Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Wings is a two-and-a-half-hour-long silent movie. It's also the only silent movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (well, they called it "Best Production" at the time, but it's still the first movie on the list), which means that I was obliged to see it.

The appeal at the time was Clara Bow (the "It" girl, and since this is pre-Hays Office, you actually get a fleeting glimpse of some "It") and the aerial dogfight scenes, which are still quite impressive. Biplanes swoop and flame out and crash and fly into buildings in a most entertaining and convincing manner. There's also a plot, of sorts, which concerns Jack (Buddy Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen), being buddies in World War I but both loving the same gal: Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston) although David knows that Sylvia really loves him but he doesn't want to let his buddy down. It's obvious the whole time that Jack would be better off with his mechanic buddy Mary (Clara Bow), partly because that would sort things out, but mostly because she's clearly Clara Bow. It seems to me that if you're in a silent movie, you aren't going to do any better for youself than the "It" girl, you know? You can't hold out for Theda Bara! The odds are very low that she'll even show up.

If this movie were made today, there would be lots of slash fiction about it. First David and Dack have a fight. Then when they fly a mission, David is shot down and Jack thinks he's dead. This leads up to Jack vowing to either get revenge for David or not come back at all. It's all very buddy-movie, in which the men realize their bonds of friendship are more important than the women that divide them. All I'm saying is that if you were of a mind to, you could probably read something into some of these scenes. Like when David is dying (because he was in a stolen German plane and got shot down by Jack) and he says "Stay with me, Jack, for just a little while."

For a silent movie, there are refreshingly few title cards to slow down the action. I prefer these movies that let the actor get across the emotion in a scene, even if its via ridiculously outsized facial expressions at times, to the movies that interrupt every few seconds to relay every single line of dialogue. It turns out that most of what people say in movies can be cut out entirely, especially if it's a movie about World War I Flying Aces. Also, the camera moves around a lot, especially in this one Parisian restaurant scene that also includes animated special effects. It feels more modern than a silent movie from 1927 has any right to.

Lovers of old-timey ethnic humor will be pleased to note that Wings contains both a humorous Dutchman and a drunk Scotchman, although the absence of allegedly hilarious accents obviously restricts the possibilities for dialect jokes.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Kill Bill References

One of my bad movie-watching habits is that I tend to claim that everything is a reference to other scenes. For example, any time someone rides a motorcycle through a stained-glass window (which happens more often than you'd expect, really), I like to pretend it's a reference to that scene in The Great Muppet Caper where Miss Piggy does it. I freely admit that I might be allowing myself to be unduly influenced by the fact that I used to have this glass:

Good times. Anyway, it turns out that this tendency is perfectly appropriate for watching Quentin Tarantino movies. For example, I thought I was reaching a bit when I saw a line in Kill Bill, Vol. 2 that seemed to echo His Girl Friday (the Cary Grant version of the line is "I'm kind of particular who my wife marries"), but the Internet seems to agree with me. And I'm positive about the Phantasm reference -- as far as I'm concerned, when you see a spinning ball with whirling blades coming out of it, and it's flying at the camera, that means only one thing.

So as I suggested in the previous paragraph, I just watched Kill Bill. I hated Volume 1 when I first watched it. I mean, I hated it a lot. I hated it more than League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I even saw it a second time, just to make sure. And that second time was at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, so I'm pretty sure the problem wasn't that I watched it at a bad place. I just really disliked it. It seemed like every scene involved Uma Thurman getting almost killed, writhing around on the ground covered in blood, and then staggering to her feet and killing her assailant. There was too much of Uma being beat up for my taste; for a proper Foxy Brown-style revenge movie, I want to see her at least once kick the door in, kill everyone in the room, and stalk away. It felt like I could hear Tarantino behind the camera giggling and saying, "Yeah! Beat her up more! More blood! Yeah!"

Anyway, I eventually decided I owed it a second, er, third chance, so I watched a whole bunch of the movies it references. The idea is that instead of sitting back and saying "Yes, I understand that's the outfit worn by Mr. Bruce Lee, what-what!" I'd have just seen Game of Death and thus get a properly visceral reaction.

So, at last, we come to my point. Here are some movies that I think are basic reference points for Kill Bill. It makes a pretty good list of homework, if you have a free weekend.

Game of Death - Well, there's the issue of the yellow jumpsuit and the riding a motorcycle to your bloody revenge. But it's also a big-time kung fu flick, and if you haven't seen at least one Bruce Lee movie it should be -- well, it should obviously be Enter the Dragon. But then this one, I guess.

The Street Fighter - Sonny Chiba is a total bad ass. You know that, of course, but you might know it just because people in Quentin Tarantino scripts are always going on about him. This is the movie that made him a star, and the DVD probably has the sequel on it, so you get two movies at once. This way, when Chiba shows up in Kill Bill, you can think of all the bad-ass stuff the character used to do.

The Long Riders - David Carradine has done a million movies, but judging from his diaries, he's very fond of this one, in which he and his brothers play the Youngers while a bunch of other families of actors supply the other character families. Carradine has a great knife fight with James Remar, who also appeared in director Walter Hill's The Warriors as Ajax. This is key for seeing Bill as someone who was an extremely tough cowboy when he was young.

Circle of Iron - This is really "The Silent Flute" everywhere but the DVD box. It's interesting for two reasons: it's one of the movies where Carradine gets to spout eastern mysticism (also an aspect of Bill) and the flute he uses is actually in Kill Bill, in the campfire scene. Also it stars a guy who's kind of a low-rent Miles O'Keefe, if that's the sort of thing you enjoy. And I do!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Right Way to See Grindhouse

Grindhouse is basically an attempt to recreate a particular moviegoing experience, right? Well, I think the audience has to meet the filmmakers halfway on this. It's hard to feel like you're in the '70s watching a couple of sleazy exploitation flicks when you're sitting in a cantilevered armchair eating gourmet pretzels and sipping on bottled water. That won't get you in the mood.

That's why I was delighted to learn that here in Seattle, Grindhouse was playing at a Drive-In. Heck, I was just delighted to learn that we have a Drive-In, but the opportunity to see Grindhouse there was perfect.

Rhias and I tried to get a whole caravan of people together, but we could only round up one other car. That's fine, though; the important thing was that we be able to lean out the window and talk to the next car over.

Beautiful, isn't it? The marquee hasn't changed in at least thirty years. Neither has the concession stand or, I suspect, the food inside. I think it's the only place within a hundred miles of Seattle that doesn't sell Espresso. It's perfect. The experience was only slightly marred by the fact that the other two movies referred to on the marquee are Bridge to Terabithia and Are We Done Yet? (the Ice Cube movie that's a sequel to Are We There Yet? -- incidentally, don't you think it's weird that it's a remake of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House when the first movie wasn't a remake of anything? Can you really do that? Will the next sequel be a remake of Bringing Up Baby?).

The movie-watching experience was perfect. I enjoy Drive-Ins, and not in an ironic way. I love the way the screen looks like a hole in the sky. In Joe R. Lansdale's The Drive-In (which you should read, especially if you're the sort of person who liked Grindhouse), he describes a Drive-In screen this way:

One of six, it stood stark-white against a jet-black sky, a six-story portal into another dimension.

Yeah. Except that the screens aren't all that stark-white anymore, at least not at the Drive-In I went to.

Anyway, we had stale popcorn and suspiciously warm hot dogs, and some Pabst Blue Ribbon (which tastes terrible but looks great on the dashboard so you see it out of the corner of your eye while you watch the movie), and it was great. Absolutely the right way to see the movie, now that theaters all tend to clean the floor occasionally.