Sunday, July 15, 2018


Everyone knows that, in late June 2018, a plucky raccoon climbed to the top of the skyscraper occupied by Minnesota Public Radio.  The little creature was called "the MPR raccoon."  The MPR raccoon had to climb about 18 or 20 stories.  In The Skyscraper, Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson climbs 96 stories, heaving himself upward, on a huge crane parked conveniently close to a towering 202 level skyscraper that happens to be on fire.  It would be fun to say that the MPR raccoon's exploits were more thrilling than those of the Rock in this noisy 2018 thriller (directed by Marshall Thurber).  But, in fact, The Skyscraper is a fairly good movie of its type -- it is exciting, has good special effects, and the stunts are well-executed as well as, more or less, plausible.  There aren't too many blatant violations of the laws of physics and the story, although moronic, is, at least, consistent.

For those of us in Minnesota, the movie begins with evidence that no one in Hollywood has ever been to this State  (As Trump would say, we are in flyover country.)  At a place called Ash Lake, Minnesota, a domestic dispute has escalated into a massive stand-off involving members of the FBI.  This is wildly implausible because FBI members don't typically (or ever) get involved in battles between husbands and their wives.  Things get even more outrageous when the FBI team rappels down a six-hundred foot cliff to get to the cabin where an anguished husband is holding his wife and three children hostage.  Exactly where in the mountains of Minnesota is this supposed to be happening?  This is the obligatory trauma scene explaining why the Rock has retired from his life of violence and become a good family man, living, when next we see him, in the eponymous skyscraper in Hong Kong, and hobbling around on one prosthetic (but, as it turns out highly useful) leg.  He is security expert and has mastered the computer topography and defensive systems of the 202-story double helix-shaped tower.  The Rock goes off to a job interview.  Bad guys intervene and a bunch of people get killed by a team of Asian assassins led by a female ninja.  Here's where the first of the film's many reaction shots occurs:  the female ninja murders about 36 people in hand-to-hand combat -- the camera cuts to one of her associates who looks at her wide-eyed as in "Wow! where did she learn to do that?" and, then, shrugs nonchalantly.  Throughout the film, there are lots of images of people watching the Rock's exploits dangling from the outside of the tower.  At the climax, when all ends happily (except for the army of villains who have been killed), cheering crowds remind us how to respond to the derring-do on-screen -- it's manipulative and a homage to Die Hard, the obvious source for much of this film.

The movie is pretty much non-stop action.  People dodge fiery falling debris and hang from the brink of abysses over roaring flames.  The Rock climbs around on the outside of the skyscraper and, despite a dozen wounds, kills bad guys left and right.  Computers get hacked, shut down, and, then, rebooted in just the nick of time.  Elevators hurl through tubes lined with flames.  And there's a final shoot-out that is stolen in whole cloth from The Lady of Shanghai -- for some reason, the designer of the skyscraper has installed a pop-up hall of mirrors that occupies the interior of the pearl-shaped bulb atop the skyscraper.  There's absolutely no reason for the seventy-five or so obelisk-mirrors that surround the characters in the film's last ten minutes except to allow for much misdirection and fusillades of machine gun fire into the mirrors that erupt into shards.  (Welles staged the whole thing infinitely better.)  Everything is fun and, despite the high body count, this is family friendly entertainment -- the hero is battling to save his plucky wife and two children until the roles are reversed and she is battling to save him.  (The Rocks' wife, played by Neve Campbell, gets to duke it out with the evil lady Ninja -- thus, the film also boasts an impressive cat-fight.)  No one swears or drops any F-bombs and, so, you can take your kids to this picture without any fear of being embarrassed by the events on-screen.  Indeed, you can take your kids to the picture without any fear of anyone being frightened either -- although the situation is always dire, we know that Rock and his wife and two kids are going to survive every deadly situation into which they are hurled.  Just when things get most desperate, of course, we know that rescue is nigh. Ultimately, this is a weakness of a film of this kind.  We know that the high-priced stars are invulnerable.  (That's why it would be fair to say that the rescue of the Wild Boars from the cave in Thailand was, in fact, a lot more thrilling than this film because the outcome was always seriously in doubt -- not so in The Skyscraper.)  It would be nice to see the Rock ram his elbow into a glass-encased niche, breaking glass, access a fire extinguisher and axe, sever an artery in his arm, and bleed out on the floor.  When the Rock pitches a big man-sized fake-bronze column, an inscrutable ornament on one of the floors, off the skyscraper, I was rooting that the heavy object would land right on the head of Neve Campbell and one of the hero's kids.  But no such luck.  The issue is never ever in doubt.

Party Girl

Many years ago, I had friends who where members of the Xenon Dance Company, a modern dance ensemble.  Sometimes, the recording artist, Prince, would host parties in town.  (This was before he lived in his studio at Paisley Park.)  His emissaries would pay the girls in the dance company a hundred dollars each to come to the party and dance with his guests.  In Nick Ray's Party Girl, showgirls dancing at "The Golden Rooster", a big cabaret in Chicago, are paid to attend a party thrown by Rico Angelo (Lee J. Cobb), the figure playing Al Capone in the movie.  We see the girls putting on their sexiest evening gowns for the party.  Most of the girls hide their crisp, new hundred dollar bills paid to them for attending in their brassieres.  But one of them says:  "I need to put this somewhere where it won't be disturbed."  So she shoves the hundred dollar bill in her high-heeled shoe.  Prince and his guests were chivalrous, I'm told, and similar precautions weren't required at his soirees. 

Party Girl (1958) is an intelligent melodrama entangled with a elaborately produced MGM musical.  It's got gangsters and showgirls and so what's not to like.  Eddie Mueller, who introduced the film for TCM, says that Nick Ray was sick and close to breakdown due to his alcoholism and the rigors of shooting on location with Burl Ives in Wind over the Everglades and Richard Burton in Bitter Victory.  He wanted to work close to home in a studio and so accepted the assignment to direct Party Girl, a film entirely produced indoors on a sound-stage in Hollywood -- this was not Ray's preferred way of working but he wanted a job that wouldn't tax him too much.  In fact, the production of Party Girl was vexed as well -- Cyd Charisse, the star, was ill for much of the shoot and her sickness delayed the production.  Ray himself didn't like the final film much and, in later years, preferred not to talk much about it.  But the picture is, for better or worse, marked with Ray's signature themes and, certainly, a visual extravaganza, shot in brilliant, shockingly bright Technicolor in a cinemascope format.  The wide screen shots delivered in long takes are full of fascinating, sometimes inexplicable details, and Ray treats his frescos as fields in which scarlets and burgundy reds point out the details that he wants you to see.  The imagery is arresting in every way and, although the plot is over-complex, the film is compelling, an adult exploration of themes of corruption and complicity with evil. 

The "party girl" of the title is Cyd Charisse in the role of Vicki Grey, the leading showgirl at the "The Golden Rooster" revue.  Charisse looks old and tired in the film -- her face is visibly gaunt in some images and this adds to the film's effect.  She is paid to attend a party put on a by gangster, Rico Angelo -- a drunken orgy in which the mobster is mourning Jean Harlow's marriage (the film is set in the heart of Depression era Chicago -- a place where Ray had gone to college).  At the party, Vicki meets the cynical, but gentlemanly Tommy Farrell (Robert Taylor), a world-weary lawyer and mouthpiece for the gangster.  Farrell, who walks with a very bad limp and uses a cane, rescues Vicki from the importunities of a minor thug, and, ultimately, a complex relationship arises between the lawyer and the show-girl.  The lawyer is literally "crooked" -- he's been maimed by a childhood accident.  Vicki is basically a call-girl, a kind of prostitute, with a  bad back-story -- this is typical of Nick Ray's films:  she was raped when she was fifteen in a dive in Oklahoma and has been a tough cookie ever since that time.  At first, contempt is mutual between the prostitute and the shyster -- but, then, they come to realize that they are both variants of the same person, useful conspirators providing humiliating services to bad people.  The film posits the question:  who's the bigger whore -- Tommy Farrell, Rico Angelo's henchman and mouthpiece, or the prostitute?.  Of course, both the crooked lawyer and the bad girl try to go straight and, as per expectations, they fall in love.  The lawyer literally straightens up when he has surgery in Sweden that corrects some, but not all, of his limp.  Returning to Chicago, Angelo recruits him for one last criminal case defending a psychopathic murderer who has allied himself with the big Chicago boss as his small-town accomplice and gang-leader.  This crook, Cookie, is so vicious that he decides to short-circuit the criminal trial in which he is a defendant by bribing a juror.  The scheme is discovered and the case mistried.  Cookie blames Angelo for the mistrial and a full-fledged gang war erupts.  (Here, Ray uses the time-honored approach of showing the gang-war through a series of short one-shot sequences in which various people are machine-gunned -- this is frighteningly well done and reminds us that Ray could have been a great action movie director if he had been more interested in physical as opposed to psychological violence.  This sequence, which harkens back to Scarface, was obviously influential on Francis Coppola  in similar montage sequences in The Godfather.)  Angelo needs Tommy Farrell's services.  But, instead, the lawyer sickened by the whole mess, agrees to cooperate with the DA.  Farrell knows that he is doomed and so he sends Vicki to the coast.  But she doesn't make it.  Angelo's thugs catch her and drag her back, threatening to pour acid all over her face, to make Farrell recant his witness testimony.  Farrell buys time with his silver-tongued eloquence and, at the last minute, the authorities arrive for a big shoot-out that results in the death of all the gangsters.  (In the shoot-out, the thug who forced himself on Vicki in the early scenes in the movie is lured into the searchlit window and blasted by machine gun fire -- he dies in a cascade of glass.  Angelo tries to hurl the bottle of acid at Vicki but forgets that the lid has been removed, pouring the stuff into his own eyes.  It's all garish and brilliantly shot violence.)  The lawyer and the show-girl walk away from the massacre, disappearing into the jungle of the big city. 

The plot is borderline absurd but it's filled with tremendous set-pieces:  Angelo beats another thug half to death at a testimonial dinner for mobsters in the South Side Club.  Throughout the film, Lee J. Cobb is very frightening as the tightly coiled, obsessive gangster.  In the opening party scene, he plugs a picture of Jean Harlow with five shots from his .45.  A thug threatening Vicki invades her dressing room and burns his hand on one of the lights surrounding her mirror.  When Tommy Farrell's former wife shows up -- a pointless scene that just interrupts the movie -- Ray stages the shot with two brightly lit mirrors duplicating all the action:  the point is that the two women are both the same and different.  It's a startling sequence shot in a way that prefigures some of Fassbinder's more baroque compositions.  At the very beginning of the movie, Vicki's roommate, a showgirl is derided as chubby; she declines to attend the party with the mobsters because she is waiting for her married boyfriend's call -- the man has promised to divorce his wife.  When Vicki comes home from the party with Tommy in tow, she goes in the bathroom and finds her roommate dead in the bathtub.  The suicide has filled the tub with brown-red blood that has lapped over the floor.  We see this only for an instant, but the shot provides the color-key to the whole movie -- as the film proceeds, Ray uses scarlet and burgundy to point out details in the cinemascope image and we are always calibrating those colors against the soupy brown-red of blood in the tub.  Each red alludes to the showgirl's suicide and, further, suggests the perilous situation in which Vicki Grey finds herself -- Tommy Farrell is also married and has a wife who won't grant him a divorce.  (Ray gets red into even monochrome outdoor shots on city streets -- there is always someone selling bright red apples somewhere in the wide-screen image.)  Scenes in which Angelo threatens Tommy are remarkable for their décor -- we see swags of curtain as if from a 18th century grand portrait, satin curtains:  the gangster sits on a weird throne-like chair that seems inlaid with red velvet figures.  The throne has box-like edges that enclose the gangster and is as memorable a piece of furniture as anything in film history -- the only comparable image that I can recall is the red billiard table in Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut.  Several shots feature a large astrolabe, an item that seems to have migrated into the picture from a stage production of Brecht's Galileo -- I have no idea what it's doing at The Golden Rooster but there it is.  When Vicki is brought into the gangster's hideout at the South Side Club, her face is bizarrely bandaged -- it's as if she's already been mutilated by acid.  All of these little details, and there are dozens more, combine to create a film that is intensely interesting, even when your mind wanders a little during the vagaries of the plot.  There are also three impressive dance numbers exploiting Cyd Charisse's expressive legs and buttocks -- she has small breasts but these are also on display throughout the movie as well.  Somehow the MGM costuming department manages to dress her in yards and yards of red silk while she seems to be, more or less, naked.  I didn't like this movie twenty years ago when I saw it in a pan-and-scan version -- you need the full image to appreciate Ray's ingenuity in filling the screen with interesting things to see.     

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Three Businessmen

What happened to Alex Cox?  Cox directed two landmark picture in the early 80's, Repo Man and Sid and NancyRepo Man was callow, vicious, and brilliant.  Sid and Nancy was squalid but eerily romantic, a signature work of its time.  Then, Cox seemed to fizzle out -- his Walker, an indictment of American policy in central American, was an epic failure with both audiences and critics.  His parody spaghetti Western, starring just about every hipster in Hollywood, seemed an in-joke, Beat the Devil for the late eighties.  Then, Cox seems to have vanished.  This is an illusion -- Cox, who is British, continued making films on smaller and smaller budgets; no one in the United States saw the movies because they weren't distributed here and, so, it seemed that one of the world's most innovative directors was simply MIA.  (The same thing happened for about two decades with Robert Altman -- no one wrote about his films and, if they were released, no one saw them; but, of course, he was working the whole time.)  Cox apparently had shows on British TV, wrote a column for Sight and Sound about spaghetti Westerns ("A Thousand Ways to Die") and, of course, made movies that were never screened, as far as I know, in the United States.  One of these films is 1999's Three Businessmen.  It's a slight film, produced on a tiny budget, and mostly a "shaggy dog" story -- that is, intentionally overlong for its subject and avowedly pointless.  Here is where Cox runs into trouble, I suppose, with general audiences:  I can't recommend the movie because it's not really worth the effort to locate and view -- on the other hand, it's an estimable little film, with an interesting twist at the end and, I would argue, a work that should fascinate cinephiles.  For the rest of the world, the movie was marketed primarily on Debbie Harry's version of the old cowboy classic "Ghost Riders in the Sky" that plays over the closing titles -- if you're a fan of that song (and who isn't?) the DVD can be had for about five dollars including shipping and I recommend you pick it up.

An American art-dealer (specializing in work of the Southwest) appears in a grim, dreary Liverpool.  The art-dealer is played by Miguel Sandoval, the only instantly recognizable face in the film.  He has two huge roller bags that he drags through the cold, grey city streets.  (At last, he capitulates, hires a cab, which drives him about 150 feet to the door of the hotel he has been hiking to.)  The hotel is like an urban version of Kubrick's Overlook in The Shining-- it's opulent, but no one seems around and the doors of the rooms are all missing numbers or hidden in the darkness so that Sandoval's character (Benny Reyes) has to use his cell-phone to illumine them.  Benny sits around his eerie room -- there are knocks on the door with no one present -- and, then, goes to the dining room.  He's seated along side a British art dealer and Liverpudlian, Frank King, played by Alex Cox himself.  There's no smell of food in the dining room -- "not surprising in an English restaurant," King says blandly -- and when the two men go to the kitchen, it's totally abandoned.  No one is present in the hotel at all and so the two men go out onto Matthew Street, looking for a place to eat.  They look at the Cave Club where the Beatles performed and, then, see a statue bust of Carl Jung in a niche overlooking the sidewalk.  What is this doing here?  The men wander around the night streets of the city bickering and looking for some place to eat, an objective complicated by the fact that Frank is a vegetarian.  At every turn, they are thwarted --either the restaurant closes as they enter or the waiters won't serve them for inscrutable reasons.  They are able to buy drinks but don't really get drunk.  At some point, the attentive viewer will grasp that the two men are no longer in Liverpool at all -- in fact, their midnight peregrinations take them to Rotterdam, where Benny has a panic-attack when they are finally presented with an opulent table of food, Hong Kong and Tokyo.  The two businessmen believe that they are still in Liverpool and, of course, why wouldn't they make this mistake? -- but it gradually dawns on the viewer that, for instance, the ferry across the Mersey River is, instead, a ferry crossing Hong Kong harbor.  At one point, they find a Japanese garden and orient themselves on their Liverpool map where that garden is marked -- but, by this time, it's obvious to the viewers that they are, in fact, in Japan. The men's wandering takes place in a wasteland of shuttered commercial districts, international restaurants (an Indian place or a Thai restaurant or Irish pub is pretty much the same all over the world) -- they take subways and els and ferries, passing through ghostly landscapes where the escalators are never working with desolate skyways and pedestrian bridges that lead nowhere.  Throughout this all, the men keep up a steady banter -- it's all pretty trivial and banal:  Benny is an optimist, an American with a "can-do" attitude; Frank is a pessimist who despairs at the state of the world.  In the end, the two men take a cab from a Japanese restaurant, where they have been denied a meal by an enigmatic and extremely polite chef.  The cab deposits them in the desert and, at this point, it's clear to everyone (except the two hapless heroes) that we aren't in Liverpool any more.  Joined by a third businessman, Leroy, a Black man from Chicago who is bearing a gift for his child, the men hitch a mule-cart into a desolate little adobe village.  (Throughout their trek, all walls have been plastered with a poster for a musician named DaddyZ -- I didn't understand the significance of these posters, which are ubiquitous, until I listened to the commentary.)  The men finally get a meal, apparently refried beans with some meat, and there is a final, very short, encounter.  After the encounter, the men see that they are on Matthew Street, although the street sign is on a half-block of adobe buildings in the sun-baked desert village; the black man says that he sees a sign for Lakeshore Boulevard and so he believes he's back in Chicago.  The proprietor of the tiny café where the men have eaten goes out to pull down the signs advertising Daddy Z on the adobe walls and Debbie Harry's voice sings "Ghost Riders in the Sky."  The movie seems to be about 70 minutes long and is a Bunuel pastiche -- in The Discrete  Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a group of oligarchs (who turn out to be drug smugglers) keep trying to meet for a dinner party that is always deferred by absurd, surrealistic accidents.  (Cox's production company is Exterminating Angel, referring to another Bunuel film and the strange trek across a terrain that becomes increasingly disordered is similar to the Spanish director's work in The Milky Way -- in fact, a theological subtext in Cox's film is similar to the debates about various heresies that occur during the pilgrimage to Santiago Campostela shown in The Milky Way.) The final twist is clever, and surprising:  it turns on the notion that each of the men is a king at least by name. -- Frankie King, Bennie Reyes, and Leroy.  I don't know what the ending is supposed to mean but it's thought-provoking.

The film documents a classic anxiety dream.  It's obsolete today because everyone has Google Maps on their phone and the ap "Near Me" as well to help find pubs and open restaurants in the circumambient area.  Such things were apparently unknown in 1999.   The banter between the two men is not particularly interesting and highly stereotyped -- indeed, I don't think it's particularly well-written and, generally, seems implausible.  Furthermore, Sandoval and Cox are not very good actors -- Sandoval is all phony bonhomie and not at all convincing (I'm used to him playing a more melancholy character and he seems miscast as a cock-eyed American optimist).  Cox is pretty terrible -- he's an odd-looking duck, sort of Mad magazine's Alfred E. Neuman on stilts and he doesn't give his lines convincing readings; in fact, he's the worst thing in the movie).  The camera-work features long takes that are sometimes a tiny bit wobbly -- the camerawork is not flawless but it is pretty good. There's something contrived and amateurish about the film, but, on the other hand, I thought it was interesting from beginning to end.    

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Square (Film Essay)



The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.


Ruben Ostlund is a Swedish director born in 1976. His film The Square (2016) was awarded the the Palm d’Or prize at Cannes in 2017. If he continues at his present pace, he will be one of the world’s foremost, and most interesting, directors.


Ostlund spells his name with an umlaut over the "o". I can’t reproduce that effect in this note.


Ostlund parents were card-carrying members of the Swedish Communist party. He was born and raised on the island of Styrso, near Gothenburg, Sweden.


Once, Ostlund traveled with his parents to Ireland. He was ten or eleven. In the city of Cork, he saw children his age who were homeless and beggars. – How could this be? He thought. At that time, there were no homeless people or beggars in Sweden.


Ostlund is an excellent skier. He began making films to document his exploits, and those of his friends, on the ski slopes. These were "extreme sport films." The films were successful and Ostlund gradually became interested in other kinds of movies.


The two films that Ostlund claims to have influenced him most powerfully are Harmony Korinne’s Gummo and Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown. Both films follow the adventures of misfits – in Gummo (1997), Korinne shows us outsiders and marginalized people in Xenia, Ohio, a town destroyed by a great tornado (the catastrophe hovers in the background of the film). Code Unknown (2000) involves interactions between French Parisians and refugees – Ostlund has claimed to film the be one of the greatest movies ever made in a poll conducted by Sight and Sound. Korinne’s movie is shapeless, improvised, and haphazardly shot; Code Unknown is shot with icy, carefully orchestrated precision.


The Guitar Mongoloid (2004) is Ostlund’s first feature. It involves outsiders interacting with one another in a Swedish town – from reviews, it seems to be closely related to Korinne’s Gummo. Ostlund next directed Involuntary (2008) – the film tells five interconnected stories. Play (2011) is a disturbing film about Black kids bullying White kids – the movie ignited an enormous controversy in Sweden about racism. All of Ostlund’s films have been intensely controversial in Sweden.


Force Majeur (2014) is Ostlund’s "break-out" picture, the movie that first brought him extensive fame outside of Sweden. Force Majeur is a study of embattled Swedish masculinity. At a ski resort, an avalanche suddenly roars down a mountain side threatening a the chalet at the foot of the ski-slope. The protagonist, who is married with two children, instinctively flees from terrace café engulphed by the avalanche, abandoning his wife and kids. Later, he claims he didn’t abandon them but, instead, got lost in the haze of powdery snow enveloping the café. Of course, it’s the 21st century and women have long outgrown the notion that men are their protectors. So why should the protagonist’s momentary loss of nerve, his cowardice, matter to anyone? But, of course, it does. The film is laugh-out loud funny in spots but, also, disturbing. At the beginning of the movie, there’s a shot of the entire Swedish family, all of them healthy, slender, and well-groomed, carefully polishing their teeth with matching Sonicare toothbrushes – the shot perfectly establishes the film’s themes. Life is supposed to be within our control. If we brush conscientiously ("a conscientiously applied program of dental hygiene") and floss, we won’t lose our teeth. And, then, someone punches you in the mouth.


Some critics believe Ostlund’s films Force Majeur and The Square are best considered as "cringe comedy." This is comedy of the kind shown on HBO’s Curb your Enthusiasm and the network TV show The Good Place.


In 2015, Ostlund worked with Kalle Boman to install a glowing square in a museum in Varnamo, Sweden, the Vandalorum Museum. A plaque posted in the square stated the words with which I have begun these notes. People immediately began using the square for protests, impromptu musical performances, and marriage proposals. The square was, then, relocated to a public park in Varnamo. Teenagers repeatedly stole the plaque and protestors appropriated the square for their protests. Buskers performed there and people got married within the square.


For The Square, Ostlund planned to stage a public concert with an actor portraying conduct modeled on GG. Allin. Allin was a punk ("murder") rock performer, who ripped his flesh open on stage, defecated, and threw the excrement into the audience after tasting it. (Allin, needless to say, is not with us today – he died of a heroin overdose in 1993). Ostlund viewed video tapes of Allin’s stage shows, most of which resulted in his arrest and imprisonment, and determined that these kinds of antics were too extreme. So he looked for an alternative.


Oleg Kullik is a Moscow-born Russian conceptual artist. He says that his art works disregard "the animal-human horizon" – that is, he acts like a dog. In one of his installations, Kullik stood in a museum, chained to the wall, with a sign next to him warning people to stay away. When someone got too close, Kullik lunged at the man and bit him – then, he tore free from his chain and destroyed several art works also in the room. An enormous controversy ensued.


Ostlund’s The Square contains a scene already infamous – this is the episode, based on Kullik’s conceptual piece, in which the American actor, Terry Notary, pretends to be an ape and terrorizes a black-tie gathering. To prepare for this scene, Ostlund spend several days at a zoo in a cage with Bonobo apes learning how to interact with them.


The Square was on everyone’s ten-best list in 2017 when the picture had its international premiere at Cannes. It was the most highly reviewed film (in polls by international critics) in that year. The picture won the Palm d’Or in Cannes and just about every other award available. It was nominated for, but did not win, an Oscar.


Terry Notary, the muscular fellow who plays the ape man, was born in southern California and very early in his life diagnosed with extreme hyperactivity. Notary, however, was a superb gymnast and went to UCLA where he competed in that sport and took theater classes. Later, he was hired by Tim Burton as a motion coach to work with actors simulating apes in that director’s remake of Planet of the Apes (2001). He has appeared in motion capture animation in The Hobbit trilogy, Avatar, and many other films.


"Monkey see, monkey do." Ostlund is interested in the so-called "Bystander Effect" – this is where a violent act is committed but the people watching do nothing, presumably because no one else is intervening.


"Monkey see, monkey do." Ostlund says: "Human beings are imitating creatures." For this reason, Ostlund will not read, let alone direct, any film involving murder or killing. He believe such films are inducements to murder. But, paradoxically, I would argue that Ostlund’s films are terrifically violent in some ways – witness the infamous scene with the monkey man.


"Monkey see, monkey do." Ostlund says that people who watch romantic comedies are more likely to jettison their wives or husbands in pursuit of some other relationship. He claims there are statistics showing this.


In Tarantino’s films, thugs always hold their pistols sideways. "Monkey see, monkey do." Since these films were released, hospitals have noted a large influx of people wounded in gun battles by morons who fire their pistols turned sideways. You can’t hit anything that way and so gun battles are more violent, requiring many more shots to kill or badly wound anyone.


What are the limits of liberalism? Seamus Heaney once said that the violence in Northern Ireland was probably correlated to the Viking origins of that society. His book of poems, North, seems to develop this thesis – the IRA gangsters are placed in the context of Viking raids and mutilated bog bodies. But a critic applied common sense to Heaney’s fanciful argument – if we took him seriously, then, Norway and Sweden (and Denmark) should be the most violent societies on the face of the earth. They are, of course, among the most pacific.



So what are the limits of liberalism? The Square is an experiment that tests this question. A neighborhood in Connecticut was very liberal and tolerant. The people in that place voted for the Democrats in every election, were opposed to all forms of bigotry, and vehemently supported immigration into this country. A researcher hired 80 Hispanic men and women for a study. The Latino people were covertly bused to the suburb and, then, paid to ride the train from the Connecticut station to Manhattan on a daily basis. Within a week, the people living in the neighborhood began to express strong anti-immigrant bias. The phenomenon is called NIMB – Not in my backyard.


Cringe comedy – The Square contains several instances of "cringe comedy", most notably the post-coital squabble between the hero and the American journalist over a used condom. Cringe comedy was pioneered in the United States by the TV show The Office (2005 - 2013). Other notable examples are Larry David’s Curb your Enthusiasm and Da Ali G Show (as well as all of Sacha Baron Cohen’s films). In Da Ali G Show, Cohen’s character Ali G interviewed the well-known feminist Naomi Wolf. She was not in on the joke. Ali G asks Wolf: "Do you think women should have equal rights in the workplace." Wolf says yes and asks: "Do you?" "Well the problem with that," he responds, "is that they might start asking for that at home." (Naomi Wolf sued Cohen to keep the episode from airing in the United States and said he was "racist" for mimicking a Black man on his show. Cohen responded by saying that she was "quite a good rapper" – he had his guest do a rap with him at the end of their interviews – and that it was a shame that people couldn’t see that performance.)


Are we really as tolerant and kind and generous as we think we are?

The Unholy Three

A giant stands in front of a log cabin.  He carries a surprisingly dainty rifle in his hands,  Next to him, there is a bald infant wearing a dress-like white garment.  The infant urges the giant to shoot at a couple standing a dozen yards away in a soft-focus paradisiacal meadow.  The couple consists of a beautiful girl and big brutish man who is dragging behind him a wooden mannequin, articulated so as to be limp as a corpse.  Locked in a cage in the log cabin, there is a terrifying ape with long, sharp teeth.  Thus, a sequence in Tod Browning's garish The Unholy Three (1925).  The movie is pulp trash, but it's persuasive -- a fever dream mainlined into the audience.  On the surface, the picture doesn't really make sense -- but the surface of a film like this is secondary to the seething obsessions and anxieties that Browning packages in this little, absurdly plotted picture.

We start in Freaks territory:  Browning's picture about side-show performers and their revenge on the "normal" (who are physically fit but morally loathsome) was one of his signature films, a picture that was so fundamentally disturbing that it destroyed the director's career.  Here the tone is lighter:  we see a fat woman fanning herself, a skeleton man looking appropriately morose, a tattooed lady, conjoined twins, a hootchy-cooch dancer and, then, our three principals, Hector, the strong man (Victor McLagen), a raunchy midget who likes like one of the Katzenjammer Kids, and Professor Echo, the ventriloquist, played by the great Lon Chaney.  While Echo does his act, his girlfriend, sweet Rosie O'Grady, circulates among the rubes, picking their pockets.  It's all suitably sordid and closely observed -- the freaks sell post-cards after their shows, milking the side-show patrons for a few more pennies.  A matron tells her son that if he doesn't smoke, he'll be as strong as the strong man -- who immediately lights up a cigarette as soon the crowd departs.  (The midget favors big, fat cigars.)  There's a fracas and the carnies join forces to fight the rubes.  This is no life and, so, the strong man, midget, and Professor Echo form a criminal alliance to prosecute their larceny on a grander scale.  The notion is that the three will form a sort of household and operate a pet store named after old lady O'Grady, the grandmother of the winsome pickpocket.  Old lady O'Grady is played by  Lon Chaney, an actor of amazing versatility who impressively impersonates a sweet old Irish granny.  The midget, pushed in a perambulator or playing on the floor with toddler toys, pretends to be an infant.  The big thug just stays out of the picture.  This grotesque family's criminal enterprise is selling parrots to the wealthy.  Echo makes the parrot seem to talk.  But once the bird is ensconced in the wealthy person's mansion, the feathered friend becomes mute.  The shop-keeper, the nice Mrs. O'Grady (Lon Chaney), then, makes a house call.  During the house-call, the bird mysteriously starts speaking again and, while the rich people, are distracted, the mansion is cased, hidden gems located, and, then, stolen.  All goes well until the midget and Hector the strong man attempt a home invasion on their own.  They kill the tycoon and injure his three-year-old daughter.  The "Unholy Three", then, decide to pin the crime on Rosie O'Grady's milquetoast boyfriend -- they put the contraband in his closet and, then, flee town, hiding in a cabin in the mountains.  One the beasts for sale in the pet shop is a very nasty-looking chimpanzee -- what the primate is doing in a bird shop is a question the movie leaves unanswered.  The boyfriend goes on trial, facing the electric chair.  Rosie O'Grady loves her weakling boyfriend to the extent that she is willing to offer herself sexually to Lon Chaney (who secretly loves the winsome girl).  Touched by her devotion, Chaney leaves the cabin, goes to the trial, and "throws" his voice to confess to the crime while the bespectacled and timorous boyfriend is silently mouthing the Lord's Prayer on the witness stand.  (Why this is done is completely unclear to me.)  Back at the cabin, the ape gets loose with predictably dire consequences for Hector, the strong man, and the malevolent midget.  (Rosie escapes.)  Rosie's boyfriend is acquitted and, improbably enough, Professor Echo is forgiven for his crimes.  Rosie embraces her boyfriend while Lon Chaney suppresses a tear and shrugs off his own sadness, returning to the sawdust and tinsel of the sideshow.  I've summarized the plot to show that it is completely idiotic.  But, there are elements of this bargain-basement family melodrama that are deeply unsettling:  Lon Chaney spends half of the movie cross-dressing -- he wears an apron and skirts even when he's not impersonating O'Grady's Irish granny.  The midget is purely malignant -- we see him creeping up a rope and, then, crawling through the transom to rob a house or plant the incriminating evidence in the hapless boyfriend's apartment.  There are several bravura suspense scenes that probably influenced Hitchcock -- in one, the midget pretending to be a toddler plays with a toy elephant that apparently dispenses peanuts (the elephant is also crammed with stolen rubies); this all takes place under the nose of dim-witted detective who gobbles peanuts from the elephant.  In the court scene, Chaney sends a message to the feckless boyfriend's lawyer, but no one reads it -- everyone plays with the message, folds it drops it on the floor, waves it around but doesn't see the writing until, of course, the last possible moment.  There's something filthy and subversive about the film's parody of the nuclear family -- the family's totemic creatures are the mindless parrot, an automaton repeating what the master of the house has said, and the vicious, brutish ape locked away in a cabinet, the spirit of misrule and anarchy and rebellion waiting to erupt. 

Silent film audiences seem to have enjoyed interludes that I will call "facial arias" -- these are improvisations in which the actor demonstrates the depth of his distress or rage or fear by expressive facial contortions.  Chaney, of course, was the great master of this art and, on several occasions, he warps his big ugly face into sorrow, then, fear, then, shame and, at last, rage -- it's a fantastic spectacle.  Chaney specialized in playing tender brutes -- that is, sentimental monsters; he's too ugly to get the girl for whom he yearns, but his love is true and, so, in the end, we identify with him and feel sorrow for his character.  (This is best demonstrated in another really excellent film 1926's Tell it to the Marines in which Chaney's tough drill sergeant loves the girl but, of course, can't win her -- the conventionally handsome hero ends up with the heroine; this movie has no make-up stunts but is still fantastically compelling on the strength of Chaney's acting).  Most surprising, however, is Mae Busch playing the pick-pocket and, then, damsel in distress.  I know Mae Busch, her hair platinum-colored, as the improbably beautiful but cruel wife of Oliver Hardy in a number of two-reelers and feature films from the 30's -- most notably the ineffable Sons of the Desert.  In The Unholy Three,  Busch sports a brunette bob, a bit like the sleek helmet coiffure of Louise Brooks and she is tremendous -- when she concludes that she will have to sleep with Chaney to save her boyfriend, her facial gymnastics are astounding.  She grits her teeth, cries, twists her lips into expressions of pure panic, and, finally, adopts a beatific expression like the Virgin Mary.  I've never seen anything like it.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Drum

The Drum (1938) is an oddly muted piece of British propaganda, a film extolling the virtues of Imperialist rule over India's northwest frontier -- the territory near the Khyber Pass that is now Pakistan.  Directed ineptly by Zoltan Korda, the movie is a big-budget Technicolor production, although most of its imagery is monochromatic, the dusty beige mountains and clay brick towers of the arid foothills to the Hindukush.  The picture was largely made in Chitral, a mountain province in oday's Pakistan and a title thanks the Mehtar (the hereditary ruler) for his generosity -- Chitral was nominally a sovereign territory but subject to the Raj's suzerainty so that the impoverished mountain province was a puppet kingdom to the British.  (The film seems to be set in the twenties -- the villain fought with the Turks at Gallipoli).  The interior shots were obviously made in London and some of the landscapes show the equally barren mountains in northern Wales. 

The movie is based on an adventure novel by A.E.W. Mason, the chap who wrote The Four Feathers and it's the sort of stuff that was dated when the film was produced.  In a skirmish, British troops, (they are Scottish Highlanders) encounter machine-gun fire.  This is alarming because it may tip the balance of power in the Hindukush.  A British agent played by Roger Livesy has learned that rebellion is stirring among the mountain folk.  He travels with his Scottish regiment to Tokot, a friendly principality, where he meets the ruler and his son, Prince Azmir, played by Sabu. (He was 14 years old at that time.) The friendly ruler is assassinated by his brother (or, perhaps, merely wounded and imprisoned -- the film is so poorly made this plot point is confusing).  The evil brother, played by Raymond Massey, is stirring up the Muslims to a fanatical uprising.  He's not a Believer himself, choosing to place his faith in the machine guns that are being smuggled into the mud-brick city.  Prince Azmir flees to Peshawar where he had various adventures and is tracked by assassins working for Massey's rebel warlord.  The evil brother plots to lure the British to a banquet so that the regiment can be machine-gunned.  The hero, Carruthers, learns of the plot.  But, for reasons hard to explain, he leads his men to the banquet anyway.  Meanwhile a large army of British troops is marching from Peshawar to the relief of the endangered regiment in Tokot.  They come a little too late -- there's a big battle in the palace when the British are ambushed and, then, another big battle in the city as the army arrives.  Sabu is helping the British and sounds an alarm on a sacred drum.  The rebels are defeated and Sabu is set up by his Imperial protectors as the new ruler of the regime. 

The movie is a mess.  None of its plot points cohere.  Roger Livesy, playing Carruthers attends the feast even though he knows an ambush is going to occur.  Livesy has a beautiful wife (Valerie Hobson) but she's just an elegant prop and mostly serves as a foil for elaborate and hypocritical praise of her beauty by Massey's villain.  Sabu's role is underwritten and he really doesn't figure into the action in any major way -- when he sounds the drum, it doesn't mean anything:  the big climactic battle is already underway.  Rescuers come too late to avert the war and, so, all the derring-do amounts to nothing.  Although the film might be perceived as racist, or, at least, a full-throated defense of Imperialism, the picture doesn't really seem offensive -- this is because of two factors:  Livesy's role as leading man and Korda's utterly inept editing.  Livesy always seems embarrassed on screen -- he's like a burly sidekick who has suddenly been inexplicably promoted to leading man.  (This is his charm in the much better and more ambitious Powell - Pressburger films in which he features, The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death.)   Livesy mumbles and has a strangely husky voice -- he always sounds smitten with stage-fright.  He's not spectacularly handsome and seems inordinately modest and unassuming.  In fact, he's more than a little bit dull and stodgy -- you can't figure out why the spectacularly beautiful Valerie Hobson is with him.  (She can't figure out the role either and simply ends every scene with him in a romantic clinch, avoiding the need for any speechifying.)  There's no fire in Livesy and, therefore, no conviction -- hence, the casually racist aspects of the film seem harmless.

Korda has no idea how to edit film.  The movie seems a slide-show with some of the slides jumbled-up and out-of-order.  He doesn't establish place and jumps between sets in a bewildering way.  Bad guys skulk around, the Brits enjoy whiskey and water, and there's no sense for how the images are related.  We can't tell the distance between locales where actions are taking place.  Furthermore, shots are mismatched -- when someone goes through a threshold you think they are going inside.  The next shot reveals that they have gone out of the building. People enter from directions that don't seem consistent with where we earlier saw them.  Space is all disorganized.  The battle scenes seem randomly cut and the action sequences don't build to any kind of climax. 
By contrast with rousing American films on this same topic (Lives of the Bengal Lancer and Gunga Din), the British picture seems to be morose, ashamed, and lacks all conviction.  I'm not sure this is entirely due to Korda's incompetence.  There is a distinct undercurrent of futility in this film, a sense that the Imperialist project is not worth the energy and violence necessary to sustain it.  The poor editing suggests that the British simply don't know where they are at any given time and the motto of this action film -- "It could have been worse" -- is pretty dispiriting.  Livesy seems mildly depressed throughout the whole film and its climax, the Raj appointing a 14-year-old boy as its imperial stooge is not exactly cause for celebration.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Ivan the Terrible (Part One)

Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible (1945 - 1946) is a film that scholars spend their lives studying.  The film-maker intended so much by this movie that, in some ways, the picture itself is almost unintelligible, a bizarre pageant of grotesque tableaux, a narrative like an iceberg with ninety percent of the meaning concealed.  Like Finnegans Wake or The Waste Land, you need a commentary in order to access this work.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the viewer must be advised that the various layers of meaning encoded in this picture are not all evident.  Eisenstein was always a self-indulgent artist and here, paradoxically, under the least auspicious circumstances for self-expression that can be imagined, he indulges himself the most.  Stalin commissioned the film, a mind-boggling fact that makes the production of this movie as fraught as that other great, but much less interesting, folly, Harlan Veit's Kolberg, a movie made at the end of World War II on orders by Joseph Goebbels.  Even though both pictures are epic in scale, there is something weirdly claustrophobic and disjointed about them -- psychosis runs close to the surface.  Further, Eisenstein worked on the picture for years before an opportunity to actually film his script arrived -- he is said to have filled-up 100 notebooks with sketches and notes; he read widely and obsessively in four or five languages about Ivan the Terrible, toured palaces and forts, researched the clothing and fashion of the 16th century, and, then, imposed upon all of this raw material, his own psycho-drama:  critics observe that, in his research papers, Eisenstein's pen sometimes slips and for "Tsar" he writes "Father."  (Eisenstein announced to his collaborators that he was modeling Ivan's character on that of his own father -- the template, however, was broad enough for Stalin to see his portrait in the increasingly nightmarish film and the dictator halted production before more than a few reels of the projected third film in the trilogy could be shot).  Eisenstein had gained a lot of weight and lost most of his hair -- he looks like a fat, sad clown in the footage showing him on set -- and he suffered a heart attack when the second part of the epic was first screened and, then, immediately suppressed by Stalin.  (Part Two of the film, containing a famous Technicolor sequence, was not formally released until a political thaw in 1958.)  Accordingly, to properly appreciate the picture, the viewer must assimilate to his encounter with the film the actual history of 16th century in Russia, the biography of Stalin, the USSR's travails in the Second World War, the history of censorship and repression in Russia, and Eisenstein's own autobiographical commentary on the film.  The movie also encapsulates much of the history of film in the first half of the 20th century and has a score by Prokofiev to boot. 

On first viewing, Part One of Ivan the Terrible resembles a less beautifully lit version of The Scarlet Empress, Joseph von Sternberg's sado-masochistic bio-pic involving the loves of Catherine the Great.   In both cases, décor threatens to overwhelm the film with huge and grotesque statuary lurking under enormous icons in the churches and palaces depicted in the narrative.  The Scarlet Empress, although a very great film, represents variations on a Hollywood theme -- a lovelorn leading lady and her sacrifices.  By contrast, Ivan the Terrible (Part One) is wholly chaste -- a suggested romance between Ivan's best friend, the courtier Prince Kurbsky, and the tyrant's wife, Anastasia, consists of some sidelong glances by the man, an attempt to touch Anastasia followed by her horrified rejection of the suitor.  (This is not to say that Part One is without erotic frisson:  at one point, a group of Tartar boys, all of them beautiful, are stripped and tied to a palisade.  This is done by Kurbsky to show his ferocity to the defenders of the besieged Muslim city of Kazan.  The defenders of the city perforate the boys with arrows in a sequence that invokes images of Saint Sebastian, a Gay icon.)  The Scarlet Empress is about sexual repression and unrequited love; Ivan the  Terrible (Part One) is political -- it shows how Ivan consolidates his power in the face of what seem to innumerable conspirators seeking to destroy him.  (The conspirators are generically described as "Boyars.")  At the outset of the film, we see Ivan's coronation and his gilding -- two courtiers, one of them Kurbsky, pour a seemingly endless cascade of gold coins over his head and shoulders.  The coronation scene features whispering conspirators, a demonic-looking woman (a sort of Soviet Macbeth) with her mentally retarded son Vladimir (she has ambitions for him to be crowned Tsar) and various noblemen wearing absolutely grotesque hats and ruffs.  People are dressed in fantastical clothing and huge painted frescos glare out of the gloom.  The doors to rooms are like mouse-holes in old cartoons -- tiny three-foot high archways requiring characters to bow deeply to pass through them.  The actors all glare at one another like figures in a demented silent movie -- all the acting is expressionistic and generally involves staring at one another with huge, sinister, globe-like eyes.  Eyes are the focus of much of the mise-en-scene -- huge iconic eyes frescoed on walls bear down on the characters in the churches and throne-rooms; the actors are mostly unblinking and their eyes, shifting nervously back and forth in their sockets, are like cameras recording events.  Indeed, the best way to watch the film is focus on the eyes and think of them as indicia of mood (mostly paranoid and hysterical) as well as recording mechanisms, photographic devices that are making a record of the proceedings to be shown to the secret police.  When Ivan marries Anastasia, who may have been Kurbsky's mistress, servants carry larger-than-life-size swans full of food to the banquet table.  But, then, news arises that the Tartar ambassador has arrived with a message to Ivan.  (The Mongol isn't exactly the soul of discretion:  he challenges Ivan to a war and courteously suggests that the Russian Tsar kill himself to avoid humiliation at the hands of his emperor.)  Ivan rushes an army to Kazan, lays siege to the walled city, directing operations from a conical sand hill capped by a tent that is conical itself and represents the Russian Tsar's crown.  Sinuous queues of soldiers march in ornamental patterns around the city and huge bronze guns shaped like dragons are aimed at the walls.  The city falls and, on the way home, Ivan becomes ill.  It's not clear whether he's dissembling to lure his foes into open revolt or actually sick.  The ever-present mobs of black-crow Priests administer last rites and set a Bible over his face (we see Ivan surreptitiously peeping out from under the huge gilded book.)  Ivan doesn't die, but several of the traitors in his court are emboldened to action.  His chief nemesis, the Russian lady Macbeth, poisons Anastasia.  Her corpse is set on a bier eight feet tall surrounded by ten foot clay or terra-cotta candles.  Ivan rages and decides to flee to the country hurling down the huge candelabra.  He goes to a bizarre Max Reinhardt style set of white terraces and archways and narrow, primitive stairways.  It's winter.  Ten-thousand Russians come from Moscow and form a huge serpentine queue marching across the white and frozen steppe.  They want their Tsar to return to Moscow.  Some aspects of the film are hieratic, resembling Egyptian bas relief -- Eisenstein manipulates the image to show Ivan's importance in terms of his size.  In the final scenes in Part One, we have enormous close-ups of Ivan with his spiky, bristling beard framed to show the vast multitude of Russian peasants and tradesfolk marching across the steppe to petition for his return -- he is huge with eyelid-less glaring eyes and a bizarrely misshapen head (it seems to come to a sharp point at its occiput) and the insistent multitude is tiny.  In other scenes, Ivan casts a forty foot shadow against walls while traitorous courtiers scuttle this way and that like frightened rats.  Nikolai Cherkasov plays Ivan and he is certainly impressive in a fatally grandiose way -- in some scenes, he looks vaguely like Elsa Lancaster's Bride of Frankenstein, turning his head with birdlike precision to ferret out signs of treason in his court with his unblinking, search-light eyes.  Eisenstein's homosexuality seems to be on display in many of the images -- men are shot in soft focus and provided full glamor treatment:  Kurbsky is prettier than any of the women in the movie.  The film's primary female character is the terrifying harridan, the mother of the soft, effeminate and mentally retarded Vladimir -- he snatches flies and cups them to his ear to hear them buzz.  The harridan looks like a man and talks like one too and shows no signs of being female at all -- gender roles are all scrambled.  Sometimes, Ivan looks like Jesus, sometimes, he's shot like the horrific Nosferatu in Murnau's vampire film.  The happy ending of Part One is the formation of a "steel circle of lances" protecting Ivan, that is, the creation of a ruthless secret police.