Friday, March 16, 2018

Berlin Babylon (final note)

I have written about Berlin Babylon before.  Unfortunately, my reviews are entered into the Blog last-in first-out for the reader.  Therefore, those readers who have an interest in my earlier comments on this German TV series (Tom Tykwer director) streaming on Netflix should look below.

Berlin Babylon's 16 episodes divides into two parts.  The first eight episodes involve a Cologne detective imported into the Berlin police force and his efforts to track down the source of an illusive image used to blackmail a prominent politician from the hero's hometown.  The first half of the show is used to establish the characters and milieu, something that is done effectively and with great nuance.  The protagonist is Geryon Rath, a shell-shocked war veteran, his police partner, the heavy-set and menacing Wolter, Lotte, a girl from the slums who dabbles in prostitution but desires to be a detective on the Homicide Squad (the German is more blunt -- she wants to work in Mord), Benda, the Jewish chief of police and his maid, Grete, a girl from the country who is friends with Lotte.  All of these characters are interesting and Lotte, in particular, is very engaging -- she looks vulnerable but is fantastically tough and stoic.  I thought the solution and climax to the first part of the show a bit underwhelming.  This is not the case with the second part, or the last 8 episodes that end the program.  If anything, the last few episodes are too emphatic and suffer a bit from grandiosity. 

In the last half of the series, Rath is involved in an intrigue circling around a shipment of gold from a wealthy family in Russia to Berlin.  The gold, a vast fortune, is hidden in a train car.  The other cars in the train contain illegal phosgene, a weapon of mass destruction.  The plot is complicated but involves right-wing nationalists attempting to circumspectly re-arm the Reich.  (The irony in the film is that the covert efforts to re-arm the German Wehrmacht, visualized as a group of superannuated generals, war-cripples, and misguided cops and military men, is foiled by our hero but to what ultimate effect? Of course, we all know that Corporal Hitler is somewhere nearby and that he will occupy the vacuum created by the defeat of the right-wing military conspirators.  In effect, the Germans are being saved by a leap from the fire into the much hotter, and more lethal, frying pan.)  The show's last half has a couple slow episodes but it gains in emotional force and becomes exceptionally powerful, if occasionally absurd, during its last three or so hours.  The climax is packed with remarkable stuff including a terrifyingly suspenseful terrorist bombing, a near-drowning with a car sunk in a deep green-blue lake, and a sequence that derives from Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew too Much, a coup orchestrated to occur by the assassinations of key politicians at a Berlin theater where Brecht and Weil's Dreigroschenoper (Three-Penny Opera) is performed.  The show ends with a spectacular sequence on the train laden with gold, the locomotive roaring across low, flat country under a morbidly stormy-looking sky.  This part of the film is choreographed in homage to a great predecessor film, Konchalovsky's Runaway Train, and is exceptionally well-made and beautifully designed.  There are a number of absurdities in the operatic ending to the series but it delivers the goods in terms of excitement and emotional impact. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Flint Town (streaming on Netflix)

Flint Town is a radiant documentary about police work in Flint, Michigan.  The program is divided into 8 episodes each about 35 minutes long.  The filmmakers, Drea Cooper, Zachary Cavepari, and Jessie Dimmock, were "embedded" in the Flint police department for about two years, and apparently allowed near total access to crime scenes, the police station, and the homes of the cops whose lives are chronicled.  (The degree to which the documentary is shot like a big-budget Hollywood movie is astonishing and, to some degree, distracting:  in one shot, a lady police officer takes out her keys to open the door of her small, shabby bungalow.  The next shot is an interior to the bungalow, a reverse shot of the first, showing her opening the door from the inside.  Obviously, the construction of a shot/reverse-shot narrative for something as quotidian as merely entering a house shows a level of Hollywood-style flair that seems incongruous given the nature of the material presented -- a tough, embattled police procedural.  Indeed, the most remarkable aspect of the five episodes of Flint Town that I have now watched is the documentary's lavishly beautiful photography.  Simply put, Flint Town is gratuitously beautiful and, in fact, contains some of the most ravishing night photography ever committed to film:  squad cars prowl through velvety darkness; the halogen street lights make the streets shine with a sinister gem-like radiance:  the vacant lots and sidewalks are the color of Tiger Eye agate.  In the winter-time, huge flakes are always plummeting down from the night sky and the police cars churn through snow, making tracks that glisten in the darkness.  Red and blue lights oscillate back and forth and the cops are always standing in halos of shimmering radiance.  In one sequence, the cars prowl neighborhoods, providing Steadi-cam tracking images of dark alleys and humble homes while enormous firework explosions, detonated seeming at about 45 feet above ground level decorate the gloom above the homes.  The night-lighting looks theatrical, operatic:  on the wide-screen, one half of the image is mustard-color street lamps and falling snow -- to the right, an American flag is suffused with radiance and glows like a stained glass window in the darkness.  The filmmakers are fascinated with drone effects:  cameras stare vertiginously down onto the spillway of the famously polluted Flint River or examine the patterns made by cars slipping and sliding through snowy intersections; drones rise like balloons, portentously pulling cameras from street-side up through the canopy of trees to gaze across Flint's modest de minimus skyline.  The police or community members sometimes appear for interviews facing straight into the camera posed against velvet-black backdrops that give the brightly-lit figures a kind of statuesque and sculpted quality.  The film simply put is a modern version of film noir imputing to the police a sinister, wildly melodramatic glamor.  Police work looks so fascinatingly beautiful and involves such beautiful weapons and light effects that it is instantaneously attractive.   In one sequence, a young recruit with his field training officer explores an abandoned house -- we see for an instant some clutter on the floor and there are X-Files lighting effects with respect to the beams of the flashlights penetrating the darkness.  Out on the sidewalk, the older cop says that someone is using the building because one of its rooms is full of "feces and urine" -- but we aren't shown anything like this.  The squalor is disguised by the glamorous, fashion-shoot lighting. 

The sheer beauty of the documentary cuts against its hard-bitten subject matter.  The Flint police force is undermanned and can't keep up with the number of calls for assistance that it receives.  Flint itself is poverty-stricken and mostly African-American -- the police force is half black, but also has its fair share of the truculent, overly muscular and baby-faced white thugs who gravitate toward police work, and so there are plenty abrasive encounters with the public, although no unwarranted shootings (at least in the first part of the show.).  The cops see themselves as victims and are increasingly told that they are targets and should expect to be shot.  Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders come to Flint for a debate and both decry the increasing "militarization" of police forces.  These speeches coincide with a new sheriff in town, Chief Taylor who has a hum-vee and, in fact, is militarizing the force:  he has set up an elite squad of cops, the CATT team, whose role is to aggressively fight crime -- a task they accomplish by heavy-handed zero-tolerance policing.  This leads to community complaints but also lavish media and community praise.  The local newscasters, white women, love the CATT program with its stylish tee-shirts and the local community leaders, all of them Black, also approve of the CATT team's work because crime statistics seem to show the effectiveness of the program.  (The film doesn't shy away from the fact that the most aggressive voices raised in favor of zero-tolerance tough law-and-order policing are African-American city council-members, church people, and beleaguered middle-class Black women.)   The chief of police is obviously a publicity hound and a loose cannon -- his coffee cup has a pistol-grip as a handle -- but he means well.  In fact, everyone means well and, even, the must thuggish of the white policemen are given little soliloquies in which they express themselves with some degree of eloquence.  (Of course, the Black cops are almost uniformly conflicted and, often, seem on the verge of  tears -- on several occasions, we see them arresting a kid, handcuffing him, and, then, after a profane sermon, letting the kid free.)  There are several engaging characters -- an attractive female cop is living with the most petulant, and aggressively militaristic, white officer; she humanizes him and gives him an opportunity to do something other than make self-pitying and bellicose speeches while flexing his impressive muscles.  A mother and son are both enrolled in Police Academy at the same time.  There is a lot of imagery of the cops reacting to footage of police shootings (both by police and in which police are victims) -- their responses are, more or less, predictable but worth seeing.  The plot involving the aggressive smash-mouth policing by CATT seems to be heading toward some kind of calamity.  The Chief of Police has now deputized a cadre of hare-brained citizens as police auxiliaries and put them out on the streets armed with "conceal and carry" weapons -- this seems to be an obviously bad idea.  The fifth episode shows everyone congratulating the police chief for decreasing crime and a black tuxedo Mayor's Ball in which Flint's mayor lavishly praises the CATT program (the mayor is a stylish African-American lady doctor).  After one shooting, victims bathed in orange light, are sprawled on a lawn begging for help.  "We're soldiers," one of the victims tells a buddy.  A middle-aged Black lady standing on the curb speaks:  "Black on black crime.  No one cares...It just makes me..." She pauses and sighs.  "," she says. 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Black Panther

The latest installment in Marvel's comic book franchise, The Black Panther (2018), has been praised by the mainstream media as if it were the cinematic reincarnation of Rosa Parks.  The movie is said to strike a powerful blow for Black equality.  But, alas, the film is awful and insufferably dull to boot.  Coogler, an African American director, has been recruited to give cover to the film's insistent and offensive use of stereotypes about Africa -- imagine if a White director had made a picture about the so-called "Dark Continent" featuring polities that appoint their rulers by "ritual combat" and required the film's heroes and villains to ride around on armored rhinos, showed Amazon-warriors guarding their king with tight blouses form-fitted to emphasize the girls' perky nipples and staged battle involving troops literally chucking spears at one another.  A member of the Wakonda five-tribe council wears a six-inch plate in his lower lip.  People dash around in fetish-masks and live in a stylish city of skyscrapers shaped like the elegant mud towers of Timbuktu -- that is, all of Africa in its most outré aspects both Saharan and sub-Saharan is mashed together in Coogler's epic without any regard for cultural differences.   Of course, our hypothetical White director would be accused of the most arrogant racism if he produced a wild-eyed mélange of this sort, but, as with the use of the N-- word, different standards apply to different folks and the press has generally praised Coogler's incoherent spectacle with words that should be applied to Ralph Ellison or Richard Wright.

The film's plot relies heavily on deus ex machina contrivances including the introduction of a whole new tribe of mountain dwelling warriors about two-thirds of the way through the movie -- these are the "huff-huff-huff" people, burly warriors who either are supposed  to be coughing like lions or huffing like mountain gorillas as their war-cry  We have no idea who they are, but conveniently they are imagined to dwell in a glacial CGI mountain fastness where they can swoop down to the rescue of the hero when he is in peril.  It's the leader of these folks who inadvertently critiques the whole move when he interrupts a tender scene of resurrection, the Black Panther's powers having improvidently (and inexplicably) deserted him to the effect that he has almost died in one of the ritual combats by which the kingdom appoints its dictatorial rulers. (The bad guy, evil Black Panther, hurls the good guy, good Black Panther over the precipice of a waterfall, always a bad idea -- in fact, even a bad idea when Holmes did this to Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls -- because of course a character who has perished in this ambiguous manner hasn't perished at all.)  The husky leader of the mountain gorilla-folk derides the interruption in the action required to restore the hero to fighting status and insists that the Black Panther and his allies get back to their proper work -- that is, hewing and slashing and using explosive shock waves to hurl their enemies hundreds of feet in the air. This, then, triggers a final battle that is ridiculous even by the standards of movies of this sort -- the good guys seem to have super powers that are without limitation and not subject to any rules.  For awhile everyone will fight with great exertion, slinging spears and swords at one another, dodging rhino-knights, and, generally, stabbing and cutting with great aplomb.  But, then, the odds will shift and one of the good guys will be surrounded by a half-hundred enemies -- this poses no problem:  the hero just uses a blue shock wave to blast all his adversaries into orbit, then, reverting to the strenuous hacking and hewing until it's necessary to deploy his super powers again to defeat outnumbering forces.  Of course, it's totally mysterious why the good guys don't use their super powers all the time, or, at least, at the outset to bring this pointless battle to an end -- if one side possesses infinite power, there's not too much suspense as to the outcome.  The final combat also involves a typical confrontation between the two identically matched Black Panthers (in this film you get a good and a bad one) in a special-effects blue void -- here a sort train trestle suspended over an infinite abyss.  This is trite Star Wars stuff involving a bullet train that shuttles back and forth over the tracks, summoned by a magic pebble that one of the heroine's (fighting far overhead on the surface of the world) happens to be carrying in her purse.  As always with these super-hero movies, the film's direction and writing reaches a point of total incoherence where everything is possible and, therefore, nothing matters at all.  And, during the final battle, the token White man (played by the very, very White Martin Freeman) is flying around in a narrow gorge, a slot canyon really, shooting down enemy fighters -- also an effect that we have seen almost ad infinitum and here totally meaningless because there is literally nothing at stake.  In its first half, the movie features a White South African villain named Klaue who is made up to look just like Ohm Krueger and who brings his Boer belligerence to some amusing confrontation early in the film.  After Ohm Krueger/Klaue was defeated I seem to have fallen asleep for a half hour -- the movie lags horribly after this guy is killed -- with the result that I didn't wake up until there was another "ritual combat" at the mock-up of Victoria Falls, probably a better way to elect a head man, I suppose, than an election rigged by Russians.  By this point the film's plot had established itself -- it's a riff on Stalin versus Trotsky.  Wakonda, somehow, is a utopia in Africa that has concealed itself amidst the chaos of the Dark Continent -- it's location is a little obscure but its seems to be somewhere contiguous to Rwanda (those icy mountains) and the Congo.  Wakonda's rulers have preserved against imperialist outsiders the resources of their nation, a magical plant that confers visions and healing and a magical mineral, Vibernium, that can be used to create huge shock-waves emanating from the tips of weapons forged with the stuff.  The Kingdom seems a parody of Trump's America First platform -- Wakonda is a monarchical, quasi-Fascist State where everyone submits their personal autonomy to the power of the King; it's always Wakonda first in that country.  But success has bred an internationalist wing of the monarchy.  One brother, the bad Black Panther, is like Trotsky --he wants to export the Wakonda revolution and, thereby, free the wretched of the Earth; his Stalinist brother wants to keep Wakonda's secrets to itself and consolidate power in the hermit kingdom -- this is the Trump-like good Black Panther.  After dispensing with the Boer villain, the film is about the power struggle between the two Black Panthers.  Needless so say, the film's politics are as confusing as every other aspect of its mythology.  A better critic would have propped his eyes open during the film's incredibly dull middle portion.  The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak -- as far as I can see the Black Panther's only reliably effective power is to put audiences to sleep. 

The Night Mail

The Night Mail is a poetic documentary produced in 1936 by the British film group led by John Grierson.  The picture is 24 minutes long and quite interesting.  Unfortunately, techniques and esthetic strategies pioneered in this film have now become common-place and so the film isn't particularly exciting to watch.  The movie's ecstatic approach to the facts has been much imitated to the point that this picture that established some of the principles of lyrical documentary now seems a bit pallid and tentative.  As with Werner Herzog what you see is, often, not what you think it is -- the most important example of this film blurring the edges between fiction and documentary is the fact that all the interior shots in the picture showing mail-sorting as the train roars through the countryside were filmed in a studio.  (Apparently, the real train's lurching and lunging was inimical to the images of smooth, understated postal efficiency that the film promotes -- the performers were told to sway a little from side-to-side to simulate the train's motion  But I noticed immediately that the scenes in the sorting car were preternaturally smooth and free of any sense of motion -- a serious defect in the picture in my view since the film celebrates the locomotive's power and formidable speed.) 

The movie is mostly shots of the handsome locomotive, the Royal Scotsman, roaring through England and Scotland on its nightly route from London's Euston Station to Edinburgh and Glasgow.  The train's speed is emphasized -- indeed, at time the train moves artificially fast, an effect achieved by slow-cranking as seen sometimes in silent films.  There are interesting details as to how the mail is collected by the train that slows and stops only once on its route -- in fact, some of the imagery of big pouches of mail scooped up by the train or hung outside to be caught by other stanchions along the rails is fairly hair-raising.  The postal workers are ciphers to an American, mostly because we can't understand their accents and because the soundtrack features, most prominently, the rush and bustle of the train clattering over the tracks.  Although about 20 minutes of the film is conventionally informative, featuring various facts and figures (or instance the tonnage of mail moved nightly), the movie ends with a visual and aural aria -- Auden's poem commissioned for the film, "The Night Mail" a tour-de-force that uses onomatopoeic effects to simulate the train's headlong rush combined with a lavish, percussive score by Benjamin Britten.  This climax is undeniably impressive, although a big over-ripe in the manner of Vachel Lindsay -- Auden's train poem is a sort of proto-rap with many internal rhymes and propulsive consonants.  The picture reminded me, at very points, of Turner's great canvas showing a train blurry with motion blasting through the mist and terrifying a small rabbit in a meadow -- it's called "Rain, Steam and Speed:  The Great Western Railroad" (1844).  "The Night Mail" ends with a characteristic dying fall -- Auden notes that the night mail is important because "no one wants to feel forgotten"; it's a slight melancholy tint coloring the film's final images of several men, dwarfed by the mighty engine caring for the locomotive as if it were a savage and all-powerful god.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Julius Caesar

Joseph Mankiewitz (working with John Houseman) directed this 1953 film adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.  The movie seems to have been made primarily as a demonstration that Marlon Brando cast as Antony can speak Shakespearian blank verse -- something that he accomplishes with apparent aplomb.  The movie is generally effective in presenting the play (albeit with the obligatory cuts -- Cinna, the poet, is not in the film).  The picture is tasteful, elaborately staged, and, generally, irritating in just about every way possible. 

The opening scenes take place in a vast space, presumably the Roman forum, and involve crowds of extras parading about as centurions, senators, and centurions. The first shot shows us a triumphal bust of Caesar decked with flowers -- this image is indicative of the problems that will vex the film as it proceeds.  The bust of Caesar looks nothing like Roman art, is not convincingly Greco-Hellenistic, and not stylized or abstract either -- in short, the set decorator wasn't sure whether to cleave to archaeologically exact replicas of ancient Roman art or whether to devise some other form of representation.  The image literally replicates the appearance of the actor playing Caesar -- he looks remarkably like LBJ.  But the scale of the image and is shape is subtly wrong and casts us into an uncertain limbo between stylization and realism.  This is fundamentally the problem with the set decoration throughout the film -- it is lavish but clearly theatrical (there are painted backdrops or matte images that are obviously stylized throughout most of the film).  Yet, some scenes like the large-scale battle of Philippi are shot outdoors in a dramatic and stony canyon in southern California -- this yields a strange mix of stylized and realistic settings that is disconcerting.  (For instance, Brutus has a field tent with his army that seems to be about the size of the Pantheon -- it is pointlessly large and elaborate and seems to claw against the representation of Brutus as essentially virtuous and disinterested, that is, not ostentatiously self-serving).  This mixture of realism and highly stylized imagery probably didn't bother audiences in 1953 -- Westerns characteristically mixed beautiful location footage with soundstage dialogue scene and the bluish half-light used to simulate night (day-for-night shooting) doesn't seem to have bothered anyone.  In fact, the set decoration on this picture was awarded an Oscar.  (The cast is all-star:  John Gielgud, surprisingly young, handsome and agile as Cassius, James Mason as Brutus, Edmund O'Brien as Casca, Deborah Kerr wasted in the tiny role of Portia.)

As far as I can tell, the acting is all exemplary.  Lines are read crisply and with proper prosody and, generally, everyone speaks clearly and passionately.  The film's peculiarities are rooted in its sources -- when I was a  boy, everyone read Julius Caesar in 8th or 9th grade and so the play is the one work by Shakespeare that, in America, is part of the common cultural property of those High School-educated in the public schools.  The fact that Julius Caesar is (or, at least, once was) universally taught in High School disguises the play's essential strangeness -- revisiting this play, which I have read four or five times and probably seen an equal number of times, I was struck by the play's peculiarity, it's curious form that straddles genres and the odd passivity of its principal characters.  At the outset, in scenes that should be filmed in claustrophobic close-up, Cassius sets upon Brutus and tempts him to envy Caesar.  (Cassius' strategy is clear and, also, clearly effective -- this makes Mark Antony's encomium to the dead Brutus asserting that he alone was never moved by "envy" seem ironic; Antony, of course, is the master of irony, saying one thing but meaning another, most notably in his famous oration over the corpse of Caesar:  the ending of the play, a scene in which Antony praises another corpse, this time Brutus, for not being "envious" is consistent with his earlier assertion, repeatedly stated and charged with vitriol, that Brutus is an "honorable man".  Neither utterance is objectively true and the play repeatedly measures the distance between people's words and their acts:  honorable men don't conspire to butcher their close friends.)  The play poses a fundamental question -- that is, the problem of personal merit.  Caesar is a sort of cipher in the play, a noble doofus.  Brutus is clearly more virtuous and Cassius more eloquent and more passionately ambitious.  And, yet, the populace worships Caesar to the extent that he is offered a crown, not once but three times.  Cassius' seduction of Brutus is fundamentally based on this argument:  what quality does he (Caesar) have that you don't?  But Caesar is, in some ways, blessed by the Gods -- he knows the tide that controls men's affairs and can act in accord with those natural cycles.  His merit is inexplicable but obvious and this maddens Cassius and Brutus.  A curious feature of the play is that it feels to me to be caught mid-way between tragedy and history -- in fact, the play resembles in my assessment Shakespeare's Macbeth.  It's about political envy and the consequences, I think, of imposing human values on a system that is, in effect, divinely instituted -- hence, all the imagery of gloomy horror and the omens/portents that congest the play.  Cassius is too petty to sense that the murder of Caesar has offended those very same powers that inexplicably promoted Caesar to the heights of power.  But Brutus understands precisely that once the die is cast, a fatal mechanism will ensnare and destroy him and that there is nothing he can do to repel this fate.  Hence, film's portrait of individuals caught in the toils of a remorseless  destiny who can't save themselves.  This is rendered obvious in the death scenes of both Cassius and Brutus.  Unlike Othello, for instance, who has no difficulty making his "quietus with a bare bodkin", the Romans can't kill themselves -- they are so engulfed in doom that they don't even have the agency for self-murder.  Cassius has to enlist a subaltern to stab him to death.  Showing a bit more agency, Brutus has someone hold a blade in fixed hands while he "runs upon it."  This peculiar and hopeless passivity of the principal conspirators suggests that they are mired in a nightmare machine that will rend them to pieces regardless of what they do.  We might call this machine "history" although it acts "tragically" -- that is, destroying particular people in accord with some malign rule.  The reason the concept of "tragedy" is misplaced is that the play doesn't really see characters as punished for their hubris -- that is, dying for reasons attributable to their own particular failings; rather, they seem to die because "history" demands it, notwithstanding and possibly even because of their individual merits. In this context, falling asleep is as noble and efficacious as leading a great army in a desperate battle -- this is touchingly demonstrated in the scene in which Brutus bids his slave-boy to watch with him awhile on the eve of the battle; in a reprise of Christ's agony at Gethsemene and is the best, and most touching, thing in the film. The staging of the battle scene further emphasizes this theme of passivity in the face of doom that characterizes the last third of the play.  Clearly, the two armies are shown to be  within arrow-shot of one another -- Antony's forces  are on cliff tops and concealed in rock fall from the defile, Brutus' army marching through that defile only a few yards awasy. Yet neither side sees the other and no one reacts to the fact that Brutus is obviously marching into an ambush.  The way the sequence is shot, the protagonists seem to be blind and their armies equally sightless -- huge forces are adjacent to one another but no one seems to notice this until the signal is given.  Closeups show Antony's handsome, feral face to be that of a sleepwalker. 

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Hour of the Wolf (Varqtimmen)

Hour of the Wolf (1968) is an Ingmar Bergman film about an artist losing his mind on a remote Frisian Island.  The artist is played by Max von Sydow, made to look maniacal or simply hapless throughout much of the film.  Von Sydow, of course, is a beautiful man with valiant features -- he looks like a saint carved in wood by the great German medieval sculptor, Tilman Riemenschneider.  But Bergman shoots him in extreme close-up with a lens that spreads his features and gives him a vaguely Slavic appearance; in other scenes, the artist's face is covered in pastywhite make-up and his cheeks rouge above painted lips..  It's characteristic of the film that Bergman vandalizes the appearance of his leading man -- the entire enterprise is self-destructive, willfully perverse, and deeply embittered.  Of course, Bergman was a great film maker but Hour of the Wolf is really too dispiriting to be any fun watching.  In many respects, the film seems to be re-make of Bergman's much greater, and equally disturbing, Persona -- however, the psychological horror on display in Persona here has deteriorated, I think, into a sort of fun-house ghoulishness.  (Bergman was sick with pneumonia during the production of the film and has said that he thinks the movie is far too personal.  The distance between Bergman and his fictional surrogate here is so uncomfortably close that the director himself disliked the picture.)

The film's premise is similar to The Shining.  An artist retires to a remote island to renew his talents and seek inspiration.  But he is afflicted by terrible nightmares that he paints and sketches in his notebook.  He keeps a diary, primarily an account of his night-terrors.  The artist's companion is played by Liv Ullman and her robust, freckle-faced beauty is incongruous among the various cannibals and vampires that inhabit the island.  She's pregnant and its apparent that the relationship between her and the artist is collapsing -- probably unable to bear the weight of commitment symbolized by the unborn child.  As it happens, the artist remains obsessed by a woman named Veronica Vogler, his previous lover and muse and, now, an angry ghost.  The artist is invited to a soiree at the island's castle.  The castle-keeper is played by Erland Josephson as a decadent art collector who has gathered around himself a nasty group of middle-aged and older sycophants.  These people seem to be sexually perverse and they stay up all night drinking and taunting one another with sadistic sexual innuendo.  About half-way through the film, a title is projected identifying the action as occurring thereafterduring the "hour of the wolf" -- that is, the early morning hour when most people die and when most babies are born.  During this hour, the artist is confronted by his demons, including the corpse of Veronika Vogler -- people pull off their faces and deposit their eyes in glasses of water and all sorts of other horrible stuff occurs.  The artist flees these demons and enters a dark, flooded forest, the sort of landscape that Tarkovsky employs in many of his films.  His girlfriend pursues him.  As in Persona, the artist's madness has infected his companion and she begins to see, and participate in, the nightmares that afflict her lover.  The film is all joyless horror and, in the end, the artist vanishes without a trace.  His lover keeps his notebooks and sketchpads and, it becomes clear, that he has probably transmitted his misery and madness to her.  Liv Ullman addresses the camera and says that relationships end with the person's assuming one another's identities.  But, of course, as dramatized by Bergman this is sexist nonsense -- we don't see the tormented artist becoming cheerful, healthy, and happy like his relatively clear-minded girlfriend:  in Bergman-world, the influence goes only one way:  the tortured man injects his madness into his reasonably normal lover.

The film is short (80 minutes) and has some hallmarks of an experimental picture.  Under the opening titles, we hear people giving commands, pounding nails, and using power tools to construct the sets for the film.  This eradication of the fourth-wall, however, is woefully lacking from the rest of the film which takes itself, and its various visions, with the utmost seriousness.  There is nothing playful in this picture -- everything is dark, dire, and miserable.  At one point, after discussing some childhood physical abuse, the nearly nude artist encounters himself as a ten year old boy and, after some provocation, kills the kid -- we later see little boy's corpse with bashed-in head floating in the cold ocean waters where the hero has been fishing.  The struggles of the artist with his corpse-muse are delivered to us with crashing literalness and the movie just suddenly ends -- we're told that the artist vanished forever and his story is preserved only in his diary and sketchpads.  We never see the artist's work and, so, of course, are deprived of the opportunity to assess whether his paintings justify all this campy Sturm und Drang.  In many ways, the film seems like a parody of Bergman, but it's humorless.  Anything by Bergman is worth seeing for his mastery of film technique -- and this picture is no exception:  its chock-full of strange visionary shots, weird and upsetting transitions and long, morose soliloquies.  But it's far from Bergman at his best and most powerful and, indeed, the picture is so sullenly morose as to be seem a bit risible. 

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Leopard

Luchino Visconti's opulent adaptation of Lampedusa's novel, The Leopard was released to international (if not American) acclaim in 1963, five years after the novel was published.  The film adheres closely to the first 2/3rds of the novel -- that is, the part of the book dominated by the fierce and conservative Prince of Salina (beautifully played by Burt Lancaster -- he speaks in English but his lines are dubbed into gruff-sounding baritone Italian).  Despite its international cast and epic scope, the film is meditative, contemplative and melancholy; it is also essential plotless in the sense that there is no real narrative -- the movie explores a character, the intelligent and sad Prince of Salina and his situation:  at the end of the movie, the hero crosses a squalid plaza in Palermo, ignores a scrawny cat that also slinks from darkness to darkness, and, then, vanishes into the shadows of a narrow poverty-stricken alley.  Although the film begins with resplendent images of the Prince's great villa and estate at Donafugata, lush groves of olive trees and bright gardens beneath a craggy barren mountain, the long film (185 minutes) ends in nondescript darkness. 

Although the film is devoid of much in the way of events, the movie's stately progression of beautiful images explores Sicilian politics and aristocratic family life during the Risorgimento -- the Piedmontese, that is northern Italians, have invaded the island with Garibaldi.  The Red Shirt guerillas and rebels wish to wrest the Kingdom away from Bourbon rule and annex the island to the mainland.  The effect of this campaign is to haul ancient Sicily into the political arena of the mid-19th century -- that is, to destroy the ancient royal prerogatives of people like the Prince.  Although the Prince reluctantly supports the expulsion of Bourbon power and unification with the rest of Italy, he also is clear-sighted enough to recognize that these developments signal the beginning of the end for his class.  Indeed, Visconti posits that the old Prince represents the last of his kind, the last "leopard" as it will to reign with autonomy over his estates and villages.  The old Prince is a liberal of a kind, enlightened and a student of astronomy and the natural sciences and he recognizes that modern democracy will make his class superfluous or, worse, merely parasitic.  As a patriot, he supports the modernization of Sicily, although he doubts that the project will succeed and, at the end of the film notes that the Sicilians, who have never had to rule themselves in the real world, have always retreated into a fantasy existence in which they are robust, unmannerly, violent, and child-like Gods.  Sicily, he thinks, will always resist the processes of modernity:  it's archaic blood-feuds and ancient families will somehow survive, but fatally wounded.  Like Lampedusa in his novel, Visconti develops these ideas through a series of philosophical and epigrammatic dialogues between the Prince and his priest or the Prince and his much-beloved nephew, Tancredi, the impetuous young man in which the old Leopard sees his younger self.  There are a number of long colloquies that stop the action, such as it is, interrupting the film with extended socio-political discourse -- these scenes are of varying interest to an American viewer:  some of them are thrilling and poignant, others are simply dull.  To the extent that there is a story, the film concerns the Prince's maneuvers to effect the marriage of his nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon) to the fabulously beautiful Angelica (Claudia Cardinale).  These measures are fraught with peril for the old Prince:  his own daughter, Cosetta, a woman that the Prince greatly admires, loves Tancredi and is his natural match.  But the Prince feels that the blood-lines of the old aristocracy is deformed by marriages between cousins and, instead, promotes the marriage to Angelica, the daughter of a shopkeeper and bourgeoisie Don Colangelo.  Colagelo is nouveau riche, vulgar, and acquisitive -- he's always concerned with what things cost.  But he is the epitome of the new democratic economy in Sicily and has enriched himself by acquiring the estates of the impoverished aristocrats.  (Lampedusa was a great admirer of William Faulkner and the influence of that writer is clear in both novel and movie:  Don Colagelo is similar to the Snopes characters in Faulkner's books -- they are merchants who displace the old aristocrats from their place in the sun.)  Tancredi goes to fight with Garibaldi and there are some large-scale, if rather desultory, battle scenes:  the men seem more occupied with cutting a romantic, dashing figure in their bright uniforms than engaging in combat:  the real core of the fighting involves the summary execution of prisoners and a rabble of women who harry one man to death, hanging him by the neck in the ruins -- Visconti's point seems to be that "valor" consists of killing prisoners and the women are far more ferocious and lethal than the men.  He shoots the battle scenes from a high angle -- streets and barricades swarmed with red and blue-shirted soldiers, charge and futile counter-charges, a kind of absurd chaos.  (The futile cruelty of this warfare is emphasized in the end when Garibaldi sympathizers, now in disrepute, are shot at dawn, after a lavish Ball.)  Curiously Visconti puts more emphasis on the old Prince's trip from Palermo to his estate in the country than on the battle scenes:  the Count's entourage must pass through a checkpoint and Visconti stages this elaborately, with thunderous symphonic music and enormous, sunny landscapes.  The aristocrats picnic on the battlefield, as it were, and Visconti, who was a brilliant director of opera, creates huge tapestry-like images swarming with all kinds of human and animal life:  he is a master at presenting us with action in which there are multiple centers or focuses of interest:  people are grooming horses, girls promenade under little parasols, lackeys jockey for tips, and, yet, all of this teeming activity is organized around the figure of the stiff-backed, implacable, and handsome Prince.  There is a plebiscite and Sicily is annexed to the mainland.  A messenger from Rome pleads with the Prince to become a senator in the Italian government -- instead, the Prince proposes the vulgar and scheming Don Colagelo for that role.  The film ends with a famous 51 minute party and ball sequence that is one of the great glories of Italian film and that has been echoed repeatedly in American movies:  the wedding at the beginning of The Godfather, with all its complex cross-currents is a homage to this scene; similarly, the long wedding scene that comprises most of the first half of The Deer Hunter is an effort to translate this sequence into the American vernacular, specifically lower middle class people in an iron and steel town like Bethlehem, Pa.  Here Visconti's skill at creating multiple centers of focus while retaining the emphasis on the central character is unparalleled.  We see all sorts of things, but the Prince is never far from our thoughts and, indeed, Visconti stations him in most of the images, although sometimes as a small melancholy figure far from the glamorous center of things.  Although the party is spectacular and involves fantastically beautiful and gay dance scenes, the brilliance of the sequence inheres in Visconti showing us everything through the perspective of the old Prince -- the skull is everywhere visible and obvious through the voluptuous flesh of the faces of beautiful women's faces.  Somehow, the scene is both lushly glamorous and, also, a memento mori.  Inexplicably, American critics didn't much like the picture when it was released -- I think it may be too closely concerned with Sicilian and Italian history to interest some people and critics had trouble with Lancaster's dubbing and his mutton-chop whiskers.  The movie was cut from 185 minutes to 161 minutes and, generally, panned.  The absence of plot probably confused American critics -- the film is about a situation and a dilemma and the story, which is really just a procession of beautiful, complex images, is secondary to the old Prince's situation.  But, at its full majestic length, notwithstanding some dull sequences, The Leopard is a film masterpiece and a master-class as well in staging spectacle.  (And, sometimes, Visconti just gets "lucky" -- in a scene in which Tancredi impetuously storms out of the palace, hurrying to join Garibaldi's volunteers, the women clutch at him to hold him back and there are many tearful embraces; just as the young man is about to leave the palace, the Prince's huge great Dane, omnipresent throughout much of the picture, runs up the young man and playfully seizes him by the wrist to keep him from leaving.)