MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO
(Gus Van Sant, 1991).
Mike Waters (River Phoenix), a young street hustler wandering through
the Pacific Northwest, is subject to fits of narcolepsy. He tends to
conk out whenever things get too difficult and stressful, and in his
dream states we see images of his childhood and long-lost mother. He
gets picked up by a Portland woman who takes him to her house, where
it turns out there are already two other male prostitutes. Mike has
one of his sleeping fits there, and is carried out in his helpless state
by Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), one of the hustlers. They become friends,
and Scott introduces him to other denizens of Portland’s skid
Van Sant is interested in evoking feeling states through visual style,
and only secondarily in narrative. This film is about what it feels
like to be a drifter, surviving from day to day, hanging out in diners
and flophouses, talking aimlessly. Narcolepsy, which has its own drifting
quality, is a perfect thematic device for this picture. The travels
of the two main characters are punctuated with large, unexplained gaps:
they just show up in places somehow. There’s a constant sense
of sadness and disconnection here, but also a sort of devil-may-care
sense of humor, the humor of young adventurers with nothing to lose.
We discover eventually, in the casual and elliptical fashion by which
Van Sant allows us to discover anything, that Scott actually comes from
a rich family. Here is injected the motif, from Shakespeare’s
Henry IV, of the profligate young Prince Hal (Scott) and the
older man Falstaff, both mentor and victim—in this case an old,
overweight gay drifter named Bob (William Reichert), proud in his way
but perpetually in need of money, the hope for which forms part of his
attachment to Scott. Van Sant even incorporates some of the actual lines
from Shakespeare’s play, and he’s in such control here that
this doesn’t seem awkward at all. Throughout the picture, he aims
for stylized poetic expression rather than realism, so the Prince Hal
theme ends up fitting right in.
Reeves is required to play a self-centered character who resists vulnerability,
and since that’s within his range, he does well. Phoenix’s
character, however, is really the heart of the film—it’s
impossible to imagine another actor who could portray this figure of
lost, wounded innocence and make it convincing. Among the film’s
scattered journeys, the quest for Mike’s mother carries the most
meaning. The child’s overpowering need for love and home is the
one underlying fact, the key thread in this wistful, ragged tapestry
of a movie.
LET’S GET LOST (Bruce Weber, 1988).
A portrait of Chet Baker, the jazz trumpeter and singer who was one
of the pioneers of the “cool” West Coast jazz sound. The
film opens with Baker near the end of his life (he died a year later),
hanging out on the beach with his current partner and another young
woman, musing about his life in a stoned, dreamy reverie. Although he’s
only 57, his face looks ravaged with age, evidently from years of drug
use and living in the fast lane. But the eyes still radiate an intense
kind of beauty.
Then the film goes back in time, to the years when Baker exploded on
the scene, the peak years in the 1950s and early 60s, when he was most
popular. The voice and the playing were wonderful, and he was a strikingly
handsome man then, for sure. Weber, who made his name in fashion advertising,
shot the film in black-and-white, which matches the old footage and
perfectly evokes the smoky, laid-back jazz atmosphere of the time.
The film features interviews with people who knew him well, but the
talking heads don’t break the spell. They do, however, reveal
Baker’s darker sides, the drug problems and the bad marriages
and the failure to honor commitments. The ex-wives and girlfriends are
brutally frank; we get the lows as well as the highs. The movie starts
to be more meaningful than perhaps Weber himself intended—more
than just a film about a talented train-wreck of a man, it becomes a
study in the tragic effects of a certain kind of careless approach to
life. The music, of course, permeates the film and lends a romantic,
melancholy hue to everything. Weber’s fidelity to mood transcends
the conventions of biopic, turning Let’s Get Lost into
a beautiful, albeit minor, cinematic gem.
INAUGURATION OF THE PLEASURE DOME
(Kenneth Anger, 1954).
The work of avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger stands apart even
within the world of American experimental cinema. It is hard to believe
that this 38-minute film, with its hallucinatory imagery and homoerotic
overtones, was made in the middle of the repressed 1950s. However, the
version I saw appears to have been recut for a 1966 release.
Against the sonic background of Leo Janácek’s “Glagolitic
Mass,” we witness a succession of strangely costumed figures enacting
symbolic, ritualistic scenes. The opening scene shows a man of imposing
figure handling a beautiful gold chain which he eventually seems to
drop into his mouth, swallowing it bit by bit. After he gazes into some
mirrors, there appears a clawed, ape-like creature. Then a series of
female figures in various costumes appear carrying different symbolic
objects. Sometimes they hand these objects to a male figure. In one
sequence, a woman in Egyptian garb puts a talisman in the mouth of an
All movements are very slow and deliberate. Combined with the extremely
grave and dramatic Janácek music, this creates a hypnotizing
effect. Often a figure, in elaborate mythical costume and makeup, will
appear almost still as in a tableau, with colored light or flame playing
about the face, or sometimes with superimpositions of other figures.
Towards the end of the film, the imagery becomes more intense, evoking
some kind of ecstatic transformation.
In addition to the sense of watching a mythological ritual, there is
a marked element of homoeroticism in the appearance of the actors, and
what we might now call a certain level of “camp.” This was
new territory for film in the 50s, and no doubt influenced the much
later, more sophisticated efforts of Derek Jarman. Viewing the movie
without any background information, it was impossible for me to make
more than these general observations. Later I discovered that the symbolism
was based on the writings of the decadent occult writer Aleister Crowley,
of which Anger was an enthusiastic devotee.
As often happens with the avant-garde, the pioneer work has been stripped
somewhat of its novelty by its successors and imitators. This is a film
that seems more likely to be appreciated while under the influence of
psychedelics, and I understand that was just how most audiences saw
it in the 60s. Since I’m not especially sympathetic to this sort
of ritualistic world-view, I found myself weary after the film’s
first half. There’s no denying, however, that the picture has
a weird, haunting flavor all its own.
(Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1963).
In 1940, a poverty-stricken family—parents and two young sons—trudge
across Brazil’s drought-plagued northeast in search of work. The
youngest boy almost dies from heat stroke. Eventually the father finds
work as a cowhand at a ranch. Although the stingy ranch owner doesn’t
provide adequate pay, the mother hopes to save enough to eventually
buy a good bed. But the family’s trip to the local village on
payday confronts the father with the lures of alcohol and a card game.
The film represented a break with the previous romantic, imitative trends
in Brazilian cinema. It was one of the opening salvos in what became
known as the “Cinema Novo” movement. Based on a 1938 novel
by Graciliano Ramos, Vidas Secas (“Barren Lives”) is more
stylistically inventive than the plot summary might indicate. The black-and-white
cinematography is stunning—the slightly overexposed lighting style
makes the impoverished desert setting almost palpable. Point-of-view
shots predominate: the director does not hesitate to present the action
from the vantage point of a young child, or even—in one brilliant
sequence—the family dog, who plays a key role in the story. The
use of hand-held shots is somewhat unusual for the time. Dialogue is
kept to a minimum, with a lot of the story told through the gestures
and facial expressions of the actors.
One of the picture’s central insights is that conditions of poverty
make it difficult for people to resist immediate temptations of pleasure
by planning for the future, since there is so little joy or fulfillment
in the present. The injustice of the system is portrayed matter-of-factly,
as if part of the landscape, rather than a matter of personal good and
evil. Although the sociopolitical implications are overt, Perreira de
Santos’ brilliant style ultimately strikes deeper. This is a portrait
of both suffering and endurance, a film of great humanism, in which
the experience of each member of the family is honored and given its
due. It fathered an entire tradition of realism in Brazilian cinema.
THE BODY SNATCHER (Robert Wise, 1945).
Young medical student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) is taken under
the wing of the distinguished Edinburgh doctor Wolfe MacFarlane (Henry
Daniell). Dedicated to finding cures for suffering patients, MacFarlane
needs more cadavers for his research than can be obtained legally, so
he employs a shady cabman named John Gray (Boris Karloff) to do some
grave robbing. Fettes suspects that Gray also resorts to murder, but
the sinister cabman knows incriminating secrets that keeps MacFarlane
in his grip.
This is one of the interesting series of horror movies created by the
talented writer-producer Val Lewton in the 1940s. The film is adapted
from a Robert Louis Stevenson story, and Wise (still in his apprenticeship
as a director) creates a marvelously gloomy period feeling, full of
fog and shadow. This is not really a very scary film, though; it’s
more of a portrait of the dark side of human nature, with Karloff and
Daniell representing a kind of mirror-image example of moral degradation.
Karloff is perfect for this part. Gray is not just some horror villain,
but a fascinating and complex figure, whose macabre behavior springs
from an understandable inner source. Daniell, in a central role for
once in his career, is fine as the doctor with a tortured conscience.
The weak point is the young Wade, who is evidently meant to be the audience’s
point of identification, but is too shallow a performer to bring the
conflicted Fettes to life. Bela Lugosi appears in a minor role as a
foolish blackmailer, and Karloff acts rings around him.
This is not one of Lewton’s best pictures. It’s a modest
piece of work, memorable mostly for its atmosphere, a nice slam-bang
ending, and Karloff. Still, there’s a ripe sense of evil that
places The Body Snatcher a notch above the average studio product
and makes it worth a look.
©2008 Chris Dashiell