Sunday, February 18, 2018

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Sam Wood's version of Hemingway's celebrated novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, was released in 1943 as a 170 minute film with intermission.  When I saw the movie many years ago, the picture had been cut to 134 minutes.  Turner Classic Movies has a 168 minute version with the Technicolor restored and, even, an intermission -- a photographed piece of vellum with medieval lettering and an illuminated "I".  At something close to full length, the movie is much better than I recalled, although it is still pretty unsatisfactory.  Curiously, the shorter version seemed duller -- the editing has knocked the rhythm askew and the picture is actually more gripping at its longer length.

Wood was solid, dependable hack director, a guy to whom studios could entrust their most bankable stars without risk that the film maker might harm them in some way.  Gary Cooper as Robert Jordan, the American Spanish teacher (with a specialty in dynamiting things) is wooden to the point of being featureless.  He scarcely smiles throughout the entire film and makes love to the supernaturally beautiful Ingrid Bergman as if it were his solemn and, somewhat, unpleasant duty.  Cooper always seems ancient; he's manifestly too old for Ingrid Bergman who plays a badly traumatized 19 year old victim of rape and torture.  (She has a passionate speech about how her parents were murdered before her eyes and her subsequent gang-rape that is very effective).  But the film's glory is in its secondary roles, particularly the fearsome Katina Paxinos, a Greek actress who plays the female guerilla leader, Pilar.  Paxinou has a lot of Hemingway lines to speak -- a misfortune for any actor because Papa couldn't write plausible dialogue to save his soul.  But she snarls at the camera,and devours the part -- a combination bawdy earth mother and psycho-killer.  The film luxuriates a little too enthusiastically in the deeply sexist Spanish peasant culture -- the women are always expected to selflessly serve the men who brusquely order them about.  But Paxinos Pilar is a force to be reckoned with and she has a great speech about being an ugly woman -- although she is quick to note "I have loved many men."  As with many other aspects of the film, the casting undercuts the characters -- no one could possibly regard the exceptionally handsome and statuesque Paxinos as "ugly."  And she looks great in her raven-black garments firing her carbine at the bad guys.  If anything, Akim Tamiroff is even better as Pablo, a spectacularly gruesome-looking guerilla who has been so brutalized by the war that he is more of an ape than a man.  Pablo's motivations are always unclear -- Pilar condemns him for becoming a coward, but this doesn't describe adequately his curious vacillation, a wavering that is, really, the film's only plot -- Pablo doesn't want to risk his guerilla band in what he regards as a pointless attack on a bridge in the High Sierra.  Throughout the film he subverts Jordan's plot to destroy the bridge and the narrative doesn't really explain his motives -- is he jealous of the suave Hollywood-actor taking over leadership of his gang?  From time to time, the other characters try to urge Pablo into a fight so that they can kill him although he resists the temptation to be provoked -- one of his colleagues brightly announces that they should "blind him" and, then, drag him down into the valley to sell him to the enemy.  Pablo has been a savage fighter and the film shows us a scene that is about as harsh as American film making in the 40's could be -- Pablo's rebels have seized a town and they march the city council out of their chambers, make them run a gauntlet of jeering men with harvests flails, and, then, toss them screaming into a gorge.  This sequence is powerful and effective and Wood does well also with a battle on a mountaintop and, then, the final firefight around the bridge. (I even like the obvious miniature shot of the bridge collapsing and, with it, a German tank plunging into a toy gorge -- it's a pretty little effect.)  The film's politics are inscrutable.  This is because the Spanish Civil War was a jumbled mess with Communists fighting Fascists, anti-clerical Spaniards murdering priests, and foreign intervention -- there were monarchists, loyalists, nationalists, and republicans locked in the fray augmented by various kinds of anarchists, international brigades, and Soviet commissars.  The whole thing has never made any sense to me except as a premonitory orgy of violence, a sort of appetizer before the main entrée that was World War Two.  The film has not political perspective that I can ascertain -- the Catholic Church, an institution that strongly supported Franco, required that all references to "fascism" be excised from the movie.  Therefore, it's not clear what the fighting is all about.  (On a more granular level, the attack on the bridge is coordinated in some way with an offensive and there is an elaborate subplot about someone carrying a message somewhere -- this narration is wholly garbled in the film and I don't have any idea where the attack on the bridge fits into the context of a larger battle or is totally meaningless.)

When I saw the movie years ago, I was appalled by the fact that half of the film is clearly shot in a studio.  At least two-thirds of the stilted Hemingway dialogue is expelled from the lips of the characters in a dimly lit, rather Rembrandt-tinted cave.  This is where the men are forever gruffly ordering Pilar or Bergman's character, Maria, to serve them cheese and wine.  A number of outdoor sequences rely upon fairy-tale-like rear projections of mountains and sinister, precipitous gorges.  Most of Cooper and Bergman's love scenes are set in a luminous rocky bower with starry skies painted behind them, some stylized snow-capped peaks and a big luminous tree, its boughs decked with implausibly pale and sticky snow -- this set is operatic and it just glistens with gem-like highlights and it's a beautiful location for the rather awkward romantic scenes between the two stars. (The obviously middle-aged Gary Cooper would be a more plausible match for Pilar -- as she herself proclaims -- than for the dewy, dreamy-eyed Maria; Paxinos was 42 and Cooper was 41 when the film was shot; Bergman was 27.)   I would have objected to this kind of thing twenty-five years ago -- now, I find the glamorous set rather charming:  the film pauses and puts its lovers in a strangely warm winter wonderland atop high and crystalline mountains.  It's a distancing effect that I think is quite stunning.  Much of the actual outdoors footage in the film seems to have shot in the Sierra Nevada somewhere uphill of lake Tahoe -- there are immense slabs of granite everywhere and the landscape, which is austere and terrifying, plays an important role in the action: the guerillas struggle up boulder-filled ravines full of waterfalls and there are huge fields of house-sized boulders lying under the snow-covered summits.  It's the same landscape that we see in Raul Walsh's High Sierra and similarly effective in this film. 

At the climax of the picture, Jordan who is paralyzed from being shot off his horse, bids Bergman's Maria to flee.  His speech to her would have pleased Gertrude Stein, indeed, at this point Hemingway's dialogue, probably was vetted by Stein:  Cooper says:  "If you go, I go.  We go together.  So you must go so I may go.  For I go with you forever."  The speech is actually much longer than this and, of course, in real life, Maria's response would have to be something like "What?"  But weeping and screaming, she goes and he goes with her and together both go where both must go even though they go apart.  Jordan lies alone in a defile and as the bad guys approach he fires his machine gun right into the camera -- then, the title bell tolls in some space far from the narrative in the film.  Seen at its full length, the movie has a kind of warped splendor.  Furthermore, its salutary, for once, to be reminded of a time when the United States was not an International Bully and when our country stood for something approximating justice.  I'm tired of seeing trailers in the multi-plexes for films about well-nourished American soldiers, backed by the planet's largest and most powerful army, heroically fighting with Afghans, representatives of the weakest and most backward nation on the face of the earth.  (In recent movies, the filmmakers painfully aware of the irony of making movies about a powerful, well-armed and fantastically wealthy nation beating the crap out of a small medieval country whose only export is heroin, have tried to somehow even the odds -- for instance, one recent film shows American "heroes" riding into battle on horses; this is supposed to be some advance guard of special forces approaching something that could possibly, if for only a moment, be construed as a fair fight.  But those dozen troops improbably riding on horseback have behind them tens of thousands of Tomahawk missiles, a flotilla of missile-armed battleships, fifty-thousand helicopters, and limitless squadrons of bomb-laden fighter jets protecting their back.  I assume future features will involve brave cadres of American Special Forces compelled to fight with one arm tied behind their back or, maybe, para-olympic troopers who are all blind and deaf.  Jordan's lonely death in For Whom the Bell Tolls resonates as a gesture of solidarity with the world -- recent pictures about American's fighting in the middle-East are empty exercises in self-congratulation and, ultimately, profoundly isolationist in import as well.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Dumb Girl of Portici

The Dumb Girl of Portici (2016) is the kind of silent film that meets all expectations of people that don't like silent films.  The acting is ludicrously melodramatic -- it makes grand opera look tame and restrained.  The action and plot are unabashedly histrionic, involving massacres, rapes, floggings, and madness.  The mise-en-scene is a weird mixture of shrewd ingenuity and technical blunders.  This is the kind of movie in which male characters are forever unsheathing their daggers and, then, clutching at their hearts while the heroine literally flits from place to place.  Lois Weber directed and the film is constructed on the grandest of all scales -- there are immense castles, a Neapolitan city extending to vast fortified gates, palaces and royal buildings with rotundas like the capitol, a humble village of fisher-folk living on the edge of a tumultuous sea with the high mountains overlooking Malibu in the background.  The set design is opulent -- the royal palace contains mythological frescos and tapestries and there are innumerable extras in armor marching around with halberds, herds of horses, and, in one late scarlet-tinted scene, a midnight bonfire with about 20 heads on pikes posted around it.  Unfortunately, all this sound and fury doesn't amount to much of anything -- it's a little like the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre story from Intolerance but without the interpolation of the other parallel narratives.  References to opera are justified:  the film is, in fact, an adaptation of a long-forgotten opera, Daniel Auber's La Muette de Portici, an 1828 production that, in fact, apparently triggered a revolution when it was performed in Belgium:  the opera is, if anything, more excessive than the film:  the climax of the opera involves revolutionary fighting while Mount Vesuvius erupts. 

Critics in search of a new figure to admire are, sometimes, forced to re-evaluate artists whose contributions to the art have been overlooked or denigrated.  In Hollywood's early days, film making was regarded more as a craft than a discipline like the theater -- early films had to be laboriously developed, hand-tinted, and, then, methodically cut together.  It seems that, on some level, these techniques had more to do with being a seamstress than a theater director and, so, it is interesting to note that the industry was initially heavily populated by bright, aggressive, and hard-working women.  Lois Weber was the foremost of these early female directors who have been largely ignored and forgotten.  (In Kevin Brownlow's magisterial work on the silent cinema, The Parade's Gone by, there are chapters devoted to Griffith and, even, directors like Allan Dwan, but, as I recall, little or nothing about Lois Weber.)  Weber was a foremost director in Hollywood before America's intervention in World War One, fully the peer of Griffith and better,  I think, than someone like Thomas Ince.  Like Griffith, her old-fashioned and hypocritically moralizing style (denouncing vice while luxuriating in it) didn't translate well into the Roaring Twenties and her film company failed.  The Dumb Girl of Portici, probably, represents the apogee of her influence -- it's very different from her later domestic comedies and message-films about birth control and prostitution.  The film's plot involves the so-called "dumb girl", a mute named Fenella.  She is played by the great ballet dancer, Anna Pavlova, and the film's chief interest today, I think, is that it preserves for us the appearance and acting style of that prima donna:  she can't act to save her soul but her bizarre appearance and her peculiarly boneless gestures and deportment are absolutely riveting. The mute girl lives in fisherman's village much oppressed by Spanish nobility living in Naples.  Fenella's brother, Masaniello is revolutionary firebrand.  The tyrant in Naples, called the Viceroy, has two sons:  Alphonso and Conde.  Alphonso falls in love with Fenella and spends the night with her.  When word of this liaison reaches the Viceroy, he sends out Conde to kidnap Fenella -- she has to be eliminated since Alphonso is promised to another, a Spanish noblewoman.  Fenella is thrown into a dank prison cell with horrific-looking stains on the wall and floor and a lot of friendly rats (with whom she makes friends).  After a rather desultory flogging and an attempted rape by a fellow prisoner, Fenella takes advantage of the guard's drunkenness and the general porosity of the prison to escape.  She runs across the landscape and ends up intercepting Alphonso who is on his way in regal procession to church to get married to his royal Spanish fiancée.  Fenella's bedraggled appearance, with her back still showing marks of the lash, disconcerts the wedding party.  Then, the Viceroy makes a big mistake -- here's the intertitle:  The Viceroy foolishly celebrated the Day by taxing fruit, the fare on which the lower classes chiefly lived.  This fruit tax leads to a popular rebellion -- this revolution, staged on a grandiose scale, occupies the last half of the two hour film.  Fenella somehow gets entrapped in the royal palace that is beleaguered by hundreds of peasants with battering rams.  In the end, the rebels sack the place and, apparently, take power.  Fenella's brother, Masaniello, becomes the ruler.  Unfortunately, a bad guy gives him the well-known potion of madness.   In the middle of signing decrees, he goes mad and ends  up killing himself.  Fenella gets stabbed.  In the final scene, we see her ballet-dancing her way up into heaven over a blurry backdrop of clouds coruscating with a molten sunset.  The story is replete with dance sequences.  Alphonso, on a tour of the fisher-folk's shanties, sees Fenella dancing on the shore of the sea and conceives his love for her -- in the opening scene she does a little pas de deux with strands of sea-weed.  In fact, in the first shot in the film, we see a poetic image of tall marshes standing around a pool at sunset -- Fenella is superimposed on this image which gradually fades to black and wearing a white tutu (and en pointe) she treats us to an extravagant dance:  a weird, almost eerie, fantasia on classical ballet.  Pavlova is not, by any stretch of the imagination, attractive -- but she is certainly compelling.  She is skeletal with fierce, glaring eyes that seem too large for her rather narrow face and she has a rabbit-like (or rat-like) overbite -- we can always see her teeth protruding from between her narrow lips.  She is both a bit equine and haggard, ghoulish-looking, with ice-white skin.  Her grimacing and flitting around epitomizes the film's acting style which is insanely melodramatic -- the movie seems,in fact, surreal:  everyone is always clutching at their heart to show resolve or wringing their hands or snarling or leering or grimacing in ecstasy or rage.  An example is one scene in which the Viceroy's two sons swear an oath, eyes rolling and hands clutched together while the other fist beats on the breast and, in lower corner of the image, their mother sneers and shows her teeth like a hyena -- I can't recall what any of this emoting was for, but the sheer surrealistic spectacle of this perpetual over-acting is overwhelming and, even, a little nightmarish.  Then, there is the problem of the identical actors:  for some reason, Weber casts four men who are the same general height and build, puts them in shaggy fright wigs, gives them identical goatees and sideburns and releases them into the world -- there is no way to tell the men apart except by their clothing (and, even, that is not a reliable indicator):  two of the men are Masaniello (who can be identified for part of the move by his short short shorts and bare thighs often smeared with blood during the fighting scenes) and his side-kick who looks exactly like him:  Alphonso and Conde are conceived as identical twins apparently.  The problem is that as the plot proceeds there is simply no way to tell who is doing what -- four of male protagonists all look exactly alike.  Pavlova doesn't look like anyone living, but the other women all seem to be the same exact age -- this is inconvenient since they are mother and daughter:  I could only tell the women apart by their elaborate headdresses.  The muteness of the title character doesn't play any part in the plot at all as far as I can see.  (Compare to Griffith's similar Orphans of the Storm in which of the Gish sisters -- I forget which -- is blind; her blindness is integral to the plot.)  There are some extremely impressive battle scenes, including some with exciting tracking shots, very innovative and brilliantly choreographed for 1916 -- but Weber doesn't understand the 180 degree rule and often cuts to reverse shots that are confusing.  For instance, in the big siege of the palace, we can't tell if we are on the outside trying to ram our way into the building or inside trying to defend against the rebels.  There are sequences that don't fit into the plot at all -- in one of the battle scene, we see a title called :  "The Soldier's Revenge".  Then, there is a shot of a armored officer stealing some gems.  He finds a secret panel in the wall and enters a dark cabinet.  But before he can escape, another armored man fires his pistol right into the camera lens and there is cut to the officer seizing his chest, dropping his booty, and falling over.  But this little anecdotal sequence, maybe forty seconds long, has nothing to do with anything else in the movie.  Some of the titles are idiotic to the point of being surrealistically amusing:  Masaniello sacrificing everything to search for his sister soon got behind with dues on his hut.  The camera work is brilliant -- extremely deep focus and immensely expressive.  There are some chiaroscuro shots of Pavlova that exploit her narrow sinewy body to make her look almost like a nude by Rodin or an emaciated Pieta.  The film's politics are extremely confusing -- everything leads to the righteous explosion of the rebellion against the Spanish.  But once the rebellion occurs anarchy results and the film maker decries the involvement of "thieves and murderers" whom we see literally emerging from caves and cisterns in the revolution.  Weber is an interesting director, but she is leagues behind D. W. Griffith.

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Shanghai Express

The Shanghai Express (1932)is the fourth film of a series of pictures made by Josef von Sternberg with Marlene Dietrich.  It's a curious and inconsequential-seeming movie that doesn't really succeed on any level.  Sternberg was a master of chiaroscuro and hazy sfumato effects -- his actors are haloed with rim-lighting and posed against complex networks of drifting mist and an angular shadow.  In The Shanghai Express, the effect is weirdly disconcerting -- the imagery is too stylized to be regarded as conventionally realistic and, yet, not sufficiently stylized to embody the heady decadent abstraction of some of Sternberg's other pictures.  As a result, the picture feels caught between two worlds:  it's too abstract to be realistic and, yet, too jarringly realistic to maintain successfully a tone of fairy-tale phantasmagoria.  In my view, the picture would have been more successful as a silent film -- the dialogue is stiff, stereotyped, and, even, often racist.  The beautiful silent star, Anna May Wong looks exotically glamorous, but she has a curiously proletarian voice inflected with a nasal twang -- one expects her to speak softly and with a musical accent, but, instead, her voice is loud and completely American (as one would expect, her parents were second-generation southern Californian Chinese).  Wong's brash-sounding American accent is particularly surprising since the film traffics in a number of unusual accents and, in fact, the way people sound to one another is an important plot element in the film.  Sternberg's train is never convincingly "train-like" -- it seems like a series of spacious well-lit rooms linked together; the director makes no effect to simulate the rocking motion of the train churning forward over the rails.  As a result the picture seems oddly static and pictorially inert.  Almost all the action takes place at night and, so, there is no attempt to create any plausible sense of the Chinese cities and landscape through which the train moves.  The picture is only 80 minutes long but it has an odd, stuttering pace -- Sternberg stops the action for the dialogue and, since the dialogue is not particularly good, this doesn't help the film.

A motley group of passengers departs Peking on a train running to Shanghai.  The passengers include a brusque, loud-mouthed American gambler (played by the croaking Eugene Pallette -- one of the best character actors of the thirties), a couple of high-priced courtesans (Dietrich's Shanghai Lily and Miss Hoo Fay played by Wong), a censorious Protestant minister, a comical French officer, a Germany mystic wearing a fez -- he turns out to be an opium smuggler -- and a stiff, hyper-vigilant British military officer, Captain Harvey.  Harvey is played by Clive Booth in a much more buttoned-down manner than his later portrayals of Victor Frankenstein -- in this film, he is a cardboard-figure of an English gentleman.  It turns out that Shanghai Lily (Dietrich) and Harvey were lovers five years before -- she imprudently tested the doctor's love by indulging in "a woman's trick", that is, going with another man to make him jealous.  This ended their love affair, although both have kept the torch of unrequited romance flaring in their hearts.  (This is notwithstanding Dietrich's famous statement:  "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily." -- She is said to be a "coaster", that is, a woman who "lives on the coast of China by her wits.")  China is embroiled in a civil war, a place where "time and life has no value."  A sinister Eurasian, played by Warner Olund, turns out to be a war-lord.  He has the train stopped in the middle of nowhere to interrogate and torture its inhabitants.  Olund, in a role that is pretty obviously a racist fantasy, is the cruel, inscrutable Fu Manchu -- worse, however, because he has "mixed blood."  He brands the German with a red hot iron, rapes Anna May Wong, and, then, threatens to put out Clive Brooks' eyes.  Dietrich offers herself to Olund to save her lover, who remains conspicuously cold to her.  (Of course, Harvey thinks Shanghai Lily is seducing the War Lord out of sheer, sexual depravity.)  Wong revenges herself on the War Lord by stabbing him to death.  This murder seemingly solves everyone's problems and the train proceeds to Shanghai where Dietrich and Clive Brooks' Dr. Harvey express their love for one another and kiss in the train station.  There are lots of puzzling features in the film -- Dietrich wears a fish-net veil with black spots over her face through much of the picture and her eyes flicker back and forth; at times, it looks as if she's about to have a seizure -- she seems to be greedily surveying Dr. Harvey's face and figure, but the effect is like nystagmus:  it's vertigo inducing to watch her eyes so obviously unfocused and flitting about.  And, indeed, there's no real chemistry at all between Dietrich and Brook -- they seem completely mismatched as lovers.  The final sequence with its strange, stuttering rhythm exemplifies the disconnect between the two.  Harvey, standing ramrod straight, looks at Dietrich and mutters:  "How in the name of Confucius can I kiss you here?"  the camera cuts from a two-shot showing the lovers to a crowded, swarming train station.  In a close shot, Dietrich's eyes flutter about in a dizzying way and she says incomprehensibly:  "why there's no one here but you and I."  The film cuts to the crowded train station, a room holding about a hundred closely packed extras.  Then, we see Dietrich begin to kiss Dr. Harvey while she mouths:  "But many lovers come to the railway station to kiss without being observed."  The embrace fades into dissolve showing the big crowds of people in the station.  A couple of shots of the station crowd from different angles are superimposed upon the embracing lovers.  None of these images is particularly persuasive and the climactic clinch is  not dramatic and unconvincing -- particularly because it is simply difficult to see, the two lovers slowly vanishing into a tapestry of figures, a documentary shot that looks like a southern California bus station.    

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Moulin Rouge (1952)

John Huston's bio-pic of Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge, starts rambunctiously and, then, withers into bathos.  Nonetheless, the film is moving and, in fact, one of those rare pictures that makes it's own narrative failure thematic.  The morose gloom that congests the picture and, finally, makes it unrewarding corresponds with the artist's affliction -- a spiritual deformity that exceeds the hero's physical impairment.  Although the picture isn't exactly successful, it contains a number of fine things and is worth seeing, if only for its first half-hour. 

In the beginning of the film, Toulouse-Lautrec is sketching on a table-cloth in the Moulin-Rouge and we are captivated to see performances from the great artists and dancers in that cabaret.  Two women dance with feral abandon with a suave black man and a Flaneur with a long pointed chin.  After the dance, the women fight, apparently, taking seriously the jocular scenario of the choreography.  Then, a beautiful courtesan appears and sings a song a heart-breaking beauty -- this is the very young Zsa-Zsa Gabor performing the theme from Moulin Rouge, a gorgeous lament by the great George Auric.  Lautrec is like the resident genius of the huge saloon and each artist comes to salute him at his table.  Finally, a group of can-can dancers appears and cavorts to Offenbach -- this is one of the best, and most thrilling, dance numbers in cinema, intercut with shots of fat, drunk audience members who are hysterical with pleasure.  The can-can girls' high-kicking and splits ends the show and everyone goes home and, only after this spectacle, is it revealed that Lautrec (played by Jose Ferrer) is deformed, a full torso and large, even leonine, head mounted on short stocky legs that are only knee-high.  Lautrec is lonely and, as he walks home, he encounters a blonde prostitute pursued by the local gendarme -- the prostitute spends the night at his house and becomes his girlfriend.  However, she is badly damaged and returns to her pimp.  Lautrec is heart-broken and, after the final break with the girl, goes to his apartment, turns on the gas and plans to die -- but, then, he is rescued by his genius:  he sees a way to improve a poster for the Moulin Rouge on which he has been stalled, uses his brush to inflect the painting with these new ideas, and is sufficiently inspired to shut off the gas and live.  He becomes famous and several years pass.  One morning, after a long night of partying -- the artist has become a drunk -- he sees a mysterious and beautiful woman on a bridge over the Seine.  She is throwing something into the river.  Lautrec thinks she might be suicidal but learns that she is, instead, very independent and self-reliant.  The woman has just broken up with a handsome aristocrat who has asked her to marry him.  Lautrec meets her later and she becomes his constant companion.  It is evident that she has fallen in love with him, but he continues to coldly rebuff her -- he has become an icy cynic about matters of the heart.  Ultimately, the woman opts to marry the handsome aristocrat, sending Lautrec a letter confessing her love for him.  Lautrec drinks himself to death.  Finally, he falls down a flight of steps in a scene that echoes an earlier flashback that shows how he originally broke his legs and became deformed -- he fell down the marble steps at his family's country estate:  his parents are wealthy nobles.  As he lies dying, his father announces that one of his pictures has been accepted at the Louvre.  Lautrec imagines the good old days at Moulin Rouge and there is a reprise of the exciting dancing and singing in the cabaret, this time performed by phantoms.  Then, he dies.  The final scene of the movie packs a powerful punch and I would guess that projected on the full screen in 1952, many audience members had to blink away tears while watching -- the film's ending also works emotionally because it is just this madcap infusion of energy and joy that characterized the film's bravura opening sequence that the movie has been painfully missing for the last eighty minutes or so.  Beginning with the excruciating scenes with the prostitute, the film takes on a gloomy note and simply and stoically chronicles Lautrec's deterioration.  The hero's self-destructive self-loathing is powerfully expressed but it is ultimately not a dramatic stance, a psychic situation that resists dramatization -- rather, Lautrec does everything possible to undercut himself, including ignoring the obvious affection of his beautiful and self-possessed companion during the movie's last hour -- he calls himself her "ape" and says that "beautiful women were often known to go out in public with an ape so to render their beauty all the more admirable in comparison with the creature attending upon them."  During the last half of the film, Ferrer speaks in brittle epigrams and bobs his head around to show that he is drunk and, in fact, makes his character so unpleasant that you long for his demise.  The part is well-written but extremely superficial -- I understood the conceit, that is the concept, underlying the role, but it doesn't really register emotionally.  The set decoration and gowns and lighting are all fabulous.  The Moulin Rouge is a smoky phantasmagoria with a full orchestra hanging overhead on a balcony and the fauvist color schemes are extraordinary -- the expressionistic use of color, particularly acid greens and livid yellow, here intended to invoke Lautrec's palette reminds me of scenes in Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind.  When Lautrec swills absinthe, the images are half-dissolved in an eerie green light.  The chamber in which Lautrec's lady-friend declares her love for him is absolutely vaginal with pink folded curtains, mirrors oddly placed to reflect labial drapery, soft, yielding cushions and pillows everywhere.  Despite the lavish color scheme, Huston's direction is unassuming and not overly emphatic -- if he were to pile on directorial excess (as Baz Luhrman did in his remake) it would be excess upon what is already excess and, so, of course, a surfeit.  Huston lets the choreography play out in long takes.  He uses very few close-ups.  But those that employs are powerful -- one of the most indelible shows one of the great dancers from the Moulin Rouge reduced to penury, drunk and ranting on the street:  the shot shows the woman's misery but, also, captures the spirit that once made her wonderful.  There is a lot that is questionable in the film -- for instance, I doubt that Lautrec's posters "destroyed" the Moulin Rouge by making it "overly popular".  But this is a picture worth seeing -- in only for the flamboyant and exuberant first half hour. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Wave (Bolgen)

The Wave is a Norwegian disaster movie directed by Roar Uthaug.  Made in 2015, the movie concerns a danger that is, apparently, ubiquitous among the fjords in Norway -- this is the risk of rock falls and landslides into sea water creating massive tsunami waves in the narrow gorges of the fjords.  According to the film, Norwegian geologists monitor over 300 sites where the edges of mountains are unstable and pose the risk of dropping hundred of tons of rock into the fjords. 

The plot of The Wave is exceptionally schematic, direct, and unembellished.  A Norwegian geologist leads a crew of a  half-dozen scientists monitoring a huge cleft mountain at the head the Geiringer fjord.  A dozen miles down the fjord from the unstable cliff face, the tourist town of Geiringer is located.  There is a car ferry at the town that take the people living in that place to highways that ultimately reach Stavanger.  With bare efficiency, the film establishes that the geologist, Kristian, has reason to suspect that the mountain side is about to detach and plunge a thousand feet into the fjord.  Kristian has accepted a job in the oil industry and he plans to leave town the next morning to take a better paid position in private industry in Stavanger.  Kristian's wife, Idun, is hyper-competent -- we first see her fixing a sink in a spray of water -- the couple have two children, a teenage boy, Sondre, and a four-year old girl named Julia.  On the morning that he is supposed to leave town, Kristian has an epiphany that convinces him that the mountain side is about to collapse -- groundwater monitored by the elaborate array of sensors on the mountain has suddenly vanished, there are seismic rumblings, and birds seem to be migrating en masse away from the head of the fjord.  (What's about to happen seems obvious -- but we have the benefit of the film's title.)  Kristian goes by helicopter to the crevasse in the cleft mountain, descends into it, and looks for evidence of the impending collapse.  The crevasse is a scary place and seems unstable.  Kristian returns to Geiringer and his enraged wife -- he was supposed to have driven to Stavanger on that day with the children.  The kids check into the picturesque tourist hotel that Indrun manages and Kristian, who is sentimental about the house they have just vacated, goes back up the valley to spend one last night in their rental home with his small daughter Julia.  Everything is now in place for the catastrophe that the film has been setting up for the first half of its 90 minute length.

The mountain falls into the fjord.  An 80 meter wave blasts out of the fjord where it is hit by the landslide.  The town of Geiringer has ten minutes to evacuate before the towering and monstrous wave reaches it.  Uthaug establishes suspense along two axes -- the people fleeing the town up narrow vehicle-packed roads have ten minutes to get to a height of 80 meters above the fjord.  Thus Uthaug can use both time and space as elements fraught with peril.  Kristian, separated from his wife who  is at the hotel, makes the anguished decision to flee up the mountain with Julia -- he has to get 80 meters above the fjord however to be safe and the traffic jam on the road stalls him.  When he tries to run up the hill in the dark with Julia, a car that is left in-gear rolls back and pins a woman to a guardrail.  Kristian hands his daughter to a neighbor and struggles to save the trapped woman.  He gets her loose but, then, the mountainous wave strikes him -- he's only at 58 meters above sea-level.  Back in the town, Udrun can't find her teenage son -- he's skateboarding in the basement hallways of the hotel.  She puts all the guests on a bus but with two other people stays at the hotel looking for her son.

The film is intensely frightening and its first hour is a model for how to build suspense.  The director uses Steadi-cam in the hallways of the hotel, creating dread that comes from our memory of this device being applied to the Outlook Hotel in Kubrick's  very scary The Shining.  The soundtrack is ominous and the scenes in the crevasse as the side of the mountain slowly slips loose and, then, plunges violently into the fjord a thousand feet below are spectacularly eerie and terrifying.  The problem with this kind of film is that if the director is honest, the outcome of the catastrophe will be too terrible to bear.  Some things are simply too grim to be fodder for a commercial film.  Uthaug is generally true to his concept and I found the last part of the film depressingly suspenseful -- that is, suspenseful but not entertaining.  Of course, almost everyone is killed and there are corpses all over.  Sondre and Idrun are trapped in a small underground bomb-shelter in the hotel -- the shelter fills with water and they can't escape.  At this point the film exploits both our fear of drowning and our fear of being buried alive -- it's a double-whammy and this was just about more than I could bear.  Indeed, one scene in which a panicked man starts dragging Sondre and Idrun under the icy black water in a tiny closed space, only about the size of a desk drawer was simply too unpleasant for me to watch.  The film operates on two scales -- there is the sublime, majestic, and horrifying spectacle of the wave roaring down the narrow, towering fjord followed by the claustrophobic, premature burial in a coffin flooded with cold water climax in the hotel.  This climax is intercut with shots of Kristian coming to the rescue -- a sequence that includes his discovery of the corpse-filled and drowned bus.  Some aspects of the film's last 20 minutes seem highly problematic from a realistic point of view -- the characters are immersed in fjord water for a long time (in real life, I would expect them to die of hypothermia within five minutes but these are Norwegians and, perhaps, they are particularly tough).  The ruins are strewn with hundreds of picturesque little fires -- this provides light but I have no idea what fuel is causing these fires to burn.  They seem placed merely to provide atmospheric smoke and light.  (The movie was shot on location in a spectacular Norwegian fjord and, then, the studio imagery -- most of the last twenty minutes -- is filmed on what must be a very large sound-stage in Romania).  The movie is worthwhile if you like this kind of stuff, but I thought that post-wave climax was too dire to be entertaining.  And a film like this has no place to go -- it just ends with horror and a title that some other crevasse in Norway is about to expand to kick a mountain into the water.  (In Wim Wenders film, a characters says "the Yanks have occupied our subconscious."  This seems true when it comes to curse words in Norway.  When the huge wave approaches, the hero cries out:  "Oh fuck me!  Jesus!" When you hit your  hand with a hammer in Norway, you shout:  "Shit!"  At one point, the subtitle tells us that Kristian is saying "I screwed up" but the character actually tells his wife:  "I fucked up.")

Friday, February 9, 2018

High-rise

High-rise (2017) is a garish, train-wreck of a movie that may well acquire cult status some day.  After all, what other movie affords you the spectacle of a gorgeous movie star riding a white horse into an orgy where extras are busily copulating all around the edges of the frame.  The woman has white skin and red hair and looks like someone painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and, forthwith, she plunges to the ground, sticks her haunches up in the air, and cries out:  "Now who's gonna line up to fuck me in the arse!"  This is only one of any number of over-the-top moments in Ben Wheatley's version of J. G. Ballard's 1975 novel, but it's characteristic.  I can't exactly recommend High-Rise -- it's a confused and confusing mess of a movie but hot, steaming chaos on screen is not something from which you'll readily look away. 

The first third of the movie is relatively clear:  a physiologist named Dr. R. Laing (an obvious reference to the radical psychiatrist R. D. Laing) moves into a high-rise in the Docklands in East London.  The high-rise has a grocery store, a fitness center, even, a brothel supposedly.  It is also class-stratified -- the lower levels are for the proletariat while the upper stories harbor the well-to-do who are variously sexually perverse, cruel and foppish.  In the penthouse, the Architect, Mr. Royal, resides with his red-haired and beautiful wife, a number of dogs, and his wife's white horse.  Mr.  Royal has a spacious rooftop garden with fountains like Versailles.  (Royal is played by Jeremy Irons -- if there is any difference between the gaunt and earnest Jeremy Irons and the equally gaunt and earnest Daniel Day-Lewis, I must confess that I am unable to detect it.)   Laing is played by Tim Hiddleston and the movie keeps him semi-naked for as long as possible -- Laing is always taking showers or sunbathing in the nude and, of course, he is intensely fancied by all the women on the premises, several of whom he indulges in extra-marital romps.  There is an intimation that Royal has been exercising droit du seigneur -- at least, one child in the high-rise is said to be his son and another woman, Mrs. Wilder, is pregnant, apparently with another of the Architect's bastards. (Someone remarks that the Zeus-like Architect is "colonizing the high-rise.")  Mr. Wilder is a documentary film maker who lives on the 2nd floor and, therefore, enjoys low status.  But he's a natural rebel, a violent thug, and begins to stir up the folks on the lower levels to an uprising against those higher in the building.  This is all relatively clear and effectively presented notwithstanding some baffling sequences -- in one scene Laing dissects a human head by cutting through the scalp and pulling off the face like a mask.  This is all accomplished in gruesome close-up with amplified sound of hammers and bone saws and it causes one of the students attending the seminar to faint.  (This is wholly irrelevant as far as I can see, although it provides some garish images for Laing's delirium). Laing is mid-level -- this means he has access to women at various elevations in the tower.  In one scene, he gets invited to a top-level party -- everyone is dressed in 18th century white powdered wigs and waistcoats and tightly corseted gowns with bustles.  Apparently, no one clued-in Laing that he was supposed to come dressed like Alexander Pope and so the hoity-toity aristocrats are mean to him and, in fact, throw him into an elevator as a kind of prison and stall it mid-floor.  It's at this point that the scrupulously designed allegory starts to go off-track.  Laing is tossed into the elevator to punish him but we aren't shown how long he has to stay in the elevator or how he gets out.  (In fact, one of the characters seems as puzzled as the audience and asks "So how did you get out of the elevator? -- I don't recall an answer.)  British art is prone of allegory -- the tendency goes back to Langland's Piers Plowman, extends through Spenser's Faerie Queen and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.  Of course, in the modern era, two noteworthy allegories both made into movies have come out of the U. K. -- Goldings The Lord of the Flies and Orwell's Animal Farm.  Everything in High-Rise points in the direction of Orwell's Animal Farm -- the lower levels of the building will revolt against the foppish aristocrats on the heights and will, in fact, have the Promethean audacity to challenge Mr Royal, the Architect with a capital "A" and the King of the realm.  The film is laden with references to the French revolution and the viewer begins to interpret the unruly, malevolent, and violent Wilder as a sort of Danton.  Indeed, at the midpoint of the movie, Wilder who learns that his children have been excluded from the pool located in the mid-section of the building leads an orgiastic procession of toddlers and children to the pool to disrupt a genteel cocktail party that the rich folks are having pool-side.  All of this is quite gripping.  But, then, the movie literally falls apart -- in the course of a four or five minute montage, all hell breaks loose:  the power breaks down, the high-rise is lit by candles, and everyone starts sponsoring elaborate cocaine and booze-fueled orgies.  Here is what I think happened:  at the mid-point of the picture, Wheatley suddenly realized that he was re-creating Orwell's Animal Farm.  But Animal Farm is essentially conservative -- it is anti-revolutionary, anti-Marxist, and, certainly, anti-communist.  By contrast, Wheatley is a good left-leaning anti-Thatcher liberal and he reacts with panic when he sees that he is about to replicate Animal Farm.  So, instead, he turns the film into the equally anti-revolutionary but Hobbesian Lord of the Flies.  Without proper authority, the high-rise goes mad and collapses into total violent anarchy.  The film ends with Mr. Royal murdered and, then, lovingly laid to rest in the murky, blood-filled waters of the 30th floor swimming pool -- by this time, the pool is full of bottles and its water is a horrific green-brown.  There are all sorts of beatings and rapes in the last half of the picture and any real sense of narrative is abandoned.  The Architect's child is born after a lengthy and painful labor and, at the end of the movie, we see the Architect's other son, Toby, seated atop a high throne-like contraption suggesting that he will be the new lord of the structure.   As the allegory collapses, Wheatley suggests alternative meanings -- the High-rise is the body-politic, the cosmos itself, or, in fact, a massive macro-cosmic body.  At one point, the hero, Laing, suggests that the high-rise is an "unconscious diagram of some kind of psychic event."  The lay-out of the five high-rises comprising the Brutalist project of the Architect is said to resemble an open-hand with fingers stretched upward.  The Architect acknowledges that he has built the high-rise on uncertain ground -- "it is still settling" and this results in the several power outages.  Soon enough, the narrative completely collapses under the weight of alternative meanings, most of them simply evasions of Animal Farm and its implications.  But the descent of the High-Rise into chaos, something that occurs during the five minute central montage, is spectacular -- the building's parking lot ends up strewn with debris, burning torches, smashed cars and corpses.  The interiors, which become increasingly smashed to pieces, also have a sinister force -- it's dark with bonfire burning, the orange light reflected in mirrored surfaces.  At  one point, Wilder eats canned dog food while his battered wife looks out from the concrete balcony toward apocalyptic skies over London.  Later, Laing cooks and eats one of the Architect's dogs while there are corpses picturesquely strewn all around his suite.  The editing, imagery, and composition of the film reflect the woozy, but precisionist prose that Ballard affects -- there is a pop art glisten to everything, trick perspectives and weird morbid allusions -- the Architect has a big mural painting, one of Goya's witches Sabbaths on his wall.  And, curiously, the film is set in 1975 -- there are transistor radios, posters of Che Guevara,  boxy TVs, and everyone has long stringy hair, side-burns and dresses like the boys on Monty Python.  At one point, we hear a morbid-sounding Portishead version of Abba's "S.O.S".  It's not a good movie and, certainly, doesn't hang together, but, in some ways, the picture is reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's Brazil -- when that film came out it was regarded as half-crazed and profoundly flawed.  But it became a midnight cult hit and, later, was accorded the dignity of a Criterion re-issue in DVD.                        

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Babylon Berlin

Berlin is a wet city.  When I was there recently, construction was ubiquitous and, therefore, elaborate pumping and drainage systems were also everywhere on display.  Lethargic, slow-moving rivers criss-cross the urban landscape and there are many lagoons and canals carved into the muck to drain water away from buildings.  The city sits on a flat plain dotted with big, shallow lakes and the water table is about 12 feet below grade -- in some ways the City's physiognomy is a little like Minneapolis with all the lakes exiled to the suburbs.  The new crime series on Netflix, Babylon Berlin (2018) is similarly wet -- the skies seem to be perpetually drizzly, waterlogged corpses float in the Spree near the sooty dome of the Berlin cathedral, a man who is shot in the garret of a building falls into the air-well, a dismal murky Hinterhof and lands in deep water accumulated as if in a cistern.  The name of the novel from which the series derives in Der nasse Fisch, that is, "the moist fish."  The gloom enveloping the show is not merely picturesque -- it applies to just about every aspect of this lavish production (the renowned German film director Tom Twyker is one of three credited with helming this project):  the plot is lurid but, more or less, incomprehensible and the  characters are shadowy, all of them compromised or damaged in one way or another.  The show is ravishing to behold, but not easy to understand -- it's a bit like The Big Sleep:  after a while you lose track of who is killing whom and why.  So far as I can ascertain, after watching five hours of the immensely ambitious 16 hour show, the show involves a number of plot strands wound around a detective named Gereon Rath.  Rath is a badly damaged World War One veteran -- a so-called Zitterer ("trembler"); when his PTSD is triggered, he falls to the floor helplessly twitching and has to be administered some sort of palliative narcotic.  (He acquires the narcotic by trading pornographic pictures, acquired through his work as a vice cop, for vials of drug supplied to him by a porcine pharmacist.  The pharmacist is not the only character in the film that looks like a pig -- in general, the older men all look distinctly "boarish"; there's a strong element of George Grosz and Otto Dix in the film's visual design:  it's not really expressionist, but rather exemplifies the grotesque caricatured realism of the Weimar Neue Sachlichkeit movement -- this is appropriate because the film is set in 1928 or 1929 at the height of Neue Sachlichkeit.)  For reasons that are not clear to me yet, Gereon Rath has come from Cologne and he provides us with our mode of access to the corrupt world of the Berlin police.  Rath is assigned a fat and swinish "minder" and they work together as vice cops.  Rath is trying to find the source of an image, apparently used to blackmail a political candidate in Cologne -- the grainy picture shows another dumpy older man being ministered to by two fat whores who seem to be threatening to castrate him.  A death squad of Stalinist agents is slaughtering Trotskyite communists who operate a printing press called "The Red fortress"  -- a number of them are machine-gunned in a raid on their print shop, although their leader escapes by hiding in the sewage neck-deep in the privy in the alley.  (This is realistically staged with suitably nauseating effects).  The Communists seem to be fighting over a shipment of Russian gold that is sitting in the train shed at one of the town's Bahnhofs.  This all occurs against a violent backdrop of streetfighting between city authorities and mobs of Communists -- in one sequence, 200 Communists are, apparently, gunned down by armored cars while the two hapless cops are caught in the cross-fire.  (Two women bystanders are shot down on a balcony and this becomes a cause celebre. stirring up more fighting in the streets.)  The police trot out a wounded cop to show that the Communists are inciting violence against the police -- but we have seen that the cop was shot by his three-year-old who got a hold of his service revolver.  The plucky heroine, Lotte, works as a transcriptionist and clerk at the red brick factory where the cops are officed -- her job is review pictures of crime-scenes and create a key-word index of these brutal images.  Lotte, who is gaunt but pretty, moonlights as a prostitute at a club called the Hollaender.  Everyone in the show looks filthy and most of the characters seem to be starving.  The working class are crowded into mephitic tenements, about eight to a room.  Lotte, who might have a kind heart, is trying to help a girl Greta that she knows is starving -- there is a lot of Kaethe Kollwitz imagery of haggard women and children.   Lotte tries to get Greta to work as a prostitute but she's still recovering from a C-section that seems to have been botched and may be infected.  Periodically, the show erupts into big song-and-dance numbers after the manner of a Baz Luhrman musical -- the tunes are anachronistic, woozy Kraut trance music and rap, but the people dance an authentically nasty-looking and athletic Charleston.  This show is very lurid:  but the images are well-designed and authentically disturbing.  After a sexual encounter, the camera shows Lotte fully dressed, buttoning up her blouse -- the corrupt and fat cop she has been servicing lolls on an ottoman, totally naked like some kind of obscene Odalisque. A woman dressed in a man's tuxedo with a narrow moustache penciled over her upper lip, staggers down the streets of Berlin carrying a hand gun.  A corpse that is grey blob in grey waters drifts in a filthy river while Marlene Dietrich intones a song about "Berlin laughs and Berlin cries" -- an old cabaret piece.  In one sequence, we see a clip from Ulmer and Siodmak's movie Menschen am Sontag (partly written by Billy Wilder) and, in another shot we see Josef von Sternberg editing The Blue Angel.  Abstractions that flicker over the closing sequence of each program are from Walter Ruttman's experimental Opus II.  There is a breathtaking reconstruction of the pre-war Alexanderplatz -- costing over 41 million Euros this is the most expensive production in German film history.  It's sordid, ugly, and always interesting and the main characters, notwithstanding their flaws are oddly endearing.  I recommend the show.