The tightrope that Lynch walks is the irony. Ebert, in his review of this movie, totally missed that, and saw the irony as sarcasm--an inexcusable backdrop for the bare emotional honesty that Rossellini inhabited in this role. I think he missed the point. The irony is not just for laughs and sarcasm--it is the irony of the modern hipster, years before it's time. To the hipster, so quoth The Hipster Handbook, irony caries more weight than reason. To the critic, it's offensive because it belittles seriousness. To a more modern eye, it's not a counter or undercut of the violence, it's a comment on the form of the movie itself. It is a layer in the movie. It's a framework for absurdity (everything in the movie is absurd, but Dennis Hopper is frightening and absurd, while McLaughlin and Dern are ernest and absurd. Rossellini is tragic and absurd).
Much like Mulhulland Drive later (which, Ebert loves), Blue Velvet describes the haunting of a mind. Through the visual language of film noir and white-picket 50s technicolor, Lynch shows us (literally) the vermin under the manicured lawn. His irony is not mocking life, but mocking idealized filmic life. He's not making a statement with film about how life is (and maybe shouldn't be) a certain way (re: Crash, the 2005 version), he's making a statement about the artifice of representing life. The map, after all, is not the territory--nor will it ever be.
So, if film is not life (suck that Goddard, truth at 24 frames a second my ass), then the purpose of film can't be to represent life. The purpose of film is to tell a story and make an emotional connection with the audience, which can certainly evoke strong feelings of empathy. While Ebert felt that Lynch kept the audience away from the stark emotional realities of Rossellini's experience with irony, I say that Lynch keeps the entire medium at bay with irony, eroticism, and violence. The three are intertwined and inseparable.
This is, I think, what Spike Lee was attempting with the flawed He Got Game, a movie that started seeped in this irony, but dissolved into mistaken earnestness. Also brought to mind is Todd Hayne's brilliant Far From Heaven where the irony is not as cynical, and is one step further removed from the action, but the sexual tensions and violence that comes from repression are represented.
Mostly, Lynch shows us that of the people who watch films, some will take everything at face value and become offended if the filmmaker doesn't approach certain taboos in the acceptable way. Some others--and this is the current mask of Hollywood, as evidenced in this years Academy awards--want film to change the world through social conscience. To these types Lynch holds up something reprehensible and beautiful and challenges both views. Accept the film for what it is, and the irony feels right at home with the sexuality and the violence. They are three pillars capped at equal heights.
Characters are driven to inevitable futures, but it's always nice to see a movie that simplifies the drive. This title is as good as the much lauded Snakes on a Plane for pure descriptive purposes. You know what's going to happen from the minute you walk into the theater--there is no guesswork that Bill won't be killed--and anybody who thinks that this is a spoiler is missing the point. It's the process and the journey that amuse so much.
And show what a true crazed master that Tarantino is. The movies that he worships, and gives ode to here, are nowhere near as entertaining as his opus. Why? Because Tarantino does it all outside of genre--he's poking fun and paying homage at the same time.
Here too, he uses the standard saws of Spielberg--the mother and child--and twists it on its head, so that sentimentality leaks out and only a skeleton is left. No tear jerking here, just understanding why the heck the Bride would do what she does when she does it. And, of course, even egg her on despite the bloodiness of her rampage.
Some might argue that the plot is insignificant, but despite the fact that Tarantino is so copied by fools who just stack a bunch of improbable and shockable violence and abstract, witty, nostalgia driven dialogue in a film and call it a QT alike, the true test of a Tarantino film is plot and character. (but wait--dialogue like this is pure gold: "If on your journey you should meet God, god will be cut."). It's like the people copying the iPod who haven't had any success. The original still outshines the copies, and so it is in this case as well. Because they don't get it--they don't understand what the original success was about, and try to paint-by-numbers their way in.
The reason the heroin-overdose part of Pulp Fiction works so well is that you've been hanging out with these characters and you like them (or, in the case of Stoltz and especially Arquette don't like them so much) and you know what's at stake if she dies. Therein lies the comedy.
Just putting some thugs in suits and handing them throwaway Wildeisms doesn't make a QT. Here's hoping the man has a long life full of filmmaking.
"I don't think I recognize myself in this movie," he said. "These characters mumble so much. I always gave clear speech to my characters."
She had just finished filing her nails. She reached for a small red bottle with a black tapered cap.
"Do you think these people sound like my characters? Do you think...are you listening?" he asked. The acrid punch of her polish invading his nose.
She lifted a brow, feigning interest. The ice was melting in her soda, the condensation dripping down the glass sides.
"Don't make too much of it," she sighed. "It's just a movie."
"A movie based on my stories," he said.
"Made after your death," she said, waving her hand in the air. "Besides, movies are a director's medium. You had your turn. You wrote your stories. Those will last longer than film."
"Bullshit," he said. "That's wrong. Think about music. You can listen to your favorite song an infinite amount of times. You can only watch your favorite video a few times. It's like that. People will see the film and tire of the stories before they know them. Before they've read them." He wished for the first, but not last, time today that he could have a drink.
"You're making too much of it. He's considered a genius," she said. "You were the master of one medium, and he is the master of another. Think of it like an ode; an interpretation. Someday, while all literature critics compare sparse writers to you, film critics will compare all busy filmmakers to him," she said.
He paced, his right she sticking on the tile floor each step. "That's just it, right there," he said. "He took my stories, but ignored my form. I write simple, concrete words that offer unobstructed views of my characters and their actions. He made a highly stylized film that obscures the characters behind environments. It's got nothing to do with me, with the exception of some basic plot points."
She started painting the nails on her other hand. He said "it's the difference between inflection and uninflection." he stopped suddenly "Did you feel that?"
She looked up at his startled face. "What?" she asked.
"That shaking? Is it an earthquake?" he said.
"I don't feel anything." she said.
"Of course you don't." he said. "It's just me turning over in my grave."
"Give it a rest." she said, rolling her eyes. "The film has one thing on you."
"What's that?" he asked.
"It's a damn good movie," she said "And you never made one." He collapsed on the couch next to her.
"That's true. I never did," he said.
She put her arm around him, careful not touch her wet nails to him or the couch. "But you did something better. You wrote some of the best short stories ever written. He made a great film inspired by them. That's something." she said.
"That's something." he said. "But don't you think it would have matched my style better if it had been Mamet?"
"Who cares," she said, and then she kissed him. "Who cares," she mumbled through their connected lips. "Who cares."
He forgot about wanting a drink for a while.
The night we watched End of the Century, we did a punk rawk double feature. The Ramones story was all about the talking heads (I'm leaving in that potentially confusing sentence for the amusement of it. Pay attention to the letter case!). The Unheard Music, on the other hand, was about a filmmaker trying to show a band and their influences in a metaphorical way. Because X is hardly direct with their imagery, this was a smart choice, and ultimately a great movie.
It relies on the old standard Ephemera mish-mash technique--mixing in public domain footage with performance and interview shots. Anybody who grew up in the 80s knows exactly what I'm talking about with the ephemera films. Oh god, they were dull. Usually some artsy-avant type doing rapid cuts (read: no more than 24 frames, which pre-digital editing was pretty damn fast), ironically juxtaposing a nuclear explosion with classroom health films, usually set to some slightly disturbing drum machine / synth loop. We were supposed to feel something from these films, but I doubt that something was supposed to be the boredom I inevitably sunk into as yet another film student showed their poorly-made masterpiece.
But here is an example of somebody actually using those techniques to great ends--a difficult challenge, but W.T. Morgan (director) and X the band obviously had a point to make beyond some general ennui about modern culture. It was more of a specific celebration of modern culture through the collage of influences that fed into Los Angeles, punk rock, and especially X themselves. The trick is, this movie doesn't name those influences, but brings them to you experientially so that you might gain understand of the band. It's a perfect show-don't-tell movie.
The movie crafts character for the four band members: Billy Zoom firmly in the clutches of rockabilly car culture, D.J. Bonebrake in a 40's jazz environment, and Exene and John in their bungalow-- with Dia de los Muertos figurines, concert posters and some old-lady lace touches around the fringes--are the representatives of pick-your-own-culture, with equal parts country-western, southern rock, mexican mysticism, and good old American working-man liberalism.
While any of those looks are anachronistic and well-known now, at the time X came around they were brand new and really unexplored. They were truly about originality and seeking your own path, as opposed to simply saying "Oh, I want to play alt-country," and then starting a band called Uncle Soup-o-low, and emoting annoyingly like Ryan Adams (yeah, we get it--you feel deeply).
We see the band writing songs, performing songs, recording songs. We meet Ray Manzarek, showing that X refused to lock themselves into the punk dogma of the day by rejecting anything smacking of hippy. Instead, X made music--a lot of it, and a lot of really good, original and groundbreaking stuff.
Three scenes stuck with me from watching this movie in 1986 when it first came out. The first is Bonebrake in his kitchen showing how he can do polyrhythms with each limb on his body. ("Hey!" said John Doe to Billy Zoom on the phone, "I just saw this drummer who hits his snare drum REAL hard." Billy: "Offer him anything."). Second, the record distributer who didn't pick up X. Has to be seen to be fully enjoyed, but it definitely spells the problem with the music industry, and why it's currently starting a long descent into obsolescence.
Finally, and most movingly is a hypnotic sequence where two flatbed trucks move a house through Los Angeles in the middle of the night, set to the song The Unheard Music. John and Exene, in perfect symmetric unique harmony sing:
Friends warehouse pain
attack their own kind
A thousand kids bury their parents
there's laughing outside
we're locked out of the public eye
Some smooth chords
on the car radio
no hard chords
on the car radio
we set the trash on fire
and watch outside the door
men come up the pavement
under the marquee
there's laughing inside
we're locked out of the public eye
Like all of you, I've seen it a million times. I was 12 when it came out--the perfect age for it. This viewing was to introduce my nieces and nephews to it. We did a double feature with Mystery Men, which I didn't watch all of (and thus am not reviewing at this point).
Some thoughts and points of interest:
First use of the now-cliched Nazi's interested in evil old-world supernatural powers, replete with moral ending where the Americans are left standing after the Germans (and evil French sympathizers) are burned by the wrathful god of the Torah (that'd be Old Testament, cross lovers).
2. First appearance of the enormously skilled Alfred Molina ("Throw me the idol. No time to argue. Throw me idol, I'll throw you the whip!").
3. Speilberg wasn't afraid to get a bit gruesome at times. I wonder if he would do the same today? Would the skin-melting be as graphic? Would the flying wing scene end with the splattered blood? Many action movies these days are based on the concept that the characters are stretch Armstrong, and won't break or bleed when beaten.
4. Karen Allen was really great in this film, and played the now-forgotten balancing act of a tough, independent woman who despite being rescued by Indy quite a few times, seems like she's gotten herself out of quite a few scrapes on her own. Owning a bar in Tibet? In character math Lara Croft = (Marion Ravenwood + Indiana Jones) * James Bond.
"They learned to read and write for purely practical reasons; but all other forms of education they banned from the country, books and treatises being included in this quite as much as men. All their education was directed toward prompt obedience to authority, stout endurance of hardship, and victory or death in battle."
--Plutarch, The Ancient Customs of the Spartans
The big question to ask with Mamet: is this movie really about what it's about? I mean, here's a guy that loves the con, the puzzle. He's fascinated with the ways that humans fool other humans, and we're supposed to accept at face value everything he says? What if there's a story under the story, or a metaphor under the plot points? Maybe this is a movie only to entertain, but with such strong ties to politics, released in an election year with such a fool-hardy lot pulling the reigns (with whom Mamet has no love lost, belonging to the reality based community, and a "Hollywood" Jew to top it off) and about to pull one of the largest cons in history by being re-elected. Is this movie really about what it's about? Is Mamet really not commenting?
When I saw the movie in the theater I tried to pull the strings together and see if there was something behind the scenes, but whatever impression I had was so fleeting and irrational that I couldn't quite focus on it. Maybe that's the rub right there--I mean, just like great literature that leaves you wondering more after you read than before you started, maybe the subtext of this film isn't packaged as neatly as the text of it. But that aside, this post is an exploration into trying to verbalize what I have a hunch about--that Mamet is trying to say something here, and no critic--and I've read nearly all the reviews--even goes near it. Either that's proof of my my foolishness or my genius, but since my birthday is April 1, I'll let you guess which way I tend to lean. This post also assumes you've seen the movie, and will explore plot points and reveal twists. So, go watch the DVD and then come back to join the exploration. Unless you feel that the film is self contained, and then that is that and I'll see you at my next post where I talk about Spider-Man 2 in a much lighter mood.
Also, a warning that I'm not arguing a position here, but exploring options. Some of the options are a bit in left field, but some make very definite sense to me.
Let's start with the title. Titles often give us a clue to an author's deeper meaning, especially if they seem to be incongruous with the rest of the story. Sure, we get an easy explanation during the following dialogue between Kilmer (Scott) and Bell (Laura Newton):
Laura Newton: Did my father send you?
Scott: That's right.
Laura Newton: Why? Why? He wants me dead.
Scott: He sent me.
Laura Newton: One man.
Scott: "One riot, one Ranger." You ever heard that?
Laura Newton: Leonidas, King of Sparta... when a neighboring state would plead for military aid, would send one man.
Scott: Well, there you go.
Laura Newton: You ever hear that?
Scott: No. I think we went to different schools.
Is that all? Do we buy that the title Spartan comes from the fact that only one man went to rescue the King's daughter (as she is often metaphorically referred to in the picture)? What more do we know about Sparta that we might draw on to explore this--because a guy with a head as big (and to this I mean his brain more than the other) as Mamet's wouldn't be satisfied with such an undergraduate throwaway of a title. I think Mamet, like many great artists, writes to amuse and challenge himself. I don't think he'd be challenged himself by that title (but, then again, he also has said that he makes two kinds of films: films that are art, and films to entertain. Since there is no clear definition of either, who knows which are which, or even whether either are either and maybe he sees both as both. I never trust what the man says in interviews is really what he means, because to a large degree he plays with and off the obsequiousness or obnoxiousness of the interviewer. They either go in with abject worship or attempt to knock his block off, which is dangerous thing to do to a man who's mind is as fast as Mamets is. He tends to spin words so fast the the interviewer doesn't know which is up).
The obvious answer is that there is a double meaning to the title. Spartan has a meaning in modern English, meaning sparse or frugal. That reference is obviously applied to Kilmer's character, who leads a simple life and is ready to go wherever whenever as an elite military something (although we are led to believe that he is an Army Ranger, the water is muddied by the fact that the "One Riot One Ranger" refers to the Texas Rangers). Also, the classical reference to Sparta means more than just referencing our dear King Leonidas. Here's a definition, from our much beloved 1948 copy of The Readers Encyclopedia by William Rose Benét, that describes his character to a fine point.
Spartan. The inhabitants of ancient Sparta, one of the leading city-states of Greece, were noted for their frugality, courage and stern discipline; hence, one who can bear pain unflinchingly is termed a Spartan, a very frugal diet is a Spartan fare, etc. It was a Spartan mother who, on handing her son the shield he was to carry into battle, said that he must come back either with it or on it.
So, now our title has three meanings--one literal, one one figurative. Could it be more? It could also be a reference to Mamet himself-an in joke to the one thing every damn reviewer has to talk about when it comes to Mamet--his dialogue (can we now just establish mametspeak as a noun, and use it instead of wasting ink on talking about things which are talked about ad infinitum elsewhere? Get on with the teardown, lazy reviewers). Certainly his scripts are paired down, his words well thought and carefully placed. The word itself has been used to describe Mamet many times, why not appropriate it? A wink and a nod...
A bigger stretch might be to guess that Mamet is making a generalization of American culture by comparing us to the peoples of Sparta. In certain views that might hold true, but doesn't hold well under examination, since Americans are hardly little-s spartan about our lives. But, there could be some traction there in certain ways--maybe Mamet is commenting on one faction of Americana--on the desire to pair down life to essential scripts and commandments. Or, on the leadership of our current emperor, who, like Leonides, sent too few men into battle. Unlike Leonides, he didn't go with them. Like Leonides, who went in because an oracle told him that for Sparta to be saved a Spartan king would have to die in battle, Bush may be doing it for partially religious reasons--to bring about the end of days, which some reports have him believing in literally. Unlike Leonides, Bush isn't there to give courage to his troops, with words like at breakfast like "Eat well, for tonight we shall be dining in Hades." But, who can blame him. I mean, Iraq is a dangerous place to be. He's only visited once, right?
In my investigations into Sparta and Leonidas, I couldn't find one reference to him sending one man to a neighboring state. Ironically, since I was using Google among other means as a research tool, I found lots of movie reviewers talking about why Mamet named the movie as he did by quoting or paraphrasing him, and in some way then reinforcing this story. None of them went deeper and found the actual citation from where this story was taken. It's easy to find mention of Leonidas (using Google to search old world texts, which are nearly all online, at Project Gutenberg's site, for instance, just use the term "site:gutenberg.org leonidas"--although a decent summary is at wikipedia). Given that I'm not as well read as I should be to argue these points, is it possible that the legend is apocryphal? I've found fleeting references to the legend on other sites, but none tie it to Leonidas, and absolutely none give a source.
Better clues might be found in some of the names of the characters. If Mamet meant any connection between Bush and the fictional president, it might be interesting that the President's daughter in this movie shares a name with the the real-world president's wife. The name Laura also comes from Laurel, the wreath that Roman's would place on returning victors--that may have more play itself. It's the last name, though, that gives us the greatest connection to the title. In our modern world, when you think of Newton--and since this is the internet it's worth saying that I'm not referring to Apple computer's PDA or figs--you think of gravity and apples. When you think of apples in mythology or stories, you think of Eris. You do, don't you?
Eris, the goddess of discord who was angry having not been invited to a wedding, sought her revenge by creating chaos. She tossed a golden apple into the wedding inscribed with "kallisti" or, "to the prettiest one." When Aphrodite, Hera and Athena wouldn't stop bickering over who the apple belonged to, Zeus fingered Paris to pick one. Athena offered him great battle skills, Hera offered him political power, and Aphrodite offered him the most beautiful woman in the world. Smart man, Paris--he gave the apple to Aphrodite, who told him to marry Helen. Problem was, Helen was married to Menelaus, the king of Sparta, and when he went and fetched her that whole damn Trojan War started. So, do we have the emperor's daughter representing chaos here? That's a metaphor that neatly fits into the textual plot--as in, why they would want to get rid of her in the first place.
So--in the end, what do we know? Well, the journey is the destination--the research was the pleasure for me. I certainly didn't find any concrete bunker of meaning below the the action of the film, but maybe it wasn't supposed to be so. Maybe it's supposed to be like the memory of a bad dream you can't quite place. When you wake, you have the fright lingering in your flesh, but only an image or two pops through to your conscious mind. The subtext is like that to me.
I'd like to hear what other people say. Disagree? Agree? Think there is more there? Do share. Don't be a stranger.
Mamet interview on Sparta:
Sam Raimi is great. On the interviews disk he talks about why super hero movies are important. He says--as Aunt May also says in the film--that super-heroes are important to young boys, and they should be good examples. Peter Parker arguing with himself about moral issues is important as an example to youngsters on the moral issues they will face themselves.
While much of our modern society, with its airs of danger, its feelings of uncertainty, its media-hyped mega-heroes (often assigned such value because of either political agenda, or proximity to tragedy), I like that he has something simple to say about the hero myth and idea. Kids love super-heroes for a reason, and for that very reason Raimi takes his job very seriously. Good for him.
It shows in the film, and that's one of the things that gives the Spider-man films the heart that is missing from other adaptations. Not to mention that any guy who shows up in a suit to work on a film every day as a show of respect to Alfred Hitchcock, but mostly to his crew has to be admired.
My favorite moment is still the hospital room blood-bath, on which second viewing I realized was devoid of blood. The fingernails of the nurse digging into the floor were enough to get the spine chilled, though.
Also, it's nice to see a female protagonist stand up on her own, and basically say "if you're not with me, I'm going on with my life." and then saying "It's not up to you to protect me, it's up to myself to decide if I expose myself to that danger." I'll be curious to see how they play that in SM3.
Props again to the inestimable Alfred Molina, for making Doc Oct such a tragic character. I hope he climbs his way out of the river for a return appearance. Props also to the SFX team for making the fights so explosive. They felt animated, but they also felt right. And exciting--I'm sure I'd be happy to watch them again.
What I used to dislike about Spider-Man as a kid (his teenager/young adult pathos--I preferred the X-Men melodrama) I love about him as an adult, and fits well with movie story telling. Let's hope Raimi pulls off the trifecta, and the 2000s will be the era were filmmakers can make three good films in a row (on our side: LOTR. Against us: Matrix & Star Wars).
I'm a lifelong fan of the Pink Panther movies, as well as a lifelong fan of Peter Sellers, my favorite actor from when I was a kid. Brilliant slapstick in this, including the perfect parallel bars gag.
Watched at Dave and Molly's after a treacherous drive through icy Bellingham. Great cameo by Omar Shariff. What more can you say? Blake Edwards delivers it just about every time.
NOTE: I'm adding the year now to the title of my movies.
I couldn't quip about it last time about it last time, but this time I just say words that make us all laugh, and laugh, and laugh, and laugh: Socialized Medicine.
HaHaHaHa. Silly Canadians. They're lucky we allow them to live on the same continent with us.
One would think they could have tried a bit harder for a title the parody porn producers would have at least had to think about.
They could have donated that printer to a fix-it-man training shop. THAT would've stuck it to the man.
The City of Lost Children who kill their mothers and revel in the gore. In space.
Never underestimate the power of blue eyeshadow.
In space, nobody can hear your budgets increasing on sequels based on gross profits.
I tried to find this movie on vinyl, but all the fucking dj's are hoarding it.