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.  

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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. 
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Thursday, May 12, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Apocalypse Now (1979) 3h 1m -- Starts 6:00pm

On Saturday, 14 May at a special start time of 6:00pm, The Phnom Penh Film Club dives almost literally into the inky-black inscrutability and psychedelic pathos of Francis Ford Coppola’s sprawling Vietnam-war arabesque: *Apocalypse Now*, starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Harrison Ford, Laurence Fishburne, Frederic Forest, Sam Bottoms and Robert Duvall.

Frequent attendees of our post-film discussions will have noticed our proclivity to invoke the concept of “story circle.” There is, it happens, a reductive metric for narrative storytelling, from which almost any familiar and/or successful tale can be confidently strung. A reluctant hero is forced to leave a comfortable situation, entering a new aspect in which he or she will lose all prior ego-crutches, reach a deep point of crisis, summon the strength necessary to make the bigger choice, pay a heavy price for it, vanquish the antagonist, and return to his or her tribe as a conquering master of both worlds. 

This metric works equally whether one is describing Oscar Schindler or Ellen Ripley, but the success of the model’s adaptability is also a trap: Yes, it’s an axiomatic law of superlative storycraft, but only because it doesn’t—once we slow down enough to really think about it—really prescribe all that much specificity regarding how to navigate the specific stations along the way. 

If one wishes to tell a story about the grim absurdity of American imperialist folly in Southeast Asia, the mere fact of knowing that our hero must face a deep crisis and pull himself together is tautological to the ragged edge of useless. Will he find the courage to rescue a stricken buddy? Will he frag his C-O instead of burning a village? Will he testify before Congress? If he can’t do all three, then how does the storyteller rely on best practices to recount such a grim and pointless episode in history, where any one of those choices would and does feel manifestly unjust as a favoured vehicle? 

Fortunately for us, every now and again in the history of stories, someone comes along with just the right genius, just the right fervor, and just the right dash of tortured madman to seize the vertiginous challenge of such a structure-free tragedy. To brandish it as his liberating summons for carrying us coolly and just-about-perfectly in directions that we never thought we’d ever want to go. It would seem, in other words, that to tell the tale of a genocidal farce that had no purpose, no allegiances and seemingly no end, you first need to get yourself a screenwriter/director who will look at all that pointlessness, and see it as the point.    

Adapted very loosely from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now pairs us with the slowly self-consuming Army yes-man Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen). An utter failure at civilian life back home, Willard has volunteered to return to Vietnam, a semi-freelancer in the special forces whose prowess at bagging the tough assignments wins him the job of traveling upriver into Cambodia to find and cope with one Col. Walter Kurtz (Brando), apparently gone rogue. To fulfill this mission, Willard will need to cajole an unwilling swiftboat crew, stare down its openly hostile captain, and avoid persuading himself that carrying out the mission will make him officially no better than the man he’s been sent to neutralize. And that isn’t even the half of it.

What follows can only be described as history’s most terrifying zoo—with vignettes featuring bizarre characters holding positions of unacceptably high responsibility, slammed hard against competing scenes where terrified nobodies do whatever they can to stay alive in the absence of leadership. In other words, the movie brilliantly captures precisely what America’s presence in the Vietnam War must have felt like for the soldiers on the ground: rudderless, savage, incomprehensible. Horrific.

Confronted with the simultaneous micro- and macro-absurdity of his bosses’ collective lack of rationale or plan, Willard improvises a clay-footed spread of coping skills, intended as much for his own continued sanity as for the fulfillment of his charge. His motivation is pointless. The objective is pointless. His path is pointless. The death that happens all around him—when it isn’t objectively his fault—is pointless. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, we in the audience come to understand. We get it. 

As a thought-provoking and subversive message, Apocalypse Now is a triumph. As a film, it is a literal masterpiece. By the time it was even finished the movie had taken on near-mythic levels of word-of-mouth cachet. The Director had gone preposterously over his already mammoth budget. A Philippine general in the vicinity of the shoot had demanded ever more lavish considerations to continue withholding his considerable and inventive wrath. Marlon Brando had showed up overweight, obstinate, and lacking the most basic awareness of his character or lines, and then refused to be directed. A typhoon had torn the host city to rubble. Martin Sheen had had a serious heart attack. He'd spent the next day sitting on a fallen tree bare-chested, defibrillating himself. Against reasonable expectations, he just-about survived, exactly as we did.

It is impossible to ignore, if also difficult not to celebrate, the perfect coincidence that all this mayhem presented for enhancing the immediacy of this specific story. At some indeterminate point in the creative process, fairly early on, the notion of “method” no longer applied to an individual actor or his performance as much as it applied to the literal existence of the entire effort. These people didn’t make a movie about the absurdity of Vietnam; they lived it. Little wonder that the finished film instantly became an iconic runaway commercial and critical success.

Over the years literally hundreds of lines of dialogue from this film have forced their way into the pop-culture vernacular (“I love the smell of napalm in the mornin’”), with almost everyone harboring his or her own favorites, and I am no exception. Honorable mention in my own quotable-line award ceremony goes to, “Charging someone with murder around here is like handing-out speeding tickets at the Indianapolis 500.” But the cake-taker, the line that still raises the skin on my forearms, has to be the snippet of v/o that we receive when Capt. Willard is released from captivity by Col. Kurtz and simply left to roam Kurtz’ compound un-escorted. “On the river, I thought that the minute I looked at him I’d know what to do, but it didn’t happen,” Sheen tells us in that trademark drowsy voice-over for which the film has become so widely emulated. “I was there with him for days, not under guard, I was free, but he knew I wasn’t going anywhere. He knew more about what I was going to do than I did.”

I hope everyone will plan to join us, Saturday, 14 May, at 6pm, for this astonishing cinematic accomplishment, about which there is simply little more to say. Of the thousand or so movies that a person really ought to see, Apocalypse Now resides comfortably in the top hundred. Of the four-hundred or so movies that a person really ought to view a dozen times, Apocalypse Now resides comfortably in the top twenty. See it again, for the first time; get goosebumps again—for, the, first, time.
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Monday, May 2, 2022

Film Club Featurette: The Princess Bride (1987) 1h 38m

On Saturday, 7 May at 6:31pm, The Phnom Penh Film Club relishes its chance to share the simple joy of one of the simplest and most joyful films we’ve yet seen, Rob Reiner’s *The Princess Bride*, written by William Goldman and starring Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, Wallace Shawn, André René Roussimoff, Fred Savage and Peter Falk. 

Movies were never intended to change the world. They weren’t supposed to awaken you to the outrages of post-modern cultural decay, they didn’t embolden you to tip your life over and shake it by the ankles, and if they kept coming up later in your outlook and your thoughts it was because something somewhere had gone horribly wrong. In the early days, the point of movies was pure escape: A top-of-the-craft cast set its egos aside to plow gamely through shaky concepts and shoestring budgets and hazardous d-i-y stunts, and no one involved ever took him- or herself seriously enough to forget that entertainment was supposed to be the bloody point of the thing. 

This is important for cinephiles like me to remember, especially when struggling to process the universal cachet of a film like The Princess Bride. Yes, it offers a fun evening, spent with a fun story, with a fun structure and a quotable script and the perfect director and cast. But ask me on the sidewalk why this movie is such an abiding worldwide favourite and, to be perfectly honest, I’d have to mostly look at my shoes and mumble. 

Just why, exactly, is “Never bet against a Sicilian when death is on the table” a more memorable line than, say, “...Well, yeah, plus half of all the graft I take in!” [1] ? What is it about the line, “You keep saying this word; I do not think it means what you think it means” which elevates it so completely above, “There’s a foot in your way?!? Well why don’t you just eat it!!!” [2] ? How exactly do we all come to know “My name is Inigo Montoya...” when almost nobody knows, “You ain’t goin’ anywhere until you tell me who shot this guy Rembrandt!” [3] ? I’m genuinely not sure. Truth is, until we scheduled this picture for our club, I wasn’t sure that I even had a theory.  

Let’s be clear: I love this movie. I love it for its basic and unassuming innocence, for its delicate balance of alternating subplots and perfectly unfussy dénouements, for its writing, for its directions, for its cast. For its effervescent joie de vivre. I love it because it knows exactly what it wants to be and how seriously it doesn’t need to take itself if it wants to work. None of which is good enough reason for a picture to amass the sort of cross-cultural iconography as this one has.  

No, it seems to me that in the counter-examples of some other pictures that could have “been” the Princess Bride [1-3], some magic element of an evocative connection to early cinema just isn’t quite as immediate. A struggling used car lot somewhere on the muddy outskirts of Phoenix is a great platform for a story, but the resulting story—even at its funniest—won’t work at all unless there are some real and possibly even ugly stakes.  A murder mystery on a trans-continental train will find plenty of opportunities for laughs (on the train and off, come to that), but to do that story well in the modern era, the resulting movie will require budgets and soundtracks and a self-seriousness that had all been chosen to please the accountants as much as the theater-goers. Meanwhile Joseph Bologna is a fine actor, yes, but nobody is ever going to mistake him for a maestro performer who consciously elected to put his well-earned ego aside in order to play along with a silly romp and just see folks enjoy themselves. 

The Princess Bride, by contrast, is a deft, cagey, impeccably-cast yet deliberately un-serious, great big popcorn box of stakes-free escapist nothing. Indeed it is as close to literally nothing as a person can get out of a movie crew and a completion bond without accidentally making Koyaanisqatsi In Tights instead. 

The story (such as it is) is easily told and just as easily forgotten. A doddery grandfather reads a tale of adventure to his sick and jaded grandson, while the tale itself unfolds before our eyes into a sort of Narnia-by-Mel-Brooks—complete with a beautiful princess, a dashing hero-boyfriend, a duplicitous count, and enough needless b-story players to keep us continually guessing about which one will come along next to disgrace himself for our amusement. Eminently quotable lines compete for screen-time with costumed sight-gags and touching chemistries. Music swells and dips and never makes the vaguest real impression. Nothing matters, nothing happens, nothing crystallizes in the minds of any of the main characters, and when it’s over nothing’s changed. 

That, friends, **that** is why we love this film so much. It demands to be watched; it demands to be loved; it demands to be quoted and it demands to be remembered as one of the great movie-watching experiences of our often troubled and complicated lives. And all without striving for the first, tiniest shred of importance or cultural cachet. Its cultural cachet is that it hasn’t any. Its claim to our hearts is that it started from inside them. It is known and loved by everyone because it is simply ours, and always has been.    

I hope everyone will make a very special effort to attend this, perhaps the most widely beloved movie we’ve yet screened, Saturday 7 May at 6:31. To miss it would be inconceivable.   


[1] *Used Cars* (1980) directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Kurt Russell, Jack Warden and Deborah Harmon

[2] *The Big Bus* (1976) directed by James Frawley and starring Joseph Bologna, Stockard Channing and John Beck

[3] *Silver Streak* (1977) directed by Arthur Hiller and starring Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, Patrick McGoohan, Clifton James, Ned Beatty and Jill Clayburgh  

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