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Pops and Scratches
by Greg Muskewitz

Even if the films were not as beautiful as the next, they are equally as beautiful to see as they were intended. [Retrospective of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Manhattan and West Side Story.]

Pops and Scratches
Even if the films were not as beautiful as the next, they are equally as beautiful to see as they were intended.

Monsters, Inc., or Monsters, Incorporated? Verbally—Monsters,Ink,” or Monsters,Ink-or-pur-a-ted?” Mulholland Drive, or Mulholland Dr. ? My First Mister, or My 1st Mr.? Va Savoir (Who Knows?), or Va Savoir?, or ‘Va Savoir’? Legally Blonde or Legally Blond? John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars, or Ghosts of Mars? Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, or Tomb Raider? crazy/beautiful, or Crazy/Beautiful, or Crazy/beautiful (or crazy/Beautiful)? Songcatcher, or SongCatcher? Antitrust, or AntiTrust? Bridget Jones’ Diary, or Bridget Jones’s Diary? Get Over It!, or Get Over It? Run Lola Run, or Run, Lola, Run? 13 Ghosts, Thir13en Ghosts or Thirteen Ghosts? Seven or Se7en? EDtv, Edtv, edTV, EdTV, or EdTv? Trick, or trick? (Too late for Trick or Treat.) Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace, Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace (the variation in italics is purposefully), Star Wars Episode I—The Phantom Menace, Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace, or Star Wars Episode I (or One?) The Phantom Menace? (Will it be Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones, or Attack of the Aberrations? And why wasn’t it Star Wars: Episode IV—Star Wars or more simply A New Hope or Star Wars: Episode VI—Return of the Jedi?) At least with eXistenZ, it was never Existenz.

Last week was something of a treat. In celebration of the grand opening of Loew’s Theater (or Loew’s Theatre?) on 34th St. (Between 8th and 9th Ave.) they hosted three days of free movies. The selection was a mix of contemporary releases (Antz, Scary Movie, Sleepy Hollow, The Matrix), “hot” releases (American Pie 2, America’s Sweethearts, Rock Star, Legally Blonde), and then what we can sadly begin to consider Golden Oldies. It was a perfect chance for me to see four “older” movies that one never has the chance to see on the big screen anymore. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Manhattan and West Side Story are but few of too many films that I’ve never seen, and to see particularly these on the little screen (a/k/a the boob tube) is not to see them at all. Make no mistake—these weren’t video or DVD projections (which was sometimes the norm back home at MoPA) onto a dinky or inadequate screen, but actual film prints displayed with state-of-the-art sound, and giant widescreen capabilities, all containing the occasional pops and clicks and hairs and skipping frames. Technical defects coupled with technology’s top line. Yet, even if all four films were not as beautiful as the next, they are equally as beautiful to see as they were intended.

Taxi Driver. After seeing this film, and knowing how Robert De Niro is and was considered one of America’s best actors, I can finally see (re: see) the comparisons of Edward Norton to him. More than anything, it is for looks, but it is ironic inasmuch as how dissimilar their resemblances stretched in The Score. But as no surprise, De Niro is the stronger performer, the more believable, the more talented. It has long been my opinion that Norton—despite my enjoyment of several of his performances—has been too extolled and prematurely crowned the best actor of his generation as many of my colleagues were quick to label him as. Without having seen Taxi Driver, I was still well-versed with Travis Bickle’s quotable soliloquies, especially his “You talkin’ to me?” bit. Once referenced as an insomniac, Travis narrates the story—his story—in a self-written style, as if from his own memoirs. As he takes a job as a taxi driver (obviously dating the film by having a white male as a driver!) in the mean streets of New York (wink-wink Mr. Scorsese), he happens to have his eye caught on a campaign manager (Cybill Shepherd) of fictional presidential nominee Senator Palantine. Travis platonically stalks her until breaking down and asking her out (which is a funny sequence of events concerning funnyman Albert Brooks), but things quickly turn sour when he introduces her to his seedy world and cinematic choice of pornos. Gears shift when Bickle’s psyche starts to bare the signs of psycho and he turns into a one-man sociopath army, complete with multiple guns and knives, set out to assassinate the presidential hopeful. After that plunder, Bickle veers for the more extreme vigilante, but for the better of society; he attempts to help a 12-year-old prostitute (Jodie Foster) that he’s run into on several occasions, by giving her a break to escape from her pimp. In these seismic changes and altercations it suggests Taxi Driver as being desultory. Martin Scorsese’s orexis in the Travis Bickle character is unignorable and unwavering, and that key point is also what keeps our interest so deep. Paul Schrader’s screenplay can be accused over meandering and plodding at times of insecurity, using Bickle’s own unpredictability as a weak defense, but the changes in tone and atmosphere are recognizably and temporarily offset. That is not to say that it does not pick up from there and move on, which it does, but it is as if adding a gimp to a heretofore swift step. Overall, Bickle is shrouded heavily in ambiguity—at least psychologically; there is not enough time spent in one viewing to even attempt at identifying and earmarking what might serve as circumstantial evidence towards his mental instability and reasoning for his condition, though the Vietnam War seems a viable contribution. While the spotlight is on her, Shepherd is a sight to see, and her role is made even more dulcet in combination with Brooks’ just-as-transitory additions. Having never seen this before, I have had plenty of time to accumulate an abundance of vocal (and written) support for this early role by Foster, but I have to admit my disappointment. Her bearing on the film is so little and insignificant. She makes a charming young hooker, though the precocity of her age is a bit weighty as is the bra size she wears in relation to her age, but yet there is not much to make a fuss over. When The Professional (a/k/a Léon) came out in the middle Nineties, Natalie Portman garnered many comparisons to Foster’s street-tough jeune fille when in reality, the performance, talent and demand were much higher and paid off in Portman’s gamine (Mathilda). As a sidenote of period authenticity, the old style bubble taxis look very mean and ominous with the added help of the portentous score to mingle the cab in the scummy mist of the Big Apple. A frightening image then and now.

With Harvey Keitel, Leonard Harris and Peter Boyle.

Raging Bull. Round two with Scorsese. (Actually, this was the first of the pair I saw, but chronologically speaking…) Scorsese reaches back for this black-and-white biopic paying homage to former boxer-cum-night club owner and amateur comedian Jake La Motta (played by Scorsese buddy De Niro again, although less redoubtably than Bickle, certainly De Niro was just as respectable). A quick preface of the tumescent La Motta rehearsing his stand-up act in 1964 proceeds the rewinding to the beginning of his rise and fall in the ring in 1941. More imperative than his ins and outs of boxing, the film takes a deeper interest in the domestic pitfalls of La Motta, trading back and forth and even combining his puppetry of his brother (another Scorsese fave, Joe Pesci) and his second wife (Cathy Moriarty). Don’t let me lead you to believe that the in-the-ring business is minimized to a quick summary (though it is reduced to the occasional clunky montage), but it does take a second step, a second billing. His harshest tribulations in that arena begin with a long-running feud between Sugar Ray and himself, expanding out to La Motta’s difficulty in getting a title shot in his middle weight division, and his abstinence of outside help and management. His married life and relationship with his brother are tumultuous to begin with, but what is represented as a gradual dissension is likely a mere aperçu of elements that had been long brewing in the deterioration; the emotions were much farther along in that round than what was orally expressed. Also a 1980 release, De Niro’s La Motta was something of an elephant man, specifically with the battered, flattened prosthetic nose (not to misken the much-publicized weight-gain that De Niro went through, surely far more difficult than Gwyneth Paltrow’s fat suit in Shallow Hal), but additionally, when it came Oscar time (both films are/were gloriously shot in black-and-white, though Freddie Francis’ work in The Elephant Man was far superior), it was De Niro’s elephant man against John Hurt’s elephant man; Hurt was unfairly KOed, but De Niro’s magnificence was incontestable. (Further strange experiences during my viewing of Raging Bull: Jake at the end now seems to distantly but eerily resemble what Albert Brooks looks like today—which was later a surprise to find him in Taxi Driver—and Cathy Moriarty (just as hard to swallow as a 15-year-old as Foster was as 12) looking classy despite her milieu, had her name temporarily elude me upon her first appearance on-screen, instead recalling Cybill Shepherd’s—also shocking to find in Taxi Driver later (in my viewing experience), when this was actually made after.) Better than De Niro was Pesci, high and low, whose complicity and no-b.s. attitude outrank and out-perform De Niro’s irascibility. Pesci packs a wallop of energy and realism while maintaining his standard of unadulterated ‘hardass shitheel.’ Moriarty is an interesting choice as the female lead, not because she isn’t capable—a case that isn’t true—but because while some of her looks symmetrically fit into the period, her own mannerisms, mostly her voice, separate her distinctly from the average pack. The camerawork may not equal Francis’ in The Elephant Man, but it still knows how to move around and make good use of the interior of the ring, even if the rest of the expositions blur banally.

Watch closely at a dinner scene for John Turturro, who appears quickly without any lines. With Frank Vincent and Nicolas Colasanto.

Manhattan. Woody Allen’s gorgeous, black-and-white heartfelt billet-doux to his beloved New York City. Allen is a twice-divorced sitcom writer, currently dating a comely 17-year-old high school student (Mariel Hemingway) while juggling the stresses at work and keeping up with his social obligations. In addition to that, he’s developing a crush on his best friend’s “cerebral” mistress (Diane Keaton) and sparring with his lesbian ex-wife (Meryl Streep) who is writing a tell-all biography about their marriage (and how he tried to “run over” her wife). Out of all the films I have seen by Allen, this just might be my favorite. Manhattan is not all about gags and pranks, or at least not physical ones, but more in a sense of spoken and expressed escapades. Allen is very focused on displaying and sharing his city, not exploiting it; not only is his talent an offering that has originated from the city as well, but his visuals—adroitly embraced and recorded by Gordon Willis in an elegant and indulgent b&w stock, and stretching from end to end in widescreen—encompass the major, the sites that the tourists would hit, but also the minor, which only a native or fanatic would be privy to. Whatever he doesn’t get around to showing (unlike the thunderstorm and subsequent segue into the planetarium, which was one of my favorite scenes, quite familiar with the pathway exiting onto Central Park West and 81st), Allen makes sure to trumpet and gush over with arrow-pointed words (the annual Shakespeare in the Park). Manhattan could easily be his most mature work, because in his clear stream of progression and intent, he doesn’t trip himself up or rattle on aimlessly to nettlesome lengths like he often can. Co-written with Marshall Brickman (who was a better team in creating Sleeper than Mickey Rose was in collaboration with Bananas), this is Allen’s most mellifluous, fervent dialogue with each line pierced and tinged with biting hilarity (“Years ago I wrote a short story about my mother called ‘The Castrating Zionist,’” or “I could tell by your voice, it was very authoritative—like the pope or the computer in 2001,” or “I internalize things—I can’t explain it, I grow a tumor instead,” or “You think you’re God”/ “I gotta model myself after someone”), and throughout the whole running-time, it never loses its grasp. I can easily say that I didn’t want it to end where it did, or would gladly embrace a sequel (I think Jack Mathews expressed a similar desire after reviewing The Curse of the Jade Scorpion), but all of the characters and interior/exterior settings and emotions are uncluttered and unobscured. Allen and Hemingway share some truly tender and romantic moments that often seem missing or at least partially artificial in similar situations in Allen’s films, and the two of them establish an excellent chemistry and validity. The sweet-voiced Hemingway is so spry and refreshing, not overly naïve or put-on, but rather striking all the right notes forcefully or gently when such is required. Keaton also makes for a lot of fun, relishing the position of the pseudointellectual always naysaying other people’s positives and praising the humbugged. She is also used more effectively than in Sleeper, though the silly quagmires she and Allen found themselves in then was surely not devoid of any fun or laughs. With this film, Allen was not only on top of Manhattan, but he was on top of the world!

With Michael Murphy and Anne Byrne.

West Side Story. Judging by the turnout, or moreover those who came out for this (save for a gleek of “urban homies” who were expecting something a little more west from the westside, possibly mistaking this for a shoot ‘em up ghetto story with Snoop Dogg, LL Cool J or Dr. Dre), it could fairly be argued that it has its own cult following. (Call it a ‘snap-along.’) Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s modernized (for its day and time) and musicalized “Romeo and Juliet,” (with the music by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein) breaks the two families down to the whites/Jets, and the Puerto Ricans/Sharks. The gang rivalry and musical melee mushrooms even broader when the Romeo of the Jets falls in love with the Juliet of the Puerto Ricans, and the doomed lovers endeavor to make the best of their respective dilemmas whilst trying to change their cohorts’ minds to match the conformity of their own. West Side Story fairly represents both POVs, flip-flopping to make each side look as foolish as the next, or to frustratingly express their own difficulties and repression as to what is proceleusmatic to their deportment. Unfortunately, both sides are offered up in a highly, thickly designed stereotypes (heavier than even Natalie Wood’s dark make-up), with the Puerto Rican hackneyed image tipping the scales. (Some of the actors use what’s closer to a Transylvanian dialect rather than a Spanish accent.) Ultimately, there are too many musical numbers, with a song-and-dance ingenite out of nearly every single scene, without a remaining drop to squeeze out at the end. The memorable sequences will stay with you after, but the mediocre and prosaic are mood-altering and too close in contiguity. At least, for the most part that is, the camera is relatively content to be unobtrusive in tracking and tailing the dances, never getting too carried away and opting to participate as well. The color cinematography adds a character of its own to the ensemble, but it is pasty and smudgy, making its presence unintentionally inauspicious—only another disappointment to add to the list.

With Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, Ned Glass and Susan Oakes.

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originally posted: 11/10/01 05:05:08
last updated: 01/06/04 16:39:02
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