Friday, August 30, 2013


The end of summer vacation is a bitch, full of much gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair, and many many little anxiety attacks.  

Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: um… Austin, Texas

Technically speaking, I am part of Generation X.  However, I am on the tail end of what chronologically defines Gen X, and I grew up with enough awareness of the term to understand all the negative connotations that go along with it.  The characters in Slacker are full on Gen X, no doubt at all, and watching it makes me feel oddly nostalgic for the early days of The Real World.  I shudder, though, that this film represents a generation with which I am technically a part. 

Slacker isn’t so much a story as it is a conceit: it is essentially a series of vignettes strung together by coincidence set in the city of Austin, Texas.  We watch a few people, who are almost always young, unemployed, and pseudo intellectuals, as they have a conversation.  After a few minutes, one of the group leaves the conversation and the camera follows and moves on, finding a new conversation and a new group of young people.  This continues as we spend our whole day meandering around the city, jumping from group to group.  There are conspiracy theorists, nutjobs, anarchists, New Age gurus, and lots and lots of ramblers.

I’m not a huge fan of this movie, but it has its moments, most of which I find a bit blackly comic.  I’m particularly amused by the conspiracy theorist, credited at imdb by the role “Been on the moon since the 50s.”  His utter conviction and nonstop spouting made me smile, as did how easily he passed from having a discussion with one young man to having it with entirely different people.  Next up is the young man who’s honest enough to pay for his own newspaper walking into what is easily the most bizarre diner where a patron yells at him to “stop following me!”, the owner tells him to “cut it out!”, and the woman at the counter tells him it’s inappropriate to sexually assault women over and over.  Poor guy… and he just wanted change for the newspaper!  Similarly, one of my favorite sequences is when a would-be robber holds up a homeowner at gunpoint, only to have that homeowner turn out to be a raging anarchist who not only talks the robber down but seriously schools his ass.  The fact that the anarchist is an elderly gentlemen is just icing on the cake. 

There are moments of sympathy in Slacker as well, although they’re few and far between.  A young woman who gives a quarter and a Diet Coke to a homeless man then tolerantly puts up with a Kennedy wingnut’s ramblings and very kindly excuses herself without putting him down in the slightest.  A different young woman makes a slanted illusion to having some fairly serious health issues, and there is definite tension in her conversation with a young man, who rather bluntly steps over her confession and begins talking about himself instead.  Every now and then, through all the meandering conversations that seem to be going nowhere, there is a spark of real emotion, a hint of real kindness or real pain.

But for the most part, Slacker is full of void.  This is obviously on purpose, as it is a commentary on the “Slacker” mentality that seemed to be the defining feature of Gen X in the early nineties.  Rambling conversations by pretentious unemployed dicks about Dostoyevsky or the power of the video image are so maddeningly vacuous that I wind up wanting to throttle half the characters.  And this is really my biggest issue with Slacker; I wouldn’t mind the portrayal of this sort of mentality as much if I myself felt more removed from it.  I find myself in this odd duality, where I know that I’m a member of Gen X, this generation portrayed here in Slacker, and yet I feel absolutely no kinship with anyone in the story.  I bristle that this is how “my” generation is seen.  And yet, maybe it was this portrayal of my generation in the media at large that I grew up with that helped me NOT become this.  I remember watching The Real World in the early years, watching Clerks when it just came out on home video, and certainly I remember how much everyone talked about Reality Bites.  Heck, I even did a research paper in high school comparing and contrasting Hemingway’s Lost Generation with Gen X.  I was incredibly aware of this media portrayal, and maybe, in some small part, it drove me to NOT fall prey to the Gen X stereotype.  After college, I fucking went to grad school.  I did something, goddammit, I studied and worked in a research lab, then student taught and got a goddamned career. 

I tend to be in favor of nonprofessional actors in films; usually they deliver surprisingly effective low key performances because they’re not trying to “act.”  I’m not sure if the actors in Slacker were nonprofessional or not, but if they were, then this could be the film that puts me off nonprofessionals.  The acting is painful.  PAINFUL.  The conversations are already rather rambling and awkward, and when you add on top of that awkward performances, it does not make for an enjoyable experience.  It’s like watching an Amateur Improv night down at the local comedy club, and not the good one that gets decent performers.  Just stop.  Just stop right there.

To end on a positive note, my favorite part of Slacker is also the most incongruous.  Linklater spends the whole film rambling around aimlessly, following people so apathetic they’re hardly breathing, and so then it is curious that he ends it with a segment that is the antithesis of everything that preceded it.  As the film goes from a wingnut driving around in his car shouting absurdities through his roof speakers, we suddenly cut to a group of young twentysomethings out filming their day adventure on a Super 8 camera.  They are happy – unironically happy, even – as they traipse about and “Skokiaan” plays joyously on the soundtrack.  These young people are doing something, they are not moping about indoors simply talking about doing something.  They are happy instead of lethargic.  I choose to interpret this ending as Linklater ending on an optimistic note, recognizing that not everyone in this generation is as downtrodden as the people who inhabit most of Slacker.    Is that what he’s really saying?  Who knows, but that is the ending I need it to be.  I need a bit of energy and happiness and optimism after an hour and a half of mind-numbing apathy.

I like the central conceit of Slacker quite a bit, and it definitely has a bit of nostalgic appeal as I remember growing up with this sort of media representation of who I am supposed to be.  But I am not this aspect of Gen X, and I have never been that way. 

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Friday, August 23, 2013

Hill 24 Doesn't Answer

Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer
Director: Thorold Dickinson
Starring: Edward Mulhare, Michael Wager, Arik Lavie, Margalit Oved, Michael Shillo

Of all the films I’ve yet to see from 1001 Movies, this is undoubtedly the film I’ve been searching for longest.  This is not a readily accessible movie, and I have a feeling I wouldn’t have seen it at all save for Chip’s from Tips from Chip resourcefulness in somehow tracking down a copy.  It was released on DVD for the briefest of moments, but only as part of a Jewish cinema special set, and that was fairly cost prohibitive before disappearing entirely.  So frankly, I’m glad I just got a chance to see this one, full stop, because it’s been so hard to find.
But funnily enough, by the time I finished watching it, I was glad I’d seen it because, well, it’s actually rather good.  (If I sound surprised by that, it’s because I’ve learned that the films that are hardest to track down are usually unavailable for a REASON.)

Set during the fighting between the Arabs and the Israelis in 1947, the movie starts with the information that a United Nations dictated cease-fire will take effect at 5:45am.  Four patrol soldiers fighting for the Israeli cause are given the orders to try to take Hill 24, a strategically advantageous position, before that time so that when the border between Israel and Palestine is finally decided, Hill 24 will be Israeli.  We meet these four soldiers as they flashback to events that lead them to their current position.  There is Jim Finnegan (Mulhare), a British government worker originally stationed in Israel as part of the British guard who ended up staying because he fell in love with an Israeli woman.  There is Allan Goodman (Wager), a Brooklyn tourist who came to Israel to see the sights but stayed because of an emotional connection to fight the good fight with his people.  There is Esther Hadassi (Oved), a young Israeli woman who is raring to fight and will not let her gender keep her down.  Finally, there is David Airam (Lavie), a multilingual Israeli who has the most combat experience out of all of them and has seen some pretty horrible things.  

The film is divided into three mostly even sections as we learn about Jim Finnegan, Allan Goodman, and David Airam in turn.  Esther’s story is mostly tied in with that of Allan.  You’ve seen this structure of a film before, as each character in turn flashes back and tells “their story.”  While not exactly my favorite narrative technique of all time, such a device serves to move the film along by automatically sectioning it into three distinct acts.  As each character has a (mostly) fully formed story to tell, we have three beginnings, three middles, and three ends, all of which are bookended by the film as a whole.  Frankly, it works here.

And a big reason why I feel it works is that I thought the film kept getting better with every successive story.  Jim’s tale, the one we kick off with, feels like I’ve seen it before.  There’s nothing wrong with it, per se, but it felt like a fairly rote romance between two opposites.  Just as I was beginning to tire of Jim, though, we switch over to Allan.  Allan’s tale is very different; he goes to Jerusalem for a guided tour of the Old City and wants thrills and excitement.  Somehow joining up with the freedom fighters along the way, he finds himself caught in a firefight at night between the Arabs and the Israelis, and oh so quickly, his dreams of thrills disappear as he encounters firsthand the horrors of war.  Winding up injured and in the makeshift hospital, he has a crisis of faith with a rabbi and his desperation only grows.  Whereas Jim simply fell in love with an Israeli girl, Allan goes through a much more interesting emotional rollercoaster.  Yes, it starts to feel a bit like propaganda (this was the first film fully produced in the new country of Israel), but that’s to be expected, and I was still invested in Allan’s transformation.

And then we tote out the brief, but easily most potent, story of David.  David’s flashback, unfortunately the shortest back story of the lot, was gripping.  He recalls a previous encounter in battle in Israel when he found himself rescuing an enemy soldier who turns out to be German.  This segment was absolutely riveting, and when the film transitions smoothly from David’s powerful tale to the more nationalistic yet still powerful finale of the film as a whole, Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer definitely ends on a high note.  Rare is the film that I feel gradually improves as it goes; if it starts rather slow, usually it ends rather slow.  But no, Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer crescendos up to a very strong ending.  And I’ll add here that I should have expected it, as the film opens with a wicked punch to the gut.  The film makes absolutely no bones from the get-go about delivering a fairly bleak and powerful tale, but managed to lull me into complacency with Jim’s rather predictable flashback.  

I couldn’t help but be reminded of several other films while watching Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer, the two most significant of which were made prior to Hill 24.  I really can’t help wondering if Thorold Dickinson was heavily influenced by The Third Man and All Quiet on the Western Front, or if the similarities are honest coincidences.  The Third Man’s influence is most notable in Jim’s flashback.  In it, we see that while the British have some sort of control on the turmoil-ridden city of Haifa, there are rebel fighters at every turn.  There is so much rubble and confusion and a sense of barely-withheld anarchy that one could easily transplant Jim’s Haifa for Harry Lime’s Vienna.  All Quiet on the Western Front, on the other hand, shows a very heavy influence in both Allan’s story, as his transition from thrill-seeking naïve tourist to war-hardened, disillusioned soldier is played out in very similar terms to that of Lew Ayres’ Paul.  And in the final segment of Hill 24, where David tells his story, all I could think of, ALL I COULD THINK OF, was the scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where Paul is trapped in a bomb crater with a wounded French soldier, the enemy.  There are imprints of All Quiet on the Western Front all over this film.  I don’t necessarily think that a bad thing – All Quiet on the Western Front is an amazing film – but derivative is still derivative.

Really, if I’m being honest with myself, I expected something far worse from Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer.  I expected this film to be in the book for the sole reason that it’s the first Israeli film, and not on the benefit of the film itself.  But I was wrong.  Hill 24 packs a punch.  Not a huge punch, sure, but it’s there.  It’s a bit of a shame this film is so hard to find.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10.  Oh, and did I mention that the print SUCKS?  It’s hard to watch – not because of the film itself, but the graininess is almost too much and definitely detracts from the viewing experience.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Broken Blossoms

Broken Blossoms
Director: D.W. Griffith
Starring: Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess

Silent films are curious.  They are so far removed from the cinema we know today that it can be difficult acclimating to their distinctly separate style.  There are certainly exceptions to this rule; great films are great films regardless, but only a handful of the silents I’ve seen have managed to break through their constrictions of time and place and really, truly impress me.  Films like Keaton’s comedies, City Lights, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, or The Unknown are examples of this.  Unfortunately, Broken Blossoms does NOT fall into that category, feeling instead like a film ridiculous in how utterly out of date it is.

Cheng Huan (Barthelmess) starts off in China as a well-intentioned missionary who means to go to London to spread the word of the peace of Buddha.  Once there, however, he becomes addicted to opium and winds up tending a grubby little shop in the Limehouse district.  Lucy (Gish) is a waif who shuffles to and fro in between beatings by her cruel boxer of a father.  Cheng falls in love with Lucy from afar, and one night, when Lucy is left on the streets, he takes her in, feeds her, and nurses her back to health in the most chaste way possible.  Of course everyone will pay for this act of kindness.

Let’s deal with the obvious first, shall we?  This being 1919, Hollywood (and America) wasn’t nearly as progressive as it is today (and frankly, I’m not so sure it’s terribly progressive today).  We have, in Broken Blossoms, a thoroughly American actor playing a Chinese character, complete with squinty eyes and everything.  Oddly enough, this doesn’t completely bother me.  I know it’s repugnant by today’s standards, but is it fair to hold Broken Blossoms up to today’s standards?  I tend to be pretty tolerant to issues like this in very old films, and when you look at the characterization of Cheng Huan in Broken Blossoms rather than simply the outward caricature, he actually becomes the kindest character in the film.  I don’t like watching Barthelmess play an Asian any more than the next blogger, but I have to hand it to Griffith for making the Chinese character the closest thing the film has to a hero, and this in the middle of a phase in American culture called “Yellow Peril” where the fear of Chinese immigrants was reaching a peak.  It’s an odd feeling, really; I very much wish that white actors weren’t playing people of color in Broken Blossoms, but at the same time, I respect the presentation of Cheng Huan in a positive light and understand that the film is ultimately a product of its time.

No, far more than the whitewashing in Broken Blossoms, the thing that turns me off about the film is the unrepentant Melodrama with a capital “M.”  Melodrama, as a genre, has never sat well with me.  Even as a young teen Siobhan, I cringed when having to read books in school like Sister Carrie or any of the “young adult” fiction foisted upon me.  When I was in middle school, I remember being agog at all my classmates who insisted on writing the most utterly ridiculous short stories and poems about drugs, abuse, suicide and the like, none of which were realistic, and all of which ended badly.  Consequently, I dislike films where I have to watch things go badly in the most predictable way possible and with as little nuance as can be managed.  And Broken Blossoms is definitely that film.  Lucy’s father is evil for no other point than to be evil and brutish because the plot demands it.  Oh, okay, sure, I don’t need any kind of believability there, go right ahead.  Gish’s Lucy is so tortured in her childhood that she cannot physically smile and must actually use her fingers to curve her mouth upwards.  To pull out a phrase from my youth, gag me with a spoon.  This style of filmmaking, so popular in the early days and certainly around albeit a bit evolved today, does less than nothing for me.  I really dislike melodrama.  So Broken Blossoms never stood much of a chance.  

A few comments on Lillian Gish in this film.  In general, I am a fan of La Gish; it’s difficult not to be, considering she’s one of the pioneers of cinema.  I’m not sure how much I like this particular performance, however.  For one thing, there is the age of her Lucy.  In 1919, Ms. Gish would have been 26 or 27 years old.  I cannot for the life of me figure out how old the character of Lucy is supposed to be.  In some scenes, it appears as if she’s meant to be late teens; in others, more like 13 or 14.  For her part, Gish plays Lucy on the immature and infantile side, having her entranced with a simple doll and completely unaware of the feeling of love directed at her from Cheng Huan.  Frankly, skewing Lucy so young, even if it’s only emotionally that young, makes things a bit… squicky.  It’s a bit worrisome already that I’m trying to overlook historical whitewashing, but now I have to watch an older man fall in love with a woman who has the mental capacity of a 12 year old girl.  This does not for fun times make.  

But there is one scene in particular where Gish shines, and that is the scene where she has locked herself in a closet to escape the temper of her father, who has just discovered that she had been inside Cheng Huan’s shop.  Here is where we really see Ms. Gish’s acting prowess, as she convincingly gives us a performance of a frightened and cornered animal incapable of seeing a way out.  The naked fear on her face is staggering, and she is sole reason why I found this scene the most emotionally affecting of the entire film.  Her face, her body language, everything is committed to the feeling of true dread. 

I suppose I need films like Broken Blossoms every now and then to remind me just how amazing other silent films are by comparison.  It’s not nearly as preachy as Intolerance or as hateful as The Birth of a Nation, but I’m still not a fan.  Melodrama’s not for me, thanks.

Arbitrary Rating: 5/10