Nicholas Ray’s *Bigger Than Life*


Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life (1956) got a fair amount of attention last year as a Criterion Collection DVD/Blueray rerelease.  I finally got around to watching it, and it’s pretty mind-blowingly great.  A must see!

Here’s Criterion’s summary:

Though ignored at the time of its release, Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life is now recognized as one of the great American films of the 1950s. When a friendly, successful suburban teacher and father (James Mason, in one of his most indelible roles) is prescribed cortisone for a painful, possibly fatal affliction, he grows dangerously addicted to the experimental drug, resulting in his transformation into a psychotic and ultimately violent household despot. This Eisenhower-era throat-grabber, shot in expressive CinemaScope, is an excoriating take on the nuclear family. That it came in the day of Father Knows Best makes it all the more shocking—and wildly entertaining.

As is typical for Criterion, it’s a great package including a neat interview with Jonathan Lethem who subjects the movie to an obsessive & smart close reading.  I was pleased with myself because as we watched it I kept muttering to Sarah about The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Incredible Shrinking Man (the latter of which we watched with the kids recently) — the movie includes a fascinating subtext about masculinity and size, whether one is impressively large or diminished, “shrunken” — and Lethem mentioned both movies.  (I actually wondered if he’s working on a project about 1950s Hollywood films or something as the commentary was especially thorough.  Here’s an interview with Lethem about the film.) There’s also a 1977 public television interview with Ray that’s actually not so thrilling but which I nevertheless enjoyed watching (partly for the amusing PBS aesthetics).

Here’s a screenshot from an amazing scene as Mason has turned into a terrifyingly menacing tyrant of a father, his shadow looming up behind him like a goblin (Lethem suggests that this shadow brings to mind James Brown or Elvis Presley and so invokes the 50s mass/pop culture that is otherwise seemingly absent from the film):


Sean Axmaker observes in Parallax View that as Mason becomes addicted to the cortisone prescribed to him for his mysterious affliction, he becomes

like a literal monster in the home, often dominating his family from on high on the stairs or looking down from the second floor. Ray, a master of widescreen film-making, beautifully isolates and distances characters in the horizontal frame while Mason progressively dominates the screen, finally physically looming from above. Yet the film’s most resonant image may be his midnight crying fit, curled up in the den and sobbing to himself, a scene that evokes depression, fear, shame and his complete helplessness in a situation out of his control. This isn’t some stoic show of emotion but a complete breakdown at the mercy of runaway emotions that he can’t contain or even process, and this scene of male vulnerability is almost unique in its era, as brave and bracing a confession you’ll see in American cinema.


In plot description, the movie could sound cheesy and like some kind of “disease of the week” message film — it was apparently based on a New Yorker article about prescription drug abuse — but it is deeply weird, resonant, and gorgeous, as good as All That Heaven Allows or Invasion of the Body Snatchers (to name two films from the same year or so)– we both loved it.  Made me muse about the possibility of a class about out-of-control/ in-crisis masculinity — I’d definitely recommend using it in that context.

Next on our list of Ray films, Bogart in In A Lonely Place (which I’ve seen but a while ago) and They Live by Night (never seen).

Todd Solondz and *Dark Horse* @ IU Cinema


IU Cinema continued its mind-boggling (and seemingly endless?) series of visits by world-class film directors with an appearance by Todd Solondz (director of Happiness, Welcome to the Doll House, Palindromes) this week.  I missed the afternoon interview, but we made it to the evening showing of his most recent film Dark Horse followed by a Q&A by Solondz.

Solondz is a little older than I’d thought (53) — turns out he was 36 when his breakthrough film Welcome to the Doll House was released.  He grew up in New Jersey (and has an almost Gilbert Gottfried-esque accent), raised non-observant Jewish, but attended a Yeshiva school for a while as a kid, and then attended Yale as an undergrad.  He was very engaging in the Q&A, thoughtful and generous in his responses.

A few observations/facts-

  • I had been planning to ask him about the Seinfeld references in Dark Horse, but someone else beat me to it and Solondz confirmed that he viewed the film’s protagonist, Abe, as a “tragic George Constanza” figure.  Abe is a Long Island Jewish schlub in his mid-30s who lives with his parents, played by Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken (!), who are continually watching Seinfeld reruns when Abe sullenly walks past them to his childhood bedroom.  Fascinating fact: Sonoldz said that rights to any Seinfeld clips were totally unaffordable, and so Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris (who play George Costanza’s parents) agreed to come in and record some new dialogue for Solondz.  It had actually occurred to me that none of the dialogue rang a bell at all, but I’d assumed it was from episodes I’d missed or forgotten.
  • Along similar lines, the scenes in Toys R Us were actually filmed in a Latin American alternate-universe big box store in, I think it was, the Dominican Republic.  In an early scene, Abe marches into the store in high dudgeon to return a superhero toy that he says he discovered was scratched once he opened the package.  (As part of his man-child schlub identity, he collects toys.)  We see him in the parking lot with the letters of the big recognizable “Toys R Us” sign obscured but almost-visible on screen, which struck me immediately as a reference or else simply a parallel to the famous censored sex scene in Storytelling which Solondz released with a large red square blocking out the scene.  Someone asked him about the sign and he said that, as with Seinfeld, they couldn’t afford or secure the rights to Toys R Us, which created a serious problem for the movie, since there was no practical way to create a duplicate non-proprietary version of the store. Finally through a Latin American contact they learned about this store in the Dominican Republic that would allow them to shoot there.
  • And along similar lines once again, the movie has a very funny soundtrack that sounds like recent teen-pop/ top-40/ American Idol-esque songs that you can’t quite place; it turns out that they are all in effect would-be imitation American Idol-top 40 songs by unknown singers that Solondz found on demo tapes or something.  As with the fake Seinfeld dialogue and the Dominican Toys R Us, this can be understood at once as thrifty/resourceful film-making, making a virtue of necessity, and also a slightly-disconcerting construction of a phony/imitation/shadow version of mainstream American entertainment reality.  That is, in all these instances, the mainstream or recognizable “successful” pop culture item is at once cited and referenced and also effaced, like the Toys R Us sign.  It creates something like a “under erasure” effect, e.g. Toys R Us.
  • Abe returning, or trying to return, the toy to Toys R Us is a running joke/thread throughout the movie– the motif recurs at the movie’s end when Abe, having come out of a two-months long coma, asks his girlfriend/fiance Miranda to take the receipt to return the toy.  I’d recently listened to some of a recent Mark Moran interview podcast in which Solondz observes that each one of his movies has “done about half the box office of the one before it,” with Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) the commercial peak ($4,569,019) and Dark Horse (2011) the low ($166,000 according to Box Office Mojo, e.g. almost unwatched).  Having that comment in mind, the movie struck as as somewhat obsessed with its own status as a failed, low-performing, or unwanted commodity.  The film’s phony Toys R Us looks very much like a generic mall cineplex theater– which of course is simply reality: you go to the mall and walk into the same kind of ugly big-box structure whether you want to buy a Barbie or go see the new Transformers movie, or buy that movie as a DVD.  Abe has the collected Simpsons DVD collection on a shelf in his bedroom; Dark Horse struck me as clearly thinking about how it, or any “small”/independent movie, fits into this world in which a film is primarily valued according to its marketability as a consumable commodity or a monetizable income stream.  Is Dark Horse the equivalent of a defective toy that a consumer does not want?  Or, more positively, is it more like a prestigious niche-market item, one of those that Abe shops for on EBay, not for the mass consumer but desired by a more specialized audience?  I asked Solondz about this in the Q&A, and although he said he hadn’t been thinking of this theme in the Toys R Us scene — he wasn’t “going meta” intentionally — he then riffed interestingly for a bit about his thoughts about the commodification of films; he mentioned that he was old enough to have grown up before the proliferation of VCRs and DVDs and that he still to this day “does not watch DVDs for fun” (which struck me as surprising for a filmmaker).

I recommend Dark Horse; I started to feel a little impatient with it in its first half, when it feels like a more conventional, albeit ironic, take on the Apatow “man-child” film genre, but then the movie goes off in various weird, less-realist (almost Mulholland Drive-esque) directions that make it much more interesting than it seems at first.  Donna Murphy is brilliant as the dual-faceted Marie, who is alternately/either the frumpy secretary-administrator at the office where Abe works, or a vampy seductress/cougar.

*The Harvey Girls*: “The Train Must be Fed”

The girls and I watched the wonderful The Harvey Girls (1946) with Judy Garland this weekend.  The plot is so silly and nonsensical that it made me think of something like The Umbrella of Cherbourg.

Judy Garland shows up by train in Sante Fe from Ohio to marry a man with whom she’s been engaged in an epistolary romance.  Turns out it was a Cyrano de Bergerac situation and the prospective hubby is a wizened old hick… who for some reason, after glimpsing the lovely Judy G., begs her to let him off the hook (I think the idea was that he knows he’s a terrible reprobate alcoholic and so will not make a good husband).  The letters were in fact written by Ned Trent, the owner of the local saloon.

It’s a battle for the soul of Sante Fe.  Ned Trent’s Alhambra saloon, featuring the primary colors-wearing dancing (bad) girls, led by the throaty seductress Angela Lansbury (!), vs. the Harvey House, an upscale, classy, family place featuring the pastel-color-wearing (good) Harvey Girls.  Any number of hijinks ensue such as, for example, the Alhambra girls stealing all the Harveys’ steaks and chops, leading Garland’s character to hold up the Alhambra with two six-shooters to reclaim all the raw meat.

I was glad to find this clip of perhaps my favorite song & routine, “The Train Must be Fed.”  There’s a bit of a Cheaper by the Dozen, mid-century time & efficiency management feel to this one.

The Harvey system, I must say, primarily pertains
To the absolute perfection in the way we feed the trains
Perfection in the dining room, perfection in the dorm
We even want perfection in the Harvey uniform
The apron must be spotless and must have the proper swirl
That’s the first requirement of a Harvey Girl!

“Please confine your underwear to camisole and rumor”!

Everybody’s Bratty

I just noticed that Moonraking got 300 views the other day, close to my top page views ever.  I checked and it turned out that the vast majority of these were from a Google search for “Bratz babies movie soundtrack.”  (The movie was released in 2006; why now??)  I guess this gives me a better sense of my readership.

Maybe I’m just trolling for page views, but I thought I’d link to this movie preview I turned up.  It’s kind of great, though the production values are surprisingly shoddy (poor lighting in particular).

Here’s another one from 2006.

8:00 AM wakin’ up in the morning/nappy ain’t fresh/ gotta get pants changed/ gotta have a bottle/ gotta have trampolines/ see in everything the time is going/ tickin’ on and on/ everybody’s Bratty

Here’s a review from IMDB:

Horrible proof that our society has degenerated, 5 December 2006
Author: Candle-Burn from United States

This movie is about young babies, between 8 months to 3 years, that walk around in skimpy, revealing clothes trying to save puppies.

The entire movie features sexually suggestive remarks and actions, absolutely inappropriate for any young child, even a 10 year old.

This movie is like a pedophile’s dream come true. The attitudes and idea’s of the Bratz Babies are far too advanced for any young girl to understand, and I would never like to see a child acting like these Babies.

“Flaunt what you Got?” Isn’t that the Stripper Anthem? Not something a tween needs to do. This movie is awful.

*Margaret* as Gerard Manley Hopkins film adaptation

Kenneth Lonergan’s 2011 movie Margaret, his vexed sequel to You Can Count on Me (you may have read the NYT Magazine piece on “Lonergan’s Thwarted Masterpiece”), could plausibly considered as a film adaptation of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ great poem “Spring and Fall.”  That’s pushing the boundaries of how we usually define an adaptation, but the movie can serve as an intriguing limit case for how far the concept can be stretched.

Here’s the poem:

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

One of many details about the film that the producers probably were not crazy about is the fact that there is no character in it named Margaret.  The movie stars Anna Paquin as Lisa Cohen, a troubled Manhattan private school teenager (Paquin is 30 now with twins but was only 23 or so when the movie’s shooting wrapped in 2005), raised by an actress single mother, who witnesses and bears some responsibility for a tragic bus accident that leads to a pedestrian’s death.  The movie reminded me to a surprising degree of the excellent recent Iranian art-house hit A Separation: both movies use a similar structure to explore the legal, psychological, and ethical aftermath of a deadly accident, paying close to attention to the impact on this process of class differences and class privilege.

I thought Paquin gave a really good performance as Lisa, a pretty insufferable yet, to me, still sympathetic, spoiled and unhappy teenager trying to figure out how to be an ethical person or how to respond ethically to a tragedy.

Lisa is Hopkins’ Margaret (King Lear is another intertext, by the way).  The main thrust of the movie explores the process by which she “weeps” and “know[s] why,” coming to “sights colder” and encountering the “blight man was born for”, namely an understanding of death and loss.

The movie is very interested in pedagogy and classroom experience and how “learning” of various forms occurs.  Two of the primary supporting roles are played by Matthew Broderick (who apparently ended up bankrolling part of the film) and Matt Damon as teachers at this Dalton or St Ann’s-like NYC tony private school.  The Damon character is specified as being from Indiana, so you know he’s upstanding and a bit naive. You really start to feel for these earnest teachers (or at least I did) as they struggle to teach and expand the horizons of their very bright, privileged, rather unbearably narcissistic charges.  (Although I also felt a little envious at how quick the students are to talk and argue in class!)  The title of the movie comes from a particular scene where Broderick is teaching “Spring and Fall”, but the themes of the poem extend throughout the movie as Lisa undergoes hard lessons in self-awareness and moving beyond her self-centered worldview.

I just found this “interactive feature” that tries to match short clips from the film to particular lines in the poem— I think the connections could use some further glossing, though (I just watched the video for “And yet you will weep and know why” and am not clear why the makers of this widget chose that scene in particular for this line).

We watched the 150-minute theatrical release, but now I kind of wish we’d gone for the three-hour director’s cut.  The version we saw is a strange and somewhat awkward movie but also at times a ravishingly beautiful one that offers all kinds of food for thought — I haven’t even touched on what it does with theater and opera (the moving final scene involved a kind of catharsis as Lisa and her Broadway actress mother watch Offenbach’s The Tales Of Hoffmann at the Met) or how it works as a post- 9/11 movie exploring the consequences of that trauma in and for NYC (remember, shooting was completed back in 2005).

This is a good piece, from a blog about music in film, that presses on a line from the movie, Lisa’s protest, “My life isn’t an opera!”  As the author of the blog argues, Margaret ultimately does become not just operatic but a kind of opera in film.  And I think one could make a similar claim about the film’s relationship to Hopkins’ poem.  All in all, it’s a movie with interesting things to say about cross-media representations and influences.

Don Winslow’s *Savages*: A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of O.

Is there a verb for going back to read the book that inspired a new movie?  Retroreading or some such?  I have not seen Oliver Stone’s adaptation of Don Winslow’s novel Savages but was inspired by the coverage of the movie (and reviews of the novel’s sequel) to check it out.

I get why it was popular/successful… it has a Quentin Tarantino/ Elmore Leonard / James Ellroy hipness, speed, sex, violence and general nastiness that makes for a quick and in some ways fun read.  I didn’t love it, though.

One problem: I found the basic premise of much of the story to be implausibly silly.  (Spoilers to follow, but I won’t give away the actual ending.) The high-end Berkeley Laguna Beach [Ben’s parents are Berkeley liberals and he went to UC Berkeley] pot dealers Chon and Ben cross a brutal Mexican drug cartel who respond by kidnapping their friend/ shared girlfriend/ girl-toy Ophelia a.k.a. “O” and threatening to behead her if Chon and Ben fail to comply with every demand.  Our Laguna stoner young men in turn start putting on masks and robbing the drug cartel… who for some inexplicable reason can’t seem to decide if this sudden string of bold robberies, performed by two tall white men in masks, might just possibly be connected to Chon and Ben.  So they leave “O” alone and allow plenty of time for the revenge/recapture of O plot to unwind.

I also think the book is ultimately racist in effect in ways that turns up the general nastiness/nihilism factor to an uncomfortable degree.  Every brown-skinned person in the book, pretty much, is a disgusting, sadistic, torturing thug. (There are some semi-exceptions like O’s relatively good-hearted guard.  Aww, he loves his girlfriend!)  The book turns into what’s hard not to read as an allegory of slacker white America shaking off its pot lethargy and rising up to kick the ass of the brutal brown invaders.

This theme is laid out explicitly towards the end:

Chon has read a lot of history.

The Romans used to send their legions out to the fringes of the empire to kill barbarians.  That’s what they did for hundreds of years, but then they stopped doing it.  Because they were too distracted, too busy fucking, drinking, gorging themselves.  So busy squabbling over power they forgot who they were, forgot their culture, forgot to defend it.

The barbarians came in.

And it was over.

Winslow to some degree protects himself against accusations of racism with occasional ironic shifts in perspective when we see that to some of the Mexican narco-terrorist types, it’s Chon and Ben and O., in their shiftless Anglo ways, who are are the “savages.”  I didn’t really buy it, though, and it’s not enough of a counter-weight against the morbid wallowing in visions of the sadistic kingpin Lado contemplating the rape and then beheading of O.  It’s a classic old-fashioned captivity narrative with the beautiful Anglo in the clutches of the dark-skinned savage, with all the suspense of the narrative depending on the question of whether she will be rescued before she is raped.

[That one of our heroes is named “Chon” is perhaps symptomatic of the tensions/ambiguities around ethnicity in the novel… it sounds like a Hispanic name, but it’s actually a nickname for John]

The nastiness is often witty but felt too xenophobic/racist in worldview in the end for my tastes.  And the premise of the revenge plot just didn’t make sense to me.  That said, it does have style to burn and can be pretty funny.

I’ve read very mixed reports on the Oliver Stone movie: some seem to see it as a return to form and his best film in years, but I’ve seen a couple reviews that call it borderline unwatchable and absurd.

Bringing Up Hush Puppy: Free-range Child-Rearing in *Beasts of the Southern Wild*

As I watched the in-many-ways great Beasts of the Southern Wild I kept thinking about recent debates and publications I’ve read about child-rearing, specifically those that discuss the tension between “helicopter” or over-protective vs. “free-range” parenting and related issues.  I recommend therapist Madeline Levine’s new book Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success, [link to NYT review] which covers a lot, but perhaps offers as its biggest take-away the lesson that parents who believe they can control every facet of their children’s experiences are both kidding themselves and damaging their kids by denying them the potential to achieve autonomy/ become their own people.  I also thought about the much-discussed recent Elizabeth Kolbert New Yorker piece “Spoiled Rotten: Why Do Kids Rule the Roost?” which compared American middle/upper-middle class child-reading methods with those of the Peruvian Amazonian tribe the Matsigenka, in which six-year old children uncomplainingly clean, do household chores, and fish for, clean, boil, and serve to others crustaceans from the river.  (Whereas the typical elite American kid apparently is too busy nurturing his special, college-admissions-bait talents to do anything as mundane as household chores.)  Bringing up Bebe, which everyone seemed to be discussing his summer (even if they, like me, had just read reviews of it — although I did glance through it at one point), is also part of this conversation, in its advocacy of French-style parenting that expects children to behave in more responsible/ autonomous ways.

The New Yorker published an interesting letter in response to Kolbert’s article from an anthropologist named Nicholas Emlen who wrote,

During my recent nineteen months of anthropological fieldwork in Matsigenka communities, I, too, was impressed by the self-reliance and maturity expected of children. But Matsigenka hands-off parenting also has its disadvantages. I met several young children who had suffered serious, permanent injuries while cooking and hunting without adult supervision. Additionally, Matsigenka parents generally do not encourage their children to pursue education beyond primary school—although in recent years, many Matsigenka parents have begun to think of education as essential. To this end, these parents are trying to be more supportive of their children’s intellectual development, allowing them to spend afternoons doing homework, rather than collecting firewood, for instance. While Kolbert hopes that her sons will pitch in and “become a little more Matsigenka,” many Matsigenka parents are modifying their parenting strategies so that their children may one day become a little more like Kolbert’s sons.

So anyway, I was thinking about these sorts of questions while watching the movie.  Beasts of the Southern Wild stars a rather incredible child actress, Quvenzhané Wallis (who was in fact six during the movie’s filming!), playing the six-year-old Hush Puppy who lives with her single father Wink in “the Bathtub,” a fictitious bayou community in Louisiana.  And, like the children of the same age in the Matsigenka, she catches and cleans her own crustaceans; there’s a memorable scene in which all the adults chant for her to “beast” a crab, which means to snap it in half and suck out the meat. (We went to the movie with a vegetarian friend who found the Man vs. Beast dynamics a bit much throughout.)

The events of the movie, which reminded me a little of Zola Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, occur before, during, and after a massive Katrina-like storm that floods the Bathtub and leaves Hush Puppy, Wink and their friends stranded and floating in a house turned house-boat. Hush Puppy is an almost absolutely “free-range” child– or we could use the word neglected, or even abused.  Her mother has vanished and she does not even live with her father, who has his own shack next door.  She eats canned cat foot, and (this was a pretty hilarious moment, actually) starts a semi-functional gas stove by donning a helmet-face mask and lighting the gas with a flame thrower.  (This does not turn out well.)  Wink cares for and seems to love his daughter, but often ignores her and sometimes hits her.  Before the storm, she wanders around completely unsupervised.  In many ways, not just shellfish cleaning, her experience seems more like that of a Matsigenka child than a contemporary middle-class American.

In the still used for the movie poster, above, Hush Puppy is running with her hands full of fireworks.  Having recently supervised my kids as they used sparklers, I winced at the sight of her holding what seem to be much higher-power firecrackers in a setting where all of the adults are falling-off-their-chairs drunk.  On the other hand, she is certainly having a blast.

The movie continually prompted me to spiral through a series of reactions along those lines.  First, something like “oh no!” — judging her father to be criminally neglectful —  and then a counter-reaction of recognizing that Hush Puppy gets to experience things and sensations that the film represents as intensely meaningful and valuable.  Yes, her father and his friends are always drunk and Hush Puppy appears to be in grave danger of injury throughout the movie, but we see her immersed in a vivid world in which she interacts with the natural world and animals and nature, learns quickly how to take care of herself, and develops a fierce loyalty to her community and friends.

The movie could definitely be accused of romanticizing the Bathtub’s primitive world, and there are whiffs of pretty familiar strains of nostalgic, even slightly noble-savage-type valorizing of that world as a refreshing antidote to the sterile, heartless bureaucracy that is contemporary middle-class life — represented by the professional-class administrators who try to keep Wink and Hush Puppy in a disaster-relief tent city after they’ve been forcibly evacuated.  (The review in Salon took this approach, even suggesting that is offers a “dangerous political message.”)

To my mind, though, although I can certainly see the reviewer’s point, the movie is best approached as a non-realist (and often rapturously beautiful) fairy tale that, notwithstanding inescapable Katrina parallels, is certainly not trying to offer any sociologically accurate view of rural Louisiana or anything like that.  (I thought it was telling that it’s based on a stage play.)  Sarah commented that the whole Bathtub community reminded her a bit of the Popeye comics’ world.  Or maybe the fictionalized Okefenokee Swamp of the Pogo comics?  A wildly fantastical vision of a little girl’s dangerous idyll among the cat-fish, dogs, and wild boars of her imagination-infused surroundings, and a somewhat wishful (and yes, romantic) fantasy of how a child could live in a state of continual risky wildness.

Memo to self: demand that the kids procure and prepare fresh crab dinner for us this weekend.  Beast it!