Don't look back

The Year in Film 2008: Movies that saw hard times coming
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Profit motive and the whispering
wind

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Cinephilia is a malady that affects the imagination above all. As 2008's year-end pieces roll across the blogosphere, one encounters the alluring titles and stills of films which won't reach the Bay Area for months. Against this tempting tide, I turn to the faint echoes of those undistributed movies which lingered in mind long enough after their festival screenings to become pliable to memory. To take one powerful example, the earthiness of John Gianvito's still frames of the monuments and graves marking American radicalism's many resting places inflected my own perception of Obama's soaring rhetoric. Months after seeing it, Profit motive and the whispering wind's contemplative chronology kept returning to me as a visual counterpoint to the "long march" of the campaign season. Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales, on the other hand, provided the punch lines to the economic meltdown before the fact. The two films have nothing in common except for prescience, but then prescience is no small thing in a year in which the news outpaced the dream factory for twists-of-fate.

An elegiac documentary like Profit motive is a tough sell in any climate, but I fully expected Go Go Tales to score theatrical distribution after catching it at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Asia Argento slobbering a Rottweiler, Sylvia Miles rasping poetic about Bed Bath and Beyond, miles of dialogue, and a depth of staging which rewards concentration and intoxication in equal kind: Ferrara's nightlife ballad is ripe for a cult following. At the center of film's enclosed universe is Ray (Willem Dafoe), a small-time dreamer who runs his Manhattan club on less than a shoestring. The strippers are threatening a work stoppage, the landlady (Miles) is waving her pocketbook around about turning the lease over, and Ray's brother — a hairstylist from Staten Island known at Ray's Paradise Lounge as the "king of coiffeuse" — is pulling his financial support from the club. Drawing together all his business acumen, Ray invests in a crooked lotto racket.

After-hours in a threadbare nightclub is an ideal stage for waning fortunes, and it does seem that Ferrara was after a certain timeliness with Go Go Tales: gadfly Danny Cash (Joseph Cortese) spins a Jersey-size yarn about a pastrami projectile hitting "Hillary 'I Might Be Your Next President' Clinton," a headstrong cook hawks free-range hot dogs, and the staff grouses over the new Chinese customer base. But there's no way the director could have known what Go Go Tales augured: Lehman Brothers shareholders left holding their own equivalent of "Ray Ray Dollars," budget cuts, drunk real estate agents, Ponzi schemes, and murmurs of the sinking ship.

A comedy of teetotaling fortunes, a musical with a touch of Beckett, Go Go Tales is every bit a Depression movie. Ferrara's style is steeped in '70s playbacks — Robert Altman's wandering long takes, Woody Allen's softness for showbiz, and John Cassevetes' own strip-club serenade, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) — but as long as we're talking about filmmakers who love talkers, let's not overlook the original screwball savants. The Ray's crowd bubbles over with the same provincial clamor as Preston Sturges' stock company in Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). In Go Go Tales' climactic scene, Ray uncorks a brilliantly obfuscating speech before finding the winning lottery ticket in his front pocket. It's delirium on the edge of despair and a worthy successor to Sturges' Christmas in July (1940). Thinking about what Sturges would have done with a world in which "bailout" is Merriam Webster's "word of the year" makes me want to cry laughing — but there I go imagining things again.

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