Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Saturday, August 29, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

Director Sam Fuller is like that crazy uncle your family is afraid of having over for Thanksgiving. He says exactly what's on his mind and what's on his mind is so one sided that any mild dissent is likely to descend immediately into a shouting match over the cranberry sauce.

The thing is the man is right. He's even right when he's wrong because he tries so hard to speak the truth straight from his heart . You have to admire a man of such conviction.

This film, The Baron of Arizona (1950) is about the craziest true story I've never heard of that turned out to be pretty damn true. Even with Fuller shouting his own melodramatic version of the truth at the top of his lungs. It's really a great flick.

Who ever heard of this James Addison Reavis guy ? A guy who almost swindled the United States out of Arizona. I mean, he actually claimed ownership of the territory around and including the state of Arizona and moved there with his wife to lord over the unwilling locals as their "Baron". The US government apparently was dumbfounded by the incredible authenticity of his claim and unable to prove it a fraud for over a year. I know what you're thinking, "What? This really happened?" Well, a few clicks on the google device gets us a nice wikipedia entry that seems to hold up most of Fuller's claim that this is a "true story".

Vincent Price plays the Baron and his performance is right in line with the neurotic cads that he had been known for since his classic performance in Otto Preminger's Laura. This road would eventually lead him to the mostly great Corman Poe adaptations which would eventually lead him into becoming a parody of himself. But this is an early performance and it's one of his best, right up there with Matthew Hopkins in The Witchfinder General. The difference here is that Price's Baron is a great anti-hero rather than villain. You know the whole time that he's using people, lying to everyone and yet you can't help but admire him. Any man who is willing to invest years forging papers and deeds to create a fictional history of a family claim has to be admired on a purely mercenary level.

In the film James Reavis is shown joining an order of monks in California and living among them for what seems like months in order to earn their trust . All to get his hands on one of the original copies of the local land records and to use the very specific ink they make in their monastery to make a few important changes. The fact that this ends in failure and does not stop him is amazing. He just pushes on, finding another way to get at the original records and even marrying into the Peralta family to seal the illusion.

The film has an unusual effect. As you watch Reavis weave his web, you are on his side. As he achieves his goal and takes control of Arizona from an absurd James Bond styled headquarters (complete with a giant map of his kingdom on the wall), you still hope that the government fools won't find a flaw in his brilliant forgeries. Even the "good" people of Arizona start looking like monsters, turning into a mad lynch mob out for blood. But it's his treatment of his innocent wife that makes you question his actions. And since this is grand melodrama, Reavis questions his own actions as well and like the Grinch, his heart grows three sizes overnight. Fuller rushes this a bit and seems somewhat dispassionate about the man's redemption. He's much more excited by the fact that the locals couldn't care less about his change of heart and intend on burning down his evil lair and hanging the Baron and Baroness from a noose.

There is a happy ending of sorts but Reavis seems less redeemed than disappointed as he is released from Prison and surrounded by his family. After all this was a man with massive ambitions for personal power and glory. All he has to look forward to now is a nice dinner with some poor relatives. Too bad he couldn't craft a new plan to steal New York City.

Friday, August 21, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

This is a FILM with blood in its veins, a heart in its body and a red hot engine in its chassis. It is alive with ideas and a geniune belief in the power of FILM to express them. As with all great films, Words will fail from the beginning to explain why this is such an amazing piece of cinematic art but we will try to use them.

Alfred Hitchcock used to love to give journalists a characteristically deadpan lesson in suspense filmmaking through an anecdote about "THE TICKING BOMB". The gist of it was that three men sitting around a table talking about baseball or the weather was by the very nature of MOTION pictures-boring. But any scene involving mundane dialogue or exposition becomes instantly suspenseful to the audience once they've been tipped off that a ticking bomb has been placed under the table. The audience would watch AND LISTEN helplessly while the unsuspecting characters went on talking about batting averages or whatever. The audience would think, "Don't talk about baseball you fools, there's a bomb under that table!"

Now, if you're Quentin Tarantino and you love to write dialogue that goes on for pages and pages then this device becomes your secret weapon. How can a filmmaker get an easily distracted audience to sit still while characters ramble on-well, you get the point. Put a bomb under the table and get the audience worked up into a lather. The skill is in coming up with these ticking bombs so that they aren't always LITERAL ticking bombs. In his latest movie, the spelling challenged INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, Tarantino becomes so skilled at it that he can even make a glass of milk function as a ticking bomb.

Now this isn't to say some kind of reductionary nonsense that Tarantino is the new Hitchcock. God knows there have been plenty of fools who have come forth over the years and tried to take that mantle. The thing is: No One Can. Hitchcock is almost above criticism since his ideas about film form and content have been so influential it is impossible to separate almost ANY filmmaker from his influence. Even if it came second hand.

Tarantino is a filmmaker who deals with art in the second or third hand. He is a post modernist in the tradition of Brian DePalma who plays with film the way Marcel Duchamp may have once played with found objects in a junkyard. The pieces may have come from this old war picture or that old drive-in flick but once they are appropriated they are owned and operated in a whole new way; transformed into something New charged by the power of something Old.

In the brash confidence of his playful surfaces and the complexity of his pop art games, Tarantino along with DePalma have gone farther than Hitchcock could ever go in playing with form and content. Shackled by the commercial cinema he worked within, Hitchcock could only dream of doing the things that Tarantino does without pause. For a brief moment in the late '60s, Hitchcock shot tests for a film called Kaleidoscope which he wanted to photograph on real locations, with more open sexuality and nudity and using handheld cameras and even perhaps 16mm. Basically it was Hitchcock's idea to take what the French New Wave were doing and to bring those techniques under his more seasoned control the way he took TV production techniques and polished them for Psycho.


Of course MCA-Universal to whom Hitchcock had become a prisoner in a gilded cage wanted nothing of the sort from the master of glossy suspense and the project was shelved cutting off what could've been an exciting final phase of creativity from the director. But these techniques are easily used by Tarantino in a much more complex and almost disposable modern manner-thanks to Godard who showed that a filmmaker could basically do ANYTHING-he can shoot intense closeups in widescreen and invoke the cinema of Sergio Leone in one breath-

Robert Aldrich and THE DIRTY DOZEN in the next-

while framing actors in groups with an eye-level camera the way Howard Hawks would-

Every scene is shot for maximum effect from a cinematic standpoint. With Tarantino you get to watch the whole damn history of cinema explode in front of your eyes at 24fps. And in the fiery inferno that engulfs the cinema at the film's climax, the FILM itself literally does explode.

So, what the hell are these INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS? Well, first of all it's not a remake of the correctly spelled Enzo G. Castellari film INGLORIOUS BASTARDS from 1978 though it makes use of the same "men on a mission" plot device as that film did.

This subgenre spins off of classic 60s movies like The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare and really from Roger Corman's relatively unknown film The Secret Invasion. But sometime between his initial drafts and what finally hit the screen, Tarantino sorta-kinda-abandoned this plot device as the driving force in his film. Certainly there are MEN in the film and they ARE on a MISSION. But they no longer hold the focus of the film which is quite evenly distributed among several characters some of whom never meet throughout the entire 149 minute running time.

These basterds are a mixed crew of Jewish American soldiers led by Col. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) whose mission is to kill and scalp as many Nazis as possible and put fear into their hearts. This is what they do in most of their scenes in the film which account for perhaps 40 percent of the running time. The rest is focused on the story of Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) whose family is wiped out by the infamous "Jew Hunter" Hans Landa (the incredible Christoph Waltz) in the film's powerful opening sequence. Shoshanna ends up in Paris running a cinema during the Nazi occupation. When a dashing young German soldier (Daniel Bruhl) who is a hero to the Reich for killing hundreds of Allied soldiers falls for her he uses his influence to have her theatre hold the premiere of the propaganda film starring himself and about himself called Nation's Pride. The premiere becomes the center of all the action at the end as Shoshanna sees her chance to avenge her family while the Basterds arrive with their own plan to end the war in one fell swoop: it turns out that not only is the producer of the film, Joseph Goebbels, going to be in attendance but Adolf Hitler himself.

Tarantino doesn't shackle himself to anything with this film. It expresses itself in whatever cinematic vernacular neccessary even indulging in omnscient narration at times through the familiar pipes of Samuel L. Jackson. The score ranges from classic Ennio Morricone pieces and Elmer Bernstein's ZULU theme to David Bowie's title song for Paul Schrader's Cat People "Putting Out Fire". Saving Private Ryan this isn't and thank God. Brad Pitt is in full tonque-in-cheek mode here and he breezes through the movie with his winking wit and hillbilly accent. The real acting kudos go to Mélanie Laurent who looks like a young Denueve but has the fiery intensity of a young Jeanne Moreau and Christoph Waltz whose performance as Hans Landa deservedly earned him the Best Acor prize at the Cannes Film Festival. There are a few minor flaws in the film-Eli Roth's less than convincing performance, Mike Myers overly familiar schtick and the cartoon Adolf Hitler who seems less real than Darth Vader. But not having met the man personally, maybe this was how he carried himself...

There are those who are claiming that this film is some kind of "alternate history" linking it with that peculiar subgenre of generally stiff books in which the South often wins the Civil War or the United States never enters WW2 allowing Hitler to rule Europe to this day. While it's true that Tarantino rewrites history, it's not to wonder about the results of such changes in any fictitious future so much as to revel in the glory of how things could've been if they played out in the wildest fantasy of a pulp writer caught up in his most feverish melodrama. Any resemblance to the real Second World War is purely cosmetic and coincidental. This is a fable played out in broad colours and splashed onscreen from every corner of that storehouse of old movies, Tarantino's mind. Now this doesn't mean that the ideas and consequences of the real world do not affect the film. There is genuine human drama and pain in the film that comes from knowing that the Nazis were real and that many paid the price of their madness. So when Tarantino decides to create his own end to World War 2, he wields this power to create a hallucinatory fantasy of bloodthirsty vengeance. How many would've liked to have seen hundreds of Nazis mowed down in showers of blood or to see the ultimate revenge fantasy, the face of Adolf Hitler shot through again and again by bullets, hot metal tearing at the human flesh and bone and killing the monster over and over ad infinitum.

This climax is a doozy, channeling the works of DePalma (Carrie's fiery prom destruction), Spielberg (Raiders of the Lost Ark's melting Nazis) as well as the slow motion gun ballets of Woo and Peckinpah's entire filmography. But there is a giddyness about the scene that is pure Tarantino, a child-like cruelty expressed in cinematic wish fulfilment fantasies of Nazis trapped like rats, taunted by the face of Shoshanna Dreyfus projected onto the giant screen taunting and laughing at their helplessness; Running for their lives like cowards while the heroic Jews with their weapons blazing settle scores never settled in our own history. And to cap all this off is a single unforgettable and almost throwaway image, one of such power I almost thought I was imagining it: The beams from the projector hitting a wall of rising smoke and creating a ghostly vision of the dead Shoshanna as an Avenging Angel, the very idea of cinematic immortality allowing her to have a posthumous retribution. For Tarantino this is a literal truth, FILM itself brings down the Third Reich.