Amity and Enmity
Violence, Violations, and Kung Fu Hustles
I'd like to tell you about the remake of The Amityville Horror (MGM), but I ankled after less than five minutes. It was something about the little girl holding the stuffed animal getting blown away with a shotgun at point-blank range. I hate it when critics boast about walking out of movies—we're paid to keep our butts in our seats (at the very least). But I swear this is true: I felt my body rise and move smoothly out of the screening room in advance of my mind's resolution to do so. As a card-carrying skeptic, I'm reluctant to invoke the supernatural, especially in relation to the community of Amityville. (The family at the center of this "true" story owned up to the hoax after all the money had been made.) But I'd like to believe I was propelled from that room by a beneficent spirit. Dude, I owe you a drink in the afterlife.
Readers of this column know that when it comes to violence onscreen, I have selective recoil. As one e-mailed, "Why did you object to the violence in The Passion of the Christ and not Sin City? Could you possibly be a hypocrite?"
Possibly. But I think that when it comes to violence in movies, one size doesn't fit all. A flamboyantly stylized, largely black and white movie with canted angles and blood that runs white, green, and mustard is not comparable to an ultra-realistic depiction of one person being beaten and hacked at relentlessly for two hours. (This is irrespective of Mel Gibson's higher motives.) Extreme stylization builds in a kind of emotional distance—as it does in the hyperbolically entertaining Kung Fu Hustle (see below), the over-the-top splattery dismemberment of the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and even (moving much further along this artificial spectrum) the private-eye ballet at the end of The Band Wagon.
But it is a thorny (no pun intended) issue, the moral and immoral uses of violence in popular culture. I would hardly have described myself as "going to hell" for loving Sin City if I hadn't been troubled by my enjoyment of its many sadistic acts of revenge.
Many years ago, Stuart Gordon—purveyor of such shockingly bloody horror films as Re-Animator and From Beyond—struggled with the MPAA's penchant for slapping him with X ratings because his use of violence upset people. Isn't the greater danger, he asked me, violence that is portrayed as painless or fun? Gordon recalled that when he staged his first fistfight in the theater, he did some research and discovered that many fights last one punch: One guy breaks his hand and the other breaks his nose. He appreciated the irony: If he put a fight onscreen in a way that made the audience hate violence (cartilage breaking, blood flowing copiously in close-up), he might get an X for his troubles; but if he made it Popeye-painless (scores of bloodless punches with no bruising), he'd get a PG and an audience of happy kids learning the lesson that violence is fun.
The violence in Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle (Sony Pictures Classics) is fun city. Too bad it's rated R, or I'd say bring the kiddies. At times, the picture evokes such stylized musicals as The Band Wagon; at others, it seems to whirr every kung-fu movie ever made into the most luscious action smoothie you'll ever imbibe. A mob of dancing, pinstripe-suited killers called the Axe Gang descends on a poor village, the inhabitants of which prove more adept at self-defense than anyone could have predicted. The Axe Gang calls in some supernaturally agile assassins; the village counters with even more supernaturally agile defenders. The Axe Gang brings in the biggest, baddest killer of all, but the village turns out to have its own secret weapons. ...
The vagueness is meant to keep from spoiling what is actually 100 minutes of can-you-top-this that begins where other action movies climax. Content is meaningless; computerized effects and design are all. Two years ago, I flew to San Francisco's East Bay to have the special effects director of The Matrix show me a few precious seconds from the "Burly Brawl," the computer-generated kung-fu-fighting sequence that would change the face of film. Now, Chow and his computer technicians and choreographers not only parody the "Burly Brawl," but best it by a factor of 10, making it seem threadbare in its adherence to the space-time continuum. Thumbing its nose at gravity, deflating Zen solemnity, embracing big-top artifice with childish glee, Kung Fu Hustle zings you with some of the most unfettered slapstick ever put on film.
On the subject of unfettered slapstick—and Black Knights: Broadway isn't my bailiwick, but some indignities can't be contained. As someone who cherishes nearly every syllable of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I was juiced for Spamalot, Broadway's current impossible-ticket musical—the latest in an apparently endless line of shows adapted from old movies. Hats-in-the-air reviews, standing ovations … I've rarely parted as happily in advance with my money.
Folks, it's thoroughly second-rate. Half of Spamalot consists of intact exchanges from the movie, mostly delivered by Americans who get the inflections wrong—about on par with me and my dorm-mates 20 years ago, only we didn't charge over a hundred bucks and had the excuse of being stoned. The other half is Broadway camp—intermittently amusing, but awkwardly juxtaposed with the tricky, hyper-literary Cambridge Footlights absurdism of the Python boys at the peak of their inspiration and near-peak (Life of Brian was to come) of their irreverence.
I say "Ni!" to it. ... 1:06 PT
Judy Irving's documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (Shadow Distribution, Inc.) has been in release for a few months, but with a related book on the extended bestseller list and stupendous word-of-mouth (not to mention, in the blogosphere, enthusiastic advocacy by The Daily Howler'sBob Somersby), the movie is actually returning, with the spring, to some cities. It's much needed—it thaws the soul.
The film chronicles the principal passion of a man named Mark Bittner, a musician with no visible means of support (at least until his bestseller, which came after the movie was made). Living in a rundown cottage beneath San Francisco's Coit Tower (thanks to the largesse of a conflicted yuppie-liberal couple up the hill), Mark has a splendid vantage on the flock of cherry heads that has improbably taken up residence in the trees. (The film briefly explores the various urban legends on how these tropical creatures—obviously pets—came to live and breed in the wild.) Bittner studies them, occasionally feeds them, cares for them when they're sick, and reaches out to them as a friend from another world.