Tag Archives: notes on a scandal
Desert Island Movies and Television Series
After learning that Nice and Marseille are currently at the top of France’s Best Places to Live If You Want to Catch the Coronavirus, I felt an overwhelming urge to play cyber-hooky and do something different for a change. My mind wandered back to a comment I made in one of my reviews: “. . . I choose not to review films—my tastes in film are so radically different from the general consensus that I would fear for my life.”
Hence the reason for posting this on Super Bowl Sunday, when my dominant demographic (Americans) is binging on booze, guacamole and TV commercials. I’m secretly hoping no one will read this. I’ve actually been working on this one for months, stuck in an endless Hamlet moment . . . “To post or not to post . . . oh, fuck it.”
The truth is I’m not qualified to review films. I have no real training in filmmaking and little interest in cinematography (or photography, by the way). I read one book on filmmaking, found the details incredibly boring and didn’t bother to finish it. The closest thing I have to anything resembling a qualification to review films is, “My parents took me to the San Francisco International Film Festival every year and once I heard Pedro Almodóvar introduce his new film, Kika.”
There are always people in our lives who tell us, “Oh, you simply must see this!” I do my best to avoid those people because when I’ve followed their suggestions I’ve wound up pissing away a perfectly good evening watching crap. Even when they manage to make their pitch, I’m a pretty tough sell. I don’t like action films. I don’t like superhero films. I don’t like horror films unless the crew from MST3K is making fun of them. Animated films turn me off completely. I dislike epic fantasies, westerns and any movie with gratuitous violence. Despite the overwhelming vitality of my libido, I’ve never seen a porn flick that got my rocks off and I generally despise sex scenes because you can’t capture the complex eroticism of the sexual experience without taste, touch and smell.
It gets better. I’ve never liked a single film made by Scorcese, The Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, Bergman, Francis Ford-Coppola or his fucking daughter (though I confess to falling asleep halfway through Lost in Translation). After reviewing the list of Best Picture Oscar winners for the last fifty years, I found a grand total of . . . three movies I liked: The Sting, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The King’s Speech. Looking at the AFI’s 100th Anniversary Edition of the allegedly best (American) films of all-time, I found I disliked eight of their Top 10 films:
- Citizen Kane: Watching that film is like listening to U2: an egomaniacal assault on the senses.
- The Godfather: Way, way too violent and I don’t give a shit about the Mafia. Didn’t like The Sopranos either.
- Raging Bull: A bloody mess of toxic masculinity with no moral to the story.
- Singin’ in the Rain: Oh, I forgot to mention that I hate musicals, too.
- Gone with the Wind: Frankly, I don’t give a damn about this silly racist film with its dreadful acting and piss-poor casting. Vivien Leigh defines the phrase “drama queen.” Olivia DeHaviland is miscast and intensely annoying (loved her in The Heiress). Leslie Howard as a Southern hunk? Puh-leeze. Gable plays Gable like Fonda played Fonda like Cooper played Cooper like Stewart played Stewart.
- Lawrence of Arabia: I think I dozed off at least three times due to directorial excess. Lean was better with Dickens, though the quartet of Holden, Guinness, Hayakawa and Hawkins more than compensated for his obsession with scenery-heavy long shots in The Bridge on the River Kwai.
- Schindler’s List: Could hardly understand a word that dribbled out of Liam Neeson’s mouth. Typically mawkish Spielberg ending.
- Vertigo: A pretty long and torturous journey just to cure a guy of acrophobia. One bonus point for the pre-skyscraper San Francisco shots.
The only film in the Top 10 that I genuinely love is Casablanca. The other film that made the Top 10 is The Wizard of Oz, which I remember liking as a kid, but I don’t think I could watch it now.
Here’s the thing: I like films with intelligent dialogue and good stories that focus on the human condition with a minimum of cinematographic hoo-hah—the kind of films that are rarely made these days. I have a very strong preference for live theatre, which I find a far more engaging experience. I expect a movie, television show or theatrical performance to move me, both emotionally and intellectually, and for me, that happens more often in the theatre.
I allowed myself to take a total of twenty-five filmed artifacts on my voyage to the desert island. Some made the cut because they have had a lasting impact on the way I live my life; others because they’re exceptionally well-written and well-acted; and a few that always make me laugh, no matter how many times I watch them.
Due to the pandemic, I’ve been binging on TV series like everyone else on the planet and I might eventually add Schitt’s Creek to the list once Season 6 is available in France; Queen’s Gambit is another possibility. I have to see both series again to make sure they have legs. FYI, in addition to my loathing of The Sopranos, I actively despised Breaking Bad.
About Schmidt: I can’t think of another film that so accurately and poignantly captures the ultimate emptiness of the American Dream. All of Schmidt’s identity was tied to his job, a condition that I vowed never to replicate in my own life after seeing this movie–I never want to be Schmidt standing next to the dumpster, my life’s work piled up for the garbage collector. Favorite scene: The Dairy Queen. Outcome: I have vowed to never set foot in a Dairy Queen as long as I live.
All About Eve: I love Bette Davis because she wasn’t afraid to leave it all on the stage or set. The scene that moves me the most is the one in the penthouse when she’s giving her interpretation of events to the secretly guilty Eve-enabler played by Celeste Holm. No one has come close to capturing the existential reality of the Western woman as completely as Bette Davis did in those few minutes—the justifiable pride in her hard-earned talents and successes; the frustration that women in our society have a limited shelf life, and once we “lose our looks” we’re yesterday’s news; the hurt inflicted by another woman who was scheming to destroy her career; and the opposing force of accepting one’s cultural reality and finding happiness in a loving relationship.
In August of this year, I turn forty. When I started this blog in 2011, I swore that whatever happened I wouldn’t continue past the age of forty. You can trace the source of that pledge to All About Eve. This belief that once a woman turns forty she has moved past her prime is much more an American thing than a French thing, but just because I renounced my American citizenship doesn’t mean I’ve lost all the cultural baggage of thirty-three or so years in America. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.
Babettes Gæstebud (Babette’s Feast): If you’ve ever wondered why I spend so much time and effort writing about music without earning a penny and never once considered monetizing my site with annoying ads, then you’ve probably never seen this movie. A woman who spends her lottery fortune on creating a one-of-a-kind artistic and sensual experience for others will always be a hero in my book. I translate that famous line “An artist is never poor” as “If you’re doing something just to make money, you’re not doing anything the world can’t live without.”
Boca a Boca (Mouth to Mouth): It’s too bad that Javier Bardem has received more attention for his heavier roles, as he is also an outstanding comedic actor who won the Goya (Spanish Oscar-equivalent) for his performance here. It’s a tight, funny movie with excellent pacing that also points out the absurdities of a society that devalues the artist and forces the talented to piss away their lives in shit jobs, humiliating themselves in the hope of getting the big break. While the film also satirizes the twisted nature of sexual obsession in modern culture, balance is restored when Aitana Sánchez-Gijón makes her entrance, reminding us of the sheer erotic power of a beautiful woman sensuously smoking a cigarette.
Il mostro (The Monster): I know he won the Oscar for his work in Life Is Beautiful but I insist that this film—hated by American critics—is Roberto Benigni’s best work. Beyond the brilliant physical comedy that always leaves me in tears, the underlying message that the authorities often get things wrong due to their inflated egos and personal agendas remains a real problem in our COVID-19 infested world.
Life of Brian: Some people have accused me of being anti-Christian, which is not true: I’m anti-all-religions. That doesn’t mean I’m on some kind of campaign to destroy religion; it just means that it’s best not to engage me on the subject. And while a film that brilliantly satirizes the gullibility of followers (whether the act of following involves religion or purist politics) is always going to appeal to me, the scene that makes this film a must-carry-to-the-island is the Biggus Dickus scene. I still don’t know how Michael Palin managed to get through that sequence without laughing.
Musíme si pomáhat (Divided We Fall): This Czech film is superbly acted, well-paced and extraordinarily moving. More than any other film I’ve seen, it reminds me of the truth that human beings are never purely good or purely evil and that the phrase “Judge that ye not be judged” should be modified to incorporate the famous words of Bobby Simone, “Everything’s a situation.” You can’t understand why a person acted the way they did unless you understand the full range of options and pressures in operation at the moment of decision.
Notes on a Scandal: Judi Dench is great as always, Cate Blanchett is pretty good, but for me the main attraction is Bill Nighy’s supporting role. I saw him on the London stage in Blue/Orange and have been a fervent admirer ever since (though his choice of films sometimes throws me off). His emotional range is breathtaking—he can switch from casual banter to uncontrollable rage in a heartbeat.
Rebel Without a Cause: This movie literally saved my life, so I will always have a tender spot for it. I think I’ve mentioned the incident in question elsewhere, so I’ll just move on.
Shadow of a Doubt: I’m not all that impressed with Hitchcock in general; even less so after reading a biography of the arrogant creep. What I love about this film is the dichotomy of good and evil as personified in Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotton—especially because the good in this case (Teresa Wright) actually tries to do something about the evil, unlike every other stupid broad in film who allows herself to be devoured by monsters or sliced up by a maniac.
Sunset Boulevard: I love William Holden and am frustrated that I can only take one of his films. This was a close call between Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17 and Network. I figured Network wouldn’t feel too relevant on a desert island and I will always be disturbed by the fact that Peter Graves turns out to be the bad guy in Stalag 17. That’s Jim Phelps! He can’t be a bad guy and fuck Tom Cruise for trying to make him into one! Gloria Swanson is absolutely perfect here, and I will thank her until my dying days for confirming my instincts to avoid fame at all costs.
The Bad and the Beautiful: With a great cast, great plot and strong dialogue, this study of human manipulation is a brilliant film about the corrosive effects of superficial self-interests (in this case, fame and money). I’m pretty sure it’s the only Kirk Douglas film I’ve ever liked. Still, I must confess that the reason it made the cut is Lana Turner. If there’s one classic Hollywood actress I would have loved to fuck, it’s Lana Turner.
The Big Clock: I haven’t found too many people who even know about this combination film noir-screwball comedy, but I love the rapid-fire wit delivered by a superb cast that includes Ray Milland and Charles Laughton. It’s always nice when the rich and powerful get what’s coming to them. Do not attempt to view this movie if you’re drunk, high or sleepy, as you’ll miss 90% of the dialogue.
The Manchurian Candidate: This is the original, not the crappy remake. I remember watching a documentary about the film featuring Sinatra, who recalled telling JFK he was going to play the role of Captain Marco. “Who’s playing the mother?” asked the President, displaying his typically penetrating insight by identifying the linchpin character. Angela Lansbury nailed that role and Laurence Harvey pulled off the rare acting miracle of making the audience feel sympathy for his completely obnoxious character. I love the scene when Chunjin opens the door to a surprised Marco and John Frankenheimer shifts to lightning-speed close-ups of each man before they start beating the shit out of each other. I also loved Janet Leigh’s supporting role because she found the man of her dreams while he was having a panic attack, committed all her energies to his well-being and never doubted her decision for a second. I love portrayals of women who know what the fuck they want and go for it.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: This was a coin flip with The African Queen, but Bogie’s insanely evil laughter with his face wickedly lit by a campfire wins by a millimeter over his reaction to having his body covered in leeches.
Tristana: I had to have at least one Deneuve pick in the mix, and I chose this rather dark and somewhat uneven Buñuel film because of that one scene on the balcony that displays her “cold eroticism” to perfection. I learned a lot about dominance and submission by watching Deneuve films. Like me, I think she’s better on top.
Television Series (8)
Mission Impossible, Seasons 2-3: It’s hard to believe that Jim, Rollin and Cinnamon were only together for two seasons, but those were easily the most memorable years of the franchise. In addition to the tight plots and well-executed suspense, I love the display of the cultural artifacts of the era—Jim’s monstrously large convertibles, the uninhibited smoking and gas for 29 and nine-tenths a gallon. One of my favorite scenes is when the MI team is in Jim’s penthouse going through the final run-through and Jim looks at his watch and says they’d better get to the airport because their flight takes off in fifteen minutes. Say what? Man, I’d love to live in an era when it was possible to get to LAX and board a plane in fifteen minutes. One more thing—I’d give anything to have Barney’s little toolkit.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus: This was a no-brainer—timeless comedy focused exclusively on human absurdity never gets old. Favorite sketch: John Cleese as the boxer on his daily jog who can’t understand why a parked car is blocking his path.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: I’m the odd duck who prefers the Mike Nelson years to the Joel Hodgson years, though I respect Hodgson for creating the concept. Favorite episode: Overdrawn at the Memory Bank starring Raul Julia.
NYPD Blue, Seasons 2-6: This time span incorporates the Simone-Sipowicz era, so when I get to my desert island, I’ll use the disc containing the four John Kelly shows that open season two as a Frisbee and (since I’ll have a lot of time on my hands) figure out a way to wipe out all of Rick Schroeder’s scenes in season 6 so I can retain the Malcolm Cullinan murder trial thread.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Easily my favorite Star Trek series; I’ve watched all seven seasons in order at least a dozen times. Outstanding writing and first-class acting from Avery Brooks, René Auberjonois, Armin Shimmerman, Colm Meaney, Alexander Siddig, Marc Alaimo, Andy Robinson and the many supporting cast members. Too many favorite episodes and moments to count. Fun fact: All the error messages on my computer are snippets from DS9: “THAT would have been impressive,” “This is more complicated than I thought,” and “No staring at her cleavage.”
The Americans: An endlessly fascinating, multi-dimensional drama featuring waves of unbearable tension, fabulous character development, tone-perfect period integration and intensely revealing plot and sub-plot threads. Kudos to Weisberg and Fields for superb writing and a clear long-term vision. Though Matthew Rhys has understandably garnered the lion’s share of attention for his acting, the cast is filled with superb actors in both lead and supporting roles (I’m still pissed off that Keri Russell didn’t get the Emmy for her work in Season 7). The biggest downside about binging on television series during the pandemic is you invest dozens of hours watching several seasons and the writers can’t come up with a decent ending. Not so with The Americans—the scene in the parking garage in the final episode is cinematic perfection on every level.
The Twilight Zone: The Complete Definitive Collection: Another no-brainer. Favorite episode: “Time Enough at Last” with Burgess Meredith.
The Honeymooners: The Classic 39 Episodes: What made this show so great was the unique combination of comedy and pathos, the latter consistently imprinted in the viewer’s mind through the never-changing shabbiness of the Kramdens’ apartment. Favorite episode: “A Matter of Record,” commonly known as “The Blabbermouth Episode.”
So! Now you know why I don’t review films—something to be thankful for in these challenging times. Stay safe, wear a mask and enjoy today’s annual tribute to the gladiator.
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