Monday, December 11, 2017

Godless (final episodes)

In its second half, the seven episode Western mini-series Godless slackens a bit, the breakneck pace of the first two shows decelerates markedly, and the penultimate programs leading to the final, apocalyptic gun battle slip sideways into murky territory.  All plot points lead to La Belle and the final fight between the plucky widows and Frank Griffin's innumerable minions -- it's unclear how he supports an army of the size that he leads in this desert wasteland -- but, despite, all the bluster and violence at the film's climax quite a few things remain unclear and, in fact, unresolved.  Godless has an unsettling aspect of seeming extremely leisurely and digressive in its narrative while, at the same time, strangely rushed --it's the opposite of the Latin motto "Festina Lente" ("Make haste slowly"); this show dawdles in a way that somehow seems a little too swift for the viewer -- things that we expect will be explained remain unclear, either through inadvertence or an attempt at meaningful ambiguity.  I simply didn't understand a number of things in this show.  For instance:

Who are the bison-headed blue-eyed bad guys who inexplicably slash open Michele Dockery's sternum?  (This is significant in the sex scene in which Dockery exposes her breasts and the big scar between them.)  Why has Bill, the sheriff, lost his shadow?  And why does the shadow return in the climactic gun battle?  Who is the woman running the nursery school in the wilderness?  She seems an ambiguous figure, a little like Lillian Gish's matronly protector of children in Night of the Hunter, but  also with a strangely childish and malicious aspect as well.  Why is the half-blind sheriff Bill universally regarded as a coward to the extent that women throw dishwater and slops at him when he rides by?  What has he done wrong?  And, similarly, why is the Paiute widow (played by Michele Dockery) regarded as some kind of fatal witch who has put a hex on the town?  The characters of the women in La Belle are very underwritten -- they are basically just skirts and corsets until the big shoot-out when they are skirts and corsets with six-shooters and Winchesters.  Are they strait-laced or bawdy? -- one woman in particular, a lady with dark-hair, seems particularly Victorian until we see her with another woman prancing atop a table and singing a jaunty whorehouse ballad?  (A more pointed question -- northern New Mexico, of course, is characterized by its Pueblos and its Latino population, old villages dating to the conquistadors in the early 17th century:  where is the Spanish-speaking population?  The show, full of exotic immigrants, shows absolutely no sign of the ancient Spanish culture that is predominant in the area -- in the seven hour movie, the picture never shows anyone speaking Spanish or who seems to be Latino.)

Scott Frank, the director seems to like to keep things ambiguous.  For instance, there is a puzzling sequence, quite graphic and disturbing, in which Frank Griffin, the monstrous, psychotic killer, tends to a cabin full of people dying of small-pox.   The sick have been abandoned by their kin, but Griffin pauses in his relentless pursuit of Roy Goode, his disloyal protégée, to tend to the suppurating sores of a dozen or more people dying miserably in a shack in the desert.  (His men are afraid of contagion and they flee -- Griffin makes two twin boys, lunatics who seem to have butchered their entire family, including a new-born baby, stay to assist him.)  A mysterious Shoshone who tracks Bill, the cowardly sheriff, is later revealed to be a ghost rider with a ghost dog.  Griffin turns out to be very kind to horses and a sort of "horse whisperer" -- he can get the animals to lie down on their sides just by stroking them.  This is supposed to be an emblem for Griffin's charisma, his ability to bind young people to him, the personal magnetism that he exerts on his rag-tag army of desperadoes.  But Griffin's combination of nurturing qualities with psychotic violence, which is meant to be puzzling, seems ultimately implausible.  Jeff Daniels, who plays the wicked outlaw, doesn't know exactly what to do:  sometimes, he "out-Herods Herod" and seems ready to "tear a cat"; but half the time, Daniels seems bemused -- he just mutters into his beard as if he is himself unaware of what his words are supposed to signify. 

The various detours before the big gun battle involve lesbian jealousy and an inter-racial romance.  A German princess hanging around town (she does a Lady Godiva turn down Main Street) is revealed as an artist -- she's painting the brothel-keeper, who is Merrit Wever's girlfriend, in the nude.  This leads Wever (who is Bill's sister and strides around town with six-shooters in men's clothing) to quarrel with the former prostitute (now school-marm); of course, the quarrel arises over a misperception as to the relationship between the lissome German baroness and the whore.  Whitey, the adolescent deputy sheriff, falls in love with a black girl living in the encampment of the buffalo-soldiers.  The girl is forbidden to associate with the white teenager and, in fact, beaten severely by her father to deter her from seeing her boyfriend.  A newspaper man comes to town to write an article disclosing that Roy Goode is hiding in La Belle.  This article turns out to be a summons calling all the characters back to the mining town for the climax -- Bill reads the text and returns; Roy Goode who has left the ranch rides into town; and, of course, Frank Griffin's army of bad guys also marches on the village.  (In the penultimate episode, we see the miners at dawn, before the explosion that has killed them all, walking with wives and girl friends to the fatal pit -- this flashback is a short idyllic scene, a sort of calm before the storm.)

The last episode is largely devoted to a spectacular gun battle derived in large part from the defense of the embattled town in The Magnificent Seven (which is, of course, a remake of Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai.)  As in Kurosawa's film (and John Sturges' Western remake), we see the army of bandits riding relentlessly across the open plains.  They seem an irresistible force, stirring up huge clouds of dust.  In the village, the women have congregated in the hotel, a structure made of brick and iron so that it can't be burned down.  They are heavily armed and, when the bandits, ride up the street and, then, pause in front of the hotel, the women ambush them with a fusillade from the rooftop and windows of the building.  A sort of Old West Armageddon ensues.  (One must note that Kurosawa's staging of this kind of combat has never been improved -- his bandits are ambushed, retreat, and come back the next day, mounting attacks from various sides of the village.  The army of villains in Godless just mill around in the open street, allowing the women to shoot them down by the dozen.  It's completely implausible if rousing and staged with great bravado.)  The bad guys ride their horses right into the hotel, blasting at the women with their six-shooters, and the fighting in the house turns into room-by-room combat -- shot gun blasts hurl people off roofs and a horse rides through a window falling into a sea of fire.  Just when it seems that the women are doomed, Roy Goode and Sheriff Bill ride out of the roiling sea of smoke, appearing at opposite ends of the Main Street so that they can mow down the remaining bad guys.  This is very spectacular and exciting, but fundamentally flawed in that the combat is staged unrealistically -- the men on horseback pose to be shot down and the bullets never hit the horses and not the bad guys.  A number of main characters are killed, but it would be a spoiler for me to disclose who dies and how.  Ultimately, Roy Goode and Frank Griffin, son and father, engage in a duel in a gorgeous mountain meadow -- the field glitters with white columbine and the scene is filmed in extreme longshot so that we can see in the background the beautiful, indifferent, snowy summits of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.  Much of the rest of the film, about ten minutes of denouement is shot poetically, tiny horseman moving across enormous landscapes.  The movie does't end exactly right -- Roy Goode has left the Paiute widow a fortune in green backs buried under a fence post (as in Fargo).  The widow uncovers the saddlebag and the greenbacks and, I suppose, becomes complicit in receiving stolen currency -- this seems morally suspect.  The director's urge to make the ultimate Western, a Western that contains all Westerns is much on display in the last episode:  the battle in the town is modeled after The Magnificent Seven, at the end of the film, a preacher emerges fro nowhere to say a few words over the fifty or so new graves in the cemetery -- throughout the show we've seen the women laboring to build a wood-frame church, a motif that invokes McCabe and Mrs. Miller.  After the gun battle, Merrit Wever's character stalks around the battlefield, firing her shotgun pointblank into dead and dying men strewn in the streets and alleyways.  Her brother, Bill, says "You don't need to kill them but once."  The scene in which the gunman who has put aside his weapons digs up a coffin full of armament and, then, dons his six-shooters, spinning them in his hands, is stirring -- it reminds you of a hundred old movies.  And, in the big shoot out, Roy Goode's Winchester runs out of ammo -- he pitches the rifle at a bad guy who is startled and drops his gun to catch the rifle:  this gives Goode the chance to draw  his six-gun from its holster and blow the villain away.  It's a great move, executed with fine balletic aplomb like much of this show -- a fleeting gesture as pretty as anything in Rio Bravo.    Despite its failings, there's a lot in this series to commend and I recommend it to anyone who likes Westerns.  The leisurely episodes have a fine pastoral ambience, there are beautiful landscapes, many splendid horses, and a number of exciting action scenes.

Saturday, December 9, 2017


Voyeur (2017) is a Netflix documentary made by Miles Kane and Josh Koury and currently streamed on that service.  Ostensibly about the voyeur, Gerald Foos, a man who turned a  shabby road-side motel into a laboratory for sexual surveillance, the film warps into something unanticipated and even more disturbing than the film's peeping Tom premise.  Gay Talese, a famous investigative journalist, seems to anchor the film at first, although his suave presence is gradually swallowed by the monomaniacal Foos.  Talese wrote famous articles about Sinatra and other celebrities for magazines like Esquire and Vanity Fair and, then, published books about the mafia (Honor thy Father) and sexuality in America, the best-seller, Thy Neighbor's Wife.  In the latter book, Talese, a vain, strutting little bantam-cock, admits participating in the orgies and swinger parties that he documents -- at the time, this was scandalous and garnered him an appearance, with his obviously outraged wife, on the Merv Griffin Show.  At that time, during the late seventies, Gerard Foos owned the Manor House, a motel on the main drag in Aurora, Colorado.  A self-described "pervert", Foos rigged up the motel with louvers opening over the beds of each room, installing a catwalk to that he could creep about in the attic of his motel and watch his customers having sex, getting drunk, masturbating, fighting, and (so Foos claims)in one case committing a murder.  Foos has a big personality; he's larger than life and he accompanied his voyeurism and masturbation (when he was younger up to five times a night) by writing a sort of encyclopedia of motel sex -- he documented in a log all sexual encounters, provided details, tabulated the different types of sex that he observed, and seems to have written several thousand pages of chronicles.  Foos is bearded and, now, scarcely mobile, but he's very similar to Talese in his grandiosity, and narcissism.  Talese was the son of a tailor and, like Tom Wolfe, always appears in public impeccably dressed -- indeed, a neon blue suit that we see being bespoke-tailored for Talese plays an important role in the imagery of the last third of the film.  (We see the suit being made and, then, notice that Talese is wearing this when he goes on Late Night TV with Seth Myers.) "My father was a prideful tailor," Talese tells us, "I'm a prideful journalist."  Through repeated parallelisms and analytical editing, the film makes the point that Talese and Foos, who both think themselves fearless explorers of human sexuality, are, in fact, almost identical in their vanity and hubris -- at one point, Foos even dresses with the sort of archaic, flamboyant style that Talese affects.  (In one respect, Foos is more successful as a sexual investigator than Talese -- Talese wife disapproved of the journalist's forays into group sex and almost divorced him; Foos managed to persuade not one, but two wives, that his masturbatory research was valid and important -- Foos second wife, whom we see tending to him throughout the film, even brought her husband sandwiches and cans of pop when he was perched in the dark attic scrutinizing the sexual encounters below.)  Talese, who says he is 83, first encountered Foos 37 years ago when the voyeur wrote him a letter; fascinated, Talese traveled to Denver and, generally, verified Foos claims about what he was doing in the Manor House motel.  Since Foos' activities were undoubtedly  illegal, Talese didn't ever mention the voyeur until early 2017 when he wrote an article for the New Yorker magazine about the motel and its owner; the story was illustrated with photographs of Foos and the Manor House.  Both Foos and Talese were concerned with their mortality -- the story was too good to keep silent and so they collaborated, in essence, to issue the account before it was too late.  Almost immediately, though,  The New Yorker fact checkers encountered anomalies -- Foos' sex journals at the motel began in 1976 or 1977, but real estate records show that Fools didn't actually buy the motel until 1979.  Foos vivid account of a murder that he witnessed could not be corroborated with any police records -- although the fact checkers did discover a similar murder in the time period described by Foos, but one that occurred at a different motel.  Notwithstanding these anomalies the New Yorker essay appeared, a teaser for two books -- an extended account of Foos' adventures by Talese and publication of Foos' raw journals as to the sexual activity that he claimed to have witnessed  In the course of his investigation, Talese noted questionable aspects of Foos' behavior -- the man is an obsessive collector and his large house is filled with collections of things:  dolls and most notably baseball cards.  Foos tells Talese that his baseball cards (of which he asserts he has 2.5 million) are worth millions of dollars.  The cards occupy a huge basement room.  The filmmakers again demonstrate here the kinship between Talese and Foos -- Talese works in a basement room at his Manhattan townhouse where he has thousands of boxes of notes, photographs, and other raw materials relating to the books and articles that he has written, everything neatly catalogued, indexed, but, apparently, collaged to create detailed images representing the work contained the file.  Foos and Talese have a falling out, remarkably over Talese disclosing that Foos is a wealthy man with his house full of million-dollar baseball cards.  When Talese' book is published, other journalists immediately discover -- within a day or so -- that Foos' story doesn't check out.  Although Foos has journals through the 1990's, written almost nightly about the sexual activities at the motel, records show that he sold the motel in 1983 -- so how was he continuing to observe sexual encounters at the place?  Horrified at what seem to be errors in the book (query?  how did The New Yorker miss these factual incongruities?), Talese disavows the book.  Later, he meets with Foos and learns that the man was in cahoots with the new owner of the motel (post-1983) and that he retained access to the surveillance perches in the attic -- apparently, he and the new owner spied on the customers at the Manor House in tandem.  The documentary doesn't quite add up -- first, we can't tell the time period over which the film was made:  Foos is first seen with a dark black beard and relatively agile -- there is footage of the motel.  Later, we see Foos much older, with his beard snow-white, and the motel has been torn down -- destroyed, it seems, in 1997.  Accordingly, it appears as if the documentary was under some sort of sporadic production for many years -- but this is not explained.  A few PG-rated reconstructions of the voyeurism are provided with a tiny model of the motel standing in for the actual, demolished Manor-House -- this aspect of the film is obviously influenced by Errol Morris' various documentaries.  Various aspects of the story don't make sense.  In other words, there are mysteries that the film doesn't elucidate.  But none of this detracts with the eerie aspect of the film as a study of Doppelgaengers -- Talese and Foos are both voyeurs and there are aspects of their flamboyant personalities that are startlingly similar.  In the end, the film is less about sex than about a double -- there's a sense that the film is Borgesian:   Talese and Foos are doubles of one another. 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

While the City Sleeps

Fritz Lang throws the everything at you including the kitchen sink in his 1956 While the City Sleeps.  The 105 minute films yaws alarmingly between genres, mashing together a police procedural with a nasty serial killer plot all framed by a sour expose of corruption in the media ("fake news" during the age of Ike).  The effect is a little like The Boston Strangler mixed up with The Sweet Smell of Success with a little bit of Citizen Kane tossed in for a good measure.  The film doesn't exactly work -- it's so cynical that the audience can't get traction on any of its vicious and conniving characters, but the film's decadent depravity is certainly consistent and carefully considered.  The mistake that a first-time viewer makes relates to expectations:  we expect the film will show one or more of its characters as a little less depraved than the others on view.  But Lang resolutely refuses to allow any of his protagonists even a trace amount of human goodness -- everyone in the film is a pig of one sort or another.  I would have had more fun watching the film if I had figured out its remorselessly cynical view of human nature from the very outset -- as it was, I was confused for half the film, wondering whether the principal characters, most notably Ed Mobly (Dana Andrews) were really as smarmy and vicious as they seemed.  I spent the better part of the movie wondering if the defect was in the script or me -- is it just that I don't like Dana Andrews?  Or is he doing something to make me despise him?  Only when the ultimate design of the film is clear do we realize that there's no hero in this picture, only villains of one sort or another.

Lang's films generally feature some sharp and vivid moment of violence  and some kind of visual aria, some punctum to use Barthes' term that seizes the eye and engages the imagination (for instance, the prostitutes riding their cowboy customers in a sordid kind of brothel horse-race in Rancho Notorious).  While the City Sleeps doesn't afford any obvious pleasures of this sort -- Lang cuts away from the violence and there are no memorable set pieces in the film.  Furthermore, the movie has an exceptionally complex plot with too many characters and so the film sometimes seems a little rushed and aimless at the same time -- Lang is trying to do too much in too little time and his cinematic shorthand is sometimes indistinguishable from sloppy movie-making.  Kyne, a media magnate like Hearst (or Citizen Kane) is on his death bed.  He learns of a serial killer, murdering girls in New York City, and, more or less, with his dying breath tries to gin up public hysteria by dubbing the psycho-murderer, "the Lipstick Killer."  After Kyne's death, his effete son, played effectively by Vincent Price, appears on the scene.  For sadistic reasons, Price's Kyne Jr. sets up a competition between the "ink-stained wretch" managing the newspaper, the manager of the wire service, and another journalist, possibly a sports writer -- whomever solves the case of "the Lipstick Killer" first will be promoted to the head of the media empire owned by Kyne Enterprises.  Dana Andrews is just a newspaper employee and not in the competition, but he sets out to solve the crime to help his editor, the publisher of Kyne's Sentinel.   George Sanders plays the man who runs the wire-service -- he is a silky smooth sexual harasser who gropes (and tries to kiss)  his secretary (Rhonda Fleming) who turns out to be Ed Mobly's fiancée.  The sportscaster is romancing Kyne Jr's wife, a florid, big blonde who reeks of mid-fifties sexuality.  (Vincent Price got up in boyish looking golf  togs -- short pants a little like the foreshortened trousers worn by the hero in Metropolis -- practices putting while his huge cartoon wife, nearly naked, does calisthenics casting her caricature shadow on a huge screen in the foreground of the image.)  The serial killer keeps knocking off girls and the police follow leads (there's an indefatigable detective who was Mobly's war buddy during WWII) and the three competing department heads scheme to derail each other's efforts to solve the crime.  Ultimately, Ed Mobly, who's posited as the hero of this film, decides to use his fiancée, whom he has just betrayed with Ida Lupino (who plays the femme fatale gossip columnist) as bait to catch the psycho-killer.  But the murderer, a snarling homosexual "mamma's boy" attacks the wrong girl -- he assaults the big blonde who is Kyne Jr's girlfriend (and the sports journalist's mistress.  There's a little bit of a chase through the subway and, then, the bad boy killer with his leather jacket and switchblade is apprehended; he's a bit like Lang's fantasized version of a sullen Elvis Presley, the man's lip permanently twisted in a malevolent snarl.  (The mamma's boy killer has the great silent film actress, Mae Marsh -- she was in Griffith's Intolerance -- playing the role of his longsuffering mother.)  After the bad guy confesses and there's an Extra to the newspaper published, there's a couple of blackmails resulting in a notionally happy ending in which Dana Andrews gets to strip and grope, and, then, have sex with Rhonda Fleming in a sordid hotel room somewhere in the south.  Andrews spends the whole movie drunk or hungover.  There's a  tavern conveniently located in the basement of the skyscraper where the Kyne empire has its headquarters and all the characters, including the lusciously seductive Ida Lupino, drink there into the wee hours of the night. The murderer enters the apartments of his hapless victims by pressing a button in their door latches to keep the door from locking when it is shut.  Lang makes a point that is none too subtle when we see Ed Mobly use the same trick to break and enter his girlfriend's apartment -- presumably to rape her since he's  always drunk and continuously engaging in sexual innuendo of a coarse kind -- the film is sort of a museum embalming the rawest kind of pre-JFK sexual harassment. We gasp at this touch and Lang's audacious equation of his hero with the serial sex murderer -- and, at first, we think this is just a cynical touch.  But, in fact, the equation is thematic -- the apparent hero is just as vicious as the film's ostensible bad guy and the way that the media uses the murders to sell newspapers mirrors the way the film hitches the sex-criminal plot to its sardonic attack on the media, a similarly opportunistic suturing together of two unrelated themes.  Make no mistake, Dana Andrews is supposed to be just as smarmy and repugnant as you think that he is as the film progresses.  He's not likeable because  he's playing a bad man.                                                                               

Tuesday, December 5, 2017


Between Red Lodge, Montana and Bear Creek, a winding county highway snakes over a low rocky ridge and, then, past some abandoned mine workings on the hillside.  A mile away, on the low, arid hill across the arroyo, there is a cemetery with many identical white crosses.  A shiny and cheerless granite monument explains that the cemetery contains the victims of the Smith Mine disaster, a calamity that occurred in 1913 -- 77 men went underground but only three survived the methane blast deep in the mine.  The arroyo is dry, with a scatter of nondescript ruins next to the sandy draw.  I've been there four or five times and the heat is always searing, the graveyard spiky with cactus.  (An even more haunting place is the ghost-town of Dawson, New Mexico, another barren canyon where a once thriving, mining town has simply vanished -- even the foundations are gone.  But the cemetery with the graves of over 380 men killed in two mining explosions still occupies a gravel terrace on the side of the canyon, unkempt, wild, and tragic.)

The Netflix western, Godless, is set in New Mexico in 1881 and concerns, in part, a similar mining disaster.  At the fictional town of La Belle, about 80 miners have perished in a fire in the pit.  (A single survivor, a man named "John Doe" because the fire happened on his first day at work and no one surviving knows his real name, wanders half-crazed through the streets of the town adjacent to the now-abandoned head-house and mills of the La Belle silver mine.)  The premise of the show is that the widows of the dead miners have not left the town, but, instead, have established a sort of female Republic -- it's a curious polity:  the women maintain shabby genteel customs, some of them engaging in same-sex love affairs; everyone is armed to the teeth since it is expected that violent men will soon enough discover the gynocracy and attack it.  The town whore, made prosperous by the dead miners, operates the local school.  A number of plot lines compete for attention in the seven episode show, but the show's moral center is the regiment of women in the village -- this is the site to which the narrative continually returns.

On the outskirts of town, another widow, thought to be bad luck by the ladies in the village, operates a ranch.  This widow lives with her Paiute mother-in-law, a woman with powers as a healer, and her gentle teenage son, Truckee.  One night, an intruder ventures on the widow's ranch and she shoots him.  The wounded man, who is nursed back to health, is Roy Goode, a lethal gunfighter, who was formerly the protégée of a psychotic bandit named, Frank Griffin.  Goode is a character obviously modeled on Alan Ladd's Shane, a courteous, even shy gunslinger whose skill with his 38 (in a speech, he criticizes gunmen who carry 45 caliber side-arms as, perhaps, lacking in confidence) will undoubtedly come in handy when the mini-series' climactic seventh episode is reached.  The Paiutes have delivered 40 head of Indian ponies to the widow and Goode also reveals himself as good with horses -- he agrees to break the horses, presumably so that there will be time for a romance to blossom between himself and the widow (played by the formidable and cadaverous-looking Michelle Dockery, apparently previously featured far from the West on Downton Abbey.)  In flashbacks, we learn that Goode has broken ranks with his ferocious father-figure, the unpredictable and murderous Frank Griffin and, indeed, made the rupture irrevocable by shooting off Griffin's arm.  (In an early scene, Griffin's shattered arm is amputated; this doesn't slow down the old reprobate one whit -- he is back to murdering and raping before the end of the next episode, even though he is still carrying his amputated arm in his saddle-bag and brandishing his bloody stump at foes).  Griffin has murdered every man, woman, and child in the town of Creede, Colorado and, of course, early episodes foreshadow that the final showdown will be between Griffin's army of bad guys and the women in the town of La Belle led by Griffin's prodigal son, Roy Goode.  (Griffin is played by a grey-bearded Jeff Daniels who seems a little muted and, indeed, bewildered by the Captain Ahab-like harangues that he must deliver.) There are a number of subplots -- La Belle's sheriff, a man despised as a feckless coward, goes in solitary pursuit of Griffin, notwithstanding the fact that he is partly blind; the sheriff's sister, played by a very remarkable actress named Merrit Wever, resists the efforts of the town women to sell the mine to a rapacious corporation -- but the sale occurs nonetheless and a new group of thugs, similar to the armed regulators in Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, descend on the town to oppress its inhabitants.  There's trigger-happy boy who is a deputy sheriff, a group of African-American "buffalo soldiers" living near La Belle in "Blacktown" and a variety of love affairs and romances of various kinds.   Sam Waterston has a small role as Federal law man also pursuing Griffin and his mob.  Individual episodes are between 70 and 80 minutes long and they proceed in a leisurely fashion -- but the script is so strong and the production values so impressive that, during the first three episodes, my attention never flagged and, in fact, the more I watched the show, the better I liked it.  To my taste, the third episode, which was almost entirely an idyll, was the best -- there was a lengthy sequence in which Goode and Truckee tame horses, probably about 20 minutes, that I thought interesting and, then, later a spacious scene in which Truckee and Goode ride in a forest while the gunfighter gives the boy tips as to how to avoid deadfall that "might get your horse in trouble".  The exposition is leisurely and, in fact, the underwhelming climax of the scene involves Truckee carefully riding his horse down a hillside intricate with fallen trees -- that is, applying the lessons that Goode has taught him.  (In exchange for his services, the widow is teaching Goode how to read.)   One plot element marks an advance from my childhood -- the homicidal Frank Griffin was raised by Mormon "avenging angels", the Mormon renegades who engineered the infamous Mountain Meadows massacre  in which members of the LDS slaughtered a wagon train of immigrants on the Santa Fe trail, then blaming the atrocity on the local Indians.  Griffin's upbringing, apparently intensely abusive, has turned him into some kind of God-obsessed maniac.  When I was young the Church of the Latter Day Saints didn't like to talk about the Mountain Meadows massacre -- in fact, they claimed that accounts of the massacre were Gentile propaganda ginned-up to make people hate the Mormons and, in fact, justify military expeditions against them.  (When I was in Junior High, my father took us to the site of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, a bleak piece of high chaparral in Utah and I recall vividly the aggrieved anger of the locals at our curiosity when we asked directions to reach that place.)

Godless is shot in the Galisteo basin a little south of Santa Fe, much of it on Cerro Pelon Ranch (the script frequently mentions a place called "Bald Knoll" -- that is, "Cerro Pelon") and the vistas gracing the screen are, often, breathtaking.  This is big budget film making with no expenses spared -- Steve Soderburgh produced the series; the acting is first-rate, the photography brilliant and there is even a plaintive folk-song like sound track supervised by "T-Bone" Burnett.  The writer and director, Scott Frank, demonstrates, sequence after sequence, an ambition to make the most spectacular and powerful Western ever produced -- that is, he will take motifs from other previous films and amplify them.  Whether he will succeed in this endeavor or merely founder in grandiloquence is uncertain to me at this time.  The film is a compendium of all Westerns ever shot -- the motif of the destruction of the village by bad men goes back to William S. Hart's  Hell's Hinges (1916); the horse-breaking scenes mirror similar sequences featuring Gregory Peck in The Big Country; Goode is like Shane and Frank Griffin is clearly modeled on the terrifying Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian:  in one scene after committing a rape and terrorizing some Norwegian immigrants, he delivers a lengthy speech about how the West is "godless" that is, "the paradise of the locust" -- this stuff feels like pseudo-Melville outtakes from McCarthy's visionary novel.  A train crash in the opening episode is gratuitously spectacular -- it seems devised to compete with our memories of the climactic train crash in How the West was Won.  Even the show's premise, which critics think novel, the little Western town ruled by women seems derived from movies like William Wellman's 1951 Westward the Women.  None of these borrowings is disturbing -- the Western is a self-referential genre; Western films operate by setting up archetypal scenes and confrontations and, then, making tiny incremental changes to them.  Indeed, much of the pleasure in a Western is "ticking off" homages to earlier movies in the genre -- at one point, Roy Goode is shown on horseback dragging a coffin behind him.  This Tarantino-like scene, in fact, alludes to the hyper-violent Spaghetti-Western, Django (1966) in which the hero drags a casket containing a Gatling gun into a little hamlet in the desert. In fact, the spirit of the spaghetti-Western hovers over the film --  spaghetti-Westerns always evinced a competitive spirit with respect to their source material:  Sergo Leone's Once upon a Time in the West is supposed to be the ultimate Western, the film that dwarfs its predecessors to the extent of even appropriating, some might say misappropriating, the canonical figure of Henry Fonda.  Franks' Godless shows the same hubris -- this is evidenced by a scene in which Griffin's army of villains fords a river.  Scenes of grouped horsemen crossing a river are integral to the Western -- John Ford and Sam Peckinpah, in particular, luxuriated in this imagery.  Frank shows the horseman splashing across the stream, riding in great, glistening nimbuses of backlit spray -- it's fantastically beautiful, but, also, one must admit, somewhat "overdone"; the scene goes on too long and, although its a glorious image, it also suggests a degree of grandiosity that might, ultimately, unravel the film. (That said, I thought that the quietest and least violent episode in the series, "the Wisdom of Horses", the third show in the series was the most moving and best so far -- in other word, Frank knows how to withdraw from the abyss of excess, at least so far...) 


Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Savage Innocents

Nicholas Ray's 1960 Eskimo adventure film, The Savage Innocents, has been difficult to see for many years.  (This is curious because the film has been made famous by a Bob Dylan song -- "the Mighty Quinn", presumably referring to Anthony Quinn's role as star of this picture.) Neither fish nor fowl, the movie is an Italian-British-French co-production shot, in part, at Cinecitta near Rome and at Pinehaven Studios in the United Kingdom.  So far as I can determine, this film about Eskimos has no Eskimos in the cast. Although claims have been made for the movie (David Thomson cites several scenes as containing brilliant touches), The Savage Innocents is laughably bad.  It's a terrible, racist movie that is not redeemed by a few beautifully shot sequences.  Ray wrote the script, apparently based on a book, and the dialogue is risible:  the Eskimos refer to themselves in the third person as "someone" or "this one" -- the female characters talk like this:  "This useless woman wishes to laugh with you."  "Laugh" we are told is an Eskimo term for "having sex."  There are plenty of nose-kisses in the movie and Anthony Quinn plays the hero "Inuk the Inuk" by mugging and grinning and showing confusion like a cartoon caricature of Fred Flintstone -- by this I mean that the big lunk, Fred Flintstone is the more subtle and believable character, in part, because he doesn't talk like a retarded Yoda and refer to himself in the third person.  A bevy of beautiful Japanese girls play Inuk the Inuk's love interests -- they're slender, petite, and very glamorous-looking in their fur coats notwithstanding the fact that they are required to chew on hides to soften them and feed people by regurgitating blubber and meat into their mouths.  The first half of the film involves Inuk the Inuk acquiring a wife -- the Eskimos seem to like to push and punch at one another.  In one scene, one of Inuk's buddies offers him his wife.  Inuk refuses because he "wants a woman of his own."  This leads to Inuk's buddy bashing his head against the side of his igloo until the ice brick falls inward.  Later, when Inuk tries this maneuver with a missionary who has rejected his offer to "laugh" with the hero's wife, he accidentally kills the priest.  The woman says:  "I guess you bumped too hard."  Inuk responds: "Or his head was too soft."  This accidental homicide sets up the confusing last half-hour in which the hero is hunted by a couple of lawmen, including a teenage Peter O'Toole.  (O'Toole is hard to recognize -- he's still a little chubby with baby-fat -- and his voice has been dubbed; this led O'Toole to unsuccessfully petition to have his name removed from this turkey.)  The film is plenty "savage" -- an old woman gets put out on the ice to be eaten by a polar bear.  (She says:  "the bear eats the mother-in-law, the husband kills the bear, and the grandson will eat the bear's meat -- so I will come back to you."  I suppose that's one way of looking at it.)  We see a lot of animals killed, scenes shot in Greenland or the Arctic with scary and gory realism.   One of the white men falls in the water and freezes to death in the course of ninety seconds -- "don't touch him," Inuk says, "he's already a dead man."  Peter O'Toole's hands get frozen and Inuk has to hack open the guts of dog to provide warmth to save the man's fingers.  When Inuk's feet are cold, his wife obligingly puts them against her naked breasts to warm them up.  The rude missionary's death is prompted, in part, by his refusal to eat Inuk's "oldest meat" -- that is, decomposing meat that is tasty with wriggling maggots.  There's a lot of extreme imagery in the film but for some reason it doesn't register as anything but goofy -- this is because Quinn is completely wrong for the part and the dialogue is so risible that just when you start to develop interest in the story someone will say something so stupid that it staggers you:  "A woman is different from a seal or a walrus," Inuk confides to his buddy.  Of course, the film bears no relationship to anything real -- Inuk is depicted as a man without any kind of culture at all.  He has no religion and is not embedded in any sort of tribal or cultural matrix -- he's strangely isolated.  In Ray's view, these Eskimos are so stupid that they have to be told how women give birth.  In one crucial scene, Inuk and his wife decide to expose their infant son on an ice-floe as defective because he is born without teeth -- by this point in the film, the movie has collapsed into incoherence:  we are shown this scene but it has no outcome and we never learn how it was that the child was spared death.  (The "useless woman" has been told by the grandma, eaten by the bear, that if she has a boy "(she) must cut him free from your body and lick him clean; if it is girl, take her out on the ice and stuff her mouth with snow before you become too fond of her.")  Inuk doesn't seem to know about the white men and is shocked when a fellow hunter uses a gun.  He goes to a trading post where everyone sits around listening to primitive rock 'n roll, the Eskimos and traders dancing to Chubby Checkers "twist" records.  (This is the part of the film that seems most consistent with Ray's other work -- the claustrophobic scenes  in the trading post are reasonably well-observed and depraved in a disturbing way.)   About a third of the film was shot by a very talented Second Unit in the Arctic and that footage is spectacularly beautiful -- in particular, one scene where the men on kayaks glide through mountainous icebergs is breathtaking.  But these scenes don't go anywhere --there's no spatial or dramatic continuity.  Most of the film is shot on sound-stages that are heaped up with fake snow and that don't look even remotely real -- although, sometimes, there is a fugitive charm in the way the sets are stylized:  purple and red aurora borealis poking around the edges of the paper-mache heaps of ice.  Ray seems to have been in control of this movie -- he wrote the ludicrous dialogue and it represents his vision, I assume, and its awful: racist, stupid, and unrealistic.  As an antidote, viewers should hunt for the long and sublime film from 2001 Atanarjuet: The Fast Runner, a movie actually shot in the Arctic by real Inuit people starring Inuits and directed by one of them -- that picture is equally stylized, but it is alarming, beautiful, and gives us a glimpse of the complex culture developed by these hunter-gatherer people. 

Friday, December 1, 2017

Dawson City / Frozen Time

Dawson City / Frozen Time is a rhapsodic documentary made by Bill Morrison.  Ostensibly about the history of gold mining town in the northern Yukon, the 2014 documentary has something of the flavor of one of Montaigne's essays -- it's digressive and, ultimately, considers a variety of topics, chief among them the ravages of time and the ruin that it makes of all things.  The film is melancholy, but also very beautiful and, ultimately, stands for the proposition that certain images have magically passed through time's tempest and are retained as meaningful, perhaps, even somehow salvific.

Morrison is most famous for his film Decasia (a portmanteau title combining "decay" and "fantasia") -- that movie featured fragments of film on badly decayed nitrate stock:  the images are dim and enigmatic and they cavort before us, coexisting magically with storms and raging torrents of decay -- the decomposition of the film stock adorns the images with flurries and mists of illegibility.  Decasia is an avant-garde spectacle, without narration, and focuses on the ancient moving picture stock presenting us with two layers of image -- first there is the superficial foam and tide of decomposition, a waterfall pouring over the ancient images and, then, the images themselves, often curiously naïve, partially illegible, interacting in occult ways with the decomposition that besets them.  Much of Dawson City has this same flavor:  we see badly damaged film, beautiful deep focus images that are bracketed by vertical torrents of decay, a sort of pale, ghostly avalanche that pours down the sides of the pictures.  (In one astonishing sequence, we see a man in an evening suit standing alone -- beside him the river of decay is passing although, now and then, we see the pale arm of a woman cast forth from the organic blur of rot running down the side of the picture.)    Dawson City, however, is much more ambitious than Decasia.  Morrison shows snippets of dozens of half-illegible film intercut with still images relating to the history of the gold rush city -- the still images are also supplemented by fragments of other documentaries and "bridge" shots of the Yukon as it looks today.  Finally, Morrison scrupulously labels every bit of footage that he incorporates into the film -- he tells us the source of the images.  (Some of it is home movies, documentaries by the Canadian Broadcast Company, people's private collections of pictures, even some interviews with talking heads, and, at the outset, a clip from a TV show -- we're surprised to see the avant-garde filmmaker on ESPN commenting on some of the footage recovered from the Dawson City perma-frost:  the old movies retrieved there show the sole surviving moving images of several controversial plays in the 1919 World Series, a competition that was fixed by players on the Chicago White Sox.   These images are not wholly unlike the way a Ken Burns' documentary is structured and, so, I will have to account for the fact that I think Morrison's Dawson City / Frozen Times is a masterpiece of film art while Burns' PBS films are interesting enough -- but, also in my view, fundamentally dishonest. 

Dawson City starts out with a mystery.  Why are there hundreds of reels of silent pictures buried in the perma-frost?  The film is 120 minutes long, in effect, an epic about the history of the Yukon and the history of cinema.  Morrison doesn't narrate but supplies us with many (probably several hundred) short and epigrammatic titles -- the letters are printed over the images that we are shown.  (Unlike Burns, Morrison credits every single image -- he tells who made it and, if it's a film, what the film was called.)  The gist of the narrative is that Dawson City was at the epicenter of the Yukon gold rush of 1898.  The place was the real thing -- at first, people could pan enough gold in a couple of afternoons to become wealthy.  But Dawson City was hard to reach -- prospectors had to sail to Skagway, Alaska and, then, hike over the icy Chilkoot Pass.  (Chilkoot Pass is featured in Charlie Chaplin's iconic 1925 The Gold Rush, fragments of which are cut into the documentary -- it appears as a vertical stairway ascending an icy sluice in glacier with men climbing one after another up the 45 degree slope for several thousand feet:  the great Yukon gold rush, with the Spanish American War, was one of the first historical events extensively filmed and, therefore, visually documented.)  The local Indians at Dawson City were moved downstream 12 miles and, in a matter of weeks, 40,000 men swarmed into the sub-Arctic valley.  Morrison shows the tent city, the brothels, the prostitutes, the mine works.  Within a year or two, the easily harvested gold was all gone and the men went further north to a strike at Nome.  The city collapsed.  Then, the Guggenheim family bought the exhausted placer stakes and began an immense dredging operation -- this continued, under the ownership of various companies, until the gold was finally entirely played-out in 1966.  At that point, the town began to promote itself as a tourist attraction and this is its status today.  (The city has 1500 inhabitants today).  Winters are long and dark in Dawson City and so the place always had movie theaters, as many as four for many years.  Morrison shows the movie theaters, including the largest -- a big emporium in something called the DAAA (Dawson Amateur Athletic Association).  The DAAA theater closed relatively early -- before the First World War.   In the big building, there was a large swimming pool, a "natatorium" as such places then were called.  That also failed and a hockey rink was built over the old swimming pool.  The hockey players complained that the ice was uneven because of the swimming pool underneath and so it was decided to fill in the hole.  Movies reached Dawson two to three years after being premiered in Hollywood and, after being shown in that remote city's theaters, the studios deemed it too expensive to ship the prints back to them -- the movies were already obsolete and, later, after sound pictures, silent and, therefore, doubly obsolescent.  So the reels of film, accumulating to about five tons, were just stored in the basement of a Carnegie Library that had been burned and gutted a few years earlier.  Some of the film was thrown in the river and, about two tons, were burned in a huge and spectacular bonfire -- the old nitrate film is made of the same stuff as nitroglycerine and it is dangerously unstable.  (All of the major repositories of such films in the US have burned including disastrous fires at the Warner Brothers storage facility in 1977).  The rest of the film was tossed into the old swimming pool with other garbage and covered up in the perma-frost.  Kids skating on the hockey rink recalled that fragments of film would sometimes protrude through the ice.  They would light these on fire and enjoy the explosive combustion.  Gradually this history was forgotten.  Then, sometime in the late 1970's, an excavation was commenced behind Diamond Gertie's Gambling Parlor -- the backhoe operator immediately encountered a huge trove of film rotting in crushed tin canisters.  Archaeologists were summoned and ultimately 555 reels of the old nitrate film were salvaged -- hundreds of additional canisters may still be underground.  It is this film that comprises the bulk of Morrison's movie -- interestingly, much of the film consists of Canadian Pathe newsreels documenting the history of Dawson and the Far North.  Accordingly, Morrison is able to actually show Dawson with the footage excavated from the abandoned swimming pool.  (His other great source of imagery is still photographs made by a man named Hegge who documented Dawson's growth and, then, diminution between 1898 and the mid-twenties.)  Morrison uses the old, rotting film with great subtlety -- sometimes, the pictures are just atmospheric or used for their intrinsic ruinous glamor and poetry:  in addition to this lyrical use of the old footage, Morrison sometimes can create elaborate mise-en-scene by stitching the found footage together -- for instance, when someone writes and sends a letter we see a montage from four or five films illustrating this process:  the earnest furrowed brow, writing, depositing in the mail, mail carriers, the person receiving the letter and, then, reading it, again with earnest furrowed brow.  There are many digressions in the film all of them fascinating:  we learn about Grauman, an archetypal Jewish hustler, who made money in Dawson and, then, went south to build the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard; there's Pantages another theatrical entrepreneur, the story of the 1919 World Series, science and industry about the volatility of the old nitrate film stock, even Donald Trump gets a cameo -- his family fortune originates in the operation of a hotel midway between Skagway and Dawson City (the place was also a brothel); there is also a brief digression about Ken Burns and the source of his style in a Canadian documentary made in the fifties called City of Gold.  Dawson City / Frozen Time is an extraordinary documentary, combining the narrative interest of a Ken Burns' film with the avant-garde lyricism of Morrison's Decasia -- it's slightly too long, I think, but nonetheless, highly recommended.

Les Maitres Fou (The Mad Masters)

Ethnographic filmmaker, Jean Rouch, first showed Les Maitres Fou to a small group of colleagues in 1953.  Those who saw the film screened were appalled and urged Rouch to destroy the footage.  Rouch was concerned but rejected that advice -- the short documentary was later shown in 1955 in Venice and other world capitols in film festivals where it won many awards.  Werner Herzog named the movie as the first of his top ten favorite films and has repeatedly claimed that Les Maitres Fou is the greatest documentary ever made.  The movie remains controversial and has been simultaneously reviled and praised. 

Les Maitres Fou is akin in some respects to a horror film -- indeed, its middle section features what appear to be zombies.  The picture is mostly a study in the abject, albeit with a strange, unsatisfying and upbeat coda.  Less than 30 minutes in length, the film is overtly structured in three parts.  First, we are shown Accra, a modern city in what is now Ghana -- a kind of multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic Babylon on the Gold Coast.  This part of the film features a jaunty soundtrack, many processions (including one of prostitutes followed by a parade of religious women, the Daughters of Jesus) and a tour of the highly specialized labor force in Accra -- we see "boys" who retrieve and repurpose bottles, "timber boys" who sell lumber, "gutter boys" who care for sewers and so on.  The workers hang out at bars like one called "Welcome to California!"  At last, the film leads us into the salt market where we are shown a half-dozen handsome men who look exhausted -- many of them are sleeping on wooden pallets.  The narrator tells us that these members of the Hauka sect (Songhay immigrants from the North) -- Hauka is the name for European machines and tools and these men are worshipers of that technology.  This sequence ends with an unsettling image:  a man with bulging eyes and mask-like features foaming from nose and mouth, a white froth bearding the lower half of  his face -- the image is shot at night in the transient beam of a flashlight and presages what is to come.

In the second part of the film, Rouch shows us a Hauka ceremony or orgy.  The men travel far out of town and, then, take jungle roads to a remote forest compound.  A clearing has been decked out with colorful fabric banners that are supposed to represent the Union Jack.  There is a termite hill painted black to signify the Imperial Governor's Mansion and a very crude effigy of the governor himself, wearing a military uniform and sunglasses and with a plumed hat.  An altar, really just a patch of concrete spilled on the grass, stands about three inches above the adjacent meadow.   The men take some kind of drug (it's unspecified) that casts them into a trance in which they foam at the mouth and nose -- the men prance around, imitating colonial officers, goose-stepping and saluting one another, wearing red sashes to mimic the red coats of British soldiers.  They kill a chicken and smear its blood on the "altar".   Then, there is a kind of confession ceremony in which they chatter wildly about their sins -- one man, for instance, has had sex with his buddy's girlfriend.  Periodically, people fall down and writhe in the dirt and the penitents are expelled into a nearby thicket in the woods where they thrash around and sometimes emerge, staggering back and forth through the clearing.  Things gets more chaotic.  The priest, assuming the guise of a colonial ruler, lectures the men, haranguing and jabbing his finger at them in an accusatory manner -- men light torches and pass them over their flesh while hopping around stiffly.  (This is supposed to show that they have become wholly spirits and that their flesh is impervious to injury).  There is more marching and parading; the men clack wooden guns together and salute one another.  Then, they butcher a dog and spill its blood all over the altar, crawling up to the little bloody stump to lick at the gore with their tongues.  There's a conclave of spirit-guides who sit at a round table to debate whether they will eat the dog meat (which is taboo) raw or cooked.  They elect to cook the dog and boil it.  Still impervious to pain, they grab hunks of the dog's head and paws from the pot and gnaw on the meat.  It gets dark and the men are exhausted, they fall down and writhe in the dirt and their faces are smeared with dog guts and dirty plumes of mucous.  At the climax of the ritual, someone breaks an egg on the effigy of the governor and Rouch cuts away to a military parade to show the actual governor surrounded by his guards in their sashes and be-ribboned uniforms.  The ritual is shot in 20 to 25 second sequences -- Rouch used a wind-up camera that couldn't run more than 25 seconds.  The whole thing is astonishing -- the celebrants adopt poses like Callot's most grotesque commedia dell'Arte figures:  leaping here and there and mock-greeting one another -- sometimes, they salute or beckon or bow to one another before reverting to their stiff-legged marching to and fro around the altar.  Elements of the ritual look like some of Ensor's more alarming paintings or borrow poses from Goya.  Rouch describes his camera-work as a "cine-trance" and it follows the zombie-like strutting and staggering objectively enough -- we see as the men become progressively more filthy and exhausted as the ritual continues.

The third part of the film is peculiar and, although intended to restore us to some kind of equilibrium, can't succeed in this objective:  what we've just seen is so terrifying and inexplicable that this comforting commentary (Rouch claims that the Hauka have found "the panacea for mental illness") doesn't suffice at all.  We are back in the sunlit and crowded streets of Accra -- Rouch finds his ritual celebrants, all of them hard at work, clean and chipper, grinning at the camera.  In one startling and surreal piece of misdirection, he turns his camera on an insane asylum, but then turns the lens to a group of men digging a ditch in yellowish-red clay in front of the institution.  Here he finds two of the most primitive and fearless of the celebrants; they are cheerfully digging a ditch, among the best workers in the crew.  They grin happily at the camera and the film ends with a shot of the gore-smeared altar. 

The viewer is left with more questions than answers, always the mark of an effective documentary.  What we've seen is too terrible, too hideous and abject to be assimilated to Rouch's optimistic coda.  So we are left staring into an abyss that somehow stares back at us.  (Whole books have been written about the film -- is it staged?  what is really going on?  What is Rouch's stance toward the material:  is he patronizing or objective?  Does he exoticize the material to make colonialist points while, at the same time purporting to show the rituals as liberating and, even, salubrious?  These are all points of contention that the film has aroused.)  It is a wild fever-dream.