Jan 132003

Kathy Shaidle, Colby Cosh and The Ambler, Kevin Michael Grace, are having at each other about movies. I intrude on this intramural squabble only because they’re all wrong.

Pulp Fiction, to begin with, is the most overrated movie by the most overrated director of the last twenty years. About forty-five minutes into the movie, John Travolta traces a square with his hands, by way of telling Uma Thurman not to be so, or maybe it’s Thurman who makes the gesture to Travolta, I can’t remember. In any case Tarantino paints a square on the screen over it, in the manner of certain awful movies from the early 60s. With this, this ironic and allusive yet utterly obvious and stupid gesture, I lost hope. Royale with cheese indeed. By far the best of Pulp Fiction‘s three segments is Harvey Keitel’s cleaner, plagiarized in concept and many details from La Femme Nikita and in any case easily separable from the rest of the movie. Plagiarism is Tarantino’s one extraordinary talent; the best bit in Reservoir Dogs, the crooks naming themselves after colors, is lifted from the excellent little caper movie The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, which Kathy justly praises. Pulp Fiction’s chronology is shuffled to disguise its conventional plot of boy gets girl, fixes enemies, and rides off into sunset. If the movie had been filmed in time it would be more immediately obvious what a banal exercise it really is.

2001 is aptly described by its chief defender, Kevin Grace, as a tone poem, and by tone-poem standards it is watchable and snappily paced. Yes, the bone-throwing and lip-reading are cool, and given a choice to sit through one of Kubrick’s movies, I will take 2001 over Barry Lyndon, and definitely over Eyes Wide Shut.

It baffles me that some critics list Some Like It Hot as the funniest comedy ever made, and I suspect that its subject matter inflates its reputation. A far funnier Wilder-Monroe movie is The Seven-Year Itch, which more than any other single movie made Monroe Monroe and is remembered now only for the scene in which her dress blows up as she stands over the subway grate. Her combination of sex and ingenuousness is never better captured than here, when she looks directly into the camera and says, “He was like the Creature from the Black Lagoon!” The Seven-Year Itch is a perfectly sunny and cheerful movie about adultery. Such movies, about anything, were rare then and are extinct now.

Miracle from Morgan’s Creek is the wrong relatively obscure Preston Sturges vehicle to revive; try Unfaithfully Yours instead — especially the scene where Rex Harrison wrestles with a sort of 1940s equivalent of a CD burner, and loses. I laugh harder at this than anything else in the history of the movies.

That scene in Manhattan where Woody Allen (no, not his character; personally) recites the things that make life worth living into a tape recorder: “Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, the lox at Zabar’s, Louis Armstrong’s ‘Potato Head Blues’…” — what’s not to hate? I mean, get a blog if you have to do that sort of thing. Like Kathy, I prefer Crimes and Misdemeanors: the skewering of the Alan Alda character is even more delightful because one gets the distinct impression that Alan Alda, in life, is actually like that. But I would trade both movies, plus Annie Hall, for the first half of Love and Death, distinguished for, among other things, containing not only the best but the two best village idiot jokes ever.

Thumbs-up, thumbs-down, this is fun. Stay tuned for other thought-substitutes, coming soon!

(Update: AC Douglas posts his top movies of 50 years hence. I have enough trouble just figuring out what I like.)

(Another Update: What I call plagiarism Colby Cosh calls research. Here’s a guy who can refer to Rashomon and write “acquaintance with the grammar of one’s art,” when the art is movie-making, in a single sentence, calling me a snob. I like it.)

  6 Responses to “Cinema Notes”

  1. You like After Hours?

  2. I do. I admire Goodfellas and Taxi Driver from a distance, but most nights, given a choice of any Scorsese movie to watch, I would take After Hours.

  3. As usual, everyone forgets the King of Comedy. If you really still like After Hours (as I do), I recommend King of Comedy, which was DeNiro’s first comic role, and remains one of Scorcese’s finest films.

    As for Pulp Fiction: speaking as one who actually first saw the movie in theaters with Aaron (remember?), I can vouchsafe that Aaron has always been wrong about Pulp Fiction, he is wrong about Pulp Fiction today, and he always will be wrong about Pulp Fiction.

    To make just a few brief points as to why:

    1. Pulp Fiction is plaigarized, is it? Please cite the movies from which Tarantino stole his plot.

    2. You write that the movie is basically "boy meet girls, offs bad guys, gets girl." This reflects the mistaken apprehension that Bruce Willis is the protagonist. He isn’t; he’s a subplot. The protagonists are Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta, and the movie is about how the events that take place over its course give them an opportunity to see their lives as criminals differently.

    Not that we’re supposed to take any of it all that seriously: the movie is supposed to be funny, and it is, and fun, and it is. Thus the title; it’s "pulp fiction." Get it? Huh? Hello?

  4. I am happy that Michael is on hand to testify that I never liked Pulp Fiction. Unfortunately that is the end of his utility.

    In the drearily schematic King of Comedy Scorsese drums the one idea he ever had, about the nature of celebrity, mercilessly into the heads of his audience; he nearly spoils Taxi Driver the same way, but there the moral is tacked on as an afterthought instead of being the whole point. Rupert Pupkin is a tour de force by De Niro but that is a very bad reason to watch a movie; it’s like praising the cinematography.

    One does not plagiarize plots. One plagiarizes details, and in my original post I cited two that were stolen, one bad and one good, and from where. I thank Michael for informing me that the movie was supposed to be fun and funny. I missed that before. I retract all my previous criticism.

  5. I wonder if there’s room in the "Pulp Fiction" wars for an agnostic party. I thought it was OK, a nice try, so what, etc. It was long and I sat through it and stayed awake. I always suspected that what struck me as wild overpraise for the movie reflected two things: media people loving the movie’s postmodernism (ie., its promotion/exploitation of the kinds of values media people themselves love), and a lot of viewers who weren’t familiar with the movie’s sources, which often did the kind of things Tarantino was doing and did them better: Jean-Pierre Melville, Jim Thompson, etc. I kept being reminded of the way so many people (not everyone, obviously) seem happy to applaud Eric Clapton and to think he’s a god while never going to trouble of listening to the people who actually came up with the music he covers.

    But, like I say, I did sit through the whole movie and didn’t snooze off…

  6. Sure Michael, always room for you, and you have a point. I could have tolerated Pulp Fiction a lot better had it not been so fulsomely praised. Similarly, in high school, I thought I hated Led Zeppelin when I really just hated the kids who liked Led Zeppelin. But Pulp Fiction is no Led Zeppelin.

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