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Monday Movies Puts its Hand Inside the Puppethead

After Monday Movies watched seven episodes of Breaking Bad in rapid succession, we’d reached our limit with Walter White, a man who acts out his rage and despair at a cancer diagnosis by cooking meth and pretending it’s to put food on his family. So we bicycled to Pasadena to see the The Beaver, the story of Walter Black, a man who acts out his shame and despair by ceding his left hand to a seemingly foreign intelligence of questionable intentions. A clip from the film:

Sorry, wrong hand. Let me try that again.

It’s tempting, especially in American stories, to mount calamity upon calamity until there is no escape save escape itself: “lighting out for the territories”. Spanking the Monkey and Clockers are two excellent films that conclude with flight; in the latter, the hero is a fan of toy trains and lights out on a real one at the end, a sweetly anachronistic-feeling end to an urban crime film. Even without the implication of physical flight, Rilke’s dictum that “you must change your life” usually arrives at the end of the proof as a self-sufficient conclusion. The Beaver recognizes change as a starting point, and a dangerous one.

It distinguishes itself from male-hysteria works like Fight Club and American Beauty with mostly silence on the cause of Walter Black’s depression. He is a depressed man. He has estranged himself from his family and nearly tanked his company. (There’s a particularly deft piece of exposition in which he explains to his younger son that his own father “got sad and had an accident.”) One day, after a doubly failed suicide attempt, he wakes himself up by addressing himself with a beaver puppet who speaks in a Cockney accent, and we’re off to the races.

Mel Gibson’s performance as a depressed man is very good; his performance as a man addressing himself through a persuasively independent beaver puppet is phenomenal. His lips move the entire time — The Beaver is just a ratty puppet on the end of his arm, no C.G.I. or obvious looping involved.

Twinned with Walter Black’s story is the story of his older son Porter, who keeps a running list of all the similarities between himself and his father in hopes to purge himself of them. While The Beaver persuades Walter’s wife and younger son to open up to him, Porter will have none of it; meanwhile, he occupies himself by using his academic gifts to write, for paying high school cheaters, papers in their genuine voices. His big score is the class valedictorian Norah (Jennifer Lawrence, her prettiness put to much better effect than at the Oscars) — who, four hundred useless pages into a graduation address, wants him to get inside her head and help her write a memorable speech.

Kyle Killen’s script came to attention in 2008 on the Black List, a tally of the best unproduced scripts according to executives and high-level assistants. I found it on Scriptshadow in 2009 and enjoyed it; I loved the concept, although it felt a little emotionally pat. My expectations going in to see it where that it would be not-great, but the kind of not-great that there should be a lot more of.

I ended up responding to it really strongly on film. Umberto Eco said of Casablanca that “the cliches are having a ball.” In The Beaver, it’s the contrivances that get up and dance. The contrivance of The Beaver saves Walter’s life and allows him to return to his family, but only partway. The contrivance of “writing a speech for the valedictorian” shows off the ghostwriter’s emotional literacy that allows Porter to get close to Norah, but only partway. A Beaver-themed toy, a bout of fame, a woodworking shop — these are storytelling contrivances that make the narrative run perfectly by showing what hell they generate in life.

As Scott Meyer notes at the Scriptshadow link, the story in many ways belongs to Porter more than to Walter, and their two stories hardly intersect. But they are bound together by their equally terrible shame — a disgust with themselves so powerful that it drives them into other personae. They feel real, and broken, and if the movie shows that they may get better, it also shows what they pay.


Saturday night, Monday Movies loaded up a thumb drive with our rip of Devils on the Doorstep (recommended strongly by A White Bear) and brought it to a friends house to enjoy along with General Tso’s Tofu Sub, but various formatting idiosyncracies foiled our plan. Instead, we played 90’s edition Trivial Pursuit until the wee hours. Oprah, Bob Barker, and the CIA were all clues that came up twice. The highlight of the evening was when one player was asked “What violent crime film was the directorial debut of Quentin Tarantino?” and, with a slice of pie on the line, she could not remember the name. We offered her the pie in exchange for ten minutes of dialogue from the film, which she dutifully dispatched, in addition to straddling our host and pantomiming the ear scene on him. What movies remain on the tips of your tongues?


May 16, 2011 - Posted by | Monday Movies | , , , ,


  1. I saw Death Race ’00. I really did. It started well over average to end – well below average. The progression between the two was linear, so I can confidently put the calibration point of ‘average’ exactly at half-way this movie.

    Comment by Guido Nius | May 16, 2011

  2. 5/09/11 – The Thirteen Assassins – Kudo Eiichi 1963
    5/11/11 – A Distant Cry From Spring – Yamada 1984
    5/13/11 – Tsuma no kokoro – Naruse – 1956
    5/14/11 – Our Neighbour, Miss Yae – Shimazu 1934
    5/15/11 – Vertical Ray of the Sun – Anh Hung Tran 2001
    5/15/11 – Spring in a Small Town – Mu Fei 1948

    Assassins has a good end battle; Yamada gets the small stuff, ordinary life perfect, and Chieko Baisho is a dream; a standard Naruse; the last three are masterpieces.

    The Mu Fei was voted in HK in 2000 or something as the best Chinese film ever, and it is very very good. Naruse-like romantic triangle that also works as a parable for China after the war

    Comment by bob mcmanus | May 16, 2011

  3. That’s funny. I watched Death Race on f/x last night, which I think was based on Death Race 2000. It’s funny to me how they spend more time showing Jason Statham is ripped than showing his navigators are hot. The scene where he’s filmed from behind, doing pull-ups, particularly reminded me of an action movie’s quick love scene.

    We also watched The Day the Earth Stood Still. When I saw the credits was full of people whose name I knew but weren’t really STARS, I thought “uh oh”. My thinking was if a movie has a full lineup of big stars, it’s usually trying to use the lineup to cover deficiencies. Attempting to trick us into thinking all those stars MUST make it good. If a movie has a whole list of people who are kind of but not really stars, it must be a step below the A-list ensemble movie, right? In this case, right.

    I’d like to add that I think this week’s Monday Movies is the series at its best: thoughts on the movie you’re unlikely to see in other reviews. I know it’s certainly not always easy to do, but the effort this week is appreciated.

    Comment by Matt in Toledo | May 16, 2011

  4. Thank you, Matt i.T.

    I saw Death Race 2000 at the American Cinematheque a few years back. David Carradine, still among us, gave an interview, and spent most of it fascinated by looping the cord of the microphone he was using. Quentin Tarantino was in the audience, and watched the movie in a manner that I would later recognize when I saw it described in the New Yorker: “Because he sits so far forward, his head is tipped back and his whole face is opened to the screen, as though he were receiving Communion — mouth slightly open, eyes wide, fist-in-a-sock chin pushing forward, large, pale forehead flickering with the film.”

    The other time I saw Q.T. in public was at a cafe. Friends and I were playing with a video camera and got some sidelong shots of him, scribbling furiously in a notebook. (Maybe he was writing Kill Bill.) We soon realized we were a little too polite to make that worth doing, and left the cafe, where we found an actor’s headshot tucked under Q.T.’s windshield wiper with a note saying, “Quentin — I’d love to work with you some time — Bob.” We took a piece of notebook paper, drew a picture of the devil with a pitchfork and horns, and wrote, “Quentin — love your work — get in touch — Satan.”

    Comment by Josh K-sky | May 16, 2011

  5. “Death Race” with Jason Statham is a masterpiece. I don’t believe I’ve seen the original and certainly haven’t seen the direct-to-DVD prequel. Two girls in my first year class wrote their final paper on “Death Race” and “Gamer” talking about the corporatization of punishment in the US.

    Watched some of “The Hangover” on TV on Saturday or Sunday afternoon (I forget which). Andy from “The Office” is a really, really unfunny man. Anyone see his trainwreck of a performance on “SNL” this weekend? He was in about three skits and had a grand total of eight lines. Fortunately, JT is hosting the next episode. I’ve come the conclusion that “SNL” should be reduced to about five or six episodes per year: JT, James Franco, Zach Gilifianikis, and a couple others. They also need to cut about half the cast and all the “featured players,” but especially Jason Sudeikis and Seth Meyers–and the fat guy.

    The last movie we watched in its entirety was “Live” and that was about a month ago. Mostly because we are David Krumholtz completists. If you’re watching for D-Krum, go for it, otherwise, don’t bother.

    Comment by Craig | May 16, 2011

  6. Oh, and I like the idea of “put[ting] food on the family.” Unrelated: “Game of Thrones” was absolutely fantastic this week. Finally–the bloodshed we’ve all been waiting for.

    Comment by Craig | May 16, 2011

  7. Put food on your family.

    Also on topic: I realize that for a recent Monday Movies review, I did not provide the full title.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | May 16, 2011

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