Tag Archives: movies

1882: A James Odyssey by Joseph Hirsch


Editor’s note: Joseph Hirsch is the author of The Dove and the Crow, the latest release from Paragraph Line Books.

I’ve read far more books than I’ve seen films, which means that after I’ve read a book, I tend to know whether or not I’ve encountered greatness. This isn’t always the case with movies, since, as mentioned, I’m not as familiar with movies as I am with books. The first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, I didn’t say to myself, “That was great!” as I would after reading a great book. I said to myself “What the hell was that?”

Most movies just don’t work for me. I think a small handful are great, and I watch them repeatedly, because they never get old to me. These films include Dawn of the Dead (the George A Romero 1979 version), Once Upon a Time in America, 2001: A Space Odyssey (as I mentioned before), and now, most recently The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It is, as I think John Lennon once observed about 2001: A Space Odyssey, the kind of thing a fellow can watch once a week.

Even a good movie is one I don’t want to see twice, but with the great ones, no matter how many times I see them, it’s always a new experience. Something changes, and it always feels like the first viewing. So what, I keep asking myself, keeps bringing me back to Jesse James (forgive the truncation of the long title, which was a point of contention with a lot of critics, who thought it, and the film, too languorous)?

People who love the movie (and it has quite a few devotees) cite things like the wonderful cinematography and the lush score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, along with meticulous period detail and Oscar-worthy performances. These people are all correct, to one degree or another, but talent and production values alone don’t bear obsessive repeat viewings that still don’t begin to unlock the mystery contained in a great film.

It seems strange to compare a period Western to a great science fiction classic, but I believe both 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Assassination of Jesse James produced the same reaction in me upon initial viewing, made me scratch my head and say to myself What the hell was that?

Awhile back I was watching a documentary about the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, and,  as the subject invariably turned to his SF masterpiece, someone (I forget who and I’m too lazy to check) observed that “the pieces don’t quite fit, and this gives the film its mysterious structure,” or words to that effect. Whoever made this observation is right, both about the structure of 2001, and about how this disjointedness is an asset rather than a liability.

I won’t recap the plot of 2001 for the reader at this point. Anyone crazy enough to follow my logic this far has already seen both movies. Suffice it to say that Jesse James jumps all over the place in narrative terms, just like 2001. It starts out being about Jesse and his brother and a gang of petty thieves, with the Coward Robert Ford orbiting them as a hanger-on.

Then there is a subplot involving Jessie’s cousin, Wood Hite, played Jeremy Renar, who becomes insulted when another James Gang member sleeps with “his daddy’s wife.” The movie at this point does a brilliant job of conveying Jesse’s paranoia, as he rides around visiting various members of his gang, trying to ferret out their degree of loyalty or treachery, in conversations that take quite a while to unfold.

Eventually, brothers Bob and Charlie Ford conspire to either kill or apprehend Jesse James in order to claim the reward offered for the outlaw’s hide. There are very few shootouts, no Indians raids or whooping war parties in the movie, and there is quite a bit of back-shooting; the only face-to-face gunfights are clumsy affairs.

I heard that Rock Hudson walked out of the premier screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, muttering to himself “Can someone tell me what the hell that was all about?”

I could imagine John Wayne having a similar reaction to the almost anti-Western demystification that is Jesse James. But here’s the thing: as the movie deconstructs the myth of Jesse James, it constructs an entirely new puzzle, not the sort of deliberately enigmatic structure of a David Lynch movie (sorry David), but something arrived at more organically.

At some point, as the title of the film makes clear, Bob Ford shoots Jesse James, and just as 2001’s Astronaut Bowman races helplessly through a tunnel of light and arrives to face his death in the form of a black monolith, Bob Ford is pushed forward, propelled through train rides and saloons toward the final moment where Edward O’Kelly shouts “Hello, Bob!” before discharging his shotgun into the Coward’s brain.

I have watched the following sequence hundreds, if not thousands of times:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHKE_L76JG4

I have watched it and thought about the year I spent in Iraq, my own false bravado as a young man serving in an occupying Army, my own “pretensions of ruthlessness,” cold-bloodedness,” and “dispassion.” I have watched the sequence on nights when I stayed up wondering if there was a kernel of truth contained at the heart of Christianity, if in fact there is an afterlife, and I have watched the sequence on days when thoughts of suicide flittered through my mind like moths trapped beneath lampshades.

Forget that scene, though. Take another. Try this one:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFaCvyT8Mpw) So many scenes in the movie already have the mythopoetic feel of having existed forever on celluloid, like the backseat car scene in On the Waterfront, or any immortal scene in Casablanca or The Godfather that you care to name. I don’t care much for Brad Pitt outside of this performance, and, since I watch the same four or five movies over and over again, I’ll probably never ever watch another movie with Casey Affleck in it. But they (and the entire supporting cast) are men possessed in this movie. The performances feel haunted, as if the men we’re watching on-screen are like Bela Lugosi or Rudolph Valentino, and have been dead for a long time already. Much ink has been spilled damning and praising this film, but my favorite observation is from film critic Stephen Whitty, who said the movie was an “epic film that’s part literary treatise, part mournful ballad, and completely a portrait of our world, as seen in a distant mirror.” So many period dramas feel like forced affairs, where modern actors play dress up and fail to really give the viewer the sense that they are inhabiting the past. Jesse James, along with Once Upon a Time in America and Barry Lyndon, is a rare bird, a period piece that pulls off the impossible trick of making the viewer feel as if they are seeing a movie filmed in the distant past.  Watch this scene with Sam Rockwell, portraying Robert’s brother, Charley Ford:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9fi5orKhETo

Think of a man you know or knew from real life, guilt-stricken, broken, an alcoholic uncle perhaps, or cousin who committed suicide. Tell me that’s not him.

I’ll put this piece to bed before I make a claim too wild for even the most indulgent reader to countenance. I’ll close, though, by saying that, having watched this movie a few hundred times, and preparing to watch it a few hundred more, there is an adjective I would use to describe it that I’ve never used to describe a movie (and probably never will use again): It is a wise film, a movie that knows things, about youth, aging, regret, shame, and guilt.

Jack Nicholson once observed that, whatever one thought about Kubrick’s films, one had to acknowledge that his movies were conscious. That’s a strange way to refer to a film, as if it was a sentient entity, but that’s the way I feel about The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It is, like 2001, a movie that laughs at me and beats me every time I try to unriddle it.

King Dong and Moron Movies

Do you remember Moron Movies? They were short little 8mm movies that Johnny Carson showed back in the 80s.  Len Cella was the one-man shop that directed, filmed, narrated, and acted in all of these little capsules of absurdism, stuff like Jello Makes A Lousy Doorstop. Just the titles alone were hilarious, like An Exercise to Prevent Fat Ears and Hitler In First Grade.

The Moron Movies were a perfect example of a brief blip of absurdism in the 80s, a time when things like The Far Side and Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts were hilarious capsules of surrealist humor. (I know Deep Thoughts was shown on SNL in the 90s, but it all came from National Lampoon in the 80s.) Cella’s work was the great granddaddy of some of the funny stuff we see on YouTube or Vine, much like how Handey’s work is a direct precursor to some of the best twitter humor.  The Moron Movies are also an amazing demonstration of the DIY ethic, because Cella was banging these things out in his house on a cheap 8mm camera, without any help, and then mailing them off to Carson.

There is an (unfortunately named) documentary short from a couple of years ago called King Dong.  (Be careful of what you click when you search for that.)  It’s on YouTube now, and is worth the 20-some minutes to watch it.  There’s also an old VHS tape that I remember finding at Blockbuster in college and watching at three in the morning, and part of that has also surfaced on YouTube.  It’s all incredibly dated, which makes it perfect.

Werner Herzog interview

When I see those words (above), “Werner Herzog interview,” I immediately look for the link and click vigorously–mit Elan. Because Werner Herzog always gives wonderful interviews. This one, over at Vulture, is no exception. He talks about ecstatic truth, little people, Klaus Kinski shooting a hut full of extras with a Winchester, Muhammad Ali, Mel Brooks, David Lynch, languages vanishing thanks to tourism (but not tourism by foot), and how happy he was to grow up without a father.

Herzog and Kinski
People let me tell you ’bout my best friend, He’s a warm hearted person who’ll love me till the end.

Thanks, god. Thanks, god. What a blessing! What a blessing that there was not a Nazi as a father around telling me what to do and how to conquer Russia! And how to be a racist! Thanks, god! I thank god on my knees everyday.

Enough waiting: Here’s the link.

Your shitty free movie of the week… this week: Mr. Mike's Mondo Video

Mr. Mike

Before his brain exploded in the mid-1990’s, Michael O’Donoghue was one of the greatest writers of pitch black humor in this country. He wrote some of the best sketches in Saturday Night Live’s early history, including this sketch that asks the age-old question, “What if Superman ended up in Nazi Germany instead of America?”

As you may imagine, his vision probably didn’t always align with the vision of NBC, so a lot of his sketches did not end up on the show. Where some of the best of the rejected sketches ended up was this 90-minute special, which never ran on NBC. Instead, it ended up at the midnight movies… where a young me saw it. There were about ten other O’Donoghue diehards sitting with me in there. So much doomed laughter. Ah… warm memories. When Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video came out on VHS, I bought a copy, and wore it out. Now it’s on YouTube, where anyone can watch these little bits of pure genius.

Mondo, for those of you not familiar with the term, is an exploitation documentary. For an example, see my review of Primitive London.

My favorite moment… “Coming up next… Japanese girls bathing in dolphin blood!” It’s a movie in which women shoot down planes with pointy bras, people have ecstatic visions of Jack Lord, and cats are chucked into a swimming pool. The musical guests are none other than Sid Vicious, Root Boy Slim, and Klaus Nomi.

As Mr. Mike himself said in a Spin magazine column right before his brain went kablooey: “I don’t think of myself as just another writer. I see myself more as an Instrument of Destiny with a clear moral imperative to set the world straight on a few things. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not claiming that I’m right and that everyone else is wrong. All I’m saying is when the Angel of the Lord appeared to me and allowed me to read certain key passages from The Book of Life, it gave me an ‘overview’ that others may not have. Call it ‘Wisdom’ or ‘Truth’ or a ‘Mandate from God,’ I don’t care. I prefer to consider it ‘one man’s opinion’ and let it go at that.”

If you think this world is a Wonderful Place Filled with Hugs and Love and Puppies Licking Ice Cream Cones, don’t go here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTmN3N5v0W4

But if you’re like me, and see this world as the bleak fucking hellhole that it actually is, only Mr. Mike can make you laugh until you vomit and vomit some more, until you dry heave boiling black bile.

For a contemporary master of black humor, visit with our master of ceremonies here on ParagraphLine.com, Mr. Jon Konrath by buying his new book Atmospheres.

Love you all bunches! Your pal, Jan (pronounced “Yawn,” you heathens!).

Your shitty free movie of the week… this week: Forced Landing

Arnold Ziffel takes in Forced Landing.

Forced Landing (1941)

Previous to our involvement in the Second World War, the islands of the Pacific Ocean seemed to us a faraway place filled with hilariously foreign people with inscrutable accents. Maybe they were Mexicans. Or possibly they were from Latvia. All that we know is that their police force dressed and acted like Barney Fife.

Into this milieu is thrust a Gabor sister, probably the one from Green Acres, and an American Jerk who can fly airplanes. There’s a revolutionary who is possibly the Frito Bandito. And there are shipments of gold (gold I tells ya!) that go missing, possibly because of a Colonel who is the Gabor sister’s boyfriend (until the American Jerk wins her away from him because… He’s American, damn it!).

Is this a must watch? Fuck no! But it’s free!

Arnold Ziffel gives it two hooves up. Or possibly four, because he’s on his back, passed out from corn liquor.

The Design of The Grand Budapest Hotel

I saw the new Wes Anderson movie The Grand Budapest Hotel this weekend, and as always, the design is incredible.  It’s amazing how a camera is quickly panning through the hotel and some little detail like a 1960s East German-esque sign on the wall made me crack up laughing.

Here’s a great article on the design of the movie: http://www.creativereview.co.uk/cr-blog/2014/march/grand-budapest-hotel – makes me want to go out and create some chapbook/zine thing with distressed and aged pages that look like a fictional European country from the thirties.

Your shitty movie of the week… this week Help! …

Don't smoke dope, kids.
I have two words to say to anyone who doesn’t like the Beatles: Fuck you.

That said, this movie is… wow, awful. And yet hilarious. And awful. It’s like a long episode of the 1960’s version of Batman, without Adam West, or a script that makes any sense. At least we get to watch the Beatles caper around on vacation in the Alps and in the Bahamas. And there’s the incredible music.

There’s a plot, I suppose. It has to do with an eastern cult who sacrifice people who wear a ring with a red glass golf ball on it to the goddess Kaili. Someone sent Ringo the ring, he can’t get it off, therefore he must be sacrificed.

So the Kaili cult chases the Bee-AT-Tills around, led by Leo “Number 2/Rumpole” McKern, a rotund, bug-eyed Australian putting on a south Asian accent.

Also chasing them is Victor Spinetti, a scientist whose British-made contraptions keep breaking down, and his henchman, Roy Kinnear. Eagle-eyed viewers will remember Spinetti from the first Beatles movie, A Hard Day’s Night. You know: the good Beatles movie.

There are a few nice moments in this one though, to be fair.

Two old ladies are watching the Beatles enter their attached-on-the-inside homes. One old lady has to encourage the other to wave at them because they’re such nice boys. “Fame hasn’t changed them.” Inside, the Beatles’ home is one long bizarre flat filled with gewgaws, vending machines, a grass lawn that is being tended by a man using chattering false teeth, rotating book shelves, and so on. It’s delightful to look at.

John and Ringo are in an elevator:
Ringo: What was it that first attracted you to me?
John: Well, you’re very polite, aren’t you?

The Beatles are having a two lagers and lime plus two lagers and lime in a pub:
George: I’m always getting winked at these days. It used to be you didn’t it Paul?

The Beatles were all (infamously) stoned during the making of the movie, and Richard Lester, the director, didn’t bother to tell them what the damn thing was about either, so all their performances were… what’s lazier than “mailed in”?

The Monkees TV show was based on this nonsense. So there’s another entertainment vehicle with incredible music, and shitty everything else.

With my sluggish Internet connection, it took me two hours, and several restarts, to download this movie. (It’s 1.3 gigs.) And I didn’t even bother to get it in HD. It was 12 bucks from iTunes. Was it worth it? Sure, I’ll  fast forward to all the music videos next time I watch it. They may have been bad vaudevillians, but the Beatles made some of the greatest music ever.


Your shitty free movie of the week… this week: The Wild and the Wicked

The Wild and The Wicked (A.K.A. Flesh Merchant)

In this documentary, we follow Sarah Palin, who arrives at her sister’s place in Hollywood, fresh off the bus from Alaska, and follow her as she is vetted by the Republican Party to become John McCain’s vice presidential candidate. We see the entire vetting process, from beginning to end. It’s a savage, but delicate process. We witness Republicans in their natural habitat, here referred to as “The Colony.”

“I’m the eppy-tomey of unconsciousness!” says Karl Rove (code-named “Joker”) who is definitely not a cheap chiseler, no sirree!

“A little cooperation is all we ask around here and nobody gets hurt,” says Steve Schmidt, McCain’s operative. He is hunted down by Democrats disguised as policemen, but acquits himself well with a Legally Obtained Firearm, thus defending the Second Amendment, the most important amendment to the Constitution.

“No laughter, no living, no love,” whispers Palin’s sister.

A fellow female Republican, Senator Susan Collins, tells Palin, “This party’s not for us, you know.” But Palin fails to listen, as she admires the trinkets showered upon her by billionaire donors.

At the end, with the bright lights of the “lame stream media” upon her, she accepts her fate.

Louis CK's first film, Tomorrow Night, is now available for five bucks

Screenshot-2014-01-07-08.54.20Louis CK is the master of the no-bullshit five-dollar download. He set the standard for downloadable comedy specials, and now he’s releasing his first film, Tomorrow Night, using the same system.

Tomorrow Night was written and directed by Louie back in 1998, and shot on 16mm black and white with a bunch of people who later went on to bigger things. It’s a bizarre non sequitur film filled with absurdist routines shot in New York, and is slow-paced but a pretty fun view.

Anyway, five bucks gets you a download or stream of it. Check it out here: