Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Wild Wild Country

Years ago, Iran went to war against Iraq.  Certain wags suggested that it might be a good thing if the war were protracted and deadly with both sides losing.  The viewer has a similar response to the Duplass brothers' six part documentary Wild Wild Country (now available on Netflix).   On the evidence of the first two episodes, the show is addictive and a sort of guilty pleasure.  Wild-eyed cosmopolitan religious fanatics square off against the most narrow-minded Neanderthal bigots that you can imagine.  The battle takes place in a remote wilderness somewhere in Oregon.  (You can't find the places in the movie on a map.)  Both sides are so utterly and viciously idiotic that you can't help that both sides will lose and that the fanatical Cultists and their adversaries, the bigoted local ranchers, will utterly destroy one another.  It's like the big gory climax in the shopping mall in George Romero's Day of the Dead -- savage and sadistic bikers in leather take on blood-thirsty brain-eating zombies:  it's hard to know which side to root for, but the dust-up is sure worth watching. 

Sometime in the late sixties, an Indian guru named Bhagram Shree Rajneesh(sometimes, he's called "Osho") founded an ashram in a small city in India.  Rajneesh was a typical specimen of the type of vaguely Hindu holy-man who surfaced in the psychedelic era -- he had big watery eyes and an impressive beard and, in his white robes, he flitted around with a beatific grin hands clasped together in a Namaste greeting.  He specialized in telling people what they wanted to hear and gathered about 10,000 followers around him.  Mobs of attractive girls formed his bodyguard and he traveled from place-to-place in a armor-plated Rolls Royce.  (People were very gullible in the late sixties -- I think this is because that Baby Boomers, who comprised much of the population, were very young.  You have to be the victim of a couple of scams to be on the alert for confidence men and most of the Rajneesh followers seem to have been children, dewy-eyed boys and girls enrolled in the cult primarily for the sex.  Osho's followers were encouraged to engage in rituals that required a lot of primal screaming, jumping up and down, and groping one another naked.)  The Holy Man was regarded as fantastically wise and eloquent -- we are shown a few examples of his sermons and they are incredibly dim-witted and platitudinous, but, then, I suppose you had to be there.  The Holy Man came equipped with a scheming and duplicitous consiglieri in the form of a scrawny, bug-eyed girl named Sheela -- she's the real protagonist in the story because, as the narrative progresses, the guru himself,  who is deemed frail, "the finest porcelain" Sheela declares, subsides into the background.  After some attacks against the guru by Hindu fanatics, Sheela plots to move the entire Ashram to a remote, mountainous valley in Oregon.  A 65,000 acre ranch is purchased in the middle of nowhere and the cultists migrate to that place, dam a river to create a lake, and, in a display of true industry, erect a hideous, jerry-rigged city.  (The public buildings and the meditation center look like variants on the style of architecture that we now see most prominently in "Big Block" retailers like Walmart and Home Depot.)  There's only one problem with the construction of this utopia in backwoods Oregon -- and it's the same problem that beset the Mormons in Nauvoo and the Zionists in Palestine:  indigenous people were already living there.  The Cultists wear orange jump-suits eerily similar to the garments issued to prisoners in rural county jails and they invade the adjacent town, a tiny and rotting crossroads called Antelope -- footage shows big groups of the orange-clad cultists wandering around the village's dirt alleys and chicken coops and decaying mobile homes pulled up next to even more ruined clapboard houses while the moronic inhabitants cower indoors.  The stage is set for the battle between the home-grown bigoted locals and the fanatical cultists.  And, soon enough, the struggle ensues, a conflict so strange and surrealistic that you have to credit it all as being true:  you couldn't make this stuff up.  A prominent man in Oregon is a war hero track coach named Bowersmith who by some accident invents the shoe later sold under the trademark of Nike.  Bowersmith forms a group called the "Thousand Friends of Oregon" to lead the battle against Rajneesh and his followers.  Lawsuits are filed and the Cult led by the scheming and malign Sheela purchase the town of Antelope -- she shrewdly exploits the venality of the local Rubes by simply buying out the cult's most vehement enemies.  Money talks, as we all know and bullshit walks.  The resisting members of the town desperately try to avoid being annexed by the cult by dissolving the municipality -- but, by this time, too many cultists live in town and the local yokels are outvoted.   The cultists are spiteful and convert the town's one business, a local store and café, into an enterprise painted in day-glow colors and called "Zorba the Buddha".  Someone bombs the cult's hotel in Portland, Oregon and a wild-eyed zealot of a State Attorney tells the camera that the cult led by Sheela have committed "literally thousands of felonies" and that they represent "pure evil."  Sheela says that her cult is not a follower of Gandhi or Jesus:  "Jesus said if you are attacked turn the other cheeks.  We believe that if we are attacked we will tear off both of your cheeks."  And, so, the cult-members begin arming themselves. 

Two factors are obvious to the viewer and make this confrontation deliciously interesting.  The cult members are just like the ranchers:  they are adamantly opposed to anyone interfering in their life-style, totally bigoted and spiteful, and just as prone to reach for firearms to protect their miserable ideology as their thin-lipped, cowboy-hatted, and dull-eyed Christian fundamentalist adversaries.  Second, everyone acts as if the problems arising in rural Oregon are completely unprecedented -- but, any student of American history will immediately see the parallels with the Mormons, particularly in their expulsion from upstate New York and, later, Nauvoo, Illinois -- and recall that the problems between the Mormons and the local folk with whom they clashed resulted in spectacular bloodshed, massacres, and, ultimately, even a war waged by the federal government against Brigham Young and his followers.  So it's pretty obvious that none of this is going to end well.

Wild Wild Country is a wee bit repetitious -- long documentaries frequently run out of good footage.  But the stand-off between the Bhagreesh's followers and the ranchers seems to have been so spectacular as to be intensively documented.  Some shots are repeated a few times too many but the raw stuff here is so jaw-dropping that you can forgive a little bit of monotony in the presentation.  The film's format is conventional -- we get ominous drone-shots of the wilderness, "witnesses" now quite elderly (the confrontation happened in the early 80's) who are not afraid to air their idiocy for the camera:  Sheela herself, apparently from Switzerland or "an undisclosed location", tells her side of the story and the various cowboys and ranch wives on the other side of the feud are still around to explain and justify their behavior.  The landscapes are beautiful and the tale is wickedly amusing, a monument to human viciousness and arrogant stupidity.  It's always salutary to be reminded of how stupidly human beings can behave, particularly when motivated by narrow-minded xenophobia or religious fanaticism.           

Sunday, May 20, 2018

In the Intense Now (No Intenso Agora)

In the Intense Now is a movie directed by the Brazilian filmmaker, Joao Moreira Salles.  The picture was released in 2017 and was screened at the Walker Art Center as part of a series of movies about "the legacy of 1968" -- these are Leftist documentaries about the student rebellions and failed uprisings in that year.  In the Intense Now is extremely moving, a film that transcends the merely political.  Although the ostensible subject of the picture is the French student rebellion in May 1968 and the repression of similar demonstrations by Soviet armor in the Czech Republic in that same year, Salles' theme is bigger and more universal -- ultimately, his film is a melancholy and profound meditation on the transience of human happiness.  What makes us happy?  What is the nature of joy?  And why are the conditions that lead to human happiness so damnably ephemeral?

Salles intercuts four types of footage.   First, there are home-made 8 mm movies shot by Salles' mother during a month-long trip to China in 1966 -- although she is in China at the height of the immensely murderous Cultural Revolution, a cadre of Red Guards keeps the Brazilians from any sign of the carnage underway and Salles' mother perceives China as a kind of beautiful Utopia.  People in Czechoslovakia, at a wedding feast, toast one another and seem deliriously happy -- but Soviet tanks are on the way to crush pro-Democracy forces in that country.  In May, the Student Uprising occurs in Paris, led by the media star, Daniel Cohn-Bendit.  Cohn-Bendit has no program for the uprising that he finds himself leading, flees to Berlin on funds paid to him by Paris Match, a photo-magazine and, after some tumult, things return to normal in France.  Salles' family goes on vacation and spends the summer of 1968 in Brazil.

The first half of the 127 minute movie shows crude but poignant footage in China, Salles' metaphor for perfect social justice and the liberation of human happiness -- of course, he understands that Mao's paradise is, in fact, an inferno, but this fact doesn't intrude on the film.  Salles expects us to know enough about Mao's "Cultural Revolution" to grasp that it is all a fraud.  He interposes two shots:  a young woman running back away from a wall of tear gas in Paris, her face transfigured by a radiant smile, and another woman running toward the camera in China, also radiant with joy.  Salles' thesis is that his mother was intensely happy in China -- we see the slender smiling woman riding on a handsome man's shoulders and sitting atop strange sculpted animals standing incongruously in field of growing corn and sorghum.  Cohn-Bendit, in Paris, is asked what he expects to accomplish by his student revolt -- he looks like Alfred E. Neuman in the old Mad magazines grinning maniacally and (accurately) notes that, in all of Marx's writings, there are only about three paragraphs on the subject of what society will look like after the Revolution.  He has no program, no plan for a better world -- instead, he sees the process of revolt as itself a source of joy and happiness; he wants human beings to be liberated to experience pleasure and happiness each in his or her own way.  But he is coopted by Match and becomes irrelevant.  DeGaulle gives a speech denouncing the rebellion and is ignored because he looks like an old and feeble man on the TV.  But, then, he speaks on the radio and people recall his broadcasts from World War Two when he seemed to have saved the Nation.  There's a huge march on the Champs Elyse that dwarfs the student protests -- 550,000 people marching for normalcy.  And, then, the summer holidays intervene and people seek pleasures that are not political -- the sun and travel and beaches.  The revolution is over.  Salles bookends the movie with shots of a radiant young woman, presumably his mother, with Mont St. Michael behind her, boxy yellow Citroens on the highway -- an image of normal, non-politicized human happiness, striking because it so mundane. 

The second half of the film is more sorrowful, an elegy for the failed revolutions at the Sorbonne and Prague.  Salles intercuts spooky looking clandestinely filmed footage of tanks in Prague with images of ex-revolutionaries, now 23 years old, planning on writing their memoirs -- in effect, their lives are over; their greatest joy was an abortive revolution in the streets of Paris when they were 20.  (This part of the film reminds me of Wordsworth's transcendent account of the French Revolution in his novelistic poem,  -- "bliss was it to be alive"; but because of the political moment or the sheer joy of being young?)  We see two jawdropping music videos -- one made about the time of the Russian intervention in Prague shows a young woman prepared for martyrdom in the guise of Joan of Arc; the next video taken a year later features endearing baby animals illustrating a song that is densely coded for fear of censorship.  For better or worse, babies, including animal babies, make people happy -- this is a mode of human happiness that is completely apolitical.  Funerals take over the last section of the film:  we see the funeral of Jan Palach who burned himself to death in Prague and funerals in Brazil and Paris.  Most of the revolutionaries commit suicide before they are 30.  Salles discovers that human happiness can't be scripted, that it arises from the "unlooked for encounter" as his mother has written in her journal "that yields ineluctable emotion."  Salles notes that he has no images of his mother after the eighties -- we don't know what has happened to her, but her happiness seems to have vanished.  In a bold final sequence, Salles shows the young Mao writing a poem about the transience of human pleasures.  The sequence shows Mao has he ages and becomes fat and old and, then, obviously weak, frail, possibly senescent.  The narrator (presumably Salles) reminds us of the great slogans of the student rebellion:  Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible and Under the Paving Stones, the Beach -- and he tells us that the latter slogan was, in fact, contrived by two advertising agents and didn't arise organically from the revolt at all.  Two sequences don't derive from the sixties -- one of them taken 2017 shows the Paris subway station, Gaiete ("Joy") where one of the sixties radicals killed himself by diving under a train.  The other sequence, which ends the film, was made at the very dawn of cinema -- it is one of the Lumiere brothers films showing factory workers emerging from their work-place around 1898.  Preserved forever in the film is a instance of simple, radiant, and pure human happiness -- the joy of being liberated from work for the evening.  Earlier we have seen a mournful DeGaulle telling us that the workplace makes people sad and that this is the curse of the modern age.  With this heartbreaking and beautiful film, Salles joins Chris Marker as one of the greatest of all film essayists .  Indeed, I dare say that in this movie, Salles excels beyond much of what Marker's more cerebral cinema achieved.  You can't watch this film without shedding tears.


Thais is an opera by the French composer Jules Massenet premiered at the Opera Garnier in 1894.  I saw the Minnesota Opera Company's version in St. Paul on May 19, 2018 with Kelly Kaduce, born and bred south of Mankato, in the title role.  The soprano part is formidable -- it's got lots of whoops and derisive laughter and is pitched in a shrieking dog-whistle register.  So far as I am able to ascertain, Kaduce sang beautifully in a full and vibrant voice and can't be blamed for some of the upper stratospheric howls that emerged from her mouth -- she was simply discharging her duty to the score.  The libretto is loathsome and, in the era of "Me Too", a disturbing museum piece embalming innumerable gender and sex stereotypes.  The Minnesota Opera presented the thing, more or less, intact, even emphasizing, I suppose, elements of the book that are now profoundly politically incorrect.  There are a few good moments in the show, but, on the whole, it's so despicable that the opera needs to be, either, presented ironically (and I'm not sure that this would work) or as a concert piece with its good bits surgically extracted and put on display independent of the toxic matrix in which they are embedded.  Any production of a late 19th century opera involving sex and lust will be an invitation to all sorts of amusing faux pasThais is full of laughably idiotic stuff -- the problem is that the opera is simply too long and it's very slender, improbable plot is immensely padded. 

Although called Thais (and based on Anatole French's novel of the same name), the opera should be called "Athanael," after the censorious monk who drives the action.  Most of the show takes place, more or less, in the nasty recesses of his mind.  (Athanael is an over-the-top character -- a monster of repression and the archetypal lascivious and sadistic Monk of the Gothic imagination.)  Athanael is a fourth century cenobitic monk -- every account of the opera ever written uses the gaudy and exotic word "cenobitic", a term sometimes even spelled "coenobitic" and signifying that he lives in a religious community as opposed to "eremitic monks" who are, as the name implies, hermits.  The words "cenobitic" or "cenobite" are flowery, decadent, and connote the world of Flaubert's Salamanbo or Temptation of Saint Anthony -- it's part of the specious glamor where French aestheticism merges with Roman Catholicism, an aspect of the worlds of Huysman and Aubrey Beardsley.  Athanael who wears a black hair shirt and looks like a wild-eyed John the Baptist once lusted after Thais, a famous courtesan in Alexandria.  Athanael conceives the plan of converting the high-class call girl, who is also a devotee and worshiper of Venus.  He leaves his cenobitic community (there I've used the word again) near Thebes and goes to the flesh-pot of Alexandria.  There he meets Thais who is enjoying one week of fidelity with his old school buddy Nicias -- Nicias is squandering his assets to purchase Thais' services.  Athanael confronts Thais and demands that she converts to Christianity.  After spending the night in anxious meditation -- hence the famous show-stopper, a tune called "Meditation" from Thais -- she converts lock, stock, and barrel.  Athenael drags her across the desert to another cenobite community Albine, the home of the White Nuns.  Thais takes her religious conversion seriously and does penance to the point that she "has destroyed her body", the vessel of her sin.  Athenael lusts after her and decides that he would like  to convert her back to being a courtesan, at least, if he can be her sole customer.  He rushes to where she is dying, sings an apologetic and demented aria, then, gets a duet with her before one of her signature super-sonic high notes kills her dead.

This is not much of a story and it's sexist on all levels.  Thais doesn't seem to have much agency -- she just does what the fanatical Athenael (a cenobitic monk) demands from her.  Much of the action consists of Athenael's fantasies of Thais standing like a half-naked idol among heaps of writhing dancers in nude body stockings.  The Zenon Dance Company provides the shapely naked people -- probably about eight of them who cavort lasciviously, and grotesquely, in a number of scenes.  In the first scene, the cenobitic monks parade around, marching in tight circles under a house-sized Byzantine style crucifix showing Christ, like a dancer, writhing on his gilded cross.  Alexandria is represented by a huge flat showing golden drapery and various gold pilasters.  Thais is sitting astride Nicias' crotch when the cenobite, Athanael, appears -- it's a somewhat embarrassing moment for all three, Nicias, Thais, and the hair-shirted gloomy Athanael.  Periodically red roses fall from the golden sky.  In Act II, Thais seems to be squatting on a huge mattress made from crème brule in a golden pan -- I have no idea what that object was supposed to represent.  She broods upon the inevitable loss of her beauty and, then, the famous meditation is played -- five or six naked men dance around her.  For some reason, the naked men persuade her to become a cenobitic nun.  There follows a big party scene that seems completely out-of-place and is supposed to represent the decadence of Alexandria -- there are serpent dancers,  acrobats, stilt-walkers, and lots of discretely simulated copulation as well as weird choral numbers in which the actors slap their chests and make hieroglyphic gestures with their arms and hands.  It's completely idiotic and it goes on and on and on -- there's no dramatic point for the spectacle since Thais has already decided to leave all this stuff behind.  Athanael smashes Thais' little idol of winged Eros and we see the couple next standing near an eight foot pile of glistening slag -- it's supposed to represent silver or quick-silver (mercury) I suppose.  Thais' feet are bleeding, much to the erotic delectation of Athanael, and he hastens from where she has swooned to get her a glass of water.  Bringing the glass of water to her, Thais revives enough to say that Athanael should drink the water first -- it never occurs to her, or the librettist, I suppose, that Athanael has come from the fountain itself and, no doubt, drank as much as he wanted in that place.  We next see Athanael in his cenobitic community -- he has a fantasy of Thais standing atop naked bodies and, then, coming forth across the stage to straddle him, taking the same pose in which he discovered her with Nicias in Alexandria.  The naked people get a short interlude in which they adopt postures like Francis Bacon's sodomite nudes -- at one point, a guy stands on a pedestal of buttocks.  Athanael finds Thais resting uncomfortably on what looks like her granite sarcophagus -- the White Sisters are all lying on the ground.  He embraces her under the huge crucifix which here tilts forward like a menacing B-52.  At this point, light should pour up from the earth, immanent light, the light that comes out of darkness, a carnal fleshy pink light to suffuse the crucifix -- but, no such luck, instead the crucifix remains in darkness, although drizzling down rose petals which here read as the blood of Christ while the two lovers emit some high-pitched notes while Thais succumbs. 

The detestable thing about the opera is its hypocrisy.  The thing has its cake and eats it too -- the show is designed to highlight sexual orgies and naked people, that is, giving us all the pleasures of the flesh that the libretto supposedly rejects in favor of a cloying, sickly sweet and deathly piety.  Kelly Kaduce is not naturally limber and she steps over the men that she has to straddle and simulate humping as if she were stepping over a particularly nasty pile of dog shit -- she doesn't move like a seductress and is about six inches too short for the part:  it's hard to pick her out in the mobs of three-some and foursomes in the Alexandrian orgies.  Athanael's piety, of course, is a fearsome combination of repressed lust and envy -- he destroys Thais' little statue of eros when he learns Nicias gave it to her.  It's a dream role for an actor like Michael Shannon.  France's novel was bitter and anti-clerical.  But Massenet's opera is a bourgeois entertainment and he contrives to have it both ways:  maximum sexual suggestiveness with maximum piety.  A famous story about the premiere in Paris is telling:  Massenet wrote the courtesan part for a celebrated singer from Sacramento, California with whom he was reputed to be having an affair -- the woman was renowned for her beauty and her voice (she was oddly enough the daughter of a Justice on the California Supreme Court.)  At the end of Act One, during her first appearance, she suffered a "wardrobe malfunction" and performed a couple of arias topless -- the show must go on and it was whispered that she had engineered the malfunction to show off her peerless bosom. 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Shape of Water

Late in Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water, a new character appears on-screen.  This is Brewster, a defeated Black man, the husband of the heroine's friend at work played by Octavia Butler.  Brewster is on-screen for only a couple of minutes and has only a half-dozen lines but they are highly consequential.  Generally, it's accounted a defect in a movie or play to introduce a character within 15 minutes of the ending to drive the plot toward its ending.  And, indeed, when I saw Brewster in The Shape of Water, my first reaction was that this was a bit lame, a defect in del Toro's otherwise conspicuously (even, fanatically) well-designed film.  But, upon further recollection, my response changed -- Brewster is a small character, but he's already been carefully defined for us by his wife's references to him while she's chatting with the heroine at work.  When we first see him, he's already a character that we have met through conversations between the heroine Eliza (she's mute but communicates through sign-language) and her sassy Black friend.  Brewster disappoints us with his response to danger -- basically, he acts in a cowardly way, although to protect his wife.  He's a bit like the assassins and porters in Shakespeare's plays -- they exist to wield a useful knife or open a door for someone after midnight, but Shakespeare conceives them as rounded characters with weight and real dignity.  Brewster acts like many of the other characters in the movie:  he's cowardly and ineffectual, not only by nature but because he's been poorly treated, discriminated against as an African-American man; therefore, he has his reasons to behave as he does.  In this regard, he is like Eliza's neighbor, Giles, a homosexual artist who paints bland advertising images similar to those made by Norman Rockwell.  (The irony is that the closeted lonely homosexual paints pictures of glowing and typical American families as they were imagined to exist in the late fifties.)  Giles isn't a competent hero, but he does his best.  He's been made to feel invisible and helpless and, so, of course, it's hard for him to take action -- but these attributes are thematic to the movie.

The reference to Shakespeare in the preceding paragraph might seem gratuitous and, surely, it would be folly to compare the matinee-movie monster picture that del Toro has made with the works of the Bard.  But there is an important similarity that is should be noticed.  Shakespeare wasn't original -- he didn't invent his material but plagiarized it, adapting previously existing stories and, then, excavating meanings from them that no one really had earlier noticed before.  In effect, he took genre materials and made them more profound and beautiful.  This is how del Toro's works -- he steals from hoary sub-B monster movies and articulates themes present in those films but never really developed.  In The Shape of Water, del Toro draws forth ingenious variations on the theme of the monster ravishing a maiden -- in just about every horror film ever made, a monster takes interest in a beautiful young woman, seizes her, and, as she swoons, carries her half-naked body back to his lair.  The theme was old when the Greeks imagined the dark king of the Dead, Hades, stealing Persephone from the meadow where the girl, herself the fairest flower, was plucking blossoms for a bouquet.  Del Toro takes this concept, an idea that has perennially excited poets and dramatists, and expands it into a film -- he takes what is often just a metaphor and develops it into a theme.  Of course, The Shape of Water steals from The Monster from the Black Lagoon, Beauty and the Beast, ET, The Bride of  Frankenstein and a host of other movies.  Del Toro obsessively recycles this material, much of it pure schlock ( the most obvious allusion, The Monster from the Black Lagoon, for instance, is pretty bad) and creates something that is not new -- in fact, the movie feels deeply familiar -- but exceptionally beautiful, fully imagined, and, even, grave. 

As everyone knows, The Shape of Water is about a mute char-woman, Eliza (played by Sally Hawkins) who works at a sinister government laboratory in Baltimore.  The agency, something like the CIA, has captured a "gill-man" -- that is, a sleek, luminous anthropoid with the uncanny double-lidded eyes of a crocodile and great floral gills around his throat.  This amphibian creature was worshiped as a god in the Amazon where he lived before government agents captured him.  The creature is kept in a vat of salt water -- he's dangerous:  he has bitten off two fingers of the vicious CIA agent, Robert, who not surprisingly advocates for his "vivisection."  Robert tortures the creature with an electrified cattle-prod.  (In one torture scene, the creature is chained to a pedestal that is an exact replica of the round dais on which Lon Chaney was flogged in a famous scene in the old film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.)  Eliza, mysteriously mutilated at birth so that she can not speak, makes contact with the creature, shows him kindness, and conspires to spirit him away from the government laboratories.  In this task, she enlists the help of her African-American friend at work and the homosexual painter, who lives in the decaying apartment next to hers, both sets of rooms sharing in common hemispheres of a great arched window similar to the windows that you see in Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan's buildings in Chicago.  Soviet agents also have an interest in the "Gill man" and, one of them, aids in the plot to conceal the creature.  The amphibian man is brought to Eliza's apartment.  She has fallen in love with the creature and has sex with him several times.  Robert, who is losing his mind, pursues the lovers -- his reattached fingers have turned green and gangrenous.  There's a final showdown and, after some spectacular violence, the creature escapes with his girlfriend. 

The plot isn't interesting at all.  It's just a compound of old monster movie tropes stitched together -- a little more explicit sexually than the Universal horror films made in the 30's, less explicit than Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein.  The film's excellence lies in its execution, the innumerable details that decorate the action, the fluid, rapturous camera work, the melodramatic lighting , and the acting, which is generally expressionistic, "over-the-top" but, also, emotionally gripping.  The first forty-five minutes of the picture is probably the most technically assured and effective narrative film-making that I have seen in several years.  (Del Toro can't quite keep up to this exceedingly high level and there are some slight weaknesses in the last half of the movie.)  The heroine's dark and crumbling apartment is like a box built by Joseph Cornell, dimly lit, a sort of Victorian fantasia that encompasses and dramatizes the heroine's oddity, her beauty, and her loneliness.  In the first couple scenes in which del Toro introduces his characters, the viewer's eye wanders over all the spectacular sets -- a chocolate factory is burning down the street and the heroine who takes a night bus to work (she clocks in at midnight) is shot with her face radiant from the flames billowing out of the conflagration a few blocks away.   The gill-man is transported in an elegant Art Décor sarcophagus, a bronze cylinder with ornate curves that looks like a decorative fin-de-siecle entrance to the Paris Metro.  The film is set in 1962, at the time of the March on Selma, and discrimination is a principal theme in the movie -- but it is a dream-1962 that is everywhere half-drowned and aquatic:  it rains all the time, and the heroine masturbates vigorously in her Victorian claw-footed bathtub and we see eggs boiling under water and teal-green Cadillacs that look like submarines.  The décor is delirious, like Todd Haynes riffing on an old Douglas Sirk melodrama.  The horrifying villain, Robert, played by Michael Shannon seems a combination of zombie and predator sea-creature himself -- his ruined hand turns green and, in one alarming sequence, he literally rips off the rotting fingers.  Eliza's apartment is above a movie theater, a great abandoned picture-palace that is always playing a double-feature, The Story of  Ruth and Mardi Gras, and del Toro, of course, exploits the dark, luxurious red-womb-like theater for all of its scenic possibilities.  The movie is designed to within an inch of its life -- all of the imagery is aquatic:  the hallway outside Eliza's apartment is like a submerged version of the nightmare corridor at the end of Scorsese's Taxi Driver:  everything seems mildewed, the color of algae.  A sex scene between the evil Robert and his wife is filmed like something from a horror movie -- it is far more disturbing than the tender scenes between the gill-man and Eliza.  Inviting her husband to make love, Robert's Barbie doll wife pops one huge breast out of her blouse and requires Robert to stroke it with his rotting hand.  The sudden appearance of a single breast is like the serpent monster popping out of the chest of the poor astronaut in Alien -- it's an indelible and frightening effect.  By contrast, a kitschy embrace between the monster and Eliza under water is made poetic by the detail of one of her shoes dropping off her foot and slowly drifting away from the couple down into the blue-green abyss. 

There are a few defects in the movie.  The monster is imbued with magical powers similar to those possessed by E. T. and, in fact, the last forty minutes of the movie is a little too obviously modeled on the "E.T. phone home" sequence in Spielberg's movie.  There is some fearsome violence that seems, maybe, a little out-of-place:  in once sequence, Robert uses a bullet hole through the cheek of one of his victims as a convenient way to drag the poor dying man -- he simply hooks a finger through the hole in the guy's cheek and pulls.  There's a dance number between the Gill Man and the heroine that is beautifully designed -- it's a parody of a thirties era Black and White musical but it falls flat and could be cut from the picture.  (It would have been better for del Toro to adapt for the couple the step dance with Bojangles and Shirley Temple that we see on a TV earlier in movie.  My guess is that this was the plan but the monster suit was too awkward to allow the sequence to be filmed.) A speech by a General threatening Robert with all sorts of dire consequences if he doesn't bring back the escaped amphibian is showy but overly Baroque -- it seems to belong in a different movie; it feels like one of Christopher Walken's deranged speeches in any number of movies.  But, by and large, the film is spectacularly successful and warrants the Best Picture Academy Award for 2017.  The level of design extends to subliminal elements -- del Toro had one wall in Eliza's apartment painted with a huge reproduction of Hokusai's engraving "The Great Wave".  The mural was, then, effaced with water marks, mold, half-covered with crumbling plaster.  You can't see the mural at all in the movie but it was important to del Toro to know that it was there, nonetheless, buried under the crumbling grunge on his heroine's wall.  There's nothing subtle about this picture but it's a wholly impressive tour-de-force of design, lighting, and action -- a fully integrated work of art on all levels and technically more impressive than anything else produced in 2017. (This is all the more surprising when one considers that the movie was shot in Toronto on sets built for del Toro's TV series, The Strain, a much more highly budgeted production.  Apparently, the picture was made with the technical and craft workers hired for that show and filmed during breaks in the production of The Strain.)

Friday, May 18, 2018


German director Voelker Schloendorff made this raw film adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's first play, Baal in 1968.  The film features Rainer Fassbinder in the title role and the picture records a decisive moment in the enfant terrible's career.  The movie is chaotic, puerile, and intensely irritating -- this is true to the source material, Brecht's first play was written as a semi-coherent provocation and it's generally a nasty piece of work.  Schloendorff, who later went on to make conventional films like The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum and The Tin Drum, both movies made with Hollywood production values, shot Baal guerilla-style using a handheld 16 millimeter camera that wobbles and zigs and zags through the desolate locations where the director stages the action.  The film was supposed to partake in the pervasive atmosphere of revolt in Europe in 1968 and, indeed, Schloendorff initially tried to cast Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the leader of the May revolt in Paris, in the title role.  Cohn-Bendit dropped out and Fassbinder, who had just completed his own first film, assumed the role of the monstrous and sadistic lyric poet, Baal.  The part doesn't exactly cohere and, in Brecht's original version (or versions) is somewhat self-pitying:  the savage poet is something of a momma's boy and, from time to time, Brecht clearly wants us to feel sorry for him -- the play invokes none of the Aristotelian unities:  it takes place over aseveral months, even possibly years, and the action happens in all sorts of locations:  there is a camp full of nasty foul-mouthed German lumberjacks in the Black Forest, a cabaret, a series of increasingly ugly and squalid taverns, and various open fields and meadows and truck-stops.  Brecht wrote the play as part of a reaction to another work assigned as reading to him when he was the German equivalent of High School -- the first version of the play dates to 1918 when Brecht was himself in his late teens.  He revised the play again in 1919 and, then, finally, admitted the autobiographical nature of the work in a tighter, more focused iteration in 1926 -- in that text, the writer actually conflates the adventures of Baal with those of the author.  Schloendorff snatches fragments of the play from all versions, recognizing that Brecht, a great poet even when he was a teenager, was profligate with his lyric gifts but didn't really organize the hero's adventures into anything other than a series of increasingly sordid episodes, all more or less discontinuous -- the play is notable for grotesque vehement scenes in the manner of Buechner's nightmarish Woyzeck and, also, relies upon short tableaux that seem to be derived from Shakespeare and Goethe's expressionistic (Sturm und Drang) Ur-Faust.  It would be easy to dismiss the whole enterprise as self-indulgent and callow (which it is) but Brecht is one of Germany's greatest lyric poets, one of the three or four best writers in that genre in the 20th Century and his linguistic gifts in all their extravagance are obvious throughout the mélange of short scenes that the director has stitched together from the three versions of the text.  At one point, Baal tells a woman that he is planning to seduce that "We're looking at one another with a glint in our eyes like two insects about to devour one another."  Although the line may leave something to be desired from an entomological standpoint (every insect that I've seen is pretty much expressionless), the verse is a good example of the feral and memorable violence in the play's diction. 

Baal doesn't have a plot and its stabs at narrative are feeble at best.  An ugly, menacing kid who looks like a juvenile delinquent, Fassbinder as Baal, is acclaimed as a great poet.  But he acts like a thug, getting drunk at a reception for him put on by his publisher and trying to seduce his publisher's wife, Emily.  Emily later goes to Baal's hangout, a bar frequented by truckdrivers, and the poet humiliates her demanding that she kiss a Black man (and prole) who is also a patron.  Baal's friend (and possibly homosexual lover), Eckard tries to persuade Baal to go with him on a pilgrimage to the Black Forest -- Eckard has a little tuning fork, a spectacularly huge and hideous chin (he looks like a cartoon character) and he is always blathering about writing a Mass.  It's a relief to the viewer when Baal gets fed up with him and knifes Eckard to death in a miserable pool-hall in the film's penultimate sequence.  Baal has an apostle, the adoring Johannes.  Johannes has a virgin 17-year old girlfriend about whom he consults Baal.  This is a bad idea:  Baal rapes the girl who, then, drowns herself.  Baal writes some nice (and famous) verse about the girl's corpse rotting in the river.  A couple of teenage girls are lured up to Baal's gloomy little room where he plans to have sex with both of them.  His mother, played by the formidable Irm Hermann, appears and throws the girls out while denouncing her son.  (And, then, she departs from the play, a major change from the source material since Baal's mother appears in about four or five scenes, including some pretty nasty stuff, in Brecht's original.)  Baal works as a lumberjack in the Black forest, seduces a cabaret singer named Sophie Barger, and, then, when she's pregnant with his child, drags her around by the hair and repeatedly knocks her down -- this all takes place on filthy-looking vacant lot next to a freeway.  She clings to his knees.  Her kind and tender lover says he'll take her back and protect the unborn child if Sophie will simply renounce her love for the brutish Baal.  But, of course, Sophie (here played by Margarethe von Trotta, herself soon to a well-known German director) refuses, proclaiming that she loves Baal despite his cruelty -- whereupon he slaps  her a few more times and kicks her. (Baal really knows how to show his women a good time -- Sophie's dates with him take place in a mud-patch surrounded by corn-stalks; Baal sniffs at her crotch and dabs her groin with mud.)  And so it goes until Baal stabs Ekard for no good reason, hides for a while at a truck stop and, then, drinks himself to death among the burly and indifferent lumber-jacks -- he perishes to the sound of chain-saws in the forest. 

This is all, more or less, unpleasant and rendered even more rebarbative by the studiously ugly 16 mm camera-work, the late sixties' trousers and leisure suits, and an absolutely ghastly musical soundtrack -- probably, the hapless Germans found the Muzak blues with treacle mouth-harp "cool" or "hip" but it's about as square as you can imagine and, almost, comically quaint, an artifact of the era best forgotten.  For some reason, the director smeared the corners of his lens with petroleum jelly and, in some scenes, the lighting makes the goo look like stalactites hanging over the heads of the characters.  In most cases, the grease blurs the image at the edges and gives the impression that we are viewing everything through a rather hazy oval porthole.  Dieter Lohmann's photography is anti-glamor -- he makes everyone with the exception of Hanna Schygulla (who has a vanishingly tiny role as a barmaid) look awful.  There's no way to make the young Hanna Schygulla look bad. 

I can't recommend the film although I think it's historically significant.  It's not a fully-fledged Brecht play because of the author's indifference to social and economic issues -- the text is ragged and fragmentary, basically an excuse for Brecht to showcase some excellent poems but it's dramatically unsuccessful.  As I have noted, Schloendorff's later work embodied Hollywood-style production values with challenging texts -- the director became the Merchant and Ivory of German cinema.  The film is certainly not a Fassbinder production because that director's work is embedded in American genre pictures and the picture lacks his ingenious mise-en-scene and the glittering mirror-filled cages where he chooses to stage most action. The repulsive Baal is a surrogate for the equally repellent Bertolt Brecht and, curiously, Fassbinder seems to take the role to heart to the extent that he also seems to have modeled his personal behavior on the sadistic reprobate poet for the rest of his life -- both Brecht and Fassbinder had the misfortune of becoming Baal, at least as far as the women (and in Fassbinder's case men) in their lives were concerned. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

Power and Beauty in China's Last Dynasty

The Minneapolis Insitute of Art hired Robert Wilson to stage ten rooms devoted to Qing dynasty objects.  Robert Wilson is best known for the seventies' minimalist theatrical events such as Deafman Glance and his collaboration with Phillip Glass Einstein on the Beach.  Wilson has designed sets for operas, made sculptural installations, and created other museum environments for exhibits of sculptures by Isamu Noguchi, garments created by Giorgio Armani, as well as the blockbuster touring exhibition of archaeological finds dredged from the sea in Egypt, Egypt's Sunken Treasures (that exhibit designed for a Turin Museum will travel to several venues in this country, including the St. Louis Museum of Art.)  Wilson's design skills have also been applied to staging for Lady Gaga as well as department store windows in New York and Europe. 

Wilson's work on the MIA installation is irritating and perversely opaque.  Viewed in eerie isolation, the artifacts seem abstract, forlorn, and abandoned -- the spectator doesn't know the significance of what he or she is seeing and I didn't think that there was anything particularly innovative about the way the objects were displayed (except that the viewer is left to form his or her own impressions about the meaning or lack of meaning of the artifacts in the context in which they are exhibited.)  The viewer enters the exhibit through a small dark room where the hapless viewer has to stand for, more or less, five minutes in almost complete dark.  Displayed high above the floor is one vase, illumined by pinpoint lights creating an outline of the object -- it looks vaguely supersonic, like a rocket with wings aimed toward the sky:  we see the object as a pattern of scintillation, tiny stellate reflections on the surface of a dark vase.  The idea of this initial room is to cleanse the mind as it were, and, true to Wilson's minimalist vision, reduce expectations.  Some piano arpeggios murmur in the background, rising to a sort of climax, before receding into the distance and silence -- perhaps, there is a faint odor of incense.  The next room shows elegant lacquer boxes and carved ivory objects displayed floor to ceiling in cage-like boxes.  It's not clear why Wilson has chosen to put the objects (they are writing sets, perfume cases, small sculptures) in chicken cages -- an irritating clicking sound fills the room and, now and then, there is a crash:  This led me to recall the mantra of the souvenir shop:  Pretty to Look At, Pretty to Hold -- But if you break it, it's sold.  It's a  display of chinoiserie and the viewer has a sense that these objects are delicate, fragile, and more than a little coyly formulaic.  The next room shows five imperial robes -- the soundtrack for the room is more ticks and tocks.  The lighting highlights one robe at a time, or several, but all robes are displayed in a soft yellow light -- it's just that a kind of roving spotlight aims at one or two or even three of them in  some obscure, possibly random, sequence.  More rooms ensue:  one of them shows an empty throne guarded by a huge red dragon painted on the walls -- the dragon is kitsch, a representation of the papier-mâché dragons that dancers lead prancing down the streets in parades in Chinatown.  There are Taoist immortals, a room full of small jade and ivory objects with kimonos that might be found in the chambers of 901 imperial wives  -- the wall of this room is like an ice cave, bright mylar crystals lit to be brilliantly white.  In the final room, the walls are completely white, glaring white panels and, in the corner of the room, there is a glass case containing another vaguely supersonic-shaped vase, this one dark black, the color a black beetle.  (It is obviously the camera-negative for the dark room through which we entered.)  A brochure advises the viewer that the rooms have thematic design, but the meaning of those designs is not clear to a person who is not following along in the brochure.  One example will suffice:  a dark room is lit by a single glowing cube -- the cube's base is violet and, suspended there on that color, is a small five-inch high bronze of a man.  The room is otherwise empty.  The little standing figure is not from the Qing dynasty and so seems to violate the principle of inclusion upon which the exhibit is based -- the bronze comes from the Warring States era, or about 550 BCE (that is, 2250 years before the Qing dynasty, an Imperial family that ruled from about 1700 to 1910).   Wilson intends the figure to represent the "common man" -- that is, the huge anonymous population of peasants on which the Imperial authority was based and, indeed, the little man seems to have some of the features of a Sumerian sculpture, a humble but solid effigy.   But this isn't something that you could ascertain from merely encountering the little figure in his saturated violet cube.  Puccini seems to be playing in a room devoted to women's adornments and accessories -- it's a reference to Madame Butterfly it seems; but Madame Butterfly was a Japanese courtesan, not a Chinese harem wife.  A fundamental problem is that the MIA's noteworthy collection of Asian art is already impeccably staged -- one enters the galleries devoted to Asian art though a kind of clay and terracotta temple portico and the rooms are very dimly lit, suffused as it were in the dull gloom of tea-colored darkness -- there are several rooms that are set up as replicas of the spaces where Chinese merchants or bureaucrats worked (or entertained).  It's all very palpably presented in dim rooms textured like ancient wood.  Wilson's installation is actually inferior to the way the MIA displays the art objects in its collection -- it is less meaningful, harder to navigate, and more intellectually inaccessible.  In this context, Wilson's minimalist rooms with their lighting tricks and sound effects (creaky floors, Buddhist chanting and so on) register as less impressive than the galleries at the other end of the Museum devoted to these Asian collections.  (I hasten to note one exception:  the great Jade Mountain that has always enthralled me and that represents my earliest encounter with art -- at least the earliest that I can recall -- is displayed in  Wilson's setting on a mirror-like pedestal:  the huge mountain (it weighs about two tons) seems to float weightlessly on the air, suspended like a thought in the minds of the Taoist immortals gathered in the jade bowers and jade belvederes carved into the side of the mountain -- the light was low and the mountain seemed somehow more mountainous and more wild, more cut from some kind of living boulder than it seems when shown in the entry corridor adjacent to the Asian galleries -- the spot it has occupied for the past 20 years.  Wilson's staging effectively defamiliarized  this art object for me.) 

Nearby, there's four rooms devoted to art by Minol Araki (1928 - 2010).  Araki was ethnically Japanese although raised in China.  His works are large landscapes, some of them wide scrolls sixty or seventy feet long -- they are typically representations of what we would call "the sublime" in the West:  mountains and deep cold-looking lakes are glimpsed through stormy, ashen clouds.  Sometime the clouds part to reveal tiny villages built on what seem to be tortoise-shell of pinkish rock and gravel -- the villages have little pagodas and small tiled-roof houses -- and, the distance, there are shadowy mountains like humped bison with curved laser-jets of white cascades pouring forth from them.  A image of a mynah bird, albino white, glares malignly at the spectator:  This is The Bird who ate so many rabbits he turned white.  Another fearsome-looking mynah eyes a persimmon.   (Minol -- "minoi" is "mynah" in Chinese, but also "persimmon" and so the birds are indirect portraits of the artist.)  We see a monk with a perfectly bald and shaved head, looking somewhat cross-eyed at a garment that he is mending.  The canvas that greets entrants to this superb exhibition is called "Splashed Color Landscape" (1974) -- it shows brilliant azurite and malachite forming clouds and little valleys with chaotic gorges and caves, stormy skies filled with smoky clouds, tufts and tangles of landscape in the foreground that look like battered vegetation in Hudson River School landscapes, with white fonts of waterfalls cascading from the cliffs in the background of the painting.   It's a wonderful show and free -- Wilson's fantasia costs 16 dollars to enter. 

A display of engravings by New Ulm's Wanda Gag as well as some socially-relevant manifesto woodcuts by Elizabeth Olds    is pleasant but forgettable.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Westfront 1918 (Vier von der Infanterie -- Four from the Infantry)

G. W. Pabst's first sound film, titled Westfront 1918 (1930) is based on a German anti-war novel Four From the Infantry.  Made under bizarre circumstances just 12 years after the Great War, the picture is probably the most truthful account of that conflict ever committed to film.  Pabst doesn't fall into the traps that undercut most anti-war films -- he doesn't make the carnage spectacularly photogenic (Apocalypse Now) nor does the film devolve into some kind derring-do in which individual characters get to display their heroism and courage (Saving Private Ryan); further, 1930 norms as to representation prevent the film from becoming unbearably gory (Hacksaw Ridge) -- a movie can't make any points with you if you have eyes firmly closed for half of the scenes.  Rather, Pabst sets out to prove that the entire martial endeavor is pointless and futile and that it is not only destructive, but totally destructive.  Needless to say, the "four from the infantry" are doomed and the picture makes this pretty clear from beginning to end. 

Journalists sometimes describe combat soldiers returning from the front as showing a "thousand yard stare", that is, a hollow-eyed, unfocused gaze that signifies that the infantryman has seen too much to bear.  Pabst begins his film with the four infantrymen making supper and flirting with a pretty French peasant girl -- the sexual byplay is always uncomfortably close to rape.  The men are behind the trenches on the front lines and seem cheerful, but several inserted close-ups show the distinctive "thousand yard stare" -- left to themselves, these soldiers already seem on the verge of mental breakdown and the movie hasn't even begun yet.  In particular, the Lieutenant has a haggard, cadaverous appearance that doesn't bode well -- in his first close-shot, he looks like a mad man.  There's a bombardment and the four men (the Lieutenant, the Student, the Bavarian, and Karl) return to the front.  The camera glides along them as they traverse hundreds of feet of trench, scuttling this way and that like rats, the lens watching them from a high-angle.  The earth is ripped open and, in some ways, the film could be said to be about different textures of mud and dirt and clay, all closely observed by the tracking documentary-like camera.  The trench is shelled by friendly fire and the Bavarian and Karl find themselves trapped in a black pit, shoring up the collapsing roof with their carbines and helmets -- they can't breathe and collapse, buried alive, but the Student and the Lieutenant root them out of their muddy grave.  The Student, who is in love with the French girl, volunteers to run back to the headquarters to stop the friendly fire bombardment of their trenches. (A German shepherd dog has been previously dispatched and killed by a shell.)  The Student makes it through the cannonade to HQ and the shelling stops.  He enjoys a romantic interlude with the French girl, interrupted, however, by an MP announcing that all front-line deserters are going to be shot.  Rejoining his comrades, the Student goes back to the Front where there is more desultory fighting. 

Normally, in films like this the Home Front scenes are just an interruption in the action and filmed in perfunctory fashion.  The strength of Westfront 1918 is that it applies itself equally to the Home Front and, in fact, uses some of the same film techniques in those sequences.  Karl makes it to his home in Berlin.  A long line of women and, apparently, crippled men stands outside of a grocery.  A woman who has just learned of her son's death loiters disconsolate near the head of the line.  The others in the queue ruthlessly demand that she go to back of the line and the camera tracks relentlessly with her as she stumbles past the ragged people queued-up for food.  Karl's mother sees her son walking down the street (he has purchased provisions in Belgium) but she can't leave the line to greet him for fear of losing her place.  Karl goes to his apartment and finds his wife in bed with a "butcher's boy" who has brought her what looks like a small rotisserie chicken -- everyone is starving and the women are exchanging sex for food.  Karl threatens to kill the butcher's boy who's appalled and terrified face is indelible -- it's a tiny role, but the actor playing the part is so effective that you will remember his face long after the move ends.  (I saw this film about twenty years ago and still remember the guilty, shocked look of the butcher's boy as he stands near a window that he couldn't scramble out of, Karl demanding that he "kiss" his wife at gunpoint.)  The butcher's boy has been drafted and we know what awaits him and the man is clearly transfixed by a state of mortal terror.  Karl is exhausted. At the queue, Karl's mother learns that the food is all sold-out for the day and she has waited for hours for nothing.  She goes to Karl's apartment, grasps the situation, and tries to make excuses for the weeping wife (all of this is nearly unbearable to watch) and, then, tells her to make up the bed for the tired soldier.   The next morning, Karl departs; crying on the landing, the girl asks:  "Not one kind word for me?"  Karl goes back to the trenches with the news that the Home Front is worse than the Front Line -- everyone is starving, social norms have broken down, and it's every man for himself.  At least, on the Front there's camaraderie.  The Student has been killed and his rotting body is sunk in a water-filled shell crater.  There's a raid and, then, attacks and counter-attacks.  Dying men are stuck between the lines and howl for days before they go silent.  The killing continues, this time involving tanks and wafting clouds of gas, and, at last, Karl and the Bavarian are shot.  The Lieutenant goes completely mad and is dragged from the pile of corpses where he is standing and saluting, shrieking like a banshee.  The movie ends in the worst of all places, a field hospital in a church where Christ's head lies atop a pile of rubble, and the surgeons are, themselves, half-crazed with exhaustion -- the anesthesia runs out and fragments are men, still living are hauled on stretchers here and there:  people are screaming that they have been blinded or have lost their legs.  Karl dies recalling that he left his child-wife in Berlin without speaking "a kind word" to her.  The Bavarian, who is gut shot, dies.  A French soldier dying next to him reaches out his hand to the dead man, clasps his fingers, and says that they are "not enemies."  This is powerful stuff and Pabst has the tact to pull most of it off.

Pabst films the battle scenes, which account for 2/3rds of the picture, as pure chaos.  The battlefield looks lonely -- little groups of isolated men scrambling about while shells explode around them.  The shells create fountains of mud and dirt but we don't see any burst of fire, just a pillar of flying dirt and, then, a pall of smoke.  There is no front line or rear to the fighting -- the peril comes from all directions:  you can be killed from the front or the back.  The French attacks seem to be enfilades -- men suddenly swarming right or left across the screen.  There are no bravura sequences involving hundreds of men -- rather, we see shots recorded from a static camera, many of them very long in duration, with the troops crawling and diving back and forth across the screen.  Everyone seems to carry about a dozen hand-grenades and there are whole attacks that involve people throwing grenades which burst with little unprepossessing puffs of white smoke.  In many scenes, you can't tell the French from the Germans and everyone is covered in thick, caked mud.  Pabst shot the battle scenes at Kuestin on a wealthy family's estate -- the head of the family was a right-wing Nationalist and a financier of the so-called Black Reichswehr (that is, the covert German army in training notwithstanding peace accords that had demilitarized the country.)   Pabst gathered sixty or so extras and said that they were a paramilitary undertaking training on the estate and, under this guise, the film was made. 

The film is not without defects.  It has a long sequence showing a kind of morale-building musical revue performed for the front-line troops.  This sequence is clearly intended as a exhibition of the new sound technology that Pabst has brought to the screen.  In effect, it's a musical interlude complete with erotic dancing, corny jokes, and two costumed clowns playing exuberant solos on matching xylophones -- it's weird, even verging on the uncanny, but to a modern viewer who is not intrigued by the sound film technology, the sequence with lasts eight minutes (and feels like a quarter hour) doesn't improve the film.  But the picture is so powerful, it overcomes these kinds of defects. (The Supplements on the Criterion disk are minimally helpful -- there's a long 1969 French TV show in which a group of WW I vets, both  German and French, watch the movie and, then, respond to phone inquiries from viewers -- it's utterly bizarre and the dignified old men almost get into a fist fight over which army had the best artillery at Verdun:  viewers ask idiotic questions, basically attempting to ascribe blame for the War.  "How many people died in the War?" someone asks.  No one really knows.  The old men were front-line combatants not historians:  one guy answers the question, at length, with no answer at all.)