Thursday, August 19, 2010


Over the past thirty years, by my account, America has become one very large nanny state. At the risk of turning this into a “when I was a kid” rant, I have vivid memories of riding in the front seat of a car with my grandfather, child seat nowhere to be found. Also absent were helmets of any type. Our neighborhood playground was lined with gravel and broken concrete. Iron rebar poked out through the sides of some of the constructions, and yet I don’t remember anyone losing an eye, no matter how much fun was had. And while the Atlanta Child Murderer and Green River Killer had made all of our parents stress “don’t talk to strangers” a little more often, I don’t recall any of our parents panicking, restricting, sealing us in Gloopstick or waling to the government that we must “be protected”. Protection was what the local police were for. And if we were injured on someone’s property, it was because we were trespassing, not because the property was unsafe. Lawsuits, back then, were for rich people. (And if you spilled a cup of coffee in your lap, you were an idiot, not the victim of corporate negligence.) The Helen Lovejoys of our mixed German-Irish-Italian-Polish communities often had their shrieks of “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” shouted down and were told to mind their own business. Especially when those Helen Lovejoys were childless to begin with.

Yet I’m ashamed to see that even the underprotected of my generation have grown up into helicopter parents, demanding that their children be placed under institutional law, to be protected from harm of any kind but especially the evils of cinematic nudity and video game violence. The arguments can be and are made that the world is much more dangerous now, what with all those pedophiles lurking on the internet and those pesky illegal aliens sneaking across our boarders to exchange their children for ours like little brown changelings. The call for governmental interference into the child-rearing world seems to signal an extreme lack of confidence in personal parenting skills. Even worse is that once one becomes a parent, they seem to forget that, despite lacking all of these safety measures, we somehow managed to survive our own childhoods fairly well, if not completely intact.

Maybe we didn’t have easy access to pornography of any type, that just meant we had to work harder to find it. Our slasher movies were omnipresent and extremely violent. In the ‘70s, bared bodies could be found as often on PBS as they could on HBO or “Skinemax”, and yet none of our heads exploded, Scanners-style by exposure to any of these elements. Profanity assaulted our ears constantly—at first, something to be giggled at during Sam Kinnison routines, later to be boldly exclaimed on our own, on the playground, as a rite of passage. If our parents didn’t want us to watch a certain movie, we either didn’t see it, or we watched it at a more permissive parents’ house. And we survived because children are resilient. We survived divorce, we survived older sibling overdose, we survived gang war, we survived whole milk, fried foods and Red Dye #5. And as children, we tended to react overly emotionally at the moment. We were quick to anger and quick to tears. But we were also quick to adapting. This is what kids did. This is, believe it or not, what they still do. Human children are made of vulcanized rubber. They’re sticky, smart-assed little punks with the survival rate of Matchbox cars. It takes a lot to destroy them.

In Terry Gilliam’s Tideland, nine-year-old Jeliza-Rose is the daughter of a pair of heroin addicts, and cooking their fixes is part of her everyday routine, just one of her household chores. Her father Noah, an aging rock musician, doesn’t make responsibility a high priority and he sees Jeliza as more a buddy than a daughter. When her delirious mother ODs, she and Noah pack up and move back to his ramshackle childhood home in Texas. The rotting farmhouse, nicknamed “What Rocks”, literally in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by high seas of brown grass, becomes Jeliza-Rose’s new world. Her only companions are disembodied dolls heads she wears on her fingers. They’re her lookouts, her safekeepers and sentries, and each of the four—Mustique, Sateen Lips, Baby Blonde and Glitter Gal—are each aspects of her still-developing psyche. After exploring her new home and gets accustomed to the strange newness, she cooks up a fix for Noah and goes to sleep in his arms. During the night, he dies.

At first, she barely notices. A hardcore junkie, Noah spends a lot of his time in unconscious or near-conscious states. But as the body bloats, tongue turning purple and beard attracting flies, Jeliza—who already has a morbid fascination with death—transforms her father into a new imaginary friend, dressing him in wigs and make-up. Without a parent to take care of, Jeliza-Rose is free to do whatever she wants. But there in the middle of the Texas prairie, there’s really nothing to do. Her daydreams increase their output. The rolling sea of wheat grass becomes the entry to an underwater world, where What Rocks and its contents float lazily. She thrills to the twice-daily passenger train rocketing past the house, sitting in relative safety in the remains of a destroyed school bus, shrieking in delight as the creature rocks and shakes the world around her.

During one of her reveries, she meets her neighbors: the half-blind “witch” Dell, and her twenty-something brother Dickens, the mentally handicapped and partially lobotomized in an attempt to cure his epilepsy. They live in their own deteriorating house, a few miles from What Rocks. These two gradually become Jeliza-Rose’s new family, but the roles start shifting almost immediately. When she learns that Dell had a teenage romance with Noah, she first looks at the woman as a surrogate mother, and then a strict rival for Dickens’ affections. Teetering on the precipice of pubescence, Jeliza-Rose’s innocent curiosity makes her a young predator, disturbing Dickens’ imbalance even further. Even when the skilled taxidermist Dell tans and stuffs Noah’s body, laying him lovingly in Jeliza’s bed, Jeliza can’t help but resent Dell, especially her dominance over Dickens. But these flashes of anger and jealousy rarely last long before she and Dickens are off on some new adventure in the high grass, completely unaware of the startling right turn her young life is speeding towards.

Adapted from the novel by Mitch Cullin with the lowest budget he’s had in decades, Gilliam directs Tideland with a sure hand and his camera delights in creating Jeliza-Rose’s imaginary worlds of talking doll heads. He walks along the edge of exploitation, keeping viewers on edge, realizing that Jeliza-Rose could be in real danger—of starvation, certainly, but also of loss of innocence, should Dickens’ body overtake his childish mind and yield to Jeliza’s immature affections. Gilliam keeps the tension mounted, even when squirrels talk, even when Jeliza’s “Glitter Gal” voice comes from Glitter Gal’s head and not Jeliza’s.

But what we never see is a child in distress. The fleeting moments of anger or grief flash quickly and depart once she’s distracted by something else. Real emotions flare as often as her frequent soap opera melodrama, wrist to forehead as she swoons at some newly imagined catastrophe (as when she bites her lip, drawing blood—at the sight of the crimson, she flings herself backwards in despair that she’s “dying! Oh no!”). Running out of peanut butter is more of a calamity to her (though more than she’s aware) than the idea of placing her remaining “friends” inside daddy’s taxidermied chest cavity. And the more we learn about Dickens’ unpredictable notions—it was he who created Jeliza’s schoolbus fort by driving it in front of the train—the “Monster Shark”—years before, injuring himself and many others. But because Jeliza never believes herself in danger, our tension increases. Even worse are the images of Jeliza dressing in wigs and make-up, appearing to be very much older than she is—well, even, of age—that further adds to our discomfort. But these are all our hang-ups. This is the baggage we brought to the movie. And, by presenting us with horror tropes outside of the horror genre (the disfigured sister, the gothic house, the dead, stuffed father), the movie has every intention of rummaging through our baggage until it finds what it’s looking for.

And it’s this baggage that’s led to the critical disdain of this movie since its release. Despite winning awards at the San Sebastian Film Festival following a lukewarm response at the Toronto International, Tideland has seen its share of walk-outs from critics as well as accusations of exploitation and “ugliness”. By his own admission, Tideland was one of the easiest productions he’d ever undertaken, only to see all his hardwork shattered by poor distribution (whereas, in the past, his movies suffer severe producer interference prior to apathetic distribution). What many viewers seem to focus on is the danger that surrounds Jeliza-Rose. So wonderful is Jodelle Ferland as Jeliza that one can’t help but want to protect her and play with her, to give her the love she’s so desperate for, and we ignore the more negative aspects of her juvenilia: her pettiness towards not only her neighbors, but to her doll-head companions; her manipulation of Dickens prior to her flickering moments of sexual awakening; her aggravating penchant towards distraction—everything that makes her a child. But Tideland brings the Helen Lovejoy out of the best of us. When Jeliza and Dickens share innocent kisses, our psyches scream out “Protect her!” For surely she’ll shatter. Tideland does not make light of pedophilia or, really, even flirt with it. It’s what our baggage turns those innocent playdates into. Dickens is, obviously, much older than she, but in terms of intellectual and emotional maturity, she’s the elder. As Gilliam says on his commentary with screenwriter Tony Grisoni, “Jeliza is the predator here.” But by focusing on the danger, the viewer misses out on all the magic and wonder that is central to all Terry Gilliam films and Tideland in particular. The man who brought us the grim whimsy of Brazil and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus takes our hands and places us fully into the dizzying daffy world of an imaginative and lonely nine-year-old little girl. Jeliza never pities herself so neither should we. She doesn’t need protecting. She needs love. And food. Then all will be okay again.

Fortunately for those who can leave baggage in the lobby, Tideland is still available as a 2-disc DVD set from ThinkFilm, complete with Gilliam’s giggling commentary and a whole disc of documentary footage and deleted scenes. Give it a shot and let the movie come to you. If you come off too old or too worried, you’re only going to scare it off.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

GAMBIT (1966)

 Many moons ago, a local Pittsburgh newspaper journalist whose name has been lost in the mists of my memory, wrote an Andy Rooney-esque rant about all the things that were wrong with movies “these days”. Nearish to the middle of his lament was that there were “many heist movies being made, but not a lot of caper movies”. For years, I wasn’t sure what that meant. Heists and capers both involved plots devised by groups to steal things of varying unimaginable richness. Wherein lied the distinction? Gradually, I began to discern the difference. Both The Score and Heist are “heist” films (obviously), while both versions of The Italian Job and Topkapi are caper films, as is Big Deal on Madonna Street, even though the biggest crime committed in this latter film is burglary of soup. Oddly, the movie cited as the masterpiece of caper films, Rififi, is actually a heist film, and not a caper film. The main defining characteristic of the two similar genres are in tone. In heist movies, the stakes are larger, often in terms of life and death, where the financier of the crime can have the perpetrators murdered or otherwise fatally double-crossed. Heist movies are often described as “taut”. In caper films, the crime is committed either out of boredom or adventure, with the thieves a merry band of pranksters, as opposed to hardened career criminals. In reviewing caper movies, the adjective “breezy” is often employed. Both subsets can be equally enjoyable, but the heist movie often ends with a gut-punch, the caper movie with a jaunty musical sting.

To that end, Gambit is a dyed-in-the-wool caper movie. Fun and fun-loving, it involves an intricate plot to steal a priceless marble bust. The charming Harry Tristan Dean is the mastermind, Emile Fournier the bankroll, Ahmad Shahbandar the mark and Nicole Chang both the shill and the key. As Harry outlines the entire plan to Emile in the film’s opening twenty minutes, once executed to the last detail this plan is, he intones, “foolproof”. As the key, Nicole is intrinsic to the plan, due to her uncanny resemblance to Shabandar’s late wife, who was also a dead-ringer for the subject of the priceless marble bust. All Harry has to do is put Nicole in Shabandar’s path and await for the rich man’s inevitable heart-struck distraction to allow the necessary time in which to perpetrate the heist. Again: “foolproof”.

Were this a heist film, Harry’s scheme would be borne of desperation; Shabandar a ruthless criminal; Nicole’s subterfuge would be perilous. Gambit being a caper film, the stakes are high, but not quite that high. And the caper itself all hinges on Harry’s “foolproof” plan executing without a hitch. Twenty-one minutes in, the viewer is made acutely aware that Harry’s plan is, in fact, doomed from the start. Not just because Shabandar’s hotel has changed staff, replacing a gullible concierge with a suspicious one, and not just because a crucial marketplace payphone is consistently occupied. Mainly this plan is doomed because Harry isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, Shabandar isn’t as stupid as Harry hopes he’ll be and Nicole is nowhere near the pliable, obeying stooge he needs her to be. “Breezy” Gambit is, indeed.

The early ‘60s were great times for both Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine. With the former coming off an international hit, The Ipcress File (and the soon-to-be smash hit Alfie) and MacLaine one of the most sought-after female stars thanks to “little” movies like Can-Can with Sinatra, Irma La Douce with Jack Lemmon and What a Way to Go! with everybody, putting them together in an obvious audience-pleaser seemed like a no-brainer. In fact, MacLaine was given her pick of leading men for Gambit and chose Caine herself. For Caine, the buffoonishly charming thief character was the perfect choice for his first American studio film, so that decision didn’t take long for him to reach. Solid character actors Herbert Lom and John Abbott were tapped for the supporting roles of Shabandar and Fournier and the formula for success was placed in the capable hands of Robert Neame (whose own masterpiece, Hopscotch with Walter Matthau, was still fourteen years in the making, though the cinematographer-turned-director had no grass growing under his feet in ’66).

While Gambit was following an already well-worn formula, setting up the twist and the fall in the first act was a genius move, attributable to screenwriters Jack Davies and Alvin Sargent (adapting Sidney (screenplay The Hustler) Carroll's story). The romantic leads’ on-screen chemistry is undeniable, though this is really a romantic triangle, adding Lom’s bemused “fifth or fourteenth richest man in the world” (“What the hell does it matter?” demands an exasperated Harry) to the mix. Lom’s Shabandar is the movie’s greatest twist. Neither a ruthless kingpin nor a political dupe, Lom knows upon meeting the pair that they’re up to something, but he isn’t sure what. Curious and entertained, he strings them along, allowing Harry to feel in complete control, even when yanking the rug out from under the self-styled mastermind’s feet by revealing himself to be in touch with the world and possessing a “great love of gadgets”, such as the statue’s pedestal surrounded by laser-eyes, sonic detectors and a decorative brass cage.

By Gambit’s third act, we as the audience are aware of what is supposed to happen, and by now we’ve doped out how it’s not going to happen, the fun is watching what will happen and how it still won’t work out the way we expect. Even with almost fifty years worth of movie history coming after its release, creating  generations of savvy cinema scholars, Gambit doesn’t fail to delight and keep its audiences getting until the final, pre-credits tag. Even if you do manage to forsee all the twists, the fun you’ll have with the film shouldn’t diminish. Despite the swinging ‘60s couture and saturated Technicolor photography, Gambit always feels fresh and new as it unspools.

Maybe too fresh, it might seem, as this movie is one of those often bandied about as being the next big things in remakes. Colin Firth was attached to it for the longest time, at one point paired with Sandra Bullock, often under the reported producing hands of the Coen Brothers, but so far, our culture has been mercilessly Gambit-remake-free. (Despite how undoubtedly wonderful the Coen Brothers version would be.)

The usual bad news: Gambit is consistently out-of-print, though the Universal DVD isn’t too hard to find online and offers a gorgeous transfer. This isn’t a movie for the cynical, though. If, within moments after watching, you feel the need to rush to the Netflix’s message boards and register your complaint of “worst movie ever”, not only is your heart two sizes too small, but your soul is also full of gunk. In short: you’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch, and I want nothing to do with you.