Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Through the Lens

A time trip with Scorsese

By Noel Murray and Rob Nelson

JULY 20, 1998: 

On the wall--recommended new releases

A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. The video event of the year--three videotapes, each a little over an hour long, wherein America's most feted director talks about the American films that influenced his youth and continue to influence his work today. A notorious cinephile, Scorsese digs out mostly B-pictures and curios in an attempt to illustrate the ideas and emotions that a good director can "smuggle" into low-visibility slick entertainment. He speaks in even tones and lets the clips run on much longer than his commentary, but his enthusiasm for these rare treasures is infectious. You may find yourself rushing to the bookshelf to refer to a video guide, or hurriedly writing down titles like The Tall T or Some Came Running for some future trip to the video store. And when Scorsese ends the session abruptly, before reaching the era when he began making movies, the effect is like hearing the class bell ring while your favorite teacher is on a roll. (NM)

East Side Story. Communist ideology is fine as far as it goes, but at some point, human beings have to stop being utilitarian cogs in a system and start being, well, human beings. During the chilliest days of the Cold War, state-run film production companies behind the Iron Curtain attempted to split the middle between propaganda and escapist entertainment, cranking out a series of Western-style musicals that espoused the virtues of being a good worker and learning to be happy with one's lot in life. This oft-hilarious, more often poignant documentary intercuts clips from those films with reminiscences by the people who tried to sneak as much art as they could into the production. Also weighing in are the audiences who knew they were being indoctrinated, but who went along for the ride because the songs were good and the costumes were pretty. What hangs in the air is a kind of wistful pragmatism, as citizens who had their best years stolen by well-intentioned totalitarianism describe the ludicrousness of their leisure hours with a blend of sarcasm and genuine nostalgia. (NM)


Irma Vep. This verit French comedy about a low-budget remake of Les Vampyrs alternates brittle comedy, piercing perception, and willful abstraction in a fashion that could almost be called Altman-esque, if Robert Altman's style weren't so distinctly American. Instead, Irma Vep draws on the peculiarities of the French character, gently mocking their national obsessions with fashion, cinema, and patriotism. The charismatic Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung stars as "herself"--an HK actress drafted to play the lead female vampire for an over-the-hill director with immense personal problems. The film is told largely from Cheung's point of view, as she deals with the insecure lesbian dresser who has a crush on her, tries to talk frankly with an oblivious TV interviewer, and takes direction from a crazy man who wants her to emulate Catwoman. The onscreen production soon goes into a tailspin, leading to a final, haunting image of Cheung on a film print that has been scratched and painted and chopped--an expression of one man's, and one country's, impossible, paranoid vision. (NM)


Off the wall--alternatives to new releases

Force of Evil and The Roaring Twenties. Having influenced Mean Streets and GoodFellas, respectively, these two cult gangster flicks are featured prominently in A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. Force of Evil is a seething morality play, wherein a slick mob lawyer (the incomparable John Garfield) tries to convince his bookmaker brother (Thomas Gomez) to sell out to a big syndicate that's taking over the numbers racket. Writer/director Abraham Polonsky (who was later blacklisted) employs wondrously existential hard-boiled dialogue as he draws the lines of family dissension, police corruption, and gangland violence ever tighter. The Roaring Twenties is a less cramped, more sweeping vision, tracing American city life from the close of World War I, through Prohibition, and into the early days of the New Deal. Our "hero" Jimmy Cagney rises from cabbie to club owner and (thanks to some double-dealing by war buddy Humphrey Bogart) falls back to cabbie again. The film's final line--"He used to be a big shot"--speaks for all the "forgotten men" who fought for our country only to find themselves unable to get a piece of it upon returning. (NM)


Laserdisc

The Last Temptation of Christ. What does it take to make a $6 million movie in which Jesus Christ is shown coming off the cross to have sex with Mary Magdalene? And what does it take to get that movie shown in America? Does it require the filmmaker to spill his own blood, sweat, and tears? To have himself crucified? Apparently so. Among other magnificent obsessions, Voyager/Criterion's 10th-anniversary laserdisc of The Last Temptation of Christ drives home director Martin Scorsese's tack of self-punishment as part of the process. "Even when I was doing it, I knew I was never gonna be satisfied with it," he explains on the disc's supplemental audio track. But the real anguish came upon Last Temptation's hellfire release, the result of its bold attempt to present "God as the ultimate headache" and Jesus (Willem Dafoe) "as a metaphor for the human condition" (per Dutch Calvinist screenwriter Paul Schrader). On the film's mean streets of sand, the quest for divinity is a pain; the human condition keeps rearing its ugly head. In terms of dialogue, "Let you who is without sin cast the first stone" becomes "Which one o' you people has never sinned? Whoever that is, come up here! And throw these!" Sickeningly, the right-wing fundamentalist set typed Scorsese as a Judas who'd sold out their savior to the "Jewish money" at Universal. The director's public redemption should have been the standing ovation he received after the film's world-premiere screening at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York, but the campaign to bury the picture partially succeeded. It's still one of Scorsese's least-discussed movies, and it's still all-but-impossible to find in mainstream video stores. (RN)


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