Holing Up for the Holidays

A critic's guide to getting away from the multiplexes.

I'm tired; tired of watching vulgar action movies, misogynistic suspense thrillers, witless Tarantino rip-offs, tastefully boring "art films," and bourgeois, conformist romantic comedies that celebrate fashion and beauty and wealth and privilege. If I could take a week off from reviewing the latest studio dreck, I'd pack a bag full of videocassettes (and a few laserdiscs), grab my playback machines, and head up to some cabin on the North Shore, where I'd make a movie paradise.

The films I'd bring for this holiday hibernation wouldn't necessarily be winter-themed or the "greatest ever made." The following is merely an annotated list of some movies that have kept me warm over the years, and might do the same for you.

Ball of Fire (1941, Samuel Goldwyn Home Video) Here's a romantic comedy--lacking both sappiness and sexism--the likes of which aren't made anymore. Presumably named after its heroine, a nightclub singer and gangster's moll played by Barbara Stanwyck, Ball of Fire is the gentlest and least-known of Howard Hawks's screwball trilogy, which also includes the great Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. Again, a timid, by-the-book guy (a linguistics professor played by Gary Cooper) gets swept along on a wave of l'amour fou, with initially harrowing but ultimately sweet results. She helps him to lighten up, he helps her onto the straight and narrow; they were made for each other. It's hard to say which is Ball of Fire's greatest achievement: restoring one's belief in academia or in true love.

Ashes of Time (1994, World Video & Supply, Inc.) Transcendent Hong Kong action fare can be found on any given weekend at the Riverview Theater. But if it's Hong Kong cinema that you want, you'd do well to hunt down a copy of this eye- and ear-opening sword-fight melodrama, which Asian Media Access screened but twice last summer at Oak Street Cinema. The movie's slo-mo combat scenes are thrillingly accessible, although its plot is so convoluted as to nearly defy synopsis. Suffice to say that director Wong Kar-Wai stir-fries Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, adds a pinch each of Kurosawa and Peckinpah for extra spice, and retains a flavor all his own. Ashes of Time is prerequisite viewing for Wong's equally chaotic Chungking Express, which Miramax is scheduled to release (finally!) sometime next year.

The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977, HBO Video) This isn't just the funniest and most irreverent bio-pic ever made; it stylistically scoops Oliver Stone by a good decade and change. Mixing reenactments and archival footage, director Larry Cohen uses an aging, fat, ridiculously stern Broderick Crawford to riff on our perception of the FBI chief as a monster. More than that, he characterizes his subject in strokes so broad they're practically tabloid headlines: Hoover calls MLK a "degenerate bastard"; Hoover interrupts a high-level meeting in order to call in a professional fly-swatter; Hoover gets off on a wire-tapped tape of a rival's phone-sex encounter. Nevertheless, the real enemy here is Nixon, who's eventually forced to bear the weight of what Cohen claims was Hoover's ultimate triumph: the Watergate tapes. Private Files may seem like a callous mix of comedy and melodrama, fact and fiction, but its wit always carries a measure of historical truth; the film's final joke is that only Nixon could make a prick like J. Edgar Hoover resemble a hero.

Modern Romance (1981, RCA/Columbia Home Video) Writer-director-star Albert Brooks makes deeply paranoid comedies that embarrass the viewer with how accurately they depict fear and self-loathing. This is the auteur's magnum opus. Brooks plays Robert, a hypersensitive film editor who, dating the love of his life (Kathryn Harrold) but afraid to commit, finds cosmic meaning in answering machine messages and cheesy love songs. Among other things, the movie hilariously skewers the notion that rampant gift-buying can work to boost self-esteem and win back your sweetheart: Robert clings to a steady supply of consumer products (vitamins, Valium, stuffed animals, sportswear) in order to heal his lonely heart, but he can't buy out of his own no-account psyche. Don't watch this one before going holiday shopping for your partner. Or do.

The Seven Samurai (1954, Embassy Home Entertainment) If you've got four hours to spend during some arctic evening, this epic will reward your time and then some. Director Akira Kurosawa follows six aging warriors, and a loyal follower played by Toshiro Mifune, who do battle against some vicious bandits terrorizing a 16th-century Japanese village. Making the town's struggle their own, the samurai agree to fight without pay; the movie itself is equally gracious and noble. Kurosawa's monumental scope is earned by his strong commitment to character and theme, so that when The Seven Samurai concludes with its heroes gallantly swinging their swords amid a torrent of rain and mud, the director's brilliant editing cuts even deeper.

The Loveless (1983, Media Home Entertainment) Kathryn Bigelow's character-driven debut (co-directed with Monty Montgomery) visits the strange days of the 1950s, when resisting the shiny-happy zeitgeist might get you labeled as a "commie." Eroticizing both man and machine, The Loveless pulls up next to a gang of outlaw bikers and pumps new fuel into The Wild One and Easy Rider: Willem Dafoe (looking smooth and dangerous in the Brando/Fonda role) leads his leather-clad gearheads into a small Southern town where, over beers, classic rockabilly tunes, and some existential conversation, the group is targeted for execution by the local tough guys. As in her criminally underrated Point Break, Bigelow here conducts a nearly anthropological study of the rituals men adopt to keep themselves hard and competitive. The director is clearly entranced by the boys' club, although she'd rather document their doomed machismo than become a member.

The Patsy (1964, LIVE Home Video) So-called "art cinema" has always been concerned with dismantling the safe distance between the viewer and the screen--with making you aware that you're watching a movie. In this sense, the French are correct in hailing Jerry Lewis as an auteur; the six films he directed between 1960 and 1965 are astonishing examples of in-your-face provocation. The Patsy is the cinematic equivalent of nails on a chalkboard, with Lewis playing a jittery, slurring, dimwitted, highly emotional Hollywood bellboy who's hired to impersonate a dead comedian. The film is excruciating, its director a genius who dares you to consider him a sick, sick man. Jim Carrey has nothing on him.

Rock Hudson's Home Movies (1992, Water Bearer Films) As a documentary history of queerness in the movies, this is far more illuminating and adventurous than The Celluloid Closet. Director cum movie lover Mark Rappaport takes a VCR remote and a voiceover mike to nearly every film in the Rock Hudson oeuvre, finding moments that effectively out the actor beloved by '50s audiences as a consummate ladykiller. Thus revising (and reviving) ancient texts, Home Movies assembles a Hudson highlights reel composed of unconsciously resonant dialogue ("Why aren't you married?") and unconvincing hetero romance (interrupted kisses and awkward pauses). Meanwhile, Rappaport uncovers a healthy measure of homoerotic energy in the most conservative of sources; for instance, it's possible now to see Tony Randall, not Doris Day, as Rock's real partner in the Pillow Talk movies. From a critical standpoint, this is a liberating piece of work, suggesting that art can be as rich and empowering as we're able to make it.

Night of the Living Dead (1968, Elite Entertainment laserdisc) Since this carnivorous horror classic about flesh-eating ghouls has been in the public domain for many years, most video copies have looked pretty raw. But Elite's ultra-sharp laserdisc version has succeeded in restoring guts to glory, and in making it clear that director George A. Romero never set out to make a drive-in movie. Rather, Night of the Living Dead is avant-garde all the way--from the canted angles in the opening graveyard scene ("They're coming to get you, Barbara!") through the dank claustrophobia of the middle hour and the finale's TV news-style allusions to Vietnam. (The disc also features a digitally remastered soundtrack, which grants an almost unbearable clarity to the zombies' lip-smacking antics.) This being the gift-buying season, you might also want to check out Romero's shopping center-set sequel, Dawn of the Dead, in order to prepare for real-life megamall horrors; the director's vision of all-out military fascism in the final chapter, Day of the Dead, is still forthcoming.

Love Streams (1984, MGM/UA Home Video) John Cassavetes didn't make "real" movies. Collaborating for two decades with his soulmate, the brilliant actress Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes instead made what he called "truth-telling movies," which found the languorous rhythms of real life within the supposedly dull moments omitted from conventional dramas. Loosely modeled on Shakespeare's The Tempest, the director's last film examines the point at which romance has given way to alcoholism and endless divorce proceedings; the main characters are a middle-aged brother and sister (played by Rowlands and Cassavetes) who are even less emotionally evolved than their neglected kids. There are some loopy passages in Love Streams that suggest screwball comedy, but the dialogue is consistently original and profoundly bleak. "Life is a series of suicides," one character concludes. "Divorces, promises broken, children smashed, whatever." That's for sure. Daring to achieve honesty no matter what the cost, Love Streams disturbs and exhilarates in equal measure.

Pierrot le Fou (1965, Interama Video Classics) Besides being one of the greatest filmmakers ever to walk the planet, Jean-Luc Godard was also the cinema's original pomo nihilist. Twenty-five years before Quentin Tarantino, this lovers-on-the-run road movie put a pair of gorgeous actors (Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina) in the center of a "rotten world" and watched as it spun beautifully, violently out of control. Pierrot le Fou has to be one of the most romantic films ever made, less for its actual story--a married man and his family's babysitter flee to the south of France after killing a Parisian gangster--than for Godard's overwhelmingly sexy mood of sustained melancholy. The widescreen frame is packed with primary colors, the soundtrack broods exquisitely, and the script includes gratuitous references to every high- and low-brow artmaker from Velázquez to Sam Fuller. After two delirious and exhausting hours, what's left for Godard to do but kill off the characters?

Ordet (1955, New York Film Annex) It would be hard to find a more spiritual movie than this austere Danish melodrama about two rural families who are forced together by an impending marriage, despite their opposing religious views (one is fundamentalist Christian; the other is more liberal). I wept uncontrollably the first time I saw it, and every time since have still felt overwhelmed by its quiet force. While managing the details of his very simple story, director Carl Theodor Dreyer (who also made The Passion of Joan of Arc) is equally committed to capturing the minimalist qualities that enhance the film's gentle tone: long periods of silence broken by seemingly magical gusts of wind, the slow movements of characters across the frame, their subtle changes of expression signifying love and hope for the future. Ordet is an impossible movie to describe, but you might say it's about faith: in people, in art, in a higher power. Regardless of how one reads the film's climactic miracle, it's guaranteed to convert the viewer in one way or another, making it a good antidote to the cynicism of the season. Happy Holidays.

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