Sunday, June 22, 2008

Polish Jokes

Once upon a time all you would ever see of the movies from Eastern European countries would be art films from a few select directors. In the case of Poland that would mean we'd see the work of people like Andrezj Wadja and Roman Polanski but nothing of the kind of films the Polish people themselves watched. Thankfully with the way the world is today all those formerly mysterious countries are now putting their old films out on DVD for the world to watch. And so we get to see something like Heat, a 1964 comedy that could have stepped right off an American burlesque stage.

The film's Netflix description is misleading because it gives the impression that the movie is just a comedy team strolling through a town and doing bits. It is in a sense but it does have a plot that actually tweaks the nose of the local Soviet-style bureaucracy. The two lead comics play a songwriting team that the town leaders pick to replace them while they go on holiday. This means the two gents go out in rented top hats and morning coats and see what people's problems are. They encounter, among others, a mechanic more interested in a rare foreign guitar than his girlfriend, a lecherous foreign ambassador and a Marilyn Monroe lookalike who wants to drown herself for the good of her country.

This is played out as pure burlesque comedy right in with the absurdist lineage of Monty Python, The Goon Show, Olsen and Johnson and The Three Stooges. With the storyline involving the ambassador, this movie would fit right into a triple bill besides The Marx Brothers' Duck Soup and Wheeler and Woolsey's Diplomaniacs. There's even a chorus line of sexy showgirls decked out as nurses. This movie shows how universal slapstick comedy can be and comes as a huge surprise considering the grim nature of the few well-known older Polish films out there.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Big "Huh!?"

I've never had the undying love for the Coen Brothers that a lot of film buffs seem to have. I've found some of their films enjoyable and original, like Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Barton Fink, but on a lot of others, they have been in full film school geek mode and gotten away with warmed-over pastiches and loud, condescending humor inspired by old movies with no relationship to how people sound or act in the real world. Those elements make Miller's Crossing and O Brother, Where Art Thou? really tiresome for me. Then last night I finally watched the much-applauded No Country For Old Men and my reaction at the end was "What the hell was that?".

This movie played out like it was missing a reel or two. They made a thriller but didn't bother to give it an ending. I get the concept that the movie was supposed to be told from the viewpoint of a sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones, on the periphery of a grim chase over stolen drug money that leaves a long trail of bloody carnage. The thing is the film isn't only told from his viewpoint. A lot of attention is paid to the drifter who finds the money and the psychopathic hitman who is following him, so much so that you want to know what happens to them. The affected nonsense the Coens pull in the last half hour with a shootout that takes place offscreen and the hitman calmly walking away from a car accident with nothing more serious than a broken arm is furiously unsatisfying.

All the great directors who did similar films, Welles, Ford, Hitchcock, Peckinpah, knew it was important to tell a complete story. Even David Lynch knows enough to bring his characters to a resolution. This treatment was childishly perverse, like the Coens were saying "We'll teach you to care about plot."

There are a lot of worthwhile films that have used a thriller plot as a mere backdrop to telling another story. I saw a good example of that last week in Truffaut's Shoot The Piano Player. The difference is that those films had a story to tell. The closest thing to a story here was Tommy Lee Jones doing monologues about the way things used to be.

The most amazing thing to me after finally seeing this movie is all the acclaim it received. The acting is great and Javier Bardem deserved his Oscar but I'm stunned that this artistic con job actually beat out the far superior There Will Be Blood for Best Picture.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Talent Close To Us

It's fun to read music magazines and listen to radio stations like WFMU that explore all the hidden nooks and crannies of the musical universe but sometimes I get frustrated that those sources never acknowledge the fact that there are and always have been a lot of talented musicians working in more mainstream genres who never get the recognition their talents deserve.
I thought about this morning while listening to a CD by Susannah McCorkle, a New York jazz/cabaret singer who was very talented and adept at mining songs for both their lyrical meaning and melodic beauty. The CD I listened to included an obscure Harold Arlen song called "I Don't Think I'll End It All Today" which is creepily ironic since Ms. McCorkle, who suffered from depression, committed suicide by jumping out her 16th floor apartment window seven years after recording that song.
Maybe she would have profited from the later jazz vocalist craze, maybe not but today only the diehard jazz vocal fans seem to remember her. It isn't only Turkish psychedelic musicians and Ethiopian pop stars who deserve rediscovery.