citizen kate: day one

queue de grâce kicks off this month with one of my favorite christmas movies, terry gilliam's brazil (1985).

it's a bleak dystopia that awaits us, it would seem. sam lowry is there already. he lives in a dark and paranoid world, passing his days as a drab cog in an immense, ugly machine. his only escape comes via his dreams, where he becomes something of an avenging angel, soaring through endless skies, sword in hand, haunted by a vision of a particular damsel in distress. in his waking life the most excitement he sees is rectifying clerical errors, like the instance where a fly in the teletype results in an innocent man being mistaken for a terrorist ending in his detainment and death. on a visit to the man's widow to get some paperwork signed, sam catches a glimpse of their upstairs neighbor who turns out to be the literal woman of his dreams. the potential to live out these dreams, at least a little, is enough to make sam throw caution to the wind and risk everything in pursuit of this woman. his life comes off the rails as he attempts to balance a new promotion, his mother's meddling, what has to be his first love and keeping the orwellian darkness from encroaching on his new-found happiness. he seems to succeed, but it turns out that, like everything good in his life, it is only a dream and the film ends with a catatonic sam receding further and further into his own broken mind. i think, uneven though it is, this is still gilliam's masterpiece. all of his trademark themes get their best going over in this wicked satire. orwell's menacing totalitarian state has been replaced by one that is run more by mindless bureaucrats, not so much inherently evil as inept and cowardly. the most evil thing you can do in this universe is be ambitious. those lean, hungry ones are always the ones you have to look out for. along this tangled way, he takes shots at rampant consumerism, human vanity and air conditioner repairmen, all with a backdrop of the most commercial holiday we have ever created. every human physical interaction is awkward. every living space is crowded with ductwork. every other camera angle is vertiginous. it is absurdly funny. it is probably the closest gilliam has ever come to putting his own personal struggle with the world as we know it onscreen, at least until he finishes the man who killed don quixote. the problem with putting so much of gilliam's mind onscreen at once is that it becomes a little disjointed and overwhelming. i would rather have that, though, than some competent middle manager of a filmmaker, playing it safe. it made me think of how gilliam is the antecedent to the charlie kaufmans of the world and how without the messy brilliance of brazil we wouldn't have the undisciplined and fantastic risk taking of something like synecdoche, new york (2008). funny how the bleakest, most paranoiac film on the list this week is the one that fills me with the most hope.

from there we move on to everyone's favorite magical fairy tale about goths who cut themselves, tim burton's edward scissorhands (1990).

i don't have a lot of patience for tim burton. the only things i have really enjoyed of his were pee-wee's big adventure (1985) and sleepy hollow (1999), both of which are still comfortably in burton's wheelhouse by being about misunderstood outsiders, both of which succeed primarily because they aren't tim burton-y misunderstood outsiders. you probably all know edward's story. it seemed to me while watching it i had seen it once before...when it was called frankenstein (1931). edward was created by a kindly, if a little mad, doctor - vitagraph favorite, vincent price! - who lived in the gothic castle on the hill. his creator died before edward was quite finished leaving him with scissors for hands and finishing school applications unfilled. edward is discovered by another kindly type, this time the local avon lady, who brings him home and tries to integrate him into polite suburban society. things go awry, as they are wont to do - you know, fire bad and all that - and the angry villagers chase the monster back from whence he came, only satisfied when they think that he is dead. there were some things i enjoyed about it. without a doubt, burton has a truly idiosyncratic visual style and i liked a number of the set design elements a great deal. danny elfman's score was predictably decent, if occasionally christmas jewelry commercial-ish. johnny depp had some great moments in the margins, little throwaway things that were charming and appropriate for his goth-out-of-water character. where burton loses me is in his attempts here to generate pity. it doesn't come across as pathos, just pathetic. and i think it was a huge mistake on his part to spend so much time in a suburban landscape that was an obvious pastel cartoon knock-off of john waters' usual stomping grounds. here's what you underline when you do that (note depp in both):

john waters: freaks (and i mean that lovingly) who wouldn't spend five minutes giving a shit what you think because they have their own thing going on.

tim burton: freaks who spend an hour and a half trying to get you to feel sorry for them.

no contest! i know which ones i would rather hang out with. if john waters had made this then you might have something. as it is, not so much. and winona should never go blonde again. next!

we end things on a synthesized note with giorgio moroder presents metropolis (1984).

this is one odd duck that leaves me with all sorts of conflicted feelings. in the early eighties, disco/synthesizer impresario giorgio moroder took it upon himself to restore fritz lang's silent science fiction masterpiece metropolis (1927). an admirable idea, right? lang's film had suffered terribly at the hands of editors, rendering some of it nonsensical. in addition to redressing these cuts, though, moroder also composed a new contemporary score. contributing to the synth-driven proceedings are such luminaries of mtv's infancy as pat benatar, billy squier and adam ant. don't get me wrong. i love how music and film interact and i really don't think anything is off limits when it comes to mixing the media and watching them recontextualize each other. fantastic planet (1973) is brilliant for this, for instance. you can play anything as you watch it and each new piece of music brings out something different in it. in this case, though, whether lang's film doesn't lend itself to this type of experimentation or it's moroder's score, it mostly doesn't work. a couple of times something subtle and thoughtful happens but, for the most part, it is unremarkable. for a "contemporary" score the music from 1984 seems more dated than the film from 1927 and for a "restoration" this print is pretty bad. it was amusing to see the intertitles at the beginning talking about how missing scenes had been lost forever, knowing now that that's not true. if you want to see an exquisite version of the film, check out kino's restoration of the complete metropolis. i appreciate moroder's passion for the film and his invaluable contribution in keeping interest in the film alive, unfortunately it just doesn't help his version pass beyond the bounds of novelty.

and with that we bring an end to probably the only day this week that won't make me want to gouge my eyes out at least once.

ho ho ho!


  1. for clarification's sake, and in case any of you nuts actually go and seek these films out on netflix based on what i write here, brazil is not available for streaming. for the people who live in town there's always the option of loaning me dvds and/or picking titles you want me to watch from my collection. i keep my dvd library posted online so if any future participants want to consider it i can send you a link. brazil was a title kate wanted me to watch so she picked that one from my collection. there will also be a couple of titles later in the week that she brought to me. i will note those when they occur.

  2. I have to admit a deep and abiding love for the moroder version of metropolis ever since my high school german teacher made us watch it in class. he also lent me a copy of nosferatu. two films that helped kickstart my cinemaphilia.