Saturday, August 31, 2013

World's End

In a garden city suburb to London, a zigzag hike between 12 pubs forms a course called "The Golden Mile." Five middle-aged men meet on an October weekend with the intent of completing "the Golden Mile" by having a pint in each tavern, ending in the titular "World's End" public house. Along the way, the buddies discover that suburb is a "penetration point" for technocratic aliens who have systematically replaced the residents of the village with regiments of robots. The robots are equipped with LEGO-swivel necks and joints that come apart readily in hand-to-hand combat, spraying bright blue fluid all over the landscape and they are lethally murderous when ordered to hunt down the human interlopers in their city. "World's End" is the third of three parodies directed by the Englishman, Edgar Wright, and starring the gifted British comedian, Simon Pegg -- the other offerings in the trilogy are "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz". "World's End" is cleverly written and reasonably entertaining. The film is effectively acted and, surprisingly, poignant -- an important aspect of the movie is a lament for a lost youth that the rather hapless blokes are attempting to recapture in their epic pub crawl. The characters are engaging and the general conceit sufficiently interesting to, perhaps, not require the increasingly frantic, and tedious, combat and special effects that comprise the second half of the picture. The movie would have been better without the hordes of dead-eyed, artificially young and handsome simulacrams chasing the heroes, monsters that were better, and more frightening, in their parent film(s), the two versions of "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers." But, without the apocalyptic narrative, the movie could not have been financed and some of the bar-fights with the robot army are undeniably exciting, and so, there's no point in wishing for a film that was not made. As it is, the plausible dialogue and moments of drama, generally melancholy at the inexorable ravages that time makes in the most fierce of the "party-hearty" lads, are gifts to the audience in the midst of all the smash-em-up mayhem. And only a British film would climax with something like a rowdy debate in the House of Commons in which the surviving heroes argue for human disorderliness and anarchy in the face of a world that is increasingly ordered by franchise restaurants, political correctness, and the tyranny of the smart phone. "Shaun of the Dead" is better and "World's End" closely resembles its predecessor, even reprising a rather dizzying reversal in the movie's "Mad Max"-style coda, but this last film in the trilogy, with its rather obvious allegory (maturity and habit make robots of its all), is more emotionally effective -- something is at stake in this movie that was not wagered in the earlier films in the series.

The Mystery of the Wax Museum

This 1933 Warner Brothers film was made to compete with the famous cycle of horror films produced at Universal Studios and the picture, often stunningly beautiful, is a fascinating oddity. Michael Curtiz directed and the film was shot in technicolor. I'm not certain if the film-stock has faded or if the original colors were the subtle, muted pastels that the picture now displays -- in any event, the movie's palette is remarkable: peach flesh-tones highlighting cavernous turquoise-lavendar spaces sometimes decorated with arabesques of raw orange flame. The plot is familiar: a mad artist has developed a process for making exact replicas of human beings in wax. He has fallen in love with one of his creations, a wax mannequin representing Marie Antoinette. The sculptor's partner burns down the wax museum for insurance money, horribly disfiguring the artist. A few years later, in New York City, a new wax museum is opened and the corpses of beautiful women begin to mysteriously vanish...You can pretty much fill in the blanks from this summary. After a spectacular opening sequences, the fire in the museum with the wax figures wilting in the flames, the movie cuts to Manhattan on New Year's Eve with a mob of drunk celebrants crowding around an ambulance transporting the white-shrouded body of socialite who has committed suicide. The steely greys and blues of night sequence, the white cocoon of the corpse, and the contrast between orgiastic festivities and the conveyance of the dead woman to the morgue all create a powerful impression, heightened by the sudden appearance of a mutilated figure in the morque, shadows lengthened like a giant spider, who steals the corpse. The picture is a strange combination of Grand Guignol and screwball comedy. A tough-talking, plucky girl reporter sets her teeth in the story about the missing corps and won't let go of her scoop despite the skepticism of her boss. She speaks in a staccato lingo of wise-cracks and one-liners. The girl played by Glenda Farrell comes equipped with scream-queen Fay Wray as her best friend and roommate. Miss Wray, of course, ends up stripped naked and fettered to a surgical table like Maria in Lang's "Metropolis" about to be dipped in molten wax. The tragic villain is played by Lionel Atwill and his robust, perfect good looks are, of course, too good to be true. Glenda Farrell's character, alluding, I think to modern art and Picasso, notes that the monster's face is "like some kind of African mask" -- a cubist collage of keloid scars carved in old mahogany. The movie is short, efficiently constructed, and contains several sequences that are very beautiful -- in one, a guileless (and helpless) girl descends through a series of dream-like basements beneath basements, the warm rose tints of her flesh moving like a torch through bluish-green voids, a geometry of struts and metal arches as if under the belly of a vast steel bridge. The elaborate sets are cantilevered, graced with sweeping stairways that spiral sensuously down toward pinkish vats of bubbling wax. In one scene, a corpse suddenly sits up and moans loudly: the morgue attendant laughs: "It's the embalming fluid, makes 'em jump." Roaring through traffic with a playboy millionaire, the girl cub reporter flirts with the rich man behind the wheel. He says: "I've only known you for 24 hours and, already, I'm in love with you." She replies: "Normally, it doesn't take that long." See this movie if you can.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Touchez pas au Grisbi (Don't Touch the Loot)

About thirty minutes before the final shoot-out in Jacques Becker's 1954 "Touchez pas au Grisbi," this gangster film seems to stall-out. A strange, immobile, curiously detailed lassitude becalms the narrative. Details pile-up, but nothing happens. An elderly, if handsome, gangster, Max, played by Jean Gabin, has retreated to his elegantly appointed, secret hideway -- it's a Parisian apartment with a garage underneath where Max has hidden eight bars of gold bullion hijacked from a plane at Orly. Max has come there with his dim-witted friend, Riton. Riton has fallen hard for a much younger woman, a showgirl named Josy (Jeanne Moreau) and Max wants to warn his old friend that the dame is a fatal snare -- she is also sharing her favors with a much younger and more vicious mobster played by Lino Ventura. Max and Ricon share a snack of pate spread on biscuits -- we see Gabin open the terrine after unsealing it, break the biscuits and, using a knife, carefully anoint the biscuits with the pate. Then, Gabin goes to a well-stocked closet, gets towels and pajamas for himself and his buddy. Amazingly enough, Becker shows us both men in their freshly starched pajamas brushing their teeth, one after another, in the same neat and clean bathroom. The tone is fussy, pedantic, maternal. Although Gabin is a killer and professional criminal, he is strangely feminine, like an old lady with a stiff, constipated gait -- he's like your favorite Aunt, always fussing about your well-being and making sure that you have enough to eat. The point of this episode is to show Gabin's solicitude and concern for his less competent, more unruly and passionate buddy, Riton. (In some ways, the relationship seems to prefigure the quasi-maternal bond between Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keital, with the same fatal consequences, in Scorsese's "Mean Streets".) Becker's film is classically constructed, built around an old and powerful conceit -- two mismatched men are loyal to one another to the death. Betrayed by Josy, Riton is held for ransom by other mobsters and Max has to exchange his loot to redeem his friend. Dames can come and go, but the real love story in this film is between Max and Riton. The movie rotates around two hang-outs -- a strip-tease place called Pierrot's where the world-weary Max barely glances at the naked girls on display and a cafe run by an old gun-moll that serves fish-stew and roast beef. Becker's mise-en-scene is weirdly detailed, fastidious, and persnickety -- he uses three shots to show a car turning around, idly surveys people as they amble down corridors and dark streets,and shows lots of doors opening and closing. The film's style is equivalent to Max's hovering over Riton and his unrelenting loyalty to his stupid friend; all t's are crossed and all i's dotted. The film's closely observed, over-detailed and prosaic technique pays-off in the big fire-fight at the film's climax, a battle conducted with Thompson machine guns and hand grenades that is a spectacularly vivid and effective action sequence. After all the mayhem, Max, ever elegant and suave, goes to lunch with his aristocratic mistress. Over soup, he learns that Riton has died of his gunshot wounds, intelligence that he receives with a vaguely rueful frown that only briefly animates his big, immobile face. Some of the details are very funny: an elderly money-launderer's girlfriend who struts around in slinky skin-tight garments at work, is later shown pensively listening to the old man on the telephone. She's just got out of the old man's bed and wears chaste, boyhish pajamas. A minor thug is dragged into a basement to be tortured. The torture turns out to be unnecessary and the gangsters dump him out of their sedan in a remote part of Paris. Chagrined, and, a little miffed, it seems, at not having been appropriately roughed-up, the kid kicks at the pavement with frustration. This is an excellent film.

Friday, August 23, 2013

James Turrell at the Guggenheim

With very few exceptions, purely abstract art leaves me cold. As implied, the problem is relational. I can't establish much of a connection with these works. Such art begins from a position of radical weakness -- it eschews imagery to which we naturally respond. As human beings, we necessarily relate to images of other people or environments inhabited (either actually or potentially) by people. Even a still life of flowers or fruit posits a connection between the viewer and the image -- objects are offered, as it were, to the prehensile grasp of the eye. By contrast, much abstract art is rebarbative -- I can't figure where I stand in relation to it. But this is not always the case. James Turrell's astonishing "Aten Reign" at the Guggenheim Museum is wholly abstract and, yet, offers an aesthetic experience that seems to dwarf most other encounters with art, abstract or otherwise. People are hushed in the presence of this installation. They fling themselves on mats on the floor to experience the art work's vast scope, an emanation of light proceeding mysteriously from the great vault of the museum overhead. It is the kind of experience that brings tears to your eyes, that makes your knees tremble, that takes your breath away: an encounter with the numinous that seems to alter your posture and your stance and that inclines you to change your life. Somehow, Turrell has repurposed the rotunda of Frank Lloyd Wright's famoust spiral museum into a series of luminous ellipses, seemingly suspended at some indefinite height above the floor. The ellipses alternatively seem to recede or advance -- sometimes, the concentric rings of light overhead appear as a void; in other manifestations, the elliptical zones of light seem heaped on top of one another, projecting downward like an inverted ziggurat suspended above the floor. Turrell has contoured the concentric ramps of the Guggenheim into a series of scrim-covered cones and cunningly lit the fabric by hidden LED devices. The nested ellipses modulate through the spectrum, sometimes, stunningly blue like the night-sky, then, imperceptibly, the lapis lazuli darkness fades into roseate dawn,then, pink, orange, and yellow, various tints of indigo and turquoise -- the effect is that of the vast revolution of light through its various passions and humors, radiance that perpetually cahnges although you can never exactly catch it in the act of changing. Color saturates the rotunda and the crowd of people, prostrate like worshipers, is suffused with the luminous glow pouring down from above, the light in the rotunda vibrating overhead in great elliptical rings rising up to the hazy oculus at the top of the museum. At certain points in the color-cycle, it seems that there is no colored lighting at all -- in some ways, these are the most eerie and awe-inspiring moments manifested by the installation: an icy, glacial light fills the atrium -- it is like the glowing void that precedes creation. On the strength of this colossal and stupendous installation, the visitor rushes upward, ascending the concrete coil of ramps anxious to see other works by Turrell. The first few galleries, still suffused with the awe imparted by "Aten Reign" contain images that are similarly impressive and moving -- constructions of light projected into right-angle corners, so-called "cross corner projections" that create ghostly cubes and fissues of white radiance that can be read either as negative or positive forms. Turrell seems to have studied the phenomenon of cross corner projection and prepared a series of completely abstract, geometric studies of light illumining corners, big enigmatic prints called the "First Light" series that are also very beautiful. The show's last installation is something called "Iltar" -- you have to wait for forty minutes to enter a small dark room where two tungsten lamps are mounted on opposing side walls. Between the tungsten lamps, there is a dark rectangle on the wall that the viewer faces -- this space beyond the tungsten lamps, between the viewer's position and the rectangular field on the wall facing the viewer is what Turrell calls a "sensing space," that is, a zone where the spectator is supposed to perceive the dimensions and character of the dimly illuminated and empty territory between your eyes and the wall. Turrell writes that "Light is treated in most art as revealing something. In my art, light itself is the revelation" -- and the point of "Iltar" is to see and experience light as a Ding-an-sich. But, in this case, the emperor has no clothes and the theoretical armature, mystical as it is, yields a puny experience -- "Iltar" is pretty much nothing more than a dark room with some greyish and dim light on the side-walls. The experience of "Aten Reign" is so overwhelming that viewers gladly queue-up and wait interminably on the humid and stuffy museum ramp for an experience that is distinctly, and painfully, underwhelming. I'm not sure how I would have reacted to "Iltar" if I had happened upon the installation on my own, alone, and had a chance to experience the space for five or six minutes by myself -- in other words, perhaps, there is something there that I didn't perceive. But with expectations ratcheted-up astronomically by "Aten Reign" in the rotunda, "Iltar" is immensely disappointing. Turrell has been working near Flagstaff, Arizona for three decades, laboriously re-contouring the landscape of an extinct volcano to create a series of celestial viewing rooms -- I assume that this project, probably some kind of grandiose and magnificent failure, is something that will require a trip to the deserts of New Mexico if, and when, the work is completed. (But, probably, the labor will end only when Turrell dies.)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Top of his Head

Peter Mettler's unsuccessful "The Top of his Head" is ambitious, mysterious, and, often, very beautiful. But this 1989 Canadian art film is also a complete mess -- too many ideas thrown together almost randomly on the screen in mash-up with acting so ludicrously awful that it is unintentionally comical. A Toronto man named Gus Victor works selling discs for satellite TV. One night, he is stalled at a railroad track, falls asleep, and, when he awakes, he isn't (as they say) in Kansas any more. Some nasty thugs dog him for reasons that are never explained. He tracks an enigmatic woman, Lucy, who seems to be an avant-garde artist -- in the promising opening scene, she fakes labor pains and, then, pretends to give birth to a monkey wearing dapper head-gear. (The headgear turns out to be some kind of apparatus for measuring the simian's brain waves.) During Victor's wanderings, he encounters a dying woman documenting her last months by taking photographs of things that she finds beautiful. Victor rambles around in the woods, is threatened and, even, mildly tortured by the bad guys, operatives of some sort of secret government agency. At the movie's climax, Victor enters a performance space where men are slinging speakers lit with bright spotlights in circles while dancers writhe and wriggle in alcoves and Lucy intones music that sounds a little like Meredith Monk. This performance imagery is startling and holds the viewer's attention but the film, as a whole, amounts to nothing at all. And it's inexplicably, nightmarishly boring -- all the dialogue is hushed and cryptic and to call the acting wooden is to give it too much credit: no one seems to know what the film is about and the characters mouth their lines with amateurish and misguided intensity. All of this is intercut with pictures showing satellites carooming through space, gorgeous landscapes, sinister looking city skylines and weird industrial deserts. The thugs are notably ill-conceived; the scenes involving their interrogations of Victor and Lucy are like outtakes from the episodes featuring Dennis Hopper in "Blue Velvet". But, unlike that film, there's not really a trace of humor in this picture. I saw this movie when I was dead-tired, slept through many scenes, and prayed for the thing to reach its end. The performance piece involving speaker feedback and the wonderfully Copernican spectacle of the lights mounted on the speakers orbiting around the statuesque men flinging them in circles seems is wonderful enough -- but this is only a two or three minute sequence in the movie and, from a narrative perspective, wholly inexplicable.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Weir

The ghosts that disturb us the most are born of isolation, despair, frustrated longings and hopelessness. The ghost that stands at your bedside at three a.m. is a mutilated memory gesturing with a grotesque significance that only you can fully grasp. In the great ghost stories by Henry James, particularly "The Jolly Corner", we sense that every ghost represents a murder, but the murder of some aspect of the self. These themes resonate with Conor McPherson's disturbing, but oddly bracing play, "The Weir." In a small village in picturesque Ireland -- in season, the place is primarily haunted by foreign tourists scornfully called "the Germans" -- a couple of bachelor drunks are boozing in a pub. With the proprietor, they discuss a married friend, Finbar, who seems to have taken an interest in a Dublin divorcee recently moved into a cottage that he rents. Someone has written that most plays follow an archetype that can be characterized as "a stranger comes to town" and this describes, in general form, the scheme of the work. With the young woman, Finbar, who runs a hotel that competes, more or less, with the pub, arrives at the bar and everyone gets a little bit drunk. Outside it is suitably dark and windy and, ultimately, the men begin exchanging ghost stories. We expect the young woman to remain merely an auditor, but, in fact, she tells the most horrific of the tales, a story that is genuinely and deeply unsettling, involving a ghost a bit like the apparition imagined in the first chapters of Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights." Notwithstanding its dire content, and the play revolves around the death by accident of a young child, "The Weir" is very funny and eloquent -- the Irishmen exchange a variety of colorful insults and the language is always vivid and gripping. The play is not so much concerned with ghostly events as it is about the effects of experiencing a haunting, how an encounter of this kind lingers in the memory and comes to serve, perhaps, as a sort of symbol for a blighted existence. In many respects, the play suggests Chekhov and is similarly wise, I think, and rueful. In the face of the great and lonely dark, we have only one another, the little semblance of a community in the tavern buffetted by wind. And, indeed, the play ends on a mildly positive note -- one of the men remembers an act of kindness that "fortified him" many years before and offers that kindness to the griefstricken young woman. Very little actually happens in "The Weir" and there is no twist, no surprising revelation. But, perhaps, for these reasons, the play is excellent and memorable. (I saw this show in a very forthright and superbly acted revival -- the piece was written in the late nineties -- at the Irish Repertory Theater on west 22nd Street in New York City on Friday, August 16, 2014.)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sleep No More

Manhattan, of course, is insular. In more ways than one. Within the closed community of Manhattan theater-goers and cultural mavins, the site-specific theater piece, "Sleep No More" has garnered many awards and critical accolades. For the inhabitants of the happy isle, "Sleep No more" seems unique, even avant garde (if that term means anything today -- and it doesn't). For those of us who have wasted hours watching cheap reality-TV shows like "TAPS International Ghost Hunters" or the even more tawdry "Ghost Adventures" with the foul-mouthed Zach Baggins, the Chef Gordon Ramsey of paranormal investigators, there's nothing too remarkable about "Sleep No More." In fact, all the hoary elements of the TV paranormal spook show are embodied in this theater-piece -- there are the dark corridors, the detritus of abandoned lunatic asylums and operating theaters, vacant boiler rooms and ghastly looking industrial debris, morose religious imagery draped in cobwebs and battered almost beyond recognition, the sad dormitories of ruined hospitals and flophouses. Your ticket, for a paltry $105 buys you entrance to a five-floors of environments constructed according to the set design requirements of reality-TV paranormal investigation shows, complete with pale spooks, some of them naked, that dart about performing eerie automaton-like gestures in the near-complete darkness while ominous music batters the ear. These are "residual haunts" to use the terminology of paranormal TV shows -- ghosts that simply repeat the same mechanical gestures over and over again. If you are in a certain mood, and have had enough to drink (the staff at the place relentlessly urge to you buy "absinthe" shots), I suppose this would be amusing enough, but the show is too high-brow to be much fun and, except for the nudity, refuses to deliver the quotidian shocks that are available at a thousand Halloween "haunted house" environments operated as local fundraisers (Austin's is run by the Jaycees) every October. I blush to say this but "Sleep No More" -- a mash-up of Macbeth as interpreted through John Huston's "The Maltese Falcon" would do better with a few leering maniacs in hockey-goalie masks, a couple of gallons of entrails, and some chainsaws: you would hope that the price of the admission would buy at least this. Briefly, here's how it works: you buy your ticket on-line and hike to a isolated neighborhood on the edge of the gallery district in Manhattan's Chelsea -- the area is old warehouses slowly being gentrified, a block to the east of the High Line. The McKittrick Hotel, where the action occurs, isn't well-marked but a black-suited guy will meet you at the door, scan your ID, and, then, direct through a bewildering pitch-black maze to a bar that is set up like something imagined by David Lynch, a womb of red-velvet where the staff hectors you to buy over-priced shots of hard alcohol. You are given a punched playing card and when your suit or number is called, an usher takes you into a freight elevator, issues some directives, and bids you cover your face in a hard plastic mask, similar to those warn by the perverse celebrants at the orgy in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. A little drunk, disoriented by booze, and your peripheral vision severely impaired, you are expelled into the black maze in groups of about ten. Then, you're on your own to explore the inky-dark, smelly labyrinth. Mostly the place is deserted except for other spectators staggering through the tiny dark corridors and often unpleasantly colliding. The maze contains innumerable small alcoves and niches with morbid displays -- lots of ancient typewriters with tear-soaked texts in them, shops were taxidermists have run riot, cases full of bird skulls and dangling eggs on strings (a reference I think to the murderer who calls Macduff's unfortunate son an "egg" before killing him.) Sometimes, you encounter the actors and actresses --there seem to be about six to eight of them: Lady Macbeth strips naked then pounds her fists wildly at plexi-glass cage, her hunky husband, also nude, takes a bath, someone gets smothered, an insane tailor (I kid you not) "knits up the raveled sleeve of care"; we get to tour Birnam Wood complete with a taxidermied wolf and one floor contains a ballroom where dancers cavort in the darkness; another floor is fantastically complex and the lighting, which is faint to none keeps changing so that the same room looks different each time you enter it -- a genuinely unsettling and confusing trick. Bernard Hermann's score from "Vertigo" pours faux-Mahler all over everything and dark figures wander around at the periphery of your vision lit by blue spotlights that are too bright to look into but too dim to give you any illumination. The effect is generally spoiled by the onlookers in their white masks. Whenever Lady Macbeth moves -- and she darts here and there in the maze -- she has a mob of voyeurs chasing her, a crowd trotting down the black passageways, art-hounds who don't want to miss any of the action (such as it is) and who feel, I suppose, that they've paid for the privilege of seeing her do whatever she's going to do -- perhaps peel off her shirt again -- and would feel cheated if she eluded them. (Once I figured out how this show works, I fled from Lady Macbeth -- every time she appeared with her herd of followers, I went the other direction, fearful that I'd be trampled underfoot.) It's disconcerting to see a single wraith hunted down by a mob of spectators and more than a bit ludicrous. This is the opposite of Brecht -- no "Verfremdungseffekt" here -- rather total sweaty immersion in the experience with no time, or occasion, to reflect on the spectacle at all. A rip-off in my view, I think the show is probably worth 35 dollars; that's what I would pay -- probably about what you have to shell-out for a reasonably scary haunted hayride or Halloween house. The show has some impressive effects and there is one truly frightening trick: the ushers have misled you as to the location of the bar from which the exploration emanates -- you think that you will encounter the bar at the base of the five-stories of labyrinth, but when you reach the cellar, there's no tavern, nothing, just darkness, and, then, a tiny passage leads you up a flight of cement stairs into the back of the Manderlay Bar where the whole thing began. Someone you have bypassed floor one and ended up inexplicably in the basement. I spent about 1 hour and 20 minutes in the maze which wss plenty as far as I could determine. On the way out, it's also scary -- a girl peddles programs and won't let you escape from the place without enduring her sales-pitch.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


Although undeniably thrilling, Neil Blomkamp’s science fiction thriller, Elysium, is a little bit of a cheat. The film doesn’t exactly deliver the incendiary goods that it promises. But, for most of its length, the picture is a well-paced, exciting, if a somewhat sentimental action film with plenty of evil villains and impressive combat scenes.
Elysium’s premise invokes a volatile combination of hot-button political issues: drone warfare intersects with anti-immigration policy and the bad guys are “homeland security.” All of this occurs in the improbable context of an allegory about universal health care. About a hundred years from now, Romney’s 47 percent who don’t pay taxes and won’t take responsibility for their lives has expanded to inherit the earth. The planet is a vast, nightmarish landfill, an endless cement-block and tar paper Gaza Strip teeming with feral unemployed mobs. Huge factories belching toxic fumes produce robo-cops built to pacify the impoverished multitudes in these colossal favelas. The wealthy bosses have emigrated to a space-station called Elysium where they enjoy uber-universal health-care in the form of machines that can magically cure all human ailments – at one point, one of these devices (they look like tanning beds) rebuilds the face of a bad guy who has “swallowed a grenade,” fixing a smoking eyeless hole in about 45 seconds. The best thing about the film is Elysium, an impeccably landscaped suburb with golf courses, fountains, and water features occupying the inside ring of the great hooped space station – this is the ultimate gated community and the images of this place are enormously impressive, particularly when the perspective shifts to show how the centrifugal force of the spinning station pastes the McMansions and country club grounds against the side of the immense rotating ring. Jodie Foster, speaking in a bizarre accent that sounds dubbed, is the evil Dick Cheney, the dominatrix Secretary of Defense, of Elysium. She specializes in blasting rickety space-barges full of desperate illegal aliens out of the air. Foster seems contemptuous of the Sci-Fi space-opera material in which she is trapped and her over-acting is grotesque but she makes a suitably vicious villain.
Matt Damon is a hapless factory worker, an ex-con, of course, with highly developed combat skills. Damon’s character is exposed to some kind of radiation that will kill him in five days, but, as thriller convention would have it, without any side-effects that might impair his ability to fight, run, leap and dash around all the while firing rocket-propelled grenades at his enemies. Damon ends up carting his girlfriend’s daughter to Elysium in order to cure her leukemia and the film is operatically sentimental about his heroic character, the nurse that once loved him, and the poor, sick little waif. There is subplot about “re-booting’ the space station to allow universal health care for all the planet’s “huddled sick and poor” and much spectacular violence. After setting-up the plot, the film becomes a violent chase. From an action standpoint, the movie climaxes in a spectacular fire-fight on what seems to be an airport runway about half-way through the picture. After that sequence, the movie gets increasingly loud and absurd. People are suited-up as cyborgs in bionic gear (gorily inserted into them with lots of surgical close-ups) and a great deal of giant robot fisticuffs ensues – much of this action is derivative and unsatisfying.
The film’s structure and design is familiar – the movie essentially recapitulates many plot and design elements of Fritz Lang’s great Metropolis. The German director’s gleaming skyscraper city with its teeming worker barracks buried deep below alabaster towers and sparkling athletic facilities is functionally identical to Elysium spinning through space above the desolate, polluted garbage heap where its laborers swarm like so many insects. Films of this sort, made by very rich and privileged directors, often have an incongruously revolutionary theme – this phenomenon dates back to Griffith’s French revolution melodrama Orphans of the Storm in 1921. Class warfare of the most obvious and brutal sort animates these films and are their raison d’etre. Metropolis reaches its titanic climax when the mob of workers rises from the underground, attacks the skyscraper city in an orgy of destruction led by a seductively demonic robot-witch – all this happening while a flood threatens to drown their children in caverns far below. Elysium is designed to deliver a similar climax: we anticipate the workers trapped on the barrios of the rotting Earth will attack the space-station, run amuck in its gardens and mansions, and savage its inhabitants. We have been prepared for this by several early scenes showing illegal immigrants crash-landing on the space-station and attacked by Elysium’s security guards. But Elysium runs out of money, or loses its nerve, the apocalyptic assault on the space-station never occurs. With a stroke on the keyboard, everyone becomes nice; fraternity overcomes socio-economic distinctions and the life-dispensing bio-stations offering eternal disease-free life are sent to Earth so that everyone can be treated what ails them. The film doesn’t exactly end with the handshake between labor and management that concludes Metropolis, but it’s close.
Notwithstanding my reservations, Elysium is well-made and exciting, a summer action film that I can recommend.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Berlin Alexanderplatz (I)

I’m not certain how to approach Fassbinder’s 16 hour plus adaptation of Alfred Doeblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, a TV series shown in 1982 and comprised of ninety minute episodes. Persistence and fortitude will be my watchwords, and, I suppose, a simple episode-by-episode consideration of this Himalayan enterprise is best – step by step and the summit is ultimately achieved.
 "The Punishment Begins" (1) – Franz Biberkopf, a burly, sweaty fellow who looks somewhat like an unhealthy walrus, is released from Tegel Prison. After a couple of exterior shots, the film retreats into a series of brownish-amber interiors, generally shadowy and tightly constrained. From one cell, Biberkopf has been liberated into a series of cells. The night-time shots on the street are clearly studio images and they have some of sooty, gloomy glamour of film noir. The interiors, the color of flat beer, are inhabited by sexually voracious women. The opening episode has something of the eerie quality of a Kafka novel. All the women, reasonably attractive if a little worn-looking, seem to desire the hero and are ready and willing to have sex with him, an enterprise that he accomplishes with some violence –‘it’s my way,” he tells one lady after he has provoked squeals of pain and injured her intimately in some way. Curiously, the women seem to regard Biberkopf, who doesn’t look much like a matinee idol, as a kind of chick-magnet, someone like Frank Sinatra (and, I suppose, in fairness, I should note that Frank Sinatra didn’t look like a matinee idol either.) The acting is broadly expressionistic, but effective, the people emoting something like the brutish characters in early Brecht, A Man is a Man or Baal. Most of the first episode details Biberkopf’s romantic adventures: he mauls a prostitute, rapes the sister of the woman that he beat to death (this is why he was in jail for four years), and, then, initiates a relationship with a Polish prostitute. Voice-over narration sometimes supplies the thoughts of the characters, invariably not particularly informative, and, periodically, we hear a pedantic, pseudo-scientific discourse – presumably imitating the dry sociological and mechanistic voice of the novelist Biberkopf alternates between rage, grim despair, and wild elation. He repeatedly sings “The Watch on the Rhine” and resolves that he will “go straight.” All of this happens in a warren of dimly lit enclosures humid with sexual intimidation. Needless to say, the prospects for poor Biberkopf don’t seem too promising.
 "How is one to live if one doesn’t want to die" (2) – With more than 600,000 others, Biberkopf is unemployed. His girlfriend, Polish Lina, suggests turning a few tricks for cash, a proposal that the bearish Biberkopf indignantly rejects. The camera rotates around the couple’s small pile of coins. Money, and how to get it, is central to this episode – and, indeed, central to most of Fassbinder’s picture. For a few days, Biberkopf tries to hawk some sort of tie-tack on the congested Berlin streets. This doesn’t work and so he is deputized to sell pornography by a vendor in the squalid colonnades of the subway. Lina is violently opposed to pornography, particularly of the gay variety, and returns the stroke-books to the subterranean vendor – most of this episode seems to take place underground. With their last pennies, Lina and Biberkopf go to a cavernous beerhall where the meet a Nazi. He hires Biberkopf to sell a National Socialist newspaper, Der Volkischer Beobachter, and Franz is fitted-out with a natty swastika armband. He debates politics with a Jewish hotdog vendor and, then, at his favorite tavern, gets threatened by some Communist thugs – he stares them down singing his favorite tune, The Watch on the Rhine. Fassbinder’s characters suffer whiplash changes in emotion – they menace one another and, then, sink into beery embraces. Biberkopf bites Polish Lina’s throat like a vampire and everything takes place in what seem to be vaults buried far underground, chambers oozing murky yellowish light, gloomy corridors, streets like cisterns. From time to time, interpolated narration seems to slow the action to molasses – a torrent of swiftly pronounced words flowing against an image of figures threatening one another in the murk.
 "A Hammerblow to the Head can injure the Soul" (3) – Franz Biberkopf abandons his job selling Nazi newspapers. Lina and Biberkopf visit Lina’s aunt, the sinister Herr Lueders, played by the impeccably noisome Hark Bohm. (Bohm looks like a haggard Peter Lorre). Lueders, also unemployed for two years, immediately recognizes that Biberkopf has done time in Tegel. He agrees that Franz can sell shoelaces door-to-door for him – at least, it’s a job. Biberkopf, continuing his improbable career as a ladies’ man, meets a lonely widow. The widow says that Franz reminds Biberkopf of her husband and, when Franz puts his paw on her shoulder, has sex with him and pays 10 marks to boot. Biberkopf boasts of the adventure to Lueders with whom he shares half of the loot. Lueders goes to the unfortunate widow’s house the next day and importunes her for sex. When she rejects him, Lueders threatens and robs her. Biberkopf runs into another old girlfriend – these hefty German criminals have lots of luck with the women. She’s turning tricks and, guess what? it’s Hanna Schygulla. Biberkopf goes to see the widow who is understandably enraged and won’t let him in her house. Biberkopf deserts Lina and hides in a wretched flophouse full of superannuated naked guys. Lina and her friend, Meck, a kind of Mack the Knife gangster, threaten Lueders who, then, seeks out Biberkopf. Biberkopf is going to kill the vicious Lueders but refrains, a neatly lettered Fraktur title telling us that Franz really wants to go straight but that this isn’t so easy. Biberkopf vanishes again, seemingly half-crazed, and Lina decides to take-up with Meck, the gangster. This episode, although squalid, is very interesting and the scenes between Biberkopf and the widow (as well as the chilling scene with Lueders and that woman) are intense, pathetic, even, perhaps, tragic – the poor widow is destroyed, it seems, for a moment of ill-advised yearning. Scenes of Biberkopf trying to sell shoelaces in the apartment block courtyards are similar to images of Hans Epps in Merchant of Four Seasons hawking pears in an identical setting. Fassbinder’s staging of this episode is exemplary – in one shot, he features Meck and Lina in a tavern, talking together while a man (the bar-owner) slurps soup in the foreground. Ultimately, after thirty or forty seconds of dialogue, the bar-owner looks up from his soup and provides some crucial expository dialogue; this is an example of Fassbinder’s “over-the-shoulder” shots, frequent in this film, and designed to avoid multiple camera set-ups and unnecessary expense – the trick works here and it’s even rather stylish. The series is marred by a horrible Muzak-style score, a harmonica tune that always seems to be about to resolve into the Civil War era ballad, Lorena – “the years creep slowly by Lorena” – a melody much-beloved by John Ford. Fassbinder’s complete identification with Biberkopf gives this film an unsettling power.
 "A Handful of People in the Depths of Silence" (4) – This nasty episode of Berlin Alexanderplatz is a narrative black hole, a dull and hopeless hiatus that sucks the film’s little light into its dark core. Biberkopf is trying to drink himself to death in the company of an enabler named Baumann, a fellow who looks exactly like Raymond Massey’s version of Abe Lincoln. Biberkopf is lodging in a filthy apartment above a conveniently located tavern run by Frau Greiner. She and her unemployed husband are small-time criminals, apparently, specializing in some kind of insurance fraud. When not pouring beer down his gullet in his room, Biberkopf wanders the streets accosting people and babbling to them visions of collapsing houses and streets full of rubble – the apocalyptic imagery is similar to Ludwig Meidner’s expressionistic images of a collapsing city painted just before World War Two. Maintaining that he is Ehrlich und Treu (“honest and loyal”), Biberkopf staggers around hallucinating. Sometimes, he plays some kind of card game with Baumann, accusing his friend of being “Satan” to his “Job.” Baumann obligingly cleans up huge sprays of vomit in Biberkopf’s room; his motives are completely opaque – he insists that Biberkopf can be saved only by himself, a mantra repeated by Biberkopf himself when Eva (Hanna Schygulla) shows up, scrambling through mountains of beer bottles and offers to help our hero. The entire episode is scored to vaguely atonal caterwauling, the score of an opera proceeding uninterruptedly as Biberkopf crawls around in empty bottles or trudges up and down the stairs lugging crates of beer. In the end, the sickness is sweated-out of Biberkopf and he returns to the newspaper vendor in the subway near Alexanderplatz. Construction is underway and the news vendor has lost a testicle to cancer. Biberkopf finds his friend, the criminal Meck, now selling men’s clothing and the two embrace in front of a poster on which the name Carl v. Ossietzky appears. (Ossietzky was the Edward Snowden of Weimar Germany. In 1929, Ossietzky published secret government information about German rearmament. Unlike Snowden, he didn’t flee Germany, was arrested, convicted and sent to a concentration camp. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1935 and died in 1936. The more things change, the more they stay the same – Ossietzky’s family petitioned for a re-trial in 1992 to clear the dead man’s name. The German Court ruled that the Weimar-era conviction should be upheld – state secrets are state secrets and it’s disloyal to broadcast them to the world at large; the conviction was warranted under 1931 law.)
 "A Reaper with the Power of the Lord" (5) – Biberkopf was, apparently, once a successful pimp. The basis for his unerring seductive powers remains obscure to me. In this episode, he functions as a girlfriend disposal system for Reinhold, an even more homely and morose-looking fellow, also improbably successful with women. Reinhold meets women, seduces them, and, then, after three or four weeks can’t stand the sight of them. (Reinhold’s problems may arise from some strangled religious impulse – he takes Biberkopf to a Salvation Army meeting, ashamed as if he were bringing his friend to an opium den.) Reinhold sends the women as messengers to Biberkopf who, then, entices them into sex with him. When the unfortunate woman returns to Reinhold, she finds that he has booted her out, her suitcase is on the sidewalk, and she is forced to take up lodging with Biberkopf. When Reinhold tires of his new conquest, he contacts Biberkopf who devises some method for expelling his current girlfriend so that he can take possession of his friend’s most recently discarded paramour. We see this heartless scheme enacted with Fraense, a plump and hardworking matron, and Cilly, a decayed socialite said to look “like a film star”. The women are not particularly attractive and, apparently, completely fungible, although they are spunky, and protest ineffectually – our sympathies are entirely with them and this episode is spectacularly loathsome. Biberkopf even casts his rejects off to his employer the elderly newspaper vendor who inhabits the moist and dim subway like a rat. In one spectacular scene, we see Cilly dancing a Charleston. Biberkopf dances himself, grinning, and, suddenly, for an instant, I think, we glimpse what excites the women about him – despite his monumental size and gorilla-like build, Biberkopf is tremendously light and agile on his feet – he is a fantastic dancer and a look of sheer boyish abandon illuminates his coarse features. Throughout this episode, the soundtrack reverts to the nasty Muzak from earlier episodes but with a long interpolation of atonal piano underscoring the seduction and rejection scenes, an irritant, an itch that you can’t scratch, something like the piano ceaselessly sounding three or four dull notes in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.

In Another Country

It is perverse to make the comparison, perhaps, but, in significant ways, Hong Sangsoo's "In Another Country" resembles a brighter, more cheerful version of Leos Carax' "Holy Motors". Both films are about the hegemony of fiction and the fact that existence is a patchwork of narratives, structured on banal and conventional film situations, a virtual reality stitched together from the leftovers of old movies and sitcoms. Truth, or, even, the concept of truth is nowhere to be found -- everything is invention. Sangsoo makes these points without the metaphysical (and literal) gloom suffusing "Holy Motors." "In Another Country" has no laborious huffing and puffing and is light, funny, and evanescent. At a bleak, deserted resort village, a place called Mahong, a mother and daughter are hiding-out from bill collectors. The women have somehow assumed a debt owed by an aunt and they are afraid that payment of this obligation will ruin them. (I assume that this Yakuza-styled frame-story, to which the movie never returns, is some sort of allegory about the state of South Korea's economy or film industry, but who knows?) To soothe her nerves, the twenty-something girl decides to write a screenplay. She produces three short tales, all reshuffling certain elements that would appeal to a nice, polite, well-brought-up Korean girl -- there is a handsome lifeguard, a mysterious and beautiful French woman, a jealous pregnant wife, and some Koreans on holilday. In the first narrative, the French woman (played in all episodes by Isabelle Huppert) is a film director. Everyone speaks English, but mostly very badly and there are a number of comical misunderstandings -- the Korean men all lust after the French visitor but she rebuffs them. It rains, there is a barbecue, the Frenchwoman looks unsuccessfully for a small lighthouse, and people get drunk on some local firewater called Soju. In the second episode, the Huppert plays a woman married to a Korean auto executive. She has come to Mahong on the bay of this cold, grey ocean for a liaison with her Korean film industry lover -- he seems to stand her up, and, if he arrives at all, it is very late. In her fantasy, the French woman slaps her boyfriend several times but acts as if this is some kind of automaton-like gesture. There is a barbecue, people get drunk on Soju, walk in the rain, the heroine visits a small, nondescript lighthouse and a zany lifeguard who offers an erotic alternative to the film-maker. In the third episode, the French visitor has been recently, and unhappily divorced from her Korean husband. She meets with a Buddhist monk to discuss her feelings, goes to a barbecue, gets drunk, walks in the rain and looks for a lighthouse, and, finally, makes love to the lifeguard in his little tent pitched outside the public toilets on the beach -- thus, it seems, realizing the Korean girl screenwriter's fantasy underlying all three stories. The film demonstrates that a mildly interesting plot can be constructed from six or seven elements that can, then, be reshuffled into different patterns. There are some continuities between the stories -- an umbrella hidden in one episode is found in a later story and a Soju bottle cast aside on the beach and, apparently, broken in the last episode almost cuts someone's feet in the first story. The film is pleasant, curiously funny, charming, and the merest of bagatelles. Cinema is not a mature art until a major film-maker can use a major international star to make something that is intentionally insignificant, a puzzle that aims to be merely amusing.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Clear History

A "Seinfeld" episode, with commercials deducted, was about 21 minutes long. Those shows always felt three-to-five minutes short, just slightly breathless, but, of course, leaving the viewer with an appetite for more. When "Seinfeld" expanded to an hour on special occasions -- for instance, the series final show -- the program was less successful. The viewer had more time to contemplate the rickety, if ingenious, structure of coincidences and collisions comprising the plot and the show's essential cynicism, it's famous meanspiritedness, became too overt and monotonous -- venom is best taken in small doses. "Clear History," a 2013 HBO film, is a Larry David vehicle that lasts about 100 minutes and, therefore, requires narrative strategies different from those used in "Seinfeld" or "Curb your Enthusiasm." The film is neither fish nor fowl and resembles some of Woody Allen's less successful movies -- it combines Larry David's characteristic abrasive comedy with a reasonably well-designed narrative that is fundamentally serious. Larry David plays an advertising executive who gets into a pointless fight with his boss (Jon Hamm) over naming an electric automobile. In a fit of picque, David's character (Nathan Flomm) quits the company just as it becomes fantastically successful. He is derided in the press and by late night TV comics as the man who threw away one billion dollars. Flomm retreats to Martha's Vineyard where he hides out for ten years. Then, the industrialist builds a huge mansion on the Vineyard, a sort of parody of Jim Gates' house in Washington, and Flomm plots his revenge, colluding with some zany locals to blow the place up. The plot has some interesting twists and turns and the narrative is structured around a concert by the geriatric band Chicago that is scheduled for the the island. (Chicago's music provides the soundtrack for the film and it is a shame that the concert, an event that has an organizing status in the movie equivalent to the hurricane in Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" isn't more integral to the story.) Ultimately, the film's tenor is rather sentimental; the movie turns out to be about mortality and forgiveness and the community of people living on the island, would-be hermits who have nevertheless formed strong connections to one another -- a group of unpretentious people as remote as possible from the Beverly Hills types populating "Curb Your Enthusiasm" -- turns out to be the film's moral center. David undercuts the picture's pervasive nastiness -- there is a endlessly reiterated (unfunny) joke about David's ex-girlfriend "blowing" the band members of Chicago -- with the rather sweet and poignant story of the auto executive's search for Flomm so that he can pay him what is owed. (There is also a subplot about the mansion actually being a residential home for children with cancer -- but the movie "chickens out" with respect to that narrative thread and this part of the story goes nowhere; "Curb your Enthusiasm" would have been bolder in developing this aspect of the plot.) Unlike Woody Allen in some of his films, David is realistic about this limitations as a romantic lead. He thinks he can seduce Hamm's beautiful wife but when he kisses her, she spits at him with contempt. The movies has a ridiculously accomplished cast: Danny McBride, Eva Mendes, Philip Baker Hall, Bill Hader and Michael Keaton. But these luminaries are mostly wasted -- they underplay their parts to let Larry David shine and so their presence in the picture engenders a vague sense of disappointment. In fact, disappointment is probably a reasonable reaction to the film as a whole. Larry David's schtick as a hyper-sensitive and belligerent New York Jew navigating, or failing to navigate, the treacherous terrain of phony Hollywood "nice" doesn't really fit with most of this picture in which the local people are legitimately kind, forgiving, and well-meaning. The film is an interesting experiment, a transitional picture it seems, and mildly amusing. The central image in the film is two vehicles on a one-lane dirt path, neither willing to yield to the other -- this metaphor describes David's relationship to others and, perhaps, the film is autobiographical in some sense. Didn't David depart from "Seinfeld" just at the peak of its success?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Maya -- Hidden Worlds Revealed

Huge, but not particularly compelling, this exhibition fills four or five spacious rooms at the Science Museum in St. Paul. Since early childhood, I have had mixed feelings about Science Museum. When I was seven, and the museum was located in a cavernous mansion near the capitol building, a noteworthy and eerie example of Richardsonian Romanesque, visits to the place filled me with apprehension, and, even, horror -- somewhere in the gloomy labyrinth there was a grinning mummy that frightened me. Later, the museum was translated to a building downtown that always seemed to me excessively airy, bright, and cheerful. I seem to recall a great steel iguana at the front entry to that place. Now located on the bluff overlooking Harriet Island, the museum is primarily vertical, a series of cantilevered terraces overhanging a chasm usually filled with shrieking schoolchildren -- this incarnation of the museum is unpleasantly similar to an upscale suburban shopping mall. The Maya exhibition is vexed with the same irritating flaw afflicting the collections-at-large: it's unclear as to whom the exhibits are geared. The presentation of objects is gimmicky -- involving lots of pseudo-high-tech interaction with the exhibits: there are touch-screens, buttons that direct light to various locations in dioramas, electronic Q & A kiosks, mechanical levers that let you scroll through various labels or tug, twist and pull at things. All of this somewhat threadbare wizardry seems designed for precocious sugar-wired nine year olds whose Ritalin hasn't yet slowed them down. But the labels and texts are pedantic, paragraphs of dull, superficial prose that seem to have been written by the political correctness committee of the local DFL. The viewer is swamped by information that is dim-witted, edifying in the most obvious way, and sub-literate -- the prose style resembles a political tract written by a group of well-meanng, suburban High School girls. This approach is completely inimical to the astonishingly savage and sadistic Maya. An early panel, draped with turgid prose, demonstrates the problem: the image is a (poorly made) cast of a famous Yaxchilan stela: a Mayan noblewoman kneels before her Lord and is drawing an abrasive cord liberally spiked with thorns through her tongue; she is depositing her blood on a codex that she will burn to summon a centipede-shaped vision serpent. The image is so astounding that people couldn't quite believe what they were seeing until about thirty years ago when the bas-relief was, more or less, decoded. This exhibit appears in the first room of the show with a long and dull text. The text tells the viewer about the type of textile employed in the woman's huipil but doesn't explain what she is doing with the cord garnished with fish-hook shaped thorns. An amazing, and characteristic, example of Mayan religious practice is reduced to a discourse on women's crafts in the Yucatan. (In fairness to the show, I should note that the image mysteriously re-occurs later in the exhibit in the very last room with a reproduction of the accompanying stela showing the apparition of the vision-serpent. Here the image is explained, although in a boring manner, but by this time, most viewers are so besotted with poorly written text that the people touring the show that I observed paid little or no attention to this jaw-dropping example of Mayan art). The show commences with a nice little slide presentation, something that would have been impressive in 1974 (and typical of the presentations in tertiary level historical national monuments), providing some sense of Mayan mythology. However, the principal objective of the slideshow seems to be to demonstrate the continuity between modern-day Mayan culture and the high civilization that existed in tropical forests between 200 and 800 AD. This is an interesting topic but one that is limited -- of course, there is some ethnic continuity between the modern people living in this area and the ancient civilization; it's about the same continuity that exists between me and my Teutonic forebears squatting in smoky huts in the Black Forest circa 600 A.D. But the Mayan civilization has been defunct for 1200 years and the differences between the Yucatan peasants today and the highly sophisticated, if feral, Lords of the Forest during the classical period is more interesting than any purported similarities. What happened to the high culture? Why did it simply melt away? This is the mystery of the Maya, an issue that the show confuses by focusing on ethnic continuities in the region. (And the show suggests that the modern-day Maya were instrumental in decoding the glyphs on their monuments -- so far as I know this is a complete fiction: I think the main work was done by a Russian linguist, Yuri Knorosev, Tatiana Proskouriakoff and the formidable Linda Schele at the University of Texas.) The exhibit manages to render confusing and unnecessarily arcane the Mayan's great triumph -- their calendar system and astronomical observations. There are some gimmicky mock-ups of burials to suggest how artifacts were found, a number of fantastically gorgeous painted pots (almost all of them from the Peabody Museum collection)and some monumental casts of Mayan stela that are fascinating to view but, paradoxically, in this ocean of text, under-explained. In the final room, we are provided some full-scale replicas of the extraordinary, but now horribly disfigured, murals at Bonampak and there is an excellent talking-head video showing Mary Miller, the world's greatest expert on the images, discussing the art work in appropriately rhapsodic terms. The murals, however, have been censored to not reproduce in any visible manner the absolutely horrific and beautiful (the figures are sinuous and contorted like Michelangelo's late "Slaves") sacrifice scenes from that mural or the terrifyng Uccello-like battle scene. Furthermore, the full-scale reproductions of the Bonampak mural are copies of the Hurst computer graphics reconstructing the now-invisible pictures decomposing in the Chiapas jungle -- the colors in those images are dull and commercial and completely lack the thrilling and complexly translucent pigments that the Mayan craftsmen used. (The impression that you get is that Mayan artists had the same color sense as a commercial sign-painter -- a complete falsification of the mural. Hurst's colors are generated for clarity of reproduction and only approximate and they make sense in the context of the recuperative Bonampak documentation project. But at full-scale in the museum those colors are hideous.) You walk out of the exhibition assured that the Mayans were sort of like us -- that is, good and liberal Democrats. But, of course, the philosophical thrill that you feel when reading a good account of the Maya is that they were nothing like us -- that they represented an entirely different paradigm of what it meant to be human. And this otherness is obscured by the hectoring and tendentious tone of the ubiquitous text that comprises this show.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Colorado Territory (Film-study note)

Colorado Territory

"The bad movies we made twenty years ago are now regarded in altogether too many circles as important aspects of what the new illiterates want to believe is the only significant art form of the twentieth century. An entire generation has been brought up to admire the product of that era. Like so many dinosaur droppings, the old Hollywood films have petrified into something rich, strange, numinous-golden. For any survivor of the Writer’s Table (at the MGM commissary), it is astonishing to find young directors like Bertolucci, Bogdanovich, Truffaut, reverently repeating, or echoing, or paying homage to the sort of kitsch we created first-time around with a good deal of “help” from our producers, and, practically none at all from the directors – if one may quickly set aside the myth of the director as auteur. Golden age movies were the work of producer(s) and writer(s)..."
Gore Vidal “The Ashes of Hollywood” – May 17 and May 31, 1973
New York Review of Books

“(Walsh) never walshes out, but stays inside a disingenuous scriopt, accepts the inflexible requirement of at least three big stars acting out a measly story, also the stable of boisterous, bathetic Irish Soul bit players...who appear the same debilitating way every Walsh picture, and the all-purpose Warners backlot, like Nervi trying to reach the sky, with mysterious, all-white, slanted abutments that could be a brewery, Nazi munitions factory, chemical plant, or a penitentiary wall... why did up this “great action director” whose enormous progeny includes such clunkers as Saskatchewan, Distant Trumpet, whole scenes devoted to the art of spitting and to an obscenely acted, scene-hogging drunk, whole films carbonated with ironic bawdy jokers or miserably maudlin weepers? It’s a rank understatement to say that Walsh’s personality has never been properly identified...”
Manny Farber, Raoul Walsh in Artforum, November 1971.

The Spectator Assassinated

Rauol Walsh acted in movies before he directed them. In early silent film, the boundaries between directing, craft, and acting were porous. The man who arranged lights on the set might appear as an extra or, even, mugging as a character actor in a few scene or, even, a reel or two in an early movie. Making movies involved all aspects of the business. Only the technological wizards behind the cameras were exempt from this rule – photography was arduous business and required a specialist.

In 1915, Walsh appeared as John Wilkes Booth in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Isolated by an iris effect, Walsh occupies a corner of the black screen, brooding like a fettered eagle. In a series of carefully choreographed scenes, Booth stalks Lincoln, huddles in the airless corridor outside his theater box, and, then, fires a bullet into the president’s brain. The images are stark, unforgiving, claustrophobic – there is a sense of strait-jacketed hysteria and doom played-out in tiny, dismal rooms. This sequence in Griffith’s landmark film remains powerfully vivid today, probably, the iconic representation of Lincoln’s assassination, a taut little nightmare made particularly pungent by Walsh’s Booth. Walsh is long-legged, coiled like a spring, and he brings a vivid, unsettling presence to the sequence – he looks like a cross between Edgar Alan Poe and Lord Byron. (With John Ford, Raoul Walsh is quintessentially the “man of the west”. But, in fact, his family was decayed Irish-English gentry and Walsh was born in Manhattan, learning to ride horse in Central Park.)

Walsh worked on Birth of a Nation as Griffith’s assistant director and he may have been responsible for orchestrating the assassination sequence in which he appears. Walsh had directed his first feature film The Life of General Pancho Villa in 1914. This movie was one of the most remarkable projects in film history. Walsh’s boss, Griffith negotiated a contract with Pancho Villa agreeing with the Mexican general that his cameramen would be “embedded” (to use the modern term) with Villa’s forces fighting in the field in northern Mexico. Villa agreed to conduct his battles in the daylight, during sunny weather, to accomodate the cameras and, also, contracted to allow the combat scenes to be restaged, if the actual footage wasn’t sufficient for the film maker’s purposes. Walsh was sent to Mexico to make the movie, fought alongside Villa, and appears the in the picture as the General’s kid brother. Unfortunately, this film is known only from some stills; the actual moving picture has been lost although the bizarre contract survives in a Mexican museum. (The story of this movie is told in And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself, a 2003 HBO film.) After his work on Birth of a Nation, Walsh made one of the first full-length gangster pictures, Regeneration (1915). That film can be viewed today and is extraordinary: Walsh uses a documentary-style and shoots on the Bowery using local people, some of them with indelible faces. The picture is raw and brutal and seems much more modern than the picturesque Victorian melodramas that Griffith was making at that same time.

During the next dozen years, Walsh directed many important silent films. He supervised one of the first important special effects movies, The Thief of Bagdad (1924), starring Douglas Fairbanks and Anna Mae Wong. Walsh’s 1926 version of the Maxwell Anderson play What Price Glory?, a comedy-drama about two Marines in World War One France, was probably the highest grossing of all silent pictures. The movie stars Victor McLaglen and Edwin Lowe as the rival soldiers competing for the affections of a comely French girl. The picture was briefly controversial when deaf filmgoers, trained to read lips, figured out what the two leading men were actually saying to one another in the dialogue scenes. Although the intertitles were chaste, Walsh had his soldiers talk realistically, using profanity that affronted the defenders of public morality. What Price Glory? was so successful at the box-office that it was remade many times and Walsh himself directed two sequels to the picture – The Cockeyed World (1928) and Women of the World (1931).

Sadie Thompson (1928) revived the lip reading scandal associated with What Price Glory with a vengeance. Sadie Thompson, derived from Somerset Maugham’s short story “Rain,” was controversial from the outset. The plot involved a prostitute servicing sailors on the island of Pago Pago. A clergyman attempts to reform her with predictably catastrophic results. (The story was already famous as a risque 1923 Broadway play named after the Maugham fiction. This play features in Scarface – it’s the stage show that the gangsters are watching when the Al Capone character has to leave at intermission to assassinate Boris Karloff at the bowling alley.) Gloria Swanson, Walsh’s leading lady, wrote the screenplay with the director and the picture was mostly shot on Santa Catalina island. For reports on the premiere, journalists hired deaf lip readers to scrutinize the faces of the characters as they mouthed their lines – and, of course, some scandalous dialogue was documented. (Walsh and Swanson probably inserted the obscenities as a public relations stunt.) The movie was roundly denounced by Christian groups, did boffo box office, and a good time was had by all.

Starring as the Cisco Kid, and directing himself in the film In Old Arizona (1929), Walsh sustained serious injuries that brought his acting career to an end. While driving from a location near Moab, Walsh lost his right eye when a jackrabbit lunged up from the ground and went through his car’s windshield. For the rest of his life, Walsh wore a dashing black eye-patch. (Walsh refers to this incident in High Sierra when Bogart’s character is nearly killed in a car-crash caused by a jackrabbit darting out onto the highway.)

With the advent of sound, Walsh flourished. His first important sound picture is the 1930 western, The Big Trail. It was difficult to record sound with early technology, particularly on location, and impossible to move the camera in any scene involving dialogue. Walsh decided to make the picture without moving camera, emphasizing enormous landscapes projected in a very wide aspect ratio. Although made with a huge budget, and introducing John Wayne as an actor, the film probably qualifies as a kind of experimental picture. Walsh’s strategy was to fill the vast horizontal expanses of the picture – it was shot in an early form of Cinemascope – with spectacular motion. If the camera didn’t move, the imagery shown in the wide-format image could, nonetheless, be presented in such a way as to emphasize motion – in this case, the motion of characters across the screen or zigzagging into the depths of the image. Furthermore, the panoramic vistas allowed Walsh to compose his images like great, elongated friezes with primary and secondary focal points – an image might show young lovers in the center of the screen with horsemen approaching on the left while children drive own away from the lens on the right side of the wide-screen. Walsh arranged his figures in the landscape to provide images as complex as a Brueghel image, swarms of small figure at various distances from the camera some given narrative emphasis, others appearing only to provide anecdotal or picturesque detail. Instead of using editing to create the narrative, Walsh’s big panoramas, often presented from an aerial perspective, invite the viewer to search the screen for details significant to the film’s story. The Big Trail is famous for some of its set-pieces, including awesome images of wagons being lowered down a cliff-face on ropes as well as spectacular imagery of caravans crossing broad rivers or beset by Indian attacks. John Wayne had not grown into his later stature and seems callow in the film and audience’s were confused by the film’s panoramic profusion – at times, the picture resembles some of Tintoretto’s frescos. And, although the picture is very interesting pictorially, it is unsuccessful and the dialogue seems trite and tinny, particularly in contrast with the vast and majestic landscapes displayed in the movie.

After The Big Trail, Walsh did hackwork, although of a high order. Me and My Gal (1931) is an early Spencer Tracy film, a comic gangster picture, that is one of Manny Farber’s favorites pictures – he claims it is Walsh’s best movie. Walsh languished for a few years, but, in 1939, seemed reinvigorated by a new contract with Warner Brothers. At that studio, he made some of his most famous and influential pictures. Walsh’s first picture for Warner was The Roaring Twenties, a powerful and well-written gangster movie starring Humphrey Bogart as a sadistic, psychopathic killer. Walsh and Bogart were simpatico and, in 1941, were together again in the famous crime film, High Sierra. Walsh worked with A-list actors and made a number of well-regarded action pictures in the next several years. One of his most famous pictures during this period was Operation Burma I (1945) with Errol Flynn, a very tough war film. Pursued is a film noir Western with Robert Mitchum, derided when it was first shown in 1947, but now highly regarded. This period in Walsh’s career included Colorado Territory, released in 1949 along with another signature gangster film, White Heat, starring Jimmy Cagney.

Walsh continued to churn out films, two or three a year until 1964, when his last picture, a routine cavalry against the Indians flick, A Distant Trumpet was released. He lived long enough to become celebrated as one of America’s greatest directors by the French critics who founded the New Wave. His films are said to have influenced Chabrol, Clouzot (particularly the Frenchman’s The Wages of Fear), and the ending of High Sierra provides the template for the last sequence in Godard’s Breathless.

One of the Cahiers du Cinema crowd once asked Walsh what he thought the three greatest virtues of film were. Walsh said: “Action, action, and, then, action.” The French critic responded: “Eh bien, you must be Aristotelian, because in the Poetics we learn that it is action, and not psychology, that drives drama forward.” Walsh replied: “Oh, yeah! Okay, if you say so.”

W. R. Burnett

William Riley Burnett was an American crime-writer, born with the century, who died in 1982. He is more renowned in Europe than the United States – sophisticated Europeans embraced American hard-boiled crime fiction after World War Two as an embodiment of certain themes prevalent in existentialism. Burnett was a leading muse to Hollywood directors and many well-known films were written by him or derive from his many novels and short stories.

Burnett was born in Springfield Ohio, worked as postal clerk in a small town, and wrote prolifically (and unsuccessfully) – he is said to have completed five novels and a hundred short stories all of them unpublished before he moved to Chicago in 1927. On his first night in the big city, the room in the cheap hotel where he was lodging was rocked by the roar of explosions. Local gangsters were shooting it out in the street below, pitching “pineapples” – that is, hand-grenades – at one another. Inspired by the gritty downtown milieu, Burnett wrote his first published novel, the best-selling and famous Little Caesar (1929). That book established Burnett’s connections with the film industry, a mutually profitable relationship that continued until the writer’s death.

Burnett worked on the script of the Edward G. Robinson film made from his book and, also, wrote several of the important scenes in Howard Hawks’ Scarface. His 1941 bestseller, High Sierra, was adapted for film three times, first as the Humphrey Bogart - Ida Lupino picture, released in the same year that the book wa published, then, re-tooled into a Western, Colorado Territory, and, finally, remade in the late fifties as I died a 1000 Deaths, a crime melodrama starring Shelley Winters and Jack Palance. Burnett’s The Asphalt Jungle (1949) was converted to a John Huston film in 1951 and, also, remade in several later versions, including a short-lived Tv series. Burnett’s 1932 The Beast of the City, about a corrupt and vicious cop, is widely cited as the source for Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry pictures produced in the late sixties and early seventies. Burnett is also credited with the script for The Great Escape.

Burnett continued to write anachronistic tough crime novels up to the date of his death in Santa Monica in 1982. His last book, Goodbye Chicago, published in 1981, is a memoir about his early career as a writer in the Windy City.

Farber on Walsh

A friend at Harvard told me that a retrospective of 18 movies directed by Raoul Walsh was presented early this spring at that college. The movies were shown from February to March 2013 and very fragile, but beautiful, 35 mm. prints. When the retrospective was finished, Martin Scorsese came to Harvard to retrieve the celluloid. The movies were, then, entrusted to the American Film Institute for restoration – that process will take six or seven years.

Revival of interest in the films made by Raoul Walsh dates to the early seventies. At that time, Manny Farber published an influential essay on Walsh’s films in 1991 in Artforum. Walsh, whom Farber sometimes calls “hog Walsh,” was best “(in the) sick compromising position of working inside a big studio monolith.” Somehow he contrives to make personal films within “the suffocating, man-under-a-toadstool relationship with Warners.” In his films, there is ‘no omnipotent kingpin character, but the bustling studio environment...recreated in a script that moves around a lot through room, cars, streets.” He “never fights his material, playing directly into the staleness.” Unlike his compatriots, directors that Farber characterizes as cynical, surrealistic, or patronizing – that is, superior to the Dreck they were required to produce, Walsh was a “natural, unsophisticated humanist” who “is often often alone is playing straight” with the threadbare genre material that he was contracted to produce. Walsh “wrote some scripts” (like Colorado Territory) “as bald copies of hit films he directed and probably directed entered each project with ‘Christ, it’s not bad. It reminds me of my last movie.” For Farber, Walsh was the consummate “ ostrich with his head buried deep inside the (Hollywood Studio) System,” someone who will never “crash-out” of that System and has no aspirations to do so.

Here are the characteristics that Farber locates in Walsh films:

1. A “no-shortcut style...steeped in the silent film necessity for excessive, frantic visual explication, taking nothing for granted;” Walsh is overly explicit “slyly doub(ling) and tripl(ing) every move;
2. Walsh specializes in “scrappy lower middle class wage-earners,” people who are not glamorous and “miles from the dauntless, graceful life-styles pictured in expensive, expansive dream-factory fabrications by (directors like) Cukor, Wyler, or Hitchcock”; Walsh’s films inhabit a “glum, unsunny, lower middle-class milieu...”
3. “Frenetic, boxed-in crisscrossing of paths and corrupt clamor...” – this is Farber’s account of how Walsh stages a scene;
4. Walsh does his best work in “abandoned stagnant, suspended scenes..”; famed as an action director, Farber claims Walsh is best when focusing on the inert passages between the “incredible frenzy” of his action sequences;
5. Walsh is “amazingly direct, forthright, clear, rhythmic, dedicated to folk (and a) cousin to Renoir’s Toni (and) Vigo’s L’Atlante, Brassai’s street photography with more brisk jocularity than his French counterparts...”
6. Walsh “keeps things moving,” a “great traffic cop of movies,” who “hustles actors around an intersection-like screen that is generally empty in the center;”

Farber argued that Walsh’s movies have a “double nature”– that is, they look exactly like the era in which they were made but also have “queer passages foreshadowing” the films that Farber admired in the sixties and seventies. Farber, true to his aesthetic, makes no great claims for Walsh – his work has, the critic said, “forthright crispness that occasionally vitalizes the crudest hack fiction.”

Joel McCrea and James Mitchell

Joel McCrea was a product of the Golden West. He was born in Pasadena and attended High School. As a boy, he watched Griffith filming Intolerance near his family’s home and began working in films as a wrangler, holding William S. Hart’s horse on film locations.

McCrea began his career in Westerns and ended in them, most famously appearing in Sam Peckinpah’s great autumnal film Ride the High Country with Randolph Scott. During the thirties, McCrea was a glamor boy and appeared in a number of brittle, fast-talking screwball comedies including Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travel. McCrea was a rare kind of actor – someone who seemed just as comfortable in a tuxedo or on a dance-floor as on horseback hurtling through the purple sage. As he aged, McCrea felt that he was unsuited to playing the part of a dapper romantic lead and spent the last 25 years of his career playing cowboys.

McCrea was an excellent horseman and there are many scenes in Colorado Territory that highlight this prowess – he is particularly attractive and exciting driving his beautiful horse down perilously steep and rocky slopes at breakneck speed. McCrea owned a large ranch and, in later years, said that his profession was “ranching” and that is hobby was “acting.” There is a very beautiful scene in Jacques Tourneur’s gentle Western, Stars in my Crown, in which McCrea has to mount a horse without using his hands and, then, gallop away at high speed. I have watched this scene many times because I admire McCrea’s athleticism – and it is clear that he accomplishes this feat entirely without assistance in a single take that shows him approach the animal, mount it, and ride hellbent for leather all in a single sequence shot in which his face is clearly visible.

James Mitchell plays Reno in the film. Mitchell was an extraordinary presence in the dozen or so movies he made in the late forties and early fifties – he is also very good in Tourneur’s Stars in my Crown. Mitchell was a famous dancer and worked with Agnes DeMille in many important pieces of choreography that she devised immediately after World War Two. Mitchell was highly athletic and he was renowned for his effortless “lifts”. He was exceptionally intelligent and strangely beautiful – there is always something unsettling about him in the films in which he appears. Most Hollywood director’s didn’t know how to make use of Mitchell’s cadaverous good looks and by the mid-fifties his screen career was over. (He later surfaced in a character role in All my Children on TV and was much beloved in that part.)

Mitchell was homosexual and there is always a faint tingle implied in his interaction with other men in the films of his that I have seen. In particular, Mitchell as Reno seems to be part of a perverse menage a trois when we first meet him at Todos Santos. It is suggested, covertly but, I think with some insistence, that Reno is competing with Colorado for Duke’s affections. Certainly, the scene in which a drunken Reno pursues Duke through the ruined village suggests something like a lover’s quarrel.

Place Names and terms of Art

Colorado Territory takes place in the Four Corners region. The film was shot at Gallup, New Mexico, on the border with Arizona, about sixty miles south of the place where Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico intersect. In fact, although the location information for the film specifies Gallup, I think that the canyon sequences were filmed in nearby Arizona at Canyon de Chelly – I have been to that place and the canyon where the climax occurs looks very much like the entrance to Canyon de Chelly with its characteristic wind-polished faces of soft sandstone. The so-called “City of the Moon,” the Anasazi (now “Ancestral Pueblo”) cliff-dwelling featured in the picture looks like one of the many such structures in the canyon on the Navajo reservation. (My guess is that the film crew stayed in Gallup but spent their days shooting in Canyon de Chelly nearby.) Pictographs of horses on the wall of the canyon seems to imitate a frieze of horses painted on a cliff face in that canyon (although not associated with the much older cliff dwellings).

Potrero, meaning “pasture” in Spanish, seems to be an imaginary place. There is a Potrero near Santa Fe, an old trading post to the Tewa Indians, but that is several hundred miles remote from the Four Corners area where the story takes place.

Aztec is a small village near Farmington, New Mexico. It is also the site of famous Anasazi ruins, a Chaco great house and outlier, now protected in Aztec Ruins National Monument. Aztec is a railroading town on Denver & Rio Grande line, a train that plays a role in the movie, although the actual railroad footage was shot on the Durango to Silverton narrow-gage right-of-way.

Medicine Hat is a very pretty town in Alberta, Canada, a genteel place where you expect the cowboys to take an afternoon break for English tea and crumpets. Obviously, that place has nothing to do with the movie. However, “Mexican Hat” is another village in south Utah in the Four Corners area – in fact, the gateway to Monument Valley, the location where John Ford shot many of his Westerns and, also, close to the Four Corners. Perhaps, the town mentioned is intended to be Mexican Hat.

Wes McQueen is called a “Big Jay.” This means a “Big Jayhawk” – that is, an outlaw from the Jayhawk state, Kansas. Clay County, Missouri, where the film begins, is immediately north of Kansas City on the border with Kansas. Clay County is the birthplace of the James gang, the home of Frank and Jesse James, as well as other infamous outlaws – the County’s violent history derives from its location as a staging place for “Jayhawker” guerilla raids from the slave state of Missouri into “bleeding Kansas” just before the Civil War. In labor parlance, a “scissorbill” is a “a foolish and contemptible person” – someone, according to the I. W. W. “Wobblies” too stupid to join a union. (I would think that using this term in 1949 in a Hollywood screenplay could get the writer “blacklisted.” My surmise is that Walsh was so right-wing that no one would have noticed this incendiary phrase in one of his pictures.)

Branded to the Bone

Colorado Territory is an unusual combination of stale, formulaic Western movie imagery and a densely wrought, intensely poetic narrative. Like many directors rooted in the silent films, Walsh viewed film assignments with equanimity. He understood that Hollywood pictures are only incidentally artistic and, necessarily, compromised by commercial necessity. Aspects of a film that don’t interest Walsh are usually given shortshrift – that is, directed in a brisk perfunctory way that allows the director to efficiently advance into elements of the movie that do interest him. Walsh, like all of the Hollywood directors that Farber admires, is a termite – he doesn’t direct self-conscious masterpieces that are coherent works of art. Instead, he proceeds through the hackneyed material provided to him, placing personal emphasis on the features of the narrative that fascinate him. This is evident in the sequence involving the raid on the stagecoach early in the film. Walsh doesn’t bother to make the interior space of the stagecoach match its exterior. Since this episode in the film bores him – I assume he didn’t want to compete with Ford’s Stagecoach – he simply cuts the wagon set in two and directs the characters to look vaguely toward the camera to simulate an exterior off-screen space. Although the episode is competently constructed, it is notably lackluster and the exteriors don’t really match the shots interior to the stagecoach. Similarly, Walsh doesn’t have much interest in Wes McQueen’s tentative courtship of the Southern belle transported to the New Mexico desert – those scenes are efficiently staged but don’t have any “sizzle” – there is no sense of the director’s personal involvement in that part of the plot.

Other elements of the picture confirm Farber’s observations about Walsh. It’s amusing to observe that someone spits within the first five minutes of the film – a sort of signature in Walsh pictures. The movie abounds with signposts and texts – it is as if Walsh doesn’t trust pictures to tell a story and requires that the narrative be presented both visually and in words. This is laughably apparent in a shot early in the picture: after Wes McQueen has escaped from the Clay County jail, we see a boy frantically ringing a bell that is marked with a sign to this effect: “To be rung only as an alarm.” Of course, the audience grasps immediately why the bell is being tolled and it is peculiar that Walsh provides a text to label an image that is pictorially clear and explicit. (The signpost does serve, however, to highlight the tolling of the bell – thus, signifying the importance of images of bells ringing throughout the film.)

Walsh’s fondness for overly explicit “signs” is also apparent in his treatment of Colorado, the dance-hall girl in the film. This character is an example of Walsh’s skill in establishing a stereotyped character and, then, developing that conventional figure into a something substantial, unexpected, and, even, profound. Colorado, first seen squatting to wash her hair at Todos Santos, is an improbable and emblematic figure, a walking-talking cliche: the “soiled dove,” the fiery, half-squaw, the dusky, disreputable maiden with glistening lips, a wild mane of blonde hair, and features sooty with some sort of make-up supposed to (unrealistically) depict her as something other than a clean and sober Caucasian woman. The character flounces around in a ridiculous get-up, showing just a trace of cleavage, blouse taut over the bosom, with one shoulder always picturesquely bare. It’s bargain-basement imagery of most threadbare kind and racist to boot. But Walsh’s use of this stereotype is anything but exploitative – in fact, Colorado turns out to be the film’s heroine, dying in a blaze of gunfire defending her lover, the film’s fierce and incorruptible heart – she is the “mountain woman” from Griffith’s Intolerance transported from Babylon to Colorado, the free spirit of the great, empty West By contrast, Walsh uses similar stereotyping with respect to Colorado’s foil, the conventional “good woman” at the Rancho del Sol. We see her as the soul of domesticity, an embodiment of Victorian morality, and, as the movie progresses, as depraved and vicious as most of the other characters inhabiting the picture. Walsh similarly works against type, establishing a character as a broad caricature, and, then, deepening that portrait and reversing its fundamental colors in the case of several of the minor roles in the film – the brutal testosterone-crazed sadist, Duke is hunted “like a rabbit” by the effeminate Reno; the rancher from the old South, the figure of a loquacious, foolish, cowardly Easterner turns out to be courageous and generous. Walsh’s most startling reversal of conventions is the short, throw-away scene with the treacherous conductor’s wife – she looks like a solid, virtuous Hausfrau sweeping her porch, but gloats about her husband’s betrayal of the robbers and her share of the reward proceeds from the apprehension of the robbers.

Westerns are constructed from cliches – this is the nature of a genre film. (In fact, Farber seems to have thought that all Hollywood studio films are necessarily contrived from stereotyped and formulaic situations acted by generic types – that is, the loyal old man, the brute, the gangster, the gun moll, the good girl.) Walsh’s strength is that he betrays the cliches and turns his stock characters inside out. Colorado Territory is compelling because the entire structure of the film is based upon betrayal – nothing is what it seems to be and all of the people in the film, with the possible exception of the hero, are radically different from how they initially appear in the picture. Appearances are deceptive. This thesis is made clear in the very first scene in the film – the sweet old lady is, in fact, in league with the outlaws and acts to “bust out” McQueen from Missouri hoosegow. Walsh’s direction in the film enacts this theme of betrayal – he establishes a convention only to violate it. Film, constructed from the appearances of things, is used to call into question appearances. The mild and well-watered landscape of Missouri conceals the skeletal ribs and vertebral boulders of Death Canyon, the desolate terrain surveyed by the moving camera under the titles to the film.

What interests Walsh in Colorado Territory is the poetry of doom, the Teutonic glamor associated with bad luck and a worse fate. McQueen is a “marked man” – he is, in the film’s uniquely poetic diction, “branded to the bone.” In the picture’s demotic verse, he is bound for:
the prettiest bone orchard you ever seen
stone angels watchin’ on.
The film’s action pivots between three ruined or ruinous sites: the cliff-dweller City of the Moon, Rancho del Sol, the hardscrabble farm far from any potable water (it’s boundaries marked by the skull of a sunstruck cow), and Todos Santos. This emblematic locations import into the film a lyrical and mythic cosmography – the characters oscillate between the sun (the solar ranch), the moon (the cliff-dwelling) and Todos Santos, the Catholic “communion of Saints” – that is the community of the Dead. The terrain linking these desolate locations is the canyon of Death, stony parapets and sandy wasteland. Todos Santos, the robber’s roost, is the most blasted of these places, a town that has been thrice-destroyed: once by savages, once by pestilence, and, finally, by an earthquake that has left its evidence in all of the collapsing walls and smashed adobe brick in the village – we can see that everything is precariously supported, shorn-up by timber beams. One of the characters warns McQueen about the ghosts of the dead Indians haunting the place’s kiva.

The characters in the film long to “bust out” of this death-haunted desert but there is no place for them to go. The canyons are all dead ends. The tolling bells that ring throughout the film are funereal – ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. An alarm bell is rung at the film’s outset, announcing McQueen’s escape into the wasteland and his ultimate destination -- death. An Indian woman rings a dinner bell at the coach station, everyone eerily oblivious to the fact that the arrival of the stagecoach has cost seven men their lives. (Impassive Indians serve as emblems of death in the film.) The priest rings the damaged bell at Todos Santos alarming the robbers and, of course, at the end of the film that bell tolls again – although this time attracting a congregation of poor Mexican and Indian worshipers, a communion of Saints that are, probably, living, but may, in fact, be ghosts.

An expert on Raoul Walsh, Tom Conley, a famous professor at Harvard, introduced a retrospective of Walsh pictures at the Harvard Film Archive early this spring. Conley has a brilliant eye and sees things in Walsh films invisible to others. (You may recall that we discussed Professor Conley’s essay on Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street several years ago.) Products of what Conley calls “ a rapacious industry of pleasure,” themes of greed and betrayal in Walsh pictures “prompt... viewers to look at the critical underside” of the Hollwood dream factory. Discussing the climax of Colorado Territory, Conley observes: Colorado Territory, the law is hell-bent to get (McQueen), cornered high in the remains of a pre-Columbian culture nestled in the mountain, in a black hole – that the camera marks clearly as a rectum. They’ll get him “from behind.” Which the entitled scoundrels indeed do, but in a last flurry, wounded, having descended the slope, the hero and heroine meet and fire their six guns directly at us, who in the penultimate shot become one with the posse that levels them in a barrage of bullets (a scene clearly modeling the end of Bonnie and Clyde). At that moment, when we wish that the couple would murder the agents of the law, the film implicitly turns on the industry of capital that produced it.
An interesting feature of the City of the Moon is that there is no “back entry.” McQueen’s calamitous final shoot-out is precipitated by his erroneous belief that there is another way to enter the canyon from behind him. Someone “busting out” must breach a confining wall. As in High Sierra, the film progresses from a literal wall surrounding the protagonist to a vision in which the landscapes of the world, the freedom of the West, become all wall without any outlet. The spectral character of the Moon is that it has no backside – we see only the face of the moon, it is all “front” as far as we are concerned. At least, Mount Whitney where the hero of High Sierra dies has another face, something beyond the crest of the mountain; the City of the Moon is all facade – it’s backside is, in fact, unimaginable; hence, the sense of claustrophobic doom at the climax of Colorado Territory.

Walsh, as Farber notes, “doubles and triples” actions to underline their significance. The picture’s theme of betrayal is sounded again and again in all possible registers. Reno taunts Duke about shooting McQueen in the back and, at the picture’s climax, this theme is twisted and inverted – McQueen is told that they are going to take him “from behind” when, in fact, the plan is to launch a frontal assault. Everyone is greedy. Duke would have robbed the alms box in the wrecked church had he been aware that a few pesos had been left there. His greed rhymes with the avarice of the conductor plotting for a share of the reward money, the conductor’s wife boasting about her husband’s share of the proceeds, and, ultimately, the southern belle’s immediate and instinctive impulse to sell McQueen, who loves her, to the pursuing posse. There’s no way out for anyone. We sense this when we see the haggard outlaw boss drinking himself to death in his quaint Victorian lodging: “We’re all gonna die sometime, you and me and the whole cock-eyed world,” he tells McQueen pouring himself another poisonous glass of whiskey. (Walsh made a film about another legion of death, the Marine Corps, called The Cock-eyed World – and, of course, was missing one of his eyes.) Later, the Indians outside his house sing a death song and, when McQueen enters, he finds the villainous Pluther looting the outlaw chieftain’s room, the dead boss’ hand dangling limply from the bed in which he has just died. When McQueen guns down Pluther, he slumps to the floor his arm also slack and almost touching the dead man’s arm sprawled out from beneath the sheet covering him. The eerie chant of the Indians and the corpse in the bed – these images epitomize Death Canyon, the symbolic locale where the film takes place.

This melodramatic description of the content of Colorado Territory makes the movie seem morose, morbid, and melancholy. But the genius of Raoul Walsh is that, in fact, the film is bracing, exhilarating, a popular entertainment that is surprisingly funny and, indeed, amused by the antics of its corrupt and vicious characters. And the film contains a catfight between Virginia Mayo and Dorothy Malone. Who could ask for more?

Blacks Books

Black Books -- One of the casualties of political correctness has been the character of the comical drunk. When I was a child, I recall several stand-up comedians who specialized in portraying humerous and slobbering drunks. But alcoholism is a disease, now, and, perhaps, a disability, and, therefore, the comical drunk was banished from the airwaves. (Seinfeld's Kramer seems to be a drunk without the booze.) But, apparently, this is true only on the American airwaves. In the U.K., at least, circa 2000 to 2004, in the sit-com Blacks Books, profound and debilitating alcoholism is the subject of many a merry jest. Dylan Moran plays the proprietor of a squalid used bookstore somewhere in Bloomsbury. Moran's character, Bernard Black, is a sullen, argumentative, and brilliant Irish alcoholic. He drinks continuously and vilifies his inoffensive customers for having the temerity to try to buy books from him -- in one episode, he actually pays his customers to take books off his hand so that he doesn't have to spend time chatting with them about the volumes they have selected. In an American show, built for semi-literate audiences, Bernard's continuous reading -- he always has a book in front of him -- would be a mark of intelligence, refinement, and culutre. In this show, produced, I think, for rather more sophisticated viewers, Black's reading just signifies that he is a smart, rude boor -- books don't make him a better person; instead, they are a crutch upon which to lean his anti-social personality. Black comes equipped with a zany friend, the optimistic and enterprising Manny, and a female sidekick, also alcoholic and sexually desperate, Franny, the proprietor of a neighboring shop, Nifty Gifty. The show, very funny and clever, operates generally on the Seinfeld moeel -- each character has an adventure arising from an obsession and the three plot strands are generally interwoven in an ingenious way. Black is drunk at all times, sometimes so drunk that he "goes to the toilet" in someone's wicker chair, mistaking it for commode. (His favorite dinner-party conversation involves a portrayal of "Belly Savalas" in which he sticks a popsicle in his navel and mimics the American cop.) Franny is hapless -- her dates turn out to be "arschholes" or gay. Manny gets into all sorts of wacky trouble. The show is fairly vulgar and the filth and chaos in the bookstore is convincingly portrayed, sometimes to an uncomfortable extent -- a jelly sandwich, for instance, is cemented to the ceiling and, in one episode, a starving Manny roasts three dead bees from the windowsill of the bookstore and eats them like popcorn. Trapped outside his bookstore in the pouring rain, Bernard goes into a nearby porno shop. The proprietor wants him to leave or buy something. Temporizing, Black asks the shopkeeper if he might not have something featuring "nurses." "Of course," the shopkeeper says. Black stalling for time says: "I don't like nurses who care for you. I mean something involving administrative nurses." Again, the shopkeeper says he has a video of that kind. "No, no, no," Black says. "I meant senior administrative nurses." And the shopkeeper, reaching under his counter, produces a video nasty entitled "Senior Administrative Nurses." "Sweet Jesus!" Black says, driven once more out into the storm. Someone is watching a reality show called "Pet Surprise" -- "you know, the one where the pet is taken out of his dog house, the dog house is completely remodeled with a new roof and bedding and a new drinking bowl and, then, the dog is brought back, wearing a blindfold, to be surprised by his new home." (The problem with reviewing comedy is that you tend to simply recycle gags that you liked.) This show is willing to try anything -- it has parodies, dirty jokes, complicated literary references; Fran's batlike squeaks as she masturbates are very funny and an episode in which Manny succumbs to the blandishments of a "beard fetishist" and becomes a "kept man" is hilarious. This is an excellent British sit-com, consistently funny and engaging.