The Art of the Sell — John Waters “No Smoking” PSA

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Back in the nineteen-eighties, movie theaters had to work a little harder to remind patrons that they weren’t allowed to smoke. None accomplished it with more panache than those lucky art house theaters blessed with a short reel of director John Waters addressing the crowd directly. Waters explains the policy clearly, but, contrarian to the core, he also expresses his disapproval at the prohibition, marveling that anyone could go the length of a movie — especially the high-falutin’ fare about to offered at the art house — without indulging in a smoke. All the while, Waters puffs away, all the better to taunt jonesing moviegoers.

I don’t smoke. I’ve never smoked. But even I have to concede the power of the sadistic seduction offered by Waters. He almost has me reaching instinctively for some phantom pack in my pocket.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

Outside Reading — I Want a Little Sugar in My Cup edition

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An Oral History of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Perfect Men in Black ‘Sugar Water’ Scene by Rachel Handler

Look, it’s probably a stretch to call this article an oral history, since it’s really comprised of nothing more than two interviews — with Vincent D’Onofrio and director Barry Sonnenfeld — interwoven. And I’m not sure what weird clickbait sorcery the Vulture editors think they’re perpetrating by highlighting the single moment when D’Onofrio downs a glass of sugar water. Setting aside the framing flaws, this is fine recounting of the oddball ingenuity D’Onofrio brought to his performance in what is ostensibly just a silly sci-fi comedy. I recall Tommy Lee Jones briefly marveling at D’Onofrio’s work in some sort of HBO First Look or other behind-the-scenes promotional endeavor, acknowledging that there’s not a lot of research an actor can do to develop verisimilitude in portraying a giant space bug collapsed into the skin shorn from a human victim. I’ve thought about including this feat of acting in the Greatish Performances feature even since I launched it, but I felt capturing its wonders was beyond my capabilities. This article manages what I could not.

 

Rebecca Traister’s keynote speech at the 2019 MOLLY Prize dinner

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Rebecca Traister has already been highlighted once before in this fledgling feature, and I’m sure I’ll cycle back to her again and again. In my estimation, few writers, thinkers, and communicators are capturing the mood of this fraught moment better than her. Rather than an essay this time, I’m linking to a transcript of a speech she gave in a keynote address at the annual event that includes the awarding of the MOLLY Prize, named for Molly Ivins and honoring excellence in journalism. (This year’s winner is Hannah Dreier, who also earned a Pulitzer for her reporting on MS-13.) A major part of Traister’s current advocacy is taking today’s intense commitment to fighting the regressive-policy-preserving cads in the power structure and showing how it echoes other points in history when the citizenry stood up for themselves. In this speech, Traister shares the story of Elizabeth Freeman, who was given the name Mum Bett when she was born a slave in middle of the eighteenth century. Freeman successfully sued for her freedom in a case that is widely credited with leading to the abolishment of slavery in Massachusetts. She should be featured prominently in the history books, and every pedestal on which a Confederate soldier’s bronzed figure resides would be better served with a commemoration of Freeman and others like her. These stories are hidden for a reason, and making them prominent is a valuable tool in moving us forward as a society. So I’ll do my small, small part and place Freeman’s picture here, to accompany the link to Traister’s speech. When I read Traister’s words, I’m reminded of how vital it is to keep teaching, and to keep learning.

 

Never a victory so Twisted by Scott Gordon

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One of the true pleasures in moving back to the city of my birth is becoming reacquainted with a uniquely rambunctious community culture. It’s been particularly helpful to discover the handful of newer media outlets that operate with a whip-smart hardihood in alignment with the broader municipal personality. And there’s no finer chronicler of the telling absurdities of Madison, Wisconsin than Tone Madison. (Full disclosure: Some of my awkwardly-assembled sentences have occasionally appeared in that digital space.) This week, the site’s fearless leader, Scott Gordon, braved an upgraded Taco Bell on State Street, in the bustling heart of the city’s downtown. So why cover a chintzy fast food outlet debuting a limited, highly regulated menu of alcoholic offerings in a desperate attempt to extract traveling money from the pockets of college kids? The emergence of a Taco Bell where, in theory, drunkenness can be achieved is emblematic of a sea change in the city, the ballot box deposing of a seeming mayor-for-life whose foundational student radical spirit slowly atrophied into curmudgeonly opposition to practically all new liquor licenses, in addition to more problematic erosions of his progressive principles. Gordon burrito-wraps all of that lingering political drama into the article, while effectively conveying the experience of day drinking in a nearly empty Taco Bell on what’s theoretically a gala day celebrating the victory of corporate persistence. The details in the piece are so well-chosen that I find myself hoping Gordon strays from his usual beat and finds a way to cover the opening of the Taco Bell-themed hotel and resort in Palm Springs.

 

The Plot Against America (2004) by Philip Roth

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Now that I’ve set aside Saturdays to celebrate the writing of other people, I think this is where I’m going to comment on — and therefore keep track of — the books I’ve read. (So rest in peace, Great Moments in Literature. You served me well.) This Philip Roth novel was published twelve full years before the 2016 presidential election, and yet it perfectly — and I mean perfectly — captures the toxic nationalism, bigotry, xenophobia, and id-driven selfishness always simmering in the national character that has delivered us to this dreadful moment in time. Focusing on the experience of one New Jersey family in an alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh’s “America First” movement put the famed aviator and Nazi sympathizer in the White House, ending Franklin Roosevelt’s tenure after two terms. Roth expertly shows the way wide social and political issue reverberate down into personal lives, and he meticulously tracks the slow progression of citizen-stifling policies until democracy is being fully papered over with totalitarianism. It is such a precise allegorical reflection of the current moment (except that the fictionalized Lindbergh is actually skilled in guising his ill intentions and ugly prejudices) that the copyright date on the book seems like a typo.

Now Playing — Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

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Martin Scorsese’s side career as a documentary filmmaker has largely been a verification of all the stuff anyone would suspect he adores, from the Rolling Stones to erudite New York institutions. A director with nothing truly left to prove, but also, as all evidence presented over the years indicates, a surplus of energy, Scorsese has regularly circled around to excavations of cultural touchstones and artists who enjoyed heydays in the latter half of the twentieth century. Music artists have been a regular source of fascination, including a lengthy film biography of George Harrison and Bob Dylan. nearly fifteen years after his first pass at the latter, Scorsese has returned to the most famous person to grow up in Hibbing, Minnesota.

As the title suggests, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese narrows in on the icon’s mid-seventies tour of the same name, liberally employing rarely seen archival footage of both concerts and backstage shenanigans, and joining the old material with more current talking-head interviews. The Rolling Thunder Revue was set up as a traveling jamboree, with a fleet of other famed performers — Joan Baez among them — sharing the stage and a freewheeling air about it. Dylan insisted on smaller venues and less typical towns, perhaps to revitalize his people’s poet persona or maybe to lessen the pressure since it had been almost a decade since he’d toured as the clear main attraction. Regardless of the motivation, the vibe of the tour was a fine match with the post-Watergate U.S., marked by confusion and a sense of irreparable rupture to all sorts of norms. The circus was arriving to entertain the rabble as the ship went down.

Scorsese opens the documentary with vintage footage of a magician performing an illusion, aided mightily by obvious camera trickery. That’s the throat-clearing warning that not all is at it seems. Dylan has been a expert myth-maker at least since the day he decided the first name of a revered Welsh poet would serve him better that his given surname of Zimmerman. Scorsese’s documentary follows the model, sprinkling in completely fabricated details in the modern reminisces, up to and including the casting of actors to portray certain key figures in the carousing caravan. If it seems like too wild a coincidence that one of the stars of Scorsese’s Casino had a previously undisclosed stint as a hanger-on member of Dylan’s troupe, well, that’s a sound instinct. And Dylan’s corroborating testimony can be disregarded by the jury.

If the folderol of fictions had a clear purpose — if it were indeed commenting on Dylan’s propensity for tall tales and image building, or were being held up as a mirror to the vaudevillian looseness to which the Revue alluded — the choice would be sound, or at least reasonable. Instead, it’s wan nonsense that distracts from the solid pleasures of the unearthed film of the tour. Dylan led the musicians and fellow artists he assembled with a ferocious sense of purpose, and Scorsese is characteristically unerring in his skillful deployment of music. He gives the performances the time to register deeply, as with the blazing version of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which lands like a deluge of blows. Equally winning moments are found away from the spotlight, as Joni Mitchell runs through her new song “Coyote” backstage or an assemblage of punch-drunk music makers harmonize on an impromptu “Love Potion No. 9” in the narrow hall of the tour RV.

Why Scorsese and his cohorts feel the need to incorporate doses of flim-flam is a mystery to me. To my eyes, the older, authentic footage includes more than enough to divert, dazzle, and delight.

 

 

Playing Catch-Up — Pather Panchali; Pocketful of Miracles; Free Solo

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Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955). The debut feature from Bengali director Satyajit Ray is a marvel of deep empathy and refined visual storytelling. Based on a novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Pather Panchali focuses on the struggles of a rural family living in poverty in the nineteen-tens. Ray adeptly captures the breadth of the challenge the family faces, largely through the perspective of its two children, Durga (Runki Banerjee when the character is a child, and then Uma Dasgupta when she moves into her teen-aged years) and Apu (Aubir Banerjee). Without shortchanging the grim realities of an existence on the edge of the most basic solvency, Ray finds moments of grace in the kids’ fascination with the smaller treasures of life. Eventually, tragedy intrudes, and Ray’s approach allows the resulting sorrow to feel narratively and thematically proper rather than harshly exploitative. Aligned with Italian neorealism, Pather Panchali is especially impressive because it was crafted by relative novices, including most of the actors, miracle-working cinematographer Subrata Mitra, and Ray himself. The film is a compelling testimony to the value in democratizing access to the tools of cinematic art.

 

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Pocketful of Miracles (Frank Capra, 1961). The final feature from storied director Frank Capra exhibits a surprising deftness given the length of his career’s tooth at the time. It might have helped that Capra had already take a pass at roughly the same material once before. Pocketful of Miracles is based on the Damon Runyon story Madame La Gimp, which Capra had previously adapted for the screen in the the 1933 comedy Lady for a Day. The story centers on a destitute woman named Apple Annie (Bette Davis) who sells fruit on the street while presiding over a small crew of fellow small-scale hustlers and panhandlers. Her wares are viewed as the ultimate good luck charm by local gangster Dave the Dude (Glenn Ford), who is on the cusp of securing a major alliance as Prohibition falls. To keep Annie happy — and those lucky apples coming — Dave has to help orchestra a ruse upon the occasion of a visit by Annie’s daughter, Louise (Ann-Margret, in her first film role). Capra structures the film like an farce, though one that never spin off into frenetic tomfoolery. With a crispness to the visuals and the narrative, Capra keeps the proceedings grounded in emotion and smartly leans on the skilled cast. This is one of the better performances I’ve seen from Ford, and there are fine supporting turns from Edward Everett Horton and Peter Falk, the latter earning an Oscar nomination, his second in as many years.

 

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Free Solo (Elizabeth Chai Varsarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, 2018). Last year’s Academy Award winner in the feature documentary category mostly succeeds because of the ways it subverts rules and therefore expectations. On its most basic level, Free Solo follows the quest of Alex Honnold to become the first person to scale El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park, with the aid of ropes or other mountaineering support gear. The film marvels at the death-defying feat without ever fully celebrating it, leaving plenty of room for the viewer to draw negative conclusions about Honnold’s choices. Amy Poehler says the movie should be called White Nonsense, and that seems reasonable to me. Co-directors Elizabeth Chai Varsarhelyi and Jimmy Chin capture several small, telling moments — such as Honnold’s amusement in filling out a psychological profile questionnaire being stopped dead what he hits the entry that asks about depression — and use them shrewdly and strategically to build a fuller picture of the climber and those around him. The most impactful choice involves the gradual incorporation of Chin and his camera crew into the film’s narrative. They are not simply pointing their camera, but preemptively weighing the guilt and horror they will feel if their footage includes Honnold falling from a dizzying height, sustaining grave injury or death. What could have easily been a rote sports documentary with some stunning nature photography for flavor becomes instead an unexpected modern morality play.

Now Playing — Booksmart

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For her feature directorial debut, Olivia Wilde wanted to up the intensity of a high school movie. Screenwriter Katie Silberman was brought in to rework a script that had already passed through a few word processors, and she says Wilde’s vision was to pitch the level of emotion and import somewhere in the vicinity of Training Day. The resulting film, Booksmart, strikes me as falling short of that stated goal, but the aspiration does offer a hint as to why it works more often than it doesn’t. As familiar as many of its particulars are, Wilde and her collaborators are striving to create a movie just a little sharper than its antecedents.

The film’s main narrative gets properly when student government president and proud valedictorian Molly (Beanie Feldstein) realizes that her relentless academic overachieving at the expense of a social life hasn’t delivered the expected outcome of her significantly outpacing her classmates, many of whom indulged in rambunctious teen frippery and still managed to secure entry to elite colleges and universities. On the eve of graduation, Molly decides to make up for lost time-killing, enlisting her best friend and fellow brainiac, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), in a plan to crash the biggest party of the night. The duo has only the barest idea of what decadence might be had at the bash — despite social media video attests to ghost pepper consumption and pizza box karate — but there’s a conviction that it is an experience unmet, a box to be checked with paper-tearing vigor.

As a director, Wilde has a nice visual sense. She also exhibits some of the most common first-timer symptoms, including some anxious editing, overly fussy shots, and a compulsion to shove too many ideas through the door at once. On the last point, too many ideas still makes for a better movie than too few. Booksmart follows the model set forth by Superbad, Can’t Hardly Wait, and a bevy of other films in which anarchic revelry leads to the stealth wisdom that comes with growing up and maybe a touch of self-actualization. and Wilde has an admirable ability to come by her more insightful moments honestly. She largely avoids easy heroes and villains, or even shorthand brains, athletes, basket cases, princesses, and criminals. With cunning deftness, Wilde allows every character to play out with levels of complexity and contradiction. She trusts her youthful cast to settle into a bright truthfulness. Longtime ace Dever is the strongest, but there are also nice supporting turns from Molly Gordon (as a classmate tagged with a nickname connoting promiscuity), Skyler Gisondo (as wealthy student overeager for friendship), and especially Billie Lourd (as a child so wild the behavior transforms into a sort of strange magic).

Booksmart is messy, peppered with comedic diversions that work only fitfully. But it’s also warm and empathetic, reaching for uncommon nuance with determination and verve. Wilde might have issue an imperfect opening salvo as a filmmaker, but it’s still an exciting start. Like her two protagonists, she clearly has a lot to say and every bit of it is worth hearing.

Playing Catch-Up — Marty; A Kid Like Jake; The Lego Batman Movie

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Marty (Delbert Mann, 1955). Boasting an exemplary Paddy Chayefsky screenplay of downbeat eloquence, Marty manages to examine small-scale lives without a whiff of condescension. Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) is a thirty-four-year-old butcher who lives in the Bronx with his mother (Esther Minciotti), her constant fretting about his perpetual bachelorhood providing an unwelcome soundtrack. Delbert Mann directs with a kind plainspokenness that’s an ideal match for the material, and Borgnine builds his performance with deep wells of feeling and a laudable absence of easy pathos. The film captures a certain time and place with the level of precision that lends the story an uncommon timelessness. The particulars may be dated, but the film’s emotional honesty resonates brightly.

 

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A Kid Like Jake (Silas Howard, 2018). This family drama has the proper intentions and a certain stiffness, which means it’s probably a fine introduction to gender fluidity for viewers just becoming acquainted with the concept. In New York City, middle class parents Alex (Claire Danes) and Greg (Jim Parsons) are in the midst of the process to set their four-year-old (Leo James Davis) on a productive educational path with a place in the right kindergarten. In the midst of that stress, they also struggle with the suggestion that the pushing against gender stereotypes exhibited by their child, Jake, might be an indicator of more pronounced identity concerns. Both Danes and Parsons are strong in their roles, and screenwriter Daniel Pearle (adapting his play of the same name) gives them scenes of sensitivity and small, occasionally brave insights. It particular, the ways in which anxiety manifests as instinctual partner blaming in a relationship is effectively rendered. In its totality, A Kid Like Jake is more earnest than memorable. Still, there’s a value to its directness and care, even if it can occasionally feel a little pat.

 

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The Lego Batman Movie (Chris McKay, 2017). What a strange world we all live in. Following the unlikely critical and commercial success of The Lego Movie, spinoffs and sequels abound, including this adventure of the blocky, plastic version of the caped crusader. Where the computer-animated feature that launched it all was driven by a relentless ingenuity about the building blocks virtually snapped together to make a world, that Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) and his cohorts are made of Lego is almost incidental. Instead, the movie offers a mildly clever deconstruction of the messy mythos around the DC Comics superhero. With only the most minor of script tweaks, this film could have been presented with the same characters in a non-Lego form, which strikes me as a flaws that drains the whole endeavor of purpose. The storytelling is sometimes amusing, but Chris McKay’s directing and staging is overly frenetic, too often letting the visuals collapse into incomprehensible explosions of kaleidoscopic color.

From the Archive — Quantum of Solace

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For the second straight Saturday, I reach back for a review of a modern Bond film not previously loaded up to this particular site. This was written for my former online home.

Quantum of Solace is the twenty-fifth film to feature British superspy James Bond, and the twenty-second in the “official” franchise which launched some forty-five years ago with Dr. No. Really, though, all those antecedents have about as much connection to this new film as Joel Schumacher’s Gotham City drenched in melted Jolly Ranchers has to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. What is onscreen now is less Bond 22 and more Casino Royale 2. Bringing in Daniel Craig to play Bond wasn’t a mere casting change. It was an impetus to completely revise the franchise, jettisoning the familiar trappings. Whatever familiar notes held in Craig’s first outing are completely gone now. It’s a whole new era of filmmaking and James Bond has been Bourne again.

It’s not just the tone and style that are notable holdovers from Royale. The plot is built on a tendril of that film, with Bond seemingly shaken (not stirred) by the betrayal and death of Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. Her demise is tied into the megalomaniacal plotting of some global corporate overlords that call themselves Quantum, providing the film’s strained title and an attempt to create a massive, sustained adversary in a geopolitical environment where something like SMERSH no longer seems credible. The screenplay, credited to the same trio that wrote Casino Royale, achieves a strangely simplistic convolution. The villainous machinations are easy to suss out and yet nearly indecipherable, complex, and inexplicably dull.

The screenplay, however, could be overcome with right directing. Bond films, with their silly, schoolboy puns and paper thin motivations, have never been cinema with especially literary, erudite charms. The verve of the staging and directing (and, of course, in Sean Connery’s finest moments, the acting) went a long way towards forgiving the words on the page that may have been lacking. There’s no rescue providing by director Mark Forster here. Forster’s career highlights been marked by adequate direction of good materialQuantum of Solace requires something more. Forster apparently doesn’t have it in him.

The directing is clumsy all around. The digital hash of the editing is a familiar shortfall of modern action movies, but Foster’s technique has more significant problems. During the action sequences, his camera is usually in too close, occasionally too far away, and is rarely in the right place. A fight staged amongst scaffolding inside an opera house appears to be spectacularly choreographed, but it would take major editing room reconstructive surgery to know for certain. Plane battles, boat chases, exotic locales, seductive women — it all gets dragged on to the screen, feeling obligatory and lifeless. The movie churns and grinds, to little effect.

Casino Royale, imperfect itself, managed to raise some vital signs in the Bond franchise. It moved from being an occasional curiosity, tinged by nostalgia and even a touch of camp, to something that deserved some attention as filmmaking with high potential. There’s no doubt it was a change for the better, but it’s harder to see it that way the the follow-up has used that transformation for little more than finding a whole new way to fail.