little, but watching it this time, I found the injection of hollywood romance and other stuff more charming than distracting.

I've never been a fan of the odd and adolescent practice of having every woman who shares a sidewalk with the sleuthing protagonist throw herself at him. For the most part, it just makes me snort and roll my eyes. (That said, I wouldn't have minded if Dorothy Malone had wanted to close up her bookshop to share a drink with me on a rainy day ... and I wouldn't have asked her to remove her glasses either, but that's just me.)

It struck me on this viewing that Lauren Bacall is really the heart of the movie, and that she brings a depth and steely power to the role that it probably doesn't deserve. The character as scripted ranges wildly, is largely self-contradictory, and yet in the whole mess somehow seems real. And more than that, seems like an archetype of human experience. Well, maybe "archetype" is too big a word - how about she is a model of a certain way of living, personal and specific in time, place, and class, but somehow in the larger-than-life film she's just one more person trying to keep the frayed and tangled ends of her life in order. And like all of us, she deludes herself and others, finds both prosaic and creative methods of making sense of things, gets lost in the snarl of power relationships, and forges both smart and stupid human bonds.

Oh, and she sings too.

June 10, 2007

More on Huck Finn

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain, 1885

Finally finished this wonderful book, and I'm so glad I took the time to read it again. I'm more than a little bit in awe of it, to tell you the truth - there's a greatness in it that I never really touched before. I suppose it's testament to the novel's depth that I could read it in high school, enjoy it, get a lot out of it, understand its "classic" status, but never see what makes it a singular work of literary art. You never read the same book twice, I guess.

Twain really swings for the fences here, trying to encompass as much of American society (and Western civilization generally) as he can possibly fit into a picaresque boy's-adventure book of less than 300 pages. It seems somehow essential that the smallish, personal story, told in what's more-or-less a popular style, is what's brought to bear on these huge issues of politics, philosophy, and morality. There's a hopefulness implicit in it.

The thing that strikes me hard this time through the novel is that Twain just never lets you off easy. That's not to say that the book isnt' easy to read - it rolls along quite breezily, and is damn funny to boot. No the "ease" I'm talking about is a moral ease. Time and again, the author sets up a moral quandary in story form that seems it should be a parable, then layers of complexity get heaped on, and multiple veiwpoints onto the issue are opened. Soon the plot has moved along, before a resolution is reached, and the situation has morphed into something new, with a newly updated problems. Sympathetic characters become monsters and vice-versa. This is "democratic" fiction, wherein everyone gets a say and everyone is capable of both brilliance and folly.

In this light, Huck is a genuine hero. He navigates this moral landscape like he navigates the river: relying on experience, taking stock of changes, having self-confidence, learning from mistakes. If it's been more than a few years since you've read it, go grab a copy and read it again. It's really quite intimidatingly great.

June 04, 2007

fun youtube mashup

So I enjoy youtube as much as the next person, but I'm not an addict or anything. And I surely wouldn't post this link unless it was stunningly awesome and spoke to me in a deep way:

Sesame Street/Do the Right Thing

Iconic Spike Lee movie - check
Slammin PE soundtrack - check
Muppets! - check
Animation geekery - check
Wonderfully dorky sense of humor - double check

I swear that while watching it, I kept thinking "didn't I just dream this?"

June 02, 2007

New York State of Mind

Leaves of Grass
Walt Whitman, 1892

I was in New York a few weeks ago, and I didn't realize how much I've missed the teeming hugeness of it, and the way there are always 100 different scales of interaction happening in parallel. Good ol' Walt understood that too (of course):

City of orgies, walks and joys,
City whom that I have lived and snug in your midst will one day make you illustrious,
Not the pageants of you, not your shifting tableaus, your spectacles, repay me,
Not the interminable rows of your houses, nor the ships at the wharves,
Nor the processions in the streets, nor the bright windows with goods in them,
Nor to converse with learn'd persons, or bear my share in the soiree or feast;
Not those, but as I pass O Manhattan, your frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love,
Offering response to my own -- these repay me,
Lovers, continual lovers, only repay me.