Sunday, September 24, 2017

Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Here's my confession:  I have never really warmed to John Huston's 1948 Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  In fact, I'm not really a big fan of John Huston's films in general:  The Maltese Falcon always bores me to tears.  I've seen The Treasure of the Sierra Madre at least six or seven times -- my father proclaimed it one of the best movies ever made and, I think, I first watched the film with him on TV when I was ten or eleven years old. (I read B. Traven's 1925 novel in junior high.)  The story impressed me although I thought the film had a little too much dialogue:  Walter Huston as Howard, the old prospector and Humphrey Bogart during a bravura star-turn as Fred C. Dobbs always seem to be chattering away.  In fact, Bogart is so talkative that when there is no one else with him on-screen, he babbles to himself.  My perspective hasn't really changed with fifty years and half-dozen additional screenings.  John Huston is not really a visual or pictorial director -- he is more literary in emphasis as witness his adaptations of Joyce's The Dead and Kipling's The Man who would be King (his best picture in my view).  Although Huston's movies contain lots of violence, he's not really interesting in staging scenes of that kind and his gun battles and killings always seem perfunctory -- this is morally praiseworthy, but, sometimes, a questionable strategy in a film that is designed as an adventure movie.  The gun fights with the bandits in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, crucial to the plot, are shot like an old Hop-Along Cassidy Western -- they aren't exciting, nor are they convincingly realistic:  Huston stages the scenes with a minimum of flourish, treating the action sequences as plot points entirely subordinate to the showy speeches by the characters that drive the picture.  The old prospector, Howard, speaks in arias, fast-talking patter like the news men in a Hawks' film His Girl Friday.  Bogart has baroque paranoid soliloquies -- he's like a conscience-stricken Macbeth in one scene.  Even Tim Holt as Curtin, the third-wheel in the prospecting expedition, gets a monologue about a fruit harvest in the San Joaquin valley.  All of these speeches are marvelously written, but the effect that the film makes, notwithstanding its vivid locations in Tampico and Durango, Mexico is a bit theatrical -- the movie could be staged on Broadway.  Unlike Raoul Walsh (in Colorado Territory or High Sierra) or John Ford, Huston isn't interested in landscapes -- although The Treasure of the Sierra Madre has features of the classic Western, it doesn't look like a Western.  Rather, it's darker and more claustrophobic and, even, the exteriors look grimy, hot, and desolate -- Ford films his great Westerns in Monument Valley, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre could be shot in any suburban gravel pit.  In fact, it's a kind of film noir Western -- confined, a study of men under stress, and inclined to dramatizing the worst aspects of human nature.

No doubt exists that the film is brilliantly written.  The denouement involving the gold-bearing sand blowing away in the wind is carefully set up.  The final (unconvincing) wind storm is foreshadowed by an earlier gale in which Howard says that during a "Northwester the country stands up on its hind legs."  The fact that the bandits can not recognize the gold ore in its raw form is painstakingly established by the famous scene in which the weary prospectors are said to "not recognize the riches under  (their) feet" -- this is the scene in which Howard does a little jig on the pay dirt.  The film's point, so ancient that it probably preceded Homer, that you can't eat gold and that it won't make you happy is made powerfully.  However, Huston's predilection for the literary causes him to be over-emphatic:  when the Texan interloper, Cody is killed by the bandits, Curtin reads the letter from his wife in which she decries
Cody's gold fever and says that in the happy family "we've already found life's real treasure."  Elements of the film are irritating:  there's a heavenly choir when Howard resuscitates a Indian child that has fallen into a well and some of the caricatures of the Mexicans on display in the film are marginally offensive although, in general, Huston treats the indigenous people with respect.  There are some visually effective moments in the film.  The lighting puts little beads of malicious glitter in the protagonists' eyes when they are discussing gold; a scene with thirsty men in a showdown has the visual drama and brutal force of some of the final scenes in von Stroheim's Greed.  Huston romanticizes smoke -- he uses coils of smoke from campfires to suture together different parts of the screen and there is a spectacular column of smoke in an early scene in which the men are rigging an oil derrick; the plume of smoke is shown from different angles and becomes the central element in the sequence, again serving as a moving diagonal that links foreground to background.  When Dobbs and Curtin bicker beside the campfire, the camera suddenly pulls away from them -- it's not a showy gesture, but sufficient to emphasize their terrible isolation.  On the other hand, I could do without the foreground of fire (ostensibly a campfire) that dramatizes Dobbs' guilty conscience after he shoots Curtin.  A ballroom brawl early in the film, figures pounding one another with their fists and backlit by the open door of the tavern, looks like some of George Bellows' more savage canvases and has a ferocious power -- Huston isn't interested in gun battles but when the fighting is with fists, up close and personal, he perks up.  Furthermore, Huston's nondescript settings and his documentary style mise-en-scene pay off in the scenes involving Fred Dobbs' death -- there's a pathetic little arroyo with some muddy water stagnant in tank-like ditch; sad-looking ruins, battered adobe walls and a forlorn-looking colonnade, stand in the dusty desert in the background.  It doesn't matter where Dobbs dies -- it could be anywhere.  And this is powerfully conveyed by Huston's refusal to romanticize the scene by giving it a picturesque landscape in which to occur. 

The theme of the film -- the corrupting power of gold fever -- is complicated in an interesting way:  Bogart's character is hyper-sensitive, nonchalantly cruel, and arrogant long before gold becomes an issue.  It's not the gold so much as the isolation in the wilds of the Sierra Madre that affects Dobbs -- Dobbs was always half-mad; it just took the wilderness and the threat of violent death to reveal this aspect of his personality.  There's a curious note of proto-environmental animism in the film.  Howard refuses to depart from the Sierra Madre without "binding up the wounds" of the mountain that they have mined and that has made them (putatively) wealthy.
The picture is effective on many levels and brilliantly written:  but it just doesn't speak to me. 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The King of Comedy

Although Martin Scorsese probably thought that he was making a movie that would be a TV version of Day of the Locust, the resulting picture, 1983's King of Comedy now seems weirdly prophetic -- the action in the film presages certain aspects of Reality TV:  ultimately, The King of Comedy stages a cringeworthy encounter between a wannabe star and a real celebrity.  As in The Apprentice or the various talent shows judged by famous stars, the gist of the thing is simple:  a novice entertainer with no real talent except for self-abasement endures a series of humiliations that lead to his apotheosis as a star.  Although Rupert Pupkin's triumph is probably purely imaginary -- the film's signals this by some sinister soun dcues in the picture's last minute -- nonetheless, the loser seems to be king for a day.  This is the essence of Reality TV and the celebrity culture explored by Scorsese's movie.

Made shortly after the operatic savagery of Raging Bull, The King of Comedy is a much smaller and more restrained film.  It looks a little bit low budget and Scorsese's camera is uncharacteristically inert for much of the film.  Raging Bull was a self-conscious masterpiece -- a demonstration of film's capacities as they existed in the late seventies, an example of bravura movie-making in which the young director showcased his skills and craft.  By contrast, The King of Comedy is a chamber-film and, it seems, home-made in large part -- the cast is full of Scorsese's relatives and DeNiro's wife plays an important role in the picture.  Looking sleek and athletic, Scorsese treats himself to a cameo -- he plays a giggling TV director, laughing at one of Pupkin's lame jokes.  The soundtrack, which is brilliant, was devised by Robbie Robertson, Scorsese's erstwhile roommate. (Members of The Clash apparently visiting Scorsese also get a cameo and Van Morrison's "Wonderful Remark", written for the film, plays over the closing titles.)  The imagery is restrained and I don't think anyone uses the word "fuck" or any its derivatives or affiliates.  There aren't any overtly horrific shots; the film's graphic energy is based in its editing:  it's hard to define exactly how the film is edited, but shots seem to last too long and, then, are cut in unexpected ways -- the picture has a jangly, ragged sort of rhythm.  In its form and plot, the picture reprises Taxi Driver -- Robert DeNiro (Pupkin) plays a deranged outsider, a loner who seems incompletely unaware of the painful impression he makes on other people.  Like Travis Bickle, he has aspirations toward a pretty girl, but always ends up doing or saying the wrong thing.  Bickle stalks a presidential candidate; Pupkin stalks Jerry Langford, remarkably played by Jerry Lewis.  Langford is the host of a late night talk show -- a figure like Johnny Carson.  Pupkin has an accomplice, a rich mentally ill girl played by Sandra Bernhard.  The two of them kidnap Langford and ransom the star for an agreement that Pupkin be allowed to perform some stand-up comedy on Langford's talk show.  Implausibly, the network executives agree and Pupkin performs -- he delivers a crushingly unfunny monologue that dramatizes the origin of his quest for stardom in a horrific childhood.  The FBI arrests him when he finishes the stand-up routine.  On his way to jail, he persuades them to stop at the bar where his would-be girlfriend works -- with the other barflies, they watch the monologue.  A surreal coda, similar to the ending of Taxi Driver, suggests that Pupkin becomes famous, writes a best seller and ends up, in fact, as a real fixture on late night talk shows.  But the soundtrack loops on the word "wonderful" and there is a raucous, sinister and distorted edge of the jocular music accompanying Pupkin's arrival on stage and we are left with the suspicion that this contrived happy ending is just one of Pupkin's deranged fantasies -- throughout the film, we have seen Pupkin's reveries intruding into the action without any extrinsic sign or marker to establish that we are now seeing the protagonist's fantasies and not reality as posited by the film.  Indeed, it's hard to distinguish between reality and Pupkin's deranged fantasies in the film's last two reels.  (In some ways, Pupkin is like Hitchcock's Norman Bates -- we see him in his basement interacting with life-size cut-outs of celebrities; the basement is clearly a theater of the imagination -- it has immense galleries and Tv sets in mirrored corridors.  Periodically, Pupkin's mother is heard off-screen shouting at him.  But, in his comedy monologue, Pupkin reveals that his mother has been dead for nine years.  The picture veers into the horror of madness as damnation that Hitchcock exploited in Psycho.) 

The film's programmatic title shot, a pair of hands trying to push through a glass window establishes the movie's theme:  in the shot, the glass window looks like a TV screen and the hands of the viewer are pressed against that screen.  It's everyone's aspiration to press through the screen of their TV and emerge as a celebrity in Celebrity-Land on the other side of the glass.  Scorsese has the courage to make Pupkin singularly unsympathetic -- the man is a monster, seeming ingratiating at first but, also, pressing things much, much too far.  He imagines himself not only the equal of Jerry Langford but his superior -- in his fantasies, Langford begs Pupkin to take over his late-night talk show for six weeks so that the star can rest.  Pupkin's romantic interest. the pretty barmaid, seems reasonable and rooted in some recognizable form of reality -- although, she lives in a hellish flat similar to the roost of whores and murderers that Bickle raided to save Jodie Foster.  But when she is taken to Langford's mansion on Long Island, she surreptitiously steals a souvenir of her adventure.  Vital to the film's design is Jerry Lewis' talk show host.  Lewis plays the man as every bit as isolated and peculiar as the pathetic Rupert Pupkin -- he seems to live alone in a white museum of a house (and a white museum of a Manhattan townhome).  Lewis delivers a remarkable restrained performance -- he is highly disciplined and, indeed, frightening.  Langford, shot in slow motion, is like one of Scorsese's hero-worshiped gangsters, a "made man" who struts through a crowd with the sleek aplomb of a rat-packer.  At the end of the film, Langford looks at a bank of TVs for sale, all of them showing Pupkin's awful monologue on Langford's show -- the look of sheer, impenetrable hatred on Langford's face is alarming.  Lewis plays Langford as a cipher, an unapproachable entity.  When he is released by his pathetic captor played by Sandra Bernhard -- she's stripped for him to her bra and panties -- he has no hesitancy at firing the gun she has been wielding point-blank into her belly.  (It shoots blanks.)  Then, he punches her in face and flees her apartment.  Bernhard's part is underwritten and we don't have much sense for her character or backstory -- she is wildly argumentative and seems to be some sort of poor little rich girl.  But she is also perfectly cast.  In one memorable shot, interposed with a close-up of Langford, she blows him a kiss -- her face is dark and looks bruised and it is animate with a terrifying mixture of lust and despair.  Scorsese lets the darks in his images dramatize the darkness in the script -- each time Pupkin emerges from the skyscraper where Langford has his offices, he pushes his way through dense, inky darkness -- it's just a trick of contrast but one that makes a powerful point.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Best of Enemies

Best of Enemies is a  2015 documentary constructed from pre-existing TV and film footage and directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon.  The movie focuses on ten debates between Gore Vidal and the conservative icon, William F. Buckley -- the debates were a feature of ABC news coverage of the Republican and Democratic political conventions in 1968.  ABC was the perennial Nielsen ratings loser to NBC and CBS -- as a contemporary quip had it:  "If the Vietnam war were on ABC, it would be cancelled in 13 weeks."  NBC and CBS covered the conventions gavel-to-gavel; ABC experimented with a ninety-minute format in prime-time, each night's coverage culminating in a much-ballyhooed debate between Vidal and Buckley.  (ABC's production values were conspicuously limited -- the first night's debate took place in a garishly colored, Pop art set; mercifully, that set collapsed the next day, dropping all the studio lights down on top of the set and forcing the remaining 9 encounters, moderated by Howard K. Smith, to take place in front of a fringe of discretely closed curtains.) 

The documentary features some pundits as "talking heads" and claims for the debates a significance that I think is dubious -- the pundits assert that these debates were the beginning of our current Cable News culture of instantaneous, feigned outrage and lurid confrontational commentary.  (I'm not sure of this -- I recall vividly Joe Pyne's show and other barbarous stuff on late-night TV that seems to me to be more directly ancestral to shows like Bill O'Reilly's The Factor and Hannity.)  Everything in the movie leads up to William F. Buckley's celebrated melt-down, a moment that led to years of litigation between the two men.  Buckley cultivated an aura of suave noblesse oblige and had a particularly ornate rhetorical style -- he interlards his sentences, constructed like edifices by Milton or Gibbons, with curious vocabulary items, words that, I think, he often misuses or distorts in order to embed them, like gems, in his discourse.  On his TV show Firing Line, where he was lord and master, Buckley was wont to sigh at the ignorance of his debating adversaries, roll his eyes or cause them to bulge in pseudo-astonishment at logical defects in his enemy's syllogisms -- often, he would grimace and cause his tongue to dart all around his thin, little mouth, almost seeming to hiss as if his buccal orifice were nest of vipers.  Too cool and nonchalant to be ruffled by his debating partners, Buckley inhabited a bubble of stoic calm -- he might be amused at a debating opponent's errors, but he was too sagacious and perspicuous to ever get angry.  In the ninth convention debate,Vidal punctured Buckley's bubble, calling him a "crypto-Nazi" and eliciting a bizarre reaction from the conservative ideologue -- Buckley's eyes hardened to glinting chips of obsidian and, for some reason, his lower jaw began to saw laterally, sideways, and, through these facial contortions, he managed to call Vidal "queer" and said that he if were to "sock (him) in the goddamn mouth, (he would) stay plastered."  As invective, those words didn't make much sense -- "plastered" applies to being drunk and "sock" is too effete a term for what Buckley's eyes and mannerisms implied that he was about to do.  This startling moment, Buckley's complete on-air melt-down, haunted the Conservative for the rest of his life and he seems to have been as puzzled as anyone else who saw this happen as to what exactly had occurred.  Buckley sued Vidal and, apparently, sought to have all  tapes and records of his infamous melt-down expunged from history.  It didn't work --- a grainy black and white record of the confrontation somehow survived and it is all the more eloquent for being of such dismal quality.  The two men continued to be mortal enemies.  Buckley died first.  Accordingly, Vidal had the pleasure of writing an obituary about his old sparring partner  -- he ended the essay by imagining Buckley burning in hell "and fanning the flames of injustice and old hatreds." 

The film is interesting and has good archival footage of the Miami and Chicago political conventions.  Buckley underestimated Vidal, a man that he had obviously loathed for many years preceding the debates.  While Buckley tried to devise elaborately eloquent arguments about the political situation, Vidal went straight for the throat, hurling a series of carefully scripted ad hominem attacks at Buckley -- Vidal had done his homework, vetting Buckley's writings for extremist remarks to jam down the Conservative writer's throat; furthermore, Vidal had crafted numerous Oscar Wilde style insults and epithets that he memorized and deployed at various times in the debate.  Buckley correctly characterizes Vidal's style as "feline" but didn't really have any adequate defense. In the course of the ten debates, Buckley seems to become more and more panicked by the fact that Vidal was seemingly besting him -- even though Vidal wasn't playing by the rules and, generally, ignored the political events that the two men were supposed to be discussing.  The sense that he was being made a fool, I think, erupted ultimately in Buckley's bizarre and alarming outburst.  At this juncture in history, I don't know what young people would make of this documentary -- I saw the whole thing transpire "live"  on TV when I was 14 and it made an impact on me, although I never quite understood what had happened.  A youthful audience today would probably just see two campy middle-aged queens insulting one another in pompously affected East Coast accents.  And the film does suggest an equivalence between the two men -- both were from aristocratic families, had run for public office and lost, both considered themselves cultural critics, and both may have been sexually ambiguous.  Vidal is elaborately Gay, in some images sporting a huge pompadour; Buckley is less queer but he still seems extremely effete.  The aging allies of both men appear as commentators.  Buckley's younger brother, still missing the point, calls Vidal "whore Vidal" and says, loyally, that if his brother had "socked" Vidal  as he promised he would have killed  him -- "he could have broken him in two over his knee,"  William F's brother says, then, flashes his family's immensely appealing and photogenic grin.    

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Top of the Lake (China Girl)

Top of the Lake is the name for two mini-series detective shows written and directed by Jane Campion.  The first series, set in New Zealand, but featuring a tormented female detective, was released 2013 -- that show was extraordinary for a couple of reasons:  the New Zealand landscapes were ineffably beautiful and surreal and the show's actors, mostly unknown to American audiences were memorably superb.  (Less effective, perhaps, was the show's somewhat tendentious and didactic feminism; the program explored a toxic "rape culture" in Australia and New Zealand.)  The second series, available on Sundance, is not as surprising as the first venture and, if anything, even more prone to high-pitched preaching -- but the program has its pleasures, particularly with respect to the show's arch-villain, the loathsome "Puss" Alexander.  The second mini-series takes place in Sydney, Australia, and, with some exceptions, eschews the spectacular nature photography characteristic of the New Zealand programs.  It's less exotic and more morose, it seems, and has something of the character of the BBC programs featuring Kenneth Branagh as the dyspeptic and sorrowful Swedish detective, Wallander.  In terms of its production values, the show is similar in appearance to the various lavishly mounted crime series that the BBC broadcasts -- it looks a bit like the Wallander shows or the Inspector Lewis series.  The principal, defining difference is the strongly feminist themes that motivate Campion's work.

The first Top of the Lake was about bullying -- the show featured, as counterparts, two memorable bullies.  Holly Hunter played the leader of a commune of damaged women: she embodied the spooky, grey-haired, hag earth-mother aspects of certain would-be female shamans -- as the matriarch of a group of women, many of them cavorting about naked in the New Zealand wilderness, Hunter's character was memorably strange and menacing.  Her adversary was a gorilla-like male thug, the alpha leading an extended family group hunkered down in a compound on the other side of the lake.  This guy was the male equivalent to Holly Hunter's estrogen-laced female shaman, a savage bully who terrorizes his sons, maintains a harem of subservient women, and rapes his own 12 year old daughter.  The show explored ways in which men and women assert coercive power over others and it featured startling and horrific shows of sheer physical force and violence.  The second Top of the Lake has only one really alarming villain, but this guy is so awful that he is "one for the ages" -- "Puss" Alexander.  "Puss" rules by weakness -- he has a borderline personality and he manipulates others by feigning suicide attempts, hunger strikes and, generally, moping around behind the locked door of the brothel that he seems to be sponsoring.  If Top of the Lake 2013 was about the way that men dominate women by sheer threats of violence and physical bullying, the second series is about something quite different -- it shows how a weak man manipulates women (and others) by dramatizing weakness.  "Puss" purports to be damaged by his upbringing in Communist East Germany -- he mouths shrewd paradoxes and nasty aphorisms.  He claims to be a disgraced PH.D candidate from the University of Leipzig -- he is hirsute, physically slight, and walks with a shambling sort of shuffle; he always looks more than a little dirty and his teeth are grey.  (There's an inside joke here:  it seems clear to me that "Puss" is modeled, at least in appearance and some of his ideas, on Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian "cultural critic" and professor from the University of Llubyana back in the Old Country; "Puss" mutters the same kind of glib, profound-sounding nonsense for which Zizek is famous.)  Puss is so bad that he orders his teenage girlfriend to become a prostitute in his brothel and, when the other hookers rebel, refusing to allow the upper middle class girl to turn tricks with them, he puts her out on the street to give blow-jobs of johns under a sinister-looking viaduct.  When the detective heroine gets too close to him, he bites off her nose -- don't worry, they sew it back on again.  Incredibly, no one prosecutes this guy for all the mayhem that he commits.  (This is one of the show's glaring defects -- one would think that the "Puss" would be in big legal trouble for biting a lady detective; but, for some inexplicable reason, no one arrests him for this infraction.)  Puss is the reason to watch this show -- otherwise, it's pretty routine stuff, but I have to admit that the program stirs the audience's blood-lust.  I haven't seen the two final episodes, but assume that "Puss" is punished in some kind of hair-raising way for his bad deeds -- at least, I hope so.

The plot involves a Thai prostitute acting as surrogate mother who has been murdered and set afloat in a suit case.  There's lots of unsavory stuff about rape and prostitution, true to Jane Campion's agenda to explore "rape culture."  Unfortunately, the plot is rife with ridiculous coincidences.  The little girl that "Puss" has groomed to be a prostitute turns out to be the heroine's long lost daughter.  Nicole Kidman is wasted as the little girl's foster mother.  All of the men are portrayed, almost universally, as either self-satisfied rapists, swine, or wholly feckless hypocrites.  The show feature a group of young college kids, all of them boys who rate prostitutes on a program like Face-Book.  They behave in ways wholly alien to any kind of human nature and seem to exist to amplify the point that all men are intrinsically pigs.  Everyone hits on the rather homely heroine (she looks like a depressed hare) as if she were Cyd Charisse and these men use nothing but vulgarities in their hapless attempts to win her affections.  About half-way through the show, I was muttering imprecations at Jane Campion and her tedious, lurid exposes of the savagery of men.  But that's not the point of the show -- "Puss" is the reason to watch and he's reason enough. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Fake News and the Hurricanes

Although it's an unseemly thing to confess, I have now watched about eight hours (or more) of cable news coverage of the two hurricanes that recently made landfall in the American South, Harvey in Houston and Irma in Florida.  I've watched this reporting at various times in the day both during the week and on the weekend.  The networks providing this coverage are the Weather Channel, MSNBC, CNN, and Fox.  The three cable news networks (MSNBC, CNN, Fox) approach the story with a format that is, more or less, identical -- celebrity news anchors (Anderson Cooper, for instance, or Brian Williams) manage the coverage, acting as an emcee for various meteorologists, government officials (often reached by telephone), and newscasters ostensibly exposed to the brunt of the storm. The nerve center of the broadcast is a huge set with garish maps and enormous screens -- lateral shots sometimes show the set extending for hundreds of feet in a dark cavernous space.  These sets feature brightly colored radar images of the hurricane -- bands of differing rain intensity are portrayed in different colors, purple represents the heaviest rain with a spectrum running from bright red to yellow for lighter precipitation.  The eye of the hurricane is a hollow white spot or sometimes marked with a sort of animated spinning rotor.  Meteorologists comment on the maps on which the spiraling vortex of the hurricane moves -- there is, we learned, a five minute lapse between the weather on the ground and the radar image that follows it.  Helicopter shots show evacuations or lines of people waiting for admission to shelters.  Once, the storm begins in earnest -- this means landfall -- the maps follow the hurricane's progress with intercut sequences showing newscasters exposed to the storm and commenting on its havoc.  Since the aftermath of the storm is less photogenic (unless there are very high waters), the emphasis is on the forefront of the storm and its onslaught -- not on the damage that it leaves in its wake.  The Weather Channel generally follows this same format but it is also committed to providing local forecasts and, so, generally about a third of the screen on your TV is occluded by displays of local data and weather conditions.  The Weather Channel has less sumptuous sets for its emcee newscasters -- it's studio looks like a standard TV newsroom in a mid-sized city:  it has the same graphics but they aren't displayed as huge tapestries on the walls.  The Weather Channel deploys stormchasers all around the hurricane and so they have wider coverage on the ground.  Weather Channel field newscasters seem more intrepid, or foolhardy, depending upon your point of view and report from more exposed locations. 

Harvey was primarily a rain event.  Coverage of that hurricane featured innumerable rescues of stranded people by helicopter and boat -- local citizens joined together to rescue their neighbors using shallow-bottomed fishing boats equipped with outboard motors:  this was called the "Cajun Navy."  It's hot in Houston and wading through chest-deep sewage is unpleasant and many of the victims interviewed were on the verge of nervous collapse.  Although some people drowned in Houston, the primary effect of the mud and heat and humidity was to irritate flood victims beyond their capacities for endurance.  The most noteworthy footage from this storm -- other than the surrealistic images of boats gliding past million dollar houses drowned the flood -- was an African-American woman losing her temper and hysterically denouncing a hapless CNN reporter for her ghoulish interest in the plight of those driven from their homes.  One pattern in the coverage of Harvey was that people's first impulse was to exaggerate the travails that they had endured -- many victims began their story with an account of nearly drowning but, then, inadvertently revealed that, in fact, they had called for rescue because their inundated homes were too smelly and hot and too remote from 7-11 stores still selling bottled water.  A number of victims recounted  hair-raising tales that really didn't make much sense -- or, at least, were narrated in a fashion so inept that the viewer couldn't quite figure out what was deadly peril and what mere (if awful) inconvenience.   The hurricane in Houston is noteworthy because it has produced one major work of art, Chris Ware's cover for the New Yorker for the first week of September 2017 -- the image is almost monochrome with ghostly-looking glass towers standing in the distance under lowering clouds.  The only color in the image is a two-tone (red and white) pickup truck near the foreground, sunk in the grey water up to the top of its wheels and the orange life-vests in the little rowboat equipped with an outboard that has approached the stranded truck.  Some people are standing in the truck's pick-up box, obviously distressed, a man holding a small, dirty-looking dog and a woman wearing a bandana.  A couple of children are crying.  An African-American man has reached out to take the hand of the one the people in the truck's pickup-box while a White man operates the rudder on the outboard.  In the distance, we can see three or four cars, variously submerged in the flat, featureless expanse of floodwaters, the top of a couple signs and some trees also half-swallowed up by the water -- the pickup truck and the boat cast a pale, diffuse shadow of washed-out color, a hazy reflection in the dim, grey water.  It's a striking and evocative image:  the flood seems a very lonesome place, a shadowy, watery and, ultimately, empty space enlivened only by the electric spark, an arc of altruistic energy, in the Black and White hands about to touch.

The storm in Houston followed a convincing and dramatic narrative arc.  Everyone predicted calamity.  Calamity occurred as prophesied and was, even, worse than expected.  A Dunkirk-sized flotilla of civilian vessels rushed to the rescue and people were saved.  The Florida storm, by contrast, was a weird mess that didn't make any narrative sense at all.  Irma a vast and deadly category 5 hurricane (the most intense on a scale from 1 to 5), crawled up toward Florida.  The notion was that the hurricane would make landfall with 130 mile an hour winds, destroy everything in its path, and, then, generate a monstrous storm-surge.  The storm-surge with rescues and dramatic drownings was supposed to be the climax of this narrative.  The governor of the State ordered everyone in south Florida to evacuate and, for days, we saw images of clogged freeways and huge queues at gas stations -- there wasn't enough fuel for people to make their escape from the southern third of the State and special dispensation had to be made to get light-oil tankers to gas stations.  Most of the residents of places like Miami and Homestead, Naples and Marcos Island were said to be in the path of 15 foot storm surges ("with waves on top of them") and were told that their locations were not "survivable."  Accordingly, a vast exodus took place with the refugees either fleeing inland to shelters set up for them in places like auditoriums and hockey arenas or driving (if they had fuel) to Tampa or St. Petersburg or Orlando.  But the storm's transit switched with Irma sliding up the western (gulf) coast of Florida (and not making landfall at Miami as earlier predicted.)  This left most of the network newscasters, at least, the high-powered ones, stranded in Miami and seventy miles from the real action on the west side of the peninsula.  (For half a day, MSNBC had to abandon its journalists in Miami and accept the more primitive feed from its allied Weather Channel).  Furthermore, the refugees were all fleeing directly into the path of the storm -- as it happened, the eye of the hurricane came very close to Tampa and St. Petersburg.  So, from the outset, the narrative was severely complicated by a mandatory evacuation that seemingly ordered the evacuees right into the center of the storm.  Furthermore, the coverage of the ongoing hurricane had bizarre elements.

First, no news is not news:  viewers were repeatedly told, ten to fifteen times an hour, that place like the Florida Keys were too low for anyone to survive "hunkered down" in that place.  (The separable verb form "hunkered down" was used by everyone thousands of times -- the verb describes people either too plucky or moronic to leave their homes and "hunkering down" to "ride-out" the storm; you can even "hunker down" in a boat -- some fools decided to stay on their fishing vessels while the hurricane battered them.)   We would learn that the storm was approaching one of these places, would be told of the total doom of all those "hunkered down" on the Keys or seaside, and, then, there would be no news of any kind -- the storm having traveled over the target zone and, then, up the coast in the direction of new victims.  The news networks determined that the suspense of the on-coming storm was far more dramatic than trying to discover what had happened in those communities where the storm had already passed.  Thus, the story or plot of the storm lacked any kind of climax or denouement -- we were told a bunch of people were in deadly peril, but the newscasters lost all interest in them after the storm hit the places where they were lodged and so all of the suspenseful build-up had no pay-off at all.  It was as if the Florida Keys, for instance, was just forgotten, a complete non-issue after the storm had progressed over that archipelago.  Of course, this is unsatisfactory -- the viewer is intensely interested in the places where the storm has come and gone and wants to know the scope of the devastation there:  but there was no follow-up.  (I assume imagery of those places is now on TV - but there was no follow-up during the height of the calamity.)  The fact that the media proclaimed that these people and their property was doomed and, then, lost interest in them as soon as the storm struck, demonstrated a weird kind of indifference to the human cost of the hurricane -- notwithstanding their protestations of concern, the newscasters really didn't care about these people or their communities.

Second:  retrospective revision -- the big photogenic climax of this storm was supposed to be a rapid onset flood, a storm-surge 15 feet high thundering across the landscape.  Many of the reporters positioned themselves in locations so that they could film the storm-surge when it rolled across the terrain smiting everything in its path.  One guy on MSNBC, in particular, had a clear vantage down a road to the shore about three blocks away and said that he was positioned to film the surge as it smashed ashore.  Tall production crew members were manhandled into the camera's frame to show how high the storm surge would be -- one particularly tall and burly guy was pressed into service to show that the storm surge would be "at least twice as high as he was tall."  Maps showed the entire coastline of Florida swathed in red -- the area that was projected to be wholly inundated by the storm surge.  But, for some inexplicable reason, there was no storm-surge.  So the hurricane's trajectory, the arc of its plot, as it were, had no climax at all.  After a couple of hours, the maps showing the red bands of total storm-surge destruction were inauspiciously abandoned -- and abandoned without comment.  No one mentioned the storm-surge -- it was like a fart in an elevator, an unmentionable bad odor that no one wanted to acknowledge.  Indeed, by mid-evening, when the storm surge had failed to materialize, it was as if no one had ever predicted the storm surge at all, indeed, as if no one had even ever mentioned it

Third:  fakery:  when the storm surge didn't materialize, the people broadcasting from the scene had nothing to do and were left with vast amounts of dead time.   They forlornly pointed their cameras in the direction of the sea but no tide of deadly water was visible.  It was obvious that everyone was severely disappointed, really bummed-out, by the failure of the storm-surge to appear on schedule.  (Furthermore, the damned hurricane wasn't acting like a hurricane should act -- when the eye passed overhead, it never really cleared and the rain didn't ever let up; the newscasters kept predicting that it would lighten and the sky would momentarily clear and the gale-force winds shredding the palms would cease or, at least, dramatically shift direction.  But this never happened and no one really had any explanation for why the hurricane wasn't doing its bit for the story -- I suspect it was that the hurricane was ripped up by the mountains on the north coast of Cuba and that Irma never really re-formed in any coherent manner.)  With nothing to do, the newscasters began showing us the tricks of their trade.  The shots of men and women braving the elements were mostly misleading.  Going behind the scenes, a couple of the networks revealed that their journalists were standing on the third floor of a parking garage, actually under the overhanging concrete ceiling.  A man with a microphone on a boom could push it out into the storm if the newscaster wanted to emphasize the force of the howling winds.  A grip with a light cast its beams on the newscaster so that the man or woman seemed to be standing outside in the gale -- but, in fact, the newscaster was comfortably ensconced under the concrete slabs of the parking ramp.  Using a telephone lens, and with the journalist dowsed in a little rain water, the scene could be shot in such a way as to suggest that the newscaster was actually standing in the open and taking the full brunt of the storm when, in fact, the person was quite sensibly standing under cover and sheltered from the wind and rain.  It's a trick of the trade and, apparently, universally used -- but there is something pathetically inauthentic about portraying yourself as exposed to the elements when, in fact, you are fully sheltered.  (By contrast, the Weather Channel's guy at Naples stood right in the middle of a highway, crouching in the full blast of the storm and, apparently, glorying in the 140 mph gusts of wind -- at one point, a small tornado caught this guy, whirled him around, and he had to run a dozen steps to keep from being flung into the air.  But this journalist, praised for his outstanding bravery, was also generally implied to be half-insane.) 

Some sort of complete news blackout was enforced about Trump's property at Mare y Lago.  This was also bizarre --  Trump's estate was right in the original projected track of the storm (which ultimately went to the West) but no one mentioned this at all.  I presume that security considerations were applicable and the newscasters had a gentleman's agreement not to mention or discuss the impact of the storm on Trump's compound, in effect, southern White House, but this was also exceedingly peculiar.

Donald Trump has repeatedly decried the cable news networks as trafficking in "fake news."  The term is inexact.  But Trump is right -- the news is fake in some sense because it is radically inauthentic.  Journalists cry crocodile tears about the devastation of the storm, but, in fact, they lust to see houses and people destroyed -- it's the same impulse that had me watching ten hours of storm coverage over a couple weeks.  There's a morbid interest in seeing car crashes, train wrecks, floods and hurricanes.  No one wants the storm to spare southern Florida -- except some people, maybe, who live in southern Florida.  Everyone else in the country wants to see the cities devastated and the people, not necessarily killed, but exposed to such calamity that they have to be plucked from the utmost peril and at the last moment.  The news coverage of the hurricanes was not only emotionally inauthentic it was also inept.  We were made to care intensely about certain places -- for instance the Hemingway house in Key West where the heroic curator and his staff were hunkered down -- but, then, the newscasters lost all interest in those places when they went silent after the storm had passed.  This was an indication that the newscaster's professed concern was wholly phony.  Similarly, we were told to await a dramatic and apocalyptic flood that never occurred.  When the storm-surge failed to materialize, all of the reporting on that subject simply vanished.  Between two and three-o-clock in the afternoon, we were advised that the flood surge would kill everyone and would be 15 feet deep -- this was said hundreds of times.  By 5:00 pm, the word "storm-surge" was never uttered again, the charts showing the scarlet track of devastation were quietly put away, and no one even acknowledged the error.  Again, this points to radical insincerity on the part of the newscasters.  (It's like Chris Matthews or Anderson Cooper claiming deep sorrow over Trump's lies and other bad acts, but, in fact, relishing every one of those misdeeds.)

By this morning, the storm was accounted a bust.  (Curiously, the most dramatic and apocalyptic imagery was shot in Miami after the high-buck newscasters had all left for the west coast of the peninsula -- Miami did flood and there were surreal shots of a huge, glittering financial district turned into a vast grey lagoon.)  The journalists prepared to brave the storm surge from their posts atop parking lots were down in the surf, helping to rescue a stranded dolphin.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Nocturnal Animals

What is the origin of the work of art?  How does art relate to the life and experiences of the artist?  These questions are raised in Tom Ford's 2016 film Nocturnal Animals.  Ford is a fashion designer, the auteur of a previous film, A Single Man, that I recall admiring.  Ford is fantastically handsome and has a great eye -- he is said to have saved the Gucci brand from failure.  He has also been accused of objectifying women and designing offensive advertising campaigns based upon that practice.  Ultimately,
Nocturnal Animals looks great and is beautifully mounted -- but it's mostly eye-candy, a feast for the eyes that looks so glamorous that the audience is encouraged to forget the fact that there is almost no substance behind the spectacular and provocative pictures.

It's best to address the provocation first since this is solely a matter of d├ęcor, doesn't really relate to the themes in themes in the film and appears to be a defiant gesture on the part of the director.  The picture begins with images of grossly obese naked women, middle-aged and dancing provocatively -- the women are wearing drum majorette hats.  Later, we see these same fat and naked models lying on mattresses in the middle of an art gallery.  The fat ladies are an art installation and they are justified by the script as being an exhibition mounted in the gallery that the heroine, Susan, operates in LA.  The fat ladies are an obvious provocation -- the point, I suppose, is that Ford is putting imagery that overtly objectifies women at the very outset of his film; it's an "in your face" strategy, that some people might find offensive because the director is a pretentious, ultra-pretty male homosexual.  An element of  homosexual esthetics relates to dramatizing a problematic relationship to the female body. Women are either shown as glamorous, ethereally beautiful "Stars" (as represented by Andy Warhol, for instance) or as nightmarish "hags" (generally the approach that Fassbinder took in his films.)  Male heterosexuals have the same problems, I might add, but, generally, idealize female bodies and faces as objects of desire -- Gay men don't feel that desire except abstractly and so they tend to portray women as either Warhol-style "Stars", that is, as commodities, or as unattractive.   Ford, as a fashionista, is a master of both types of representation and makes them clash in his films -- the images of women as grossly fat, fleshy, scarred by surgery, contrast with his movie-star representation of Amy Andrews as Susan.  (Amy Andrews has perfect breasts and so Ford ends the film by dressing her in a garment that reveals the sides of her breasts, the peep-show technique used in 2013 American Hustle)  Susan operates an art gallery and seems to be on the Board of some large art institution -- this gives Ford the opportunity to engage in provocation by showing works of art that some people might deem offensive.  (Susan keeps in her office John Curran's notorious "Nude in a Convex Mirror", an image that is distorted to show a female nude model reflected so as to make her ass enormous -- it's an image that's the counterpart to the naked fat women in the first sequence.)  With these images, I assume that Ford is making a comment about the exploitation of women, both in art,and in popular cinema -- his film contains disturbing imagery of rape and murderous abuse of an attractive mother and her teenage daughter.  Ford seems to be suggesting that we live in a culture that conspicuously trades in offensive images of women -- but he makes this point by simply adding to the number of offensive images that we can see. 

Nocturnal Animals consists of three narratives -- they are all thin to the point of vanishing.  Ford's approach is to set the narratives side-by-side and allow them to comment on one another.  This is thought-provoking and, more or less, succeeds -- the movie is very interesting throughout its 117 minute length and, even, generates a modicum of suspense.  Although it is all very "meta-", the contrast between the three stories is sufficiently interesting to keep us engaged.  The base-line story involves Susan, an Angeleno art gallery owner, who is fantastically wealthy -- although her finances seem built on sand and, maybe, in danger of collapse.  Susan has a spectacularly handsome and dull husband who is some sort of beleaguered investment banker.  The husband is cheating on Susan, although discretely.  This story is noteworthy primarily because it allows Ford to indulge his interest in expensive accessories, gorgeous interior design, and bitchy high-society chatter.  The second story couldn't be more remote from the first -- a man, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, drives cross-country with his wife and teenage daughter.  In the desert of West Texas, he encounters a bunch of hoodlums right out of a David Lynch movie.  The hoodlums assault him, kidnap his wife and daughter, and, after raping them, murder the two women.  Gyllenhaal's character fails to rescue his family, escapes, and makes his way to the highway.  Upon reporting the crime, he encounters a Texas cop played by Michael Shannon.  With the cop, he plots violent revenge upon the bad guys and, indeed, manages to kill two of them.  (The cop is dying of lung cancer, has nothing to lose, and is willing to execute the bad guys since they have evaded he long arm of the law.)  In the process of implementing his revenge, Gyllenhaal's character ends up dying.  This story allows Ford to devise absolutely gorgeous Texas landscapes, film Gyllenhaal walking aimlessly through the desert (he looks like Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas), and gives Shannon an opportunity to chew up the scenery as the dying cop.  The problem with this subplot is that it's not an interesting story -- the Texas plot forms the subject of a novel written by man named Edward Sheffield and mailed to Susan.  It's dramatized while we see Susan reading the manuscript.  The relationship between Susan and Sheffield is the subject of the third story -- we meet Sheffield (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal, about 20 years earlier.  In the flashback,Sheffield encounters Susan in New York City after having a childhood crush on her -- the crush turns out to have been reciprocal.  They have a love affair, although Susan's mother (played by Laura Linney) warns her against the relationship, saying that Sheffield is "a weak man."  (Linney's character is a wealthy, nasty socialite right out of a Todd Haynes' movie or a fifties film by Douglas Sirk -- a creature of melodrama).  Ultimately, Susan's mother is right.  Sheffield disappoints Susan and she has an affair with a diabolically handsome man who ends up as her husband in LA.  She's pregnant with Sheffield's child and has an abortion.  Sheffield turns up in the parking lot of the abortion clinic.  Sheffield later writes the novel, Nocturnal Animals (his nickname for the night-owl, Susan) and sends it to his former lover to read.  We interpret the violent and lurid action in the novel as being a reflection of Sheffield's rage at being dumped by Susan and the rape/murder scenes in the novel seem to be his revenge on her.  (A big painting bearing the word REVENGE is important in compositions in the art world plot in the film's present-day.)  In the novel, Sheffield's protagonist is accused of being weak but acts violently and, perhaps, therefore imagines himself to be strong.  Sheffield asks Susan to meet  him.  After hesitating, she goes to a spectacular Japanese restaurant to see him.  The film's audience is supposed to interpret the events in the Texas plot as somehow arising from the shattered relationship between Susan and Sheffield -- Sheffield has dedicated the novel to her.  (It's pretty narcissistic, however, to think that a work of art is directly caused by a failed relationship -- as Carly Simon sang:  "You're so vain you probably think this song is about you."   This seems particularly questionable when more than 20 years has elapsed between the relationship and the work of art.   What's Sheffield been doing in interim? -- the film would have us believe that he's spent the whole time carrying a romantic torch for Susan.)  The glossy surface of the film conceals the fact that none of the three stories is particularly interesting or, even, well thought out.  But the film does raise interesting questions, some of them, perhaps, inadvertently -- is the director suggesting that abortion equates to rape and murder?  The picture is definitely stylishly made, pictorially beautiful, and, although it's cold as ice, it raises some interesting if shallow questions.  But what did Oscar Wilde say about being superficial  -- "it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.  The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible."

Monday, September 4, 2017

Tulip Fever

Tulip Fever comes like a thief in the night, not reviewed, and barely advertised.   The picture seems orphaned, dropped into theaters without fanfare on Labor Day weekend.  Clearly something must be wrong with this expensively mounted period bodice-ripper.  But, in fact, the movie isn't half bad -- it's mediocre but, that said, better than most of the other movies on offer for Labor Day.  Indeed, there's nothing really intrinsically wrong with the picture except to say that it's not nearly as effective as it could have been.

Set in Rembrandt's Amsterdam, Tulip Fever concerns a young woman, trapped in a dull marriage to a much older merchant.  The merchant commissions a painting of husband and wife, hiring a handsome young artist.  The artist and the merchant's wife indulge themselves in a passionate love affair.  When the merchant's nubile servant becomes pregnant -- she's enamored with a fishmonger who gets drunk and shanghaied -- the wife hatches a plot to claim the servant's baby as her own, the product of her marriage to the merchant.  She engages the services of a corrupt gynecologist; he cures fertility problems by implanting his own seed in women with this problem.  The baby is born and passed-off as the merchant's daughter.  The merchant's unhappy wife pretends to be dead, a victim of the city's filthy water supply, and she is carted away in casket.  The plan is for her to be reunited with the painter and leave the city for the colonies.  Unfortunately, the painter has succumbed to "tulip fever", that is, mad speculation in tulip bulbs.  Although we expect the painter's speculation to be dashed by the bursting of the "tulip bubble", in fact, he makes a fortune selling a rare mixed white and scarlet tulip bulb, the "Admiral Mary" for 1400 guilder.  Unfortunately, the hero's creditors dog him and won't trust the painter to retrieve the fabulous tulip bulb.  This induces the painter to send his factotum, played Zach Galiafinakis to travel to the abbey, present the contract for the bulb's purchase to the abbess who has cultivated the flower, and return the bulb to the painter who is anxiously waiting in a roomful of creditors.  But the messenger is Zach Galiafinakis, the same dude who wasin  The Hangover, and we know that this guy should not be entrusted with walking a dog let alone managing an important transaction of this kind.  He gets drunk and ends up mistaking the fabulously valuable bulb for an onion and, so, eats the tulip.  The merchant finds out that his wife has betrayed him about the same time that the painter learns that he has squandered his fortune and now has nothing.  (The sailor returns from the sea and discovers his girlfriend nursing a baby, his child -- they have an argument and the merchant, who is standing conveniently nearby, overhears them talking about the wife's scheme.)  Remarkably, the film somehow contrives a cautiously happy ending out of all this intrigue.

The movie has an impressive pedigree:  Steven Spielberg bought the rights to the novel by Debra Muggach, apparently an international best seller.  Spielberg recruited Dame Judy Dench to play the abbess who cultivates the tulips and Christoph Walz was signed as the merchant.  (Walz is badly miscast -- he is much more handsome, debonair, and attractive than the rather callow, sulking painter; the attraction between the wife and the painter seems implausible at best.)   Some other top-grade European actors and actresses were hired and someone thought it would be a good idea to retain Galiafanikis -- he's not half-bad.  12,000 tulips were planted and, then, the tax credits from the UK that were instrumental in financing the movie collapsed or were withdrawn -- the law apparently was re-written.  Spielberg lost interest and the film was ultimately directed by Justin  Chadwick.  The movie was completed in 2015, but withheld and recut.  It was withheld from the festival circuit in 2016 and, now, has been tossed onto the market like a dog's breakfast, released, as it were, with stealth and under the cover of a weekend with no blockbuster movies anywhere in sight.  Nonetheless, prestige elements remain in the production -- the camerawork simulates Rembrandt and Pieter de Hooch, Tom Stoppard wrote the script, and Danny Elfman composed the score.

The picture could be improved in many ways and so it's a bit frustrating to watch.  I could think of a half-dozen cheap ways to make the picture better.  For a film about tulips, there are almost no shots of the flowers in the entire picture -- hence, the whole metaphor of "tulip fever", a speculative frenzy that the plot equates with the wild and irrational power of romantic love, is wholly undeveloped.  A Steadi-cam and a field of blooming tulips -- hell, you could shoot the scene north of Seattle in an afternoon -- would have immensely improved the picture.  Stoppard's script seems to have been savaged -- there are no fine speeches and nothing in the way of memorable dialogue.  The film is uncertain as to how to view the merchant -- in some scenes, he is clearly crass and indifferent to his lovely young wife and said to be unfaithful to her.  In other scenes, he obviously loves her and, in fact, at the climax, tells the vicious obstetrician that if someone has to die, it should be child.  It's a problematic and underwritten role,  but Walz is a great actor and he ends up imbuing the merchant with a great and weary sense of dignity and kindness.  The merchant's forgiveness is the pivot on which the film turns.  The scenes of 17th century Amsterdam are impressive and the costumes and interiors look authentic.  The painter's image of the young woman holding a tulip is completely botched -- it looks like something from Cosmopolitan -- and other scenes are stupidly conceived:  what is the source for the light in the sealed coffin where the heroine writhes during her escape from the city?  A final shot showing the happy ending for the merchant -- he has emigrated to Batavia and we see someone wearing his hat walking across what looks like a sun-scorched swamp.  (Clearly Walz was not available for this shot).  The image is barren and doesn't count as a picture of the happy ending that the script claims for the merchant.

So how to evaluate this film.  It's okay and reasonably diverting.  I give it a 6 out of 10.  Wait for the DVD.