Tough questions: The summer ’09 film quiz

Zebraman_family
From Takashi Miike’s Zebraman (2004).

I swear that I’ll start writing movie posts again that aren’t prompted by Dennis Cozzalio’s quarterly quizzes.  But, damnit, they’re so much fun.  Here’s this summer’s model.  Here we go, after the jump.

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1) Second-favorite Stanley Kubrick film.
The Shining.

2) Most significant/important/interesting trend in movies over the past decade, for good or evil.

The prevailing trend is to think that YouTube, DailyMotion, Hulu, Vimeo, and other sites have democratized movie distribution, and allowed for any number of indie kids to become overnight superstars—at least for their allotted 15 minutes.  At the same time, these “democratic,” “for the people” mediums are wholly corporate-controlled, and can eliminate any user-created content at any time, for any reason.  (Just ask Kevin B. Lee.)  The YouTube trend is interesting to me, but not as interesting as the trend in automatically thinking that YouTube represents freedom—when, in fact, it might be a step back for creator’s rights and independence from corporations. 

3) Bronco Billy (Clint Eastwood) or Buffalo Bill Cody (Paul Newman)
?
Newman, Newman, Newman.

4) Best Film of 1949.
In a year that features Jacques Tati’s debut feature Jour Le Fete, Carol Reed’s The Third Man (see #20), and All the King’s Men, this is a tough call.  But I’m sticking to my guns with Kind Hearts and Coronets, a bitter-black comedy with some savage things to say about class, and an uncomfortable way of getting under the skin. 

5) Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) or Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore)?
That’s a hard one—and I’m half-inclined to choose The Red Shoes’ Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) over both of them for this sort of role.  But I generally prefer Ernst Lubitsch over Howard Hawks, and Jack Benny was funnier in his role, so Tura gets the nod.

6) Has the hand-held shaky-cam directorial style become a visual cliché?
It was becoming a cliché by the time the Italian neo-realists were through with it in the early 1950s, and the French New Wavers were taking their cameras to the streets without permits.  So, um, yes.

7) What was the first foreign-language film you ever saw?
Probably Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai.  I guess my stepdad thought he should aim high.

8) Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) or Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre)?
Mr. Moto.

9) Favorite World War II drama (1950-1970).
Stalag 17 (1953).

10) Favorite animal movie star.
Asta, of course. 

11) Who or whatever is to blame, name an irresponsible moment in cinema.
We have Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson to thank for our summers being ruined for the past 15 years.  Thanks, assholes.

12) Best Film of 1969.
Allen Konigsberg’s debut feature, Take the Money and Run, the first widely released mockumentary—and thus ancestor of Christopher Guest, This Is Spinal Tap, and hordes of comedy imitators. 

13) Name the last movie you saw theatrically, and also on DVD or Blu-ray.
In theaters: Up.  On DVD: The Bird People of China.

14) Second-favorite Robert Altman film.
Goldangit, Dennis—why you gotta make things so hard on a brother?  Tanner '88 is my clear favorite, but there's a whole lotta nominees for 2nd place: Nashville, M*A*S*H, The Company, Cookie’s Fortune, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.    So, I’ll just close my eyes and draw today's straw: Short Cuts.  I'll change my mind tomorrow.

15) What is your favorite independent outlet for reading about movies, either online or in print?
Girish Shambu’s extravaganza of informed conversation, though I haven't seen or read 70% of what's being discussed in any given post or its comments box.

16) Who wins? Angela Mao or Meiko Kaji?
Mao in a walk.

17) Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) or Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly)?
This may be the hardest choice Dennis has ever forced upon me.  Do I go for Tomei’s scorched-earth scenery chewing through My Cousin Vinny, in which she’s so breathtakingly funny, breathtakingly foulmouthed, and breathtaking, period, that she singes the screen?  In that movie, she’s the smartest person in three counties, and she makes sure everyone knows it.  Or, or, or… Do I admit that Tilly’s helium rasp of a voice and delirious idiocy, all delivered with the precision of a great actress who’s playing a terrible actress, makes me giggle just by thinking about it?  (And I’m also forced to admit that Olive is still sexy and smoldering as all-get-out, even though it’s clear that I’ve known sheep smarter than her.)  So, advantage: Tilly.

18) Favorite movie that features a carnival setting or sequence.
Does Jacques Tati’s Parade count?  I’m counting it.

19) Best use of high-definition video on the big screen to date.
Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World.  All those riveting blues, whites, and deep blacks to sink the eyes into.  It’s so crisp that it’s obviously video but so luscious that I’m fooled into thinking it’s celluloid.

20) Favorite movie that is equal parts genre film and a deconstruction or consideration of that same genre.

We could just make this a Coen Brothers extravaganza, couldn’t we?  But I’m gonna go way back and say Carol Reed’s The Third Man.  A noir movie involving two Americans, who created the form even if the French defined it as film noir, it nevertheless takes place outside of America.  The protagonist, a pulp novelist of the sort of crime thrillers that noir would adapt for the screen, never quite becomes the hero of his own pulpy name.  It’s nail-biting and tense, but our man is never as riveting or as smart as his old friend/enemy Harry Lime, and the denouement is somehow muted in intensity.  All of our hero’s actions are for naught, he’s sorta out of the loop during key exchanges, and he doesn’t get the girl.  Even worse, he doesn’t get the girl less because she’s a femme fatale—a classic noir staple—but because she’s mature enough to know (and to tell him so) that femme fatales and the Sam Spades who fall for them don’t exist in any world except for the lurid potboilers adapted into, ahem, film noir.  

21) Best Film of 1979.
Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion, though it won through a coin flip between it and George Roy Hill’s A Little Romance

22) Most realistic and/or sincere depiction of small-town life in the movies.
Yasujiro Ozu’s Good Morning.

23) Best horror movie creature (non-giant division).
Nosferatu.

24) Second-favorite Francis Ford Coppola film.
The Outsiders (1983).

25) Name a one-off movie that could have produced a franchise you would have wanted to see.
As comics, one of the promises of Scott McCloud’s Zot!, Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen is the radical idea that, in the midst of superhero pyrotechnics and exaggerated action, ordinary people’s lives matter as much as those of men
in tights.  The subplots often focus on, and are told from the points-of-view of, people normally on the sidelines of the massive explosions—newspaper kiosk vendors, doctors, journalists, lonely kids, temp workers.  You know, the rest of us.  Zach Snyder’s filmic interpretation of Watchmen loses the emphasis on everyday New Yorkers and the non-hyperbolic characters surrounding the superheroes and trumped-up plots, which means that the final nuclear blowout is muted in emotional effect.  After all, we only see the carnage on TV screens, and “real” people are hardly visible onscreen.  Moore’s comic explicitly chastised this notion—after all, the superheroes ultimately fail to save the world—but it seems that all modern superhero films have taken from Moore is the idea of the grimmer, morally questionable, hyper-violent hero.  Then again, almost no superhero film—from Superman to the present—has ever paid more than lip service to quotidian experience, or shown us how superheroes and supervillains would be seen from the perspectives of everyday people… until Takashi Miike’s Zebraman, which is the superhero movie I actually wanted.  Its titular hero doesn’t even have superpowers as the movie begins—he’s just a withdrawn loser who dresses up as a failed TV show hero (Zebraman’s so obscure that only one person in the movie has even heard of the show) because it’s a weird fetish.  Moore’s comic emphasizes the inherent fetishism; Snyder’s movie mostly loses this notion.  Anyway, Zebraman is rooted in the slow pace of normal disillusionments, small victories, and petty losses that make up adult life.  It’s even shot in a muted, non-hyperbolic manner, as if catching private moments on the sly.  The performances are naturalistic, even when Zebraman veers—as it often does—into slapstick.  It’s not that the hero is treated as a regular guy (at first, anyway) but rather that the people with whom he interacts—his students, his supervisors, his family, some government officials—are so richly drawn that I could easily see Miike choosing to follow their stories instead of Zebraman’s narrative.  And when Zebraman finally goes into action, in the battle royale, the CGI effects are so blatantly crude and cheap—as opposed to the stylistically innovative and technically superb work that’s come before—that it’s as though Miike is razzing its audience’s expectations.  (“You want explosions and aliens, suckers?  Well, here you go, I guess.”)  Zebraman represents the first superhero franchise that I truly want to see more of, if only so I could spend more time in its quietly rendered world.

26) Favorite sequence from a Brian De Palma film.

The Mission: Impossible sequence where Tom Cruise does a high-wire drop from a ceiling, to extract some files from a highly secured computer at the CIA.  Everything about those ten minutes is perfectly realized in terms of rhythm, vantage point, deadpan comedy, and escalating tension.

27) Favorite moment in three-strip Technicolor.
When Dorothy enters Oz, and black-and-white becomes color.

28) Favorite Alan Smithee film.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one, so let’s go with my favorite title: The Shrimp on the Barbie, starring (gulp!) Cheech Marin.

29) Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) or Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau)?
Crash Davis.

30) Best post-Crimes and Misdemeanors Woody Allen film.
You’re killing me, Dennis—killing me!  First, I’m gonna make a confession that’s extremely hard, as I’m a Woody nut: I don’t particularly care for Crimes and Misdemeanors.  It’s too schematic; the roles fit together too neatly (like interlocking Lego pieces) to admit the messiness of actual life; Woody’s performance isn’t strong enough to express the (admittedly strong and rounded) character that he’s written and so drags down the movie as a result; I never quite bought Anjelica Huston’s role as either temptress or harridan; and making the rabbi go blind was just too obvious.  I’ve never understood why this movie is the Woody dividing line, like the Beatles’ Revolver for American cinema, when it might be more useful—critically and psychoanalytically—to view Woody’s career as pre- and post-Husbands and Wives (1992).  Think about it: Husbands and Wives is the last time he drastically experimented with his visual style (approaching a handheld, pre-Dogme 95 aesthetic), and its nasty tone (and, okay okay, occasional latent misogyny) is pretty well-removed from the movies before it.  H&W both provides a framework for understanding Later Allen’s themes, and a significant departure from previous stuff, in the same way that Stardust Memories (1980) provided a hard break from the freewheeling 1970s output.  All that being said, Husbands and Wives is not my final answer.  Instead, let’s go with the blisteringly funny satire—and lovely evocation of the 1930s—known as Bullets Over Broadway (1994). 

31) Best Film of 1999.
And now we're in the realm of impossibility.  What a great year for cinema.  Here, I must quote myself to emphasize the difficulty in choosing: “Our Girl in Chicago mentioned 1999 as a watershed year, twelve months that could be seen as a collective signpost moment. She’s not whistlin’ Dixie—All About My Mother, An Ideal Husband, Being John Malkovich, Buena Vista Social Club, The Cider House Rules, The Insider, The Iron Giant, The Limey, Magnolia, October Sky, The Sixth Sense, Sleepy Hollow, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. The Straight Story, Summer of Sam, Sweet and Lowdown, Topsy-Turvy, The Virgin Suicides, and Yi Yi all came out in the same twelve-month period. [Ed.'s note: Actually, Yi Yi is from 2000.]  Even the pure fluff (American Pie, Dick, Mystery Men, Office Space, Stuart Little) and overrated misfires (Election, Dogma, Cradle Will Rock, Ghost Dog) were ambitious and a cut above. 1999 is the best cinema vintage since 1974, and may eclipse that storied year in the number of innovative, interesting, just plain weird movies that entered the mainstream. This was the first year in which I was excited—no, thrilled—to go to the theater every damn week.”  I’m going to go with the one that’s lingered in my mind so much that I have to revisit it every couple of years: David O. Russell’s Three Kings.

32) Favorite movie tag line.
The same answer as when Dennis asked this question two years ago: “Family isn’t a word… It’s a sentence.” (The Royal Tenenbaums)

33) Favorite B-movie western.
I’m going to assume that a TV movie, even if it’s HBO, qualifies as a B-movie, so Walter Hill’s Broken Trail, starring Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church.  It’s a good ‘un.

34) Overall, the author best served by movie adaptations of her or his work.
For the adaptations of Jackie Brown, Get Shorty, and the marvelous Out of Sight, my vote’s for Elmore Leonard. 

35) Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) or Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard)?

Susan Vance, because Bringing Up Baby can bring tears to my eyes from laughing so hard.

36) Favorite musical cameo in a non-musical movie.
The scene in Martin Ritt’s Paris Blues (1961) where Louis Armstrong’s band sto
rms into Paul Newman & Sidney Poitier's jazz club for a stomping cutting session.

37) Bruno (the character, if you haven’t seen the movie, or the film, if you have): subversive satire or purveyor of stereotyping?

Haven’t seen it, don’t plan to (as I intensely disliked Borat), so this’ll be character-based: subversive satire, but one that baits and shoots fish in barrels rather than do the heavy lifting of focused satire.

38) Five film folks, living or deceased, you would love to meet.
Groucho Marx, Michelle Yeoh, Buster Keaton, Clare Peploe, and I’d love to go on a bender with Yasujiro Ozu.

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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4 Responses to Tough questions: The summer ’09 film quiz

  1. Walter, you are one of the reasons I love brainstorming the questions for these quizzes. I am not only honored by the effort you and others put into answering them, but I’m so damned entertained too, and provoked to thoughts of my own. That’s the real (selfish) reason I do them! Thanks so much for coming along for the ride.

  2. Michael says:

    Yeah, this made for really fun reading, and I particularly liked #11. If I had to pick just one of the films you mentioned for 1999, it’d be “The Insider”, Mann’s best, most fully realized film. My vote for the genre film that deconstructs its own genre is Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence”, which uses all of its genre’s elements as well as it can, while also making us entirely complicit in the acceptance of those conventions and forcing us to question our acceptance of them. Good stuff, Walter. Keep it up.

  3. Thanks, guys! Michael: It was really hard to choose a “best film of 1999,” especially since my clear choice (Yi Yi) turned out to be a year younger than I remembered. (Curses, IMDB!) The Insider is a great choice, and one I mulled over at length–I’m hit-or-miss on Michael Mann but thought this was a triumph of merging his visual design, riffs on masculinity, and a (often suppressed in him) sense of social concern. In short, I think Mann’s style is always fantastic but my issue is that I often think his style isn’t in service of anything larger than visual glossiness, or else his flair serves some actively repugnant ideas. (I have the same ambivalence about Brian De Palma.) I was also this close to choosing The Cider House Rules, which performed the rare feat of making me cry in a movie theater.

  4. Michael says:

    Walter, one of the things I love about “The Insider” (in addition to what you’ve mentioned) is its dramatic structure — two acts preceded by a prologue. In the first act, Weigand blows the whistle on big tobacco; in the second, CBS hangs him out to dry. The prologue (“60 Minutes” crew interviewing a member of Hezbollah) establishes “60 Minutes” as the paragon of objectivity, and then the rest of the film entirely dismantles that notion.
    I’ve not seen “The Cider House Rules”. Gonna have to check that out some time.

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