Sunday, September 29, 2013

Manon Lescaut

Puccini's first box-office success, the Italian composer's 1892 "Manon Lescaut" is a strtling, even edgy, work -- an opera that deviates in a surprising way from audience expectations. Puccini specialized in martyred heroines whose suffering he depicts with sadistic relish -- consider Madame Butterfly, consumptive Mimi in "La Boheme," Florio Tosca with Scarpio or Liu, the slave-girl in "Turandot" enthusiastically volunteering for death by torture. By contrast, the eponymous Manon Lescaut seems to be a whore without a heart of gold, an opportunistic, short-sighted schemer who wreaks havoc on the principal characters in Puccini's somewhat sordid tale. (The opera is adapted from a novel by Abbe Prevost published in 1731 and geographically challenged -- Puccini follows Prevost in locating a Sahara-like desert and some mountain ranges just to the northeast of New Orleans.) Lescaut, accompaned by her brother who also serves as her pimp, entices a wealthy tax-collector in the first scene but flees the fat, elderly, mincing fop for a handsome young student. "No matter," Lescaut's pimp brother sardonically says, predicting that his fickle sister will swiftly tire of her virile, but poor, lover. Sure enough, the Second Act begins with Lescaut esconced in the lap of luxury, enjoying herself as the kept woman of the tax collector. (These scenes are beautifully staged, invoking Hogarth's "Marriage al la Mode" -- a nightmare of wigs and prancing dancing masters.) The opera moves along at a rapid clip -- we see the young lovers mooning around one another for a brief duet, but the show's main emphasis is on Lescaut's cavalier and mercenerary career as a courtesan. Sensing his sister's boredom with her fat old lover, Lescaut's brother obligingly lures the student back to his sister's boudoir where another duet ensues and the poor fellow is once again ensnared. Alas, he doesn't get to enjoy Manon's charms -- the tax collector intervenes and has Mademoiselle Lescaut arrested for stealing his jewels. (Both brother and lover implore her to flee from the rich man's palace, but she tarries, looting gem-studded necklaces and rings, thus insuring her arrest.) The lover seizes a sword and announces that he will defend Manon to the death. But when some soldiers point guns at him, the lover thinks better of his vow and, throwing the saber to the floor, stalks off sulking. In the next Act, the opera seems to come to a suitably dire end -- in a characteristically sadistic scene, Puccini shows common prostitutes, half-crazed and desperate, paraded before nasty soldiers on the way to be transported to New Orleans, at that time the end of the earth. Lescaut's lover tries to intervene and, again, fails -- this guy is completely ineffectual at everything he attempts. But he gets a job as a seaman on the fateful vessel transporting his girlfriend to French Arcadia. Here is where one senses that the opera could end. The lover has made a supreme sacrifice, the pimp brother stands disconsolate, and the proud, vicious Manon Lescaut is doomed to misery in the colonies. But Puccini appends an unsatisfactory closing act, a half-digested, incomplete-seeming coda: in the colonies, we are told by intertitles that Lescaut has stirred up more trouble with her ceaseless flirting and, after causing a duel, she and her lover, the poor student who has followed her to New Orleans, flee across the desert. In the sun-burnt dunes, Lescaut expires from inanition after warbling a series of interminable arias. The Minnesota Opera company production of this show featured somewhat soft, unsteady singing -- the lover periodically hit trumpeting high ringing tenor notes with some authority, but, generally, seemed to be fairly weak. (Like many of Puccini's operas, the soprano writing is a little cloying -- the real emphasis in the opera is on the heroic tenor who should bring a brassy, declamatory zeal to his singing; I thought that this was, more or less, lacking in this production.) The opera's libretto is weird, a mix between standard 19th century melodrama and verismo. The final act seems so disconnected from the rest of the show as to impart to the proceedings a kind of post-modern, absurdist frisson; the ending seems completely unmotivated by anything we have seen before, is not particularly symbolic in any way that I could ascertain, and so Lescaut's perishing on the "lone and level sands" of New Orleans seems arbitrary, whimsical, a kind of surrealistic gesture. The set was handsome, a huge, somewhat distorted mirror reflecting the actors and framing them as if applying Cubism to fracture handsome Watteau tableaux into disturbing fragments. A life-size armoire in Act Two capped with a grotesque torso-bust of the foppish tax collector (he wears a wig with double horned prominences)swells into a tall obelisk by the end of the act, symbolizing the acquisitive and rapacious nature of our heroine -- the armoire is packed with jewels. In the final act, fragments of the armoire litter the desert like the ruins of an smashed and ancient palace. The opera is staged with two innovations that I think praiseworthy and imaginative. First, the curtain is decorated with parchment patch about the size of house's wall -- this can be used to project the intertitles which silent-movie style are integral to explaining the strange jump cuts and time lapses in the opera. In one instance, the parchment-like patch, torn as if by a lightning strike, is used to project the titles to an important aria sung by the leading man, a pleasing Brechtian effect, I thought. Second, the director figures out a way to make the final death scene slightly less intolerable -- just when you expect and fervently hope that Manon has died, she revives (this is standard trick in Puccini) and hops implausibly to her feet, singing with renewed spirit and aplomb. The director shows that this is a kind of fantasy in the delirious mind of the sun-struck hero, Manon is probably dead and her lover is merely imagining her revival -- and as she sings her final words, the parchment patch, which has split open at its tear to admit her, slowly closes, sealing her away from her beloved, a neat image for the heroine's death.

Hands over the City

About half-way through Francesco Rosi’s spectacular, but curiously uninvolving epic, “Hands across the City,” a corrupt politician is gambling in some kind of Neapolitan casino. Everyone is gathered around a table, gesturing wildly and hurling cards down while harried dealers slide big spatulas under the hands and banknotes like cooks hauling pizza from an oven. About thirty people fill the frame, but highlighted among them is a young, hard-looking woman, apparently the politician’s mistress, holding a small, bemused-looking white dog. When the politician loses, he turns to the woman and bellows at her that she should get out of his sight and that the dog is a jinx. The woman stands up and shouts back at the politician, hurling invectives at him, while everyone else flaps their hands and strikes statuesque poses and cries out at the top of their lungs. With the exception of three or four short scenes, the entire movie follows this pattern: we see a room crowded with people, almost all of them men, and all of them shouting at one another and gesturing wildly. Someone gets the attention of the others in the room for a few seconds, delivers a florid speech, and, then, the mob on the opposite side of the chamber leap to their feet, shriek insults, and pump their fists in the air. This continues until someone in the aggrieved party gets the floor, makes a speech, concluding with a robust oratorical flourish causing the fellow’s admirers to rush to his side and congratulate him by shaking his hand. Of course, the opposition is, then, infuriated and someone else rises to make a speech on behalf of that group and so it goes. Half of the action takes placed in the Naples City Council chambers, a huge medieval room with a crucifix decorating a barren place on the wall above the Mayor’s throne. The other half of the action takes place in smaller rooms, crowded hospital wards, or conference chambers -- but the basic structure of most scenes is the same: people bellowing at each other and making loud, insulting speeches. But what is it all about? A building contractor named Edoardo Nottola (Rod Steiger) owns a company called Bellevista that is planning an immense urban renewal project. Unfortunately for Nottola, a month before the general election of city aldermen, a building that his company is demolishing collapses unexpectedly dragging down half of an adjacent tenement, killing several poor people, and maiming a little boy -- both of his legs are ultimately amputated. This catastrophe triggers a hue and cry among the excitable Neapolitans and a commission is convened to investigate the calamity. The commission is comprised of representatives of the three parties, right, center, and left (Communist), but a series of deals are struck and the investigation is derailed. A doctor, Balsalmo, seemingly a member of right-wing party, has a crisis of conscience and declares that he cant’ support Nottola who is running for political office and, apparently, seeking to be appointed building commissioner. Various other politicians make speeches and, then, form covert alliances. A coalition is necessary to govern Naples -- no one party can control the City Council. Ultimately, Nottola turns in his own son, who has been hiding after the building collapse, blaming the young man for the disaster and garnering public approval for the nobility of this gesture. (It is clear that the people who made the Cable TV series ”Boss” starring Kelsey Grammer, a show about a corrupt Chicago mayor who, at one point, arranges the arrest of his drug-addict daughter to score political points in a tightly contested election, have studied this film carefully. Many of the City Council scenes in “Boss” are orchestrated like those in “Hands over the City” and the TV show features complicated plot lines involving zoning ordinances and corrupt building contractors.) Despite the opposition of a few honest men, Nottola is elected to the City Council. His buddies on the Right and Center form a coalition to elect one of their members to be Mayor and, after some more impassioned speeches, Nottola’s big urban renewal project is approved, blessed by the Catholic Church, and, in the final scenes, huge pile-drivers begin smashing metaphorical holes in the rocky landscape high above the teeming city. Rosi is a puzzlilng director. He is a master of frenzied action and his staging of the collapse of the building is fearsomely realistic and impressive. As in his mafia film “Salvatore Giuliano,” he uses long takes and packs his images with people, all of them wrestling, more or less, with one another. Rosi could have been one of the world’s truly great action directors -- he has an eye for vibrant, violently expressive frescos and his films have a Baroque flair and look like Tintoretto paintings. But he is not really interested in action or violence -- this is merely incidental to his pictures -- and, instead, focuses on political squabbling that is confusing for non-Italians and, ultimately, a little bit boring. He’s a purist and aesthete with respect to the obviously melodramatic aspects of his plots. The narrative thread about Nottola forcing his son to turn himself in for the building collapse is handled obliquely -- we never even really see Nottola’s son and the decision is signaled by grandiose, abrasive music (it bellows like all the agitated characters) but is otherwise not dramatized. The film posits the investigation of the cause of the construction calamity as a kind of mystery or thriller directed toward unmasking a villain. Rosi’s fidelity to realism, however, results in this aspect of the film simply petering out among whiny bureaucrats and governmental inaction. Rosi is a great film maker with an extraordinarily distinctive style, but “Hands Across the City” is too repetitive and complicated to hold much appeal, I’m afraid, for most casual film goers. (On the other hand, casual filmgoers aren’t likely to be watching an obscure Italian film made in 1963 about zoning and building ordinances in Naples.)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

In the Pit

Once, in Chicago, I deposed an Irish immigrant who had worked for thirty years on construction crews that built skyscrapers. He had been badly burned in an accident and was disabled. In his testimony, the man told me that what he missed most about his lost job was “the fellowship, being one of a group of men who are going to build something really big and wonderful.” “There’s nothing like it,” the man told me. Juan Carlos Rulfo's exuberant documentary, “In the Pit,” conveys something of this sentiment: the film is about construction workers laboring on an enormous project, an elevated freeway built to girdle Mexico City. Shot between March 2003 and December 2005, the picture depicts a half-dozen men and a single woman -- she’s a night guard assigned duty setting up barricades around the construction sites -- involved in the project. Shorty and a big braggart, nicknamed El Grande, work in pits next to the roaring freeway and, later, are shown clambering around eighty feet above the traffic, dangling from huge pylons of concrete prickly with lethal-looking re-rod. Some of the aerial sequences are hair-raising -- the men hop from concrete beam to beam and use the re-rod for handholds and no one seems properly tied-off. Cyclopean wedges of concrete and girder are hauled at night over the adjacent freeways -- it’s too busy to move these vast wing-shaped piers of concrete during the day -- and, then, yanked into place by big cranes. We ride with one of the truckdrivers through the dark streets. Sometimes, motorists lose their way, crash through the barricades, and smash their vehicles. Ambulances take away the corpses and there is blood all over the gravel. The night watchwoman says that she has visions of God and the Devil wrestling over the job site and that the gargantuan construction project is the result of a Faustian bargain -- it is the Devil’s highway that the men are building and the price of work is paid in human lives. She stands among her barricades gesturing portentously at the big columns overhead. Rulfo shows us a handsome young worker who wastes his wages betting on horse-races. We see a ranch in the country where one of the men works. Some of the laborers doubt that they will ever see the project completed. Most of them are too poor to own cars -- one says he can’t even afford a bicycle -- and so none of them expect to use the elevated freeway that they are building. Somehow a man is rescued from a deep cylindrical hole (probably 60 feet deep) into which he has fallen. A car bursts into flames that are put out by dumptrucks pouring sand and dirt onto the flaming vehicle and there are astounding traffic jams. Most of the men seem to think that the project is hellish, a purgatory through which they must pass in order to earn their daily bread. The iron workers high above the freeway wave at the girls and try to get them to show their underpants through their windshields. There is talk about politics and religion and marriage -- mostly about what you would expect from construction workers. Shorty doesn’t think he will ever be married and says that he despises the institution. At the end of the film, during the closing credits, we see him going somewhere on the subway -- a tiny dapper man with a melancholy face. El Grande says that he was once a gangster and carried thick wads of 500 peso notes -- now, he seems to be a drunk and beats his wife. Nothing is explained -- we don’t really get much of sense for the sociology of the project or the anthropology of the workmen. The film is primarily visual -- fast-motion images of men crawling like ants all over the big cross-beams of concrete, traffic speeded-up to ribbons of red and amber light pouring through endless complex interchanges, clouds and storms gathering in the sky, cranes jockeying big sections of roadway into place. There’s nothing in the film that you couldn’t surmise, nothing really astounding or informative, but the sheer scale of the project is impressive and the workers are engaging, mostly merry -- although in one scene, poor little Shorty seems about to cry when his comrades bring him a birthday cake and arrange for him to be serenaded by a mariachi band. The last ten minutes of the film are a visual tour de force -- the camera glides over miles of the elevated highway, first following cars on a completed section and, then, tracking over the pylons and re-rod covered decking, jumping across areas where only the supports have been built to other sections where armies of men are sanding and finishing the road way, thousands of men laboring to pour concrete or build forms or fit the re-rod studded junctions of the big slabs of concrete together -- the camera’s motion is interminable, eerily smooth, a cast of thousands, tens of thousands, it seems, arrayed at their tasks on the endlessly linear construction site.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

It Happened One Night

Frank Capra’s popularist sensibility deepens the screwball humor in “It Happened One Night” (1934) and imparts a lyrical tone to this famous comedy starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Capra’s touch is evident in the Walker Evans’ locations, the shabby motor-courts and bus stations, the hobos on the train that Gable salutes near the end of the film. Carrying Colbert across a romantically sparkling, moon-lit river, the two characters argue about piggyback rides and Gable’s newspaperman declares: “You show me Abraham Lincoln and I’ll show you a great piggybacker of all time” -- a line that seems to prefigure Capra’s political comedies made in the latter part of the thirties. The film, the story of a runaway heiress who falls in love with a newspaper man covering her flight across the country, is gratuitously beautiful. Many of the scenes resemble Murnau or Mizoguchi -- a sexually charged scene inside a cabin a motor-court is shot in in dense chiaroscuro, the beautiful faces of the movie stars sculpted in light and shadow, features softened by rain pouring down windows, Colbert’s eyes scintillant and glowing in the gloom of the small, modest cabin. Gable’s encounter with a blackmailer in the woods is beautifully rim-lit, the figures outlined against trees and shrubs in the dark with mist rising across the swamp where the bus that they have just left is stuck in mud. The Depression-era details are vivid -- a woman faints from hunger on the bus, and, during a sing-a-long, various character-actors rise to sing, and act out the verses of “The Man on the Flying Trapeze,” -- when the bus-driver joins in the chorus a little too enthusiastically he ends up crashing the rickety vehicle. A pan across the crowded yards of a motor court early in the morning, ending on a group of women waiting for a public shower, has some of the Brueghel-like vibrancy and peasant vitality of Mizoguchi’s scenes of small medieval villages in rural Japan. Capra can’t bring himself to he critical of any of his characters -- even the rich man, a Monopoly-board tycoon, turns out to have a heart of gold. It’s impossible not to like this picture and, eighty years after it was make, the movie has lost none of its charm.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Upstream Color

Shane Carruth’s 2012 film, “Upstream Color,” is an icy exercise that resembles a David Cronenberg horror movie, minus the thrills and the melodramatic narrative. Let me pause for a moment to unpack this simile. Cronenberg’s horror movies are, themselves, heavily aestheticized, constructed on the contrast between a classically deliberate, symmetrical, and objective style and gory shocks. Carruth carries this a’pproach several steps closer to pure abstraction -- although “Upstream Color” invokes horror film conventions, the picture seems to be some kind of remote and abstract allegory, a parable about genetic determinism. Shot elliptically, using an editing style that confounds interpretation, Carruth’s film is designed as two parallel stories that periodically intersect, although in baffling ways. Some sinister scientists, operating from a suburban home, grow larvae in the roots of orchids. The larvae are harvested and, when dissected, seem to contain kernels or cells of vivid blue color. A young woman is abducted from a bar and one of the worms is forced tinto her mouth. The worm acts to transform the woman into a zombie so that one of the scientists or cult-members (or whatever they are) can steal from the worm-victim all of her assets and, even, cause her to mortgage her home. (This part of the film is unconvincing and Carruth pretty much drops all references to the thefts perpetrated on the woman as the movie progresses.) The woman soon develops alarming symptoms and worms start squirming through her flesh, burrowing through her pale epithelium. She tries to extract the worms with a butcher knife, wounds herself badly, and ends up on an operating table. Through some kind of sinister process, the worms are removed from her body and injected into a baby pig. The pig represents the parallel plot (or, if not a plot, the parallel situation), an allegory involving animal husbandry. An evil farmer, qua mad scientist, is raising mutant pigs. In his spare time, he collects odd sound effects -- an aspect of the film that is totally opaque. The mad farmer is breeding the larva-infested mutant pigs for unknown reasons -- although when he harvests two piglets, traps them in a burlap bag, and, then, pitches the animals into a stream, the effect is to engender spectacularly blue orchids -- the orchids spring from some kind of biological agent released when the dead pigs' decompose in the creek. Whether the creation of these blue orchids is intended or accidental is unclear. The young woman wakes from her zombie state in her car parked on the edge of a freeway. She meets a young man who falls in love with her -- this is also inexplicable since she does nothing but sulk and brood. The young man is apparently a larva-infected mutant himself and he tries to breed with the woman, although she is barren as a result of the removal of “inner organs,” apparently a hysterectomy accomplished when she was in a coma due to the worms wriggling in her innards. The man and woman somehow learn that they are mutants created by the evil sound engineer/swineherd, go to the man’s farm and shoot him. Then, the lovers free the piglets and, even, embrace them. A horde of similar mutants converge on the farm and its pigs --- they are summoned to the place by receiving copies of Thoreau’s “Walden” in the mail, a peculiar plot point that seems derived from ”The Manchurian Candidate” (ordinary folk turning into brainwashed automatons when they receive a post-hypnotic cue). It is hard to determine how much of the plot is paranoid delirium, a fantasy of either the young man or young woman, or intended to be real -- the whole film is dreamlike, shot in huge close-ups, and filled with images of pulsating, worm-infested inner organs. As far as I can ascertain, the thesis of the movie seems to be that sex is a kind of biological experiment, that we are all the victims of manipulative genetic tinkering -- the mad swineherd may be God or Science or Evolution, who knows? Why the mad swineherd is also obsessed with collecting weird sounds is completely unclear -- although the scientist’s avocation leads to some impressive and disturbing drones and roars on the soundtrack. (The lovers apparently track the swineherd to the huge pen where he rather humanely raises his piglets -- it’s a very nice farm compared to the industrial pig production sites that I have toured -- using clues embedded in CD’s that the swineherd has obligingly recorded under the label “Quinoa Farms Rec Co.” Carruth may be asserting that love, and sex which underlies love, are a kind of biological determinism and that no one has any free will when it comes to such matters. If so, this is a rather trivial message to embed in a film so complicated and arduous as this picture. Unfortunately, the characters are ciphers. They talk in whispers and we couldn’t care less about them. The woman looks like a young Sigourney Weaver and I kept expecting the alien larva to start erupting through her porcelain skin. The handsome young man, taciturn, needy, and profoundly stupid, is played by Carruth and the role is pure vanity -- he broods and sulks like his lady-love and looks great in the thousand big close-ups that he enjoys. This film was a big hit at the Sundance Film Festival and it is certainly strange and hypnotic. But the basic concept is dimwitted and the confusing narrative style seems intended to disguise the fact that the idea on which the film is based are laughable -- or truly horrific. But Carruth is too sophisticated and ironic to deliver either humor or horror. All we get is mumble-core acting with some pretty pictures -- an incongruous blue orchid sprouting from the tissue of a decomposing piglet.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Land of Silence and Darkness

Patiently observant, serene, and quietly devastating, Werner Herzog’s 1971 film, “Land of Silence and Darkness,” is one of the greatest of all documentaries. Herzog’s subject is the “Taub-blind” -- that is, people, like Helen Keller, who are both deaf and blind and his heroine is a formidable, middle-aged woman named Fini Straubinger. Frau Straubinger suffered a fall when she was a child and gradually lost her sight and hearing. Without self-pity, and in a strangely dispassionate way, she tells the filmmaker that she spent 30 years in bed, mostly abandoned and without visitors. Herzog’s film shows us inexplicable things and the director simulates the dark and enigmatic world of his heroine by avoiding facile explanations -- we are never told, for instance, how Fini Straubinger was awakened and what has caused her to become an apparently indefatigable advocate for the deaf-blind, people that she refers to in florid, archaic German as her “Schicksalsgeschwister,” (Destiny-siblings) or “Schicksalsgefaehrten” or ”-kameraden” (Destiny fellow-travelers and Destiny-comrades). An artifact of Herzog’s intense engagement with German romanticism, the movie borrows it’s title from Josef von Eichendorff’s iconic novella “Aus dem Leben des Taugenichts” (“Events in the life of a Ne’er-do-well”), a book contemporary with late Mozart and early Beethoven; Herzog’s picture is entitled “Aus dem Leben der Fini Straubinger” --”Events in the Life of Fini Straubinger”. Straubinger’s interlocutors communicate with her by spelling words on the palm of her hand; she senses the words and speaks them, using a laboriously clear and uninflected German. She speaks slowly, in simple but eloquent declarative sentences, expecting, it seems, that everything that she says will be carefully translated to the other Deaf-Blind people around her. Her language, peculiarly poetic and descriptive, is the dialect, we come to realize, that people spoke in the old days, a kind of Biedermeier German extinguished by two world wars -- her diction and sentence structure are frozen in time, the language that she heard spoken around her in rural Germany in the 20’s, presumably when she last could hear people’s words. Fini Straubinger’s heroic empathy, a little too aggressive and off-putting to be sure, seems excessive at first. She’s talkative, even a bit of a boor, a deaf-blind woman anxious to tell us what she sees and, of course, willing to speak at tedious length on any subject since it is impossible for anyone to interrupt her. But, as the film progresses, and Herzog calmly explores the horror of isolation intrinsic to being both deaf and blind, Frau Straubinger assumes Promethean dimensions, a woman who will not accept the vast solitude in which she is buried alive. Herzog’s obvious affection for this big, blustering woman is evident in the way he films her -- in one shot, Herzog mimics the last supper, showing Fini at the center of a table with her disciples, all of them bending toward one another to imprint signs on upturned palms, a kind of Christ among the deaf and blind. One old woman stands up and recites a sentimental poem while ”translators” feverishly sign the words into the hands of the listeners. The deaf-blind go to a greenhouse where they stroke cacti and a petting zoo where they embrace a squirming chimpanzee and pass a lamb from person to person, hugging the little creature that bleats in dismay. The film’s tone becomes increasingly disturbing when we see Fini among children who are born blind and deaf. The camera shows us the extraordinary effort required to teach these children to speak, a task that seems so impossibly difficult that the viewer despairs that it can be accomplished. We are shown a skinny teenage boy born sightless and deaf luxuriating in water dowsing him from a shower and the narrator reminds us that we have no way of knowing what he is thinking or how he experiences his world. Another young man, 22 years old, has never learned to speak or even stand -- he makes unearthly sounds and sometimes punches his lips and eyes. When he is handed a radio, he senses the vibrations from the speakers and clutches it to his heart. Even more frightening is the final scene, an encounter with a man who once could speak a little and see. The man has lost his vision, been shunned by everyone but his mother, and for a decade lived in a cow-stall. Now, he has lost all contact with the world of other human beings -- as Fini and the other old women jabber at one another, speaking and signing simultaneously, the old man wanders off and carefully, precisely, and with infinite tenderness strokes the branches and trunk of a tree. Some people have lost the ability to communicate because they speak German dialects that others can’t comprehend and no one knows how to make signs that they understand. One woman is confined in an asylum and has forgotten how to read braille -- she is also completely isolated and even Fini is unable to reach her. Herzog points the camera at the woman’s blank, handsomely pugnacious face -- she stares at the camera while a crazy woman behind her makes indescribably strange grimaces, gently caressing her own body. Straubinger’s courage shines all the brighter against this landscape of desperate loneliness. In the final title, Straubinger tells us that a world war could erupt and she “wouldn’t even notice” -- her world is without history, something that must be both horrifying and, yet, weirdly consoling to a German of Herzog’s generation. I saw this film when I was 20 years old and recall that I thought it was dull -- but certain scenes, particularly the image of the old farmer hugging his tree, have stayed with me for more than 35 years. I can’t conceive of the heartlessness and incomprehension that once caused me to think that this majestic film was boring. At my present age, I think it so moving that it is almost impossible for me to watch.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Night Tide

A curious “film maudit,” Curtis Harrington’s 1961 “Night Tide” is a bargain basement remake of Val Lewton’s “Cat People”. Harrington studied Lewton’s work closely and was an admirer of Josef von Sternberg and these influences impart a lyrical intensity to his film. Dennis Hopper plays a young U. S. navy sailor, Johnny, stationed in San Pedro. One night, the sailor wanders into a jazz club, mingles with a group of late fifties-style beatniks, and meets a mysterious woman named Mora. Mora is the prototypical ”dark woman” of American lit-crit studies -- a sinister foreigner from beyond the sea who lures men to their deaths. Mora believes that she is a mermaid and plays that role in a seaside amusement park. She lounges in a sarcophagus-shaped aquarium wearing a fish tail over her thighs, hips and feet and seems half asleep under a rippling sheet of water. The attraction is part of a freak show and Mora’s tank sits on a pedestal in a windowless vault decorated like a Cretan tomb and vertiginous with light reflecting on the water stirring in her aquarium. A drunken British sea-captain serves as her protector, a sinister father-figure, who also acts as a carnival barker. The “light woman,” a perky blonde, warns Johnny that Mora is some kind of insane siren and that she has lured her last two boyfriends to watery graves. And Johnny begins to suspect that Mora may, in fact, really be a mermaid tempting him to follow her into the ocean’s fatal depths. The movie is a strange mixture of overtly homosexual imagery and themes and a peculiarly poetic sort of horror film. Harrington was openly gay and the scenes involving Dennis Hopper prowling the water-front in specially tailored, skin-tight white trousers with nautical cap and shirt have a homosexual Tom of Finland kind of charge -- the scenes, particularly the opening shot, a moody high-contrast image of Hopper brooding over the boardwalk, look like something from Fassbinder’s adaptation of Genet’s “Querelle.” Other sequences in the film take place in massage parlor where a beefy seafarer-type kneads Hopper’s pale, skinny shoulders, imagery that would not be out of place in one of Guy Maddin’s delirious shorts -- all steam and Pier-one wicker, a bit like the ambience of “Sissy Boy Slap Party." And there is a suspense scene shot under the Santa Monica pier, a notorious ”cruising” location -- the forest of columnar timbers supporting the boardwalk has a strange archaic quality and the inky waves under the pier pounding against the structure imparts a nightmare quality to the imagery. The film’s locations are indelible: seedy waterfront alleyways, the subterranean jazz club where a group of bored decadents are gathered, Mora’s apartment incongruously perched above a merry-go-round in a huge white-washed shed on the amusement pier, the rooms white-washed and bare mostly, although decorated here and there with a few shells, a star-fish, and a Greek icon of the Virgin Mary. Mora’s protector lives in a similarly bizarre abode, a gothic cloister occupying a stony ledge above a filthy looking industrial lagoon. (The sea captain is brother to Michel Simon’s barge pilot in “L’Atalanta” and, like that character, keeps a pickled hand in a jar.) Harrington populates the picture with grotesques, various members of the occult underground in Beverly Hills revolving around Kenneth Anger, the author of “Hollywood Babylon” and himself an important avant-garde (and gay) filmmaker. Mora is summoned to the deep by Cameron, the so-called “Wormwood Star,” a famous priestess of the Ordo Templi Orientalis in Los Angeles (she cavorts in a number of Anger’s hallucinatory films) and her bony, angular face is a haunting and sinister presence in the film. An extraneous Tarot-reading scene gives an impressive forum to another of Harrington’s character actors, a scarecrow-like female chiromancer. Harrington made the movie for $50,000 and because it was shot with a non-union cast and crew, the picture received only a limited commercial release. But it was one of Henri Langlois’ favorite films and, preserved in the Paris Cinematheque, has survived to be seen today. The picture is uneven. Hopper mumbles his way through his scenes and seems genuinely disoriented throughout much of the picture. Mora is stiff, although her somewhat somnambulant performance adds to the film’s eerie effect. Harrington, a lifelong admirer of Edgar Allen Poe, puts in a gratuitous reference to “Annabel Lee” that doesn’t really fit in with anything in the movie, although that epigraph can be interpreted as a homage to Lewton, who freighted his films with similarly literary references. It’s not a great film by any means and rather languidly paced, but its amazing that a picture of this sort -- the bastard child of Hollywood and the underground cinema -- even exists.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Blue Jasmine



Woody Allen’s”Blue Jasmine” seems a comedy derailed by tragedy. The film isn’t funny although the premise is broadly humorous: the spoiled wife of a Wall Street predator, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) has lost everything. Her husband, played by Alec Baldwin, is a Bernie Madoff-style thief so crooked that he has even stolen the nest-egg of Jasmine’s sister, Ginger, a blue-collar woman who lives in San Francisco. Baldwin has been prosecuted and imprisoned and Blanchett’s character finds herself destitute. She flies from Manhattan to San Francisco where she rooms with her embittered sister -- both women were adopted and they are very different in appearance and sensibility. Jasmine is fragile -- she has suffered a breakdown that required treatment with what she calls “Edison’s Medicine,” that is electro-shock therapy -- and she is drinking heavily and desperately. Her past privileged life, secured by her husband’s larceny, erupts into her impoverished present life in the form of sudden flashbacks. And, from time to time, Jasmine comes unstuck in time and indulges in tirades directed at invisible antagonists. She is one of those pinched, hysterical women, fashionably dressed and articulate, but somehow deranged, that you might encounter at a party maundering on and on about the injustice of her divorce -- the people around her are never certain whether her sudden vituperative outbursts are directed at them, or people that she merely imagines to be present. Initially, Allen designs the film as a fish-out-of-water city-mouse/country mouse kind of satire. In a flashback, we see Blanchett’s working class sister and her husband, played sympathetically and effectively, by Andrew Dice Clay, visiting New York and the Hamptons. Jasmine and her con-man husband are appalled by the couple and embarrassed by them -- except for investing (and losing) their money, the Manhattan socialites want nothing to do with them. The situation is reversed when the imperious and demanding Jasmine moves into her sister, Ginger’s, humble apartment and has to seek work. Now, Blanchett’s character is the one ill-equipped to deal with her milieu. Allen apparently conceived the film as a comedy exploiting differences between the Mitt Romney-like super-rich and the rest of us and, further, probably planned to get laughs out of the distinction between east and west coast lifestyles and folkways. But the film is hijacked by Blanchett’s spectacularly poignant and powerful performance. Jasmine is like Blanche Dubois in “A Streetcar named Desire” -- a detestable figure with whome we ultimately sympathize and the film is pitiless in observing her gradual deterioration into madness. Allen engineers a roundelay of romantic encounters and ephemeral love affairs -- Ginger strays from her ineffectual but handsome fiancĂ©e to enjoy a brief, doomed fling with a married man (Louis C. K.) and Jasmine is courted by a sophisticated and attractive diplomat, and, also, almost raped by her employer, a pathetically amorous dentist. Allen’s real interest seems to lie in presenting these flawed love affairs and he tracks the trajectory of several of these romances from first encounter through flirtation and sex and, then, into disillusion. The film is made in a classical style -- the camera work and editing are transparent and the sort of scenic (and distracting) beauty that Allen invested in his recent films about Paris and Rome does not exist in “Blue Jasmine”; the San Francisco and New York locations are realistically portrayed but the travelogue locations that made “Midnight in Paris”, for instance, so audience-pleasing are suppressed in this film (Allen doesn’t want to compete with Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”, I think, with respect to San Francisco scene-setting.) The film is brilliantly acted; all parts down to the very smallest roles (for instance, a store clerk who kindly remonstrates with Ginger’s disconsolate lover during a confrontation in a grocery produce section) are exceptionally detailed and warmly presented. Allen shows some of Renoir’s generosity and inquisitiveness about human nature in his direction of this picture and the film is very interesting, gripping, and, in some scenes, intensely emotional -- Allen taps a bit of Ingmar Bergman’s ferocity in depicting the vicious quarrels between siblings and lovers. The movie is a little shaky about social class on the West Coast -- Jasmine makes disparaging remarks about Ginger’s apartment, but the place is spacious and probably worth about 2 million dollars in the go-go real estate market in San Francisco. It’s hard to imagine exactly how a check-out girl at a local grocery could afford to live in a beautifully decorated place of this kind in tony San Francisco -- in the real world, Ginger would be living in some cheerless and broiling suburb and taking the train into Frisco to work. And Allen’s working class characters sometimes seem a bit like figures out of a parable -- there is a timeless quality about the blue collar working men in the film and they seem to be figures imagined from Allen’s youth, 1950’s carpenters and tradesmen. But these defects don’t really harm the film -- it is a kind of fable. and a demonstration of a rough sort of retributive justice, lovely enough in its way and well worth seeing.

Friday, September 13, 2013

New York City Ghetto Fishmarket - 1903

“Warning ‘-- Throbbing Light: not for persons afflicted with epilepsy.” This caution occurs at the outset of Ken Jacob’s “Ghetto Fishmarket: New York City - 1903,” a film produced in 2006, but consisting of two-hours plus digital manipulation of footage shot with one of Edison’s cameras 103 years before. Two parasols protecting merchants seem to have been brightly colored, although the movie, of course, is grainy black and white. Those parasols are inscribed “All Cars Transfers to BLOOMINGDALES”. For an instant, about 90 minutes into the film, the legend “Impeach Bush and Cheney” flashes across one of parasols. Jacobs has commenced his movie by telling us (via titles) that this “two-hour abstract film” is an escape from the squalid present of “imperialistic fiascos,” that the fish-market was near the place where the World Trade Center would later be built -- the film, Jacobs suggests, is a sort of hermitage, a retreat from the miseries of the present and, indeed, implicitly invokes a boisterous mercantile past when America was a beacon to the world and the refuge of the humiliated, the despised, and the persecuted. The movie is supposed to be ludic, a field of abstract, apolitical play. In theory, these concepts seem reasonable and the Edison “paper print” of the teeming fish-market is fascinating, a Brueghel-like tapestry of small, interesting events captured by the objective eye of the camera that slowly scans the crowd, moving in stately progression through the sun-dappled human landscape -- the shadows suggest that it is either ten a.m. or 2:00 pm -- from right to left. But Jacobs’ execution, like our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is terribly flawed. The picture is, at least, 90 minutes too long and almost all of the digital manipulations of the original documentary film are pointless, uncommunicative, and unnecessarily protracted. The micro-history on display in the ancient film is sufficiently interesting to engage the eye and the mind and Jacobs’ interventions are designed, it seems, to make watching the film difficult, painful, tedious -- he willfully obscures things that we would like to see. The humble fish-market footage is stretched like taffy, digitized into nebulae of white and grey specks, for twenty minutes blurred into a spectral landscape where periodically the eye imagines itself to be seeing ghastly skulls and cadavers. Sometimes, the footage appears upside-down or spiraling or densely saturated with solarized color. For thirty minutes, at least, Jacobs stutters the image frame by frame back and forth, the pictures sometimes printed right to left and, then, inverted. The effect is initially interesting -- the pictures seem to move while somehow remaining frozen and the flicker creates a stereoscopic depth to the image. But it just goes on and on and on, accompanied periodically by hideous caterwauling, clicking sounds like electronic popcorn popping, a scrambling noise that resembles rat’s claws on wood, atonal plinking and plonking, gibberish whispered over a woman whining in Yiddish and so on. One longs for the analytical approach of someone like Errol Morris, an presentation of this intrinsically fascinating material that would make sense of things that we see -- why are two women floridly fighting with operatic gestures, hands clutched to their massive bosoms, who is the little hideous homunculus who glares up at the camera from beneath a broad-brimmed hat, and who is the man who seems to be drunk and makes an obscene gesture toward the camera before defiantly planting his hands on his hips and glaring up at the photographer? The children and men peer curiously at the camera. The women are much too engaged in shopping to even notice that they are being filmed.


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Wake in Fright (Outback)

The first Australian-produced film to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival (1971), Ted Kotcheff's "Wake in Fright" was almost lost. All chemical prints from the negative were damaged beyond recognition. In 2004, the film was reproduced digitally from the picture's surviving negative with surprising results -- the film's director and editor, in colloquy on the commentary track, observe that the movie now shows details that were invisible in the chemically developed prints shown around the world forty years ago. "Wake in Fright" is an impressive picture with a disturbing undercurrent of menace. A young schoolteacher in the remote Australian outback dismisses his students for the Christmas holiday and makes his way through the terrific heat and sun of the desert to a small city called Yabby (it's Broken Hill) by its inhabitants. The city is a mining town, packed with men whose idea of fun is drinking themselves into oblivion, gambling, and massacreing kangaroos. The teacher is indentured to the school system -- if he leaves his job at the dull and remote outback station, he has to pay the government $1000 dollars. And, so, after a dozen or so ales(everyone is always forcing drinks on him), he decides to gamble his wages in the hope that he can win enough money to buy-off his bond. The miners play a primitive game involving coin-tossing, "Two-up" and the young man loses everything. Befriended by a little bantam cock of a salesman, the teacher spends several days drinking with the local ruffians and, in one stomach-churning scene, participates in slaughtering a dozen or so kangaroos, the big animals paralyzed by a searchlight shining from the top of a pickup truck. The men fight constantly, belch, hurl bottles through windows and, generally, raise hell. The teacher ends up living in squalid shack where a local doctor, played with sinister aplomb by Donald Pleasance, is squatting. The doctor rapes the teacher when they are both obliterated by booze -- the men wake-up covered with sweat side-by-side on the dirt floor of the shack. Panicked, the young man sets forth, hitchhiking toward Sydney, his destination where he hopes to see his girlfriend. He ends up sleeping in the back of a truck that nightmarishly takes him back to Yabba and his wretched drinking companions in that city. Things go from bad to worse, although the young man survives to return to his isolated outback one-room school. Asked about his six-week Christmas holiday, the teacher says "It was the best." Kotcheff directs this horrific story with simple elegance and documentary-style detail -- the film is remarkably vivid: you can feel the heat, the dust, and the flies. The drinking scenes, comprising most of the film, are astonishingly realistic and frightening. Everyone seems continuously out-of-control and the threat of mayhem is implicit in every scene. The film's subject, the way that men bully and intimidate one another, is an unusual one for a movie and this kind of material is rarely shown with the sort of realistic impact that "Wake in Fright" has -- Westerns, of course, dramatize this same subject, but, generally, in a glamorous style and, usually, with plenty of romance to lubricate the harshness of the material. Yabba is mostly devoid of women and the men have no one to impress but one another, a situation that leads to increasingly desperate and violently futile action. (There is one girl prominent in the film, the sharp-featured daughter of the salesman, and she offers herself sexually to the school-teacher. But he turns away from her too drunk to act and pukes all over the gravel where they are lying.) The footage involving the kangaroo massacre, butchery comitted out of sheer bloodlust, is extraordinarily disturbing and hard to endure -- Kotcheff apparently shot this sequence with professional hunters who gun-down kangaroos to make dog food sold in the USA. The movie has a few missteps -- there is the standard "freak-out" delirium sequence, necessary to all movies made in the late sixties and early seventies -- but, by and large, this is a remarkable film and one that has been undeservedly forgotten in this country. (The Australian film archive financed the restoration of this movie, obviously an act of great devotion Downunder.) At one point, Donald Pleasance says: "To farm here is death, to work in the mines is worse than death, and you expect them to sing opera too...(but) all the little devils are proud of Hell." When the schoolteacher admits to being down and out, the salesman wants to help him as a fellow lodge brother -- "surely you'r a Buff (that is a member of Fraternal Order of the Water Buffalos), no? Or a Free-Mason? No? Then, you must be a Roman Catholic." My wife had an interesting comment on this film, a picture that she refused to watch because of the kangaroo slaughter: "Australia looks like a place where every loser in the world goes...And, I guess, that's historically true -- didn't they ship all the losers there?"

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Metropolis

The disparate elements that make up Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" don't sum to a whole. They can't: this is the point of Lang's monstrous parable. Labor and management are conceived as completely autonomous blocks of humanity -- comprised by types so distinct as to seem separate species. Head and hands, in Lang's political allegory, are severed and without mediation of the heart between those organs. Lang's delirious staging illustrates this theme on all levels: glittering pleasure domes with strange Gaudi-influenced groves of trees occupy a different reality from the subterranean industrial mills or the austere worker barracks. Rotwang's cottage is pre-medieval, neolithic, a black, windowless ark that looks like the ancient synagogue in Prague incongruously set between huge glass skyscrapers. Ancient catacombs lie under spacious Art Deco office suites, all light and streamlined control consoles. A Gothic cathedral looms over Yoshiwara's brothel, a Circus Maximus-sized whorehouse with Japanese portals. Discontinuity is the film's principle and the movie is constructed episodically, as a series of bravura set-pieces shot in different styles and building to individual climaxes: the Heart-Machine's explosion and metamorphosis into Moloch, Maria pursued by Rotwang's searchlight in the catacombs, the Tower of Babel and the whore of Babylon interpolations into the narrative, the creation of the robot in Maria's form, the false Maria's dance at Yoshiwara's followed by the hero's hallucinations and the Totentanz in the Cathedraal. Each episode is self-contained, drawing to its own climax and separated from adjacent sequences by motionless tableaux that sometimes look like freeze-frames or exquisitely staged still photographs. Many of the film's visions climax with people swooning, fainting, collapsing under the sheer pressure of excited sensation. Lang's drive to make every sequence terminate in a separate and vivid climax seems to originate in his early education in making crime films like that involving Dr. Mabuse constructed from endlessly replicating plots that are serial in form. And his technique can be more than a little overwhelming and exhausting -- for instance, a scene in which the hero breaks into Rotwang's lair involves basements and subbasements terminating in a delirious sequence set in a round room inexplicably equipped with many different locked doors. The hero batters himself into unconsciousness at the locked doors -- the episode is startling, emotionally powerful, disturbing and Kafkaesque and totally meaningless; ten minutes later, the protagonist simply leaves the cottage none the wiser (and the plot not advanced one bit) by the exciting activity in the sinister cellar. Modernity means hysteria, agitation, all styles and every type of human being and form of life, all the cities of the world and all its villages, all its religions and cults, everything in wild collision but nothing intersecting in such a way as to form a coherent society or, even, landscape. The climax of "Metropolis" is a climax of climaxes, all possible climaxes, mashed together: "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" with "The Tale of Two Cities", a frenzied collage of fistfights, people endlessly chasing one another, floods and fires but none of it really synthesized. Babel falls into discordant fragments. The condition of the future is to live among the scattered and isolate ruins of a thousand disconnected pasts. Every movie ever made is shot through with fragments of "Metropolis".

Friday, September 6, 2013

Vertigo

In Saul Bass' famous opening credits to Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958), whirling Moire-patterned vortices fill the screen, tilting and rotating like deep-space galaxies in fields of super-saturated color. The camera moves toward and through these spiralling figures, cosmically strange and enigmatic, and the patterns, populating the brain of a woman whose mask-like face (in huge and abstract close-up) inaugarates the film, have tghe peculiar property of being both immense and menacing as well tiny and gem-like. Everything in "Vertigo" is cut from the same cloth: the film is both massive, grave, and imperial as well as petty and,even, in some ways, dated. "Vertigo" is an elaborate exposition of Freud's theory of "abreaction," a questionable psychoanalytical doctrine first announced in 1893 -- the idea is that by bringing into the forefront of consciousness a trauma that has been repressed, the victim of that injury will relive the pain and distress of the event and, somehow, achieve dominion over fears and desires that would otherwise control that person from their grave in the unconscious. At least three intersecting narratives rely on "abreaction" or cathartic effects associated with that psychic process: Scotty, the traumatized detective, seeks to free the mysterious, enraptured Madeline Elster from the ghost of Carlotta Valdez that is haunting her (and Valdez' possession of Madeline is itself posited as a result of emotional forces not properly abreacted in the dead woman); later, Scotty remakes poor Judy Barton into the dead Madeline and drags her to the fatal tower at San Juan Bautista to "free her from the past" and, thereby, free himself; the city of San Francisco is itself envisioned as a beautiful maiden, slumbering in a dream of the past -- and the film's sensuous landscapes seem, in part, an attempt to imagine some kind of separation between the present-day and history that threatens to overwhelm, even drown, the present in the ambience of the last century. The concept of a dubious freedom from responsibility and from the female lure of nostalgia motivates several important speeches in the picture: the murderous Elster says that he wants to be free of the gloomy and morbid past involving the suicide of his wife in San Francisco -- the murderer exits the film to Europe to which he presumably escapes scot-free. The antiquarian bookseller remarks that people were free in old-time San Francisco -- a man could simply abandon a woman who had borne his child. (It is ambiguous whether the antiquarian, who may be homosexual, is amused by this concept, wishful, or merely stating a fact.) Elster announces this motif when he gives Scotty the assignment of tracking his beautiful and doomed wife -- saying that he longs for the freedom of the old city obsessively portrayed in lithographs on his wall. Except for the murderer's escape to Europe -- all other attempts at achieving freedom, particularly through Freudian abreaction result in death and, in the two most notable cases, death by falling. Three times figures are visualized plunging away from the camera, their fall metaphorically representing a descent from the present-day foreground into a lethal and deadly past. Vertigo, in part, refers to the feeling that we have that the past is always nearby, ready to erupt into the present with deadly consequences, or, in the film's peculiar vertical psycho-geography, opening a abyss into which wanderers might fall to their deaths. The past is a deep, gloomy well, an open grave into which people gaze, unable, it seems, to look away. (And Hitchcock's film, I think, peers deeply into the past of American literature -- doesn't the name Madeline Elster remind us of Madeline Usher and the motif of a dead woman resurrected by her obsessed lover in the form of another woman derives, via French idolatry of E. A. Poe reflected in the novel "D'entre les morts" adapted into film, from "Ligeia".) Seen in isolation from the director's other films, "Vertigo" although spectacularly beautiful, would probably seem small, peculiar, lethargically paced and intensely improbable -- in fact, this was generally the response of critics to the picture when it was first shown. But taken in the context of Hitchcock's life-work, the film assumes a kind of moody grandeur -- it summarizes various obsessions that motivate the director's best films, reflects on those leit motifs, and presents them in the most unadorned and, yet, brilliant form. In this respect, the film is both huge and tiny -- it is locked within Hitchcock's own morbid notions of guilt and fate and sexual desire and, yet, expands to provide a kind of synoptic key to all of the rest of the Englishman's films. In particular, the movie glosses Hitchcock's continuous concern with voyeurism, with the sexuality of seeing, and with the viewer's implication in scotophiliac deviance, the perversity of the gaze. "Vertigo" is shot in VistaVision and the film's signature mise-en-scene couples Jimmy Stewart peering intently through the windshield of his car with point-of-view forward-tracking shots through that windshield --the elongated shape of the windshield mirrors the aspect-ratio of the film; we seem to see a movie projected against the inside of the car's windshield, an effect that Hitchcock appears to nurture in many of his films -- the director's rear-projection is often very unconvincing and exteriors seem often to be plastered tightly against background surfaces of his images. (This technical feature or deficit has the effect of making the outside seem to be something indifferently projected against the inside of someone's point-of-view). Jimmy Stewart's strangely luminous eyes suggest that looking itself is a kind of martyrdom -- in "Vertigo," seeing is drowning, a kind of immersion that enforces vision: once you look you can not look away and, therefore, the Stewart's eyes seeem to be somehow stapled open, pinioned into a stare, his eyelids amputated --look for this effect in the scene where Stewart, for instance, stares at Kim Novak's brunette hair and perceives that it must be dyed blonde in imitation of Madeline Elster's coiffeur. This unblinking stare reflects the camera's impassive perspective, the eye of God. Hitchcock's technique suggests that the camera is a surrogate for the glare of the super-ego, a condemnatory force exhibited in the nun that emerges from the darkness of the mission, the cynical coroner at the inquest, and, in a kinder, gentler form, in Barbara Bel Geddes as Scotty's spurned love-interest with her tautly engineered underwear, cheerful forced smile and owlish glasses, the super-ego's final judgement uttered at the end as the implacable tower at San Juan Batistta, a great upthrust pillar of white plaster, perforated with dark arches, a rational and immense structure embodying a deadly destiny. Hitchcock softens the film's structure of doom with the green light flooding the last couple reels of the movie, a color that signifies Scotty's mad ambition to revive the dead Madeline, to make her Sequoia Sempervirens, "Sequoia Evergreen," immortal like the sequoia that Madeline and Scotty see in the glade of Muir Wood. And, though it is surely accidental, Kim Novak as Judy Barton seems warm, vibrant, but also vaguely Asiatic and archaic, her high cheekbones and immense almond-shaped eyes circumscribed with dark make-up like the face of an Egyptian goddess, one of those beautiful matrons buried under a painted wooden plaque of her features at the cemetery in the lost city of Fayum. Remember this line: "One alone can wander. Two together are always going somewhere."

Thursday, September 5, 2013

L'Arroseur Arrosse

Everyone has seen stills, what we would now call "screen shots," from the Lumiere brother's tiny "actualitie" cinematographed one sunny afternoon in Lyon in 1895. Still images generally show the gardener peering into the nozzle of his watering hose while a mischievious boy stands nearby, apparently five or six feet adjacent to him, crimping the hose by standing on it. In fact, the little movie looks different than you expect when you see the thing in motion -- I suppose this is true of anything, but the effect with respect to this film is startling. Initially, we see only the gardener. The images are silvery and have the intensely deep, objective focus of old movies. Somewhere behind the gardener and to his right a little fountain of water splashes upward into the air, droplets catching the glint of the bright sunshine. This little spray seems designed to show us where the hose is lying in the grass. Otherwise, we wouldn't be able to perceive the course or run of the hose in the image -- and the location of the hose, of course, is crucial to the gag we are about to see. In Roland Barthes' terms, the little flare of water spurting up from a place where either the hose is pierced or a connection is loose is a "punctum" -- that is, a point of interest that seems gratuitous, a guarantor of the truth of the image by reason of incorporating a detail that, at first, seems wholly continguent, opportunistic, something filmed simply because it happened to occupy the frame of vision encompassed by the lens interacting with the film clawed through the device. But, in fact, this "punctum" as I have suggested seems carefully positioned to assist us in understanding the geometry of the gag -- the boy crimping the hose only to release the stricture so that the gardener will spray himself in the face. The young man appears suddenly and seems to dance more than walk to the place a little behind the gardener where he will crimp the hose. Most still images taken from the film show the boy on a plane apparently beside the gardener, begging the question as to how the gardener is unaware of the young man about to perpetrate his prank. The moving image, however, shows the boy's approach, both matter-of-fact, and stealthy, and, for some reason, when you see the figure in motion it seems much more plausible that the gardener would be unaware of the prankster's somewhat spectral appearance beside him. Stills make a film's image seem perpetual, an array of spatial relationships frozen in place -- but in the moving picture, we see that the boy's approach is swift, his presence next to the gardener ephemeral, an affair that takes only five or six seconds. When the gardener sprays himself in the face, he, then, turns the hose toward his tormentor, but the boy darts away. Images proceed like a torrent. The spray is directed toward our eyes. The effect is equivalent to the image in "The Great Train Robbery" (1903) when the outlaw, beautifully handtinted turns his six-guns on the camera and materializing the notion of the "shot" fires directly at the lens, little orangish and scarlet explosions decorating the frame. The sun on the spray of water is very beautiful and equates to the light that has been diverted, as if through a hose crimped and, then, released and crimped again -- in later cameras at the rate of 24 times a second -- to create a flow of images directed into our eyes. (Apparently, L'Arroseur Arrosse was remade several times. Some versions of the film available on You-tube are strictly linear, the boy approaching from the right parallel to the plane of the hose's spray. In this, later, version, the hose is clearly visible as a vector of energy across the bottom of the frame and the "punctum" of the rupture is not necessary to show the course of the hose. The garden in this version is clearly a different place than the location where the first iteration of the picture was made, a tighter, more circumscribed space. Both films are more punitive than I recalled after first watching -- at least, half the running time of each picture is devoted to the gardener chasing down the boy, who runs diagonally away from the camera and to the left, seizing him, dragging him toward the lens, and, then, slapping his buttocks briefly and ineffectually. In the first version, the gardener turns the hose on the boy, but not in the remake.) These two films (and, perhaps, there are many versions -- Truffaut reprised the gag in the late fifties in "Le Miston) were made after Lumiere shot the famous footage of the train pulling into the station and an image of his factory workers swarming through a gate at the end of their shift. The film of the factory workers is particularly beautiful and mysterious -- almost all of the workers are women who appear to be neatly, almost formally, dressed. They emerge from the gate of the factory and divide into two streams, one flowing to the right and one to the left -- no one comes straight toward the camera suggesting that Lumiere is filming from atop a wall or some other kind of obstruction. The motion of the women dividing into equal regiments moving right and left is almost balletic. The women are "whistle-splitters" anxious to get home to the families and they move very briskly ahead of some men, also dressed rather elegantly in what appear to be leather vests. The men amble out of the factory. In the pack of women, we find embedded a boy teetering on a spidery-looking bicycle and a big dog -- this detail is the "punctum" that animates this film and gives it an aura of the marvelous. The Lumiere cinematograph apparatus is capable of making only a very short film -- these movies are 49 seconds long.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Darwin's Nightmare

Hubert Sauper's disturbing 2004 documentary scrupulously raises questions that it, with equal scruple, refuses to answer. And the film's curiously apolitical and uninformative stance begs an ultimate question about this form of film: is sheer documentation without analysis a morally reasonable response to horrific human suffering? Fifty years ago, someone introduced the Nile perch, a voracious cannibalistic fish, into Lake Victoria in Africa. The invasive species proliferated and the predatory perch grow to enormous proportions -- some of them seem to be six feet long. The perch can be readily taken by fisherman and their fillets are apparently very tasty, thus, spawning an enormous industry on the shores of the huge lake. Rural villagers swarmed to shantytowns built by the lake. Prostitutes infected with HIV gathered in the shantytowns, spread their diseases, and, then, hired Vespas or motor-bikes to take them back into the hinterland where they could die at home, after spreading the disease in the country as well. Millions perished of AIDS. Huge potbellied jets piloted by Ukrainian veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan arrive daily at Mwanza, a desolate city with an airstrip that endsin the lead-blue shallows of the lake.. Everyone claims that the jets arrive empty to ferry fish fillets to Western Europe, as many as 55 tons per plane. But, of course, this is a lie: the jets arrive in Tanzania full of tanks and Kalashnikov rifles to arm soldiers in the various wars raging in central Africa -- conflicts that Sauper says have killed five million people in the years preceding 2004. The cannibal fish are a convenient metaphor for the dysfunctional and horrific human ecology that has arisen around the lake -- only the strongest and most violent can survive and the local biosphere is shattered beyond recognition. The perch have destroyed the balance of nature in the lake and the waters threaten to become s stinking "sinkhole." Sauper shows ragtag mobs of little boys roaming the streets, homeless children who, somehow, boil fish scales and guts into glue that they sniff, passing out in pestilential alleyways. The huge jets roar over the rotting landscape where women emaciated into skeletons by AIDS drag themselves from shack to shack. Preachers show movies about Jesus and depict the Savior on the Sea of Galilee while preaching against the use of condoms. In one nauseating sequence, hundreds of people pick through rotting fish carcasses, suspending the gobs of bone and entrails on wooden rails hundreds of feet long, vast pyramidal mounds of fish guts heaped near shacks where children are playing with perch carcasses. The ammonia rising from the rotting fish attacks people's faces and eyes, rotting away their corneas. A prostitute sings a patriotic song about "beautiful Tanzania;" later we learn that she has been stabbed to death by an Australian "client." Burly Ukrainian pilots drink vodka and listen nostagically to songs from home. The shadows of the big planes swoop over the ruinous city tattooing the streets with the insignia of doom. A group of well-fed Indian merchants runs a huge fish processing plant, seemingly oblivious to the squalor and misery on the other side of their windows. A night watchman lurks outside a mysterious scientific-industrial compound with poisoned arrows -- he is licensed to kill anyone inside the fence protecting the facility. The night watchman's eyes glisten with joy as he thinks of slaughtering trespassers with his quiver of deadly steel-pointed arrows. The entire spectacle is like something imagined by Jonathon Swift, a huge canvas of misery and folly and exploitation. Sauper doesn't use any voice-over narrative and many of the images are intentionally obscure -- I have no clear idea what the people are doing with the mountains of fish carcasses, although this business seems to have driven half of the villagers in that place mad. (I presume that they are processing the fish entrails and bones to make some kind of fish-meal fertilizer although we are not given any clue as to the purpose of their enterprise and the imagery is Sisyphean, absurd, horrific.) Sauper provides a long interview that is an extra on the DVD of "Darwin's Nightmare" -- also the unwatchably grim "Kinsagani Diary," about the massacres in Rwanda, a bloodbath that Sauper inadvertently witnessed in 1997 appears on the disc as a "bonus" (although I hesitate to use that word for this collage of dying children and rotting bodies). Sauper wants the pictures to speak for themselves. But, of course, they don't and his faith that we will come away from "Darwin's Nightmare" with some reasonable understanding of the plight of these Tanzanians seems to me to be naive. Certainly, it seems morally indefensible that planes come from the capitals of Europe loaded with weapons and, then, depart from this desperately poor and starving place so heavily laden with nutritious fish for tables in Paris and Berlin that the jets sometimes crash into the lake or fail to take off at all, littering the sides of the runway with colossal junk. The images fill the viewer with rage and dismay, but it is impotent rage and voyeuristic dismay. And, furthermore, Sauper's premise is a bit too facile. Isn't it a remnant of European paternalist colonialism to assert that the Africans are too vicious and politically inept to be sold weapons? Don't African countries have the right to arm themselves against insurgencies and foreign threats just as much as nations in Europe? And, on a continent rich in natural resources but overpopulated with starving people, isn't food also a weapon, indeed, perhaps, the most valuable and deadly weapon? In Africa, you can kill a child just as effectively with food as with a Kalashnikov rifle. What do I mean by this? Those with food can use that resource to provision their soldiers freeing valuable cash to buy more arms. So, in fact, Sauper's overly obvious metaphor for the nightmarish and damnable dysfunction in the area of Lake Victoria evaporates upon closer analysis. The jets arriving with guns and leaving with prime fish fillets are just one more symptom of human evil and cruelty that is pervasive, destructive, and ineradicable. And to revert to the question at the start of this note: is it right to leave viewers of a film filled with helpless despair?