and a few more films

Eaux d'Artifice (1953)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

#259  [archive]
MAR. 12, 2024

This is from well-respected avant-garde arteest Kenneth Anger. His Puce Moment worked for me, but this one, not so much.

It's 13 minutes of water flowing, while a woman wears a huge hat, and walks around and sometimes through the water and past the fountains. The imagery is in black-and-white, some of it blue-tinted, and it's accompanied by classical music I didn't recognize. 

Well, all righty then.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦

Ed and His Dead Mother (1992)
Streaming free at Tubi

Ed (Steve Buscemi) inherited the hardware store after his mother died, but he misses her terribly, so when a slick and toothy resurrection salesman (John Glover) promises to bring Mom back for a reasonable price, Ed agrees to the deal. Ed and His Dead Mother is not a sensitive study of grief and recovery, so pretty soon Mom's making breakfast and crouching inside the refrigerator. 

This is an oddity. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's simply weird. When there's no joke, the script tosses in something shocking, so if you've always wanted to see Ned Beatty play a peeping tom for laughs, or listen to a lawyer wax rhapsodic about a 15-year-old girl's breasts covered in honey, this is for you.

The salesman works for The Happy People company, which has monetized resurrection and always wants more profits. Seems to me, that's what would happen if bringing people back to life was possible, but the film makes no haughty highbrow point about the evils of capitalism. It's just for laughs and shocks, and it's pretty good.

"Mother was a hardware man. She taught me it's better to be a hammer than a nail."

Directed by Jonathan Wacks, who produced Repo Man and directed Mystery Date and Powwow Highway.  Written by Chuck Hughes, who never wrote anything else of note. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Streaming free at Internet Archive

By 1963, Federico Fellini had made seven features and a few segments of anthology films, so by his reckoning this was his 8½th film.

Making it, though, he ran into what he called "director's block" — he had the financing and cast and crew ready, but felt no creativity, like making the movie would be nothing but punching a time clock.

Of course, we all feel like that five days a week, but Mr Fellini had the reputation and authority to do what you and I never could — he simply paused the production, and waited for a spark. When eureka struck, he decided to junk the movie he'd planned, and instead make a movie about director's block. 

"What if it's not just temporary, my friend? What if it's the final downfall of a liar who has run out of talent?"

We should all have such blocks. From the sometimes swooping or surrealistic camerawork to the tiniest snippets of conversation, even the extras strolling past in the background, everything in is either a part of the point or it's a punchline. It's fantasy and satire, silliness and introspection, and unlike lots of people in the film, I have no notes to pass to Mr Fellini about what should be cut or changed to make it better. It's perfection, or so close the difference is moot.

The first few minutes will knock your socks off, as Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), the artistically constipated moviemaker, escapes from an allegorical traffic jam. After that, is one insightful absurdity after another, as Guido deals with producers, the writer, his mistress, his wife, temperamental actresses, fans, journalists, and all the other idiots who want to waste his time.

Guido/Fellini hates the clutter, confusion, questions, and interference of all these people. They're at the hotel, on the plaza, at the dinner table, eager to make the movie — some sci-fi epic, it seems — but Guido/Fellini doesn't want to make that movie, while also having no idea what movie he does want to make. While he thinks about it, pushing the crowd away, he looks inward, always inward.

Gaze deeply into filmmaker Federico Fellini's navel, where the view is spectacular. 

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Eight Men Out (1988)
Streaming free at Tubi

Written and directed by John Sayles, this is the story of the 1919 Chicago White Sox, the team where several players conspired to lose the World Series. Commonly called "The Black Sox scandal," it was a pivotal moment in baseball, still argued about by hardcore fans a century later. 

Sayles made The Brother from Another Planet, Limbo, Lone Star, and several other terrific films, but Eight Men Out left me sitting on the bench.

To immerse you in the feel of 1919, the movie is scored to relentless ragtime music, which after the first half hour or so feels like nagging. Hear the music? It's like being there, ain't it? How about now? How about now? 

The characters and events are weakly detailed. There are so many players, reporters, and gamblers, you'd need a scorecard to keep 'em straight. I wasn't sure which guy on the team was 'Shoeless Joe' Jackson until the last scene, and the scene means nothing if you don't know it's 'Shoeless Joe'.

A few of the lines make no baseball sense. The owner of the team refers to Byron Bancroft 'Ban' Johnson as "the Commissioner," which he never was; Johnson was the founder and President of the American League, but the job, title, and even the idea of a Commissioner didn't exist until after the Black Sox scandal.

In another scene, management is said to have benched a player in August, to rest him for the World Series, which again seems simply wrong, because the World Series isn't until October. Maybe you rest a player in September, but you don't rest anybody "for the Series" in August, in the middle of a pennant race.

With the exception of John Mahoney as the team's manager, much of the movie's dialogue sounds stilted, simply not the way people talk. People did speak more formally, less casually, back then, so I've wondered whether the awkward delivery was an attempt at accuracy, but that's giving Sayles an unwarranted benefit of the doubt.

All the above is why I've been lukewarm on this movie since I first saw it in 1988, but a few years ago a different problem presented itself.

For decades I've followed the work of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), a group that's brilliantly reinterpreted and redefined baseball statistics, and a few years back, SABR published this summary of the things Eight Men Out got wrong.

Of course, most movies "based on a true story" are factually compromised and dramatically enhanced, but Sayles didn't get a few minor details wrong; he got the whole sweep of the story wrong, apparently on purpose, and all the way through.

If you're interested in the details, click the link above. Meanwhile, the 1919 Black Sox scandal would make a terrific movie, but this isn't it.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Einstein and Eddington (2008)

In The Lord of the Rings movies, and the 21st century King Kong and Star Wars movies, Andy Serkis made himself famous for motion capture acting. Turns out he's an in-person actor too, and here he plays that brainy guy, Albert Einstein.

David Tenant, who'll always be Doctor Who to me, plays British scientist Arthur Eddington, at Cambridge. If this flick is to be believed, Isaac Newton is or was almost worshipped at Cambridge, where his theory of gravity was weirdly taken as almost a theory of God — as if Newton's simple, straightforward explanation of gravity as the universal force is more "the way God would work" than Einstein's more complicated, curving explanation.

Jim Broadbent plays another Cambridge scientist, who's especially troubled if anyone challenges the divine wisdom of Newton. Einstein was challenging it, and Eddington was listening, and this is the story of how Einstein's theory gently nudged Newton to the side.

It's a better than average movie with a happy ending — yay, science! — but I'm skeptical that Einstein did quite as much speaking truth to Nazi power as depicted here.

Toward the end, the script startlingly misunderstands the science that the whole movie has been about:

"Einstein says that time is not the same for all of us, but different for each one of us," says Tenant's Eddington, but that's not Einstein's theory, at all. Time is the same for all of us, unless some of us are traveling at a very, very high rate of speed. 

Verdict: YES, except for that line.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Electric House (1922)
Streaming free at YouTube

It's commencement day at college, but they've gotten the degrees mixed up. Buster Keaton studied botany, but accidentally gets a degree in electrical engineering, so some rich guy offers him work wiring his mansion with electricity.

You're thinking Keaton's going to get the wires crossed and burn the house down, but that wouldn't be funny. Instead he electrifies everything in the house — the front stairwell becomes an escalator, the shelves hand your book to you, chairs at the dinner table pull themselves out for easier seating, and even the pool is electrified. But then the real electrical engineer drops in, and starts maliciously meddling with the set-up.

Lots of time, planning, and expense went into making this, and it's still a marvel to behold. I started laughing about one minute into it, and smiled and laughed to the last shot.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Elephant (2003)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

This is an ordinary day at an ordinary high school. It's just kids walking through the halls or across the lawn, asking questions in the office, talking to each other in the library, or slipping away for lunch.

A Phys Ed teacher scolds a shy girl for wearing longs instead of shorts like all the other kids, says she'll give her a demerit if she's not in shorts tomorrow, and I wanted to punch the teacher. You're supposed to be teaching these kids — what's taught by forcing her to wear shorts when she doesn't want to, other than submission to authority?

As the day at school continues, without a musical score and with no particular plot emerging, it becomes clear that the 'elephant' here, the topic nobody's talking about but everyone sees coming, is a school shooting. 

And yup, here come two kids with plenty of weapons and ammo, and it's Columbine and Red Lake and Nickle Mines and Virginia Tech and Oikos and Sandy Hook and U-Cal-Santa Barbara and Umpqua and Rancho Tehama and Parkland and Santa Fe and Uvalde and Nashville Covenant all over again.

So this is not The Breakfast Club. It's good, though. The students are given time and space enough to feel real. With lots of tracking shots, and long, flowing, intricately planned scenes, it's a very visually interesting film. We see some of the same moments more than once, first from one student's perspective, then another's.

It's been 50 years since I dropped out of high school, and this feels so much like being there that I wanted to drop out again, even before the trench-coat killers showed up.

Written, directed, and edited by Gus Van Sant, Elephant offers no motivation for the killers, no answers for the epidemic, which is frustrating and refreshing at the same time. Instead of polemics about arming the teachers or disarming everyone else — two bad ideas — the movie just says, here's a problem, and begs America to give a damn and do something about it. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

And that empties my backlog of movies seen but not reviewed, so there'll be no more daily movie reviews. Maybe twice weekly, at least until I find work, and less often after that. Good news, eh? —DH


• • • Coming attractions • • •     

The Elephant Man (1988)
The Emperor Jones
Encounters at the End of the World
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
Enter the Ninja

... plus schlock, shorts, and surprises

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorFilms for ActionHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlixWatchDocumentaries • or your local library

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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  1. "relentless ragtime music, which after the first half hour or so feels like nagging"

    Nagtime music

    Elephant - I like it a lot, but do kind of balk at its lack of investigation into these kids' (the killers) psyches. I LOVE ambiguous films, but this is mostly an experiment in style, though a wildly successful one. Also thought the gay shower interlude between the perps was a bit of indulgent silliness, despite there being gay and trans school shooters in the years since.

    Did I also recommend Alan Clarke's Elephant (1989) from which Van Sant cribbed both the name and the stylistic approach? Highest recommendation. Clarke's film is briefer, more focused, and completely, utterly eliminates any possible thematic or contextual interpretation - despite being explicitly about the Irish "Troubles." It's a more daring film than Van Sant's, for its opaqueness and its lack of reason. It essentially presents a world where all social interaction is people killing on another. And his use of the long takes and few cuts is the perfect expression of all that.


    His Penda's Fen is also a favorite, akin to Wicker Man, lots of mythologizing and paranoia, really fantastic.


    1. Added both to the list, thanks.

      Yeah, it bugged me that GVS had nothing to say, but what could he say? Can't climb inside the kids' minds, and it would be fiction if he tried. Leaving it unstated, the flick remains pertinent to every school shooting.

      I don't really follow the news about crime -- is there a recurring consensus among killer kids, with the same complaints? Or is it even wise to believe what they say, after they've shot up a school?

  2. Eight Men Out was on one of the free channels recently and I couldn't finish it. It felt like you could condense it into a 20 minute short without really missing anything other than the period piece kitsch. For some reason thinking about baseball and the ivy at Wrigley Field makes grown men break down into tears, and all of them make really cheesy baseball movies (The Natural, For Love of The Game, Moneyball, The Slugger's Wife, etc.)

    Interesting link on the scandal too, thanks for posting it. I was unaware of most of it but it seems right. More recently a Netflix series did a documentary on Tim Donaghy, the NBA ref accused of fixing games a few years back. The machinery that gets awakened, greased up and deployed to mow down anything in its way when these type of allegations appear is terrifying. It feels like people just agree to go along with the cover story because they'd lose too much from their life if they couldn't feel good seeing a Celtics or Lakers W in the paper. I'm not judging them: I think 2020 showed that pro sports is a harmless but useful vice and without it people will direct that same enthusiasm into less harmless things (crypto trading, stock speculation, etc.) I read a book awhile ago that argued sports was useful for directing aggressive activity in men into something banal, and observed there was no organized popular sport that didn't involve striking or chasing (I think I thought of a few that did, but just a few). Society is already batshit insane and the more things we can do to prevent our overheating robots from going berzerk the better, I guess.

    1. I don't know anything about Tim Donaghy and that scandal, so I googled it (breaking my own rules — I try to never google anything in the comments here). Gambling again, often the downfall. Why would he do it, and more pertinent, why would he imagine he wouldn't be caught?

      I can't imagine officiating at that level, but I used to ump softball and officiated a little basketball, and I couldn't have cheated if I tried. Things just happen too quickly, at least for my peanut brain. You see it, you make the call, but there's no time and no room in my head for anything else to factor in.

      And jeez, I tried. I would've loved to call 'out' at second base on a close play if it's the batter who complained about my balls and strikes, but I physically couldn't do it. Which is maybe why I'm poor. Could've made a fortune being a dishonest ump in the tavern leagues.

      I still like baseball a lot, so it takes some big mistakes to make a baseball movie that can't hold my attention, but Eight Men Out pulled it off.

      The Natural -- schmaltz with a Hollywood fake ending, book is so much better, but I like it despite wanting to hate it.

      For Love of The Game -- Quite an accomplishment, to make a perfect game boring.

      Moneyball -- I kind of enjoyed it, not sure it's really a "baseball movie." Discuss among yourselves.

      The Slugger's Wife -- Not only never seen it, never heard of it.

    2. I'm of mixed mind on the whole bread and circuses thing. It kind of amazes me to hear people (like my flatmates in the kitchen) talk for hours about football and football stats and who's the starting left turtleback and who's the backup left turtleback and should we trade for a younger downside nickelback and on and on.

      Sometimes I think it would definitely be a better world if people could turn that level of giveadamn to politics instead of millionaires in shoulder pads. Other times I think they're just parroting what they've heard on the sport-talk channel and they really have nothing to say for themselves.


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