Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

22 June 2012

Sizzling in the Southern Sun: Cool Hand Luke Revisited

I don't know if this happens to all film lovers or if it's just a sign of some character flaw in myself, but of late my passion for the movies has waned a bit. I suspect/hope that it is just part of a more general need to step back and chill at the end of a long academic year and that my mojo will return soon enough. I simply haven't felt much like watching (or writing about) movies. I've been catching up on some favorite TV shows, watching entire seasons of Treme, Mad Men, and Foyle's War, but not many movies. In preparation for writing about Goodbye Solo, i did watch Taste of Cherry (1997) and Umberto D (1952): two great movies, though admittedly, watching them was like tossing ice cubes on the already sputtering fires of my joie de vivre. I also finally watched Red Desert (1964), which arrived from Netflix in April and sat on top of the DVD player until early June (not a very economical use of a Netflix subscription, to be sure). I admired it greatly in that way that we recognize and admire great works of art in a museum, where there are guards and alarm systems to ensure that we stand at a safe distance: no running your fingers along the textured surface of a painting, no standing a half-inch away to inhale its scent, no holding your tongue to it to taste the paint. I confess that at least in part what was ailing me was the need for something a little more visceral. 

And this past Wednesday night i found it. We've gotten so accustomed to having movies available to us all the time and in such a dizzying array of formats, that it's sometimes hard to remember the sheer visual impact of seeing a movie like Cool Hand Luke (1967) in all its technicolor splendor on the big screen. But last night i had the opportunity to revisit that pleasure -- and got a nice reminder of the kind of films that started my love affair with the movies in the first place. I sometimes get so caught up in art house and indy films that i forget what a great and beautiful machine Hollywood in its heyday could be. If i were going to get all film scholarly on you, i could talk all about the homoerotics and Jesus-metaphors in Cool Hand Luke, but i'm not going to. I'm going to talk about heat. Everything in this movie is hot, with the obvious exception of the title character with his unflappable sense of cool and his iceberg blue eyes. Those eyes and that sudden flash of a smile are the cool center around which the rest of the film seems to swelter. Paul Newman, well, Paul Newman was hot long before Paris Hilton turned the word into a meaningless cliche. Paul Newman was a beautiful man, and this movie never for a moment lets us forget that. 

Cool Hand Luke is one of the most embodied movies ever to come out of Hollywood, filled with bare-chested men sweating in the southern sun, lusting after a rustic Lolita in an unforgettable car-washing porn parody, even offering a few glimpses of exposed male posteriors that remind us what a watershed year 1967 was in its gleeful smashing of the rules of the Production Code. But male tushies and naughty girls washing dirty cars were not the only ways in which Cool Hand Luke broke the rules of classic Hollywood filmmaking. The heat in the film is not solely or even primarily due to the presence of all those sex-starved, sweaty men. The real Prometheus here, stealing fire from the gods and putting it on the movie screen, is Conrad Hall, cinematographer extraordinaire. Connie Hall was a visionary who used the "mistake" of letting the sunlight flare the camera lens to great effect, making the men on the chain gang seem ready to burst into flames like hapless ants being incinerated on a sunny sidewalk by some juvenile sociopath with a magnifying glass. In the decades since the release of Cool Hand Luke, we've become so accustomed to the use of lens flares as part of a film's visual rhetoric that it's hard to remember that this technique was once such a startling way of shooting a scene. But even today, our jaded 21st century sensibilities are no match for the scorching heat of Connie Hall's camerawork. 

Postscript: The documentary Visions of Light (1992), an invaluable source of information about the  cinematographer's art, contains this interview with Conrad Hall in which he discusses his iconoclastic approach to his craft. The first minute shows a few clips from Cool Hand Luke that demonstrate the powerful impact of the use of lens flares in the film. 

06 June 2012

Happy Birthday, Tattered Film Palace!

I started this blog one year ago today as a way of combatting an extended case of writer's block by writing about one of the things i love most in this life. Have i succeeded? Who knows? The writer's block has subsided though not disappeared, as the sporadic appearance of new posts and my often lengthy silences will attest. 

The writing has been fun, and has not occurred entirely in a vacuum: the stats confirm that i have at least a few readers (as well as a few hits from spam and phishing expeditions). The biggest surprise has been seeing which posts are the most popular. Thanks to the amazing and very kind Monte Hellman, who liked what i had to say about his film Road to Nowhere and posted a link to my blog on his Facebook page, that post got a lot of traffic. Getting a shout-out from one of America's most iconic directors was the high point of my blogging year.

Surprisingly though, that wasn't the most popular post. That honor goes to my entry on Black Narcissus. Who would have thought that an old classic like that one, released sixty-five years ago, would still grab so much attention? Judging by how many of the hits on that entry come from spots all over the globe, i like to flatter myself that my critique of white actresses in brown face has been the source of at least some of the interest. Unfortunately, i suspect that the post has also left at least some readers disappointed; those would be the people who were directed to my site through Google searches of terms like "nubile Indian girls" and "erotic nuns." Seriously. 

The one aspect of this experience that has been a little frustrating is the lack of feedback from my readers. I'm really curious about who is visiting this blog and whether anyone has actually watched a movie as a result of reading it. I haven't decided whether or not to continue writing it, or if i do, whether to change the direction in some way ... maybe plot summaries in rhyming couplets or haikus about cinematography. At any rate, thank you for reading my blog, i hope you've enjoyed it.

05 June 2012

The Immigrant Tales of Ramin Bahrani, Pt. 3: Goodbye Solo

In his first two feature films (Man Push Cart and Chop Shop), writer/director Ramin Bahrani explores the difficult life of the displaced and marginalized in New York City. For his third film, Goodbye Solo (2008), Bahrani moves the setting to his hometown of Winston-Salem and the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. Along with the change in location, there is a marked change in tone in this film; despite its exploration of serious themes like loneliness and suicide, a feeling of hope permeates the film, largely due to the warmth and optimism of the central character, Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), an immigrant from Senegal who works as a cabdriver but aspires to a career as a flight attendant.

The film focuses on the unlikely and uneasy friendship between Solo and one of his passengers, a bitter and isolated elderly man named William (Red West). William is gruff and taciturn, every year of a tough life etched into his face; Solo is a large-hearted and gregarious man who seems to know everyone in Winston-Salem. The film opens with Solo and William in the cab discussing the latter's offer to pay Solo $1,000 to drive him to the peak of Blowing Rock (pictured above) in the near future. It is clear that William is planning to commit suicide there, and Solo sets himself the task of saving William's life by breaking through his self-imposed isolation. He arranges things so that every time William calls for a cab, he will be the one to show up; thus he sees how William is methodically getting his affairs in order: selling his apartment, closing his bank account, and returning night after night to the same movie theater, where each time he exchanges a few words with the kid in the ticket booth, never revealing to the boy that he is his grandfather. 

Solo is a generous man: generous with his time, his possessions, his affections, and his words. He's a nonstop talker, shifting effortlessly (sometimes mid-sentence) between English, French, and Wolof. In contrast, William's words are few and seem to erupt only out of his anger and need to keep others at bay, rather than from any desire to communicate. The differences in the two men seem to go beyond their individual personalities, and speak to larger issues of culture. While Solo is well-acculturated into American life, there are aspects of this culture that baffle him, especially the lack of community exemplified by William's solitary life. Early in the film, he questions why William does not return to his family rather than living in a seedy motel room. "Yo, why families don't stay together in America?" he asks. In Africa, he tells him, "Families stay together, man. We take care of our parents, our old people." Later, when Solo and his wife argue, he asks William if he can stay with him for a few days. William responds that his place is too small for the two of them, but Solo jokingly replies, "This place is huge, man. In Africa ten people can sleep in here." Even when William relents, he does so in the most negative terms, growling at Solo: "Stay out of my stuff! Keep your shit over there and leave me alone!" William's life is defined by a carefully maintained set of boundaries between himself and everyone else. In contrast, Solo rejects the very notion of such boundaries; for him, life is a shared experience. 

What saves Goodbye Solo from becoming a trite sort of Driving Mr. Daisy is the richness and complexity of Solo's life and the lack of easy solutions to the problems confronting William. Solo doesn't exist simply so that he can magically give meaning to the life of this angry old white man, although he tries his best to help him. But of the two, Solo's life is the one we see in the most detail and complexity: the immigrant with dreams of a better job and a better life, the married man going through a bumpy patch with his wife as they await the birth of their first child, the loving step-father assuring his step-daughter that he will always remain a part of her life. We know little of William's past because he refuses to share it. The only detail he divulges is that he had a wife who left him thirty years earlier. We don't know why. Solo's every attempt to find out more about William's past is rejected; his attempts to bring William into his own life meet with only a small level of success. There are moments when Solo's relentless good humor breaks through William's reserve, as in a scene that takes place after William has spent the night with Solo's family. But those moments are so brief and so likely to be followed by a violent retreat into his carefully guarded privacy that they never approach the kind of feel-good, happy resolution that would undermine the integrity of this story of a tough, sad man. Ultimately though, this is not William's story so much as Solo's, and in the film's final moments shot amid the brilliant autumn colors of the Blue Ridge Mountains, we know that for Solo life will go on. Maybe he'll succeed, maybe he won't, but he'll live a life filled with people and stories to share.

For more information on Goodbye Solo, visit the official site.

View the official trailer here.

Postscript: I would be remiss if i ended this post without saying a bit more about Red West, the actor who portrays William in the film. In a departure from Bahrani's usual casting of non-professional actors, his choice here is a man with experience with a capital "E." Though not a top-rung movie star with a familiar name and face, West has been in show business for over fifty years. A personal friend and bodyguard to Elvis (yes, that Elvis) Presley, West has also had an extensive career as a stuntman and character actor. Here's a link to an article about him that accompanied the film's opening in his hometown of Memphis. His portrayal of a man who finds nothing left to live for in Goodbye Solo is a powerful one, and his face   -- ah, what a face! -- makes me wish i were a sculptor. 

Red West (rt.) with Elvis, 1973 - © 1978 Gary Lewis.

Red West in Goodbye Solo © 2008 Lions Gate  


01 June 2012

The Immigrant Tales of Ramin Bahrani, Pt. 2: Chop Shop (2007)

In Ramin Bahrani's second feature, Chop Shop (2007), he again explores life on the margins of the American Dream, this time focusing on Ale (Alejandro Polanco), a tough Dominican street kid, trying to look after himself and his older sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzalez) in a gritty corner of New York City.

The influence of Italian Neorealism is as strong here as in Bahrani's earlier film, Man Push Cart (2005). The opening scene, in which Ale stands with a group of men on the side of a highway hoping to pick up a day's labor, immediately invites comparison to the beginning of Bicycle Thieves (1948), where a large crowd of men vie for the few available jobs offered to them. The New York of Chop Shop has much in common with the Rome of Bicycle Thieves. There's no hint here of the New York in the tourist brochures: no Times Square, no horse-drawn carriages in Central Park. The iconic Manhattan skyline appears only briefly in the opening scene, obscured by smog and foregrounded by rusting fuel tanks. The only enduring hint of New York's grandeur is Shea Stadium glowing in the distance. Like Mussolini's soccer stadium in Bicycle Thieves, Shea Stadium is off limits to Ale and his friend Carlos, and the source of temptation. It is the place where people with money go to enjoy themselves, a place where a poor boy might be tempted to steal a hubcap or a purse. By night the streets of Ale's New York are desolate and dark; by day, dirty and chaotic. 
The Willets Point setting of Chop Shop with Shea Stadium in the background dominating the scene.

Rather than romanticizing or heroicizing young Ale as a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, latter-day Horatio Alger, the narrative structure of Chop Shop emphasizes the repetitive tedium of the struggle to get by day-to-day, similar to the recurring scenes of Ahmad pulling his cart through the rainy Manhattan streets in Man Push Cart. Ale's attempts at progress, at making a better life for himself and his sister, come to naught in the brutal world that they inhabit. Yet, there is something very heroic in this skinny kid who has taken on the challenges of adulthood without the adult guidance or the experience to succeed. His mentors, such as they are, are tough men who treat Ale, not like the little boy he is, but like someone who needs to pull his own weight in a dog-eat-dog world. One of those mentors is Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi), the protagonist of  Man Push Cart. We don't get a lot of detail about how he ended up here, but for those who recognize him from the earlier film, it is clear that Ahmad has fallen a few rungs in his own pursuit of the American Dream and lost some of what was best in himself along the way. No longer a melancholy figure selling coffee and bagels to sleepy midtown office workers, he's become hardened and cynical, making his living as a chop shop operator and part-time pimp. 

Isamar and Ale inspect their newly purchased food truck.

A huge sign on the side of the stadium seems to be directed specifically at Ale, urging him to "Make Dreams Happen." Ale's dream is a simple enough one: to buy a lunch wagon so that he and his sister can support themselves. He sees the broken-down van with a child's eyes as filled with potential and only needing a little superficial cleaning and painting to make customers want to flock to it. As he and Isamar playfully argue over what color to paint the outside of the truck, it is Ahmad who points out how ludicrous this dream is. In a moment that confirms for the viewer that this is in fact the same Ahmad as in Man Push Cart,  he alludes to his past experience in the food cart business, explaining to Ale that the equipment in the truck he's bought is hopelessly deteriorated and that it would cost another $10,000 before it could pass the health inspection. Ahmad doesn't try to soften the blow: he calls Ale stupid for agreeing to buy the truck on an as-is basis and then offers to buy it off him for less than 1/4 of what he paid for it. Eventually we see Ale literally dismantling his dream as he helps Ahmad to strip the truck down for scrap. 

The character of Ale calls to mind another Neorealist classic, Shoeshine (1946), and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Bahrani was influenced by that film's similar treatment of the sad impossibility of innocence and dreams for children in a nation devastated by war and economic hardship. Ale is a child who struggles quixotically to protect and provide for his adored big sister. With a child's imagination, he  envisions their stark room above the garage as a real home, a place where there is always plenty of soda pop and microwave popcorn. He has seen enough to knowingly quote the price of a blow-job and offer to buy one for his best friend, but is devastated when he recognizes that the young woman performing that act on a truck driver is his sister. There's no real place for a child in Ale's world, and over the course of the film we see this skinny and industrious kid lose the light in his eyes, and we wonder if it is inevitable that this world will change him in the way that it has changed Ahmad. 

There is no happy ending, but Chop Shop ends on an ambiguous note that suggests a reconciliation between Ale and Isamar. The final shot shows pigeons taking off across the sky, and for this viewer at least, Ale is a lot like those pigeons: tough, resilient, adaptable, and capable of moments of grace.

Watch the official trailer here.