Friday, June 23, 2017

Winter Kills

In fifteen or 20 years, even people who are pretty well informed won't understand William Richert's 1979 Winter Kills.  The allusions are fading even now.  Winter Kills is a bitter satire that takes as its theme the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  (In the film, the Kennedy family is named "Keegan" and the president, Tim, was shot in Philadelphia in 1960, that is 19 years before the events shown in the movie.)  For viewers without the requisite knowledge, Winter Kills will seem like some kind of paranoid fantasy because, of course, the truth about the Kennedy family often beggars the imagination -- the real facts are more salacious and bizarre than anything a screenwriter could imagine.  But the film, although compulsively entertaining, doesn't really stand on its own -- without the scandalous references, the whole thing loses its bite.

Jeff Bridges, a beautiful boy in this film, is the male scion of the Keegan family, downwardly mobile and working on one of his father's merchant ships.  A horribly injured oil rig worker is helicoptered onto the vessel and, as he dies, confesses that he was the second shooter involved in the conspiracy to kill the President 19 years earlier.  The dying assassin offers proof:  his rifle is still hidden in a building in Philadelphia.  The sailor travels to Philadelphia, finds the gun, and, then, people around him start dying -- by sniper-fire, in mysterious crashes, by poison and explosion.  In each case, the young man is spared.  Reporting periodically to his father, the family's patriarch played with nightmarish authority by John Huston, the young man penetrates deeper and deeper into a network of sleazy gangsters, tavern owners, Cuban dissidents, and movie studio executives.  At each level, he finds trapdoors leading to lower, and more corrupt, motives for the killing -- although ultimately most of what he discovers is a distraction away from the real villain.  The viewer, of course, schooled in this sort of plot by films like Orson Welles Mr. Arkadin realizes, almost immediately, that the puppet-master controlling this underworld of conspirators is, of course, the old man, the father of the dead president and the hero -- the surrealistically rich patriarch of the family is, in effect, using his son to cover the trail that leads to him as the person who engineered the killing.  But there is a final twist that complicates this aspect of the plot and establishes the film's truly paranoid bona fides.  (The movie's surprise ending shows an affinity with the equally paranoid and, even more bizarre, film starring James Coburn, The President's Analyst, a curiosity so strange that it shouldn't even exist.) 

Winter Kills is based on an once well-known novel by Richard Condon and is briskly directed and paced.  The movie is prescient on many levels -- there are discussions of the use of hormones to raise chickens ("these chickens are all high on speed") and the old man owns "26 hospitals" -- "the real money is in health care."  In the TV series Silicon Valley, the arrogance of a villain, Gavin Belson, is shown by the fact that the man has a "blood boy", someone who transfuses his youthful and vibrant blood into the veins of the middle-aged tycoon -- this seemed novel and horrifying to me when I saw this a couple weeks ago.  In Winter Kills, the Keegan patriarch has all of his blood replaced by blood from younger people once every six months -- we see him lounging in a huge bed in a hospital room tricked-out like a chamber in a baronial manor, beautiful half-dressed nurses feeding him sugar pastries.  (SPOILER ALERT:  the trick ending is about to be revealed.)  The ultimate boss to whom old man Keegan is beholding is someone named Cerruti, an information systems bureaucrat played by a gaunt, and half-crazed-looking Anthony Perkins.  Cerruti lives like in a "rathole in the Bronx", but he manages a vast, planet-wide surveillance system that has collected data on everyone on earth -- in effect, Cerruti is the chairman of the Board and CEO of Google, manipulating data from a vast, hidden fortress full of electronic files, weather maps, and blinking computers.  Everyone turns out to be complicit in the conspiracy -- Hollywood wanted the President killed because his negligence resulted in the death of a starlet (Marilyn Monroe?) whose screen presence was worth "50 million a year."  The mob wanted Keegan killed for welshing on debts; the Cubans were mad about Cuba and the FBI and CIA seem to have looked the other way when Joe Diamond (Jack Ruby) and his associates were bribed to install shooters along the path of the presidential motorcade.  Even old man Keegan, who seems all-powerful, is a thrall to the information empire managed by Cerruti -- in the end, he falls out of his downtown Penthouse, dangling from a vast American flag spread across the side of Trump Tower.  Before he falls, he tells Jeff Bridges to remove all his money from "the Western World" and invest it in "Brazil." 

A film of this kind, featuring a quest through an increasingly febrile underworld, relies heavily on its supporting cast -- the show needs lots of colorful monsters.  And Winter Kills doesn't disappoint in this regard -- Richard Boone, who is always wonderful, is one of the monsters; Sterling Hayden plays a crazed military contractor; Eli Wallach impersonates Jack Ruby; Anthony Perkins rants and raves as the insane Cerruti.  Elizabeth Taylor, uncredited, appears in a couple scenes and there are scads of beautiful women, most of them concubines to the evil patriarch, flamboyantly played by John Huston -- at one point, he prances around naked except for tight red underpants.  Vilmos Zsigmond shot the film -- as was customary at the time, Zsigmond is given a couple of arias to demonstrate his chops:  these scenes are gratuitous but they show what the cameraman can do:  one sequence in particular looks like a Western -- Bridges rides a horse through a desert where there is a big lake to reflect his mirror image on the ridges high above the water.  The tone is wildly inconsistent and the film veers between cartoonish scenes of violence and static tirades by the villains.  Like many films of its era, the movie seems sometimes over-lit and most of the acting is merely serviceable -- it's highly melodramatic and overly emphatic.  The film's cynicism is overwhelming -- the young hero has a beautiful girlfriend who seems to be a call-girl living in a uptown mansion like the Dakota.  When she vanishes, someone tells him:  "She's now entertaining the freshman medical class at Columbia University" and we see her corpse in the next scene on a dissecting table, a sample of the film's acerbic tone.  Winter Kills is a very entertaining picture, a cult film but I fear that the members of its cult, conspiracy theorists on the JFK assassination, are dying off and will one day be as extinct as veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic.  Can you be a "cult film" if your cult no longer exists?

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Fargo (Third Season)

I have previously reviewed a stand-alone episode in this 2017 television crime drama.  The series, produced by the Coen brothers and, in its third season, is now complete and so I can provide an assessment of the program as a whole.  I continue to highly admire this show and, indeed, believe that it achieves something very rare in this genre -- from beginning to end, Fargo (3) was competently plotted, effectively paced, and managed to fill the time allotted without unnecessary repetition or pointless digressions; in other words, the narrative arc was clear and, even, elegant.  Furthermore, the events in the show were not so hyperbolic, until, perhaps, the last episode, as to strain credulity -- a viewer could imagine that most of the things shown in the show could, in fact, happen.  This is important because of Fargo's signature opening, a title protesting that the story is true and that the events depicted occurred in Minnesota in 2011 -- the notion being that Minnesota is such an outlandish place such things might, indeed, have happened but escaped the knowledge of the general public in the rest of country.  For this convention to have any traction at all, the show must tell a story that is reasonably plausible and, in fact, the third series (unlike the seriously flawed second season) accomplishes this feat. 

The best way to understand the success of Fargo's third season is to grasp the pitfalls, or failings, that it avoids.  First, a TV show committed to a long narrative requires a plot designed to fill ten or 13 episodes -- most crime shows of this sort (the best example is True Detective) start with a lurid teaser and, in fact, establish interesting characters in the first two or three episodes.  Then, the show typically devolves in one of several possible ways -- the narration can get bogged down in inconsequential subplots for six or so episodes before returning to main plot:  this was the failure in Westworld, a show that kept spinning-out subplots while dawdling with respect to its principal narrative.  (Both seasons of True Detective shared this vice.)  Another mistake is to simply reprise the same action over and over again -- in the second season of Fargo, the director staged about three massive gun battles with dozens of casualties.  The first two gun battles, with the firepower of the Somme, didn't really advance the plot and were merely place-holders.  Although these action scenes were brilliantly staged, they seemed gratuitous and unnecessary -- the only gun battle that really mattered was the big shootout in the end of the show that exterminated most, if not all, of the surviving characters.  Along the way, series two featured great minor roles, impressively menacing villains and a fine performance by Kirsten Dunst -- but the plot, involving a gang war between a North Dakota crime family and pretty much all of the rest of the world, deteriorated into implausible and pointless violence.  Indeed, my major criticism of the second series was that it was too ridiculously violent to be even remotely believable.  It's as if the show's writer and producer, Noah Hawley, read my commentary and acted on it.  In the third season, the violence is extremely muted -- and, almost entirely, takes place off-screen.  There are a couple of horrific exceptions but they stand out as hyper-realistic and terrifying since the show is not mired in pointless machine-gun battles.  By suppressing the representation of violence, the show makes the bloodshed shown much more effective and frightening and, further, promotes the sense that the things that we are seeing might, indeed, have happened.

Characteristic of Fargo is the strong contrast drawn between the three types of people that inhabit the world of the Coen brothers -- there are nebbish losers angling for one big score, crooked businessmen whose greed drives them to crime, and virtuous representatives of law and order, unassuming local cops forced to clean up the mess left by the avaricious losers and their more savage counterparts from the world of business.  In this case, the plot proceeds by three interrelated strands -- twin brothers, Emmet Stussy, a successful parking lot magnate and the other a failure, Ray Stussy, a loser working as a probation officer, are locked in deadly conflict:  the symbol of their feud, and the show's MacGuffin, is a 2 cent postage stamp showing Sisyphus pushing his boulder uphill.  (In the last episode, this stamp adheres to the forehead of the parking lot mogul, Emmet Stussy, like the Mark of Cain -- he has inadvertently killed his brother Ray -- and, when he detects the stamp on his skin, he simply peels it off and throws it aside.)  The probation officer, Ray Stussy, is sleeping with an attractive female ex-convict (beautifully played Mary Ellen Winsted); she and Ray are planning to enter a Bridge tournament and hope to make a killing on prize money -- their ideas of what constitute wealth are as limited as their other horizons.  Finally, a sinister Englishman, played with monstrous aplomb by David Thewelis, has come to collect on the debt owed his company by the parking lot enterprise -- his plan is to secure millions and millions of dollars of loans in the name of the parking lot tycoon's business, steal the money, and, then, force Emmet Stussy's firm into bankruptcy.  This bad guy, who embodies pure and nauseating evil, comes with a pack of multi-ethnic henchmen and manages his operations from a command center in a semi-trailer rig.  In the course of the show, these plots coalesce.  In large part, our interpretation of the action is shaped by the opinions of the lady deputy sheriff, the incandescent Carrie Coons, who is also equipped with a comic sidekick, another female cop who is assiduously attempting to have a child.  (They are an odd couple -- a bit like Joe Lewis and Fred Gwynne in Car 54 Where are you?)  These two women are the symbolic figures for pure, and disinterested good -- they represent the forces that hold society together, that is, empathy, lawfulness, integrity.  But the cynical plot shows them always arriving at the crime scene about a half-hour too late -- the agents of the law are no match for the ingenious and terrifying evil of the bad guys and they can't intervene successfully to stop the criminals from implementing their wickedness.   The Coen brothers have always represented evil as self-limiting -- that is, bad people become entangled in their web of evil and end up destroying themselves or being destroyed by others who are equally evil and, therefore, equally self-destructive.  In essence, the theme of the show is that evil can't prevail because bad impulses are intrinsically self-destructive -- as we learned many years ago, murderers always fail because the act of killing makes them "blood simple" -- that is, stupid.  A similar mechanism for retribution is shown in this show.  This metaphysics makes the police witnesses but not agents -- they can't alter the course of events.  In fact, the virtuous deputy Sheriff, Office Burgle (Coons) wonders whether she even exists -- automatic doors don't open for her and rest-room towel dispensers don't issue paper towels to her.  She has read a story written by her stepfather about a hapless robot who wanders through many star systems naively chirping "I can help" but who has no capacity at all to assist any one in any meaningful way -- "am I that robot", she asks?  The implicitly self-destructive characteristic of evil is dramatized by an object:  a little box that does one thing -- a hand emerges from the box, switches it off, thus causing the hand to retract into its casket.   At the very end of the series, the evil Englishman has reappeared in America after an absence of five years.  The former Meeker County sheriff's deputy, Officer Burgle is now an agent with Homeland Security.  She confronts the evil multi-national criminal in an allegorical underground vault.  He tells her that she is powerless to stop him.  The film irradiates her humble features with light and she seems to shine like a secular saint.  She says that she will send him to Riker's Island to lock-up and that she intends to go to the State Fair and enjoy a deep-fried Snickers bar -- "it's prison and eating potatos out of a box for you," she said, "and I'll be eating a deep-fried Snickers bar at the Fair"  The villain says that within five minutes his representatives will appear and that "it will be as if you never existed...I will walk right out that door."  The villain's face is bathed in shadow.  The camera leisurely turns away from the protagonists and focuses on a clock on the wall -- the villain says he will be free in five minutes -- we hear a few bars of a Beethoven piano sonata and, then, the screen goes black:  we don't know who prevails in this encounter.  As always with Coen brother's enterprises, the show has a supernatural aspect -- the evil that the characters encounter in Meeker County, Minnesota is related to the same evil that exterminated the Jews and that motivated torture in the offices of the Stasi in East Berlin.  This evil is opposed by figures that have angelic characteristics and that recite scripture -- the show's other heroine, the wily ex-convict seeks revenge for the death of her boyfriend, the crooked probation officer.  In the final shootout, she recites a passage from the Bible apparently conveyed to her by an angel or supernatural figure in an isolated bowling alley, a place where the characters have sought refuge.  The angel is similar to figures in other Coen brothers' films, particularly the cowboy who appears at the bar in the bowling alley in The Big Lebowski.  In Fargo (3), someone mentions that they are in a bowling alley, and the angelic figure, appearing in the guise of the weary businessman, says "so that's what it looks like to you", signifying that the place is some kind heavenly palace or purgatorial prison.  But the plucky heroine ends up aiming her gun at the wrong person and, when the gun discharges, she shoots someone else by accident -- it's all wholly accidental and we see her lying dead on the road against a vista of absolutely flat fields (the show was shot in Alberta), a perfectly round bullet-hole in her head.  Deputy Burgle understands what has happened:  "he killed her man," she says, "and she is going to get him back."  But, as always, human motives generally diverge from the effects of those motives when people try to put their schemes into action -- things go wrong:  it's part of "the crooked timber of humanity."  Everyone is a kind of success until they fail.  And failure is inevitable.

The curious aspect of this iteration of Fargo is the director's refusal to show actual violence.  We hear gunshots and the sounds of people screaming, but we don't see anyone actually firing a gun onscreen.  Indeed, in the final episode, a gunman comes to kill the parking lot mogul -- he has left his Christmas dinner and is looking for a jello salad forgotten in his refrigerator.  As he squats to remove the jello salad from a lower shelf in the fridge, the camera tracks to the left and we see a gun with silencer on its muzzle.  The camera keeps tracking to the left to reveal the identity of the figure holding the gun and, then, we hear the pistol fired.  But we don't see parking lot king collapse -- he dies off-screen.  In the final shootout on the highway, the director stages the exchange of gunshots at such a distance that we can't tell what happens -- we just see tiny figures crumple, dropping onto the pavement against a huge landscape of barren and completely flat fields.  When the  female ex-con gets severely beaten, the camera registers the attack through the reactions of those watching the assault -- we are not actually shown the woman being beaten, although we hear the blows and her cries.  The big massacre in the last episode occurs entirely off-screen -- it's an ambush in a strange-looking storage building among similarly desolate grain elevators and results in 10 or more casualties, but we don't really see any of this happen.  The show's strategy is resolute -- keep the carnage off-screen.  But there is one episode where this rule is violated, and this episode is, more or less, central to the entire series.  (It bears some resemblance to the famous Pine Barrens episode in The Sopranos).  The probation officer's girlfriend is framed for his killing -- in fact, the man was inadvertently killed by his twin brother in an absurd fracas over the Sisyphus stamp.  The young woman shows no emotion, but we know that, against all odds, she loved her loser boyfriend -- her response when someone suggests an autopsy on the dead man is "Don't cut up my Ray." En route to prison, her bus is hijacked and the ex-con has to flee into the woods, shackled to a deaf-mute inmate, a man who later turns out to be a terrifying avenging angel. The fugitives encounter some bow-hunters but those people are murdered by the Englishman's henchmen -- this sets up a gory set-piece involving an ax on a stump, arrows piercing people like pin-cushions, and a beheading.  All of this is filmed from a God's eye view, directly overhead the stump which sits in a snowfield that gets progressively more and more black with blood  -- the sequence is the gross-out equivalent of the woodchipper scene in the original Fargo. After this sequence, the ex-con and the deaf-mute flee to an improbably located bowling alley and there encounter what seems to be a supernatural figure.  This figure stands for God's dispassionate wrath.  We learn that one of the henchmen pursuing the dead probation officer's girlfriend and the deaf mute is an ethnic Cossack -- his grandfather was responsible for the liquidation of a Jewish village.  The supernatural figure, who looks like a weary businessman (we saw him once before in an earlier episode in the same avatar), argues for the notion of inherited guilt -- something like original sin.  As the Cossack bleeds to death, (he's lost his ear and part of his cheek to an ax), the businessman curses him and, in a startling shot, we see a huge crowd of martyrs, apparently Eastern European Jews, filmed in black and white and glowering at the camera.  A little before this sequence, we have learned that hapless Ray Stussy has been reincarnated as a kitten -- his girlfriend says:  "Put him near the TV when the Gophers play and pour a little beer in his bowl."  The net effect of this sequence, taken in the context of the harrowing bloodbath in the forest, is to suggest that the world is, indeed, a just place and that, somehow, righteousness will prevail.  But human beings, it seems, are so fatally defective that they can't act intentionally to will the good -- their actions, it seems, always go awry.  This idea is a variant on an idea that Kafka wrote to one of his girlfriends -- "Yes, there is hope.  Infinite hope.  But just not for us..."  So, similarly, the world is just -- there is justice, infinite justice, but beyond human intentionality. 

Fargo (3) with its three converging plots lucidly ties up almost all loose ends -- the exception is the peculiar opening scene set in East Berlin in the 70's that seems to have nothing to do with anything else in this season's narrative.  Thus Fargo (3) stands in opposition to David Lynch's equally brilliant and unsettling Twin Peaks (2017).  Lynch's original series is a source for much of what the Coen brothers accomplished in their original film, particular with respect to the contrast between complete and horrific evil and strangely na├»ve and ingenuous virtue -- in the original Twin Peaks and Fargo, the good folks simply can't imagine how the bad people think:  the films posit two almost completely different moral species, two types of human beings who are so different in values and outlook that they can barely communicate.  Fargo (3) is centripetal -- it seems to coalesce, drawing disparate plot elements together.  By contrast Twin Peaks (2017) seems completely centrifugal -- each episode seems to spawn another two or three subplots; this tendency is reflected in the series dividing Agent Cooper up into at least three (or four) competing characters all played by Kyle McLaughlin.  Fargo (3) is centered; Twin Peaks (2017) seems radically de-centered.

      

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Conflagration (Enjo)

At the end of Kon Ichikawa's 1958 Enjo ("Conflagration"), there are a couple of shots that I found annoying.  I think my reaction to those shots contains a key to understanding Ichikawa's film.  A young man, an acolyte or Buddhist monk-in-training, burns down a beautiful ancient pavilion.  Arrested for the crime, he refuses to speak.  While being transported by rail to another prison, the young man, Goinji Mizoguchi, breaks away from his guards and commits suicide by diving from the speeding train.  From a low-angle, we see a shot of the train thundering by, an image that emphasizes its lethal power.  Then, a long shot (the film is beautifully lensed in Daiescope, the Daie Studios proprietary wide-screen format)  shows a desolate landscape, power lines receding in the distance along the train tracks and a misty mountain at the horizon.  Mizoguchi's corpse is covered by a blanket and only his bare feet are exposed.  There is a closer shot of two policemen who are shivering in the cold and disconsolately looking down at the body.  There is a close-up of the dead man's bare feet.  Then, a reverse shot shows a big black sedan lumbering forward toward where the police are standing vigil next to the corpse.  A pile of railroad ties and other debris blocks the car so that it can not drive along the right-of-way to where the body lies.  From a high reverse angle, behind the car, we see three men emerge, one of them recognizable as a physician because he carries a doctor's bag.  There is a shot from a lower angle:  we see the three men walking along the ditch below the railroad track from the rear and, in the distance, the two policemen and the covered corpse:  The End.  As I have observed, for some reason, this closing sequence annoyed me.  The detail provided in the series of shots felt wholly unnecessary and cumulative.  We have the corpse and the shivering cops -- this establishes that Mizoguchi didn't escape but, in fact, died and that his precipitous exit from the train was suicidal.  Why do we need to see the coroner and two more officials arrive?  Their car has to be obstructed by the heap of discarded railroad ties to force the men to exit the car so that we can identify the doctor by his bag.  But the detail of the pile of railroad debris and the fact that it halts the car seems to have significance in its own right.  And what's the point of showing us an additional inquiry into Mizoguchi's death -- it's as clear as clear can be what happened to him:  an autopsy isn't likely to reveal any cause of death other than injuries caused hurling himself off the speeding train.  The peculiar detail that the dead man's feet are bare -- something that seems symbolic and non-naturalistic isn't emphasized although this is the aspect of the last scene that sticks with the viewer.  The film doesn't end with a "dying fall" -- instead, the introduction of the new characters, more police and a doctor, suggest that we are seeing the beginning of another film, the story of the inquiry into Mizoguchi's death.  Thus, the ending of the movie feels unnecessarily intricate, as if the director were setting up more scenes and more narrative and, as if the film isn't really over --but, in fact, in terms of the narrative, the movie is decisively done:  this is the end not some kind of additional development.  In fact, the film's ending like the rest of the movie is massively overdetermined -- there is too much information, too much motivation, too close an attention to details that don't serve the film's main project, Ichikawa's theme that, in an imperfect and absurd world, sometimes beauty is best preserved by being destroyed. 

Consider the crucial question of motivation:  why does Mizoguchi destroy the ancient pavilion, a small wooden pagoda set on an idyllic island in a pond draped in duckweed like something from a late painting by Monet?  The protagonist is a loner -- he has a bad stutter and has been bullied.  At the outset of the film, everyone else has been conscripted for the war effort:  presumably, Mizoguchi's stutter has saved him, but, also, resulted in his sense that he is crippled somehow, emotionally stunted and different from others.  The young man is mentored by a cheerful old monk, the abbot responsible for the temple.  The monk keeps a geisha on the side, an offense that appalls the young man.  (These are Zen Buddhist monks, apparently not required to be celibate -- some of the monks have wives and children and the hero is the son of a monk.)  Mizoguchi's has one close friend, Tsukura, but he has died.  (On this point, Ichikawa's direction is elliptical:  we see Mizoguchi talking with Tsukara about hypocrisy, then, the character disappears.  Later, Mizoguchi says that his friend is dead.  After another ten minutes of screen time, we learn the Tsukara died when a truck ran over him in Tokyo -- this is characteristic of Ichikawa's narrative strategy: frequently something is said or shown that we can't understand and, only later, do grasp the significance of these words or this incident.  Further, the narrative technique is intricate -- the film starts with Mizoguchi's arrest, then, initiates a long flashback that will last until the last ten minutes of the film.  However, there are numerous flashbacks within the main flashback so the chronology of events is sometimes uncertain.  It is clear, however, that the film's events span a decade or more.)  In one scene, we hear air raid sirens and there is fear that the American bombers will destroy the ancient pavilion.  Mizoguchi debates issues about the preservation of the pavilion during war time with his monstrous mother -- then, the film cuts abruptly to a shot of a bus stopping at the pavilion and disgorging crowds of American servicemen who are touring the temple and pavilion as tourists.  This is a startling cut and leads to a nasty scene in which Mizoguchi is instrumental in causing an abortion in a Japanese girl pregnant with the baby of her American-soldier boyfriend.  (In Mishima's source novel, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Mizoguchi tramples the girl's stomach intentionally to abort the child in exchange for being paid two cartons of Chesterfield cigarettes; in the film, the miscarriage occurs by accident when the protagonist throws the girl to the ground to keep her from profaning the temple pavilion.) 

Mizoguchi is a sort of Japanese Holden Caufeld:  he is upset because the abbot is a hypocrite; his mother is also a hypocrite -- we learn that she betrayed the young man's much beloved father with Mizoguchi's uncle.  The other monks or novitiates at the Temple see the pavilion as a money-making tourist attraction -- they don't seem to have any real reverence for the building and what it represents.  (At one point, the ghost of the protagonist's tubercular father appears and tells him that the pavilion represents something like heaven on earth.  The dead man's neck is twisted in an odd serpentine way and his adam's apple is prominent -- it's an eerie effect.)  When the abbot sends Mizoguchi away to college, paying his board and tuition, the novice becomes friends with another young man, the horribly crippled Togari.  Togari's mind is as crooked as his body -- he uses his affliction to seduce young women whom he, then, abuses.  Togari is like a character in a Dostoevsky novel, a sort of reverse saint of villainy, and he claims that everyone is fundamentally evil -- people are all irredeemably hypocritical.  The hero seeks solace with a prostitute but can't perform -- she's cheerful and upbeat and says that she's heard of the temple pavilion but never seen it.  So why does Mizoguchi destroy the temple:  first, he doesn't want it to change and knows that he can preserve its beauty only by burning it; second, he think all people are hypocritical and that they are unworthy of the pavilion's divine beauty; and, third, he wants to punish his mother by shaming her with his crime; and, fourth, he wants to punish the abbot for his hypocrisy; and, fifth, his evil friend, Togari, encourages him toward the crime; and, sixth, what's the point of having a beautiful temple if the only people who really enjoy it are vulgar American servicemen on weekend leave.  And, seventh,of course, as a stutterer, Mizoguchi wants to revenge himself on the world that has rejected him, and, finally, as an eighth cause, we must consider the possibility that Mizoguchi is schizophrenic and suicidal. (And I've left out imagery in the film suggesting that Mizoguchi is also obsessed by fire and may be a pyromanic.) So, of course, Mizoguchi's motives are overdetermined -- this means that film is probably very true to life, but, also, exceedingly intricate in a way that is purely cumulative:  one or two motives to burn the temple would suffice -- is it helpful to have a dozen?  (Mishima's The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is derived from an actual incident that occurred in 1950 -- a Buddhist novice burned a pavilion built in 1400 and registered as a National Treasure.  The motive that the Japanese public thought caused acolyte's crime -- the so-called Herostratus syndrome, the desire to achieve fame through infamy -- is not really adduced as a cause in either Mishima's book or the film, although in reality, many people thought this factor was primary.)

There is a Zen koan relevant to this film:  "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him."  In the movie, the abbot discusses another koan -- the eastern and western schools of monks disputed ownership of a beautiful cat.  Unable to solve their conflict, they approached a Zen Master.  He took a sword and beheaded the cat.  This is a difficult film, beautifully made, but exceedingly complex and, at times, dull -- the film's intense realism undercuts its interest.    

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Tarnished Angels

Douglas Sirk's 1958 adaptation of Faulkner's Pylon, The Tarnished Angels is a febrile swamp of sexual hysteria, an early example, one might argue, of "queer cinema."  The erotic panic that the film portrays focuses on the geometric torso of Robert Stack who plays Roger Shumann, a former World War One ace, fallen on hard times.  Stack is fidgety, a cubist robotic -- he struts around like an animated store-front mannequin, his eyes glittering in the Euclidean mask of his face.  Stack barks out wild commands and makes violent threats but he seems to exist for one reason -- to expiate his sexual guilt by masochistic self-sacrifice.  Stack's guilt arises from marrying a much younger woman who was in love with him -- or, rather, in love with his image as portrayed in a similarly Cubist-looking war bonds posters.  (Everyone seems to have paintings by Braque or Picasso in their Cubist phase on the walls.)  Stack is either homosexual or impotent and the marriage, certainly, isn't founded on any kind of mutual physical passion -- for half the film, Stack shares a bed with his mechanic, Jiggs, a burly Wallace Beery type who is also in helpless love with the dashing and tormented pilot.  (It is alleged that Jiggs is the real father of the little boy who calls the pilot "daddy"; in fact, this issue arises in the opening scene in which Rock Hudson, as a journalist with the New Orleans Picayune, restrains a thug from teasing the little boy about the identity of his father --  exactly, how this piece of calumny has been broadcast to the world is uncertain, but the fact that everyone knows that Stack's demonic pilot is not the child's father suggests that Shumann's reputation for sexual irregularity is well-established and precedes him everywhere he goes.)  Dorothy Malone as the spurned wife pouts and drinks herself into periodic alcoholic rages -- her schtick is to dive from Shumann's bi-plane and parachute to the earth while wearing a dress that, of course, is flipped up over her head exposing her crotch and legs as she plummets to the ground.  Floating into this toxic atmosphere like a big, soft blimp, Rock Hudson falls in love head-over-heels with both the pilot and Dorothy Malone.  Hudson is at his most soft-spoken and ineffectual in this film -- he's both a hysteric and a drunk:  he flies into rage when his editor tells him that he needs to cover a senator who has come to town and not the flying circus at the airfield.  The newsman's rage is so infantile that it is shocking -- he shrieks petulantly and pitches heaps of paper around the office.  This scene is offset by a later lengthy eulogy that Hudson's journalist delivers on the death of the pilot.  This speech is Shakespearian in tenor and so wildly over-the-top that it seems campy and ridiculous although some of the journalist's rhetorical devices are effective in a grandiloquent way.  But the audience for this speech, supposedly hardened and cynical newsmen, are enraptured and they conclude that the journalist was right all along in battling to cover the adventures of the troupe of biplane racers  -- the newsman gets his job back and a pat on the shoulder as well.  (It's as if Sirk allowed the boozy, garrulous Faulkner an opportunity to stand center-stage in the film and deliver a bourbon-soaked monologue -- it's impressive and ridiculous at the same time and, more than a little bit insulting to the audience:  the speech is supposed to tell us what to think about the characters but, in fact, is shown by Sirk to be just one more instance of the sexual hysteria central to the film.  It's Rock Hudson's declaration of love for the surly airman.) 

The Tarnished Angels is shot in wide-screen cinemascope and the images comprising the film are never less than arresting.  Sirk's interiors in particular feature characters bathed in uncompromisingly clinical white light, half their faces radiant and the other half sunk in profound darkness.  His sets are crowded, dense with mirrors and words plastered on walls: "THINK" in an aircraft hangar and THEFT; IS IT INTERESTING? in the crowded offices of the Picayune and the double entendre of big signs advertising fresh oysters in shots featuring Dorothy Malone.  Mardi Gras is underway and Sirk avails himself of every Baroque effect imaginable, this melodramatic excess excused by the torchlight parades and masked mummers -- sinister Ensor-like figures emerge from crowds, characters wearing strange and hideous masks, and, in one scene, Death himself appears playing a ukulele to forecast the hero's demise.  The film breaks into three parts, the first two punctuated by spectacular crashes -- in one, the plane smashes into the earth and explodes while the hapless pilot is hurled right at the camera, his flying body crashing into the mud a few feet in front of the lens.  In the first third of the film, we are introduced to the characters -- there is a long reverie-like scene that takes place in Rock Hudson's bachelor apartment, a room inside a vast decaying mansion with Escher-like stairs that make no geometric sense descending curved walls on which the balustrade casts an enormous shadow.  This space is full of half-moon or rising sun transoms and features spooky, noisy neighbors who assess with disapprobation the troupe of flyers invited to bunk with the journalist.  This is the scene where Jiggs and Robert Stack sleep together while Dorothy Malone undresses and tries to seduce the soft and feckless Rock Hudson.  The first third of the picture is dreamlike, Faulknerian in its invocation of faded Southern elegance.  The second third of the picture features the airplanes racing around pylons.  When Shumann's plane is disabled, the pilot sends her wife to prostitute herself to a wealthy man (who has earlier made a pass at her) so that he will loan his aircraft to them for the race on the morrow.  Rock Hudson instead goes to the rich man and persuades him to allow the plane, which is disabled anyway, to fly in the next day's race.  In that race, the plane crashes and Shumann is lost.  Curiously, the film doesn't end with Shumann's death and, in fact, all the real (and somewhat surreal) fireworks occur in the last third of the movie.  A banquet is held for the survivors of the Lafayette Escadrille and themes of Shumann's degradation into a kind of flying billboard, an advertisement for his sponsors, are raised again;  we know Shumann to be suffering from what we would call today post-traumatic stress disorder -- he can't sleep and imagines himself being burned to death in his plane.  The journalist confronts his fellow newsmen and renders his high-flown apologia for Robert Stack's bad behavior.  The rich man tries to buy Dorothy Malone but Rock Hudson intervenes.  (It's shocking to modern sensibilities that the adult characters, more or less, abandon the grieving little boy to his own devices while the wallow in their own alcohol-drenched misery.)  Rock Hudson doesn't get the girl exactly -- it's pretty clear that he is gay as well and everyone has been reading Willa Cather's My Antonia, a sure tip-off, I think.  Hudson tells Malone that he wants her to return the book to him and she flies off with her little boy, planning to reestablish herself amidst the virtues of simple Midwest.  This is a fascinating film, so congested with themes and subtexts that the movie threatens to explode like the fragile planes whirling dizzily past the pylons, great erections stuck in the sand, obelisks that the aircraft are said "to kiss" as they turn close to them.      

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Le Havre (film group notes)





 

 
1.

The people who voted for Donald Trump in the South and Midwest are poorly educated for the most part but they were raised Christian and many of them are kind and generous people. It is well within the realm of possibility that such people might behave compassionately when confronted with an individual illegal immigrant. Most people behave kindly by reflex.

Someone said that Trump’s Louisiana supporters, taken as individuals, are the most courteous and welcoming people in the United States – they will give you the shirt off their backs. The problem arises when they join together as a group. By some sinister alchemy, a group of gentle, even, courtly individuals turns into an intolerant mob braying for blood.

Although Aki Kaurismaki’s LeHavre is a poetic fantasy, a sort of fairy tale, there is no reason to think that it is not within hailing distance of the truth.

 

2.

Aki Kaurismaki is Finland’s most well-known film maker. He is idolized in Helsinki to the extent that he is featured on stamps issued by Suomi, as Finland calls itself.

Kaurismaki was born in 1957. He began directing films in 1983 and has 18 credits. His most recent film, The Other Side of Hope, was premiered in Berlin in February 2017. The movie was awarded a Silver Bear for best director and has been universally acclaimed.

In Berlin, Kaurismaki announced that he was retiring from filmmaking and that The Other Side of Hope would be his last picture.

Kaurismaki has made two trilogies – the so-called Proletariat trilogy consisting of Shadows in Paradise, Ariel, and Match Factory Girl and the Finland trilogy: Drifting Clouds, Man without a Past, and Lights in the Dark. When LeHavre was released to great critical acclaim in 2011, Kaurismaki announced that it would be the first part of a trilogy of films about harbor cities – the next film was to be made in Spain to be followed by film made in Germany. Kaurismaki seems to have abandoned this plan.

Most of Kaurismaki’s films can be described as very dry, deadpan comedies. He is associated with the rock group, the Leningrad Cowboys, and has also made a trilogy of films featuring that band: The Leningrad Cowboys Go America, The Leningrad Cowboys meet Moses, and a documentary The Total Balalaika Show, about a huge open air concert held in Helsinki but featuring Russian performers as well – the playlist included "Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door," and "Sweet Home Alabama."

When its cold and dark in Finland, Kaurismaki lives in Portugal. When the daylight lasts all night in Helsinki, Kaurismaki lives in Finland.

3.

Poetic realism is a style developed in France between 1933 and 1945. Films of this kind involve star-crossed lovers generally portrayed against a background of lower class or lower middle class life. Male protagonists are washed-up petty criminals or hardscrabble laborers; women are often world-weary barmaids or prostitutes. The films often feature urban or rural landscapes, not conventionally pretty, but filmed according the canons of impressionist art. Characters speak gangster argot mixed with poetry. Chance and coincidence play an important part in these films. The cycle begins with Jean Vigo’s L’Atlanta, a 1933 film about newly weds honeymooning on a barge on the Seine. L’Atlanta frequently turns up on ten-best films of all time lists and it is revered by Kaurismaki. A film that is decisive as an influence on Le Havre is Marcel Carne’s Le Quai des Brumes (1938), a movie about a doomed dusk-to-dawn love-affair involving a washed-up army deserter and a 17-year old runaway hiding in a squalid bar in a harbor town. The film’s title Port of Shadows describes the all-encompassing fog that characterizes the nocturnal images in the film. Everyone in the movie chain-smokes and Jean Gabin, as the hero, cuts his bread and sausage with a switchblade. The criminals all have hearts-of-gold but this doesn’t save them from the operations of fate.

Kati Outinen, the female lead in Le Havre, is a well-known actress in Finland and has been in many of Kaurismaki’s films – she is a kind of muse to the director. (In Japan, Outinen is renowned for being the woman with "the saddest face in the world.") In his film, Kaurismaki names her Arletty as a hommage to the French actress of that name whose work with Marcel Carne characterizes the genre of poetic realism. (Arletty appears in Carne’s 1938 Hotel du Nord, Le Jour sa Leve in 1939, Les Visiteurs du Soir in 1942, and the immense epic Children of Paradise shot over a two year period during the French Occupation and released in 1945. These four pictures represent the summit of poetic realism.) Kaurismaki says that he admires these films because the characters are invested with the tragic dignity of wartime.

Many examples of poetic realism may be found in Kaurismaki’s Le Havre. Consider, for instance, the figure of the Chief Inspector, the formidable Inspector Monet, who, notwithstanding his name (which would seem to signal an Impressionistic efflorescence), is always clad from head to toe in black and, even, wears black gloves. Two other influences on Le Havre are noteworthy –the films of Yasujiro Ozu and the cinema of Robert Bresson. Le Havre stages many of its dialogue shots by simply having the actor speak directly into the camera and, then, cutting between the two participants in the colloquy – this is how Ozu directs dialogue in his later films. (The final shot showing a cherry tree in blossom is also an allusion to Ozu’s influence on this picture.) Like Ozu, Kaurismaki designs his film with the utmost graphic elegance – he adds little touches of color to otherwise monochrome shots and composes his images with exquisite clarity – Le Havre is one of the most beautiful films ever made. The influence of Bresson’s minimalist style is seen in the opening sequence – we see people’s feet as they walk, a trademark of Bresson’s films, and, then, there is a murder scene staged entirely in the reactions to the crime by bystanders. A later scene in which the villain, an informant played by Jean-Pierre Leaud seizes the African immigrants arm, also demonstrates Bresson’s elliptical precision in depicting action. We see a close-up of Leaud’s hand grasping the African boy’s wrist, but, then, a third hand appears – this is Chang, the hero’s sidekick, intervening to save the child from arrest. Here the film’s mise-en-scene is a model of both economy and concise clarity.

Formalist critics distinguish between a film’s fabula (the story that it tells) and the manner in which the story is told, its syuzhet – the distinction, made by Russian theorists, is generally between the tale and its telling. On its face, Le Havre’s fabula is very sentimental and maudlin: a group of kindhearted people work cooperatively so that a lost child can be reunited with his mother. Melodramatic sentiment is also courted by plot elements involving a loveable dog, a woman who is dying of cancer, and eccentric but loyal citizens involved in the conspiracy to do good. Kaurismaki’s syuzhet, however, is so dry, terse, and elliptical that the astringency of his narrative technique opposes (or counteracts) the maudlin tendencies in the fabula – this is an example of a deadpan narrative style that undercuts the risk of excessive sentimentality intrinsic to the plot. Fantasy or surreal elements of the narrative – for instance, the pristine appearance of the people trapped in the shipping container – also establish "quotation marks" around the story; we are conscious that the melodramatic tale is a contrivance – characters and events are stylized so that we read the film not as an account of real events but, lyrically, as a poetic response to themes involving immigration, the status of the stranger in a community, love between mature adults, and, even, the use of the word "terrorist."

Some critics broaden the concept of the fabula to include not merely the skeletal or bare bones account of events comprising the plot, but also to include a simple statement of the film’s theme. In the case of Le Havre, Kaurismaki’s theme is also very sentimental and, even, problematic, a theme that runs through many fairy tales: those who are good and do good because of their purity of heart will be rewarded. This is a theme that most people would be ashamed to articulate since it contradicts the evidence of our senses, that is, the cynical assumptions with which we customarily armor ourselves to face the world. Again, Kaurismaki hazards this theme, and gets away with its presentation, primarily because of his very hip and minimalist syuzhet – each shot is exquisitely color coordinated and carefully composed; the camera doesn’t shake or wobble around: the narrative unfolds according to rigorous pictorial principles that are the opposite of documentary realism. We can’t escape the nature of this film as an artifact, as the product of elaborate craft – but we may agree that the formal theme of the film (that good acts, although they are their own reward, are also rewarded in the natural scheme of things) is a contrivance, an element of wish fulfilment just as the "look" of the film (austere, geometric, and beautiful) represents another kind of wish fulfilment – if only the world were as clean and elegant as the pictures in this movie.

Kaurismaki is often linked with the minimalist film makers, most particularly the New York director Jim Jarmusch. However, despite the low-key brevity of Kaurismaki’s film making in Le Havre, the film clearly aspires to the fairy-tale poetry of Carne’s films.

 

4.

In 1992, Kaurismaki directed a much-praised version of Henri Murger’s La Vie du Boheme ("The Lives of the Bohemians"), the book about struggling artists in Paris that was the basis for Puccini’s opera La Boheme. The hero of that film was played by Andre Wilms, the actor in Le Havre, who performs the part of the protagonist, Marcel Marx. The hero’s name comes from Kaurismaki’s La Vie du Boheme – Andre Wilms character in that film was also called Marcel Marx.



Kaurismaki has Marcel Marx say to the boy Idrissa that he was once an artist, and that he lived la vie Boheme dans Paris ("the life of a Bohemian in Paris").

 

5.

Kaurismaki detests digital film making and has called it "the devil’s invention." In interviews, he says: "Real film is light; digital is electricity." An example of the preternatural light effects that Kaurismaki achieves in this film are the scenes that simply show Arletty asleep in her hospital bed – these are ravishing images worthy of Vermeer. Similarly, shots depicting Marcel Marx, rim-lit with a golden radiance as he smokes have an unearthly beauty – this is an element of "poetic realism", investing scenes of ordinary life with extraordinary lyricism. Kaurismaki is not willing to make a movie using digital technology and this, perhaps, accounts for his retirement from film making.

Kaurismaki purchased Ingmar Bergman’s motion picture camera after the Swedish director retired from film-making. Since acquiring that instrument, he has made all of his films with that camera. All technicians on Kaurismaki’s crew are Finnish members of his repertoire company – he always works with the same technical crew.

 

6.

"French rock ‘n’ roll is like British wine."

Little Bob is an Italian-born, French rock star, famous primarily for his concerts and recordings in the seventies. His sudden appearance in the film is conspicuously ad hoc and feels improvised. It’s a plot contrivance that is implausible and that Kaurismaki doesn’t really attempt to realistically ground in his narrative. (Compare Little Bob’s appearance in the film with the careful way that Kaurismaki establishes the parcel containing the yellow dress that Marcel Marx is supposed to bring to the hospital; Kaurismaki lavishes several shots on the preparation of this parcel since it will play a vital role in the mise-en-scene at the film’s climax. By contrast, Little Bob comes out of nowhere, performs, and, then, vanishes from the film.)

It’s hard not to see Little Bob as a homage to Mickey Rooney in the films he made with Judy Garland in the late thirties and forties – most particularly, Babes in Arms. In these pictures, a group of kids decides to put on a show, often for a good cause. The adults don’t think this will succeed and act in a patronizing way. But the show, of course, is dynamite.

 


Optimism

In Cannes, Aki Kaurismaki described the film’s optimism in these terms: "I’m tender in my old age."

He said: "I see no hope for mankind. I don’t want to any harm. Since I see no hope for mankind, I don’t want to add to the pain. So I make films that are supposed to be entertaining."

 

 


Some Production Notes

Kaurismaki claims that he drove the Mediterranean coast to Spain, then, the Atlantic coast from Portugal north to Le Havre, scouting for locations for this film. The last town that he reached was Le Havre and, at first, he rejected that place as a location for the film – the harbor was too modern and the town was cheerless and cold. On his way out of the town, he noticed an area comprised of 15 or 20 blocks at the waterfront that looked unlike the rest of the city. This was the part of the city that the Allies did not bomb during the War – that is, the old harbor town. This tangle of streets intrigued Kaurismaki.

Kaurismaki also liked the fact that Le Havre has a leftist history – it was the last town to have a Communist mayor in France. Kaurismaki has said in an interview that "Le Havre looks as lonely as I feel." Both Kaurismaki and his cameraman, Timo Salminen, commented on the quality of light in Le Havre – "it is very white, creamy..." Le Havre means "the Haven".

Asked at Cannes whether the film was set in the past, Kaurismaki shrugged off the question saying – "it was made in 2011 and shows the world in 2011." But this doesn’t account for the antique automobiles in the film? Kaurismaki noted that he owns an 1951 Chevy and that a car "survives much longer than its birth year." In any event, he has said: "My films are like museums. I put old things in them that I like."

Kaurismaki doesn’t speak French. Of course, this posed difficulties during the production because he was working with a French cast with the exception of Kati Outinen, who knows some French. (In the script, Kaurismaki explains her poor French by saying "she is Rumanian or something.") Further complicating the production was the fact that Kaurismaki never shoots more than two takes and, in fact, for economic reasons, only prints one of the takes. This means that the actors have to get their lines delivered correctly on the first try. Kaurismaki directed "musically" – that is, by the sound of the voices and inflections. He doesn’t explain motivation or tell the actor how to do his or her job. He views his role as making certain that the actor’s execute their parts with precision – that is, requiring that the stand exactly where he wants them to stand, that they gesture exactly as he has demonstrated, that, when a character sets something down, he puts it exactly where Kaurismaki wants the object to be placed. This is an element of the director’s extreme precision in the way his films are made. Kaurismaki told Wilms that he was to act like "an old gentleman" (speaking to him in English) and to show "great dignity." He said to Wilms that he was to use his eyes "like a combination of Buster Keaton and Robert Mitchum". Kaurismaki said he cast Wilms because of his big nose – "it’s like mine," Kaurismaki said, "you can smoke in the shower." This is not a joke – Kaurismaki smokes in the shower and everywhere else.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Western Union

Fritz Lang's Western Union (1941) is a big, gaudy Western, apparently derived from a Zane Grey novel.  Shot in Technicolor, the film is exceptionally beautiful.  In all respects, the film represents a genre of moviemaking primarily concerned with "spectacle" -- that is, with achieving memorably spectacular images.  This can be accomplished in two ways -- that is, by staging action in a way that seems a little excessive, even, potentially dangerous and, second, by providing superfluous pictorial details or action to decorate a canvas that is already scenic with crowds of extras, gorgeous sunsets, red rock canyons and immense Utah and Arizona landscapes.  Two examples spring to mind, although these could be readily multiplied.  In the film's first scene, the hero Slade (Randolph Scott) has committed a bank robbery and flees from a posse.  Slade's escape causes him to ride his horse at full speed through a big herd of bison.  The bison scatter around the lone horseman and, then, stampede so that they are running alongside the rider.  The stunt seems gratuitously dangerous -- the horseman rides straight into the surly-looking bison without slowing at all, trusting that the huge animals will part for him.  Then, the buffalo stampede alongside this horse -- this latter effect doesn't seem to have been staged:  it's just something that occurred.  Of course, no one in their right mind would take the risk that Slade takes in this scene.  But the image shows his desperation and pays off with some spectacular images.  (Slade's desperation to escape the posse is significant in that the hero will reveal his true character in the next scene when he stops to aid the badly wounded Creighton and, indeed, risks his life to rescue the man notwithstanding the posse's pursuit.)  Another example should suffice:  Robert Young plays a 'dude' from the East.  Some scalawags decide to test his mettle by putting him on a wild bucking bronco.  Young turns out to be an accomplished horseman -- he rides the wild animal around the corral, breaks out of the corral, and, then, the horse, still lunging violently, bursts into a saloon on Main Street and rides right through the bar before he gets the horse under control.  Notably, when the horse breaks out of the corral, one of the livery stable ne'er-do-wells is watching from the fence-rail -- he has to dive off the rail and, when the bronco jumps over the fence, the top rail is kicked-off narrowing missing the extra huddling below.  (This stunt is too dangerous to have been staged intentionally -- the close-call occurred, apparently, by accident.)   The details of the falling rail and the horse rampaging through the saloon are wholly excessive to the purpose of the scene -- but they contribute to its spectacle and the make the sequence memorable.  

Western Union's plot is similarly excessive:  the story takes place during the Civil War, a conflict embodied in the story of two brothers from Missouri, one a staunch supporter of the Union, albeit a former bank robber, and the other a bad man who rustles horses and beef-cattle from the workers erecting the Western Union telegraph lines, blaming the theft on the Ogallala Sioux.  The good brother is in competition for the film's romantic interest with the Harvard-educated Dude from the East Coat -- the girl, who happens to be sister of the Western Union's ramrod, Ed Creighton is a saucy platinum blonde who seems to have wandered into this picture from a boulevard in the Weimar Republic -- the girl has kittenish features but she positively glows with malicious lust as she flirts with the two male leads, the stolid and manly Randolph Scott and the weirdly ebullient Robert Young.  The action is shot against towering buttes and brilliantly colored painted desert and Lang makes even the frequent, incongruent studio sequences equally beautiful -- he stages the studio scenes against glowering skies full of thunderheads or against rear-projections of great sandstone mesas, charging the images with a sort of expressionistic fury.  The Technicolor landscapes don't come close to matching the studio sequences -- it's as if the characters are periodically wandering out of the desert and into some kind of lavish opera set -- but both types of images are extravagantly beautiful.  For an added measure, Lang throws in a variety of secondary characters, almost Shakespearian in breadth and depth -- there's an overweight, drunk Indian who staggers as he strides toward his White foes, a cowardly cook who continuously lacerates his fingers as he peels potatoes because of the roughness of the prairie road, illiterates who can barely tell time, even, an old Indian fighter with a arrow still stuck in his clavicle and a gory-looking bald patch where he was scalped a dozen years earlier.  Lang's taste for flamboyant violence is always on display -- there are fights with the Indians, gun battles, fiery attacks on the Western Union camp at night, as well as fisticuffs and horse chases -- in one memorable scene, a man rides his horse down an almost sheer cliff, seemingly defying gravity.  There's nothing profound about the film but it is a magnificent, fast-paced entertainment technically accomplished and, even, a model of craft with respect to its elaborate and cunning mise-en-scene.  In the end one brother is goaded into killing the other.  A big gunfight ensues, resulting in the death of both brothers (and incidentally clearing the romantic field for Robert Young) and, then, Lang treats us to an elegy poetically compressed into a signal extraordinarily gorgeous shot -- we see the long, endless rows of telegraph poles receding across the barren prairie while the sun sets amidst a toppled, statuesque landscape of orange clouds. 

Monday, June 5, 2017

Karl May

Karl May (1974) is the second picture in a trilogy of ambitious and challenging films directed by Hans-Juergen Syberberg that explore the esthetic and spiritual origins of Hitler's Third Reich.  The first film is Ludwig, Requiem for a Virgin King, (1972) a picture that uses experimental techniques, many derived from Andy Warhol's films of the same era, to consider the cultural effects of the Bavarian King Ludwig's obsession with Wagner's music -- Syberberg's argument is that the conjunction of Prussian militarism with south German romanticism led to Hitler's ideology.  The third film in the sequence, and certainly the central panel of the triptych, is Syberberg's vast surrealist fever-dream, Our Hitler, a Film from Germany (1978).  This picture, more than seven hours long, completes the trilogy's design and establishes that Syberberg locates the origins of Hitler's National Socialism in Wagner's romanticism (German music) and Karl May's novels, another variant on the late Romantic -- in the director's view, these elements were whipped into a Devil's brew by the German film industry:  Hitler was the protagonist of a wild expressionist film from Germany:  the war and the panoply of the Third Reich were the set decorations adorning this vast and deadly production, war and extermination staged as a fantasia for the camera.  Although the structure of the trilogy was not clear until its final part was completed, the gargantuan and maze-like Our Hitler, it is now evident that the avant-garde bio-pic about Ludwig and the more conventional film chronicling Karl May's last years focus on music, opera in the case of the first film, and literary (as well as legal) texts in Karl May as fundamental to Hitler's Nazism, viewed by Syberberg as the last great, and horrible, efflorescence of German romanticism.  Ludwig is film designed as an opera; Karl May, with wipes between scenes simulating the turning of pages, is film imagined as a big, capacious Victorian-era novel. 

Karl May is a monument to my youth, a cenotaph, as it were, for a part of myself that exists only indistinctly today, and I will identify at the end of this note the film's personal significance for me.  By comparison with the much more flamboyantly experimental Ludwig and Our Hitler, both of which contain remarkable imagery and are essentially essays -- that is, non-narrative in form -- Karl May looks like a conventional bio-pic.  The movie is shot like a Hollywood production, for the most part, with realistic sets and costumes -- there are extended carriage rides through the open country, palatial manor houses, and the chambers and court rooms of the German judiciary around 1904, the year in which the film's action begins.  Syberberg uses a conventional film grammar of shot and reverse-shot, interspersing close-ups with two-shots or other group images.  Scenes are established by a conventional long shot -- at least, in many instances, and the film has a lush late-Romantic score.  (The curious effect is that when Syberberg wants to simulate a novel, he uses the conventions of Hollywood, including movie music.)  Syberberg began his career in the theater as an acolyte of Bertolt Brecht and much of Karl May shows a Brechtian influence -- the scenes involve much citation of text from real court records, letters, and newspaper articles and the narration is brusquely edited:  each scene involves a small ensemble of actors who make their points in heightened, slightly stylized language and, then, the sequence ends.  (There's another Brechtian distancing device in the first scene -- one of the figures in the shot is bathed in a deep shadow that has no obvious motivation; it seems to be a shadow cast by light stand or some other studio equipment.  Another director would edit this out or correct the shot -- Syberberg does not.  This is akin to a moment in Ludwig where a light falls over on-screen and the director keeps the shot in the film intact.) The movie's structure reminds me of a series of box-cars, each containing one plot point or ideological argument, efficiently presented and, then rolled off-screen so that the next sequence can begin.  The acting is realistic and distinguished.  Syberberg has amassed a group of actors who were famous movie stars during the Hitlerzeit -- these actors include the director Helmut Kautner, very effective as the beleaguered Karl May, Kristina Soederbaum as Emma, May's long-suffering wife, and Lil Dagover; the women are all blondes including the younger actress playing the alarming dominatrix-like Frau Munchmeyer, one of May's foes.  When I saw the film in 1976 at the University of Minnesota Film Society, older Germans in the audience remarked that the movie is replete with sound-cues that reference music played incessantly by the Nazis during World War II, most notably Franz Liszt's Les Preludes, the soundtrack, as it were, to lists of casualties incurred at Stalingrad. 

Karl May's plot is peculiar only in its extreme attention to the intricacies of German judicial process at the turn of the 20th century -- the film, in effect, documents a byzantine series of lawsuits, comprised of claims and counterclaims, against the German novelist.  Karl May, of course, is a liar -- indeed as a novelist, he is a liar by profession.  But he has imprudently claimed that his series of Westerns featuring his heroes Old Surehand and Old Shatterhand and their loyal Indian sidekick, Winnetou, an Apache brave, are, in fact, documentary accounts of real events experienced by the novelist.  Early in the film, we are shown Karl May in full western regalia exhibiting Winnetou's rifle, adorned with 204 silver nails for each man killed the Apache warrior.  A journalist asks him how he has come to possess the weapon since in one of his novels he portrays the death of Winnetou and claims to have buried the rifle beside his faithful Indian friend's body.  Without skipping a beat, Karl May claims that he came upon a war party of Sioux who had apparently desecrated Winnetou's sepulcher and that, after killing them, he retrieved the weapon.  Another journalist asks where the great adventurer was during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 - 1871; embarrassed May says that he was exploring the deserts in Arizona.  (In fact, he may have been in jail or the work-house at that time.)  May has asserted that his adventures all around the world are all true -- but, in fact, it seems that he may never have traveled beyond his native Silesia in Germany.  At one point, we see May apparently traveling in Ceylon and the far East -- these scenes violate Syberberg's general principle of verisimilitude:  we see a toy steamer on a toy ocean and, then, misty palaces with tall towers and jungles full of exotic birds and howling monkeys, all as a kind of hashish dream, a fantasia of Orientalism comprised of faded opera sets.  The use of these backdrops call into question whether May has really traveled to the exotic places from which he purports to send postcards (as evidence of his adventures) or whether his trip to Ceylon, for instance, is purely imaginary.  I have Hans Wollschlager's biography of Karl May and, upon consulting it, realize that May did, in fact, travel around the world around 1900; in general, most of what we are shown in the film is documentary -- these things actually happened.) 

In some ways, Karl May is a lavish variation on King Lear -- a great man in his old age is beset by enemies.  As Germany's most famous and best-selling novelist, May is surrounded by envious and resentful foes, people who are mounting savage attacks on his integrity and truthfulness.  All of this seems to stem from May's refusal to allow the sinister Frau Munchmeyer to publish five volumes of the writer's earliest works, apparently quasi-pornographic romance novels.  At first, Munchmeyer and her henchmen try to blackmail May -- he must pay them if he wants the embarrassing novels suppressed.  But May fights back, initiating lawsuits alleging extortion and slander.  This litigation triggers additional suits and countersuits:  May's enemies contend that his doctoral title is false, that he was a jailbird when he was a young man, that he is pornographer and plagiarist, and that he wrote Catholic devotional literature although an avowed Protestant -- at the center of these allegations is the claim that May is a fraud:  he has not done the heroic things that he claims in his books.  The litigation against May is masterminded by his nemesis, the lawyer Gerlach, a one-eyed man who stalks about a miniature battlefield moving platoons of tin soldiers across a toy landscape with a steel rake.  May defends himself in terms of the purity of his intentions, using the German word Reinheit in a way that foreshadows the use of that term by Hitler.  Throughout the first half of the film, May argues for the primacy of the imagination, claiming that books are imprisoned souls who "have written themselves free" and that the writer must present to his readers a portrait of a lost paradise, a kind of Voelkisch utopia that is purely imaginary, yet also somehow accessible. In the course of the first half of the film, May abandons his wife of 22 years and marries his secretary, Klara Ploehn.  Syberberg presents all this with a cool eye, mostly citing to documents and legal pleadings -- the scenes are anti-dramatic, mostly one person or a group of persons discussing strategy and tactics in the interminable lawsuits.  When May leaves his wife, we don't see the romance stirring between the novelist and Klara -- rather there is a cold discussion about spousal maintenance; again, the film's inclination is always to revert to legal analysis of the situation.   

The second half of Karl May, entitled "The Soul is a vast country into which we flee," multiplies themes and makes texts of subtexts.  We meet George Grosz and a young Adolf Hitler, both obsessed with May's books.  The writer becomes entangled in politics, although in a manner that I don't understand.  His last books, to the dismay of his fans, abandon the turbulent violence of his so-called Reisebuecher ("travel books" that are, of course, really novels).  May has written a pacifist tract called Peace on Earth, a book denouncing German imperialism in China, and this has earned him additional detractors.  He imagines himself Tolstoy and obsesses about his posthumous reputation.  His books are issued in a series with handsome arte nouveau covers and illustrations and these pictures, featuring idealized naked youths, proliferate through the film.  A question is raised as to May's sexuality -- one of his persecutors asks if he had a sexual relationship with Winnetou.  Increasingly, the film is occupied by long internal monologues, descriptions of the past recollected like a dream, soliloquies, the recitation of poems and high-flown rhetoric -- the landscape is spiritual:  May is prophetic -- in a posh Dresden coffee-house, he announces the utter destruction of the city.  An icy wind is blowing out of the future -- like Walter Benjamin's "Angel of History", Karl May is propelled backward into the future, an vast expanse of imaginary ruins heaped up behind him. 

At the outset of the second half of the film, we learn that May has won his lawsuit, prevailing after a trial involving many experts and sixty lay-witnesses.  But the forces arrayed against him, which taken on a ever more metaphysical tint, are undeterred.  They conduct research on May's criminal history, interview his cell-mate, and gathering more witnesses, prosecute a perjury case against him.  May's manor is searched and evidence of his questionable past is once more amassed.  Like King Lear, May lashes out against his enemies -- he sees his ex-wife behind all of these attacks and accuses her of "abdominal vampirism" among other things:  it is apparent that in his frenzy of rage, May is becoming unhinged.  Gerlach, who commands the forces battling May, now takes on the role of Faust's Mephisto -- he proclaims that he embodies the force that "stets verneint" (always contradicts) and that his role is to drive the writer into the light, to force him to do good by creating a paradise from the "artificial hells" of the litigation.  We learn that May was wholly blind until he was four and that, as a result, he imagined all around him to be "spirits" or souls -- this experience in his early childhood now authorizes him to speak for the German soul, the soul of the Volk.  The trial has now morphed into some kind of guardianship proceeding in which Gerlach's creature, the loathsome Lebius, purports to act as a legal guardian for Emma, May's ex-wife.  In Berlin, a bizarre trial is conducted -- a Mohawk Indian employed in a circus is called to testify as to whether he knows of another Native American named  Winnetou (needless to say he does not).  In the end, May is vindicated -- the Judge declares him the greatest writer in Germany, saying "you have written the heroic epics of the Wilhelmine era" -- and dismisses Lebius' last vindictive suit.  May goes to Vienna where he delivers a lecture to thousands of people -- Hitler, Heinrich Mann, and Trakl among them.  Then, he visits the Kaisergruft, the crypt containing the caskets of the Holy Roman Emperors, a sort of pilgrimage to the underworld where he kneels before the image of Death triumphant.  At his estate. May dies on a bier resting in front of his wife, dark-clad and expressionless like one of the Norns -- the bier and woman are outdoors, in front of a teepee, and there are rose petals strewn over May's chest and snow is falling.  Dittrich, May's old friend, announces that the novelist turned the savage, thieving and murdering Apaches into something like Greek  gods.  We see Gerlach brooding alone over the empire of tiny houses and villages and marching tin soldiers that he has made -- he reiterates that he has made Karl May into a great man by casting him into Hell.  In the last shot of the film, we see a splendid lion standing in a snow storm atop a hyena or wolf that the beast has vanquished.  The soundtrack during this visionary apotheosis thunders with Mahler and Liszt's Les Preludes.  It's an astonishing ending.

Syberberg's theme can probably be distilled to a simple statement:  the man of genius creates a world from his imagination:  May, born in the most wrenching poverty, created a world of noble explorers and their native followers -- he dignified the world by imagining it as a place of adventure, loyalty, and courage.  Gerlach's imaginary world is one that is always at war -- a place of perpetual strife that has the result of purifying the heroes who survive in that conflict.  The German soul yearns for a paradise that is not in this world -- an idealized utopia.  A general tells the camera:  "With Hoelderlin in their pockets and Karl May in their backpacks, our soldiers can win any war."  The chief beneficiary of this flight away from reality into an artificial, imaginary paradise will be Hitler.  He will harness these spiritual forces and make them into a paradise that will be indistinguishable from the lowest circles of Hell. 

In keeping with his vast theme, Syberberg's picture (and his other films as well) are titanic enterprises that create their own standards.  Judged against other, more conventional films, Karl May is fantastically tedious, repetitious, and obscure.  It's Brechtian elements, chiefly an endless citation of actual court records and transcripts, add to its authority and power, but is a daunting device that makes much of the film nearly unwatchable -- we don't see action, we see people reading texts.  Toward the end of the film, Syberberg seems to abandon the notion of showing us anything and just has people speak to the camera to tell us the meaning of the spectacle unfolding in the film.  But, I would argue, that some movies have sufficient moral and esthetic authority to create their own standards -- we can't really condemn Wagner because his operas are so long; the length and tedium is part of the experience.  And, I think this is true of Syberberg's trilogy -- it's difficult, metaphysical in the extreme, and not grounded in anything like a conventional narrative or conventional politics, but the film has the capacity to inspire awe. 

When I saw the picture, probably in the Spring of 1976, I was intensively studying German literature.  I invited a girl from my graduate seminar in German lyric poetry to attend the film with me.  People who study a foreign language can be divided into two camps -- there are those who wish to live in the foreign country, speak with the people, make friends with them, and perfect their accents; then, there are those whose interest in the language is philological and academic -- an interest in the literature and its history.  You can imagine to which camp I belonged.  (Although I have always greatly regretted not devoting more effort to the other aspect of language study.)  The girl who accompanied me to the film was someone who had lived in Germany, probably had German lovers, and, I suppose, ended up teaching German in some High School or Community College.  Needless to say, the film was meaningless to her, an arduous trial that she escaped by simply falling asleep and slumbering peacefully for the last two hours of the movie.  Obviously, this was our one and only date.

Hans-Juergen Syberberg was present and, I suppose, had to watch the Bell Auditorium, where such pictures were screened, empty out as the forty or so German professors and graduate students seated at the outset one by one left the theater to escape the film's tedium.  At the end, only a handful remained -- perhaps, 10 or 12 people in the audience.  Syberberg said a few words about the film and everyone got to shake his hand.  Syberberg was, then, probably about 35 or forty, a slender man with pale skin and perfectly Aryan features -- he might have been an extra playing a stormtrooper or Gestapo officer in a Hollywood war movie.  He sported a flamboyant scarf wrapped around his shoulders and throat. I asked him a long and tendentious question.  I had figured out that the subject of Ludwig was opera and that the medium governing Karl May was the 19th century, Wilhelmine novel.  This lead me to speculate that the medium that would control the presentation of Hitler would be film -- and, of course, I was spectacularly right in this surmise, although at the time, no one but Syberberg knew what Our Hitler was like.  (We get a glimmer of the Hitler film in the penultimate scene -- Gerlach seated among his toys lecturing a puppet of Karl May.)  I asked:  "Was the opening scene, utilizing the obviously stylized opera sets to show the palaces and jungles of the East, a transition from Ludwig?  And do the wipes between scenes signify pages being turned in Karl May?  Aren't we moving through a trilogy of films that begins with opera, progresses to a novel, and, then, must end with film?"  Syberberg professed to be confused by my question, which, of course, really wasn't a question at all.  He said:  "No, no, no.  My budget didn't let me go to Ceylon to film there -- otherwise, I would have done this.  I had to use the artificial sets because of money limitations."  I felt foolish then and I feel foolish now.