Wednesday, June 30, 2010

White Dog (Samuel Fuller, 1982)

White Dog marks my third Fuller film because of my impulsive desire to see why there seems to be such a divide between the generally negative reaction to it I’ve observed among acquaintances and the overwhelmingly positive appraisals of it by several critics I greatly respect. It is noted in a DVD supplement that Paramount higher-ups objected to Fuller’s nakedly intense style: energetic tracking shots, crosscutting between extreme close-ups, and several low angles (not to mention how Fuller incorporates contemporary slow motion into his typically explosive style). I can only imagine, had the film been properly released, how much of a stir his technique would have caused in a period in Hollywood cinema I generally regard as tepid and conservative, descriptives that can also be applied to the country's political climate (Fuller himself remarked that Reagan and the Republicans had American morality by the balls, and the film’s censorship is one of the most egregious examples of pressure group intervention).

White Dog to some seems like a no-brainer anti-racist film, a view no doubt enforced by Fuller’s blunt dialogue and metaphors, but I found it absolutely brutal. Comparing Fuller’s treatments of racism in both this film and The Steel Helmet, the latter attacks it on both a national and distantly personal level while the former concentrates its critique into something more primal and readily identifiable. The corruption of what we never fail to understand is an innocent and pitiable creature, or, more abstractly, nature as a whole, is possibly the most incisive dramatization of the ills of forcefully embedded racism because it so aptly and simply cuts through any apologetic nonsense about racism being a natural phenomenon. Whatever the common criticisms are against the film’s datedness, overacting or exploitation stylistics, Fuller’s uncanny skill at splicing together a streamlined performance for the titular German Shepherd so that we comprehend in its visage a reflection of humanity’s vices undeniably compensates for, and greatly transcends, these petty grievances.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Out of the Blue (Dennis Hopper, 1980)

I don’t know all that much about punk, but I’ll be damned if there’s a better movie about it than Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue, a harrowing film about a rebellious youth named Cebe (Linda Manz) whose alcoholic father (Hopper) is soon to be released from prison after a traffic collision that killed several children and whose misguided optimism for familial security withers and dies with his destructive behavior and the resurgence of repressed memories of abuse she suffered as a child. She recoils into herself as the film careens forward, not unlike the semi we see crashing into the school bus at the film's start, erupting in a blazing ball of nihilistic self-destruction. The grungy locations and use of non-actors imbue the film with a flashbulb cultural and historical relevance and Manz is such an affective performer that even the most conventional scenes—a counselor played by Raymond Burr lecturing Cebe on her delinquent behavior—are worth crying over. The film is so brutal that any proposed solution looks like childish didacticism in comparison to the real-life horrors of Cebe’s walled-in life and the final, fatalistic stab at punk poeticism achieves an elegiac inevitability that manages to transcend both manufactured defeatism and logical nonsensicality in how sadly perfect it is.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Lusty Men (Nicholas Ray, 1952)

In The Lusty Men, Nicholas Ray anticipates the concise metaphor of the chicken run in Rebel Without a Cause with an entire two hours worth of suspense over a character’s choice to either jump early or ride to the death. It’s the fatalistic masculine ritual of the rodeo, and Ray explores it from several angles—thrill-seeking as metaphysical rush, danger-seeking as a quick route to fame and profit, and glory-seeking as male self-absorption. Robert Mitchum plays Jeff McCloud, a washed up rodeo star who partners up with Wes Merritt, played by Arthur Kennedy, a ranch-hand eager to make it big as a rodeo star himself. Susan Hayward plays his wife, Louise, in one of the most touching, understated female performances I’ve ever seen. Just about the only clearly thinking character the whole way through, Louise embodies Ray’s feminist leanings in her sympathetic foiling against the absurdity of macho ritualism. Ray never misses an opportunity to expose Wes for his misogynistic hypocrisy, lashing out at Jeff for mooching off his winnings while failing to acknowledge his own thankless dependence on his wife’s assumed domesticity and pleasuring himself with nightclub women without a blow to his conscience before hostilely confronting Jeff for kissing his wife.

If Wes is a brutish fame-seeker who becomes delusional about his rodeo skills and gambles away his winnings, then Jeff is harder to pin down, a wistful, tired-out man who exemplifies the lightly glimmering romance of the rodeo-circuit with all his failures behind him and who, like Dixon Steele and Jim Stark, desires some sort of family. He is seen at the beginning trekking in long shot through a rodeo graveyard and soon after goes to his childhood home in search of old belongings. It is one of my favorite Mitchum performances, confident and fragile and plaintive, and the ways Ray uses his depth of space to place him in various approximations to the other characters—triangularly in the context of Wes and Louise’s marriage and diametrically with Wes, his relationship to either ever in flux—gives the film an enrapturing formalism. The broader, poetic undertones erupt full-force when Jeff’s hard, masking exterior is shed to reveal his selfless, romantic motives and he rides off to a grand finish in a final spurt of his former glory—a heroic sacrifice, a tragic ode to what could have been between him and Louise, and a grand assertion of immortality.

“There never was a bronc that couldn't be rode, there never a cowboy that couldn't be throwed. Guys like me last forever.”