Tuesday, February 28, 2023
Friday, December 24, 2021
Merry CrimesMas: Scott Adlerberg on Eyes Wide Shut
I remember finding the film very strange, even by Kubrick standards. From 2001 on, and especially with Barry Lyndon, he hadn’t done a movie with fast pacing, but unlike with his other films, the deliberateness of Eyes Wide Shut irritated me somewhat. There’s a repetitive nature to the encounters that Cruise’s Dr. Bill Harford keeps having, and these got under my skin. They’re frustrating and off-kilter. They thwart desire. And yet I found these annoying adventures engrossing. The movie runs 159 minutes, and yet, at that viewing, it felt longer. But my attention had not once wandered. I wasn’t sure whether I’d seen a film I liked a lot or judged hard to endure, and at the same time, I felt satisfied with this conflicted reaction. Dream story indeed! The film had enveloped me like a hypnogogic experience cum nightmare, though I kept debating in my mind whether or not Kubrick had fallen prey to the fallacy of imitative form. Remember that from English class?
Had Kubrick not only depicted frustration and disgruntlement in his central characters but done so by evoking it in his audience?
So twenty two years go by, and other than catching a snippet here and there of Eyes Wide Shut on cable television, I didn’t see the film again. By contrast, every other Kubrick film from Killer’s Kiss on, I’ve seen multiple times. “One day, one day,” I kept telling myself, “I’ll return to Eyes Wide Shut,” but not until Jed invited me to write a CrimeMas piece did I watch it in it entirety again. And right off the bat, I’ll admit it’s not precisely a crime film. But it has enough illicit activity to be close enough to a crime film, and there can be no question whatsoever that it is a Christmas film.
But getting back to Arthur Schnitzler for a second. It’s worth pointing out that in 1999 when I saw the film, I had not read the novella. I only read what critics wrote of it, the main point being that Kubrick had taken an Austrian work from the 1920s and changed it to one set in New York City in the 1990s. As I told Jed, I intended to read the source novella before revisiting the film, and having done that, I have to say that though the film retains its distinctly Kubrickian oddness, the unmistakable Kubrick tone, the long takes, the eerie intensity, it also functions as a scrupulous adaptation of the original story. Kubrick (and Raphael) did add an important character to the film – Ziegler, the wealthy guy played by Sydney Pollack – and make slight changes here and there, but for the most part, in how its plot unfolds and in the sexual dynamics it explores, Eyes Wide Shut hews closely to Schnitzler. Except that Schnitzler sets his story during the carnival season in Vienna, and Kubrick, as I’ve said, goes all in on Christmas.
There’s no carnival in New York City, so that’s one reason Kubrick needed to change the holiday backdrop. But why go specifically with Christmas? For starters, it helps establish a dissonance between the hope and good cheer one associates with the season and the goings on in the film. Has there ever been a more somber and dread-filled Christmas movie than Kubrick’s? At the lavish party that opens the story, a holiday celebration thrown by Ziegler, the guests look stiff and joyless. They could be ghosts dancing in The Shining’s Overlook Hotel ballroom. The party sets the stage for the discussion Bill and Alice later have that sparks their marital crisis, and it’s at this party too where we see the first linkage in the film between sex and death. “Yuletide is the season for an obsession with Eros and Thanatos” could well be this film’s tagline, or it could be “Sex is all about power and money,” since every sexual encounter we see in the movie, including the orgy scene, revolves around both these things. Christmas is a time for family? Eyes Wide Shut shows us the Harford family struggling with its tensions, a piano player at gigs in New York though his wife and kids are back in Seattle, and a father who pimps out his adolescent daughter. We all know how Christmas has become a time of commercialism run rampant, its spiritual basis, for most people, downplayed, and in line with this, Kubrick’s film presents one transactional exchange after another. Time and again, Bill Harford is offering money to someone for a service he receives or wants. He offers the young prostitute money even after backing out of sex with her; he wakes the costume store owner late at night and says he’ll overpay to get the mask and tux and hood he needs; he gets the cabbie to wait for him outside the Long Island mansion’s gates by saying he’ll pay him a hefty sum. Even in the scene when Alice does homework with the Harford’s daughter, money is central, with Alice reading the math problem they’re doing aloud: “Joe has two dollars fifty. Mike has one dollar and seventy-fivecents. Joe has how much more money than Mike?”
Above all, though, this is a film suffused with Christmas lights. Offhand, I can’t think of any other movie ever made with so many Christmas lights in it. Nearly every location in the movie, besides the house where the orgy takes place, has colored holiday lights. Kubrick uses them to light the scenes, not unlike how he used candles to light Barry Lyndon, and they serve to give the film a dreamy feel, a netherworld quality. And this makes sense since the New York City Kubrick creates, mainly from sets in England where he filmed the movie, is a blend of time periods. It’s part 1990s New York and part 1920s era Vienna and part the 1950s New York (like with the Greenwich Village jazz den Bill visits) that Kubrick lived in when he was young. It’s a New York that’s not quite New York, subtly hallucinatory, a landscape of the mind you could say. But as Christmassy as the film looks – the lit-up tree in the Harford’s apartment gets plenty of attention – virtually no seasonal music is heard. Classical music of varying levels of melancholy and creepiness dominates the soundtrack, and not until the last scene do we hear a single Christmas song or melody, a subdued version of Jingle Bells when Bill and Alice take their little girl Christmas shopping at the toy store. We’re surprised to see a few people smiling, and not just the children checking out the toys. Still, most of the adults passing Bill and Alice as the couple discuss how to move their marriage forward look like they are conducting business. And they are, of a sort; they’re engaging in the ritualistic consumer enterprise that makes up holiday shopping. That’s not to say there is no hope. The best gift Bill and Alice can give themselves for Christmas is the act Alice says she and Bill should do, a four-letter word that is the perfect word to end the scene that ends the career of Stanley K.
Merry Christmas from Kubrick? Not exactly. But I consider that I gave myself a present by finally watching Eyes Wide Shut again. Three decades later, I am certain that Kubrick did not fall victim to the fallacy of imitative form. The movie flows much better than it did on first viewing, and I feel I have lots more to explore here. I can see it becoming, in Decembers to come a regular Christmas watch for me.Scott Adlerberg is the author of four novels, including the psychological thriller Graveyard Love and the historical revenge tale Jack Waters. Every summer he hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film series in Bryant Park. He lives in Brooklyn.
Thursday, December 23, 2021
Merry CrimesMas: Paul J. Garth on LA Confidential
This time I was decidedly not drunk, and, having now read all of the LA Quartet a few times, also wasn’t surprised that Dudley Smith turns out to be the bastard we all know him to be (one more sidenote: I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I’m convinced Smith is the single most evil character in American Literature, even more so than McCarthy’s The Judge). But I was surprised, probably blinded by my fascination with the books, at how much Confidential is a Christmas movie. But not for the reasons you think.
It starts with a Christmas party - actually, it starts with a wife beater getting fucking clocked with Santa’s Sleigh, pulled from the rooftop by Russell Crowe’s Brooding yet cunning Barbarian of a cop, Bud White), but it’s really a Chrismas movie because Dudley Smith is the Devil… and Edmund Exley is Jesus.
To anyone who has read the Quartet in full, that part about Smith is undeniably true, and the part about Exley is, well, a little more complicated. But we’re talking about the movie here, and, with all knowledge of the source material thrown out, the parallels, inserted by Director Curtis Hanson and screenwriter Brian Helgeland, are undeniable.
Edmund Exley is a Boy Scout. Not just a boy scout, actually, a do-the-right-thing-no-matter-what dork of a boy scout. That’s established early, when Smith, after learning of Exley’s aspirations to the Detectives Bureau, questions him on whether or not he’d do The Right Thing and beat, kill, or plant evidence on people he knows are guilty. It’s basically Jesus and The Devil in the Desert while wearing police blues. That Exley soon finds himself promoted and under Smith’s tutelage is both a function of plot and theme. He needs to be too close to see the truth, while highlighting his own Personal Truth, his willingness and determination to ensure the right thing is done despite any discomfort it may cause. Exley is a martyr, and when he walks into the Nite Owl Cafe, he finds himself on his own road back to Jerusalem, though he doesn’t know the Devil is already at his shoulder.
That Guy Pearce plays Exley with the calm, almost stuttering, tone of someone lost in the library only completes the picture. Hanson even draws attention to Exley’s need for glasses - a common malady for those born into imperfect bodies, one which Smith encourages him to discard - but later, at the Victory Hotel (Exley’s Golgotha), the glasses are shattered, impossible to see through, and he still takes motherfuckers out without an issue.
Throughout the film, he even gathers Disciples. Believers in, if not his way of doing things, than his ultimate message: that no stone can be kept unturned, that Evil, no matter it’s address or how cushy it dresses, must be vanquished. First Vincennes, then White, and, after that ending, more, surely, to follow.
It’d all be on the nose and obvious except for the fact that Exley does lose to temptation when he falls in to the arms of Lyn Bracken (Basinger), and while that does diminish Exley’s christlike stature, Bracken, her of the Veronica Lake face and burning heart, joins him and Bud at the end of the film. suddenly lit in something other than postwar housing gloom, she appears Beatific. A Magdalene, almost. Another disciple herself.
Around them, the city (of angels!!! cmon!) celebrates Exley for vanquishing the corruption from within, and the film ends on a hopeful note. Exley is now the “face of the new LA Police Force” and, the chief reassures the media, no longer will “Fat officers steal apples from children” (Come on!). Exley has found his truth, and it has allowed him an ascension, complete with wounds that may as well be stigmata. Bud White, wrath turned to camaraderie and peacefulness, rides off into the sunset with Bracken, and Exley watches them go, the glow of a new day all about them.
When it comes down to it, I prefer the books. The continuation of the story, the battle between Smith and Exley. Both, it turns out, have clay feet, and Exley is ultimately unable to bring down Smith without compromising himself and his morals. There is no savior narrative, no absolution. There’s just a decent man, trying to be better in a city that celebrates, was made by, evil. That’s not to say there’s not a lot to love about LA Confidential, though. It’s hopeful and iconic and great cinema, but also, just a few years after Rodney King and the riots, just a few years after OJ and Furman, just a few years after Daryl Fucking Gates, it’s either offensively chipper and ignorant, or deeply cynical. The savior, we know, didn’t actually change shit. The bad times kept on rolling, even when The Devil was dead.
Merry fucking Christmas, indeed.
Tuesday, December 21, 2021
Merry CrimesMas: Sandra Ruttan on Riders of Justice
When Mathilde and Otto cross paths, a train accident changes their lives forever. Both look for understanding, an explanation. And perhaps nobody needs answers more than Mathilde's father, Marcus. Marcus is a soldier and he returns after the accident, and he isn't coping well.
At one point, when Mathilde asks her dad if he believed in God when he was young, Marcus tells her, "I also believed in Santa. But when you grow up you have to be able to distinguish between reality and fantasy."
Monday, December 20, 2021
Merry CrimesMas: Brian Lindenmuth on Dead Bang
Why did Jed ask me to write a CrimesMas piece? We'll get to that.
First, let me share a couple of stray thoughts I had while watching Dead Bang.
My wife and I recently started a re-watch of the HBO show Watchmen. There may be a good compare and contrast piece to be written comparing Dead Bang and Watchmen because of some similarities and to see if they are superficial or not. Both are about police departments, both deal with white supremacy, and both feature Don Johnson. But this piece isn't about that.
It's been years since I last saw Dead Bang but when I was younger, I saw it many times. This got me thinking about what I'll call Basic Cable Standards. If you are of a certain age you probably watched a lot of movies on basic cable channels in the 80's and 90's. Some of those films were in high rotation and became favorites. I may want to write this piece at some time, but this piece isn't about that.
I realized that, at least some times, I like a little bit of toxic masculinity. But only in my fiction and in certain stories. Don Johnson's character is such a bastard. Is it any wonder why he has such a terrible relationship with his ex-wife and kids? But this piece isn't about that.
Let's take a moment between these stray thoughts to appreciate Don Johnson's hair. He really is a handsome son of a bitch isn't he. I hate him. Just kidding. Not really.
As regressive as Don Johnson's character can be, there's a moment in the third act that I've always remembered. Don Johnson's character is met by a Black sheriff, Chief Dixon played by Tim Reid. Chief Dixon assures him that no white supremacist has infiltrated his force. Don Johnson protests then we cut to the force which is comprised of all Black officers. In fact, they seem to be the only characters up to this point who believe that white supremacists are out there and a threat. But this piece isn't about that.
Well then what the hell is it about? That's probably a fair question at this point.
Well, you see, toxically masculine but well coiffed Don Johnson forces a parole officer to grab a file for him on his day off. Then he kidnaps the man to question a bad dude biker. When the suspect runs an awesome foot chase takes place. When the hungover Don Johnson finally tackles the guy and has the man splayed out on the ground, Don Johnson pukes all over him. What's so special about this scene? The parole officer's day off is Christmas.
Tldr: Don Johnson kidnaps a colleague to roust a suspect, catches the guy, and pukes all over him.
It's the Christmas miracle of alcoholic single dad cops in 80's movies everywhere!
Jokes aside, this is a solid B movie crime thriller and is worth checking out if you can find a copy.
Friday, December 17, 2021
Merry CrimesMas: Deep Cover
Laurence Fishburne (billed as 'Larry Fishburne' in this one as well as in King of New York and Boyz N the Hood) stars as John Hull, an undercover narcotics agent for the DEA handled by Charles Martin Smith's agent Gerald Carver and tasked with bringing down a West Coast cocaine kingpin.
His success as an agent of justice and righteousness will rely on his cruelest reasoning, basest survival instincts and his willingness to stoop to humanity's lowest operating levels. By the end of the film he'll have done many things that trouble his conscience in the name of a supposedly greater good and be unsure of his place in the world, his moral compass pointing in confusing directions.
Before he ran the cocaine streets, our narrator John remembers being kid in Cleveland named Russell Stevens Jr. (Cory Curtis). The film opens at Christmas time 1972 as he is out shopping with his father, Russell Stevens Sr. (Glynn Turman) on an entirely different kind of snow-blanketed streets. In the warm car young Russell watches his dad snort white powder and Fishburne's voiceover narration tells us "my father was a junkie." Russell Sr. is disgusted by his own behavior and berates his son "Don't ever do this. Don't you ever be like me" while Silent Night plays on the soundtrack.
Russell Sr. asks his son what he wants for Christmas and when Jr. says he doesn't know, his father asks him, "How do you expect to get what you want if you don't even know what you want?" Russell Sr. poses the question while loading a gun and his son portends an ill fate.
Dad exits the car and enters a liquor store.
While Dad's inside Russell Jr. is startled by an intoxicated Santa Claus outside his window "Merry Goddamn Christmas" he snarls, "Have you been a good boy?" Russell Jr. is frightened by this menacing, intimidating incarnation of the mythical jolly fat man who loves children and keeps track of them, rewarding all the good ones with gifts. Russell Jr. looks for his father to protect him and finds him just in time to watch Russell Sr. shoot the liquor store proprietor and exit the store casually, seemingly unruffled by the cold blooded violence he's perpetrated to get what he wants.
But Russell Sr. is considerably less cool when he notices Santa Claus talking to his son, "Don't you be teaching my boy that fairy tale shit" he says while squaring off to fight the against what he perceives to be the real threat to his impressionable young son. This is the enemy he fears - a white savior who doesn't respect the very morality he's selling, openly drunk and profane, but resolute and comfortable in his authority threatening Russell to keep the commandments "have you been a good boy?"
Momentarily victorious, Russell Sr. teaches his son a final important lesson. Clutching his gun in one hand and the money its earned him in the other, he says "Do you see?" before being shotgunned in the back by the wounded liquor store owner.
Russell Jr. jumps out of the car and kneels beside his dying father and takes from him a few bloody dollars, a memento he carries till the end of the film.
On his journey he is befriended by Jeff Goldblum's white drug dealer, getting rich easily on the poison he's happy enough to traffic, and he's beset and abused by Clarence Williams III's cop, a religious black man who considers himself a righteous crusader against crime and who calls John Judas, a traitor to his people, unaware of his undercover status (a casting dynamic Duke used again in his 1997 prohibition crime flick Hoodlum starring Fishburne as the black godfather of Harlem, Bumpy Johnson, and Williams as the black toady to the white power structure represented by Tim Roth's Dutch Schultz).
Though by the film's end we're not sure that his badge or even his intentions mattered. Clarence Williams' crusader will have failed and been undone and blinded to the truth by his righteous dogmatic passions while John has succeeded by following orders though they entail horrific behavior and don't end up getting him what he thought he wanted. We're happy to see him free himself from agent Carver's false legal morality (he has not been a good boy), and we're relieved to see him give up the paltry cash his father died for...
He takes another orphaned boy to visit the grave of his mother, a character John/Russell couldn't save, and he leaves his father's bloody money on the gravestone and walks away holding the boy's hand presumably to raise and instruct as his own son.
What will he teach him?
He may not have been a junkie, but he's dispatched dispassionate violence like his father and in the end he's still not sure what he wants and he's certainly not sure where to go from here, but he's roundly rejected the fairy tale shit pushed on him by many moral authorities...starting with Santa Claus.
Wednesday, December 15, 2021
Merry CrimesMas: Kent Gowran on Jackpot
At this point we get into a bit of setup reminiscent of The Usual Suspects, with Oscar being questioned about how he came to be under the body of a dead stripper with a shotgun in his hands. We jump into flashback time as a newly released con named Billy is brought to Evergreen, a plastic Christmas tree factory, where Oscar will be his supervisor, and he’ll work with fellow ex-cons Thor and Tresko. By lunchtime, they’ve hatched a plan to put their money into a can’t miss plan for betting on upcoming soccer matches. Oscar is pressed into joining, and soon enough, with a little help from Trine, a friend of Oscar’s, the four guys are watching the last of the matches and they win more than enough for all of them to have a very merry Christmas indeed. Of course, things almost immediately derail, and from there we’re treated to Oscar’s tale of woe and betrayal which builds and winds it way back to where we first come in.
Throughout the movie, the movie, in true splatstick fashion, delivers unapologetic violence and gore gags galore. For example, if you’ve ever wondered how hilariously bad attempting to dismember a body on a dinner table in an apartment might go, Jackpot is the winning ticket. I might offer a word of warning to the squeamish, but it’s all good fun as multiple lives come to an end… Devoured by their greed, you might say.
Director Martens also wrote the screenplay, based on a story by Jo Nesbo. The humor definitely feels akin to what we get in other Scandinavian crime comedies like Terribly Happy (2008) and In Order of Disappearance (2014), though considerably bloodier here. I can’t help but feel, not speaking Norwegian, there might be a joke or meaning in the title Arme Riddere… In Norway, this is most commonly a dessert, rather than a breakfast item. The name also translates as, and the delicacy known as Poor Knights. Without a doubt, some bread is lost.
Yes, my jokes are bad, and I have a lot of ‘em.
If you’ve never seen it, or maybe it’s been a minute, this a sweet choice for CrimesMas viewing.