Nov 132013

I had been a fan of all the Coen Brothers movies leading up to Miller’s Crossing, the brothers’ Irish mob genre-bender. The first time I watched that movie I sat there for over an hour thinking, “When the fuck is this thing going to go anywhere?!?!” Suddenly, one thing happened, then all hell broke lose. In the final 20 to 30 minutes I was dazzled. I walked away saying, “That movie was excellent!” My close, personal friend E. Pluribus Gergely, who I believe was sitting alongside me that night, couldn’t believe I was able to change my mind so quickly, so definitively. He still teases me about my ability to “do a Miller’s Crossing.”

I had a similar experience with the movie Lost in Translation. It was a total waste of my time until the party scene, with Bill Murray singing along to “More Than This.” From that point on the movie clicked, and I did a Miller’s Crossing. Patience has its virtues.

Sometimes the opposite occurs for me: I’ll be enraptured by a movie only to have it crash and burn in the final 20 to 30 minutes. The other night I found myself in this enraptured state as I watched the first hour-plus of a 1946 ghost-love story, A Matter of Life and Death (originally released in the US as Stairway to Heaven). I’d long heard about one of the co-directors, Michael Powell, who is name-checked by my favorite director, Martin Scorsese, at every opportunity, but I’d never actually seen any of his movies. This movie got off to a fantastic start! It simply looked amazing, like The Wizard of Oz‘s reverse twin sister, with earth scenes in color and heaven scenes in a pearly B&W/sepia tone. I’m a sucker for sepia tone. Plus it’s a ghost-love story, a genre I am a huge sucker for: all variations on Here Comes Mr. Jordan/Heaven Can Wait, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, even Ghost itself… (I know, hard to believe considering how damn manly I am.) Anyhow, the movie was fantastic until the final act, which I don’t want to spoil but which worried me as soon as it got underway, introducing a device I’m highly skeptical of in movie storytelling. The movie crashed and burned over the final 25 minutes. It went from being one of the most spectacular pieces of futuristic film-making I’d ever seen to merely a brilliantly executed concept that ultimately fell apart and left me highly disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong, A Matter of Life and Death still left me feeling enlightened about a major piece of film-making that I’d never been exposed to in 50 years, but the ending put me into a Reverse Miller’s Crossing. Being way more of a music guy than a movie guy, I got to wondering whether there are any albums that have put me through the emotional roller-coaster of either a Miller’s Crossing or an A Matter of Life and Death. I’ll have to think about it: albums that didn’t move me at all until they were two thirds through vs albums that made me think I’d found the holy grail before completely fizzling out over the last few tracks. How about you?

For Matters of Life and Death, I’m talking about experiences a little more intense than the “great side 1/eh… side 2″ of Television’s Marquee Moon. There’s no doubt about it that side 2 won’t live up to side 1 as soon as you drop the needle; there’s little tease that the majesty will continue. For Miller’s Crossings, the experience would have to be a little more intense and dynamic than your typical “slow-burner” album. There needs to be a late-game “ah-ha!” moment that signifies an unexpected turnaround.


  16 Responses to “RTH Glossary: Miller’s Crossing vs A Matter of Life and Death Albums”

  1. Bronzed Nordic God

    Can I get clarification from the rules committee on something? I know you want to avoid side 1 great, side 2 eh, but would a record with a clear stylistic break between side 1 and side 2 qualify? I’m thinking something like Bowie’s Low or Heroes. I would probably be in the minority here, but these records are Miller’s Crossing records. Side ones were off kilter pop that never really worked for me (the song Heroes excepted). The side twos were where Bowie and Eno went deep for something new and original.

    A record I still love, but flirts with being a Life and Death record is Husker Du Zen Arcade. Sides 1-3 are simply outstanding, a new roadmap for how hardcore could get out of its louder, faster dead end and achieve something meaningful. The song Whatever still gives me a lump in my throat ever time I hear it. Then side 3 ends with The Tooth Fairy and the Princess which cops out and reduces the previous 50 minutes to a dream that the protagonist wakes up from. Lame! Then we get Turn On The News (good song with dopey, way past their expiration date hippie lyrics) that has nothing to do with the rest of the record concept. Then we get Reoccurring Dream, a 14 minute punk rock jam session that Zappa would have ended 7 minutes earlier. They were clearly running out the clock at that point.

  2. Great start, BNG! The drastic stylistic shift clause on those Bowie albums is accepted. Funny, Low is A Matter of Life and Death album for me. I can’t bear side 2!

  3. misterioso

    For the life of me, I cannot fathom what you mean about Miller’s Crossing, which is terrific from end to end. You didn’t know where it was going: to paraphrase a line from Barton Fink (you must have loved that one), What do you need, a road map? As for A Matter of Life and Death (or, as it was originally known on this side of the Atlantic and when I first saw it on tv a million years ago, Stairway to Heaven), it is an amazing movie, maybe my favorite of the Powell/Pressburger films, though many others are tremendous. Imaginative and beautiful films. I guess you objected, as it were, to the final trial? I think that comprises the last 20 or 25 minutes. I suppose it suffers the fate as any courtroom scenes–a lot of talking. But still, wonderful. Again, can’t figure out what you were looking for.

  4. Barton Fink is one of my Top 10 movies. I loved it from start to finish.

    As for A Matter of Life and Death, the long trial scene device was a killer – and I mean that in a bad way. So hokey and stilted! It turned the movie into an episode of Star Trek, which is fine when I’m watching Star Trek. It put a real crimp in the film’s well-established vibe.

  5. misterioso

    Uh, whatever, chief.

  6. Hey, tough guy. You actually stand behind that ending? Or is your problem the fact that I was unimpressed with Miller’s Crossing until it was almost too late? This feeling only goes for my initial viewing, mind you. Once I got turned onto the final third I dug right in on the opening scenes the next 10 times I saw the movie.

  7. misterioso

    The ending certainly doesn’t bother me or detract from the impact of the film. I never really thought about it one way or the other. I suppose, instead, they could’ve just had a long scene with Niven being operated on. Is that more interesting? I’m optimistic that if you see it a few more times you’ll warm up to it. It’s just an amazing film. Not sure which of their films to suggest you watch next. Colonel Blimp or Black Narcissus maybe, or I Know Where I’m Going. But then you might hate it. Anyway.

  8. I thought the movie was amazing, just that the ending was a bad turn in storytelling. I am curious to finally see more films by these guys. And I acknowledge that I’m weird for having such hairpin reactions to works of art. That’s why I raise this topic. Bronzed Nordic God knows how it feels. Are we alone? And if folks just want to bum out over my opinions on 2 movies, that’s cool too. A lesson for me, when I have these reactions, is that sometimes it takes a little work to overcome my expectations. Maybe I’ll see A Matter… again and get how the ending fits. Maybe I’ll never warm up to courtroom endings, although the device works enough in Miracle on 34th Street.

  9. misterioso

    It should be a great comfort to you that the guy who prefers side 2 of Low and Heroes! Just kidding, there, BNG. Well, in a way.

    Btw, and you might well hate this movie, but A Matter… always reminds of a great film that came out a few years before it, The Devil and Daniel Webster. (Warning: it features another celestial trial.) Walter Huston plays the devil, and Edward Arnold, the evil, Dick Cheney-like bad guy in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe and other films, plays Daniel Webster, and the whole thing is filmed in a really interesting post-Citizen Kane style and with some of the same technical crew and music by Bernard Hermann. Check it out, and then let me know which Star Trek episode it reminds you of.

  10. misterioso, I sense we’re moving past the posturing phase. I’m sure you know what I mean about that movie having an unexpected Star Trek ending – and I like Star Trek.

    I did not in any way “hate” that movie. Is that clear? I thought it was amazing to watch, just that the ending drained a good deal of what I came for – a ghost-love story – as well as what I had no idea was coming: a movie as visually arresting as The Wizard of Oz. I found the ending aggravating and deflating, but unlike 2 other movies that come to mind that I started out loving and then suddenly found myself hating – Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire (a much more highly disappointing angel/ghost movie!) – the ghost-love story recovered just enough in the final minute to keep me from wanting to break something.

    I’ll have to watch The Devil and Daniel Webster. Angels, devils, ghosts…is there a love story involved too? I’m a sucker for the whole “love across time” theme.

  11. misterioso

    No posturing, I was just ribbing you and at the same time trying to get at what you didn’t like. I tend to think of movies (and probably records and books) as a whole, as in what the impact of the whole thing is. We stand on opposite sides of the “let’s hack away most of the White Album and Exile on Main St.” divide. I can sometimes live with a weak ending in a movie (though I don’t happen to find this one weak), and in a lot of classic-era Hollywood films you have to live with weak endings, if the whole thing is strong enough, just like I can live with Casino Boogie. I watched a pretty solid movie recently on TCM (yeah, I watch a lot of TCM) called Act of Violence with Robert Ryan and Van Heflin and very young Janet Leigh. Very decent and well done noir-ish movie. Terrible ending, sort of a “quick, let’s wrap up this morally ambiguous movie as neatly as we can and then cut.” But overall, quite a good movie. Anyway, I have reached the rambling on Friday afternoon stage of things.

    Not a love story in Devil & DW in the same way, no. A deal with the devil, yes. It’s been so long since I saw Wings of Desire–I can’t remember how it ends anymore!

    I like Star Trek, too. Let’s hug.

  12. [Hug.]

    I’m happy for the chatter, even if it meant you took shots at my character! I was so enthralled by the style of A Matter of Life and Death, and it’s ahead-of-it’s-time humor, that the ending just bummed me out because I thought it fell prey to the movie’s one inherent flaw: it was so strongly rooted in its conceits that it sometimes felt it was going to lose its emotional thread. The trial scene lost the thread for me. When I watch a Love Across Time movie I want to be reduced to a romantic, emotional heap. (Man, it’s been too long since I’ve watched the most manly of Love Across Time movies, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir!)

    Wings of Desire ended with an hour’s worth of Nick Cave reciting jazz poetry, or something like that. Actually, I think it ended on a fairly strong note, but there was a huge stretch of re-creations of Jim Morrison’s American Dream, or whatever that album of poetry was called. At least that’s how it felt.

    I also watch a ton of TCM. There’s no shame in old movies! I am able to forgive many movies with disappointing endings, but sometimes a movie (or record) lifts me so hard that it hurts like hell when I crash.

    Although it has only the tiniest bit to do with ghosts, I relish the chance to cut loose on a new movie that bugged the crap out of me: Gravity. We can probably tie it into music, somehow, and question each other’s character to boot.

  13. misterioso

    Ghost & Mrs. Muir is a good movie, plus, anyway, Gene Tierney. I wonder what I’d think about the TV show now. I liked it in reruns when I was a kid. Charles Nelson Reilly is no substitute for Gene Tierney.

    If it wasn’t for TCM I’m not sure I’d have a tv. A slight exaggeration, but it represents a huge % of my non-sports tv viewing.

  14. Big hug for Tierney! TCM also makes up a large part of my non-sports watching. My wife and I watched a fun movie we’d never heard of before tonight:Theodora Goes Wild. My wife has long been into Irene Dunne. I have recently seen the light. Melvyn Douglas played the poor man’s Clark Gable. Douglas always delivered!

  15. misterioso

    Good movie, Theodora. Very enjoyable. Douglas was like a solid third starter who eats innings and occasionally throws a gem. Irene Dunne can sometimes grate and sometimes is great, if you know what I mean. But in Theodora and The Awful Truth, esp., she is outstanding.

  16. We are TOTALLY on board re: Douglas as third starter and the best of Dunne!

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