Friday, September 7, 2012

Shadows and Fog and Walker: Two Comedies About Sticking Our Noses Where They Don't Belong

Shadows and Fog, by Woody Allen, 1991

I've seen most of Woody Allen's films at this point, although I've fallen off in recent years. I was pretty sure I had seen most, if not all, of the best ones, which left me pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed his 1991 film, Shadows and Fog.

A darkly comedic homage to German Expressionism, Shadows and Fog has some really beautiful black and white cinematography. In fact, there are tons of shadows and lots of fog in the movie, as I suppose should be expected. Set, I think, in the 1920's, a serial killer is stalking the streets and strangling his victims. Kleinman, a nebbishy 50-ish Woody Allen type, played by Woody Allen, is awakened in the middle of the night by the men of the neighborhood, who are forming a vigilante group to hunt this guy down. He is peer pressured into joining, despite his well-founded reservations.

At the same time, at a travelling circus outside of town, a couple, a sword swallower (Mia Farrow) and a clown (John Malkovich) to be exact, get in a fight over cheating and having kids, and the sword swallower, Irmy, leaves the clown. In the city, she falls in with a prostitute (Lily Tomlin), who takes her into her whorehouse for safety, and the two main stories begin to collide.

I really liked Shadows and Fog. The story is complex, funny, spooky, and interesting, Allen's directing is at its best, and the cast is top notch. It includes Allen, Farrow, Malkovitch, Tomlin, Madonna, Kathy Bates, Jodie Foster, Donald Pleasance, John Cusack, and even a brief appearance by William H. Macy. I especially enjoyed Pleasance's small part as a coroner, and Cusack as a young student infatuated with Farrow, who he believes to be a prostitute. The payoff at the end is pretty great too.

Woody Allen has made a lot of movies. I'm not sure where Shadows and Fog would rank among them, but I'd put it somewhere in the top half, and that's saying quite a lot.

Walker, by Alex Cox, 1987

I didn't know what to expect when I turned on Alex Cox's trippy anti-Biopic, Walker. Cox, director of Repo Man and Sid & Nancy (which I still haven't seen!), brought his punk-rock ethos to the Historical Biography genre, and destroyed his own Hollywood career in the process. Walker is a truly strange mess of a movie, and I kind of loved it.

Walker is the story of William Walker (Ed Harris), an American soldier of fortune in the 1850's who leads a group of mercenaries into Nicaragua to liberate the locals, only to take over and become dictator himself. Cox is not so much interested in historical facts, however, and he plays fast and loose with the truth. He's more interested in commenting on what America was actually doing in Latin America in the 1980's, and he viciously comments on it throughout.

There's lots of hilarious black comedy in Walker, such as the battalion drummer who asks to sit out on the next day's battle because he's noticed in all the war paintings that the drummer is always one of the corpses. Walker looks him in the eye like a holy man and says "as long as I am your commander, no harm shall come to you." Of course, at the battle he is gunned down violently and repeatedly, as Walker is somehow able to walk through all the carnage magically unscathed.

In addition to the comedy and the carnage, there is a surrealist element to Cox's film as well. As the movie progresses, he starts sneaking in historical anachronisms, to remind us that this isn't the 1850's he's talking about, this is today (1987). At first it's something like someone lighting a fuse with a Zippo lighter, or a guy drinking a bottle of Coke, but by the end, there are helicopters disrupting the period authenticity.

Add to all this an excellent, moody musical score by Joe Strummer of The Clash, and you have in Walker a great piece of anti-establishment cinema; shocking, funny, violent, and rebellious. I think it was slammed by critics at the time of its release, but like the best cult movies, has later experienced some rehabilitation and found an audience. Some even hold it up as Alex Cox's best film. I still need to watch Sid and Nancy, so I don't know yet. I sure dug it, though.

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