Oh brother: Longwinded answers to the only quarterly film quiz that matters

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Every four months, Dennis Cozzalio gives out his film quiz, which buzzes with odd, endearing, cinematic questions about movie love. The queries certainly yield more interesting responses than “What’s your favorite movie?” and are fun to consider. And now he’s back. I believe that I’ve now participated in a year’s worth of these: see here, here, and here for my previous answers. As with my past entries, I’ve opted to respond here; be sure to go to his site for more responses in the comments box. Okay, here we go.

1) Best transition from movies to TV (actor, actress, producer/director, movie/show)
Ernest Dickerson. As director of photography for Spike Lee’s first few features, he brought a highly stylized color palette, beautiful compositions, crisp lighting, and a seamy and sweaty undercurrent to everything from Do the Right Thing to Jungle Fever. His own directorial efforts—including Juice and the truly awful Bulletproof (I paid money for this one, on a date, and I’ve still got an axe to grind a decade later)—are dicier propositions. Lately, though, he’s been on a roll, directing stellar episodes of superb shows—six or seven for The Wire, a couple for Weeds, a few hothouse episodes of ER, and Heroes apiece. So, his choice in TV shows is generally better than that of full-length screenplays. Perhaps he’s found his niche.

2) Living film director you most missing seeing on the cultural landscape regularly
Clare Peploe. She’s made three gems—High Season, Rough Magic, and Triumph of Love—over 18 years. Each one is radically different in time period, and they’re equally unclassifiable beyond that they’re all comic to some degree. She’s created her own genre—fancy-free, languid, gently sliding from one genre convention to the next without us being able to clearly identify the transition, and very, very sexy.

3) Eugene Pallette or Charles Coburn
Coburn.

4) Fill in the blank: “I pray that no one ever turns _ into a movie.”
Invisible Man.

5) Jane Greer or Veronica Lake
Lake left me so woozy in Sullivan’s Travels that I couldn’t think straight even when I was desperately trying to stay focused and catch all the jokes. Greer never left me punch-drunk, not even in Out of the Past. So, Lake.

6) What was the last movie you saw in a theater? On DVD? And why?
Theater: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull—because I love Spielberg and have been itching to see this for six freaking months. DVD: Monsoon Wedding—because it’s my favorite romantic comedy, I make a point of seeing the movie once a year, and La Bella had never seen it. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that Mira Nair should be a household name and I’m totally convinced that she’s worthy of a major critical study.

7) Name an actor you think should be a star
Thandie Newton. (I’ve made my case before.)

8) Foxy Brown or Coffy
Neither. Go with Friday Foster.

9) Favorite TV show still without its own DVD box set
This one’s a tossup. Max Headroom has still not been released on DVD. I haven’t seen this sci-fi show since I was a kid and I’m not sure its ideas would hold water 20 years later, but I’d like to find out. On the flipside of the same coin, I’m pretty sure the humor in Ralph Bakshi’s Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures would be much hipper, stranger, and more subversive to me now than it did as a 12-year-old.

10) Jack Elam or Neville Brand
Brand.

11) What movies would top your list of movies you need to revisit, for whatever reason?
Yi-Yi, The Royal Tenenbaums, Porco Rosso, The Thin Red Line and the aforementioned Monsoon Wedding. I’m pretty sure that I watch each of these at least once a year.

12) Zodiac or All the President’s Men?
All the President’s Men.

13) Using our best reviewer-speak, what is an “important” film comedy? And what is to you the most important film comedy of the last 35 years?
An “important” film comedy is one that’s both funny and visually enriching—i.e., one that uses the techniques and tricks of cinema to enhance and create its humor, instead of relying primarily on writing, facial gestures, and good line reading to carry the jokes. For this reason and more, my favorite comedies tend to be 1930s and 1940s screwball, or Buster Keaton shorts, in which common sense is flipped on its head in terms of action and technical derring-do, and in which the absurd is often present in the design and setpieces. Even here, though, screwball—unless in the hands of Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, or (to a limited degree) Leo McCarey—often seems like fast and furious radio plays that happened to be filmed. They’re stagy and still. It’s not that often that a comedy heralds in major stylistic change and influence, at least not in America, which is why Wes Anderson’s movies are so refreshing, in that the wit comes as much from the mise-en-scene and camera movement as from the deadpan acting and terrific dialogue. These elements move in tandem. Now, as for the most “important” film comedy since 1973… that’s tricky. From a commercial standpoint, I’d have to say There’s Something about Mary (1998), in that the success of its outré gags, upfront sexual humor, potty mouth, and gross-outs paved the way for the last decade of male anxietyfests—from the career of Ben Stiller to Judd Apatow and his foul-mouthed minions. Mary has filtered down to TV so that much of what seemed risqué about the movie in 1998 now seems passé on Comedy Central. (South Park, of course, helped there as well.) The movie has popularized the use of bodily fluids in embarrassing situations in even kids’ animated features. Certainly, it upped the ante on what was acceptable to laugh at. Plus, it’s funny. From an aesthetic standpoint, however, I’ll go with 1999’s Three Kings. Here’s what I wrote about it in 2006: “I’d seen plenty of genre-hopping movies before—movies that change tone and pacing from one scene to the next—but Russell’s masterpiece is another beast altogether. It’s not so much that it’s the funniest movie of 1999, but it’s one of the most nerve-wracking action thrillers ever made, and a ferociously incisive (and unfortunately prescient) political movie, and a dark, vicious satire on race relations, too. But it doesn’t hop from one genre to the next. Rather, it’s somehow all of these things at once. It’s not a genre-hopper but instead a genre-blender. I never imagined that all these genres could fused together and maintain a consistent, world-weary, wise-ass but righteous tone. Russell does it. And, as if experimenting with genre conventions just wasn’t enough, its visual aesthetic—the use of a silver film stock that made the blacks super-inky and the colors lurid and almost flat; shutter speeds and consciously grainy footage that make the moving images look like they’re moving in staccato, almost silent-screen-era fashion; the long takes during moments of war chaos and intensity; following a bullet at extreme close-up as it travels from gun nozzle to (and through) flesh—is avant-garde, too. I’ve got no idea how Russell and company got away with a big-budget, mega-star, deeply political and personal war film. But I’m glad they did.”

14) Describe the ideal environment for watching a movie.
In Ed Inman’s backyard, on his big screen, with the movie being projected from his kitchen window, on a breezy night, with twenty or so in the audience, with the crickets chirping quietly and the occasional hum of car wheels on asphalt and plane engines in the stratosphere.

15) Michelle Williams or Eva Mendes
I’ve been a sucker for Mendes since Out of Time—I can’t even think straight when she’s onscreen. So, Mendes.

16) What’s the worst movie title of all time?
To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.

17) Best movie about teaching and/or learning
Rushmore (1998). Well, it mostly takes place in school, anyway.

18) Dracula (1931) or Horror of Dracula (1958)?
Dracula.

19) Why do you blog? Or if you don’t, why do you read blogs?
A great question, which requires an equally great answer that I’m perhaps incapable of giving. I started this blog because I noticed a dearth, in print, of the sort of nonfiction writing that I most like—a fusion of close critical reading, large-scale cultural/political commentary, reportage, and memoir. This lack was understandable. A standard newspaper arts review just doesn’t have the place for this sort of interlaced commentary, which means that the critic’s sensibility is necessarily subsumed by a strict (and small) word count allocated. (Robert Christgau manages to flourish with extreme concision, but he’s a rare exception.) Magazine writers do better—The New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly are the gold standards in developing and fostering writers of this ilk. But I saw it disappearing in print, and flourishing on blogs. I thought I’d give it a try but not for the reason you may think. My nonfiction’s always had trouble staying in one place, and I figured that forcing my writing to be seen and judged regularly would rein in my “worst” impulses, and would make me focus instead of skipping from mode to mode, from artform to artform. That way, I would eventually make myself marketable as a film critic. The blog was intended as little more than an open-faced sketchbook of ideas, idiosyncrasies, and passions; making it public would keep me honest. Well, these aren’t boom times to be looking for work as a paid critic of any kind, and I soon discovered—much to my initial chagrin—that the posts that garnered the most hits were precisely the pieces that combined elements of my life and views with criticism and larger commentary. Worse, I discovered that I didn’t want to write solely on film at all, but about all the culture in which I was interested. I was encouraged by cinema itself, which is necessarily a concatenation of a variety of art disciplines; I get tickled by critics who insist upon the notion of “pure” cinema because there’s no such thing and never can be. (Even Stan Brakhage’s films in which he painted directly onto celluloid involves two arts—painting and photography.) A great film critic is one whose eyes, ears, and heart are attuned to all the arts—theatre, music, writing, choreography, etc.—that go into producing a movie. (Academic film writing sometimes irritates me because it places films in the contexts of other films, but not often the other arts going on around it at the time of creation.) I love cinema, in other words, because it forces engagement with art that’s not cinema; to pretend otherwise is to miss the point of the artform. Anyway, I quickly lost the sketchbook idea—though I kept the quotes and snippets that I collected—and instead began trying to make connections between forms and the loose-firing synapses in my head. The pieces became longer. I slowly built an audience and began to look at the blog as a sort of résumé. That, too, was silly—the blog hasn’t led to any jobs. It has led, however, to a sense of community that I cherish. I haven’t been as diligent in responding to comments or in building a readership “neighborhood” of regulars as has Girish Shambu, but the blog has led directly to my attending last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and sharing meals and conversations with film bloggers. Knowing that my ideas, good or bad, are out there being discussed among a community of peers is central to why I blog. So, this place has gone from a sketchpad to a CV to ultimately a flower in an ever-growing, ever-evolving garden. I’m proud to be a part of that, no matter how small that part is.

20) Most memorable/disturbing death scene
Bambi, mother. Still can’t watch it without tearing up.

21) Jason Robards or Robert Shaw
Shaw, for Jaws.

22) A good candidate for Most Blasphemous Movie Ever
Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961).

23) Rio Bravo or Red River?
Among my many lapses in cinema literacy is a basic lack of knowledge about westerns. I’m not a fan of John Ford (I know, I know), I like Howard Hawks best when he’s making screwball comedies instead of westerns, Budd Boetticher bores me, etc. All of this is a longwinded way of saying that I haven’t seen either of the above.

24) Werner Herzog is remaking Bad Lieutenant with Nicolas Cage—that’s reality. Try to outdo reality by concocting a match-up of director and title for a really strange imaginary remake.
Woody Allen directing a remake of First Blood. I’m more than a little ashamed to note that I’d be first in line to see it.

25) Bulle Ogier or Charlotte Rampling
Rampling.

26) In the Realm of the Senses—yes or no?
Theoretically, yes, but I haven’t actually seen it.

27) Name a movie you think of as your own.
The Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? The movie was shot entirely in my adopted state of Mississippi, and large chunks were shot in and around Jackson. On each of the three times that I saw the movie in the theater, the theater was jam-packed with people who would hoot and holler whenever they recognized an onscreen extra or a location. “Look, look, look, there’s Jethro, mama! There he is!” “Yessir, that’s him. What on Earth did he do to his hair?” I now do volunteer work for the local film society, members of which include people who worked on O Brother, so the movie feels like a family affair in some small way. Also, as must be obvious by the number of times that I saw it live, it’s my favorite Coen Brothers feature, and I can quote most of the movie, accents and all, at any point. In fact, my brother’s fiancé and I bonded, initially, by recreating stretches of the movie.

28) Winged Migration or Microcosmos
Winged Migration, by a nose. (I wrote briefly on it here.)

29) Your favorite football game featured in a movie
M.A.S.H.

30) Wendy Hiller or Deborah Kerr?
Hiller, for I Know Where I’m Going

31) Dirtiest secret you have that is related to the movies
I have none.

32) Name a favorite film and describe how it is illuminated and enriched by another favorite film.
See question #27 for the favorite film. Along with being an intentional mishmash of mythologies ancient (The Odyssey) and more recent (Mississippi blues/folk culture), O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a farce that provides multiple laughs with every minute, and offers a warmhearted and complex understanding of the region that I call home. Set during the Depression, it’s also an extended riff on Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels. In that film, socially conscious filmmaker John Sullivan (think Frank Capra, but with less wit) wants to make a politically relevant movie about the working class. Never mind that he doesn’t know, or even want to know, anyone who’s actually poor. His film is entitled O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Sturges spends the next 90 minutes poking fun at the distance between Sullivan’s film and poverty as it’s actually lived. The Coens, by consciously stealing that title and setting their film in the same era as Sturges’s classic, one-up Sullivan by creating a farce with flat characters that’s nevertheless truer to human experience than anything Sullivan could have created. In fact, in some ways, I think the Coens’s masterpiece is precisely the crackpot comedy Sullivan might have made after his comeuppance and revitalization via a Disney cartoon at the end. O Brother, Where Art Thou? has the anarchic, anything-goes spirit and aesthetic daring of a great 1940s cartoon but, unlike Sturges, the Coens are submersed in history all the same and address the ugly racial and class politics that Sturges elides and in fact lampoons in his Sullivan caricature. O Brother updates Sullivan’s Travels while also mimicking it. It’s not the first time they’ve flirted with Sturges—see the great, horribly underrated Hudsucker Proxy—but O Brother is the most potent, direct distillation of their love affair/argument with the great 1940s filmmaker.

33) It’s a Gift or Horsefeathers?
This is a little confusing. There are silent slapstick shorts (say that three times fast) by both of these titles, made, respectively, in 1923 and 1928. I suspect that Dennis means the 1934 version of It’s a Gift, starring W.C. Fields, and the 1932 version of Horse Feathers (note the difference in title), starring my beloved Marx Brothers. These two are both features, and the connection is that they’re both directed by Norman MacLeod, which is why I think Dennis links these two and not the two otherwise unrelated shorts. So, if we’re comparing the features, Horse Feathers wins in a walk, because the idea of Groucho Marx as president of a university is the most inspired idea for a slapstick comedy ever, and it’s one of the few Marx Brothers in which Zeppo is a) present, and b) funny.

34) Your best story about seeing a movie at a drive-in
Shamefully, I’ve never seen a movie in a drive-in. The venues were already in sharp decline by the time I was born in 1976, but there are apparently two active in Mississippi, in Iuka and Pontotoc, and it would be worth a road trip or two.

35) Victor Mature or Tyrone Power?
Power.

36) What does film criticism mean to you? Where do you think it’s headed?
At its best, film criticism offers an exchange of ideas about art, and how art reflects human experience and longings, and provides an opportunity for me to crystallize thinking about both. In the past, the exchange has been mostly one-sided—the critic writes, I read and reflect, and that’s that. With the spreading influence of blogs, the back-and-forth exchange has become more immediate and conversational; fact-checking and corrections occur in real-time; writers actually see how their readers respond to their work. I’ve said before that the collective blogs like The House Next Door—where multiple writers are corralled together under the influence of an overriding editor—are where online criticism is headed, simply because it’s a model that allows room for a lot of writing styles and genres to be discussed under a single rubric. (It’s also the format closest to print journalism, which is something the Web 2.0 embracers should keep in mind in case they get too smug.) The biggest issue that’s always faced film criticism is that criticism is writing, which means that it’s at least one step removed from the medium it’s discussing. Online, however, that gap can be bridged to some degree, because an online essay can include screen grabs, sound files, and movie clips in a way that’s not available to print. Three recent articles—one on Spielberg’s editing style, one an elaborate defense of Tony Scott’s filmmaking, one on Jia Zhangke’s compositions and editing in Platform—use screen grabs not as mere eye candy but as contextual illustrations that bolster their points. I hope that, as early cinema’s works fall increasingly under public domain, we see more essays illuminated by extensive clips as well as stills.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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