Thursday, July 7, 2022

James Caan (1940 - 2022)

I have more fond movie-watching memories of James Caan than I can confidently recount. As a kid I thought Rollerball was a genuinely superlative picture—a sentiment that embarrasses me less now than it would have in my twenties, seeing as how Rollerball kinda-sorta **is** a superlative picture. Maybe not in exactly the way I thought it was at the time, but only because there was no chance that a six-year-old was ever going to get the real point of that movie. It’s a remarkable performance in an improbably tricky role, and Caan hits every single note. And the most remarkable thing is that, in the context of Caan’s filmography, there was nothing remarkable about any of that. 

From Freebie and the Bean to a Bridge Too Far, from Bottle Rocket to Dogville to The Way of the Gun, everything James Caan came anywhere near was made instantly and enduringly better in the process. To say that he will be missed is like saying that we’d miss the sun if it exploded: It’s not so much untrue as it is a fatally insufficient sentiment. We won’t miss him because it’s impossible to miss a force so implacably indispensable as Caan. He just won’t be there. 

But the story I want to tell on this occasion is one I learned from watching a years-later interview about the making of Michael Mann’s scandalously underrated crime-noir from 1981, *Thief*, also starring Tuesday Weld. If you’ve seen the movie then you know that it opens with a long-take scene of Caan’s character, alone in the dark, confidently and professionally breaking into an enormous safe. You would also remember that Caan has an impressive array of tools, the star of which is a huge and frankly heavy looking drill. You would know, or at least it would come as no surprise, that they shot the scene practically.  

What you may not know is that Mann—with that special and unforced aplomb of geniuses diagnosing genius—decided not to train Caan or employ anyone else to do so. Caan would have to figure out how to crack a safe while he was quite literally on the job. 

“So, they laid all these tools out," as Caan explained for the interview, “and Michael came over and he said, ‘Okay, Jimmy: Get into the safe.’ And I said ‘What?’ and he smiled at me and said, ‘Get into the fucking safe, Jimmy,’ and then he walked away.”

If the story ended there it would be a perfect example of the kind of story that I love exhausting people with regarding how movies are made. But here’s the thing: James Caan got into the safe. He stared for a long moment at the tools, surveyed the situation, then shrugged and picked up the drill. It was clearly a one-take proposition and, knowing this, Caan kept his wits and his coolly professional character, and figured out on the spot how to get into the fucking safe.  

No one but James Caan could have done this. Nobody could have gotten into that safe in one take. Most career criminals couldn’t have gotten into that safe at all if they had all night and nobody watching. 

That’s the kind of guy he was, the kind of actor. A man for whom the need to stay in character and get the shot and be enthrallingly believable and entertaining in the process were more important than the literal and objective fact that he didn’t actually know what he was doing. James Caan didn’t care about that particular fact, and once he didn’t care about it, it ceased to exist. And so it would continue to be. For decades longer, playing role after role with easy realism and a rarely noticed range, James Caan methodically broke into the safe of our suspended disbelief and our permanent affection. He did it quietly, and professionally, using only the tools that had been set in front of him to work with. 

And he got away with it.

Click Here to

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Star Wars (1977) 2h 11m

On Saturday, 25 June, at 6:31pm, the Phnom Penh Film Club will savor one of the most impactful motion pictures in history, Star Wars (1977), directed by George Lucas and starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Alec Guinness, and the voice of James Earl Jones.

Really, what is left to say? Shall I recount the story of how, convinced that the film would flop, the suits at 20th Century Fox re-negotiated Lucas’ compensation, with the merchandising rights transferred back to Lucas as a way of making up the difference? So that, until very recently, every Star Wars action figure sold, every in-game purchase online, every parody, every adaptation, every Halloween costume put yet more money in Lucas’ bursting pocket? No, you know that one.

Should I tell the story of David Prowse—the man who wore Darth Vader’s costume and spoke his lines all through principal photography, having no idea that he’d be looped-over by the leaden gravitas of James Earl Jones? Indeed having no idea, as legend has it, until he heard Jones’ voice instead of his own while sitting next to family and friends at the Hollywood premiere? You know that one too. 

In fact you probably know them all. And maybe, maybe that’s the point. Maybe the cachet of Star Wars is really all about the stories that we all already know, and the simple fact that we all already know them. Maybe that’s what’s left to say. At its beating, luminescent heart, Star Wars is after all a story in which people tell stories. Primitive, fire-in-a-cave oral tradition is everywhere and at all times the unlikely backbone of relevance for this galactic war saga, not Hyperdrive Motivators or NaviComputers or moon-sized space stations with curiously un-defended tractor beam controls. Story is the thing. 

Luke tells his uncle a story about a young man’s readiness to leave his desert-planet home. Obi Wan Kenobe tells Luke a story of swashbuckling galactic intrigue. R2D2 interrupts to tell a story of damsels in distress, albeit on video. Not far away, Han Solo tells a story of fast ships and dumped cargo bought with dangerously borrowed money. And so on. And so on. And so on, and so on, and so on, each story more affecting and momentous than the last. How fitting, then, that our enduring love affair with the franchise should hinge so essentially on our own, primitive, water-cooler-in-a-cave commitment to the awesome power of small-bore word of mouth. How perfect that we have all heard the many stories about the making of this story about stories. 

Of course a sci-fi story about stories will need a good deal more going for it if it hopes to steal our hearts: It’s going to need unforgettable visual effects, a thrilling score, iconic characters and circumstances, and vignettes so pitch-perfect that they literally redefine the popular culture in real time. Lots of movies aspire to this ideal. But none of them is this one. None of them captivate us the way we were so permanently captivated by this clumsily written, ham-acted schmaltz-fest with wooden conflicts and planet-sized holes in plot continuity. And Star Wars captivates us, still after all this time, as much because of these problems as in spite of them. Star Wars is as homely as it is homey. Star Wars is your grandma’s quilted housecoat. Star Wars is family. We don’t care that a visibly green Hamill could barely even read his icky lines, any more than we feel cheated by a tie-fighter battle with results so predictable that we could have excused ourselves to the concession stand for the entire scene and still not missed a beat. All of these are petty quibbles. Story is the thing.  

I resisted Star Wars as a child—a sentiment you wouldn’t have heard often from the square-pegged male offspring of Poughkeepsie IBM’ers in the 1970s, but so it was. This is mostly because Lucas had (cleverly, except where I was concerned) positioned his cinematic opus not as a sci-fi shoot-em-up, but rather as a fantasy adventure. Yes, the TV ads showed spaceships grappling in existential combat but, just as the movie itself, the marketing always emphasized eccentric characters living inscrutable lives on exotic fantasy-adventure worlds. But I myself had never been drawn to exotic fantasy-adventure worlds. Tolkien? Pass. Narnia? Nah. Dungeons and Dragons? Thanks, I’m good. The universe I actually lived in was plenty inscrutable enough for my tastes, without the added suspension of disbelief that it took to ride shotgun while some  reluctant hero bought casting stones from a dude who just called the waitress ‘Wench.’ 

Thus it was that for an entire summer in ’77 (while my single and more-or-less abandoned mother struggled to keep me fed and relatively quiet), a village-sized support network of kindly adults kept telling and retelling me the primitive story of how much I was surely going to love this movie. Bill ‘Booga-Booga’ Gordon told me the story of how much I’d love Star Wars. Helen and Ed Klaas told me the story of how much I’d love Star Wars. Jimmy Kolfrat, Linda Muller, George Pixley, Bob Manotte. The Neumanns, the Ryans, the Nussbaums and the Avnettes. Our cave fires flickered and very often burned themselves to ash, but for a calm and languid summer—for what would be the last calm and languid summer before Khomeini and blindfolded embassy workers and $1/gallon gas—the story was always there. All I had to do was ask and someone would tell me, all over again and patiently from scratch, the one about how sure they were that I’d love Star Wars when I finally climbed down enough to go and see it. 

And you know how that one ends, too. 

I think often about many of the films we’ve shared in our short time together. I think often of Blow-Up and Baraka and Blazing Saddles, of Chinatown and Crouching Tiger. I think of Alien and Pulp Fiction and Cleo 5 to 7 and The Third Man. But no other movie in our repertoire chokes me up just thinking about it—just because it’s *there*—like Star Wars. We were all a different people the moment that first Imperial Destroyer thundered down the screen. From the moment Obi Wan serenely raised his light saber and gently shut his eyes, we would literally never be the same. The story of this silly movie is, for a great many of us, the story of our very lives. Story, *that* story, is the thing. 

I hope everyone will make a special point of joining us, Saturday, 25 June at 6:31PM, for this indelible masterclass in cinematic storycraft. It’s been an incredible ride, sharing so many excellent (and more than a few excellently cheesy) movies with such a fantastic group of smart and patient people, and I thank you all. If Star Wars is to signify the final curtain in our grand experiment, then I say let it be the perfect symphony with which to play us off.
Click Here to

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Parasite (2019) 2h 24m

On Saturday, 18 June, at a special start time of 6:01pm, the Phnom Penh Film Club digs into one of the most ambitious and complex pictures ever to be considered a family drama, Bong Joon-Ho’s *Parasite* (2019) starring Song Kang-Ho, Sun-Kyun Lee, Cho Yeo-Jeong, Choi Woo-Sik and So-Dam Park.  

Not long ago, when our co-founder and long-suffering host confessed to a lack of clarity regarding my own motivations vis-a-vis the club, I invited her to think of Jeff Albertson—the unappealing and generally insufferable comic-book store owner from The Simpsons. (“Worst. Episode. Ever.”) The suggestion wasn’t altogether serious but it’s not without merit, either: Square pegs like me who allow themselves to get too deep into a specific socio-cultural diversion such as comic books or role-play games or movies are very often pretty hard to take—or, hopefully in my case, occasionally hard to take. We don’t try to be, trust us; we just are.

This matters here because fanatics of this type are often reflexively unwilling to accept the cachet of any successful offerings from the more commercial end of the form. If a movie is popular without really adding much to the state of play of the medium, a devoted cinephile is supposed to hate it (think *The Notebook*). If a movie is popular despite unconventional positioning or craft—perhaps embraced as the result of clever marketing designed to foment over-heated word-of-mouth—a cinephile is supposed to really hate it (think *The Crying Game* or *The Blair Witch Project*). And if a movie is popular despite unconventional positioning or craft, but also because of its conscious attention to the retail-moviplex aesthetic (*The Hurt Locker*, *The Departed*, *Intersteller*), then our poor cinephile is supposed to really, really, REALLY hate it.     

Where am I going with this? I’m going to the unforced brilliance carried off by Korean superstar-director Bong Joon-Ho with his surprise 2020 best-picture winner at the Academy Awards, Parasite. I’m going to a film with mall-cineplex polish, brisk unconventionality, and clever marketing, but one that also works better as a thought experiment than even some of the most anti-commercial indies.  And once I’m there, I’m very happily staying for about the next hundred and fifty minutes. 

In Parasite, writer-director Bong-Joon Ho (the phenomenal craftsman of such modern Korean epics as Snowpiercer, The Host, and Memories of Murder) has somehow outdone even himself. In Parasite he has crafted a picture so delicately constructed and so unpretentiously cohesive that its eventual payoff feels less like a device, and more like the real-world-plausible turn of a story that we hadn’t even realized we’d accepted with such intimate absorption. In Parasite he has given us a quibble-free gem of escapist narrative.  

The first ninety minutes or so of the picture are relatively straightforward and relatively easy to relay without spoilers: A South Korean family, struggling to stay (lower) middle class is beset on all sides by a series of unlikely misfortunes. They struggle, but the struggle feels normal--or at least unsurprising--in the context of their neighbours, friends, and the unfolding of the city's economic and political and even climatological fortunes. Things keep going from bad to worse, vignette after vignette, until a scintillating opportunity presents itself in the form of a potential grift. The marks for this con are a household of privileged economic elite, and the simple plan is to discredit their staff, person-by-person, in order to replace each of them with yet another “recommended” (and false-credentialled) member of the family. 

If all is not as it seems here, then it certainly seems unfamiliar in a familiar way. Grifts are crucially about misdirection, and movies about grifting are implicitly expected to leverage that uncertainty in order to keep us guessing right along with the mark(s). That’s the contract we’ve signed from the moment we sat down, however unwittingly. Dog bites man stuff, to this point.

But the real genius of this picture is that the familiar set of conceits is a grift in and of itself. The actual movie, the movie that we’re watching, ends up scarcely about the family’s attempted grift at all—a fact we learn in precisely the sort of bolt-from-the-blue reversal that we imagine would befall us after being grifted in real life. This choice is scrupulously intentional and it resides at the beating heart of an almost chemically compelling story, the sort of sudden misdirect that has been tried so very often in big-twist movies, and has fallen so very flat in those lesser films with less vision and less craft. 

This being said, it’s worth the attendant risk to let slip here that the last third of the movie is coloured with a radically different tonality from what has come before, to an extent that at least some audience members might find the new situation unusually challenging to watch. Parasite is a long movie that starts out not-quite-a-comedy, and stays that way long enough to give us the clear sense that we know what we’ve gotten ourselves into. By the time it’s over, though, “not-quite-a-comedy” is just about the very last thing that any reasonable person would ever think to say about it all.

I hope everyone will plan to join us this Saturday, 18 June, at a special start-time of 6:01pm, for this superlative accomplishment in thrillingly ambitious storycraft. Many movies get described as ‘unforgettable’ but this one really, truly, is.  

Click Here to

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Snatch (2000) 1h 43m

On Saturday, 11 June, at 6:31pm, the Phnom Penh Film Club sets aside its film-studies notebook for an evening of unadulterated criminal mayhem, Guy Ritchie’s *Snatch*, starring Jason Statham, Stephen Graham, Vinnie Jones, Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Farina, Alan Ford, Lenny James, Robbie Gee, Ade, Rade Sherbedgia and Brad Pitt.  

Was 2000 the single greatest year in the history of motion pictures? Well ... okay, look, 1974 is going to be pretty tough to beat, ever. If you need convincing, consider that The Godfather II, The Conversation, Blazing Saddles, A Woman Under the Influence, Celine and Julie Go Boating, Murder on the Orient Express, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Towering Inferno, and Chinatown were all in wide-release in theaters AT THE SAME TIME, and then tell me there’s ever been another year quite like ‘74 when it comes to motion pictures. But with its own dizzying assortment of superlative pictures, y2k certainly makes for a fun runner-up, with Crouching Tiger, Almost Famous, O Brother Where Art Thou, Memento, Cast Away, and Snatch. 

Chronologically the second of the three Guy Ritchie / Matthew Vaughn fractured-narrative gangster movies (book-ended by the earthier and less polished Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, on one side, and the darker, somewhat ponderous L4yer C4ke, on the other), Snatch is unquestionably the pick of the litter. First and foremost it is the only one of the three that steadfastly refuses to take itself seriously—indeed is most often found on streaming service listings under ‘comedy’. But it’s also a much more professionally complete and tonally consistent work than its companion pieces, with none of Lock Stock’s blind-alley monologues or L4yer C4ke’s inexplicable commitment to showing us a truly hardened antihero as our supposed vessel. And the plot complexity just simply and objectively could, not, be, more, perfect.  

In the A-story, Jason Statham and Stephen Graham are east-end London ne’er-do-wells (“Turkish” and “Tommy,” respectively) who split their time between managing a slot-machine parlor and a stable of illegal bare-knuckles boxers. When Turkish dispatches Tommy and their top-card fighter Gorgeous George (Adam Fogerty) to a gypsy (“pikey”) campsite to acquire a new camper/caravan from which to operate their business, the pikeys double-cross the pair, with the clan’s leader Mickey (Pitt) threatening violence if they don’t immediately take their leave. Whereupon George challenges Mickey to a fight, and is of course knocked out cold--and pretty seriously injured--by the wiry and indefatigable gypsy.

So far the boys are out a fistful of money, an out-of-commission fighter, and an afternoon. Pretty humdrum stuff for this pair, surely. Trouble is, Turkish has already booked George for a bout with one of the many fighters under the management of a certain Brick Top (Alan Ford), himself far shadier and more menacing than Turkish or Tommy could ever hope or want to be. With their own fighter suddenly off the card, our heroes must approach the unapproachable Brick Top and hope they survive delivering the news—until, that is, they hit on idea of hiring the pikey to take George’s place (and George’s fourth-round dive), instead. I mean, gosh—what could possibly go wrong?

Meanwhile, in another part of east-end London, pawn-shop owners Sol and Vincent (Lenny James and Robbie Gee) have been hired by Boris the Blade (Rade Sherbedgia) to knock-off an illegal bookie’s office and steal a briefcase being carried by compulsive gambler Frankie Four-Fingers (Benicio Del Torro) because it contains an eighty-four carat diamond, stolen the previous week in Amsterdam. The two pawn brokers enlist the aide of getaway driver Tyrone (Ade), who turns out to be so immensely oafish and overweight that it takes him whole minutes to get into and out of the car, and who, as an added bonus, can’t drive more than a few feet without slamming on the brakes or hitting something, either. 

As one might expect by this time in the film (we’ve already seen these three characters behaving in ways that are far from competent), much goes awry at the bookie’s—though it’ll be a while before they learn the true nature of their problems. And let’s just say that bad driving is the least of it.

This is to say nothing of the myriad cast of ancillary and thrillingly eclectic characters in hot pursuit of either the diamond, the pikey, Turkish and Tommy, the pawn-shop guys, or some combination thereof. There is Avi (Dennis Farina), who’d hired Frankie to steal the diamond and bring it to New York; there is Boris the Blade, whose failure to obtain the diamond from the hired pawn brokers lands him in hot water with his own contacts back in Amsterdam; and then there is Bullet-Tooth Tony (Vinnie Jones), hired by Avi at the behest of Doug The Head (Mike Reid) to locate Frankie when Doug himself cannot.

All of it adds up to a veritable theme-park ride of de-saturated, character-driven chaos. With its breathless pacing, near-slapstick photographic devices (including the use of literal title cards for introducing the dramatis personae at the film’s outset), and the sumptuously un-serious musical stings clobbering us over the head with how ridiculous everyone’s being, Snatch pushes hard on the envelope of the “MTV” style of film conceit that made other, lesser films of its era (e.g. The Fifth Element) so palpably unbearable to sit through. 

It would be astonishing enough that director Guy Ritchie and script supervisor Matthew Vaughn manage to spin their unwieldy and polymorphous tale into something credible and understandable, and thence manage to bring the complex facets of the story together at just the right moment with a hilariously improbable but instantly believable coincidence. But they also manage the far more subtle and refined challenge of coaxing us into a trance of comedic sympathy for all these should-be villains along the way. By the time of that momentous coincidence, not a single figure in the tangled fabric of our story is regarded with anything other than a downright acrobatic suspension of disbelief, and almost all of them with unqualified goodwill.

The ‘comedy’ classification can and does evoke some thoughtful head-scratches from audience members who might not associate the word with body counts, but make no mistake: The humor in this script is deep, abiding, and ubiquitous. For starters there is Pitt’s indecipherable accent (so indecipherable that the subtitle track reserved for his lines eventually gives up and places strings of question marks at the bottom of the screen). Then we have Tyrone’s all but willful inability to do the only job he’s been hired for, paired with the recurring (and incidentally mostly un-scripted) antics of the gypsies’ dog, who crops up in each of the many different storylines for at least as long as it will take to bite one of the actors in real life. At all events scarcely a full minute of screen time elapses without something from memorably funny to wheeze-inducing to take away with us. 

In lesser hands all of this laugh-out-loud funny would represent its own kind of trap, of course—since there comes a time in the lives of all these people when, if you’ll pardon the pun, the gloves must come off. These are serious problems into which these folks have gotten themselves, and the serious business of getting out again must thus be taken seriously. It’s no secret that most filmmakers who try such a maneuver fail, either because the antecedent comedy is rendered unfunny by the eventually serious subject matter, or for just the opposite reason: because the comedy works so well that the getting-serious part is impossible to swallow.

Ritchie and Vaughn play both sections of the orchestra simultaneously with this picture, and with such high command of form that each facet of the recipe serves only to accentuate the other. The end result is one of the great gifts to the modern moviegoer, period. In Snatch they have made a movie that is at once thigh-slappingly funny, and a surprise to find mixed-in with the comedies on your favourite streaming site. They have made in Snatch a movie that it as once fabulously complicated in its narrative, and instantly accessible. They have made, in Snatch, the eighty-four carat diamond of heist movies. If you have not seen it, you must see it this weekend.

A short coda just to drive the point that last few hundred meters home. In 2009, and with no idea what I was letting myself in for, I decided on a larf that it might be fun to blog an annotated countdown of my own choices for the hundred greatest movies ever made. Chronicled in countdown-style, the exercise quickly swelled from a four-part series to a sixteen-part series, and would end up taking an entire summer and much of my productive energy for the year in question. I don’t regret a second of the project of course, and scarcely a week goes by without me thinking about those columns. But here’s the thing: Snatch was number six. 

If that seems anticlimactic, it’s only because you haven’t been walking around for thirteen years, now, composing various apologies to Guy Ritchie and company for having somehow excluded this picture from my overall top five. That’s how effortlessly perfect this film is, folks: I feel actual guilt—real, out-of-nowhere remorse—that I ever dared to call it only the sixth-best movie ever made. 

I hope everyone will plan to join us this Saturday, 11 June at 6:31pm, for what is, at worst, the sixth-best movie ever made. I can’t guarantee that you’ll agree with such a lofty ranking, but I can guarantee that by the time the end-titles are rolling up the screen, you will have had a great enough evening that the ranking ceased to matter either way.

Click Here to

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Fitzcarraldo (1982)

On Saturday, June 4, at a special start time of 6:01pm, the Phnom Penh Film Club treats itself to Werner Herzog’s *Fitzcarraldo*—a film about a crazed zealot, directed by a fevered madman and starring an unhinged lunatic.

It isn’t known exactly when German director Werner Herzog was shown the story of Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald López, or why, but what is known is the impact that the story had—first on Herzog and thence on basically everyone who’d ever come within a hundred meters of him. In the end a movie would come of it—though by the time it did, few associated in any way would find the whole thing remotely worth what they’d just come through.    

For his part Fitzcarrald himself had lived a lavish if over-leveraged life as a nineteenth-century Brazilian rubber baron. A wily and likable fellow who’d counted for decades on an inheritance, a boom in the rubber industry, and a rich wife, but who ultimately found himself with the benefit of none of the above. 

Believing he had no other choice, Fitzcarrald hatched a bizarre plan to reverse his fading fortunes by staking claim to a hitherto untrammeled expanse of rain forest on the banks of the Urabamba River. The property in question had been considered terra incognito, owing to a slew of lacerating cataracts between the parcel and the nearest city, but Fitzcarrald had studied maps of the area and noticed a narrow isthmus between the Urabamba and the parallel-running Madre de Dios, upstream from the impenetrable rapids. Thus it was that, in 1894, Fiztcarrald took a 30-tonne boat up the parallel tributary, disassembled it, and recruited a legion of indigenous locals to carry the pieces up and over the rise of jungle isthmus and down the other side—whereupon he reassembled them, floated down the Urabamba, and staked the claim. It should have been the moment that made for his ultimate redemption, but alas Fitzcarrald would go on to lose everything in a rubber crash, a gambling spree, a messy divorce and a knife-injury gifted to him by the local mafia. He died a lonely and un-celebrated pauper.  

Most of a century later in the late 1970s, his would-be chronicler, Werner Herzog, had already distinguished himself as a director for whom the term “method” meant “we’ll all be literally lucky to survive this thing.” Already an eminently respected auteur filmmaker going back to his student-film days, Herzog’s early projects had also wrought levels of intentional discomfiture that, today, border on incomprehensible. From his choice of a riverside jungle bivouac with no connection to the outside world (Aguirre The Wrath of God), to abruptly ordering an actor to extract one of his own teeth using a pair of pliers (Stroszek), and with countless other examples, Herzog was by 1979 essentially a walking synonym for comically melodramatic and indulgently risky international productions. As the privations became ever more tangential and ever more harrowing over the years and movies, his favourite lead actor, Klaus Kinski, came to exhibit more and more erratic behaviour from one collaboration to the next—eventually hiring a hit-man in an attempt to kill Herzog while they were together on a set. Clearly this was *not* the director to whom to show the story of a Brazilian nutter who thought he’d save himself by dragging a boat over a hill, but in 1979 this is exactly what happened—with results that may only reasonably be described as ... predictable.

To commence pre-production on the perfect tonal footing, Herzog chose to offend essentially everyone by re-imagining the titular character as a white westerner, ten times less connected to reality than his loose-namesake. The westerner in question would be named “Brian Feeny Fitzgerald,” dubbed “Fitzcarraldo” by locals who couldn’t say his name, and for this version of the story of the claim would serve as a mere stepping stone: His true motive would be the even more far-fetched dream of bringing Enrico Caruso to perform opera in Iquitos, the largest but still arrestingly primitive hub city of the upper Amazon basin. 

Herzog also insisted that his film would feature a 350-tonne boat, rather than a 30-tonne one, and he also confidently built the storyboards, shooting schedule and financing around the presumption that his boat really *would* be dragged over an isthmus somewhere in the upper Amazon rain forest, but *without* first having been disassembled. Surely no one would ever find out that these were needless complications of the original story, and surely the added challenge (and the attendant suffering of cast and crew) would make a more compelling finished cinematic product. What could possibly go wrong.

Almost immediately things began to go wrong. In 1979, Herzog and his team built a camp in the jungle near the Peruvian-Ecuadorian border, despite the fact that the two countries were waging a minor border war in the area at the time. No one had thought to explain the movie-shoot to the indigenous locals, many of whom had been previously warned to stay vigilant for extra-legal settlers dispatched from Lima to tip the balance of the war. When the production was mistaken for the colonizing pioneers, the team was driven from the expensively-built location under threat of lethal violence and the entire compound was subsequently burned. 

In early 1981, with a new bankroll and a new shooting location and schedule, Herzog may have been forgiven for thinking that at least his unintended troubles were behind him—but not long afterward the original lead actor for the film, Jason Robards, became so ill that he was evacuated back to the United States. When Robards was forbidden by the film’s insurers to return, Herzog woke on an idle Tuesday to the knowledge that his film adaptation of Fitzcarraldo was suddenly without its Fitzcarraldo. Not long afterward the star playing Robards’ sidekick, Mick Jagger, also abandoned the project—in his case because The Rolling Stones were about to drop an album and start a worldwide tour. Herzog himself had meanwhile found and purchased a boat but, only after taking possession, found that it couldn’t be steered because its ballast tanks had to be stuffed with empty fuel-oil barrels to keep the damn thing afloat—in consequence of which Herzog accidentally grounded it on a sandbar, where it would stay for a full cycle of the dry- and rainy seasons, essentially pushing back photography by yet another entire year. 

When matters re-convened for the third time and with the fourth round of funding, the film’s replacement for Robards would of course turn out to be the aforementioned Kinski—who hadn’t been told that the logistics of the film’s ambitious visuals were unsorted, and that in consequence he’d be required to stay in yet another primitive jungle camp, on 24-hour call to be available for scene-shoots that never came. Kinski, already at the end of his tether in dealing with Herzog, and grappling mightily to keep his own troubled career righted and productive, soon descended into a frightening emotional instability. His on-set rages became so frequent and so predictably discursive that they would eventually form the backbone of a separate documentary about the tortured relationship between himself and Herzog (entitled, without evident irony, “My Best Fiend”). 

While Kinski wailed on, Herzog secured yet another round of funding and bought two more boats. One of these would serve the sole purpose of being destroyed in a down-river cataract of its own, but not before Herzog had staffed it with his best talent on both sides of the camera, more than one of whom were seriously hurt. Back on dry land the set was raided twice by neighbouring indigenous communities, resulting in savage injuries to a beloved crewman and two other members of his family. A chartered Cessna carrying personnel and vital supplies pitched over on landing, seriously injuring all five occupants—one of whom was paralyzed. Kinski celebrated the news by spending the next four hours chest-deep in the river, screaming incomprehensibly and trying to tear down a filming platform with his bare hands. Two of the men who tried to stop him were hurt badly enough to be evacuated to Iquitos for medical attention. 

In one crucial scene, Kinski’s character was supposed to seal a deal with locals by drinking “masato”—a milk-like alcoholic beverage made by chewing a boiled yuca root and then spitting the masticated results into a dugout canoe where it is left to sit out in the sun as it ferments. Kinski, who was also a raving germophobe (because of course he was), insisted that his own masato bowl would be filled with evaporated milk; Herzog readily agreed, then switched the bowl for one containing real masato at the last moment and filmed Kinski’s reaction. In fairness it makes for a pretty compelling scene, as one might imagine.

At some point in all of this mayhem, the matter of actually pulling the actual boat over the actual hill became the actual problem that nobody involved had actually formed the faintest idea how to address. 

Storyboarded for the original location near Ecuador, the first issue was the utter dissimilarity of the flora and terrain. Crucially, the grade which had been planned for the project was twenty degrees but, upon arriving at the site, it was discovered that the true grade at the new locale was almost twice that. Herzog had secured a second-hand bulldozer for the clearing of a path over the ridge, but the combination of the much steeper slope and the de-synchronized timetable meant that the machine was largely left to spin its treads hopelessly in crotch-deep mud. Spare parts had to be flown in from Miami, through three sets of customs and two language barriers, and when they arrived at all they were very often wrong. 

Looking over the capstan-and-pulley rig that had been devised and just about installed to pull the boat, the studio’s hired engineer took Herzog aside and calmly explained that when the capstan failed, as it surely would do, dozens of underpaid indigenous extras (playing underpaid indigenous rope-pullers) would be thrown from the site with a force sufficient to fling them essentially into near-earth orbit. 

“How many killed if it fails?” Herzog asked him.

“Well, all of them,” replied the engineer. Shortly after which, unsurprisingly, he quit. 

Herzog’s solution was to continue without an engineer. And when a structural failure *did* occur a few days later (mercifully just a massive U-bolt that caused the boat to slide unbidden back down the hill, killing nobody but costing the production weeks of lost effort), Herzog’s only outward reaction was to rewrite the scene in real time in order to still use all the footage. I mean, Jeebus Christmas on a bicycle, not even Sisyphus himself was stupid enough to use a fucking boat. 

To say that the resulting film is an epic masterpiece is neither fair and honest, nor the opposite: it’s just hardly the point. Yes, Fitzcarraldo is an extremely well-made film in the sense of its performance as a work of cinematic entertainment. Yes, Fitzcarraldo is probably the apotheosis of Herzog’s filmography as a brilliant storyteller and auteur. But to watch Fitzcarraldo, at least for those who know what happened, is to experience a palpably unique duality. We sit there, not so much watching, as *knowing*. Once upon a time, a fevered genius made a movie about a fevered genius, with a fevered genius for his star, and everyone just about lived through it. Lucky for us, they came up with a terrific picture in the process. 

I hope everyone will plan to join us this Saturday, at a special start time of 6:01pm, for this incredible triptick through the depths of unshaken principle and toxic inspiration. To watch Fitzcarraldo is to watch an entire team of people having their lives utterly changed, and this alone is more than reason enough to come and share the simple pleasure of knowing that we didn’t have to be there too.

Click Here to

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Pulp Fiction (1994)

On Saturday, 28 May at a special start time of 6:01 PM, the Phnom Penh Film Club celebrates one of the most iconic modern American classic movies, Quentin Tarantino’s positively seismic pop-culture statement piece, *Pulp Fiction*, starring John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Samuel L Jackson, Bruce Willis, Ving Rhames, Quentin Tarantino, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Julia Sweeney, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Christopher Walken, Maria de Medeiros and Harvey Keitel. 

When it was first released, Pulp Fiction’s reception formed a stark dividing line. People either loved this movie to the point of recommending it to strangers on street-corners, or hated it to the point of begging close family and friends to ignore the hype and do themselves a favor. And—here’s the thing—the two camps were, to a first approximation, the same size. Fifty years from now someone will make the same observation about this astonishing work of undiluted genius and folks literally aren’t going to believe it. Indeed they can scarcely be brought to believe it now, so total is the transformation that has been wrought by this very movie on the fabric and ground-rules of American pop culture. Already today it is one of the most well-known and appreciated motion pictures in history. It has friends in the remotest corners of the world. It deserves them. 

Quentin Tarantino’s playfully fractured narrative about the lives and times of suburban LA’s seedy underbelly (“I hope Jimmy’s ass is home, ‘cause Marsellus doesn’t have any other partners in 818”) is wrapped as tight as a tourniquet, quick as lightning, yelp-inducingly violent, lush with profanity and coarse sexual innuendo, peppered with stars, and acted, framed, directed, and edited to within an ace of literal perfection. All true enough. But none of these things are what make the experience. No, what makes the experience, and what makes this film so sumptuously enthralling that I can’t go more than a few weeks without re-watching it, is Tarantino’s (fleeting?) gift for the hilarity of a perfectly de-saturated gangster-deadpan badinage, some of it only hilarious once the shock of all that profanity and bloodshed can be safely shunted to a less acutely aggrieved sphere of consciousness.

“Ain’t nobody allowed to kill anyone in my store, except for me or Zed,” is but one example of a sort of line that, for some people, takes a second trip through the movie to thoroughly appreciate. 

“Oh, I’m sorry baby, I had to crash that Honda,” is another. 

“You have any idea what my father went through to get me that watch? I don’t have time to go into it right now, but it was a lot,” is a third. 

“You know what’s bothering me right now? It ain’t the coffee in my kitchen….” is a fourth. 

And I, much like the IMDB quote page for the movie, could go on and on and on. Essentially every line of dialogue is its own unforgettable little jewel of either comic hilarity, scalpel-like social comment, or both. This is the case to such an extent that, these days, starting a scene from the movie among close friends will earn not the completion of the scene by those friends, but the laughter that should have followed from the scene’s completion, with the ten or twelve lines of dialogue in-between rendered utterly implicit. No movie since Caddyshack has enjoyed the same iconic durability of stand-alone reportage, and Pulp Fiction brings the added benefit of being an engrossing dramatic tale with happy- and unhappy ends for some of the least expected characters in it, to boot.

Tarantino has sworn repeatedly that his ongoing casting philosophy has nothing to do with rescuing self-marooned acting careers, but if he’s lying as shamelessly as I think he is, then the crowning achievement in his ability to reach for the improbably out-of-circulation talent must surely be his choice of John Travolta as Vincent Vega—the short-fused and cynical bag-man for local heavy Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), and the closest thing to a protagonist that this utterly fragmented saga will permit. 

Bouncing his coolly vicious menace off colleague Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson), low-end suppliers Lance and Jody (Eric Stoltz and Rosanna Arquette), Marsellus’ wife Mia (Uma Thurman), and one-man cleanup crew Winston Wolfe (Harvey Keitel), Travolta leads us with hair-raising understatement through the life and times of a casually homicidal lieutenant in the drugs-and-shady-dealings rackets. By turns Vincent is newly arrived from Amsterdam, argumentative for argument’s sake, disinterested in thematic restaurants, adoring of his lovingly restored Mustang, reluctant to entertain the boss’ wife, an impeccable dancer, lamentably trigger-happy, un-self-consciously addicted to heroin, and, above all, ready to escalate any difference of opinion to the point of bloodshed, at the all but literal drop of a hat. (“Jules, you give that nimrod fifteen-hundred dollars, I’m gonna shoot him on general principle.”)

Meanwhile Bruce Willis is Butch—the dive-agreeing and over-the-hill prize fighter who, when fight-night arrives, naturally decides to skip the dive. There is also the tale of would-be-café-hold-up artists Pumpkin and Honey-Bunny (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer), whose chosen café to hold up is patronized at that very moment by a class of customer that will prove far more than the duo had quite bargained for (“I been through too much over this case already to just hand it over to your, dumb, ass”). Then there’s Jimmy (Tarantino), the unwilling host of a delicately tight-spotted Jules and Vincent (“When you two came pullin’ in here, did you notice a sign on my front yard that says ‘dead n----r storage’?”), and Brett and Roger, the aspiring double-crossers, soon to experience the sum and substance of Jules’ bible-quoting wrath (“Hey you, flock-of-seagulls: wanna tell my man Vincent where the case is hidden?”). There are also (second-viewing?) uproarious scenes involving near-fatal drug overdoses, twist-dancing contests, jokes that fell flat on pilot TV-shows, a disquieting exposé into the goings-on in the basement of a Compton-vicinity pawn shop, a poignantly unruffled exchange over the cleaning of a crime scene, and on through the night into the chill dawn air of such Tarantino-childhood stomping grounds as Redondo and Englewood and Toluca Lake. (“Where’s Toluca Lake?!?” “It’s just over the hill, man!!!”)

It may take some people more work to accept than perhaps it should or would with other great films, but the fact remains: To have found Pulp Fiction’s peculiar rhythm of ghastly carnage and comedic timing is to realize, as if in one of those shaft-of-light moments from other movies, just how brilliant and unique this movie really is. 

“I watched it again on your advice,” a friend of mine once said to me, a few years after the film came out on video. “An’ normally yo’ ass would be as dead as fried f*ckin’ chicken right now,” he continued, “but you happened to pull this shit while I’m in a transitional period.”

…And, just like that, I knew I’d scored another convert.

I hope everyone (convert and otherwise) will make a special point of joining us this Saturday, 28 May at 6:01 PM, for this no-holds-barred thrill ride of Gothic bloodshed, cinematic hilarity and time-capsule perfection. There may be many movies like it, today and into the future, but there will never, ever, ever be another moment quite like the one that this film had. It simply demands to be watched.  

Click Here to

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Fellini's 8-1/2 (1963) 2h18m

On Saturday, 21 May at 6:31pm, The Phnom Penh Film Club enters the far turn of its Big Movie May with a screening of one of the most iconic touchstones of Euopean cinematic excellence, Federico Fellini's *8-1/2*, starring Marcello Mastroiani and Claudia Cardinale. 

I've heard it said that most of the cachet of this film is dependent on having seen a significant portion of director Federico Fellini's other works, in general, and on appreciating the title as a self-directed jab at the creative drought that descended over him after completion of his previous -- and eighth -- film, La Dolce Vita in particular. And I'm here to tell you that it doesn't matter. Just as Airplane works without having first seen Zero Hour, this film works regardless of one's familiarity with Fellini the director, or with the angst-ridden impetus that went into this particular project, either one.

In a move that must have been the inspiration for Charlie Kauffman's often ham-fisted metacraft, Fellini wrote and directed this story of Guido (Marcello Mastroiani), himself a famous but suddenly uninspired director. When we meet him Guido is struggling to complete a picture in a town not quite remote enough to spare him from the demands of paparazzi, would-be crew, long-estranged friends, or assorted female lovers, either. Already doubtful as to his facility to complete the project, Guido careens from one preposterous request being placed upon him to the next -- eventually retreating into a blurred simulacrum in which the best fever-dream vignettes infect his waking life, and ultimately his plans for how to change the direction of the picture.

As a young child in the extreme exurbs of New York in the 1970s, I grew up with neither home video rentals nor 250-channel television. I saw many, many movies -- but they were the movies that happened to be showing on one of the two channels I could consistently watch. Thus it was that I ended up taking this particular Fellini film before any other, and over the decades since, the approach has had both an up- and down-side. On the one hand, it has rendered all other Fellini films far too accessible and linear for me to place them on the same tier of greatness that they enjoy in the eyes and hearts of so many other film buffs. But it also rarefies the experience of 8-1/2 itself, which commands a special place in my heart as one of those "I'll always know where I was the first time" sorts of films.

I hope everyone will plan to join us Saturday, 21 May, at 6:31pm for one of the truely iconic specimens of the modern canon. We owe it to Guido, to Fellini, and ultimately to ourselves -- to find out whether the crippling impostor syndrome, scrambled priorities and last-minute re-writes of this world can be counted on to build us something truly great. 
Click Here to