Cliff, Film Hunter
My wife likes to use the red-flag-in-front-of-a-bull metaphor to describe what happens when I see a mention of a well-regarded book, film, or jazz record I’ve never heard of. I plead guilty with extenuating circumstances, the circumstances being that I’m, well, me.
So there I was, reading a New York Times article about a film from 1970 I planned to see, Hal Ashby’s The Landlord, when I came across a mention of one from the same year by Brian De Palma: Hi, Mom!, starring Robert De Niro. What was this? I can now tell you that it is a very odd, slightly misshapen, and frequently hilarious little movie in which De Niro shows the comedic skills he would display again decades later. He plays a young man trying to interest a porn-movie producer (a very funny Allen Garfield) in the footage he secretly shoots of his across-the-street neighbors. Halfway through Hi, Mom! the porn plot gets scrapped as De Niro becomes intrigued by one of his unwitting performers, who has organized a band of black actor-revolutionaries; that is how De Niro lands a part in an ultimately funny if rather horrifying black-and-white film-within-a-film that has to be seen to be appreciated.
Red Flag #2 was waved when the Mrs. and I saw Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which I thoroughly enjoyed. (A side note, though: I could just about hear some of Wilson’s lines being spoken by a young Woody, who would have made them funnier.) In it, Owen Wilson plays a writer who happens onto a way to visit Paris of the 1920s; there, he meets the creative geniuses of that time and place, including the Spanish filmmaker Buñuel. “I have an idea for a film for you,” the Wilson character tells Buñuel, going on to describe a story about a fancy dinner party at which the guests find that they can’t leave. “But why can’t they leave?” a confused Buñuel asks the departing Wilson. The subject of that in-joke turns out to be Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), an intriguing take on unexplained aspects of the collective human consciousness that feels a little like an extended Twilight Zone episode — but hey, I always liked that show.
Sometimes I charge at the flag a little slowly. There are three films that I have long associated with one another, even though they have almost nothing in common beyond the facts that (1) they came out within a few years of one another and (2) I never saw any of them — until recently: Gilliam Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979), Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985). Brazil is equal parts brilliant and, from the perspective of 2011, dated; that is the risk run by any dystopian story set in the near future. The parts that hold up, though, hold up very well, including some funny bits where Bob Hoskins and De Niro — him again! — sneak in. The standard-issue political drama Year of Living Dangerously is worth seeing for one thing: Linda Hunt’s heart-rending performance as a (male) photojournalist in Indonesia. My Brilliant Career has similarly good work from a very young Judy Davis as an aspiring writer in early-twentieth-century Australia, and it’s good for once to see a female character whose ambition disrupts her relationships, which makes it frustrating that this film is so, well, dull at times.
On that topic: for better or worse, I’ve found that the speed of contemporary life — and contemporary cinema — makes some older films harder to sit through. I was excited, for example, when elder daughter and I sat down to watch John Sayles’s Brother from Another Planet, which I had remembered fondly; all I could think this time was how slow it seemed.
Were these films always slow, or has our new pace just made them seem that way? You know whom to tell . . .