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The Camera’s Eye

“We were for Mao, but when we saw the films he was making, they were bad. So we understood that there was necessarily something wrong with what he was saying.”

— Jean Luc Godard

“He made himself master of half the known world, and inspired mankind with a fear that lasted for generations. In the course of his life he was given many names — Mighty Manslayer, Scourge of God, Perfect Warrior… He is better known to us as Genghis Khan.”

— Harold Lamb's 1928 “Genghis Khan: The Emperor of All Men.”

There are two categories of bad films: those which are awful from any perspective, and those that are bearable due to a soft spot in the viewer's heart for the subject matter, the cast, the setting, or the weapons. This weekend, driven indoors by uncharacteristically warm weather, I decided to eat chicken and watch movies. Friday night the menu was chicken kebabs, chicken tenders, and chicken soup, consumed while watching “A Summer's Tale,” by Eric Rohmer, the original “Get Carter” starring Michael Caine, and “Incredible Hockey Fights,” which isn't a film per se, but more of a cinematic exploration in the tradition of John Cassavettes' lesser works. First up was “A Summer's Tale,” but that didn't work out because the rental tape was bad: horrible cats-having-sex-during-the-national-anthem interference ruined the audio track. Though I gave up after seven minutes, I highly recommend it, which friends say is part of a Rohmer series, of which “An Autumn Tale” is the most recent. From what I can tell, “A Summer's Tale” is about a young French guy on holiday (summer vacation, perhaps?). He's at a beach resort, people are speaking French, and he eats lunch alone in a crowded restaurant. The waitress who serves him is pretty cute. Rohmer is one of the directors who comprised the French New Wave (see also Alain Resnais, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard). He's one of my favorites because he despises automobiles, travels throughout Paris either on bicycle or metro, and keeps his private life private. Then I got tired of the soundtrack problem and switched to the next tape.

Ouch. What can I say about “Get Carter” that will inspire you to rush out and rent it? Forget the current remake starring Sylvester Stallone that's cluttering up cineplexes in a strip mall near you. I saw it in upstate New York at a stripmall cineplex, and the largely empty theater and generous container of Mr. Pibb I bought are my best memories of the experience. Stallone wasn't the problem; he did a fine, if predictable, job as Jack Carter, the loose cannon trying to get to the bottom of his brother's death. It was ho-hum macho pistol stuff, though Mickey Rourke was enjoyable as a sleazoid bar owner with a taste for leather-hooded secrets. The original, on the other hand, is film at its juiciest. Set in the industrial squalor of an English coal-mining town, it has the subtlety and intelligence of a backdoor slider that paints the black with two outs and the bases loaded in the seventh game of the World Series. It's a romantic if unsentimental look at a tough guy who is at once frightening, cruel, kind and punctual. The cinematography is brilliant, and the mise-en-scene reflects a Proustian and Henry James-like sense of detail and insouciance. For example, on the train ride up from London to whatever hellhole is his final destination Michael Caine's character reads “Farewell, My Lovely”; in the remake, all Stallone does is stare broodingly out the window and light one Marlboro Light after another. Why?

I started to watch the hockey fights but a friend came over and we threw rocks and pieces of cheese out the back window at an apartment that had a “Gore/Lieberman” poster in the window. I think I threw out my arm trying to snap off a curveball from a hunk of camembert, and fell asleep with visions of Frank Tanana and Nolan Ryan kicking the rubber on the big field of history.

Saturday afternoon around eleven I woke up bright and early and heated up a tray of chicken croquettes I took from a retirement party at work and had my Nescafe and wondered a little at the immensity of the world and the profound hopelessness of it all. Cheered by the idea that 300 years from now no one will remember me anyway, I got on my horse and galloped to the 4-Star Theater in the Outer Richmond. It's a different world out on the avenues, grayer and bleaker and more romantic. It makes one sad in a strolling, quasi-indifferent kind of way. There are rows of stucco houses and Russian delis and Chinese take-out joints with quarter hogs and greasy ducks hanging on hooks in the window. There are coffeehouses with forlorn girls staring out from the countertops and shuffling old men stepping out of burger joints with the morning sportspage folded neatly beneath their arms. I stepped inside the 4-Star and bought a bag of the best movie popcorn in the city and tried to clear my mind of the capitalistic dross and lies that bombard us moment by moment. The 4-Star is my favorite San Francisco movie theater. It's beat like Kerouac and Ferlinghetti, the bathroom is clean, and they play movies that no one else does: Honk Kong shoot'em ups, decadent Tokyo muscle trash, and the occasional French art film that attracts the Smith College and turtleneck crowd.

I've waited a long time for this: finally a Mongolian film about the most famous Mongol of all time, “Genghis Khan.” I was raised on the barren steppes of Boonville, and spent many childhood hours in contact with the primitive yurt tribes of Mendocino communal life. How I often wished for a throng of Tartar horsemen to appear on the eastern ridge meadows, and then descend on the hippie compound while in a screech of distinctive Mongol keening that gave millions of 13th Century humans from China to Vienna nightmares. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Genghis, and while the adults drank sweet apple wine and complained about Nixon and Kissinger, I would hole up with Harold Lamb's 1928 biography of Genghis Khan (aka Temujin, aka The Whip of Sublime Vengeance, Evil and Illustrious Pony Man, etc.) and plot my escape. I'm still plotting.

This “Genghis Khan” was disappointing, despite the wife-stealing, fratricide, curved swords, death by arrow, and hundreds of real life Mongolians galloping to and fro on real Mongolian horses with shaggy manes and flaring nostrils. There was no finesse, only charging swordplay and the cries of soldiers being run through by arrowpoints and tempered steel. The subtitles were amateurish. For example, a rival of Genghis says, “One mountain is only big enough for one tiger. Got it?” This kind of cloying Charlie Chan speak is typical. There are also precious few shots of the wide-open expanse of Outer Mongolia — the point in the distance where earth meets sky. Maybe there are too many Starbucks going in and they didn't have time to find better locations. Sigh. Maybe next time. The film closes gorgeously: a scene of happy orphan children playing in the grass alongside the river where Genghis grew up. I wanted to stay and watch it through but it made me sentimental for gilt days of youth when the Boonville sky reached up forever and the trees whispered provocatively of mystery, regret and homicidal maniacs on ponies. I leaped to my feet and rushed outside to buy a roasted chicken then went home to watch hockey. As my fingers trembled on the remote the thought crossed my mind: now this is living.

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