Monday, March 31, 2008

Christopher Walken: genetically predisposed to imbalance?

Christopher Walken has this condition called heterochromia iridis. His screen presence is typically described as unbalanced: does this uneven distribution of pigment in the irises, resulting in his two different coloured eyes, one blue, one hazel, hold the key to his uncanny, singular abilities with convincingly embodying unbalanced characters? 

I think through my mental catalogue of images of Walken on screen, and he's never grounded, never standing evenly and calmly on both feet. He bounces and sways. He's a compulsive dancer. His speech patterns are never what you could describe as evenly measured. He likes to throw in a little surprise emphasis or spike the end of a sentence. He's a master of catching you off guard, and when combined with a sense of vulnerability and tenderness, such as in the scene where he tells Isabelle Huppert about his wallpaper (one of my all time favourites) shortly before his violent death, or when he utters his final words to Brooke Adams after Geza Kovacs plugs him full of lead, the outcome is unusually touching, always odd, and arguably unlike anything else in movies. 

Walken turns 65 today. He looks fit, agile like a man half his age, still plowing indiscriminently through several dubious projects. I understand he's supposed to play Ozzy Osbourne in some movie about Mötley Crüe. He seems like he could go on like this forever. I'm confident that there are still great roles ahead, but either way he's still so enjoyable in the lousy ones.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

From the Fox vaults: not quite noir, but noir enough

On the back cover of every disc in the Fox Noir series is a serviceable, quickie definition of the noir genre/style/cycle. In the case of the three latest additions, this definition seems to exist primarily to convince the prospective buyer/viewer that the titles in question really do belong under the noir umbrella. In fact none of these films would ever pass as anything like a noir avatar, yet in each, to varying degrees, we’re able to trace a sort of dialogue with noir, and their noir elements tend to comprise their most enduring aspects.

Though directed by Otto Preminger, who helmed several prototypical noirs of the classier ilk for Fox, including the masterpiece Laura (1944), the genre that best fits Daisy Kenyon (47) is something we used to call the women’s picture. The story, adapted by David Hertz from Elizabeth’s Janeway’s novel, concerns an independent single career woman –played with unusual charisma by Joan Crawford– torn between two equally precarious suitors. Though its final moment is arguably compromised, this is above all a movie about female self-actualization, though lingering within its peripheries, both figuratively and literally, are dark shadows that imbue it with deep intrigue and considerable psychological complexity.

The frankness with which the film’s themes are addressed is conveyed in the first scenes, which evoke Daisy’s love life as a virtual revolving door. Her long-time boyfriend Dan (Dana Andrews), a hot-shot lawyer, married and father to two girls, leaves her apartment just as Peter (Henry Fonda), a veteran, widower and Daisy’s date for the night, shows up. Too sophisticated to put on macho airs, the men kid one and other about their rivalry while exchanging a taxi. Daisy adores Dan –Andrews is a wonderfully understated, effortlessly seductive actor– but the chances of him leaving his wife feel pathetically slim. Daisy’s strangely drawn to Peter, yet he’s clearly, as Daisy herself describes him, “a little unstable.” Haunted by his wartime experiences abroad –a major noir theme– and uncomfortable with what seems a hollow optimism at home, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, able to switch with alarming quickness from amiability to brooding despair. Their first date ends with one of the most disturbing declarations of love I’ve ever seen, desire and resentment spookily commingling in Fonda’s visage before he turns away from Daisy without farewell to walk back into the tranquil night.

Repressed sexuality, child abuse, racism, divorce, death and capitalism’s disenfranchised victims –these themes loom large over Daisy Kenyon, while the marvelous cast and Preminger, with his clean, cool, actor-driven style, engagingly maintain the centrality of their very adult love triangle, an emotionally palpable drama with no clear outcome. In his informative and otherwise insightful commentary track, historian Foster Hirsch claims that Crawford, 42 at the time, was too old for the part –yet this is precisely what I felt most drawn to in the story, what seemed most touching, the urgency that arises from people no longer young yet still desperate for love. If Daisy Kenyon starred an ingénue, I don’t believe it would possess the same layering, maturity and elegance.

The desperation of adult love also features prominently in Dangerous Crossing (53), a thriller so initially draped in mystery and sinister confusion as to evoke David Lynch. A woman (Jeanne Crain) boards a ship with her very new husband, only to lose him just as they set sail and thereafter have the entire crew deny the fact that the couple were ever even registered as passengers. As directed by Jopseh M. Newman, there's a pleasing emphasis of atmospherics, The camera swoops a lot, the foghorn moans a lot. The phone rings –but her husband has time only to tell her to trust no one. She becomes hysterical. Is she nuts and the whole prelude an unreliably subjective detour, or is some conspiracy being exacted? The only ones sympathetic to her claims are a delightful cougar, played by Marjorie Hoshelle, and the ship’s doctor, played by the same weird guy who played the wise alien Klaatu from The Day the Earth Stood Still (51), so we already know nobody’s going to believe him. Where it all finally goes is, unsurprisingly I guess, not as textured and creepy as the set-up might promise, but the getting there’s still pretty fun.

Set within the milieu of the New York theatre elite, Black Widow (54) was, for its time, as shockingly casual about adultery as Daisy Kenyon. While, disappointingly, it culminates with the sort of drawing room kangaroo court whodunit that is the very antithesis of noir, the film overall is characterized by nicely shaded performances and a seething corruption that infects most of the characters. Broadway producer Peter Denver (Van Heflin) begins his allegedly platonic relationship with nubile aspiring writer Nancy Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner, who, oddly enough, played one of Dana Andrews' daughters in Daisy Kenyon) while his stunningly gorgeous actress wife (Gene Tierney) is out of town. When upon his wife’s return Nancy turns up dead in his own home, Peter naturally becomes a prime suspect.

Though director Nunnally Johnson seemed constrained by the dictates of the then-new Cinemascope frame, Black Widow’s dominant aesthetic is suitably theatrical in flavour, if at times awkwardly so, with scenes playing out in large spaces with a minimum of cuts. It’s richest by far when still leading up to the resolution, when it’s still difficult to know who to trust and violence seems always on the verge of erupting. Heflin, who also starred in the superb noir Act of Violence (48), was so skilled, and had such an odd sort of star persona -the large head, the broad face, the round, mesmerizing eyes, the often slack jaw, the paternal ease with which he can take control of a situation, or wrap his arm around a young woman's neck- that his contribution to Black Widow is especially significant: even when we know he’s the hero, he can still kind of give us the creeps.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Stop-Loss: Good ol' boys gone bad, courtesy of the red, white and blue

Whisking us from a nail-biting ambush in a Tikrit alleyway to drunken punch-ups deep in the heart of Texas, the first act of Stop-Loss wisely sets a tone of visceral urgency right off the top. For all its emphasis on matters of immediate political import, this is not a film that benefits whatsoever from slowing things down or getting too contemplative. Often awkward in its storytelling yet commendably sincere and suitably messy, Stop-Loss packs a solid emotional whollop even while it dances around an issue at once timely and, perhaps as a result, irresolvable.

A group of pals, first seen singing Toby Keith’s moronically patriotic country anthem in lumbering unison, return home from a tour in Iraq, the whole lot of them destined for a wicked blanket diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. Their façade of ass-kicking bravado swiftly slips away to reveal a grotesque grimace of fear and guilt. Their superior actually needs to command them not to beat their wives and kids while on leave –for all the good it does. These good ol’ boys gone bad waste no time going ballistic, ending their celebratory return home by busting up the living room and using the wedding presents given to an already destroyed couple for pissed-up target practice out on the ranch.

Immediately after being awarded a purple heart at the end of what was to be his second and final tour, Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) is unexpectedly ordered to return for a third go-round, bound by a legal loophole referred to as a stop-loss, which allows the US military to send soldiers back in a time of war. King points out that the President already publicly stated that the Iraq War is over, but his insurgent reasoning does him no favours when dealing with shouting jarheads all to aware that the numbers of volunteer enlistees are way, way down. Sent to the stockade to think things over, King soon goes AWOL, hitting the road with his best friend’s girl (Abbie Cornish, superb, an din her quiet way the heart of the movie) in the hope of finding a friendly authority figure who can help him wriggle out of going beyond the call of duty.

Stop-Loss is the fist feature to be directed by Kimberly Pierce since Boys Don’t Cry, her lauded debut from nine years back. Stop-Loss shares its predecessor’s deft handling of regional folk –she neither sentimentalizes or takes pot shots at small town Texans– but its script isn’t nearly as focused. Written by Pierce and Mark Richard, the film fumbles with corny flashbacks, boilerplate dialogue and too many overwrought scenes where the characters, otherwise defined by their inability to articulate their inner turmoil, announce the themes to us rather than evoke them. Yet somehow, these deficiencies never entirely get in the way of the film’s integrity or vigour. There isn’t enough artistry, poetry or perspective here to make this The Deer Hunter for our era, but there is a huge commitment to conveying the raw, fresh wreckage of lives fucked-up by senseless violence, and that’ll do just fine before one comes along.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Some thoughts on Jimmy Stewart, perverts, the mysteries of arm acting, and what, should it need repeating, is still one of the all time greats

The name of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s novel upon which Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) was based is D’entre les morts. As splendid as Hitchcock’s title was, an accurate description of the condition which afflicts both the film’s protagonist and its unsuspecting audience, Boileau and Narcejac’s evoking of the charnel house with the best-whispered words From Among the Dead so exquisitely capture the tone of what must be one of the most genuinely morbid movies ever to come out of Hollywood.

Curiously, Vertigo is also arguably among the best movies ever made, period, its goulishness absolutely matched by a sublime level of craftsmanship on display. From Saul Bass’ incisive opening credit sequence, text slashing across a looming eye like some sly wink to Buñuel's surgery in Un chien andalou (29), through the desperate, white knuckled roof-jumping prelude, through the unfolding of the haunted attraction of acrophobic detective ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart) to doomed beauty Madeline Elster (Kim Novak) and the helpless, headlong tumble into psychological and moral collapse that follows, Hitchcock and company place us under a long, fevered trance, incited by Robert Burks’ pulsating Technicolor photography and guided by Bernard Hermann’s score, a thrilling, complex work of art in its own right, punctuated by those tremendous foghorn blasts from the netherworld.

This Sunday, the kind folks at Edmonton's Metro Cinema will screen Vertigo along with Hitchcock’s other most revered collaboration with Stewart, Rear Window (54), a movie that when placed in virtually any other double feature would be considered the residing masterpiece. A murder mystery involving a wheelchair-bound photographer spying on his neighbours, it is in fact more fun than Vertigo while still playfully incorporating similarly obscure impulses into its narrative, this time casting Stewart as a voyeur rather than a necrophile.

For all the praise rightfully heaped on both of these films, it’s often been suggested that Stewart was a poor choice for such shadowy, morose material. This proposal has been articulated most recently by Devin McKinney in the current issue of The Believer, where he argues that Henry Fonda should have played Scottie, for a variety of reasons both attributed to his talents and his tragic personal life. Yet watching his performances you get the sense that Hitchcock found something irresistibly delicious in subverting Stewart’s iconic wholesomeness and peculiarly American optimism into a weary façade disguising a catalogue of repressed perversions. Indeed, there are moments in Vertigo where Stewart's relative blankness of expression appears to me not as an actor's resignation to material beyond his abilities, but as a sort of mask, a defense against a mounting inner horror. Whether or not this was Stewart's intention finally matters little -the effect is striking, even with repeated viewing.

(Admittedly, while his face gives me no problems, I have always wondered about the weird way Stewart's arms always seem to be dangling limply in Vertigo, always functioning primarily from the elbow down. There should be a special study done on the arm acting of American movie stars, and it should begin by analyzing the bizarre poses Bogart holds every time he gets up in The Petrified Forest (33). He holds his arms stiffly, elbows-out, like he's in traction or something. Don't get me wrong, I adore Bogey in the film, but really, what the hell is with that?)

Likewise, Novak is admittedly not of the same elevated stature of many of Hitchcock’s stars. Yet (and I say this with, you know, respect) the whiff of trashiness that lingers around her persona, especially -and purposefully- apparent in Vertigo’s second half, is so utterly perfect for conveying the banal horror inherent in the story, the pathos of Scottie's need to project his fantasy upon her, that I can’t imagine anyone else in the role, especially the lovely and elegant Grace Kelly, Stewart’s love interest in Rear Window.

When regarding films as rich and obsessed over as these, film-lovers can of course debate the balance of merits, deficiencies and accidents endlessly. What’s absolutely essential is that you see these films, especially on the big screen, where the spell they cast takes full effect. Don’t miss your chance.

The Band's Visit: Tons of loneliness, rendered ever so lightly

Dressed from cap to pant cuff in a spotless powder blue rarely seen these days outside of baby pajamas and vintage tuxedos, an all-male group of mostly older Egyptian musicians, practitioners of a classical style that’s entered its cultural twilight, arrive in Israel, where they’re booked to perform a modest concert. Confused, and suffering a serious linguistic handicap, they mean to go to one town and accidentally wind up in another, one so sleepy it’s practically inert. Mid-day, its citizenry are found catatonically propped up on chairs in front of what may very well be the only café. With no means of transportation available until the following day, the musicians, entirely dependent on the kindness of these locals, have no choice but to spend the night.

The café proprietor is Dina (the terrifically vivacious Ronit Elkabetz), an almond-eyed knockout divorcée somewhere in the neighbourhood of 40 who tends to survey everything with a baldly sexy, cockeyed skepticism, often with one hand on her hip. She feeds the group, then arranges accommodations for them all. With considerable, hormone-fuelled persistence, she talks the impossible gentlemanly, droopy-nosed bandleader Lieutenant-colonel Tawfiq Zacharya (Sasson Gabai) out for a night on the town. Haled (Saleh Bakri), the band’s youngest and most subordinate member and a self-styled Don Juan, meanwhile is whisked away to a cramped roller rink that serves as the town’s disco, where he plays Cyrano to a timid young nerd and his weepy blind date in a marvelous scene of purely physical comedy.

Most of the Egyptians and Israelis can at least communicate in the lingua franca of broken English –which offers a surplus of comic delights for Anglophone audiences. When Haled sings Chet Baker through Plexiglas to a pretty girl held captive in the airport’s info booth, there’s the doubled pleasure of our recognizing both the mangled spoken words and the song being sung. But central to our understanding of the scenario is the fact that everyone, to some degree, knows ‘My Funny Valentine,’ that is, they at least know the feeling, the cadence, the song’s usefulness as a seductive tool. Later, an uncomfortably assembled group huddles around a dinner table and breaks into an ensemble rendition of ‘Summertime.’ Gradually, it becomes clear that the other lingua franca spoken here is music. It can’t resolve conflicts, change anyone’s course or alleviate the banal frustrations common nearly all the characters –something one of them describes as “tons of loneliness”– but it can provide fleeting connections between strangers in the night.

The cinema of dislocation that is the melancholy-comic terrain traversed in The Band’s Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret) has found a worthy cartographer in writer/director Eran Kolirin, here making his feature debut. Previous travelers along this particular road include Aki Kaurismäki, Gus Van Sant, Wim Wenders, Sophia Coppola, Takashi Kitano and Jim Jarmusch, whose Stranger Than Paradise so emphatically subverted any exoticism once associated with the road movie a quarter century ago. The trick to charting your way through this meta-country is to light one’s gaze upon the specifics of a place while carefully rendering it not quite anywhere.
The arid Israeli backwater where the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra accidentally find themselves is imbued with a wealth of rich detail to help define it, yet it nonetheless feels like a locale that’s managed to slip off the maps: forgettable, insignificant, a footnote in a travel guide. Insignificance is of course essential to this sort of movie, which vies for its status right from the opening title card, informing us about the band’s visit before qualifying this with “not many remember this. It was not that important.”

It would be all too easy to characterize The Band’s Visit as a slavish exercise in this little dislocation subgenre, to note how it features the customarily subtle balance of cuteness and sadness while staying just a hair’s breadth away from sentimentality. The gags are deadpan, there’s a lot of walking through strange lands with luggage noisily rolling behind, plenty of your standard miscommunication via linguistic limitations, and blank Buster Keaton stares abound. All of these could be called tropes –yet any genre, however tenuously defined, has its tropes. The question is whether the tropes are displayed or discovered anew. Kolirin, with a very adult attitude toward resolution and the staying power of life’s lingering aches, manages to breathe life into these throughout. While some moments feel more vital than others, his film is genuinely unforced, genuinely sweet and man, is it funny. And very much worth a visit. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Weightless words: devices, choices, and the future of reading


Introducing Kindle™

The following, abridged text was authored by The Amazon Kindle Team: “Three years ago, we set out to design and build an entirely new class of device—a convenient, portable reading device with the ability to wirelessly download books, blogs, magazines, and newspapers. The result is Amazon Kindle…

“Thanks to electronic paper, a revolutionary new display technology, reading Kindle’s screen is as sharp and natural as reading ink on paper—and nothing like the strain and glare of a computer screen …you can be anywhere, think of a book, and get it in one minute… Newspaper subscriptions are delivered wirelessly each morning. Most magazines arrive before they hit newsstands. Haven’t read the book for tomorrow night’s book club? …Kindle delivers your spontaneous reading choices on demand.

“Kindle’s paperback size and expandable memory let you travel light with your library. With the freedom to download what you want, when you want, we hope you’ll never again find yourself stuck without a great read.”

The Illusion of Choice

I think it’s fair to say that I’m not a technophobe. Technological advancements fill me with as much wonder and excitement as they do trepidation. As a freelance writer, these days, without the internet I’d need a new profession, which is problematic since I seem to possess no other skills. And, need I add, you're reading this on a blog.

To be sure, I am by some standards a dinosaur. I covet vinyl –its weight, texture, bottom-rich sound, visual beauty, the decisive pleasure of dropping the needle– and when at home listen to it almost to exclusion of other formats. I go to the movies to sit in the dark with strangers as often as possible. I own the rather morbidly named Magic Bullet (are we meant to ponder the mysteries of the JFK assassination while we whip up our smoothies?), but I grind my pepper with mortar and pestle for no other reason than I have a really cool mortar and pestle and these smooth, well-crafted objects feel good when gripped in my hands. I’ve never downloaded a song or a movie from the internet, above all because it seems the most boring way possible to discover something new, removing all the pleasure of finding.

Yet I was the first person I knew to buy an iPod. I run in the mornings and thrive on music to keep me going. I have an obsessive need to travel light, so I was totally jazzed about not having to fit a bulky wallet of 48 CDs into my backpack anymore. I took my iPod everywhere, all the time, and always on shuffle. I became a walking advertisement for the device, enthusiastically showing it to everyone I met.

Then, without ever thinking about it, something changed. I grew tired of the sterile exercise of shifting music from CDs to my computer. When preparing for a walk, I found myself actually wanting to consider what to listen to, to walk up to my collection, take a disc from the shelf, examine the cover, remind myself of the track listing, what the packaging had to tell me. On my iPod were hundreds of songs, available through a mere finger tap, a seemingly mind-boggling selection –but I wanted to make a choice. Lately, unless I’m going for a run, if I want to move through the city with music I use my discman. A teenager in a restaurant recently asked me what it was.

The principle behind the marketing of Kindle is choice, but the choice it offers is not unlike that of a big box bookstore: contained within are a lot of books, but nothing in particular. How do you choose something from the virtual “everything” on offer? For most of us, managing the babel of infinite choice is a journey dictated by advertising, by whoever has the most money to spend. Does it make me a Luddite that I want to leave my house, enter a public space inhabited by other people, browse, maybe read a random page, linger in the aisles, maybe talk to someone who might share or understand my interests, might direct me toward some unexpected title or even engage me in conversation about a book?

The Unbearable Lightness of the Virtualization of Everything

In Denys Arcand’s
Days of Darkness, a problematic film, but one whose essential despair I find touching, the protagonist, a middle-aged family man and government employee, lives in a world where seemingly every pleasure has been compromised by a draconian conspiracy between labyrinthine bureaucracy and regulation, mindless consumerism, superficial status obsession, and technological distance. The protagonist’s only refuge lays in banal fantasy, yet in this sense he’s no different from his daughters, who when their not locked into some video game have their iPods constantly stuffed in their ears. Everyone around him is continually plugged into some electronic device that allows them to hover in a sort of fantasy realm, cut off from their immediate reality. It’s a comedy, incidentally.

Like other Arcand films, the philosophy guiding Days of Darkness reminded me of Milan Kundera, a writer with a peculiar gift for chronicling the uglification of the world. But the film’s final image made me think of John Berger’s writing, with its emphasis on attending to the sensual world. We see the protagonist sit down at a table, before him a large bowl of apples. Nearby a woman is canning preserves. The protagonist picks up an apple and begins to peel it, and the act yields a sort of quiet, modest revelation. We can smell the inner flesh of the fruit as its peel falls away, feel the spray of juice as the knife traverses its surface.

For the lover of reading (as opposed to a book-lover), Kindle promises an unprecedented freedom: wherever you are, a virtually fathomless selection awaits. Contrasting the dusty, bulky weight of libraries you’re offered perfect lightness, an entire literature cradled invisibly in the ether. It sounds like something out of science fiction –like a dream deal. As I write this I’m still amazed by the prospect and all it implies.

But what about that shed weight? What about the weight of a page, of a real book, with its margin notes and worn corners? What about the weight of an apple? The weight of a real baseball bat? The weight of a real body next to yours? I’m under no illusions that technological progress can be reversed, nor would I wish it so. Our relationship with technology is absolute, at least as old as the wheel, its path is carved deep into our destiny. But I also think, perhaps now more than ever, its worth considering every how and when to use that technology, to question whether we want to simply adopt every new development without considering what’s lost.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Bawl in the family: Rocco and his Brothers

There is pulsing through Rocco and his Brothers (Rocco e i suoi fratelli), Luchino Visconti’s celebrated 1960 epic drama, a towering force as wild, forbidding and fearsome as it is transfixing. That force is called family.

Based on the novel by Giovanni Testori, this story of five brothers and their newly widowed mother transplanted to Milan from the rural Italian South, at nearly 3 hours, moves, explodes and engages with tremendous energy. The film’s vitality emerges from the accumulation of several talents working harmoniously at the peak of their powers. Giuseppe Rotunno’s restless, roaming camerawork, especially in the protracted close-ups or spectacular exteriors, such as the massive street brawl or the cathedral-set lovers’ break-up; Mario Serandrei’s masterful editing, with sharp transitions that catch you off guard before hurling you into some new, unexpected scene, sweeping confidently across the tale’s broad chronology; Nino Rota’s jazzy, often detached but never glib music that makes menace weirdly seductive; the international cast of actors, deeply committed and nimble enough to shift convincingly from tender nuance to grand opera in a hastened breath: everyone involved contributes something substantial to the film’s overall power. But I think what truly makes all these elements gel, a unifying vision that we should probably attribute to Visconti, is an acute, mythical understanding of the fathomless potency of blood ties in determining the fate of the characters.

Upon the arrival of the Parondi family in the spectral, snow-covered Northern city, clashing loyalties are already wreaking havoc: a few words construed as disrespect launch an instant shouting match and mutual antipathy between the Parondis and the future in-laws of the eldest Parondi son Vincenzo (Spiros Forcás). Soon after, the charming, thuggish Simone (Renato Salvatore) takes up boxing, womanizing and petty theft seemingly all at once. After a stint in the military, Simone’s younger brother Rocco (Alain Delon) follows him into the ring and, in an act that will later spell disaster, takes up a quiet romance with a smart, beguiling prostitute named Nadia (the superlative –and sumptuously leggy– Annie Girardot) who was Simone’s girl of two years previous. As stray caustic elements spin into increasingly closer proximity, Rocco and his Brothers builds to its climax on waves of violence and toxic moral perdition, culminating at a scene of unbridled emotion, a well-calibrated frenzy of weeping and hollering that feels less like the indulgences of some fine actors than like an impotent purging, an attempt to redeem unforgivable crimes through the ecstasy of sheer, manic volume. It’s like something out of Wild Kingdom. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.

Though Visconti was once heralded among the masters of cinema, in the 30 since his death his name has fell from the place it once held near the top of the heap. It seems safe to presume that a revival of Rocco and his Brothers will likely find a new audience with limited knowledge of its director’s career and reputation, which I’d argue is a blessing. To come to this film without prior knowledge of Visconti’s role as an affluent Marxist or founder of neo-realism is to come to it freed of a burden that can only hamper a more fluid, fresh reading of the film.

Case in point: after my own riveted viewing of Rocco and his Brothers I prepared for this piece by reading Bosley Crowther’s 1961 New York Times review. He writes: “there is in this strong and surging drama of an Italian peasant family's shattering fate in the face of the brutalizing forces of unfamiliar modern city life a kind of emotional fullness and revelation that one finds in the great tragedies of the Greeks.” By tracing a Leftist tradition from Steinbeck to Visconti, Crowther renders the Parondi clan as being above all victims of a modern capitalist-industrial urbanism –which strikes me as a hell of a stretch. Perhaps it’s my own baggage –my father is also of poor, un-educated, Mediterranean, hot-blooded and rather oppressively loud folk– but the root of the Parondis tragedy seems to reside all too clearly in cultural traditions that predate Crowther’s point of reference. The city and its corrupting elements play a crucial role, but nothing in the film strikes me as being more flamboyantly destructive than its titular fraternity of pathologically misogynists, lorded over, somewhat ironically, by a matriarch that will not suffer any threats to the singular sovereignty she inhabits in her family. In plain terms, these guys are serious mamma’s boys, and mamma is one formidable figure.

Unsurprisingly, the theme of the family as agent of disaster isn’t especially popular in movies, but when it arises in the hands of artists who know the territory, it can make for masterpieces. Rocco and his Brothers reminded me of the Godfather trilogy, with Rocco himself bearing a striking resemblance to Michael Corleone, the family’s saviour who becomes corrupted by the very poisons he tries to exorcize from his family. In that film, the judgment of the father replaces the clinging grasp of Visconti’s mother, but either way, these films thrill us with stories that come with a clear warning: beware the elders that close off the forging of your own paths in the name of family pride, because once ensnared, every time you try to get out, they pull you back in.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Asleep at the wheel

It’s long been fashionable amongst critics to disparage American indie films that locate themselves in smaller, economically marginalized communities. Such settings are often regarded as a cynical trope, as though the mere vision of a trailer, run-down duplex or wood-paneled diner were enough to gain a film entry into Sundance. This attitude toward the use of a milieu that, let’s face it, a hell of a lot of people actually live in, is irksome. A lousy movie is a lousy movie, whether set in Beverly Hills or in the shantytowns of hillbillies, and I for one welcome any movie that expands our imaginative landscape to include all manner of geography and class. Yet in the case of Sleepwalking, we’re confronted with a movie that wears its small town despair like an impenetrable suit of armour, which is to say it’s an airless, self-consciously slumming affair, and is admittedly just the sort of thing that should send those antipathetic to the blue collar blues into fits of vehement dismissal.

Sleepwalking was written by Zac Stanford (Chumscrubber) and marks the directorial debut of Bill Maher. It opens with single mom Joleen (co-producer Charlize Theron, most recently embodying dinge in North Country and Monster) getting busted for running a grow-op out of her house in some bitterly cold corner of Northern California. With her place getting gutted by the fuzz, Joleen barges her way into the hovel of her pushover brother James (Nick Stahl) with her rightfully pissed-off preteen daughter Tara (AnnaSophia Robb) in tow. After drowning her sorrows and scoring some action from an anonymous good ol’ boy (a bit-part sadly played by the far too talented Callum Keith Rennie), Joleen abandons James and Tara with no forwarding address.

Tara is soon whisked away from James’ dump to an even more depressing dump of a Foster Home, and just in time too: James is not only fired but evicted soon after, forced to sleep on the floor in a buddy’s basement. If things weren’t bad enough, James, with barely enough cash to fill the tank, then deduces that his only recourse is to abduct Tara and hit the road. Stahl has no problem imbuing James with a convincing balance of dopey sweetness and poor judgment, but his implausibly stupid choices as the film goes along reek of dramaturgical convenience. By the time he gets to visiting his unsurprisingly evil old pa (Dennis Hopper, performing the perverse shtick he can do in his sleep), who unsurprisingly abuses both James and Tara, the story becomes perfectly exasperating.

We often mock movies in which, for example, some struggling university student transplanted from a modest Midwest farming community lives in some wildly expansive Manhattan loft. We roll our eyes at how movies seem so out of touch with the relationship between income and real estate, as though the affluence of Hollywood bigwigs renders them oblivious to the standards by which the rest of us live. But the reverse problem can be just as risible. The places where people live in Sleepwalking feel, not overly cramped (the crew does have to fit somewhere), but overly emphatic in their white trash squalor. James’ dark, dank apartment, with its unfinished walls, might turn off a discerning crackhead, but it fits all too well into Sleepwalking’s low-rent drudgery schematics, which are so demanding that they don’t even allow James to pay his rent, even though he performs not un-lucrative roadwork and seems to harbour no vices whatsoever that might exhaust his funds.

The fact that Sleepwalking is so relentlessly bleak is a problem mainly because it finally gets in the way of storytelling. Despite the efforts of a largely laudable cast (young Robb included), the movie just never seems to move, so bogged down in faux realism that it can’t work up the energy to convey even a fleeting sense of genuine joy in the escape plan James and Tara enact. (The incongruous pool sequence most certainly doesn’t count.) With no plausibly urgency to the characters’ desperation, no plausible hope to contrast their despair, Sleepwalking finally feels as shapeless and unengaged as its title.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Lady Chatterly: corporeal and class liberation, this time nice and slow

Based on John Thomas and Lady Jane, an earlier draft of D.H. Lawrence’s scandalous 1928 novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover –a draft most notable for being less didactic than its successor– French wrier/director Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley certainly trumps all earlier attempts at adapting Lawrence’s tale of corporeal and class liberation. Pleasurably languorous in its unraveling, Ferran’s approach accounts for a broad spectrum of the sensuality and natural atonement Lawrence was championing. Landscape, seasons, weather and time; phallic, intricate flora; measured sexual exploration; a careful recognition of how closely environmental and spiritual disintegration are linked: all of these elements are woven into the mix here in what is a surprisingly absorbing two-and-a-half-hours of period adultery and unadulterated splendour in the grass.

“The body behaves in strange ways” is a conspicuous snippet from a conversation between several men near the start of Lady Chatterley, a film as much about the mutilation and emasculation of men by war and exploitive labour as it is about the oppression of social mores upon our erotic impulses. Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot) survived the trenches but lost the use of the lower half of his body. His impotence is poorly concealed by his authority over a mine and its underpaid workers. His wife Constance (the extraordinary Marina Hands) is, strictly speaking, surviving bourgeois wifedom, but is morbidly losing her sense of self-knowledge and vivacity. Thus its something of a miracle that she’s accidentally granted a glimpse of the gamekeeper Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc’h) as he bathes his naked, muscular torso out near his cabin in an isolated clearing on the couple’s property. One look was all it took –from here onward, it’s a seductively gradual progression toward a chain of secret consummation.

Broad-cheeked and freckled, Hands’ Constance conveys her awakening in graceful moments of distraction, curious private examinations of her own naked body, and a captivatingly lucid series of exchanges with Coulloc’h’s touchingly vulnerable Parkin, who resembles something of a more hawkish, work-hardened Brando. Whether it’s a simple cradling of a breast through crimson velvet, the gentle stroking of cotton-covered cock with the back of a hand, a vast palm spreading over a thigh quivering in stark white stockings, some frantic thrusting against the base of a tree, or the utter abandon of the lovers running naked and finally collapsing into sex in the warm summer rain, director and actors alike have conspired here to express freedom with an immediacy that binds raw experience with philosophical nuance. It’s also, needlessly to say, pretty sexy stuff.

Through the basic story here is of course the outline of 400,000 impossibly banal porn and soft-core Euro-skin-flicks –not to mention the era-spanning trilogy of forbidden love masterpieces composed of All That Heaven Allows (1955), Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (74) and Far From Heaven (2002)– Ferran manages to imbue it with thoughtful complications without burdening her film with too much polemic. Constance’s carnal desire is complicated by an equal desire to get pregnant. Parkin’s romantic needs are complicated by the irresistible call of his own solitude. Clifford’s role as the repressed master figure is complicated by his own tragedy. The viewer is able to find sympathy for each of these characters and still become swept up in the thrust of Lawrence’s argument for a balance between the dictates of the body and the mind, an accomplishment to be applauded.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Horton Hears a Who!: the sub-microscopic apocalyptic disaster movie as talking animal kiddie fluff

An elephant is gradually shunned, then hunted down by his entire jungle community for claiming that there is life beyond what we can see, hear or feel. A less-than-respected town mayor is wracked with anxiety, a panicked sense of futility, burdened with the knowledge that his world teetering on the brink of apocalypse. Pretty heavy shit for a kid’s movie, but we’re riffing in the heady realm of Dr. Seuss, who sort of had a knack for blending mortally high stakes and political metaphor with screwy humour and fantastical hi-jinx.

Horton Hears a Who! has the enormous advantage of Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) still lingering in our collective memory, ensuring us that no matter what the Fox animation squad does to Horton can’t possibly be worse that the grotesquerie of Howard’s live-action toilet fodder. Horton does share Grinch’s star, but fortunately Jim Carrey, often cartoonish in any case, can’t mug quite as gratingly when reduced to voice only. (And weirdly, the elephant looks more like costar Steve Carell than it does Carrey.) In fact there are a moments where his good-natured titular elephant, persecuted for claiming that an entire world exists on a spec resting on a flower, is reasonably charming, interacting with his pupils or with his mouse pal, the obligatory sidekick well-voiced by Seth Rogan.

What ushers Horton Hears a Who! to a substantially higher level of Seussian entertainment however are the scenes in Whoville, where Carell’s Mayor slips and slides through a village of curly, gravity-defying, Gaudi-inspired architecture and candy-coloured everything. While Horton’s jungle home feels akin to typical contemporary, soft-hued, numbingly fluid, Hollywood-budgeted computer animation, Whoville, where the animation style has been stripped down to something far more graphically bold, draws us into a landscape that actually feels like a place Seuss might have dreamed up.

But the film’s major problem isn’t related to these varying degrees of visual or aural charisma. What makes Horton Hears a Who! something of a drag is the fact that you can feel writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (the scribes behind The Santa Clause 2) straining to expand Seuss’s winsomely compact tale to feature length. There are too many supporting characters with little to do, too many scenes that become repetitive and redundant. One of the laudable themes of the story is the importance of questioning authority: if only the team behind the film could have questioned their studio superiors to the point of making them accept that Horton, like the beloved 1966 version of Grinch, would probably work better at a third of the duration.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

1973: The year of awkward sex, permissive parenting and tentative transgression

Early in the commentary track he shares with writer/ producer James Schamus featured on Criterion’s new two-disc special edition, director Ang Lee describes The Ice Storm (1997) as a “disaster film.” While it might seem laughable to apply this genre to a movie concerned with upper-middle class domestic conflict in 1973 suburban Connecticut, it proves an inspired way of contextualizing the movie’s cycle of events. Based on Rick Moody’s novel, The Ice Storm does in fact contain a pair of disasters, the larger being that of the Watergate scandal, the more immediate being the weather event of the title. Neither disaster promises pyrotechnics or rampant death, yet both have some sort of transformative effect on the characters. This effect works best when functioning on the level of atmosphere, but there’s also a tangible, irreversible effect that ultimately drapes an overwhelming shadow over the entire story.

It’s about two families. Ben and Elena Hood (Kevin Kline and Joan Allen) struggle amiably through marital disharmony, placating themselves with a casual affair and kleptomania respectively. Their teenage children Paul and Wendy (Tobey Maguire and Christina Ricci) use the freedom granted to them by their desperate to be hip parents to explore pharmaceuticals and sex with a precocious inquiry. Jim and Janey Carver (Jamey Sheridan and Sigourney Weaver) by comparison seem more mutually remote and programmatic in their mid-life crises. Their sons Mikey and Sandy (Elijah Wood and Adam Hann-Byrd), the former an already dreamy kid precariously enamored with weed, the latter sensitive to the point of paralysis, his only outlet for expression coming from a predilection for blowing shit up (okay, so actually there are a few pyrotechnics), are the willing playmates of the pro-active Wendy, who engages each in separate games of show-me-yours-and-I’ll-show-you-mine. Building tensions up toward the night of the storm, where the parents abandon the kids to attend a key party drenched in pathos, the story operates around this generational role reversal: what happens when the parents act like kids and vice versa.

In the same sense that Brokeback Mountain (2005) –Lee’s other most fundamentally American film– can be regarded as being about the failure of love to overcome outspoken social antipathies toward homosexuality, The Ice Storm can be said to be about the failure of The Sexual Revolution to overcome the repressive apparatus of the American family/community. This sense of failure emerges from a series of interesting conditions: virtually every character is either too old or too young to have come of age during the radical cultural shifts of the late 1960s; the characters exist largely within a community cut off from the unruly influence of cosmopolitan life by geography and affluence; and crucially, the film climaxes with a fatal tragedy that reverberates hugely through the final sequence, feeling unavoidably like some cosmic punishment for half-hearted experiments in permissive parenting. This ending still feels to me like this terrifically rich film’s one major misfire, reducing the complex relationships by way of what feels like the act of a forsaken and vengeful God. (It bears mentioning that Lee’s only previous appearance on a Criterion disc was his introduction to The Virgin Spring (1960), a film with a weirdly similar finale.)

Of course it would be even more reductive to judge The Ice Storm solely on such a reading of its last reel. Inherent in the film’s unusual multitude of central characters, with their ongoing, measured transgressions, their flashes of fleeting insight and their general lack of decisiveness, is the idea of the movie as a multifaceted portrait rather than a traditional linear narrative anchored by some overt moral lesson or resolution. Lee himself felt attracted to a Cubist method of directing, wanting to show varying sides of a situation, an idea or an emotion all at once –and indeed, without employing any overly conspicuous formal device, he achieves this effect quite well, through the careful placement of figures in a frame, the mirroring of gestures and images from one scene to the next, and, most of all, the tremendously detailed performances from his extraordinary cast.

A lot of attention was paid to Weaver when the film came out. Her subtle balancing of Janey’s exterior frigidity with an inner vulnerability is genuinely impressive, but her character remains marginal. Allen’s character by contrast feels more central and certainly more desperate, yet Elena nonetheless feels a bit too sketched out. Kline, who Moody himself credits with deepening his character, stands out from all the other adults because his weaknesses are so acute, his humiliation so squirm-inducing, and his deficiencies so tenderly undercut by the actor’s ingratiating persona. But the fact is The Ice Storm belongs to the kids: moony-eyed Wood conveys such innocent rapture; Maguire’s wavering voice and goofily cavalier way with literary references imbues his every attempt at confident delivery with a near-palpable ache; Hann-Byrd’s unbreakable astonishment with everything around him is both heart-breaking and totally hilarious; and Ricci, more than anyone, embodies the film’s tender hesitancy and desire for some elusive self-realization and sensual fulfillment. She’s just amazing.

Besides the commentary track, Criterion’s typically superlative extras include some very good new cast interviews (which reveal Weaver in particular to be an actor who admirably takes little for granted), some reflections from Moody, plenty of fun, candid material from the duo of Lee and Schamus, some interesting deleted scenes, and some fascinating making-of stuff from costume designer Carol Oditz, cinematographer Frederick Elmes (Blue Velvet, Night on Earth) and production designer Mark Friedberg, all of whom provide enlightening testimony on their detailed work and make an impressive case for the liberal use of biodegradable hair gel when wanting to evoke an ice storm in the middle of spring.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Rough trade, distant trains and sumptuous darkness: Gus Van Sant's beguiling debut

Now is a pretty-much perfect moment to celebrate Gus Van Sant. Van Sant’s films entered the cultural consciousness when I was still in my teens, and I for one can trace my response to his work from my complete marvel at the winsome singular stylings and melancholy infatuation with marginalized young hipsters and hustlers that marked Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and My Own Private Idaho (91), to my increasing disappointment over Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (93) and To Die For (95), my exclusively abstract admiration for his Xerox of Psycho (98), and my sense of outright betrayal over the unapologetically commercial Good Will Hunting (97) and Finding Forrester (2000), to my ongoing fascination with his return to form(alism) with Gerry (02), Elephant (03) and Last Days (05). This leads us finally to Paranoid Park, his latest and in many ways finest film, which gleans a revitalized sense of humour and dreaminess from his earliest work and weds it to the time-curling narrative schemes of the recent preceding “death” trilogy, capping a diverse and adventuresome two decades of making movies in and out of the Hollywood system.

The movie that started it all however is one I’ve only just seen after many years of hearing about it. Mala Noche (85) was Van Sant’s feature debut and the film that put him on the map. Though based on the autobiographical novella by Portland, Oregon street poet Walt Curtis, Mala Noche feels distinctly indebted to Jack Kerouac –not to mention Robert Frank– in its youthful tale of longing, aimlessness, wry Americana and skid row communion. It’s seductively oneiric, flat-out gorgeous to gaze at, decidedly loose with narrative but utterly assured with tone, a jewel in the crown of 80s indie cinema, impressively resourceful in its imaginative use of a miniscule budget (personally financed by Van Sant) and non-existent gear. And its now available in a lovely new package from The Criterion Collection.

Shot by John Campbell like some primitive noir, with hard white spots illuminating faces and objects amidst pools of sumptuous darkness, Mala Noche imparts mood from the get-go, with fetching, stubbly liquor store clerk Walt (Tim Streeter) telling us through elegant voice-over of his overwhelming crush for a Mexican drifter named Johnny (Doug Cooeyate). Johnny speaks no English but he gets the gist of Walt’s cheerful advances with little trouble. Walt quickly surmises that his chances of beguiling Johnny into any sort of sexual union are way slim, and opts for offering up a straight money for sex exchange. Johnny still doesn’t bite (maybe because Walt only offered $15), but he does go along for numerous rides through the country in Walt’s beat-to-shit sedan, so long as his traveling companion Roberto (Ray Monge) is in tow. They also share a gleeful night of drinking, eating and dancing in the kitchen of Walt’s apartment before Johnny disappears as casually as he arrived.

In the end, bedding Roberto –a one-night stand of sweaty, coarse man love, conveyed in tight close-ups of fields of dimly-lit flesh and one filthy-looking jar of Vaseline, unfolding to the strangely soothing sounds of distant trains and church bells– is about as close as Walt ever gets to the object of his affection. But in truth Johnny is a remote if ferally charismatic figure, more a type than a fully realized person. Even Walt himself admits his awareness to being drawn to Johnny at least partly through sheer exoticism and racial fetish: this shaggy-haired wetback makes for a certain cliché of dark-skinned rough trade and easy exploitation, yet there’s no denying the romantic sense of connection Walt, the self-confessed (comparatively) rich gringo, aspires toward. His story, however slight with regard to events, is as thoughtful as it is coolly audacious, and a sheer pleasure to sink into for its 77-minute running time.

Criterion’s disc comes with a good, hour-long doc on Curtis as well as terrific interview with Van Sant, who regales with stories about the winding road that led him to filmmaking, his relationship with Curtis and the Portland poetry scene, his enthrallment over reading weirdly formatted Stanley Kubrick screenplays at the American Film Institute, and the unique conditions under which Mala Noche was made. There’s also a very good essay on the film by Dennis Lim, who does a remarkable job of contextualizing Van Sant’s impact on gay cinema and the almost singular universality of his approach to gay themes.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The forgotten ones: the gradual emergence of Buñuel's Mexican films on DVD

It’s long frustrated me that Luis Buñuel, one of history’s greatest filmmakers, is often considered so solely on the basis of his spectacularly scandalous early shorts Un chien andalou (1929) and L’Âge d’or (30) and late-career European co-productions like Belle de jour (67) and the Oscar-wining The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (72). The vast bulk of Buñuel’s filmography is actually comprised of films made in Mexico between these periods, but, due to a number of issues –distribution, rights, the absence of international stars, the stylistic range and of the material, and, one suspects, a dismissive attitude toward the Mexican film industry– most of these films have failed to reach their rightful audience.

The uniformed consensus on Buñuel’s Mexican films usually insists that, often produced quickly, often melodramas, and sometimes employing Buñuel more as a gun for hire than canonized auteur, they’re compromised works ill-representative of the director’s mischievous disposition and Surrealist roots. Such assumptions ring false for several reasons, not the least being that melodrama is in fact a genre highly conducive to exercising Surrealist philosophy. The period has its lesser titles to be sure, but it’s nonetheless a body of work characterized by invention, provocation, sensuality and economy.

The good news is that in recent months these films have started cropping up on DVD shelves, including two very different titles paired together by Lionsgate in a set imaginatively titled Luis Buñuel 2-Disc Collector’s Edition.

Gran Casino (47), his first Mexican film, admittedly comes closest to being “Luis light”: frivolous, generic, with few traces of anything especially “Buñuelian.” Yet it’s entertaining and far from without interest, concerning a couple of likeable charros who venture to Tampico to find lucrative work in the oil fields. They find more than they bargained for after befriending an Argentine oilman who represents the last holdout in a region otherwise monopolized by a German-owned company using any means necessary to eliminate competition.

The film lucidly evokes its rowdy, anarchic setting, dominated by elitist corruption and riggers eager to relinquish their earnings in the local casino with its luscious female entertainers. The plot features murder, masquerade and plenty of music, and while Buñuel’s contributions are largely workmanlike, he does enhance the proceedings with his distinctive attention to objects –a face reflected in an ice bucket, a stick dragged suggestively through crude oil in the midst of an otherwise tepid love scene– as well as to Mercedes Barba’s impressive thighs jiggling beneath a curtain of sheer fabric in her initial dance number.

More deeply satisfying, The Young One (60), an English-language, US/Mexico co-production, is an unfaithful, utterly inspired adaptation of Peter Matthiessen’s story ‘Travelin Man,’ a chamber piece set on an island off the Carolina coast, a fecund locale that serves as a confluence of contentious attitudes toward race, sexuality and identification. It begins with black clarinetist Traver (Bernie Hamilton) arriving alone and desperate in a small boat. Cries of rape jarringly explode over the soundtrack just before we’re treated to an exhilarating series of jump cuts that flashback to the events that brought Traver to his current state. This is followed by the introduction of Miller (Zachary Scott) the island’s white gamekeeper, seen killing a rabbit, who, like Traver’s boat, will enjoy the distinction of actually being shot up twice before the film’s through.

Death and transformation abound in The Young One: animals are hunted and consumed, an old man expires, and the pubescent Evalyn (the remarkably unguarded Key Meersman), at least in the eyes of Miller, her guardian, goes from being a girl to a woman. Amidst these transitional states, the story’s central irony is writ large: while the charismatic Traver must run from lynch-hungry whites happy to assume he’s guilty of a rape he probably didn’t commit, a forced sexual relationship erupts between the middle-aged Miller and the disarmingly innocent Evalyn.

All the signifiers of socially conscientious middlebrow pap are in place –one can imagine the material resting cozily in the hands of say, Stanley Kramer. But Buñuel, who developed the script with Hugo Butler, creates something far more complicated and full of juice. The Young One implicates the viewer fully into the process of Evalyn’s loss of sexual innocence, playfully juxtaposing the trappings of her ostensible newfound adulthood with her girlish manners, as in her final scene that finds her hopping childishly along a boardwalk in oversized heels.
Likewise, the film constantly draws overt parallels between the two men, even while exposing the grotesque aspects of Miller. And in the memorable last scenes, it is in fact Miller who undergoes the greatest, strangest changes. The whole process is conveyed through elegant, fluid camerawork by Gabriel Figueroa and Buñuel’s compelling habit of lingering on images of people at work, of food and, of course, of Evalyn’s legs, which he neither grossly fetishizes nor denies their immaculate beauty.

Lionsgate’s release is in some ways rather clumsy –the two discs are mislabeled, the songs have no subtitles– but the transfers look great, the audio commentaries accompanying both films have their distinct merits, and above all they got the material back on the market in a very affordable package.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Blood in the woods, occult geometries across the Atlantic: New American novels about 20th century catastrophe

Books time travel with a freedom and ease not granted to other mediums. Not having to physically show us the past, save what it plucks from its imaginary landscape to evoke in our minds, the novel need not concern itself with tracking down a dozen Model Ts or 3000 extras in togas to convince its audience that we’re in another time. The novel conveys the past with such immediacy because it does so through the consciousness of individual characters –though this is perhaps the greatest challenge posed to any artist. The new year has thus far deposited two striking new American novels into my hands that transport us to another time, one from a long-established master, one from a formidable emerging writer making a hell of an impression with his second work. Both concern distinctive moments in the 20th century and summon up scenes of iconic violence to punctuate intimate stories.

It’s tough to know what exactly to make of Russell Banks’ The Reserve (Knopf, $32). Set in the 1930s, it begins with the first meeting between Vanessa Cole, a man-eating, mentally unstable heiress and divorcée, and Jordan Groves, a married-with-children painter and pilot known as much for his scarlet politics, Hemingwayesque travels and extramarital adventures as his painting. That these two might collide in some unruly erotic entanglement seems a no-brainer, but Banks has set a course for an altogether more sanguine melodrama, making the intermittent chapters alternately describing the flight of the doomed Hindenburg and an air strike on a Franco military stronghold more than mere historical context. There will be blood, indeed.

I’ve long admired Banks’ work. In the case of Affliction, I was awestruck by the way in which Banks seemed to stake out some territory within the nightmare world of Jim Thompson –whose brilliantly chilling crime novels The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 set the mould for stories of small town lawmen with deep roots in their local communities and even deeper troubles in their fragile psyches– and making it all his own, bringing a certain expansion of character background, subjective psychological tension and finely detailed atmosphere than was typical of Thompson’s concise, more genre-bound prose. Yet with The Reserve, which is also set in an isolated community, that of wealthy vacationers and poor townees in the Adirondacks, Banks is not just exploiting select elements of a thriller for literary ends. He’s diving right in and just whipping up an unabashed thriller of his own.

There’s an unmistakable trashiness to Vanessa and Jordan’s tale of lurid transgression, replete with an aiding and abetting local yokel named Hubert St. Germain, a guy who could have easily narrated any number of Thompson novels, a lonely widower who’s sweetly natured but just too soft in the head to prevent catastrophe when presented with the opportunity. And there’s a singular strangeness in reading something of this sort realized by the likes of Banks. The result is, as you might expect, a bit uneven, but once you get an idea of what you’re in for, The Reserve does offer its share of salty thrills and moments of elegant, subtle, insightful imagery and emotional depth –and all in the same 287 page novel.

Zachary Lazar’s Sway (Little, Brown, $27.99) sweeps us forward into the 1960s and focuses from page one on the overtly sinister currents that ran through that decade that finally choked on its own rhetoric of peace and love. Its cast of characters will be familiar to anyone with an interest in the popular culture of the period: Brian Jones, founding member and first casualty of The Rolling Stones, Kenneth Anger, the occultist and underground filmmaker behind ‘Scorpio Rising’ and ‘Invocation of My Demon Brother,’ and Bobby Beausoleil, the would-be rock star who featured prominently in ‘Demon Brother,’ became a member of Charles Manson’s “family,” and was convicted in 1970 for the murder of Gary Hinman. How these three connect, in the flesh and otherwise, seems in its own way the manifestation of some occult geometry, but what’s at the base of each individual story is some magnetic attraction to the mystery and power of darkness.

The very first scene in Sway is loaded with a potent air of hazy menace, with Beausoleil taking a quiet little ride with Charlie into town, where some anonymous middle class residence waits to be penetrated in the mid-afternoon suburban stillness. Lazar then takes through a tour of cold water flats in London where skinny English boys try to channel a certain demonic spirit out of their guitars and, soon after, to a blur of nightclubs where these same boys discover that this spirit can make girls go crazy and boys charge the stage. They’re playing music from America, and that music contains a key to intoxicating violence. Finally, Lazar chronicles Anger’s cultivation of his long, arduous career in the international fringe, his films forging alliances with Jean Cocteau and later on Mick Jagger, who gradually usurps Jones as the guiding hand of the Stones. And Lazar writes a haunting, if decidedly unsentimental elegy to Jones as he shrinks away from stage and studio, from his weirdly symbiotic relationship with Anita Pallenberg –who winds up in the arms of the rather fun, amiably portrayed Keith Richards– and finally into that swimming pool, the unlikely site of his unexplainable death at the age of 27, just one of many sour notes that brought that revolutionary decade to a morbid, exhausted close –and brings Sway to its fascinatingly shadowy conclusion.