Saturday, July 29, 2006

Ghost Dog

Rewatching it today, Ghost Dog feels like minor Jarmusch, and yet it's probably his most immediately accessible film, and one of his most enjoyable. It is, of course, a willful aesthetic stretch for a filmmaker pigeonholed into an extremely narrow genre (the 'broke hipsters talking to each other' genre). I love the film, even though it seems to gloss over many of the lessons of Jarmusch's previous film, the definitively major Dead Man. But that's significant, as I think it may reveal Jarmusch as being less interested in making all-encompassing statements (in this case about death and violence) and more in accessing the wider range of resonances and responses.

Jarmusch is a master of big picture thinking - the only contemporary filmmaker I can think of who is comparably attuned to structure is Takeshi Kitano, but his constructions are nowhere near as elegant. Think back to Strangers in Paradise, Down by Law, Dead Man, Coffee and Cigarettes or Broken Flowers and chart out the film's narrative progression in your head - each one contains a concise, beautiful story outline based on rather simple reversals, doublings, staged progressions (Jarmusch studied poetry at NYU, which doubtless had something to do with it). The inarticulate, aimless characters that populate his films are, in a sense, smoke screens that distract from the plot to make its ambling progression feel natural and organic. It occurs to me that perhaps without such lack of direction in the characters themselves the story might feel overdetermined, or at least heavily determined in the Stanley Kubrick sense. As it is, very little in his films feels inevitable until just before it happens, or just after (which, I'd argue, is even the case for Blake's death in Dead Man - an outcome predicted so early in the film that when and if he is killed becomes the central problem of the plot, and while the film maintains an atmosphere of impending doom the ultimate ending is still held up as a question).

I left Ghost Dog off that list above because I think that its failings can be found in the structure, which has less poetic/mythic resonance than most of his other films (which is strange, because it's his first attempt to create a traditional mythic hero). The opening quote announces the hero as dead, and, indeed, the film that follows is a long march towards death at the hands of a man to whom Ghost Dog owes his life - but the similarities to Dead Man shouldn't be overemphasized, as Jarmusch doesn't pursue that aspect of the film besides staging the hit at a house being represented by "Aligheri Realtors" (as well as an interesting flashback depicting a sort of death and resurrection). Ghost Dog is unchanging and devoted to his code, but the secondary characters who do change and progress through the film (in response to him) are very secondary, and there's no real insight into their evolution. There's no Nobody.

The real conflict in the film is between two warrior codes that are both dying out. Against Ghost Dog are small-time Italian gangsters - badly aging, broke, and in terrible shape. It's a nonsensical interpretation of the mobster code that kicks off the plot, and an almost nonsensical (if significantly more noble, in the film's terms) interpretation of the Samurai code that ends it. But there's no balance and no real clash of beliefs in the meat of the film. I love this movie, but watching it reminds me why I love Dead Man and Down By Law more, and what makes them truly great and this one merely intelligent, enjoyable and compulsively watchable.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Clerks II

I saw Clerks II last night. I went in with low expectations and still managed to be disappointed. The charm of the first film came from its modesty, from a crude screenplay that Smith quite obviously loved writing, and from the film's lucid depiction of the soul-deadening aimlessness of customer service jobs. The convenience store job was one that everyone could relate to and similar to something most viewers had probably experienced first hand - the heroes' impotent acts of rebellion against their jobs were the stuff of the sympathetic viewers' more low-key fantasies. Clerks was packed with little ideas, one after the other. Some were clever, some were not, and they were rarely tied together in any way, meaningful or otherwise. But that, along with the equally (suitably) crude performances and plunk-it-wherever camerawork, I think were actually what made the film kind of likeable. Every so often it would surprise you with a genuinely clever (or, at least, surprising) turn or joke. But even as subsequent films made his failings as a filmmaker abundantly clear, I think the focus on Smith's increasingly prominent fumblings with actors, staging, editing and cinematography distracted people from the fact that the holes in his writing have never been rectified.

Clerks II is missing everything that made me want to root for the first movie, except for Jeff Anderson as Randal and Jason Mewes as Jay. The convenience store setting of the first Clerks was recognizable and familiar, which made it ring true(ish) even in its more absurd moments. Nobody, ever, has worked at a business like the Mooby's fast food joint of the new film. It's supposedly a huge chain, but there are a total of four employees (all of whom, evidently, are scheduled to work the entire day) and, oh yeah, there's no pressure for speed or productivity or cleanliness. As in the first film, schlubby hero Dante is stuck between two women, except that again the familiarity of the first film is tossed out the window for a fairly complete lack of believability. This time, Dante's faced with a choice between Rosario Dawson and Playboy model Mrs. Kevin Smith. These aren't real women, of course, they are fantasy creatures that look and smell an awful lot like women as you and I know them, except that the things they do and the words that come out of their mouths bear no resemblance to anyone you or I have ever known. And there's no real dilemma, either. The deck is stacked against the blonde, who is the Platonic ideal of a chauvinist's worst nightmare (she's trying to "control" him). By Dante's third or fourth dewey gaze in Ms. Dawson's direction, we get the idea already, even though Dawson's character seems like the equally questionable flip side of the blonde harpy - the good fantasy girl of someone who, I can only assume, has never actually spoken to a woman before. Worse, Smith's attempts to plant doubt as to whether whoever Dante chooses would love him in return are lame and unconvincing. Instead of the plotless meanderings of the first film, here the plot mechanics kick in after fifteen minutes, everything proceeding according to expectations with a few insubstantial twists thrown in here and there. Not even horse fucking - and, I'll just say that it never occurred to me that bestiality could be predictable - can distract from the corny, cliched rigidity of the storyline.

Even the dialogue, once upon a time Smith's claim to fame, is dull, largely based on one character saying something outrageous and then another character groaning and shaking his head in disbelief. It's lazy lazy writing, and it's not funny, particularly after whatever sharpness may have been there is deadened by Smith's baldly incompetent editing.

I find the differences between the two films' relative charm enlightening, and Smith's continued popularity is a mystery to me. Even more mysterious is why this sentence is allowed to exist: "Written, Directed, Produced and Edited by Kevin Smith." Smith has some pretty clever ideas for how to make boring white Jersey a little more exciting (which is the basis for all his plots and, I suppose, his motivation for the actt of filmmaking), but this script is a first draft that somebody else should have edited and rewritten, and that somebody else should have directed. Somebody with a feel for people as well as dialogue, with the ability to tell a story that doesn't rely on the moldiest cliches in the book as basic building blocks, and with some aptitude for the staging and rhythms of comedy (and, for God's sake, someone who knows what to do with actors). My suggestion? Betty Thomas might be available. She's consistently given shit scripts and making the most of them. You might say that she specializes in films that should, by all accounts, be total disasters (The Brady Bunch, Howard Stern's Private Parts, Dr. Dolittle, etc) and making them watchable, with a few very good moments thrown in here and there. Maybe someday she'll make a good movie, rather than a suprisingly not-bad one, but everything she does well is missing from Kevin Smith's repertoire. At the very least she could flesh out his half-baked characters on both sides of the gender line, could show him how to put together gags both obvious and subtle, could instruct his actors on how to give a humorous line reading, and could bring a few more distractions of her own to cover up the hulking inevitabilities of the eye-rolling story.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Dennis Cooper's Try

I recently reread Dennis Cooper's "Try," which I had once thought of as one of his weaker books. Cooper's extraordinary generosity as an artist is located mainly in his two continual projects: humanizing the vilest monsters imaginable and also humanizing their victims. What struck me this time around is the extraordinary catharthis Cooper manages to wring out of the most mundane of moments (mundane, and often also disgusting or horrific if uneventful). It's a wonderful book, with the Bressonian austerity he preaches fitting nicely with the hesitating, inarticulate muddle of his subjects' thoughts and voices. When needed, he musters up passages of extreme honesty and clarity that will knock you on your ass if you're not prepared for them. The cast is larger in this one, which I like, and with strong, compelling female characters, who I wanted to know more about - which is actually exactly what the narrative requires you to feel. The grueling parts of Cooper's work always reveal themselves to be more tragic than sensational once the shock wears off (I nearly cried during "The Sluts" despite the fact that its most affecting passages describe acts more repulsive than anything I could ever conceive of). And the tragic parts manage to contain some faint (or, occasionally, not so faint) glimmer of hope that I can never quite locate. It's the moments in which nothing is happening - miniature revelations that might not even register on a character's face - when the most stirring sentiments are unearthed.