The Second Mother
A domestic comedy-drama that starts off from a fairly pat premise but builds strength over the course of its careful, empathetic, and crafty unpeeling of…
* This filmography is not intended to be a comprehensive list of this artist’s work. Instead it reflects the films this person has been involved with that have been reviewed on this site.
Roger Ebert's essay on film in the 1978 edition of the Britannica publication, "The Great Ideas Today."
Marie writes: There was a time when Animation was done by slaves with a brush in one hand and a beer in the other. Gary Larson's "Tales From the Far Side" (1994) was such a project. I should know; I worked on it. Produced by Marv Newland at his Vancouver studio "International Rocketship", it first aired as a CBS Halloween special (Larson threw a party for the crew at the Pan Pacific Hotel where we watched the film on a big screen) and was later entered into the 1995 Annecy International Animated Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix. It spawned a sequel "Tales From the Far Side II" (1997) - I worked on that too. Here it is, below.
Marie writes: According to the calendar, summer is now officially over (GASP!) and with its demise comes the first day of school. Not all embrace the occasion, however. Some wrap themselves proudly in capes of defiance and make a break for it - rightly believing that summer isn't over until the last Himalayan Blackberry has been picked and turned into freezer jam!
Mike Nichols' 1971 drama "Carnal Knowledge" is part of a canon of American films of the late 1960s to mid-1970s that mirrored the freewheeling sexual culture and society from which they emerged. These films ("Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice", "Shampoo" and others) examined varied notions of commitment, companionship and sex. "Carnal Knowledge", written by playwright, author and cartoonist Jules Feiffer, shows men talking casually, bluntly and frankly about women, their bodies, of strategies to get sex and of sexual belt-notching, though not necessarily much about the specific act of sex.
This is an apology, and a cause for celebration. First, I want to apologize to the reader John B. In the previous version of this entry, I announced that his caption entry had won our contest in a landslide, and then went on to lament that he had left no e-mail address, and that a similar caption had appeared earlier on another website. Therefore, the implication was that he had "borrowed" it.
Some fair-minded readers wrote to argue that the difference between the two captions--John used the word "omniscient," and the other blog used "omnipotent"--was significant, and that in fact John's caption was funnier. This is true. I began to doubt my rush to judgement. Who, after all, would cheat just to win shiny new dime? On the other hand, where was John to step forward and claim his prize?
John, or "John B.," has now stepped forward. Today he posted this, which is quite civilized, under the circumstances:
Look at this woman. Do you hate her character yet?
Noah Baumbach's "Margot at the Wedding" is one of the scariest films ever. Because it plays like a hidden-camera home movie as psychological x-ray. And no one is spared its cold, uncompromising scrutiny. (Or think of it as a segment of TV's "To Catch a Predator" -- and, as on the NBC flytrap reality show, everybody is the predator.)
If I were a character from the movie critiquing the movie, I would probably say something like: "Noah Baumbach must really detest his dreadful dysfunctional family." Baumbach's follow-up to "The Squid and the Whale" (among my top films of 2005) is another dead-on portrait of monstrously self-absorbed Northeastern inbreeders who believe that being "authentic" or "honest" means they have to express every single critical judgment or self-indulgent emotion that occurs to them, especially if they can use it to belittle or undermine somebody else in their immediate circle. Usually, that includes throwing in a clinical diagnosis, as a way of damning and dismissing the subject, and getting the amateur diagnostician off the moral hook just a little. (If you claim to be observing a "condition," then neither you nor the object of the diagnosis can be held fully responsible.)
If I describe it as a horror movie -- torture porn about a long-obsolete class of super-self-conscious but utterly un-self-aware white East-Coast intellectual trash -- I trust that also conveys how bitterly, nastily funny the movie is. It's like a Neil LaBute picture co-written by Jules Feiffer. Scalpel-sharp. Merciless. Cruel. Uncompromisingly misanthropic. And really getting off on being so.
I don't think I've ever felt such contempt toward characters in a movie before. Perhaps it's Strindbergian. The TIFF catalog compares the movie to Bergman and Woody Allen's Bergman exercise, "Interiors," and even Eric Rohmer. (Rohmer without pity. Or affection, I guess.) I thought it was more like "The Devil's Rejects," if the members of the Firefly family fed upon one another. And it's funny.
The people in this movie are types who either crib from their friends' and families' lives for their New Yorker short stories -- or who are mortified and infuriated that details from their lives are appearing in their friends' or families' New Yorker short stories. You may assume there's an "autobiographical" dimension to it not only because one of the movies subjects is the way writers autopsy and cannibalize the people in their lives for their fiction, but also because each and every knife-twisting line is so toxic and cutting, so astonishingly self-serving, that you figure somebody just had to have actually said it, or thought it, or attributed it to somebody else in a snarky piece of gossip disguised as a revealing psychological insight disguised as an expression of sincere concern. In other words, the way these people talk and behave seems too awful not to be true.
"Well," says one published author in the film, "we all take from life." The difference is that, by this point in the movie, I assume her work is probably terrible, simultaneously pitiless and self-pitying, relentlessly "honest" and utter bullshit. (See the character of Briony in "Atonement.") Baumbach himself, however, is an exceptionally keen writer and observer of the stifling Upper-East-class milieu in which he was raised. (Both his parents are writers and -- ouch -- film critics.) Which doesn't mean his movie has anything to do with them. But one littérateur in the film observes that the character of the father in another's story is loathsome but strangely sympathetic. You could say the same thing about nearly any character in "Margot at the Wedding." Just leave out the "sympathetic." In fact, just about anything you can say about this movie has already been addressed (and ridiculed) in this movie.
Here's the basic set-up: Margot (Nicole Kidman) and her androgynously doughy offspring, appropriately named Claude (or "Clawd" or "Clod," as in formless lump of dirt, played to excruciating perfection by Zane Pais) go to visit Margot's estranged sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) in the old family house on the beach where they were raised. Pauline is about to get married to Malcolm (Jack Black), another shapeless wad of humanity who sports an ironic mustache that's "supposed to be funny." Next door are some vile neighbors living in a shack with the Kid From "Deliverance," who are probably killing and eating whatever creatures (including wild animals, domesticated dogs and human babies) they can hunt. They're like the family from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (Tobe Hooper's), but they seem a little more human(e) than the main characters in the big house.
Everybody is so busy trying to avoid appearing hypocritical that there's not a genuine, straightforward emotional interaction in the film, just bubbles of self-absorbtion bumping into one another. These are extremely isolated, ultra-privileged people who would prefer to feel guilty about their privilege than grateful, because guilt intensifies their drama and their suffering and their sense of their own significance. Which, in the end, makes them feel a little better about themselves.
Oh, and there's the most cynically self-conscious use of a dog in the history of motion pictures. Baumbach knows exactly what he's doing, and it works.
If I'm making the film sound detestable, maybe that's the best way I know of to express my admiration for it, and the way it keeps relentlessly covering the same ground (the characters' linty psychic navels) while still managing to top itself, scene after scene. You'd think there's be almost no place to go after a mother -- quietly, with a vicious mixture of "concern" and disappointment -- tells her teenage son that he's "changed" and no longer has the grace she says she once treasured, and then adds as an afterthought, "But you're still handsome!" And yet, there is. The scene I just mentioned made me gasp and then laugh in astonishment. Unfortunately, through most of the movie, nobody around me was laughing much. To them, it maybe seemed more like Eugene O'Neill, I don't know.
Every performance in the film is terrifyingly good/awful. (That is, the actors hit every off-note just right, and the characters -- in case I haven't made this clear -- are mortifying.) I think there's some kind of excoriating analytical and observational genius in this home-horror-movie about cretinous, semi-articulate dunces. But when it was over (climaxing in an astonishing moment of self-dramatization and self-absorbtion), the same thought popped into my head that did at the end of Todd Solondz's outlandishly scornful "Palindromes": Who's going to want to expose themselves to this gory dissection of these coldblooded creeps? Makes you want to see a good George Romero zombie movie. At least the Living Dead have real, uncalculated emotions.
P.S. I just went back and re-read Roger Ebert's review of Rob Zombie's "The Devil's Rejects." For me, the comparison works perfectly: Here is a gaudy vomitorium of a movie, violent, nauseating.... If you are a hardened horror movie fan capable of appreciating skill and wit in the service of the deliberately disgusting, [this film] may exercise a certain strange charm. If on the other hand you close your eyes if a scene gets icky, here is a movie to see with blinders on, because it starts at icky and descends relentlessly through depraved and nauseating to the embrace of road kill.
View image Rise and shine...
What do we have here? It's the opening shot of one of my favorite 1970s comedies, a dark absurdist urban paranoid masterpiece called "Little Murders" (1971) written by Jules Feiffer ("Carnal Knowledge") and directed by Alan Arkin (as was the second, successful run of the play in New York in 1969; the first staging a year earlier closed in a week). As you might guess, it's a movie about windows and frames. Look out any window, and there's another one looking right back at you -- with a telescope, a camera, maybe even a gun. After a while, you don't want to know what's out there. You shut off the TV, bar the windows and bolt the door just to keep the madness... out?
Elliott Gould plays Alfred, a listless, benumbed photographer who shoots piles of dog shit. That's his subject. In this shot, Alfred is somewhere outside the window, getting beat up. That's Patsy (Marcia Rodd) in bed. The sounds of Alfred's mugging are drifting in her window, but that's not what awakens her. It's the phone -- another call from the heavy breather (in an era where "obscene phone calls" were the latest in pornographic technological phenomena). But although the image may at first remind you of Kitty Genovese (the murder victim whose screams were ignored by neighbors in Queens), Patsy intervenes. And that's the way it all begins.
Arkin jump-cuts into the scene a few times as the credits appear, in a way that reminds me of the percussive cuts of Harvey Keitel waking up (to the Ronettes' "Be My Baby") at the start of "Mean Streets" (1973). By the end of the film, the windows will be flung open again, to let the fresh air in... and the sniper rifles out.
P.S. Roger Ebert's original 1971 review of "Little Murders" gets at why I think it's such a good, and disturbing, comedy. It doesn't tell you when it's OK to laugh: Arkin said, shortly after the film was released, that he'd only seen his movie once in a theater, and he was afraid to go again. When he saw it with an audience, he said, he thought it was a flop because there was no pattern to the laughs. People were laughing as individuals, almost uneasily, as specific things in the movie touched or clobbered them.
That's my feeling about "Little Murders." One of the reasons it works, and is indeed a definitive reflection of America's darker moods, is that it breaks audiences down into isolated individuals, vulnerable and uncertain. Most movies create a temporary sort of democracy, a community of strangers there in the darkened theater. Not this one. The movie seems to be saying that New York City has a similar effect on its citizens, and that it will get you if you don't watch out.
LOS ANGELES - "What the neighbors say," Shelley Duvall confided to me, "is that when Yvette Mimieux lived here, she kept leopards up here on her property and all sorts of other animals and a monkey that escaped and conducted a reign of terror against the poor people living down the hill." Yvette was an animal lover?
Ebert's Best Film Lists1967 - present
David Steinberg is a wee slip of a lad. So there it is in print. We were eating raspberry sherbet one day, and Steinberg said, "Look, when you do this article, how are you going to start it?"