Movies, yes. Art, not even.

I’ve aired it here before, and if I haven’t I will now: almost every comic book movie bores me to suicidal tendencies. They make zero narrative sense and are the most cynical kind of anti-art — soulless, silly, self-inflated money machines. They’re a cineplex pox.

That said …

A couple of weeks ago auteur Martin Scorsese volunteered his opinion about Marvel comic book movies. Here are his now notorious words, which sparked howls of defensive dialogue, mostly from comic book movie writers and directors (naturally): 

“That’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

As one might exclaim in the cartoony Marvel universe: kapow!

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Scorsese

Then, yesterday, Francis Ford Coppola, Scorsese’s esteemed comrade in canonical ‘70s Hollywood, hurled perhaps a bigger grenade into the controversy:

“When Martin Scorsese says that the Marvel pictures are not cinema, he’s right because we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration. … I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again. Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.”

Not enough? Lauded British filmmaker Ken Loach offered his two pence this week about superhero films: 

“I find them boring. They’re made as commodities … like hamburgers … It’s about making a commodity which will make profit for a big corporation — they’re a cynical exercise. They’re a market exercise and it has nothing to do with the art of cinema.”

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(What superhero movies do I like, you might ask? I love “The Dark Knight,” “Logan,” “Iron Man,” “Unbreakable,” and one of the early “Spider-Man” flicks, I can’t remember which one because there’s like 12.)

The profundity of art. Or not.

I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew. I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music ‘changed their life,’ especially since I had often known these people before and after their experience and could register no change. … The closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.”

— from the novel “Leaving the Atocha Station” by Ben Lerner

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Forty years on, digging into the exhilarating horror of ‘Alien’

Let’s cut to the chest: Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece “Alien” is forever remembered for one indelible scene — a “very significant moment in film history,” genre director Gary Sherman says — the chest-burster sequence, when a gore-slimed, serpentine creature chews its way out of the torso of a hapless John Hurt while he’s having dinner, leaving him a quivering, blood-drenched corpse and unleashing the title monster to slither away and torment the rest of the spaceship’s unsettled crew for the next hour.

Great detail and respect are granted this monumental moment in Alexandre O. Philippe’s dizzyingly in-depth, intellectually exhaustive documentary “Memory: The Origins of Alien” — from wild talking-head theories (Hurt is literally giving birth!) to gruesome behind-the-scenes footage of this greatest of gross-outs.

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One of those talking heads, author Ian Nathan, deftly parses the visceral and dramatic importance of the scene: “The chest-burster changes the complexion of the film from a kind of epic to a kind of horrible, horrible intimacy that’s claustrophobic and inward. Suddenly everybody is trapped. Suddenly the spaceship is small and confined” and the film becomes a primal survival story. Which, I say, renders “Alien” such a splendid, fearsomely realistic haunted house tale during a grisly second half that vibrates with unendurable tension and dread.

“Memory” makes a strong point that the mythos and monster in “Alien,” which was written by sci-fi fanatic Dan O’Bannon, were hardly original. “‘Alien’ didn’t come out of a creative vacuum,” we’re told. “It drew from a whole heritage of American science fiction.”

O’Bannon cherrypicked sources over the years, including comic books, H.P. Lovecraft’s horror fiction, and B-movies like “It! The Terror from Beyond Space” (1958), Howard Hawks’ “The Thing from Another World” (1951), “Planet of the Vampires” (1965) and, most extensively (and strangely), Roger Corman’s lurid “Queen of Blood” (1966). 

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But it was O’Bannon and director Ridley Scott’s mutual exposure to the lithograph “Necronomicon,” a phantasmagoria of wondrous and hideous creatures by Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger, that cemented the look and language of “Alien.” Scott rhapsodizes about the titular creature, sometimes known as the Xenomorph: “This is beautiful, not just threatening, and it also has very sexual connotations. It’s like a rather beautiful, humanoid bio-mechanoid insect.”

Giger himself did some artistic cherrypicking, synthesizing Egyptian mythology, dream imagery, Boschian fright-scapes, medieval dragons, Hindu goddess Kali and, key to the chest-burster, the disturbing canvasses of British artist Francis Bacon. “Giger consolidates every monster from every mythology from around the world into a single creature. It embodies the mythic Other,” USC professor Henry Jenkins says.   

Why “Alien” works so well is its commitment to the kind of gritty realism of so much superior 1970s American cinema. An Altmanesque naturalism permeates the film, and it boasts gorgeous Kubrickian photography, a crack cast of virtual unknowns, deliberate pacing and adult restraint. 

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It is, simply, an art film. It spurned the space-western kicks of “Star Wars” and the Keane-eyed aliens of “Close Encounters” (both 1977). Suddenly we were served a new, naturalistic depiction of outer space in the sooty, clanky, eerily rain-soaked cargo ship Nostromo, a floating industrial city, a grungy “space truck,” that fatefully investigates a distress signal beamed from an alien planet. 

“Memory” is fascinating when talking about artistry and craft, but veers onto shaky ground when its commentators argue too hard that “Alien” is a product of its social and political times or, almost laughably, gaze at the film through a scrim of academic feminist theory. Says one: The movie is a “male fantasy of the kind of oppression that had been handed out to women over the century of guilt that was part of masculinity.” (Where’s the chest-burster when we need it?)

Fortunately the focus stays mostly on the allegory and mythology behind this iconic, massively influential movie, and the obsessive density of it all is both boggling and breathtaking. The film “can mean many, many, many things,” says writer William Linn, conceding, “I don’t think we can get to the bottom of ‘Alien.’”

“Memory: The Origins of ‘Alien’” hits theaters and VOD on October 4. Trailer HERE.

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Random reflections, part IV

This painting kills me. It’s titled “Brave Cone Dog” and it’s by a wry, puckish character named Brandon Bird, who makes very witty pop art. I don’t have much to say about the minimalist image, because it speaks (morosely, piteously, hilariously) for itself. I own a framed print of it, and everyday it stirs in me an emotional milkshake. 

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“Brave Cone Dog”

This I like, from a recent book review: “Walter Benjamin wrote that a truly great sentence is one that’s been burnished to perfection, then sabotaged in some respect. Wounded or weakened just sufficiently to seduce.”

As a kid, I was a quivering hypochondriac. To wit: At age 7 I had a cramp on the left side of my belly that lasted a couple hours. Convinced it was appendicitis, I curled into a ball in my parents’ empty bed and envisioned horrors of surgery and gloom and, yes, death. The cramp subsided and I proceeded to watch TV, tear-streaked. Around age 9 I had a swollen bruise on my knee that I mistook for a malignant tumor. I crumpled on my bedroom floor in a sleeping bag, too distraught to clamber into bed, and imagined losing my leg to certain amputation. Later, I calmed and accepted that it was just a bruise and I watched TV, tear-streaked. I still often misdiagnose myself, hurling me into fleeting, fluttery hysteria. Then I watch TV, tear-streaked. Reader, WebMD is your foe.

In this week’s “By the Book” column in The New York Times, singer-author-badass Patti Smith is asked “What’s the last great book you read?” She replies:

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Recently I was captured by two small, addictive works. “Kingdom Cons,” by the Mexican author Yuri Herrera, floored me. … And “Star,” by Yukio Mishima, is a startlingly modern, hypervisual jewel; it could be a really interesting movie. Both books were mesmerizing, seeming to fall in my hands from an alternative sky.

As I’m doing a semi-immersion in Japanese literature and film in preparation for a fall trip to Japan, I picked up “Star,” which is about a hot movie actor in existential distress. From Smith’s zippy description, I expect glitter and diamonds.

At the cafe today, a 30-something hipster in a wool fedora, four-day stubble and ratty Chuck Taylors sans socks sat next to me, slipped on headphones and went on to loudly tap his feet and roll his head, wearing an imbecilic grin, all but dancing in his seat. I wanted to spill his kombucha. Was I wrong? And: He wore a large thumb ring.

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One of the Japanese movies I’m revisiting before I go to Japan is “Ichi the Killer,” a shock-cinema bloodbath from bad boy auteur Takashi Miike (say: Meek-a). About a kidnapped yakuza boss, his punky minion — a psychopathic sadomasochist whose specialty is baroque disfigurement — and the titular hero, a bullied weakling out for revenge, this notoriously twisted crime comedy was tonic jazz the first time I saw it. Now it mostly plays as an extreme exercise in tedious transgression: How disgusting can we get? Bloated with rape, murder, drugs, gangsters, prostitution, masturbation, self-mutilation, unthinkable torture, disembowelment and ample amputation, the film is set in the sometimes seamy nightlife district of Shinjuku in Tokyo. Which is where I’m staying. 

I‘ve owned pet rats named Phoebe, Becky, Tammy and LaShonda. A friend told me I’d inadvertently given the rats the names of receptionists at construction companies.

The other day I actually saw a guy rollerblading in the neighborhood. That is something you cannot unsee. It’s sort of like seeing someone on a unicycle.

Words I love: blithebloviate, evanescent, loquacious. Let’s add nincompoopery to the list.

Random reflections, part III

“We die — that may be the meaning of life,” said author Toni Morrison, who died Monday. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

I‘ve tried many times to watch “The Princess Bride,” “Stand By Me” and “When Harry Met Sally,” but I’ve never been able to get through any of them. They are ham-handed. They aren’t funny. They clunk. That Rob Reiner directed all of them is strictly coincidental.

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The famous “orgasm” scene, which gets more embarrassing with each viewing.

I swear, Cubby the dog has a perverse crush on the female cat Tiger Lily. He gawkily flirts with her, and her eye-rolling indifference is touching. Such inter-species passion is a spectacle. I sure hope I don’t see a newborn kitten that barks.

I jot in my journal pretty much every day with purpose and the fugitive hope of substance. The author Yiyun Li writes, “How did I forget to start each and every page of my journal with the reminder that nothing matters?” My head nods vigorously.

The last time I went to Japan I got hooked on the sizzling pop art of Takashi Murakami, whose work spans painting, sculpture, fashion, merchandise and animation. It’s fun and whimsical and dazzlingly colorful — and not a little geeky. His subject matter is cute (kawaii), psychedelic and satirical, with well-trod motifs: smiling flowers, mushrooms, skulls and manga culture. Murakami could be the Jeff Koons of Japan. I’m going there soon. My goal is to get Murakami’d, big time.

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My phone’s current wallpaper.

A few years ago I discovered I had an adult-onset allergy to shrimp and prawns. It’s like the second worst thing that’s ever happened to me.

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A fan of novelist Colson Whitehead, I’m deflated by his new, lavishly overrated book “The Nickel Boys.” It lacks energy, momentum and finally fizzles at the halfway mark. So I put it down (I also couldn’t get into his early novel “John Henry Days,” though I’m all about “The Intuitionist” and “The Underground Railroad”) and picked up Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood.” I’ve read one other Murakami novel, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” and I almost threw it against a wall. The edge is where I live.

Tonight we popped a bottle of Suntory Whisky Toki, “blended Japanese whisky that is both groundbreaking and timeless.” It is silky and smoky with strong, sweet vanilla notes. I think none of us is going to bed.

Quentin Tarantino has made movies. He has made only two masterworks, “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” That was a very long time ago. The rest of his oeuvre seesaws from juvenilia to junk. As critic David Denby wrote on the release of the imbecilic “Inglourious Basterds”: “Tarantino has become an embarrassment: his virtuosity as a maker of images has been overwhelmed by his inanity as an idiot de la cinémathèque.”

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Intimacy is scary. Love is scarier. Someone recently dubbed the phenomenon “the terror of loving.” I like that. Its precision is chilling.

I am typing most of this in the air, row 45, seat G, on United flight 497 to San Francisco. You might say I’m skywriting. Forget I just said that.

9 best films of 2019 (so far)

In no particular order, the movies I’m excited about at the year’s half-way point …

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“Climax”

Puckishly sadistic, Gaspar Noé and Lars von Trier remain cinema’s great pessimists, glib nihilists and gleeful provocateurs. Look, without flinching, at Noé’s masterwork “Irréversible” or von Trier’s “Antichrist” and you’ll see my point. With the head-spinning, hallucinogenic swirl of body (and camera) movement that is “Climax,” Noé takes his visual and thematic tics past the edge of woozy chaos. When an extraordinarily talented dance troupe’s party is ruined by a bowl of LSD-spiked punch, hell uncorks with fury. What was a glorious pageant of writhing bodies becomes a descent into a violent nightmare of screeching, thrashing individuals trying to relocate reality. The camera rides a liquid wave of neon hues, racing and corkscrewing down halls and weaving through rooms. Frequently indulgent and meandering, with no real characters or story, just sensation and electro-shock, the film is pure immersion, a sustained climax. I didn’t say it was pleasant. But it is novel, and queerly riveting. And purely Noé. Watch the trailer HERE.

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“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

At once arty, elegiac, poetic and tough-minded, this is a tale, a beautiful reverie, that strikes on topics of race and class and gentrification with sparks and lyricism and primary-color Spike Lee sizzle. It’s something singular, and it slowly intoxicates with its emotional and sociological depths. Following Jimmie Fails (played by the actor of the same name — he’s as charismatic as a young Don Cheadle) as he presses to reclaim the giant Victorian home of his grandfather, the film is both a call to honoring blood bonds and a plaintive hymn to a troubled city. Joe Talbot directs (and co-writes) with soaring vision and intense feeling. The result is dire, daring, dreamy. Trailer HERE.

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“Honeyland”

In this gorgeously observational documentary, weathered, middle-aged Hatidze lives in the rocky Macedonian mountains, where she cares for her ailing mother and tends to several beehives that produce honey for a tenuous livelihood. A large, rowdy family moves next door and decides to try beekeeping, but without expertise, they flail and almost comically get stung more than they harvest the sweet goo. Tensions arise between the neighbors, but this achingly humanistic look at an exotic if seriously impoverished way of life is mostly a portrait of Hatidze, a steely, lonely woman who has as much soul as those mountains can contain. The doc won a record three awards at Sundance 2019, including for its ravishing cinematography. Trailer HERE.

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“The Mustang”

Breaking a horse is a bitch. Triple the challenge if it’s a rearing, snorting wild desert mustang. That’s what Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is tasked with as a violent criminal in a Nevada prison program in which convicts break mustangs for auction, preparing them for work in law enforcement. “We’re not training these horses for little kids’ birthdays and pony rides,” growls Bruce Dern’s crusty bossman, who knows both man and horse require an especially prickly strain of tough-love. If Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s feature debut falls into a formulaic groove — the apex of the depiction of trust-building between human and wild horse remains Carroll Ballard’s 1979 “The Black Stallion” — the film doesn’t flinch from gritty, violent twists. The dangerous dance between Roman and his horse Marcus retains tension, as the two captives, both scrappy and obstinate, circle each other in a face-off that could end in injury and defeat, or mutual respect and friendship. Roman’s frustration boils — “Just fucking listen to me!” he snaps. “I’m not going to hurt you! You hear me, you stupid animal!” — and it’s no surprise the horse is listening. Trailer HERE.

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“Her Smell”

Elisabeth Moss’ performance in this shambolic punk-rock portrait is as athletically interior as it is exterior, spiked with physical fits and spasms like a lunatic child in a druggy tantrum. In my favorite performance of the year, Moss plays Becky, volatile front-woman of a female punk band she’s struggling to keep together between coke binges and flame-throwing hissy fits. The actress stirs up a cackling, hand-flinging cauldron of Courtney Love, Blanche DuBois, Charles Manson and Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence.” It’s all raw-nerve, and Moss commits to her anti-heroine in a self-immolating blaze. She’s as shattering as this ballsy, surprisingly sensitive film by writer-director Alex Ross Perry. Trailer HERE.

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“Booksmart”

Barreling forth with raunchy vigor and unbridled zest, this breakneck coming-of-age comedy, actress Olivia Wilde’s impressive directorial debut, screams fun. Almost literally: There’s a lot of screaming — in surprise, horror and explosive joy. An amplified spin on school-days greats — “Dazed and Confused,” John Hughes’ oeuvre and last year’s “Lady Bird” and “Eighth Grade” — “Booksmart” piles on twists with a sharp, knowing eye that zooms in on the timely and topical, from female power and LGBTQs, to bullying and the corrosive effects of cliques, and, duh, the liberating if daunting pull of sexual exploration. Starring a terrific Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as boundary-pushing besties, who learn, in a fleeting haze, that maybe bongs are as fun as books. Trailer HERE.

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“Gloria Bell”

A glowing Julianne Moore — is there a more radiant actress? — assumes the title role in this sweet, ebullient, slightly melancholic snapshot of a middle-aged divorced woman seeking love and connection in modern Los Angeles. A touching remake of the 2013 Chilean film “Gloria,” by the writer-director of that movie, Sebastián Lelio, the movie follows its wise, free-spirited character onto her favorite place, the dance floor, where she finds romance with a nice guy (a fine, empathetic John Turturro) and all the attendant delights, complications and disappointments of love. No matter how sore things get, Gloria’s joie de vivre stays infectious. Trailer HERE.

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“Non-Fiction”

French writer-director Olivier Assayas‘ dramedy is a tireless, tonic gabfest that had me speed-reading the flurry of subtitles more than drinking in the warm faces and colors of the bustling scenes. That’s no complaint. The profusion of words — intelligent, eloquent, biting — brim with ideas, humor, pain and pathos, for an enveloping artful experience. You want to know the fork-tongued characters, led by an enchanting Juliette Binoche, because of the literary, arty cosmos in which these writers, editors and actors orbit. It’s heady and human: They’re just people, with all of our people-ly problems, and it’s more exciting than you think. Part tart publishing-world satire, part feast of infidelity, part anatomy of midlife crises, “Non-Fiction” is light on plot, more enmeshed in ideas about love and life, loyalty between friends and lovers, and, in a topical concession, a pointed conversation about new media vs. the printed word. It’s like a Gallic Woody Allen comedy, without the tootling clarinet and stammering, gesticulating neuroses. Trailer HERE.

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“The Souvenir”

Not an easy film, Joanna Hogg‘s elusive, divisive relationship drama is boobytrapped with qualities that repel people from the arthouse. It’s glacial, elliptical, remote. It makes you work with loosely hanging scenes, a jagged structure and oblique characterizations. I broke a small sweat trying to solder the plot together, identify with the actors and figure out where Hogg was taking me. The entry point is young film student Julie, played with winsome diffidence by Honor Swinton Byrne. Julie’s lover Anthony (Tom Burke) is a heroin addict, a secret until it’s not, which inevitably snarls their relationship. The story is mostly scenes of the couple muddling through their unconventional, occasionally off-putting upper-middle-class affair. With drugs. And spats. And sex. And dinner parties. And the making of a student film. And an IRA bombing. Somehow, Hogg’s disparate elements crazily fall together. Trailer HERE.

The story behind my blog photo

People have asked me if the photograph above this blog is is a screen-shot from Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” as it resembles a scene from that classic 1959 film. It is not.
It is Alfred Eisenstaedt‘s amazing picture of kids at a Parisian puppet show, “Saint George and the Dragon,” at an outdoor theater in 1963.
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Time magazine recently wrote about this enchanting photo:

Capturing the thrill, the shock, the shared triumph-over-evil that the children feel at the very moment when St. George slays the mythical beast, Eisenstaedt’s picture feels as fresh as when it was made, more than 50 years ago.

Here, the picture tells us, is an innocence that can remind even the most jaded of what it was once like to believe, to really believe, in the stories that unfold before our eyes onstage, or onscreen.

The master photographer himself said of this very picture:

“It took a long time to get the angle I liked. But the best picture is the one I took at the climax of the action. It carries all the excitement of the children screaming, The dragon is slain! Very often this sort of thing is only a momentary vision. My brain does not register, only my eyes and finger react. Click.”