Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Masterpiece Test: Gun Crazy

Year of Release  1949
Country  USA
Length  86 min.
Director  Joseph H. Lewis
Screenwriters  MacKinlay Kantor and Dalton Trumbo (adapted from Kantor’s newspaper story)
Cinematographer  Russell Harlan
Editor  Harry W. Gerstad
Cast  Peggy Cummins and John Dall

On a purely visceral level, there are few films as powerful, entertaining, or effectively streamlined as Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy.  Every plot point, every line of dialogue, and every shot has been sculpted and sharpened for maximum efficiency and gut-level impact.  Lewis and his creative team take a basic outlaws-on-the-lam story and turn it into what is essentially a live-action flipbook of the seediest pulp novel covers. 

Gun Crazy is smartly paced in the way that only old Hollywood movies are, with each plot point and character tic lingering on screen only for as long as it needs to.  There is no fat here, and though the supporting cast is nicely populated with memorable bit performances, the only figures of any real importance are the central couple of Barton Tare (John Dall) and Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins). 

Stories of criminal couples on the run have been around as long as the cinema itself, but Gun Crazy distinguishes itself by avoiding any pretense of social responsibility and going straight for primal impact.  The romanticism of You Only Live Once (1937), They Live by Night (1949), and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is nowhere in evidence here, replaced by a conflation of sexuality and violence so much in the forefront that it’s a miracle that a movie this raw was released in the late ‘40s (Barton and Annie meet during a shooting contest, where the lusty suggestiveness is so thick that it can hardly be called metaphorical).  Nor is there any pretension to cultural criticism, as in a latter film like Natural Born Killers (1994); Barton and Annie aren’t stand-ins for any idea so much as they are vessels for the audience’s most tawdry desires.

But while the lack of hypocrisy is appreciated, and the straight-to-the-point style of the filmmaking makes for tremendous entertainment, Gun Crazy may only be empty calories in the end.  There isn’t really any moral to the story beyond the token nod to “crime doesn’t pay,” and that idea isn’t terribly convincing in a movie where the criminal couple’s life is infinitely more glamorous and exciting than that of anyone else on screen.  Barton and Annie are even awarded the same dramatically fog-enshrouded death as Henry Fonda’s character in You Only Live Once, despite the fact that he was a wrongly accused man and they are unquestionably guilty.  It could also be argued that Gun Crazy is a bit sexist, with Annie using her charms to lure Barton into an amoral criminal underworld that a nice guy like him would’ve avoided if he hadn’t been tempted (the film’s working title was Deadly is the Female).  At any rate, Gun Crazy sacrifices morality for entertainment value.

Gun Crazy is a great film when viewed from a pure formal standpoint.  Action scenes like the climactic heist and car chase are enhanced by Russell Harlan’s documentary-style cinematography, which gives  you-are-there immediacy to each gun shot and quick turn of the car.  But the movie doesn’t leave you with anything to think about after it’s over, or any nuances to grasp on repeat viewings.  Gun Crazy is as enjoyable and exciting as just about any movie ever made, but the same things that make it thrilling prevent it from being anything more.

Gun Crazy fails the Masterpiece Test

UP NEXT  Another movie where guns play an important role, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Book Report: Ubik by Philip K. Dick

Personal biases and tastes aside, what most of us want from a work of art – particularly one made by an acknowledged master of his craft – is to experience something that feels unique, personal, and visionary.  It isn’t reasonable to demand brilliance or greatness, as there are too many factors outside of the artist’s control to ensure that the work will live up to such lofty expectations.  But it is fair, I think, to ask that artists attempt to push the boundaries and shake the foundations of their aesthetic to the point that the reader, regardless of whether or not they ultimately “like” or even “get” what they just read, feels that they’ve been through something.

Philip K. Dick’s 1969 novel Ubik is something and then some, but it’s tough to pin down exactly what it is, especially since its plot, tone, and even setting change so rapidly.  The feeling of the rug being pulled out from under you every time you start to get your bearings can be frustrating when it feels that the author is simply making up the rules as he goes along, but Dick’s nonstop changes are less oriented around plot than they are designed to get the reader into the paranoid headspace of his characters, who are always a step or ten behind the game in whatever mysterious intrigue they’re involved in.  In keeping with Dick’s trademark druggy confusion, the exact shape of the plot is never entirely clear to either the characters or the reader – this is the kind of story where the main characters can’t even be certain whether they are alive or dead (and even after that question appears to be resolved, it is possibly turned on its head in a highly ambiguous final chapter) – and Dick uses the resultant uncertainty to mesmerizingly unsettling effect. 

Here is what we (more or less) know:  it’s 1992, and the North American Confederation is littered with mind readers.  Glen Runciter is the president of a “prudence organization” that employs anti-telepaths, who have the ability to prevent high-paying clients’ minds from being read.  Runciter runs the company with the help of his deceased wife Ella, who is kept in a state of “half-life,” a not-uncommon situation in which the deceased have limited consciousness and communication ability, and in which they can die again.  The prudence organization is hired to secure a wealthy businessman’s moon-based offices from mind readers, a task which Runciter entrusts to an eleven-person team led by his right-hand man Joe Chip.  The assignment is revealed to be a trap when the guest room that the prudence team is invited to explodes, apparently leaving Runciter dead…unless it’s actually Runciter who is the sole survivor of the blast.  Chip and his associates begin to travel backwards through time at an accelerated rate, as they wonder whether they are in the real world, the afterlife, or in half-life.  Before they can figure out what the hell’s going on, the group begins receiving ambiguous messages from their possibly dead boss, who instructs them to use a mysterious, all-purpose protective spray known as “Ubik” that can apparently protect them from the unknown forces that seem to threaten the prudence organization’s existence in their increasingly unfamiliar surroundings.

As is probably clear from the above plot description, Ubik moves very quickly, giving readers an overload of information that makes things more confusing rather than more clear, and then moving on to a new situation before they can fully comprehend the last one.  A typical scene (if anything in this novel even fits that description) begins with Joe Chip stumbling into an old-fashioned pharmacy with a proprietor whose words move out of sync with his mouth as his body movements randomly shift between unnaturally fast or slow speeds, and ends with the building itself mysteriously disappearing.  Dick’s relentless destabilization has a hallucinatory power that makes up for some of his novel’s noticeable flaws.  None of the characters are particularly well-developed, and while protagonist Joe Chip’s lack of distinction seems purposeful (he is the everyman that the reader can identify with), most of the other members of his prudence team are literally given one sentence of description.  Chip’s love interest, Holly, makes no impression at all, and the book’s main villain isn’t even introduced until the last several chapters, as if Dick realized too late that he needed some way to wrap up the story.  But it is a credit to the power of the book’s mood-building and sheer unpredictability that these theoretically major flaws register as minor annoyances in a distinctive experience that the reader will never be able to fully understand or shake off.