Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Mummy

Karl Freund’s “The Mummy” from 1932 is part of the Universal Studios’ cycle of horror films produced by Carl Laemmle. The movie is short, eerie, and contains a few memorable images, mostly revolving around Boris Karloff’s desiccated menace. Parasitic on the excavations that retrieved King Tut from the dust of the Valley of the Kings, the film begins with British archaeologists conferring in a gloomy storehouse by lamplight. A contorted mummy who has died ‘the nameless death” is framed behind the scholars in an upright sarcophagus. Someone recites the wrong words and the mummy’s withered eyelids twitch just the tiniest bit -- the lighting is designed to catch a faint flicker in the corpse’s slightly opened eye. A man goes mad, laughing uncontrollably and the mummy leaves, never visualized moving, but depicted metonymically by a foul-looking bandage dragged through the dust. Egypt is pillars and columns and pits full of peasants scrambling in the gravel and dust. The desert is an abstract void haunted by the shadowy geometry of mastabas and pyramids -- cold darkness crisscrossed with some patterns ofdeeper blackness. A decade passes and the dead priest reappears as the emaciated, cadaver-stiff Adeth Bey, Karloff at his most dire. Bey helps a new generation of archaeologists unearth a vestal priestess of Isis, her featureless mummy transported to the grim, fortress-like Cairo Museum, a huge building guarded by bare-breasted sphinx figures. The camera shows us the glaring mask on the priestess’ sarcophagus and, then, the film cuts to a party where we see a woman with a strange physiognomy -- this is Zita Johann, the reincarnation of the dead priestess, and an peculiar, uncanny-looking figure herself: she has enormous eyes dominating a head that looks too large for her white throat and shoulders and, later we are shown her squat, compact body exposed in the last half of the film in revealing garments, a couple strands of ribbons pulled over her breasts so that her belly and torso are mostly bare. Karloff’s nightmare priest recognizes the woman as his lost love, now buried for 3700 years, and hypnotizes her. (The film resembles in form Rex Ingram’s “The Magician” made in 1926 -- it has a similarly functioning dream sequence at its center, in “The Mummy’s” case a flashback to ancient Egypt showing Karloff squirming as he is wrapped in suffocating bandages to be buried alive.) To bring the dead priestess to life, Adeth Bey has to burn her lifeless mummy, stab her modern reincarnation to death, and, then, plunge the corpse into a romantically brewed bath of bubbling natron stirred by Noble Johnson, an African-American actor playing a statuesque Nubian. All of this transpires in the dim galleries of the Cairo Museum of Antiquities beneath a glimmering idol of Isis, a voluptuous life-size female form, all curved tits and ass, hovering over the deadly proceedings. Needless to say, the boyfriend arrives just in the nick of time with Karloff’s withered hand gripping a flint knife indenting the soft belly flesh of the heroine squirming on the embalming table. Freund was a great cameraman but the film is not particularly beautiful or impressive photographically and the dialogue, intoned mostly by Karloff in an oracular drone, is a bit wooden. But the film is justly famous for the truly frightening opening episode in which the mummy’s resurrection drives the young archaeologist mad and for several alarming close-ups of Adeth Bey, Karloff embodying (anagrammatically) Death itself, our ancient adversary, with parchment cheeks and withered lips, and glittering eyes lurking in cavernous black eye-sockets. Despite its romantic plot, the film is curiously chaste. Zita Johann is too strange-looking to stir up much sexual feeling in the audience and the handsome physician’s love for her seems contrived. This actress looks like Barbara Steele, the indelibly weird-looking heroine of Italian horror films in sixties -- she has a looming glacially white forehead and gigantic eyes, a face glaring and featureless as a mask, and it’s hard to pay much attention to her body when she turns her lantern-like gaze on the camera.

Fun with Dick and Jane

Judd Apatow remade “Fun with Dick and Jane,” a movie originally released in 1977 in 2005 and the prototype picture is worth a look. Apatow’s film is about the Zeitgeist that produced the great economic crash of 2008 and it seems curious to me that that remake dates back to before the bubble burst -- in fact predating the recession by three years. Ted Kotcheff, a Canadian director, made the first picture at about the time that American enthusiasm was shriveling during the Carter presidency and the original picture is very shrewd about certain aspects of the U.S. economy that have not materially changed (I am sorry to report) in the 36 intervening years. Jane Fonda and George Segal play a suburban couple who find themselves “underwater” when Segal is laid-off from his job in the Aerospace Industry. (Segal’s boss is played by Ed McMahon; McMahon isn’t great but he’s proficient and, certainly, not hesitant to play against type -- in the film, he is a lecherous, unctuous, and corrupt business executive, not the avuncular type you recall from The Johnny Carson Show.) The couple have leveraged themselves to the hilt to buy a luxurious house where a swimming pool is being constructed amidst expensive landscaping when Segal loses his job. Fonda is a housewife who has never worked and her attempts to earn some money as a model are unsuccessful. Segal is forced to apply for unemployment compensation and, humiliated, has to seek assistance from a Latino friend to navigate the welfare system so that he can get food stamps. The film was marketed as a comedy romp involving the couple’s adventures robbing pharmacies and liquor stores to make ends meet but this aspect of the movie is a late and ill-conceived plot development -- no robberies occur until the film is more than 2/3rds done. By far, the best part of Kotcheff’s picture is the realistic portrait of upwardly mobile American wheeler-dealers suddenly bereft of funds and unable to pay their mortgage. The picture was written by the Canadian novelist Mordechai Richler and, for about an hour, the film is witty, incisive, and compelling. But when desperation forces the characters to their crime spree, the film itself seems desperate and the picture deteriorates rapidly into broad, unfunny slapstick, ending as a standard issue heist movie, brightly lit and shot unimaginatively in a way scarcely distinguishable from a TV sitcom. For an hour, though, the viewer can see what attracted Judd Apatow to the film in 2005 and, during it’s first half, the movie is an interesting portrait of American life and social mores in the mid-seventies. Segal and Fonda are appealing although there is no spark between them and, since they are conceived as victims, their roles don’t give them much amplitude for any real emotion -- they are disappointed by life, increasingly pessimistic, but try to remain cheery and that’s about it. There is a sad aspect to the film. The firm that collapses in this movie to cause Segal’s unemployment is a company involved in putting the first man on the moon and the corporate headquarters of the business, where McMahon gets drunk, fires people, and broods that he has “blood on his hands” is decorated with images of astronauts moon-walking. How the mighty have fallen!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Hiroshima Mon Amour

In the first five minutes of “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” we see a museum in that Japanese city displaying artifacts from the atomic blast. Floating in jars of formaldehyde are fragments of human scar tissue, ribbons of dead flesh labeled “keloid.” This image is an emblem for the film. Alain Resnais’ 1959 film is about wounds and how wounds heal and about the scars that abide after traumatic injury. A French woman has come to Hiroshima to act as an extra -- she is costumed as a nurse -- in an internationally produced “peace” film. On her penultimate night in the Japanese city, she sleeps with a local man and, then, spends the next day alternatively fleeing and embracing him. The Japanese man was fighting in the war when his city was bombed, but, perhaps, his family perished in the fire-storm. As it happens, the French woman harbors a memory that she has also concealed from her husband and family in Paris: during the war, she loved a German soldier who was shot to death on the last day of the occupation. After the war, she was humiliated by having her hair shaved, went mad for a time, and was locked away in a cellar in her home town of Nevers. The French woman’s encounter with Hiroshima, embodied in her Japanese lover, liberates her to narrate the story of her wartime love and her humiliation after the German boy was killed. Resnais stages his film across a 24 hour period -- the woman’s last day in Hiroshima -- and the film is beautiful and eerie in a somber, mostly deserted way, composed as a series of forboding black and white landscape through which the camera tracks with grave, funereal dignity. Resnais’ melancholy and dignified approach to the film’s visual texture conceals, and obscures, a fundamental moral problem with the picture: the movie’s theme is two parallel atrocities -- the death of the young woman’s lover and her public shaming in Nevers and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. But the equivalence of the two events seems highly questionable, even a bit vulgar. It is the accusation of facile vulgarity that Resnais and his screenwriter, the famous French novelist Marguerite Duras, labor to avoid by imposing a ponderous artistic purity on the material -- there are many tilted angles, desolate plazas and landscapes, corridors in Brutalist concrete hotels that look like anterooms to the Sahara desert, and close-ups of naked lovers, their eyes averted from one another Bergman-style in agonies of sorrow and anomie. The famous opening sequence of the film, intercutting almost unwatchable images of mutilation and death with close-ups of nude bodies, first covered in ash, then, mud, then skin slipping over skin in enormous fragmentary close-ups are justly famous, indelible, and terrifying. But the images make murder and disfigurement into an aesthetic subject and, ultimately, raise very difficult moral issues for the viewer -- is it ethical to use material of this kind as a counterpoint to a rather banal story of a one-night stand in an exotic city? The city of Hiroshima co-stars in this film with Nevers in France and the two locations give the film an extraordinary pictorial density and texture. Hiroshima, in particular, looks spooky, alien, half-abandoned -- there are huge open spaces through which cars zoom without the benefit of lanes or roads, covered arcades, and flimsy-looking pleasure districts full of garish lights in which the buildings seem to have been haphazardly constructed of Lego blocks, the central ruined dome of iron hovering over the vast bombed-out plazas like a black spider. Ultimately, the film argues, we are doomed to forget -- we forget our first loves, our great passions, and the horrors of war and atrocity are likewise forgotten. The grass grows over the torn earth. Scar tissue forms over lacerations. The film wisely takes no moral stance as to whether the dominion of oblivion over horror (and love) is a good or a bad thing -- it is just the way the world works. Emmanuelle Riva plays the French woman. At the start of her career, she made this movie about the risk of universal destruction -- we see her watching a ”Ban the Bomb” parade in her white nurse’s outfit, mournfully watching placards bearing images of mushroom clouds and mangled children carried in procession. In 2012, she appeared in Michael Haneke’s “Amour”, clearly a reference to the film that made her a star 53 years earlier. In Haneke’s equally grave, and terrifyilng, film, her role also concerns death and destruction, but no longer on an universal scale -- “Amour” is about senility and dying as the lonely fate of all of us who survive long enough to become old. It would be nice to draw a contrast between the young and vivacious Riva in Resnais 1958 film and the ruin that time has made of her in Haneke’s 2012 picture. But the contrast is unsupportable. Riva is one of those people who seems to have never been young. In “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, she already seems haggard, ancient, a survivor of unmentionable cruelties and savagery. Indeed, in some ways, she seems younger and more fiercely vibrant in the first half of Haneke’s film than she is Resnais’ famous picture made a half-century before.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Magician

Forgotten today, Rex Ingram was once regarded as "the greatest director in the world." At least this was how he was described by Erich von Stroheim. Ingram was from Dublin and, in the early twenties, he worked with Valentino on such prestige pictures as "The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse." His films seem to be similar to the later work of David Lean -- stories set in exotic locations shot with lavish production values. "The Magician" is a 1926 horror film made by Ingram from a novel by Somerset Maugham. (The novel apparently was a roman a clef based on the adventures of "the Great Beast," Aleistar Crowley). The film begins with a spectacular sequence, perhaps, the best thing in the movie. An American sculptress working in Paris is in her atelier working on a huge statue of a crouching demon. The statue is made from clay and it is a phallic eruption of malice towering over the center of the room. A lady Cubist, portrayed satirically, is observing the woman caressing the idol's soft clay. With paralyzed horror, she sees that a huge lump of clay is about to calve from the shoulder and torso of the malevolent figure. The big mass of somewhat fecal clay drops on top of the lady artist, crushing her. The woman, played by Alice Terry, is the endangered heroine of the story. A dashing, if somewhat dull, surgeon operates on her in a large glass-walled surgical theater. Looming over the medical action as a spectator is a bizarre figure, the sinister Magus played by the German actor, Paul Wegener. The film was conceived as a vehicle for Wegener and he imparts his extraordinary and grotesque presence to the film. Wegener is a huge boulder of a man, a German star in the mold of Emil Jannings and Wallace Beery. Apparently taller when prone, as the Australian poet Les Murray once put it, Wegener seems fantastically powerful, an evil strong man and he has the features of a goblin -- his face is slavic, with an broad Jack-o-lantern mouth slung between two enormously prominent cheekbones. Wegener's cheeks are so protuberant that, when he is lit from below, his eye-sockets are underlined by black "v"- shaped shadows. Wegener was famous for his proto-Frankenstein role in the three Golem films made in Berlin in 1915, 1917 and 1920. Wegener's magician is plotting to make artificial life in the laboratory, a project that requires life-blood extracted from the heart of a maiden. The wounded heroine recovers and falls in love with the surgeon. Unfortunately, she encounters the Magus who hypnotizes her. Although ridiculous in some ways, the hypnosis scene is a highlight in the film -- mesmerized, the rather vapid heroine has a vision of a Dionysian revel, a crowd of nearly naked folks prancing around and cavorting grotesquely in the light of hellish bonfires. The imagery seems derived from Bosch and features great writhing mobs of nude extras hopping around in a huge set littered with sinister gewgaws and barren trees and weird, vaguely genital-shaped forms. The heroine is embraced by a faun-like creature with cloven hooves and the horns of a ram while the Magician leers, his hair slicked up to form two horns on his head. The point seems to be that the conventional, chaste heroine is secretly wracked with repressed sexual desire and that, perhaps, she prefers the erotic ministrations of the grotesque magician to her conventional boyfriend. Engaged to be married to the surgeon, the Magus intervenes and spirits the heroine away to Monte Carlo and, then, to a remote mountainous village in the south of France. This terrain is familiar to horror film fans: a medieval village with crumbling huts and narrow streets huddled at the foot of a mountain crowned with a phallic knob of tower, the so-called "sorceror's tower" protruding up into the black, lightning cleft sky like a rhino's horn. The hero rescues the maiden who is fettered to a table, half naked, awaiting vivisection by the evil magician. He has been fiddling with long scalpels, delaying until the surgeon can arrive to engage him in herculean session of fisticuffs. The magician is hurled into his own red-hot furnace and the tower is blasted into a million pieces as a result of some strange magical spell. Ingram's film is interesting for the way that contrasts the rather limpid classical Grecian beauty of the heroine, Alice Terry, with the grinning gargoyle face of Wegener's magus. The picture also has an odd campy feeling, a strange sense of grotesque humor. In the middle of dire sequences, Ingram will insert vulgar jokes and low-comedy mugging by his character actors. In one remarkable image, a hunchbacked dwarf, played by a real "little person," gets blown into a barren tree. He hangs from a naked limb with his clothes in shreds, wriggling like a fish on a hook and tormented by crows -- the sight is supposed to be funny but it is like one of the more ghastly visions of Goya. In many respects, the long-forgotten film has had a long after-life. The erectile sorceror's tower, the campy humor, and the implicit disdain that the film shows for normal people all surface again, more powerfully, and in a better picture, James Whale's "The Bride of Frankenstein."

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Dylan Moran

Dylan Moran, last name pronounced “More - en”, performed in Minneapolis at the mysterious Women’s Club at Loring Park on October 18, 2013. Moran is an Irish stand-up comedian, known, if at all, in this country, for his performances in “Shaun of the Dead” and Simon Pegg’s “Run, Fat Boy, Run” -- in BBC-country, he has some renown as the star of a three-year series, “Black Books”, a sit-com about a perpetually disgruntled Irish proprietor of a shabby Bloomsbury bookstore. The Minneapolis Women’s Club is an Italianate palazzo located on the south side of Loring Park, a building that seems to have built a hundred years ago and part of an ensemble of strangely authoritarian structures that rise over the lake and pavilions in the small tract of wooded land under the escarpment of the city. The club overlooks the limpid pool of the lake in the park and the cloister-like columns hovering over the park are lit by invisible bulbs, illumined by a pumpkin-yellow tint that suffuses the limestone façade of the building. Jack and Angelica and I were an hour early to this place and, after finding a parking place on the boulevard, we hiked across Hennepin Avenue, surmounting the famous and elegant bridge over that street, to wander in the twilight gloom of the sculpture garden on the lawn of the Walker Art Center. A wedding was underway at the Walker Art Center and elegant-looking couples in black suits and dresses were wandering among the great monoliths and vast Cor-ten iron palisades of the sculpture garden and guests were taking pictures in front of the monumental cherry on the spoon by Claes Oldenburg, that sculpture poised in the center of its little dim lake, a clouded cornea at the base of the city, the art-work glowing with a strange phosphorescent light in the cold dusk. Turned away from the wedding receptions at the WAC (and the screening of Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” with Geoff Dyer in attendance), we went back over the bridge and strolled around the park until it was time to queue-up at the Women’s Club to see Dylan Moran. The moon was pasted between two skyscrapers, tawdry and yellow as cheese, a brilliant full-moon casting its light down on Loring Park and oddly official-looking buildings looming over the park. Who could possibly know that a big auditorium is located next to the park? It seems improbable. The whole thing is an enigma -- a Venetian palace hovering over the cold groves and the dim lake with its Victorian pavilions on the edge of murky waters. When we come to the auditorium, a ticket-taker tells us to go to another door and we reach that place and rap on the entry and, it seems, that Moran is just beyond the door, leaning against the window, disheveled hair, half-drunk, talking to a couple of girls who are both ushers and security at this place, Valkyries defending this entrance against our arrival. We are directed back to the crowded auditorium -- the show is sold-out, 500 people] crammed into the gloomy hall. In the seventies, I sometimes attended modern dance programs -- the audience members all seemed to be dancers themselves, with leotards peeping out of their purses and backpacks. Similarly, this audience has a familiar feel, a gathering of cognoscenti, a group of comedy writers, kids in shapeless sweaters and horn-rimmed glasses with their homely girlfriends everyone dressed in funereal black, people who seem to be insiders, guys who write for Conan O’Brien and Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show”, aficiondos of the stand-up comedy scene. Moran's stand-up is funny, highly articulate, and, more or less, predictable. He takes the stage, insults the crowd for awhile and, then, riffs on the standard subjects of stand-up comics -- pets, dogs, vegetarian food, vegans, the difference between men and women. Moran blinks at the audience, threatens them and delivers a series of droll and complex observations about the characteristics of various nations -he has toured in Serbia and Russia and Poland and Berlin. He is a gifted mimic, expert at imitating blandly self-entitled and smug American accents and the deformed speech of Russians and Germans venturing to speak in English. It’s all humorous and amusing enough, but not laugh-out-loud funny, clever comments about current events delivered in a musical Irish brogue. Everything is pretty predictable, but Moran is clever and his remarks are well-phrased and the audience is enthusiastic. Moran is on tour and has come from Milwaukee and Kansas and he makes sardonic remarks about those places and the Minneapolis crowd, tutored to think itself superior to those other venues, roars with laughter. Moran has a bad smoker’s cough and his discourse is frequently interrupted by hacking gasps for air -- at one point, Moran asks: ”Is there a doctor in the house?” and when audience members reply in the affirmative, he says: “Stay away from me. I hate you fuckers!” After about 45 minutes, Moran takes a break, indicating that he is ”just beginning” and only at the start of “repairing “ the ignorance of the audience. After about twenty minutes, Moran returns to the bare stage, palpably more intoxicated -- he is sipping red wine from a big goblet. I can’t tell if he is really drunk or feigning intoxication for the crowd. He staggers around, leaning on the slender reed of the microphone stanchion. Moran is more philosophical and less vehement in the second half of the show and his words display a certain wisdom. The crowd gives him a standing ovation and Moran says that he is working this Friday -- that's the night of this show -- and that the crowd’s approbation is not necessarily pleasing to him since it just means that he has to work longer and has to delay the additional drinks that he hope to consume after he knocks off. He ends the show after a brief commentary about men and women and about children -- he has several kids -- and there is another standing ovation. Moran is very accomplished and his quips are well-phrased and when you smile at what he says you don't feel exploited or mean-spirited, but, in the end, unless you are a fan, it is a bit of an ordeal -- the show is too long by about a half hour, but Moran clearly feels that he needs to deliver good value for the admission price and so he labors dutifully to fill the time and the crowd is obviously enthusiastic and there is another standing ovation as he departs. Moran has made comments on the National Rifle Association, gay marriage, and the dysfunction in Washington, D. C. When he remarks that American English has seized control of the world, someone in the crowd shouts “Sorry!” Moran responds: “You liberal leftist Minnesota assholes can fuck yourself!” In the second half of the show, Moran (whose show is notably chaste) reads from an erotic blockbuster that he imagines to be modeled on “Fifty Shades of Grey”. He recites from that text: “No” he said, his voice cruel and stern and his face impassive like the face of an Easter Island idol caught in a traffic jam.” For some reason, this seems very funny to me. Moran’s wit, I think, is equivalent to the aristocratic disdain that Oscar Wilde displayed when he toured America in the late Victorian era -- periodically, we Americans need to be reminded as to our peasant origins and our lack of culture and this is, I suppose, salutary.

The Audacious Eye -- Japanese Art from the Clark Collection

“The Audacious Eye -- works from the Clark Collections of Japanese Art” is an exhibition currently on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Apparently, the Clarks have donated Japanese art objects acquired over a lifetime of collecting to the MIA -- presumably, parts of this collection will be on display in the future, although exactly how the institution intends to present this art, whether by integrating it into its already excellent Japanese galleries (mostly gifts from the Dayton family), or in some separate housing, is unclear to me. The Clark collection begins with artifacts from the 12th century (Kamakura era) and continues through five or six large rooms to the present. Most of the art objects are jaw-dropping, many of the images bizarre and grotesque. The exhibition demonstrates how little we know about Japan, how mysterious its metaphors and icons are to us, and how baffling and peculiar its artistic techniques and representational strategies. I understood almost none of the images shown in the collection -- confronted by a massive, life-size wall-hanging of a bull, edged with a peculiar densely neon blue, calligraphically elegant (the “ductus” is the hand of a calligrapher using an ink brush on rice paper but in a heroic format), it is hard to know how to react. The image is not naturalistic nor is it abstract nor even particularly stylized -- rather, the image demonstrates a reaction to an animal that is filtered through a sensibility that is precise, intensely intelligent, and completely alien to the way that our visual and literary culture has taught us to imagine a bull. The Japanese beast, a symbol for the passions, I think, in Zen Buddhism, is not fierce and tragic like one of Goya’s animals, nor is it peculiarly masculine like Picasso's bulls, but,rather, almost kittenish, powerful but not really frightening, large and strong but not intimidating. There are vast landscapes with sheer bluffs like stalagmites, the entire vista somehow dank and moist and gloomy like the inside of a limestone cavern. A number of folding screens feature bare boughs, jagged as lightning and slashing upward across a cream void, fierce-looking hawks glaring at smaller birds frolicking on the naked branch -- one of these images is a "three-white" painting, that is, a tour de force in which the artist demonstrates the differing textures of white plumage, white blossoms, and white late-spring snow encrusting the bough. Raffish-looking bodhisattvas frolic near waterfalls like jets of pure pale energy, columns springing from shaggy cliffs. One erotic scross shows intertwined couples, their white faces floating over entangled genitals that look a tree-clogged ravine in some remote mountain landscape. A pop-eyed boy cartoonishly leers at an elegant woman whose kimono is disheveled by the wind. The force of the boy's stare has inflated his face like a balloon and pinkened his eyes. One huge wall-hanging displays a fat frog with bulging eyes, a monster elegantly made by a couple of sweeps of a house-painter's brush. Hidden beneath the dewlaps of the frog is a small, elegant mouse, the whole image overlaid like a palimpsest with text. A series of astounding and melancholy ghosts, painted in the most subtle sfumato, rise like fumes ascending through darkness -- they are dead mothers and their faces are a combination of lily-like beauty and grotesque sorrow. One of the dead mothers hovers over her sleeping child, the baby an abstract pudgy form protected by a mosquito net -- although the woman seems insubstantial, fading from sight as we look at her, she is, also, nonetheless, a half-decayed corpse with sagging mask-like features. Another image shows representatives of the three types of humanity -- a Japanese scholar and a Chinese sage and a balding Westerner who looks a little like a bust of Homer and pages idly through an anatomy picture book. This is curious enough, but the top of the painting shows a lurid blossom of flame, a pink roseate fire burning wildly while tiny figures direct arcs of water against the blaze from hoses. What in the world does this image, or this combination of images mean? Similarly puzzling is a vivid, crowded landscape showing a scene from the Tale of the Genjii. There are lords and ladies and peasants in processions, pagodas and palaces and ornate temples but the image is half-obscured by clouds of gold-leaf, a flat abstract pattern that is supposed to simulate -- what? -- early morning fog, low-lying mist, in any event a sort of glove-shaped void that interrupts the picture surface and conceals completely many of the episodes that I presume we are supposed to discover in the twenty-foot long picture. This is a show that must be seen in the gallery -- the scale of the images is important to their meaning and effect and most of the pictures have an aspect-ratio unfamiliar in Western art: the pictures are either elongated horizontally to stretch across extended folding screens or they are tall and narrow, sheets of painted rice-paper displayed like pennants or banners as wall-hangings. I don't think these images could be easily reproduced in a book because of their format -- they are either too long or too tall to fit readily onto the pages of a book of standard size. Nonetheless, I went to the gift shop anxious to buy a catalog of the collection. I hoped that a written text explicating the images would unlock the iconography and meanings encoded in the pictures. There was an elegant and expensive catalog for sale but I didn't buy it: the text was all in Japanese.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Uncle Vanya

Like "The Seagull," Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" starts quickly: with breathtaking efficiency, Chekhov establishes the situation and induces his characters to bare their souls within the first ten minutes of the play. At this stage in the proceedings, the gloom and morbid defeatism seems hysterical, a theatrical pose. The next two hours demonstrates that the situation is every bit as bleak as the characters have proclaimed, that their plight is as hopeless as they have expressed it to be shortly after the curtain rose on them, and, if anything, things will only go from bad to worse. The trajectory of these plays is from self-dramatizing proclamations of hopelessness to a clinical demonstration that this hopelessness is real, actual, and irreversible to, at last, something approaching a tragic recognition and reconciliation with the fatal destiny that has stranded these characters on this shoal of misery. Chekhov's Vanya and his adversary, the doctor, wallow in their unhappiness and tell us, at the outset, that they are miserable -- as the play progresses, the play pitilessly forces them to earn this misery. The effect of "Uncle Vanya" is that what appears "dramatic" -- that is, contrived and exagerrated in the first half of the play -- seems naturalistic, inevitable, and unavoidable in the second part of the show. "Uncle Vanya" is eerily prescient in the doctor's concern about climate change, deforestation, and the devastation of the Russian ecology, although it's important to realize that the alcoholic physician's opinions on these matters, although forcefully presented, represent his own precise form of failure, his sphere of bad faith, the ridiculous self-absorption and evasion that prevents him from being a good and virtuous man. Modern audiences, applauding the doctor's prophetic environmentalism, perhaps, fail to notice that during the long scene where his opinions are expressed (mostly through Sonya), the physician is preening himself on his apocalyptic predictions while a wounded workman, for whom the doctor has been summoned, is presumably bleeding to death at some noisome factory near the country estate where he is tarrying, awaiting yet another glass of vodka. (Chekhov's technique is extraordinary; the comic velocity of the opening scenes and the playwright's hasty full-throated and bold attack is startling. Further, his device of having one character talk for another -- for instance, Sonya explicating the doctor's environmentalism -- complicates and deepens our understanding both of the doctor's intelligent, if glib, ecological concerns and Sonya's hapless love for him.) The fundamental question presented by the play is to what extent Vanya's bitter hysteria is a representation of the truth. Hysteria, a word applied to Vanya several times, represents one adaptation to entrapment and disappointment; Vanya's hysteria is so abundantly obvious to the other characters that they don't call the authorities when he twice tries to murder the Professor -- he is so feckless and inept that no one even takes his homicidal fury seriously. Other adaptations to the characters' confinement and ineffectuality are demonstrated in the play: Waffles' masochism shows us what happens when someone wallows in misery and allows misfortune to define him. The elderly professor responds to the depredations of old age with sheer panic, another form of hysteria that induces in him an impressive range of (probably) psychosomatic symptoms. Sonya strugges fitfully to escape her fetters, but, ultimately, withdraws from any effective action -- she dispatches her romantic rival to demand an answer from the doctor as to whether he loves her with predictably catastrophic results. What did she think was going to happen? The beautiful Elena protests her loveless marriage to the old man by teasing the other men and sowing discord among them. Only the old nurse and the ancient grandmother seem to have miraculously escaped the seething misery in the household -- the old nurse is compassionate if ineffectual; grandma, an anarchist, calls herself "an old gladiator" and Chekhov symbolizes the cost that she makes others pay for her ruthless self-sufficiency: she is completely deaf and can't communicate with any of those around her. The Guthrie Theater's 2013 production of "Uncle Vanya" boasts a pointlessly complex set -- the play could be presented without any props at all. Brian Friel's adaptation seems a bit too facile to me, too modern, I think -- althought the plight of Chekhov's characters is universal, their circumstances are uniquely Russian and part of the fascination of the play is observing a brittle system of social relations poised on the brink of suicide. Uncle Vanya's plot to murder himself, like all of his stratagems, fails pathetically -- but the society of which he is a part is in the process of killing itself. I thought the performances in the final act were a bit too shrill, as if the hysteria animating the first three acts has not entirely resolved itself into the placid resignation of self-entombment with which the play concludes. Critics in the local newspaper have complained that the play, in this production, is presented with too great an emphasis on humor. I didn't think this was a defect, but thought that the apparently hysterical over-statement in the first half of the play did not convincingly resolve itself into a clarity of emotion in the second part. In my view, "Uncle Vanya" should start loud, desparate, and over-acted with the performances becoming quieter and more involuted as the show proceeds. That wasn't Joe Dowling's approach to this production and, perhaps, the esteem in which I hold this play -- "Uncle Vanya" is one of the greatest of all theater-pieces -- makes me suggest a quixotic and unduly abstract approach to the show.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Story of Film -- an Odyssey / Fistful of Dollars

Episode 7 of Mark Cousins’ “The History of Cinema -- an Odyssey” focuses on the precursors to the French New Wave with a nod toward Italian directors like Visconti, Fellini, Antonioni and Sergio Leone. Turner Classic Movies airs Cousins’ documentary on Monday nights and follows each episode with a selection of films featured by way of clips and commentary in the series. The presenter is an Irishman from Ulster and some of the encyclopedic documentary’s appeal comes from Cousins’ lilting brogue and his strangely affected singsong prosody, a musical accompaniment as it were to the images that he presents in swift succession, a glimpse of famous films, just enough to whet the viewer’s appetite. “The Story of Film” is a brisk tour of cinema history, fairly conventional, although with post-modernist grace notes -- Cousins’ likes to show nondescript street-corners or unprepossessing buildings that were once famous studios or the homes of great directors and there is a lot of pointless globe-trotting, extended shots of African villages or Indian slums or Chinese streets, sometimes viewed from the back of a moving tram, curiously unadorned and non-dramatic images that make the point that film has always been international and that any history that is so blinkered as to emphasize only Hollywood or, even, European films, for that matter, is deceitful; the history of film, Cousins seems to assert, is nothing less than the history of all the world and all of its peoples. Cousins’ picture delivers lots of information and, unlike many surveys of this kind, he provides useful technical information, facts about cameras and focal lengths and different lenses and professional-sounding tips on editing and sound composition. These insights are never less than fascinating and a good deal can be learned by attending to this documentary. Further, Cousins has apparently seen every film in the world and each episode introduces the viewer to a couple of films, sometimes even a four or five, that were pretty much unknown before highlighted in this documentary. As an example, Cousins’ admires Sergio Leone and notes that the Italian director, and his technicians, invented a new technique called “Techniscope” -- this was a lens system that allowed deep focus in an extremely wide-screen format. Cousins’ observes that America.n wide-screen pictures, for instance “Rebel without a Cause,” flattened and elongated the action into a narrow field of focus -- everything is presented like the frieze on a Greek temple, a flat panorama of action stretched out longitudinally but without depth. “Techniscope” allowed directors like Leone to film panoramic action with extreme depth of field -- the leads to effects characteristic of Leone films: a huge sweating profile occupying a third of the frame while riders approach from a half-mile away, both far and near shown in perfect focus. Leone’s films have the depth of field that we see in Orson Welles but also arrange figures laterally across the wide-screen format. The effect, I think, is like Tintoretto or the Italian mannerists, a weird space composed of figures that are either exceedingly close to us or fleeing into a vast, illuminated distance -- it is a kind of spatial hysteria, the sort of disposition of pictorial space that occurred when Renaissance perspective went slightly mad during the Mannerist and early Baroque periods. (The aura of Mannerist furor in Leone’s pictures is enhanced by many sequences shot in a profoundly unnatural, silvery day-for-night.) “A Fistful of Dollars” was Leone’s first film starring Clint Eastwood and it was made in 1964, although not released in the United States until the late sixties -- by which time the trilogy of films made in Spain by Leone and starring Eastwood had become world-wide hits. Fantastically mannered and stylized, “A Fistful of Dollars” illustrates Leone’s strengths and his limitations. Leone is not an effective action director -- an early scene in the picture showing a vicious bad guy massacring a crowd of soldiers with a Gatling gun is amateurishly staged and lacks the kind of dynamic, jaw-dropping montage effects that Peckinpah was to develop for this same material toward the end of the sixties. Leone just cuts between leering figures firing their guns and amateurishly managed horse-falls -- the animals seem reluctant to drop over on their sides and the stunt men slip off the beasts gingerly as if afraid to get hurt. Leone’s gunfights are modeled after Kurosawa’s sword battles (“A Fistful of Dollars” is a remake of “Yojimbo”) and they are over before they begin -- Clint fans his six-shooter and the bad guys drop like flies. Leone doesn’t have the balletic or choreographed approach to violence that Kurosawa displays and he lacks the feral, viciousness of a genuinely savage director like Fritz Lang. Leone is interested in long showy stand-offs, huge close-ups of scarred and weather-beaten faces, curiously intricate sets with lots of depth and odd nooks and crannies (consider, for instance, the mine where the badly beaten hero recuperates garishly equipped with all sorts of cubist shafts and timbers arrayed across a deep soundstage that seems to leak bluish fog from the depths of the grotto.) Like other Italian directors, he is fond of lengthy brutal torture scenes -- these images have some of the gory splendor of martyrdoms portrayed in Catholic churches and Leone amplifies the sound so that each punch has a thunderous impact. Pasolini, Bertolucci, and Leone all have an unsavory taste for bloody sadism and, of course, Rosselini’s “Rome Open City” was renowned for its references to torture -- a subject that is given really unseemly attention by horror film makers like Dario Argento, Jesse Franco and the hack directors of Roman sword and sandal epics full of half-naked women being flogged and crucified slaves. Leone’s pictures are about confrontations and squinting ice-cold eyes glaring at one another across vast arena-like and dusty Western streets. He’s not much interested in sex. Romance and sex in Leone films is generally just some form of rape. But the pictures are designed in terms of tableaux that are undeniably impressive even if somewhat static. Leone characters don’t act; rather, they mime passions with grotesque intensity and the dialogue is all epigrammatic threats and portents. There are a lot of toothless codgers and nasty-looking villains with Civil War beards and shaggy Friedrich Nietzsche moustaches. In the few scenes where Eastwood attempts to act -- one image in particular where he rolls his eyes girlishly after accidentally slugging a woman in face -- his efforts are laughably inept. Furthermore, Eastwood is not a particularly convincing action hero. One sequence requires him to scale a wall -- one images the “joie de vivre” with which a genuinely talented and athletic action star like Douglas Fairbanks would have hurled himself at this task. Eastwood is rigid and his body doesn’t seem to bend and he seems to have trouble climbing a little adobe wall that Fairbanks would have vaulted with ease, perhaps, doing a somersault on the way over the obstacle. Furthermore, Eastwood isn’t very good on horseback either -- in one shot, he seems to almost fall off his mount. But Clint learned from these pictures and, unlike most other Hollywood stars, he wasn’t content with merely posing for the camera but watched Leone, and ultimately mastered both his trade as an action mannequin as well as the craft of directing, becoming, at last, not only the equal of the great Italian director, but surpassing him as well.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Captain Phillips

It is interesting that the most powerful country in the world, and one that adopted torture as an official policy against terrorism, assumes the role of martyr and victim in the popular media. In Paul Greengrass' "Captain Phillip," (2013) Tom Hanks plays the title role as a suffering Christ of the sea -- the final fifteen minutes are like Mel Gibson's "Passion", Hanks is trussed-up, bloodied, bellowing in pain and fear and, then, after the Somali pirates have been gunned-down, we see him tended to by a briskly efficient female corpsman who itemizes each of his wounds for the audience as if we are inspecting the body of the crucified Jesus himself. The entire spectacle is a little puzzling since it is obvious from the outset that the ragged, hysterical Somali pirates are out-gunned, out-maneuvered, and doomed. In the end, the entire power of the American naval fleet is deployed against them and, of course, the outcome is never in doubt. Nonetheless, Greengrass shows Hanks mutilated, abused, humiliated, and weeping in shock at the climax of the picture, no doubt a realistic portrayal, but one that seems a bit self-pitying in the grand scheme of things -- our Henry Fonda, the heroic everyman Sergeant Ryan, sobbing and writhing to induce an orgy of self-pity in an audience of fat, wealthy, and powerful Americans. This objection aside Greengrass' film is intermittently thrilling and never less than interesting. The subject matter allows gripping scenes at sea, the pirate skiffs whirling about the monster Maersk freight ship, the great vessel heaped high with storage containers and the assault on the vessel by the Somalis is exciting as is the tense cat-and-mouse game, a kind of lethal hide-and-seek, that takes place once the bad guys get on the ship. The film is too long and shot in a style that I find intensely irritating -- it's all short snippets of jerky film, every third shot a close-up of one of the Somali's leering or shrieking or Tom Hanks grimacing in pain. But the narrative is lucidly conveyed, notwithstanding the obfuscatory style of the production and, although the picture drags on and on in its last act -- take the kill-shot for God's sake! -- things are generally exciting enough to keep the audience occupied and, indeed, distracted from asking any embarrassing questions, some of which may occur to you while walking to your car in the parking lot. This style of film making substitutes quantity for quality; there are way too many shots and most of them are unnecessary. We get repeated images of ships rotating or changing course at sea -- these sequences are shot with Soviet-style montage: we see the rudder under the ocean twistng, hands on the rudder on the command deck, sweaty faces, a helicopter shot of the vessel changing direction, more gratuitous underwater shots, more shots of the vessel's wake, more close-ups of concerned looking seamen -- probably 15 to 20 images in the montage simply to show that the big boat has moved 5 degrees one way or another. When the container vessel leaves the harbor at Oman, we get about two minutes of showy montage. But all of this is unnecessary -- there's no compelling need to fracture images of a minor change in a boat's direction into a dozen or more shots. Indeed, most of the images in the movie don't communicate anything except motion, but motion that is meaningless. The script is efficient if rudimentary -- there's a stab at establishing an equivalency between the pirates and the merchant marines in the first twenty minutes (Hanks says 50 young men vie for one captain's job and, then, we see a hundred Somali's competing to be chosen for the doomed mission) but this theme is quickly dropped. In fact, the portrayal of the Somali pirates is a little racist -- they seem to be khat-maddened morons, always screaming at one another, hyper-excitable, and their leader is so devilish that he seems to be sprouting a horn from his forehead. As with many Hollywood productions, some things are inexplicable: here is also an astounding set of images of Navy Seals hurling through the air as they drop as a paratroopers into the sea near the hijacked vessel. But the Seals, then, apparently inflate a couple of little rafts and row over to a big destroyer, later joined by an aircraft carrier -- so why in the hell did these idiots parachute down to the Navy boats? Was this for fun? Couldnt they have been simply helicoptered to the deck of one of the huge military vessels dogging the hapless pirates? The dangerous air-drop into the sea at night seems totally unnecessary. If this film is any measure of how the US military really responds to these kinds of crises, then the American taxpayer is in deep trouble.

Promised Land

The stupidity evident in Gus van Sant’s meretricious and incoherent “Promised Land” is nothing short of staggering. A glossy Hollywood anti-fracking film produced with Saudi Arabian money, the picture is apparently an attempt by Abu Dhabi to torpedo development of the natural gas industry in America. Exactly why people like Dave Eggers, who wrote the screenplay, and Matt Damon, who stars in this thing, would be involved in a mess like this is unclear to me -- at one point in the picture, someone is handed an envelope fat with cash and, one supposes, that Saudi Arabian interests slipped similarly plump wads of greenbacks to the principals involved in the film -- otherwise, the whole enterprise is inexplicable. Matt Damon plays an inept Iowa native hired to persuade a farming community near Davenport to lease their lush and verdant land to a petroleum company so that subterranean hydro-carbon shales can be “fracked” to produce gas and oil. Damon has a sidekick, Francis McDormand in an underwritten and enigmatic role -- her character exists only to give Damon someone to talk to; otherwise, the film would be partly silent and the various tendentious speeches on responsibility and environmental stewardship would be soliloquies. Made by LA stars and west coast film-makers (and shot near Pittsburgh), the film is false in every single respect. Although the action is supposed to taking place within 20 miles of Davenport, Iowa, nothing in the picture seems even remotely Midwestern. Early in the film, someone comments that eastern Iowa, fifteen miles from Davenport, looks “just like Kentucky” -- Damon, I think, says: “Hell, any place fifteen miles from a major city looks just like Kentucky.” But, of course, the hills around Pittsburgh are close to Kentucky and do look like the mountainous regions of that state and so, this dialogue, which seems brittle and clever, is really just a cover for the movie’s geographical confusion and its utterly inept and unconvincing vision of what life is like in the Midwest. Damon comes to the town that he intends to seduce by bus -- apparently, planes don’t fly to Davenport or, indeed, anywhere in Iowa. For some reason, he and McDormand have a rickety SUV that doesn’t start efficiently -- apparently, the film makers think that people in Iowa don’t have good vehicles or can’t afford SUV’s that actually work. In one scene, Damon talks to a farmer while his 10 year old nephew trudges through a field carrying a big shotgun (everyone in the sticks has firearms, of course). In the foreground, the farmer debates environmental issues with Damon while working on a picturesque tractor that looks like it was built about 1942 and would be more suited for an appearance in Dovhenko’s “Earth” than modern Iowa. Everyone is supposedly very poor -- obviously, LA filmmakers and Dave Eggers don’t know the value of farm land nowadays and don’t grasp that humble Iowa peasants currently drive $250,00 computerized GPS-guided combines. A store in the town sitting atop the oil reserve doesn't take credit cards -- newfangled stuff like credit cards that apparently haven’t reached the boondocks. During a school demonstration, John Krasinski, playing an obviously fraudulent environmental activist, lights a big fire in a classroom to make a point -- of course, in real life this would trigger arrests and felony convictions, not taking into account the fire alarms that would undoubtedly be shrieking in protest at this sort of elementary school antics. Damon falls hard for -- you can’t make this up -- a local school-marm and she lives in an ante-bellum mansion complete with miniature goats in the front yard, a rooster crowing at dawn, and a white picket fence. The plot makes no sense at all and the big reveal -- that Krasinski’s character, who is a foil to Damon’s naïve corporate salary-man, is an imposter -- is obvious to any reasonably attentive spectator the moment we learn that the activist’s last name is “Noble.” The climax, predictably involving Damon’s character, biting the hand that feeds him -- he turns heroically on his corporate masters --makes no sense at all. Damon’s speech takes place in the context of some kind of community vote, but we have no idea what the community is voting on and, surely, their plebiscite can’t have any effect on all the private lease contracts that Damon and McDormand have negotiated with the local yokels. The two strands of the story -- one involving community disapproval of fracking and the other showing Damon and McDormand signing people up on leases aren’t convincingly integrated. If everyone has signed oil and gas leases who cares what the community says by way of its vote. This film is not merely poorly made, idiotically written, and patronizing; it’s also a profound insult, apparently bought and paid for with Saudi Arabian money, to the very communities that it is supposed to be celebrating.

Friday, October 11, 2013


suppose that Michael Haneke’s “Amour” (2012) is good for you in an astringent and punishing way -- at least, this is what critics have concluded and the film won the “Palm d’Or” at Cannes. But this picture isn’t fun on any level and its two hour seven minute running time feels like penance for you sins, penance, indeed, for liking movies and the art of film enough to attend a thing like this. As everyone knows, “Amour” concerns an elderly couple living in an elegant and beautifully appointed Parisian apartment. The old woman is a piano teacher and as the film progresses, she suffers a stroke, then, a series of strokes, and becomes bedridden. Her husband has promised that he will not commit her to a hospital and so he attempts to care for his demented and helpless wife in their apartment. After the film has clinically observed the old woman’s humiliating and increasingly grotesque senility for a couple hours, her husband administers the coup de grace, mercy-killing her with a pillow over her face -- this scene, like everything else in the film, is mercilessly protracted and lasts about three minutes. The old fellow seals off the death room, snips the blossoms off some flowers, and captures a pigeon that has invaded the apartment through a courtyard window. He hallucinates that his wife is healthy enough to walk about once more and imagines leaving the apartment with her. In the final scene, the couple’s daughter sits disconsolate in the empty apartment. In the opening sequence, we have seen the old lady dressed in black finery and half-mummified in her bed. A window is open, suggesting to some critics that the old man has been liberated from the suffocating apartment -- although this is a retrospective interpretation of a brief image and a throw-away line in the opening sequence from which the film’s chronicle of physical decay and desperation proceeds as a flashback. Writers have struggled to find a meaning in the film’s brutal materialism, but, I think, the project of imputing symbolism to the picture’s dire narrative is an evasion, an attempt at locating some consolation in the movie that is, in fact, conspicuously absent. In my view, the movie is anti-symbolic, shockingly direct, and without pretense toward any larger meaning -- it is what we see: an increasingly disturbing spectacle of helplessness, disability, and dementia. Haneke is a sadist and his films are cheerless, utterly without any scintilla of humor, and completely depressing. He delights in shock-cuts, for instance, suturing a tender scene in which a woman is reminiscing about making love to an image of two thug-like furniture movers setting up a hospital bed in the apartment, a rack-like apparatus from a medieval torture chamber. Haneke keeps his camera in the middle distance for most of the film, and this keeps the misery just barely tolerable, but, when he wants to jam your nose in the suffering, he shows no compunction at all about ladling out the horror by the shovel-full -- I am referring, for instance, to a long sequence filmed in horrific close-up in which the old man tries to get his dying wife to sip some water, becomes frustrated, and slaps her in the face when she malignantly spits the fluid all over her chin. The movie is austere, without any trace of beauty, and the acting is resolutely non-metaphorical. There are no flights of rhetorical fancy, no raging against the dying of the light, nothing Shakespearian or, even, absurdist about the physical decay and lonely depression that the movie shows. Haneke seems to refer faintly to two of his famous films -- “The Piano Teacher” and “Funny Games”; there is a motif about home invasion, someone has broken into the old folks’ flat in an opening scene, and this incident is one of the few metaphors that the film tolerates: the onslaught of death and the dilapidations of death are like the sinister young men in “Funny Games -- for inexplicable reasons, handsome young men, clad all in black, enter your home and torture you to death. There is nothing in this movie that isn’t completely predictable. The film operates like a geometric theorem. Old age is misery, shame, and humiliation and there is no surcease to suffering except in death. The picture is a relentless procession of long takes lensed by a motionless camera and the images are resolutely quotidian, dull, hopeless -- the film is too proud and austere for anything so vulgar as a plot or any real conflict or, even, any meaningful dialogue between characters. Most of the picture is silent and the few scenes with significant amounts of speech are monologues. Haneke has called the film “Amour” and this title is like the label on an abstract painting -- if Jackson Pollock calls a painting “Autumn rhythm,” we think we see leaves, chilly fall colors, pumpkins, golden trees in the crisp dusk. But this is all projection; we are investing these meanings in the image. If Haneke had called the film “Misery” or “Death” or “Suffocation” -- all titles that would be equally valid -- critics would not write enthusiastically about the love between the old man and woman. The acting in the film (Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant) is beyond superlatives and affection between the old couple is obvious but it isn’t the main thing in the film -- the principal theme of the picture is the relentless mutiliaton that old age inflicts on us. Critics rhapsodically assure readers that the movie is about “love” -- but that’s a trick played on viewers by the title to the film. We want to console ourselves by inventing a plot-line in the film about "amour," love -- but that’s just a projection, a means of self-defense, whistling in the graveyard to try to reassure ourselves that we are not afraid

Sunday, October 6, 2013


Alphonso Cuaron’s gorgeous and thrilling “Gravity” is just a tiny, tiny bit disappointing. The movie is less a story than a situation and all the astounding special effects can’t quite disguise the fact that the picture is a little bit thin, ultimately less than meets the eye. But, of course, what meets the eye is so spectacular that the film’s vertiginous beauty becomes its own strongest argument. George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, mostly confined in bulky space suits, are astronauts repairing a satellite in orbit six-hundred kilometers above the earth. A “missile strike” by the Russians blows apart another orbiting satellite and the debris, like a cloud of glistening hornets, sweeps through space and destroys the craft on which our protagonists are laboring. The remainder of the film illustrates the astronauts’ struggle to survive, an ordeal that involves great amounts of wild gyrations whirling around other satellites badly damaged by the asteroid-like swarms of space debris churning through the void. I admire the film’s single-minded and abstract purity -- there are no subplots, no marking time before the catastrophe hurtles the characters into danger, no extraneous characters or scenes. The picture is a raw “man against nature” epic with outer space as the most awful and intimidating kind of nature imaginable. Cuaron is interested in his characters’ courage and stoicism in facing death and he focuses on the imaginative devices that his protagonists employ to revivify their flagging spirits and overcome their fear. (The film has one shocking twist that can’t be revealed without damaging a viewer’s enjoyment of the picture -- and that twist, in turn, is exploited in another sequence, the best in the film from a dramatic perspective, that I won’t describe in this note.) The opening sequence, said to be more than 12 minutes of a continuous take, sets a high standard for the rest of the picture -- it’s the most audacious and beautiful scene in the film, a hyperkinetic, wild ballet that completely disabuses the viewer of any notion of “up” or “down”, and there is really nothing in the rest of the film as experimental and wonderful as this first sequence. The movie is not without flaws: one crucial scene, involving the two astronauts becoming separated, is completely unclear -- it isn’t obvious what force is driving Clooney’s character away from the frightened and nauseated Bullock. Oddly enough, the last minute, showing landscapes on earth, contains the least believable images in the film -- space looks more real than the strange green denuded mountains around the ocean lagoon where the film ends and I wonder if those landscapes weren’t entirely digital, composed inside a computer like the rest of the movie. One sequence involving Bullock shedding tears that spin and rotate around her head like tiny, glistening pearls is disfigured, I think, by Cuaron’s decision to pull focus and emphasize in close-up one of those weightless tears -- it’s a rare misstep, a bit of vulgar over-emphasis that, I think, insults the audience’s intelligence. But most of the film is visually flawless -- flames in a burning satellite have a wispy ghostlike quality, pale corpses rotate like melancholy planets in a ruptured space station and one dead man has his face neatly bisected and slotted by a cannon ball of debris. all of this backlit by the vast blue and brown expanse of the planet earth. The scenes involving astronauts slamming at high-speed into spinning satellites and clawing at their surfaces for purchase have a stunning visceral quality. When a satellite blows apart entering the atmosphere, the capsule falls toward the earth like a chariot of fire surrounded by house-sized comets of burning metal. The film is shot in faultless 3D -- as a woman sinks to the bottom of the sea, a frog startles us by swimming upward, apparently a couple inches from our eyes and nuts and bolts sliding from the hands of the astronauts limpidly spin off the screen and through the darkened auditorium where we are watching the movie. The picture is so marvelous and so unearthly that I’m not sure how much of it the mind can retain -- and it’s really not so much a plot as a kind of computer game, a first-person adventure in cyber-space filled with terror and wonder, but remote from any experience that we can even imagine and, therefore, despite several very moving scenes, a bit remote and icy.
Pablo Larrain’s “No,” a film from Chile, is strangely inconsequential and indecisive. In some contexts, indecision and ambiguity is a positive characteristic, a “negative capacity” that preserves countervailing ideas in equilibrium and that doesn’t force the audience toward one dogma or another. But “No” is so peculiarly ambiguous that, I think, that the film’s strangely neutral and non-dramatic tone signals confusion as opposed to nuance. In 1988, under international pressure, Pinochet’s regime sponsored a plebiscite vote -- “Si” was a vote for the dictator, “no” was a vote for change. The campaign was limited to 27 days and, to legitimize the plebiscite (generally thought to be rigged), the opposition was granted a 15 minute daily time-slot to make its case. Gael Garcia Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, the son of a prominent exiled dissident and an advertising executive. Saavedra specializes in feel-good messaging -- his most recent campaign was for a soft drink and his ads feature attractive dancers and humorous montages of perky young people. Reluctantly, Saavedra, who seems more or less apolitical, agrees to direct the PR campaign for the opposition. He has a jingle composed that sounds a bit like the Beatles “Give Peace a Chance,” recruits Hollywood spokespeople, and stages a dozen or so glossy, cheerful infomercials, marketing the opposition to Pinochet the way that he has promoted Pepsi products. Pinochet’s PR flaks use heavy-handed ads starring burn victims scarred by terrorists and accusing their adversaries of being Communists. Saavedra responds with humor and develops a picturesque logo with a colorful rainbow symbolizing the 17 opposition parties waging their campaign against Pinochet. (The logo baffles the generals who think it signifies homosexuality.)The ad agency where Saavedra works is retained by Pinochet’s campaign and, ultimately, the General’s PR lamely imitates the “No” campaign. There is a scary riot with tear-gas and burning vehicles and the anti-Pinochet ad men are threatened, although no one is injured. ”No” wins and, presumably, Pinochet is deposed although this is not shown -- instead we see Bernal’s character on his skateboard, the quintessential urban hipster going to work and, then, presenting a campaign involving beautiful models and James Bond look-likes atop a Santiago skyscraper to promote a soap-opera. It is very hard to know what to make of this narrative and Bernal’s enigmatic performance -- so hip and cool as to be practically non-existent -- doesn’t clarify anything. The opposition forces accuse Saavedra of trivializing Chile’s horrific history, but when polls show that his ads, colorful, youthful, and entirely free from any content, are effective, everyone hops on the bandwagon. It’s not clear to me what the viewer is supposed to make of this: did Saavedra’s high-gloss MTV style commercials really win the campaign or were Pinochet’s days numbered in any event? Is the victory for democracy and reform tainted by the trite imagery used to promote it? Is politics inherently trivial and corrupt or has Saavedra’s campaign merely degraded the opposition to the level of the corrupt general (whose PR staff ultimately adopts the same approach to the plebiscite.) Larrain complicates the story with a tentative romantic angle-- Saavedra’s leftist wife, estranged from her Madison Avenue husband, despises his anti-Pinochet campaign but, ultimately, has to agree that marketing democracy like Coca-Cola is better than bloody street protests in which workers are beset by water cannons and tear gas. (When the woman is arrested and beaten, Saavedra’s boss taps one of his buddies in the armed forces, a staunch Pinochet supporter, to bail her out of jail.) The curious thing about the film is that it feels completely superfluous -- the subject matter seems apt for documentary treatment and it isn’t clear what is gained by dramatizing the story: why not just show the ads and interview the PR men who designed them? In order to draw a contrast between Saavedra’s swiftly cut and glossy ads and the dramatized narrative, the director uses a handheld camera, wobbles it continuously, and shoots into the sunlight overexposing many images into glaring invisibility. The film is self-consciously ugly, poorly lit, spastic with whip-pans and zooms -- in the early seventies, Pable Guzman’s famous documentary “The Battle of Chile,” shot under fire on streets among freshly killed corpses, was more conventionally shot and handsomely edited then this picture. The low-tech digital style is fundamentally annoying, although its function is obvious : the film’s ugly over-exposed digital images -- they look like poorly made home-movies -- is supposed to stand for documentary truth as opposed to the MTV-style commercials that Saavedra (and ultimately Pinochet’s staff) produce. But documentary truth telling us what? That advertising is effective and works best with little or no substantive content. Ultimately, the film seems to be an advertisement itself, a low-tech informercial extolling the benefits of high-tech, focus-group driven advertising.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Night Moves

Between 1968 and 1980, every major director working in Hollywood wanted to remake Howard Hawks’ “The Big Sleep”. (The appeal of this film extends beyond that period as well -- “The Big Lebowski” is also a remake of the Hawks’ classic.) “Chinatown” is a version of that film, however, sufficiently remote to disguise the Bogart and Bacall movie’s influence. Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” is closer to Hawks’ prototype. Ivan Passer’s “Cutter’s Way” adapts Hawks’ pervasive sense of corruption, but shifts the paradigm toward an exploration of post Vietnam rot in America. The least-known of these neo-noir films, Arthur Penn’s “Night Moves,” released in 1975, comes the closest to literally remaking the Hawks’ picture -- although Penn’s film is distinctively perverse and curiously mired in the loopy, marijuana-inflected culture of the early seventies. It’s a period piece combining Cassavetes’ style method acting with wild and painful psycho-drama, long improvised sequences, and highly stylized dialogue -- the script was written by the great Alan Sharp and every half-dozen lines there’s a great zinger or a poignant moment of revelation, a little whiff of Tennessee Williams here and there. Like “The Big Sleep,” the plot involves a private eye (played by Gene Hackman grinning while his heart is breaking) hired by an elderly debauchee to track down a missing child. The detective, called Mosby, has been gum-shoeing his wife and catches her involved in a love affair. Mosby is a tough guy who was once a famous college football player and he’s a man’s man -- but his heart is broken by his wife’s affair and the film’s subplot, action parallel to the film’s detective narrative, involves the hero’s attempts to reconcile with his cheating spouse -- this being the seventies, everyone is sleeping with everyone else. “Night Moves” is also similar to “The Big Sleep” in that the plot is so complex that it is impossible to determine whether it makes any sense or can even be deciphered at all. It suffices to observe that by the end of the film every single character (with the exception of the depraved fading movie star -- a character that should have been played by Gloria Swanson) is dead or dying. Why all these people were killed and by whom remained totally obscure to me, but the story isn’t the point of the film -- rather, the movie is about establishing certain moods, playing out certain scenarios that are dream-like riffs on classic film noir motifs from the late forties and fifties, a Technicolor variation on black and white themes. The purpose of the movie is to expose its female characters in various postures of lust and seduction -- the faded movie star is always half-naked and flashing herself at Hackman’s private eye; her daughter, played by a very young Melanie Griffith, is naked throughout most of the film and all the male characters, seedy leisure-suit lounge lizards to a man, have had sex with her. Jennifer Warren, a curiously equine-looking actress, seduces Mosby to keep him from trailing her lover, a nasty, hairy old gent who has been interfering sexually with his step-daughter (Ms. Griffith) -- Warren’s character makes picturesque remarks about her nipples to detain Mosby while her gangster husband pilots his boat from the Florida Keys on obscure business in the Gulf of Mexico. The women are all needy and ready to hop into bed with the hero at the drop of a hat. The men are completely vicious, drunk, and murderous. The film features a wonderful scene with the faded starlet, denouncing her daughter who has been murdered as a “little bitch” while Hackman looks on with an expression mingling sorrow and contempt -- the retired ex-starlet’s house is in the Hollywood Hills overlooking LA and the shot is as much about the bright light, the bright swimming pool and the steep hillside as anything else. There’s a big fight between Hackman and the stepfather that deteriorates into childish looking, if bloody, flailing around and the action takes place in squalid locations in the Florida Keys and the rim of Hollywood, sets that are so vivid that you can almost smell them. Sharp’s dialogue delivers dozens of Oscar Wilde style epigrams, dumbed down into seventies’ diction and the characters are vivid and believable in a dismal sort of way The camera-work is Hawksian -- it doesn’t interfere with the story such as it is and Hackman delivers a subtle, wounded performance. Some critics rate “Night Moves” as Arthur Penn’s greatest film -- better these critics think than “Bonnie and Clyde” or “Little Big Man” or “The Miracle Worker”. My view is that the picture is a curious failure -- like “The Big Sleep,” I think, a mood piece masquerading as a detective picture, too idiosyncratic and flawed to be great, but, probably, the last really personal and effective film that Penn was able to direct.

Friday, October 4, 2013


Things are dark and gloomy in the Commonwealth. It is November, torrential rain freezing to sleet and, then, snow with skies universally leaden and someone has abducted two little girls. Denis Villaneuve's harrowing thriller, "Prisoners" (2013), depicts a series of grisly events triggered by the abduction -- in the course of the film there is graphic torture, abuse of animals, suicide, deoomposing corpses, and lots of foul weather. The girls are kidnapped away from a Thanksgiving celebration involving two couples. The father of one of the girls is a religious survivalist and, when the police release a prime suspect, a creepy,mentally retarded 27 year old man, he captures the kid and tortures him, unsuccessfully, to extract information as to the whereabouts of the missing girls. Hugh Jackman plays the fundamentalist survival-nut and captures very precisely the self-righteous and self-justifying tenor of the man -- this is the kind of fellow who perceives his way of life under assault, imagines himself as a victim, and can't perceive the possibility that he is mistaken. More disturbing is the other couple -- although overtly law-abiding and rational, they go along with the torture scheme and, in fact, are complicit in its savagery. The movie is long and intense; it is certainly a gripping experience, although whether this tour of horrors can be described as entertainment is, perhaps, problematic. The film is beautifully shot and composed by the great Roger Deakins and the picture represents classical Hollywood storytelling -- building a narrative with clearly presented and atmospherically powerful pictures -- at its finest. There is none of the cheap handheld camera-work, jiggling to make things seem documentary. Rather the camera glides ominously through dark woods, slides across the waters of an icy millpond, and rummages with grave portent through rotting buildings and derelict backyards. The camera is effectively, and unobtrusively placed, the takes are the right length, the acting is superbly naturalistic, and the movie isn't marred by excessive, intrusive close-ups. The flaws in the film relate to its fundamental influence -- Nordic noir of the Henning Mankell variety. All too often, the picture looks like a scarier and more effectively shot version of the PBS show "Wallender" -- we have the same brooding skies, the same tormented loner hero, the same Gothic plot involving child murder and sex abuse and religious fanaticism. The movie is also clearly indebted to picturs like "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" -- in fact, the hero, who has a conspicuously Nordic name (Loki), is covered with ugly, disturbing-looking tattoos. "Prisoners" rotates around various scenes of confinement -- the retarded kid, beaten beyond recognition isconfined in a kind of "tiger cage" and scalded; a corpse rots in a black cellar under a church observed by plaster casts of the Virgin Mary, prisoners are kept in an underground oubliette with a car parked over its plywood cover. There are many fine naturalistic details -- the retarded kid casually strangles his pet dog before releasing the animal (everyone tortures everyone else) for its walk, Loki slips on ice while rushing one of the girls to the hospital, and the set design and locations are vividly real. The film errs on the side of excess -- it loads horror upon horror, including in one over-the-top scene, a hundred slithering snakes and a decapitated pig's head -- this is David Fincher "Seven" material and doesn't fit well. This stuff is florid and unconvincing and, in fact, distracts from the pitiless and relentlessly grim theorem of the plot. And from one perspective the film is profoundly annoying -- it's catnip to Hollywood types to make a film in which religious people are depicted as hypocritical monsters, pedophiles and sadists: there is a wicked Catholic priest, the survivalist gun-nut father is pious and always reciting prayers, the villains turn out to be Evangelicals who have slipped into total madness and the little girls are abducted to the tune of "Put your Hand in the Hand of the Man from Galilee". the programmatic nature of this attack on religion is made obvious by the fact that Loki is some kind of religious syncretist -- his body seems to be covered with tattoos emblematic of various faiths (Buddhist, a pentagram on his neck, a cross on his fist, Sanskrit scribbled on his knuckles.) Accordingly, organized and established American religion is portrayed as evil and fanatical, while Loki's searching cafeteria-style faith is presumed to be virtuous. The movie is sufficiently powerful, however, to over-rule these cavils.