January Film Roundup is the intellectual property of Leonard Richardson and Nowhere Standard Inc. Any resemblance to actual film roundups living or dead is purely incidental.
A thing I did in 2017 that I’ve never actually recorded here was buy a house in Southeast Portland. More about that some other time. An important thing about this house, to me, is that it’s within walking distance of Movie Madness, the best place to rent movies in the world. Later in 2019 I’m going to leave Portland after eleven years and move to Chicago. More about that also some other time. Until then, I want to take great advantage of my proximity to the little cinder block building that just has… every… movie… in it. These are the ones I watched last month.
My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997): Kat’s favorite. I used to watch and basically believe in romantic comedies, a fact which may shed light on some of my permanent emotional scarring. I stopped watching in the early oughts, when the movies stopped being good, but I think I did see almost all of the nineties classics except this one. I liked it but I’m glad I didn’t see it at the time; I would not have appreciated it.
Having read nothing about its production, here’s my imaginary series of events: Ron Bass sees Mr. Wrong and The Truth About Cats And Dogs in 1996, then writes a combination of the two as a vehicle for Janeane Garofalo or someone Janeane Garofalesque. A studio buyer says “Ron, I love it, but why don’t we see if we can shoot for someone more… Julia Robertsesque.” Then the actual Julia Roberts, tired of being pitched on romantic comedies because it’s 1997, reads it and says “I would enjoy taking my own subversive turn at playing a sociopath,” and what you end up with is this strange world where Dermot Mulroney plays a human tree stump who’s marrying 20-year-old Cameron Diaz yet who has never in his life considered any attraction to Julia Roberts (who is in turn willing to ruin his life to have him).
I grant you that this is the same disbelief you are asked to suspend when The Truth About Cats And Dogs sets up its false dichotomy, but at least that is predictable Hollywood logic at work. Roberts gets her teeth into this anyway and has a great time, which is fun to watch, and so does Rupert Everett, who you already know is the best part of the movie even if you’ve never seen it.
Night of the Living Dead (1968): I think I saw this nineteen or twenty years ago and my recall of it was more accurate than I expected. I like it, but I would not have felt a specific need to rent it except for one thing: I seem to be among few Every Frame a Painting superfans to have discovered that last year’s Criterion reissue has a hidden Every Frame a Painting on the bonus disc.
To say that Every Frame a Painting meant a great deal to me is to understate. It turns out I am still grieving it, and—as is obvious to the point of pain—grieving the world I thought I was living in when its last video was posted to Youtube in September of 2016. Grief leads me to magical thinking, and so, of late, my brain has tried to conjure the past via whatever ancillary frames I can find. There are at least a couple more essays they produced for Filmstruck, a service which decided to shut down just as this bout of grief made itself known, that I haven’t found yet. But I have found three others (on The Breaking Point, His Girl Friday and Tampopo) in physical format at Movie Madness.
A Taxing Woman (1987): I enjoyed Tampopo so goddamn much that my friend Theron recommended I try to track this one down, the movie Juzo Itami made after it with the same leads. Even Theron had only ever seen this on VHS, but Movie Madness had it on DVD, because they have… every… movie. Tampopo is somehow a Western about cooking noodles, so of course this one is a gumshoe tax fraud noir in a world where everyone is constantly trying to cheat on their taxes. The genre twist I liked is that this time the detective character is on the offense: she’s the one who barges into other people’s offices, smelling like trouble. It’s fun just to see Nobuko Miyamoto and Tsutomu Yamazaki stretch their rapport into something wary and oppositional instead of bittersweetly pedagogical.
The Bad Sleep Well (1960): Three out of four of this month’s movies are directly derived from Every Frame a Painting, a trend which I expect will continue. This one got its own mini-episode about one scene—actually, about one shot—and I successfully used that to walk myself backwards into watching my first Kurosawa movie in decades. I enjoyed it.
I used to get bored very quickly by any movie I perceived as “old.” The only way I knew how to interpret film was through plots, which I tended to find either obvious or incomprehensible in the classics, their dialogue, which I found unrelatable, and their set pieces or action scenes, which I mostly found cheesy. Yes, this is callow, but I don’t think it’s uncommon! I could write at length about how standard liberal arts curricula can fail people, but fundamentally, putting complex art in front of someone and declaring that it’s valuable by fiat doesn’t work. I have seen so many movies without knowing how to see them. Modernist artistic complexity is a locked door with treasure behind it, but if the keys you have for the door don’t open it, the fault is not with you.
Every Frame a Painting showed me doors I didn’t know about, and nudged them open for me. I notice when my eyes are active in the frame now! I can identify different kinds of cuts between shots, and I notice when the camera directs my attention amid complex blocking. I can appreciate it when action and reaction are both in the same shot, or when one shot just set me up for its successor. I haven’t quite managed to catch compositional sectioning in action yet, but at least I know it’s out there to be recognized.
Each of the previous Kurosawa movies I’d seen (Ran, Throne of Blood, Rashomon, The Hidden Fortress and Seven Samurai) were things I found nebulously cool and even striking, but like Michael Bay, I couldn’t have articulated why. With The Bad Sleep Well, I can tell you this much: I like it because it doesn’t matter whether I speak Japanese or whether I speak cinematic shorthand (or whether I know Hamlet). I like it because it told me a harmonic story with its acting, its writing, its music, its composition, its costuming—in monochrome!—and its editing all at the same time. It uses its bandwidth well in concert, and a broader band means richer media.
I also liked it because Toshiro Mifune is nebulously cool.
It took me a while to hash that last point out with myself, so now it’s February 5th and I’ve already seen three more movies and rented a fourth. I guess we’ll see how long this keeps going, and also how many choices of movie I can tie back to Every Frame a Painting somehow. Maybe Leonard will forgive this format infringement if I tell him that I am about to finally get around to watching The Man Who Wasn’t There.