Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Phenix City Story

Phil Karlson's The Phenix City Story progresses from documentary-style objectivity to white-hot frenzy.  It's hard to imagine a film made in such disjunctive registers:  the movie begins with TV interviews soberly staged on the hot steps of a county Court House and ends with stark mayhem, filmed in high-contrast black and white, savage beatings rim-lit as if with acetylene torch or arc welding equipment.  Although the movie is pretty brutal throughout most of its 100 minutes, hyper-violence tips the balance about half-way when a police dispatcher callously says:  "Someone just threw a dead nigger kid on John Patterson's front lawn."  From that point to the film's penultimate shot -- the last image embodies law and order -- The Phenix City Story is a ferocious study in savagery, still shocking today and, probably, almost unwatchable in 1955 when this little B-movie was released.

Apparently based on actual events, The Phenix City Story concerns a crusade against vice in the titular city, a small Alabama burg just across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Georgia.  Phenix City is a GI strip servicing the troops on leave from Fort Benning, located a few miles away in Georgia.  Presumably, Fort Benning and Columbus, Georgia are in a dry county -- accordingly, the vice necessarily associated with a large military base was conveniently located in Phenix City, just across the river (and the border) from Georgia.  As portrayed in the film, Phenix City consists primarily of 14th Street, a row a honky-tonks, greasy spoon cafes, and brothels, all harboring gambling dens in their backrooms.  (The film shows that the gambling is all conspicuously crooked, designed by fleece the naïve GIs out of their pay-checks.)  Vice in Phenix City is integral to its economy and represents a time-honored tradition:  shaving dice and rigging slot machines has been going on for "a hundred years" as alleged by the film's narrator.  The picture has a startling opening.  A smarmy-TV broadcaster conducts man-on-the-street interviews, the camera filming him in unflattering close-up.  The interviewer talks to a couple of people who are obviously not actors, shoving them here and there for the camera as if they were puppets or domestic cattle.  The people talk about a murder trial and their hope that corruption in the City will be stamped out.  This opening sequence is fairly long and shot documentary style on courthouse steps with people coming and going in the background -- the rubes that are interviewed are inarticulate and blink nervously in the bright sunlight.  The film, then, shows a montage of newspapers and magazines and, then, eases into the action.  Albert Patterson is a prominent local attorney.  The leader of the crime syndicate visits with him and solicits his services as counsel for the villains.  (The film proper begins with a compelling sequence in a honky-tonk introducing some of the characters and featuring a half-naked torch singer singing "The Phenix City Blues."  A patron accuses the house of cheating, gets beaten half to death by the club's enforcer, and, then, is hauled off by the crooked cops, presumably to be killed and tossed in the river.)  Patterson is looking forward to return of his son from military service in Germany and has hired a man to paint his son's name on the office door:  Patterson & Patterson.  He refuses the mob boss' offer, but also says that he will maintain scrupulous neutrality -- Patterson is old, tired, and has a bum leg and he doesn't want to get into a bloody fight with the syndicate.  Several town fathers have allied themselves into a reform party.  The mob's henchmen lure the men into a parking lot behind The Poppy Club, a saloon qua casino owned by the most menacing of the villains, and beat them badly.  John Patterson, Albert's son intervenes and is badly beaten himself.  An African-American swamper in the bar, Zeke Ward, knocks down one of the thugs and saves Patterson from serious injury.  The attack on his son forces Albert Patterson's hand -- he agrees to run for Attorney General of the State of Alabama.  The syndicate fights back by killing Zeke Ward's four-year old daughter and pitching her corpse onto Patterson's front lawn where his kids are playing.  This leads to the callous dispatch call and triggers a cycle of violence that leaves several people dead.  Patterson tries to indict the bad guys at a coroner's inquiry into once of the deaths, makes a compelling case, but is defeated by the fear of the jurors who refuse to return a verdict in his favor.  This causes the senior Patterson to run for State Attorney General. Albert Patterson wins the election but is gunned down before he can take office -- he's shot point-blank in the face in a horrific scene.  John Patterson's informant at the Poppy Club. the young woman who's suitor was beat to death early in the film, has overheard the bad guys smirking about killing the new Attorney General.  She tells John Patterson and, then, hides in the Negro part of town at Zeke Ward's place.  The bad guys converge on Zeke Ward's place and are beating and torturning the people there when Patterson shows up, resulting in some more savage fisticuffs.  The mob is poised to march on 14th Street and prepared to slaughter the Syndicate members and burn up the brothels and gambling hells.  But Patterson restrains them, just as he has earlier been restrained by Zeke Ward when he is about to kill the most evil of the mobsters with his bare hands.  The rule of law is paramount.   The National  Guard is called into town and the bad guys are defeated once again at the ballot box.  John Patterson takes office as Attorney General and vows to clean-up the city and the movie ends by looping back, at least by spoken reference, to the murder trials announced in the documentary style opening scene.

Karlson's film resembles in many ways Fritz Lang's similarly plotted The Big Heat.  But Lang's movie was elegant, punctuated with shocking violence (Lee Marvin scalding Gloria Graham with hot coffee), and tightly melodramatic.  The Phenix City Story, although vehemently right-wing, somehow feels like Brecht -- the protagonists are embodiments of social values and movements and they interact in a series of lacerating short scenes. Romance is purely perfunctory and the film is structured around a series of bloody fistfights and beatings.  There's no fat on the film and some sequences are shot like a documentary made in Hell.  The scene in which the dead child is callously flung onto Patterson's lawn, dropped among his own children, results in horrific and convincing hysteria -- Patterson's small children and his wife are crazy with fear.  Scenes involving violence at polling places show drunks being dragged in to vote, righteous folks beaten bloody, women raped, their mouths and noses sluicing blood, cars overturned and bombs exploding -- some of this lensed as Soviet-style montage, other sequences seemingly covertly filmed in Phenix City itself:  we see staggering drunks and people leaning against utility poles to keep from falling and exterior stairways to crumbling three-story houses decorated with whores, people fighting aimlessly in back alleys and everywhere a pervasive sense of squalor.  This is a film so ripe with corruption that you can almost smell it.  I had seen this movie earlier in Chicago when it was revived as part of a film noir series at the Gene Siskel Theater -- I recalled the movie as having something to do with the Ku Klux Klan.  Obvously, I misremembered the film but it is a salient point that the person to whom the most terrible wrong has been done, Zeke Ward (who has lost his daughter to the murderers and whose wife is beaten half to death by mob enforcers) intervenes to keep John Patterson from betraying his father's principles and taking the law into his own hands.  This notion of the sacrificial Negro, almost supernaturally virtuous, is central to the film's design.        

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Walking Dead

Michael Curtiz made The Walking Dead for Warner Bros. in 1936.  It's a compact and tightly woven parable about conscience and quite unsettling.  The film derives in many respects from Frankenstein, but is far more ambiguous and peculiar.  Four or five mobsters own a city somewhere.  The scene is set schematically and the characters are all types.  We see a hammer gaveling a court to order:  a corrupt politician is sentenced to five years in prison although the Judge is warned that, if he executes justice, his own life will be in jeopardy.  A young couple work for a mad scientist -- he seems to wish to thwart their plans for marriage.  The politician is sent to jail and the cronies of the convicted man, all of them mobsters with their smarmy lawyer, hire "Trigger" Smith to murder the presiding Judge.  The gangsters plan to pin the crime on a hapless felon just released from the pen, John Elman, played by Boris Karloff.  The young couple accidentally observe the gangsters dumping the Judge's body in Elman's car.  But they don't want to get involved and don't contact the authorities.  Elman was previously sentenced by the deceased judge and he's the obvious suspect for the murder.  A trial ensues that the young couple attend, but in which they don't testify and don't come forth due to cowardice.  Elman is condemned to death.  The young man and woman, now, realize that they are culpable for Elman's conviction and try to intervene -- but, it's too late and Elman is electrocuted.  His body is immediately committed to the care of the mad scientist who, somehow, revives him.  (The resurrection scene is an elaborate fantasia on themes earlier developed in Universal's Frankenstein -- there are canted shots, bolts of Tesla-coil electricity, and many alchemical vessels bubbling over with sinister potions.)  The resurrected Karloff seems to know all about the scheme that resulted in him being framed for the Judge's murder.  He visits each of the bad guys, a walking corpse and the embodiment of an avenging conscience.  The bad guys, of course, are terrified and react with panic -- in each case, the villain is, more or less, accidentally killed when he flees Karloff.  There's a final confrontation in a rainswept cemetery -- Karloff is fatally shot and the head mobster with his henchman, fleeing the graveyard, crashes his sleek black sedan into an utility pole, triggering his own electrocution.  Karloff dies a second time just as he is about to reveal what he learned about the afterlife when he was killed in the electric chair a few days before.   This elaborate plot, involving four or five flamboyantly staged killings, spectacular lab scenes, two trials, several musical concerts (Elman was a concert pianist) is crammed in 65 minutes.  Curtiz' craft is so sure and his hand so steady that the film doesn't seem rushed, and is completely lucid even though the plot of exceedingly convoluted.  Karloff is not really a monster -- he is just a sad, lumbering, uncouth figure with piercing and pathetic eyes.  Death has tutored him in what he otherwise would not know -- the identities of the men responsible for his death and he visits them implacably, begging to know:  Why did you kill me?  The curious aspect of the film, and a feature that makes the movie profoundly unsettling is that there are no innocent characters anywhere in sight.  The young couple, who are the nominal heroes of the movie, are cowardly, self-interested, and just as responsible for Elman's death as the bad guys -- after all, their testimony, which they knowingly withheld, could have saved him.  At the climax of the movie, the mad scientist, who looks like a little Louis Pasteur, proposes to literally vivisect Karloff's character to study what is in his brain and this scientist becomes obsessed with learning the secrets of the afterlife.  The young man and woman act in concert with the District Attorney -- but didn't the DA  use the full power of the law to prosecute the hapless and innocent Elman.  Karloff shuffles through the movie bandy-legged, as if the victim of childhood rickets, and he is a totally destroyed figure even before framed -- he's impoverished, seems to be starving, can't find a job, and is entirely friendless.  The film is quickly cut and edited and a masterpiece of frenzied, if fully legible, narrative -- it's all shadows, dark cars careening through thunderstorms, and sinister cells of men conspiring against one another.  The film is also exceedingly inventive and scenes in which the staggering, pathetic Karloff appears out of the darkness to harass his persecutors are genuinely frightening:  a man runs terrified through a dark house, the storm wind gusts through a window and displaces the curtains -- there's a flash of lightning and, in a mirror, we catch a subliminal glimpse of Karloff standing in a corner of the room.  This is powerful stuff and effectively presented. 

Nayak (The Hero)

Nayak (1966) is an important film directed by the great Satyajit Ray.  Produced in Bengali, the characters actually speak in English about a third of the time -- although subtitles are necessary to decipher what is said.  The picture features impressive performances by two mainstays of Bengali cinema, Uttam Kumar, a Bollywood matinee idol, and the radiant Sharmita Tagore.  Although the picture is tightly constrained --it takes place almost entirely on a crowded train -- Ray's scenario is far-ranging, often very funny, and explores the relationship between life, truth, and the cinema. 

Arindam Mukherjee (Kumar) is a movie star who must travel from Calcutta to New Delhi -- he's procrastinated and so has to take the train, a trip that seems to last about 24 hours.   The movie is overtly modeled on Fellini's 1964 8 1/2 -- in fact as commentators note, Kumar wears dark glasses and look more than a little like Marcello Mastrioanni.  (A deeper, more subterranean, source for the film is Bergman's Wild Strawberries.)  On the train, the hero (Nayak) encounters a number of people.  This encounters trigger reveries and nightmares -- he rummages among his memories and we see flashbacks relating to key moments in his life.  A young woman, Miss Sangupta (Sharmita Tagore), who edits a magazine for "modern women", also takes the opportunity (their enforced proximity) to interview the hero -- he becomes increasingly candid with her and, in fact, confesses sins that might damage his public reputation.  At the end of the film, Miss Sangupta tears up her interview notes, resolving not to publish anything about the hero.  She departs the train to relative obscurity; Mukherjee leaves surrounded by the Press and adoring fans.  Encyclopedic in its scope, the film offers a cross-section of Indian society, politics, and the arts in 1966, deploying a number of subplots to make its points. 

Mukherjee has been in the press two days before his trip, implicated in brawl in a bar.  We don't know exactly what happened but there is a sense that the hero is suffering some kind of emotional crisis.  At his home, we see him surrounded by taciturn servants and babbling sycophants, incapable of communicating in any meaningful way with him.  On the train, he is lodged in a sleeper car with an extended family -- the little girl, who clearly adores him, is feverish:  in the course of the film, Mukherjee seems to heal her.  The men all studiously ignore Mukherjee but the women on the train are openly fans and they press him for autographs.  His fame is such that when the train stops at a station, the window in the diner car where he is meeting with Miss Sangupta is thronged with skinny, ragged and poor-looking men who tap at the glass like half-crazed zombies.  Miss Sangupta, who is riding in the less comfortable "chair car" -- that is, without the beds in the sleeper -- is bold:  she wears horn-rim glasses and is thoroughly modern and she accosts the movie star, pretending not to be impressed by him.  (She's like Debbie Reynolds with Gene Kelly during their first encounter in Singin' in the Rain.)  The hero is intrigued by her and agrees to be interviewed.  In the course of the interview, and the hero's dreams and reveries, we learn that Mukherjee began his career as a politically engaged performer in village plays.  He feels that he has compromised his principles by abandoning this humble format for political discourse by becoming a matinee idol.  (In one dream, he sees his old theater director covered with ash and physically crumbling:  one important scene takes place at the ghat or cremation pyre of this man who was his mentor.  In another dream, he imagines himself literally drowning in cash.)  In flashbacks, we see him seducing a young married woman who wants to be in films and refusing to speak at a place where a group of hapless industrial workers have been on strike for 24 days -- in fact, he literally flees this political confrontation.  There are several intriguing subplots:  an advertising man tries to prostitute his younger wife to secure an important client and, later, a fat guru hires the advertising man's agency to publicize his transcendental mediation ashram.  Echoing Fellini, we see a beautiful small girl twice who seems to represent the hero's lost innocence.  As the film proceeds, the hero becomes increasingly dismayed at the compromises that he has made and recalling times when he betrayed his earlier idealistic principles.  He gets flamboyantly drunk and stands at an open door on the train watching the gleaming tracks parallel to the train criss-crossing -- it seems as if he is contemplating suicide.  Then, Miss Sangupta appears, without her glasses, spectacularly beautiful and merciful, "cow-eyed" like a Goddess.  (Sharmita Tagore acted first with Ray when she was 13 in the Apu trilogy; she is one of those transcendentally gifted actresses who can appear completely normal and, even, homely in some scenes, the very embodiment of the modern woman, and, then, imbued with a sort of divine radiance -- one recalls that she is probably most famous for Ray's Devi, playing the village girl who is destroyed when the villagers perceive her to be a reincarnation of the goddess Devi.  Miss Sangupta shows mercy to the hero and, perhaps, saves him.  In the final sequence, she departs the train filmed in grainy 16 mm or, even, 8 mm film stock, the camera handheld and very unsteady as it follows her walking through the vast anonymous crowds in the New Delhi train station; after cutting from her, the camera, then, moves into a glossy 35 milimeter close-up of the movie star, a shot professionally made and rock-steady -- people put flowers around his neck and he is thronged by reporters. 

There are many things in this move and a summary does not do the film justice.  Several viewings will probably be required to "tease out" the relationship between the parts -- there is a scarf-shrouded old critic, for instance, who denounces actors as corrupt (the last film he saw was in 1942 How Green was my Valley).  Curiously, this exponent of the aesthetics of old India always speaks in English.  One sequence, a memory of a film shoot, contrasts different acting styles and there are political subcurrents that I don't pretend to understand.  The film is welded together impressively and the viewer can perceive cunning parallels between the different kinds of moral, ethical and business compromises that the characters make.  Uttam Kumar is particularly effective as the tormented movie star -- he was a major figure in Bollywood and has a saturnine presence a bit like Steve McQueen.  Criterion has restored the film beautifully and it is highly recommended.   

Monday, April 9, 2018


At first there seems to be a lot going on in Barry Levinson's HBO film, Paterno (2018).  Football players crack heads together while Penn State administrators huddle in dank tunnels fearful of indictments coming their way; the superannuated Joe Paterno is slid into another tunnel, this enclosure an MRI and seems to hallucinate images from his past and a plucky girl reporter points out the infamous pedophile, Jerry Sandusky, in a bar and mutters that everyone ignored her story about his misdeeds published three years earlier.  But indictments are issued, then, concealed, then, disclosed again and a media feeding frenzy ensues.  Paterno, played by Al Pacino, is 84 and he seems remote from the hulabaloo -- he insists that the story doesn't affect him and that he must prepare for next Saturday's game with Nebraska's Big Red.  A week passes.  The scandal can't be contained and Paterno is fired from his position as coach for the Penn State football team, a job that he has held for forty years or more.  The students riot in his support and a lonely tormented victim of Sandusky's rapes is bullied and beaten on campus.  Paterno and members of his family inexplicably quote Virgil in Latin -- I presume Paterno may have taught Latin at some point in his long career.  After some more sound and fury, the film peters out inconclusively, its makers apparently profoundly uncertain as to what they were trying to accomplish with this film.  This is a shame because Pacino is good and the supporting players are all impeccably realistic -- conflicted by the claims and uncertain as to how to react.  But the people who made the movie didn't know what it was about and so the picture has no dramatic arc -- it literally goes nowhere. 

At the outset, the model for the movie seems to be journalism, beleaguered reporters struggle to investigate and make a public a scandalous story.  The film is percussively edited and the administrative powers at Penn State are sinister in their efforts to suppress the story.  So for a  half hour or so, the film resembles Spotlight, the Oscar-winning movie about reporters uncovering sexual abuse by priests in the Boston diocese.  The film slips into melodrama with an ill-conceived subplot (never really developed) about one of the hapless victims.  Then, Levinson and Pacino take a stab at King Lear -- Pacino sometimes seems doddering and there is a willful quality about his denial of responsibility.  (When he learned about Sandusky raping a kid in the Penn State shower-room, he reported the charge to his bosses and did nothing more.)   He can't keep his mind focused on the real issues and keeps slipping into non sequiturs.  However, he is surrounded by a loyal and decent family (his sons and their wives express reasonable regard for the suffering of the victims) and they struggle to sort out the situation notwithstanding the old man's increasingly unavailing claims that he has done nothing wrong.  Clearly, the script has been whittled down from something much larger -- for instance, there is a subplot about documents in a file that is abruptly curtailed and simply confusing:  you expect the shoe to drop that the documents have been either hidden or destroyed or destroyed while someone else kept copies of them revealing the spoliation of these materials.  But nothing happens with this subplot -- after some close-ups of the documents and some portentous shots in poorly lit offices, this sequence just fades away.  By the film's climax, Paterno's firing from Penn State, the movie has completely lost its way.  When my Labrador retriever goes outside in the morning to defecate, she prances in ever more agitated and tightening circles before doing her business.  The film shows a wordless, agitated Joe Paterno twisting and turning in some sort of poorly defined, but urgent, agony.  In general, the movie has been witty, with lots of rat-a-tat-tat dialogue influenced by writers like Aaron Sorkin -- people are always telling us what they think and what they think others should think.  But at the film's climax, Paterno just whirls around and around like my dog -- words elude him and the sequence elongates over several minutes; it's a huge embarrassment and signals that the people that wrote this movie didn't really understand what it was about or how it should be ended.  The movie concludes with a scene in which it is breathlessly revealed that Paterno knew about Jerry Sandusky's depredations as early as 1976 -- but this doesn't really register with the viewer: you're apt to shrug and say "So what?"  And the big reveal that Paterno allowed his own kids to swim in a  hotel pool with the loathsome Sandusky is a cheap shot -- Sandusky raped his victims in the dark corners of deserted locker rooms; he didn't molest anyone in a public pool, particularly with their parents present.  So who cares whether Sandusky swam with Paterno's teenage kids?  Is the film expressing some sort of weird taboo, that it is "unclean" to be in the same water with a pedophile?  It's too bad that the movie completely collapses in its last half-hour -- up to that point, the show was brisk, witty, with a lot of intense dialogue expressing all sorts of interesting positions.  But the movie doesn't know what to make of Paterno's complicity and, so, devolves into empty mannerism.

Friday, April 6, 2018

This Mortal Storm

Frank Borzage's This Mortal Storm (1940) observes a peculiar convention:  set entirely in the Bavarian Alps, the film's sympathetic characters speak plainly with American Midwest accents, but the film's Nazi's snarl and smirk and their diction is made sinister by their heavy and obtrusive German accents.  (In this film, a Gestapo officer actually mutters:  "Ve haf vays of may-kink young girls talk!")  But, of course, all the characters both good and bad are Germans and, indeed, some of them are members of the same family.  The most remarkable thing about this curious approach to the way people speak in the film is that it isn't immediately obvious that this unnatural convention is in place.  I didn't exactly notice that the bad Germans spoke in accent and the good ones sounded like Indiana Hoosiers until sitting down to write this note.  Perhaps, this is a testament to the film's excellence -- uniformly gripping throughout its 88 minute length, Borzage's film is a powerful and disquieting experience, excellently acted, and, indeed, (sadly) relevant to our political plight today (April 2018).

Set in 1933, the film involves what we would call "a blended family" today.  Kindly Professor Roth teaches physiology at an university in a picturesque Bavarian town. Prof. Roth has just turned 60, an achievement that he is too humble to announce to the world but too vain to treat as inconsequential -- he is covertly (or not so covertly) very satisfied with himself.  (Roth is played by Frank Norton, the actor who played the "great and powerful Oz" in the 1939 film about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.)  Roth's wife has two sons, one of the played by a very young Robert Stack -- these boys seem to be about 20 -- as well a beautiful daughter, Freya, who is the oldest of these siblings (Freya may be Roth's daughter by an unnamed first wife -- her exact status is unclear.)  Professor Roth and his wife also have one younger son who may be ten or twelve.  The film begins on Roth's birthday.  He goes to his class where he is surprised and gratified to find himself lionized -- the students sing Gaudeamus Igitur in his honor and give him a little trophy, a statue of Siegfried, it seems, brandishing a sword.  But all is not well.  At a family dinner with birthday cake that evening, servants announce that the radio has just reported that Hitler has become Chancellor of the Reich.  Roth who says that he is "non-Aryan" is concerned, but doesn't think that the political developments in Berlin will affect him far away in the Bavarian Alps.  In fact, the announcement results in a violent quarrel at the dinner table -- Roth's two step-sons are members of the Nazi party and they strongly endorse Hitler.  Freya is opposed to Hitler and the little boy doesn't know what to think.  Freya's pompous and condescending fiancée, played by Robert Young (later TV's Marcus Welby) is a Nazi as well and he joins the two stepsons in hailing Hitler as Germany's salvation.  Things quickly deteriorate.  There is street-fighting and non-Aryans, as they are called in this movie, are beaten up.  A veterinarian, Martin (played by Jimmy Stewart) is a close friend of the family.  He stands up against the thugs and gets thrashed himself.  Freya (Margaret Sullavan) denounces her fiancée and breaks off the relationship, confessing that she loves the veterinarian, and enemy of Fascism, Jimmy Stewart's noble Martin.  In his classroom, Nazi goons demand that Professor Roth distinguish between pure German blood and nasty non-Aryan blood -- when he refuses to support this dubious proposition, Roth loses his job and, in fact, ends up in a concentration camp.  Jimmy Stewart's Martin has to save a "non-Aryan" threatened with death and he takes him on skis over a dangerous pass in the mountains to Innsbruck, reputedly a haven against Nazi aggression.  Freya pleads with her ex-fiancée for the release of the weak and elderly Prof. Roth.  The Nazi storm trooper won't help her except to set up a last meeting between Roth and his wife. In the next scene, Roth is reported dead and the rest of the family decides to flee Germany.  At the Austrian border, Freya is detained because she is carrying her deceased father's manuscript, his book about blood physiology.  Trapped in Germany, she despairs.  But Martin, learning of her plight, crosses the border surreptitiously and, with the Gestapo closing in, the two lovers escape on skis into the mountains.  On the border, a German patrol headed by Freya's ex-fiancée, tracks down the lovers and shoots Freya.  She bleeds to death before Martin can get her to the nearest town -- the film ends with someone reciting a poem that I didn't know over an image of footprints filling up with snow in the storm. 

Borzage's film is crammed with incidents.  Maria Ouspenskaya, as Martin's mother, whispers portentously and a teenage maid in the veterinarian's household (who secretly loves the gentle Jimmy Stewart) is tortured.  Books are burned and there are barroom fights and rallies with Nazis singing patriotic songs.  The script effectively dramatizes chaos within one family -- the Professor's sons who have claimed undying love for their stepfather in the opening scenes denouncing him openly to the authorities as the film progresses.  The acting is uniformly excellent -- the clash of emotions on Robert Taylor's face when Freya pleads with him and, then, later when he stands atop a slick of Freya's blood in the snowfield is extraordinary.  Taylor plays a man who is not really bad -- he just wants to get along with others, but this leads him into all sorts of evil.  Although the film is a melodrama, it's consistently understated -- the scene in which Roth's wife, soon to be his widow, meets the old man in a darkened cell is heartbreaking particularly because nothing is overplayed:  the old professor, obviously much worn down, appears from darkness and, then, vanishes again into a dark corridor, the last time we see him alive.  Margaret Sullavan as the heroine takes a little "getting used to" -- she's not really conventionally pretty:  she has a squashed-looking Slavic face with sleepy-looking wounded eyes a bit like Shelley Winters.  However, as the film progresses she becomes warmer and her heroism in attempting to cross the brutal Alpine pass is touching -- of course, she dies melodramatically, expressing her love for Martin as he carries  her in his arms through a Teutonic forest, but it's melodrama in a good cause and not really offensive.  The camerawork wavers between Expressionist chiaroscuro and sophisticated large-scale scenes in the lecture hall or at the family dinner-table or in crowded taverns.  There are several very impressive downhill skiing scenes that are exuberant and persuasive except for the inserts that, of course, are ill-advised -- people shown in profile with scarves blowing in a fictional wind as a fictional landscape is rear-projected behind them.  The Alpine scenes with the patrols playing cat-and-mouse with the refugees are thrilling and reminiscent of the last five minutes of Renoir's great The Grand Illusion.  Of course, the savage irony is that escape to Innsbruck is meaningless -- the Nazis will be there soon enough.  (The German - Austrian Anschluss was March 1938). It's interesting to see that many of the interior shots are made from a low angle and feature looming, grim-looking ceilings boxing in the characters -- indeed, the film is very frightening:  the scenes at the border on the train will induce a queasy feeling in even the most hardened viewer. 

It's a false equivalence and I don't mean this note to sound a hysterical alarum, but... there's too much similarity between our politics at this moment in the United States and the situation shown in the film for me to fail to note certain, shall we say, family resemblances...   At this moment, the truth is suborned to perjury and lies are told with exuberant abandon and there's a vicious strong man in power that a sizeable percentage of the population will support whatever he does.  Watching this film, one feels exhausted and intimidated and, more than a little bit, scared.  Of course, the vile Donald Trump is no Hitler but there's something about this present feverish delirium, this nightmare that doesn't ever exactly break, that makes me recommend this film to you.  Note how quickly, a happy family is destroyed by internal political dissension and observe, also, how swiftly a crowd of smiling admirers becomes a brutal mob.  This enervating atmosphere of hatred in our country is really becoming too much too bear. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The King of Jazz

The King of Jazz is a very early Technicolor movie musical from 1930.  The picture was directed by a Broadway stage director, Paul Murray Anderson, and, reportedly, budgeted at 1.5 million dollars -- an enormous fortune in Depression-era money.  Recently released on Criterion in a luminous reconstruction, the film now runs about 98 minutes (original screen time was 105 minutes) and it is almost indescribably weird.  The picture reminds us that the past is a strange country, indeed, and, in some respects, more trackless than the jungles of the Amazon basin.  The wayfarer ventures into such territory at his or her own risk.

Essentially, the movie is a film of a Broadway revue.  Because of technology limitations, the camera doesn't move.  However, the director had access to a crane and there are a number of showy overhead shots, images of flailing legs and arms arranged florally that undoubtedly influenced Busby Berkeley.  There is no plot and the picture proceeds on the basis of a hand turning pages of a scrapbook -- each scrapbook page announces the next skit or number.  The common thread linking sections is Paul Whiteman and his jazz band.  Whiteman was a classically trained musician who rose to enormous fame in the twenties with his brand of symphonic "jazz".  Although largely forgotten today, Whiteman was an influential figure -- Bix Beiderbecke played for him and he commissioned Gershwin to write "Rhapsody in Blue" for his band's performance in 1924 (Ferde Grofe did the orchestration -- Grofe was also once famous for his symphonic suites, most notably "the Grand Canyon Suite.")  The film is designed to provide just about every species of American popular music from up-tempo jazz dance tunes to ballads and big orchestral numbers including a reprise of Gershwin's "Rhapsody" -- it turns out to be a rhapsody in grey and silver-teal because the film's resplendent, but limited, two-color Technicolor process couldn't reproduce blues.  What makes the film so ineffably strange is that it is a kind of zombie -- the heart and soul of American popular music is African-American:  the Blues, Dixieland jazz, and spirituals.  Whiteman, although he hired African-Americans as composers and arrangers, didn't have any Black musicians in his band -- the logistical problems of touring a mixed-race band in segregated America were simply too challenging.  Accordingly, the picture affords the peculiar spectacle of a thorough-going review of American pop music, but without any authentic blues, jazz, or spirituals -- the effect is to render the film curiously soul-less and heart-less:  there's a big hole where the film's authentic American spirit should be found.  Popular music, of course, defines itself as counter-cultural -- it opposes the staid traditions of the opera and marching band and the symphonic  hall.  Authentic American pop is always counter-cultural because it derives from Black music -- that is, music produced by a group of people who have been traditionally excluded and treated as outsiders by the dominant White culture.  But there is another kind of pop, less authentic perhaps, but equally pervasive -- this is youth pop and much of the film seems to be in thrall to this influence.  Grown people talk in iddy-biddy baby voices and much of humor is profoundly unsophisticated and childish. (Children also occupy a position outside of the cultural mainstream.)  The film's default mode seems to be bizarre infantilism.  There are all sorts of examples of this peculiarly juvenile and puerile aesthetic and it's my contention that this sort of thing is what you get in pop music if you extract the real suffering and authentic roots implicit in Afro-American jazz, blues and other musical forms.  Whiteman himself is a big pale cartoon figure -- he looks very much like Oliver Hardy and seems to be babyish himself.  A woman that likes him talks baby-talk to him ("I want to do things for you" -- this number also features a bizarre sadomasochistic couple, female dominant, in which the woman repeatedly slaps and beats her male counterpart.)  Several of musicians use baby-talk and there is an extended vaudeville number consisting of card tricks and weird banter that is so strange that it has to be seen to be believed.  The film commences with an animated cartoon of Whiteman threatened with death in darkest Africa -- itself a childish notion, although, like everything else, in the film, extremely amusing.  One man dances with an adult-sized rag doll, another astonishing sequence, and there are all sorts of contortionist and gymnastic dance scenes.  A "rubber-legs" dancer performs, leading viewers to wonder exactly how the performer achieved the boneless gyrations in his lower extremities.  Parts of the show resemble Laugh-In -- that is, there are short, often ingenious, black-out skits, none more than a minute or so in length.  Bing Crosby appears as one of the Rhythm Boys and sings a couple of songs, some of them with inscrutable lyrics.  (Crosby had to perform on day work-release from jail; he was imprisoned in jail as a result of a drunk-driving crash on Sunset Boulevard.)  There is a Rockettes number in which all the dancers remain seated -- another number begins with them kicking their legs in their air with each girl flat on her back.  There are proto-country-and-western songs and, even, a strange climax in which Paul Whiteman, the King of Jazz, dances with delirious proficiency (although it turns out that the dance is actually performed by a very similar-looking double -- this is revealed when the real Whiteman peels off the pencil-thin moustache of his double.)  The film is gorgeous -- people's faces glow like ripe peaches:  in one hallucinatory scene, two pale girls with black-bobbed hair, coiffeurs such as that sported by Louise Brooks, sing with their heads lolling on a kind of mirrored floor -- they seem to be decapitated.  The final number is called "Melting Pot" and it shows whole platoons of ethnic musicians from Germany and Ireland and Scotland; there are even a couple hundred people from Bohemia playing accordions.  But there is no trace of any African-Americans in the film with one exception -- a number called "On a Park Bench" shows various couples canoodling on stylized outdoor park benches:  the scene ends with a shot of Whiteman holding a little Black-girl on his lap -- she's a pick-a-ninny of the sort featured in the old Minstrel Shows with a huge infectious grin.  The credits name her as "Snowdrop." 

Monday, April 2, 2018

Jesus Christ Superstar

On Easter 2018, NBC broadcast live (and with many, many commercial interruptions), the cantata Jesus Christ Superstar with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The show was written in 1970, but isn't long in the tooth -- in fact, it revives with a lot of its sound and fury intact.  This production featured John Legend as Jesus and Alice Cooper in the relatively minor role of King Herod -- these were the headliners.  In fact, the cantata focuses on Judas, played with muscular aplomb by the charismatic Brandon Victor Dixon, who gets both the first and last words on the proceedings.  Judas provides commentary on the somewhat opaque actions of Jesus, facilitates the crucifixion, and expresses the doubts that the viewers, if not too blinkered by blind faith, should harbor.  In this conception, Judas is resurrected, not Jesus Christ. 

The broadcast sets the action against a vast colonnaded wall, something like the weathered and decrepit façade of the Roman coliseum.  The walls are painted with badly faded and spalling frescos -- they look like murals by Mantegna and Giotto.  During the opening number, a guy with a hose attached to a pressurized canister of red paint shoots the letters J-E-S-U-S onto the wall as graffiti.  Christ and the apostles are dressed more or less as might you remember them from Sunday School.  Caiaphas and other representations of the Jewish establishment wear Darth Vadar black and scuttle about like malevolent black beetles. Mary Magdalene is the only female role -- she lounges about dressed like a renaissance Virgin.  Herod wears gold lame and cavorts flamboyantly after the manner of a Las Vegas lounge singer.  It's fairly impressive:  the music alternates between a sort of narcotized complacency and total frenzy.  Lloyd Weber and Rice are good with complacency:  highlights in the cantata in that mode include "Everything's Alright". "I don't know how to love  him," (the showstopper ballad for Mary Magdalene) and the Hosanna song.  Screaming guitars and repeated, percussive licks enact the frenzied part of the score -- this is the febrile, jarring music that leads up to, and is effectively resolved, by the triumphant theme song, "Superstar."  This production featured a lot of dancing, the less said about that aspect of the show the better.  There was a huge chorus but they didn't have much to do other than slap one another on the back, hug, or engage in dry-humping after running to and fro across the huge set.  Both Judas and Jesus, periodically, have to sing in a very high, falsetto register -- as the show progressed their high notes became increasingly strained, raw, and unpleasant.  You can only shout at the top of your lungs for so long.  Alice Cooper's appearance taunting Jesus with the pastiche song "Try and See" was a highlight -- but's it's short and Cooper, obviously a favorite with the audience, isn't on stage long enough to make a strong impression.  The live audience spent much of the production up on their feet howling loudly -- this gives an impression of the "superstar" aspect of the show; the audience is part of the show, ginning up enthusiasm for the (putatively) sacred Superstar who is, in effect, nothing more than a media phenomenon, a plaything of the mob.  The continuous shrieking, however, was painful to my ears and made it hard to decipher many of the witty lyrics.  As the show stretched into plus two-hours -- due to the incessant commercial interruptions -- there were some longuers.  However, the cantata redeems itself with some mighty and Wagnerian excess during its last few minutes, ending more or less on a soft note with a final string quartet that fiddles the show out to its agnostic ending.  (In the closing credits, we can see Andrew Lloyd Webber glimpsed briefly as a kind of gargoyle on the huge scaffolding against the Coliseum façade.)