Sunday, December 28, 2014

Regarding Susan Sontag

Shallow and, more or less, vulgar, the documentary Regarding Susan Sontag is, nonetheless, compulsively watchable and, even, entertaining.  Two factors account for this:  first, Sontag was beautiful, charismatic, and exquisitely photogenic -- in photographs, she combines soulful seriousness, an appearance of profound gravitas, with a dark, sinister sort of movie star beauty.  More than half of the film consists of images of Sontag and she is never less than compelling to look upon.  Andy Warhol understood this when he filmed her in his Factory:  we see him posing her as a kind of sexually conquering dyke in leather boots, her legs spread as she lolls on a sort of beanbag throne, languorously smoking a cigarette.  Second, the film is deliriously gossipy, a tally of Sontag's various lovers who seem to have been a multitude of impressive men and women -- she slept with the choreographer Lucinda Childs, had flings with various movie stars, seduced New York celebrities like the painter, Jasper Johns, engaged in a decade long affair with one of the leading ladies of French cinema, and ended in the arms of the handsome and formidable Annie Leibovitz.  This tabloid aspect of the film is engaging kitsch and the accounts of Sontag's love affairs are sufficiently interesting to keep the viewer engaged.  The movie regards Sontag's thought as a matter of an occasional aphorism cited now and then, some shots of the covers of her books, and a few snippets from the films that she directed.  There is no attempt to explicate her thought or, even, to consider whether there was any theme to her life's work, and so, in a way the movie completely traduces Sontag, a writer who was, perhaps, the last public intellectual to matter enough to appear before viewers on programs like Charley Rose and Dick Cavett late-lamented talk show.  Sontag longed to be Walter Benjamin, who, in turn, longed to be the aphoristic Karl Marx of the Theses on Feuerbach and she seems to have regarded her life as a failure since she, perhaps, didn't live up to the rather grandiose ambitions of her youth.  The documentary consists mostly of still and motion picture footage of Sontag with talking heads commenting piously on her, many of them former female lovers remarking on her virtues -- although she was probably a tremendously difficult woman, most of things said about her are kind and, even, forgiving.  Occasionally, the filmmaker has bad ideas, vividly displayed in the documentary -- there is a repeated stylized shot of reddish gobs representing cancer metastasizing; this is just bad taste, although Sontag as a fan of "camp" might well have enjoyed this imagery, at least, in her younger days.  We see and hear Sontag excoriating American foreign policy in the sixties and seventies, but the film maker doesn't have the guts of her subject -- year later, a repentant Sontag wrote that someone reading Readers Digest would have had a better sense of geopolitical reality of totalitarian Communism than subscribers to the sort of left-wing intellectual journals for which she customarily wrote.  This revision in Sontag's thought is not supplied.  The film also tactlessly quotes Sontag's famous slur that "The white race is the cancer of human history" -- but doesn't take time to tell us how the famous intellectual retrospectively regarded that remark when she herself became a victim of cancer, a fate that she wrote about in her important book Illness as a Metaphor.  (Sontag heroically fought her illness and was not ready to die; she is said to have screamed in rage when the doctor told her in 2004 that a bone marrow transplant had failed.) I am probably unfair in expecting that a film about a famous and much-quoted public intellectual demonstrate a bit of intellectual stamina itself -- after all, most people who have read Nietzsche only remember a few snippets of the philosopher's thoughts, an aphorism quoted by screenwriter John Milius in Conan the Barbarian or something about God being dead.  Sontag (whose name is pronounced, by the way, with the final syllable sounded to rhyme with "bag" -- an insult, I suppose, to the Germans) is a lesser figure and so, perhaps, it's reasonable to eulogize her with a couple of aphorisms of questionable validity, stories about her love affairs, and images of the spines of a few of her books -- but, I can't help but think that she deserves better...

Sacred Journeys (with Bruce Feiler) -- Mecca and Medina

All religions have disgusting features and rites that are affronts to human dignity.  Pilgrimage is an aspect of organized religion that shows piety at its most craven, bigoted, superstitious, and unpleasant.  It is manifestly unfair to judge the intricate structure of philosophy, narrative, and poetry comprising a major religion by its pilgrims and its pilgrimage sites.  So my comments about Bruce Feiler's Sacred Journeys (about which I previously written) focusing on the episode involving Muslim pilgrims making the Hajj, that is, a journey to the prophets Muhammed's tomb in Medina and, then, Mecca, and the sacred sites, apparently, suburban to Mecca must be read with this caveat in mind.  Nonetheless. the hour-long program about the pilgrimage to the deserts of Saudi Arabia is particularly horrific and casts an alarming light on institutional Islam.  It is a show that people hoping to understand the Muslim religion should see.  Since he is non-Muslim (indeed, some kind of Bill Moyers' style secular humanist), Bruce Feiler is excluded from this adventure.  Feiler is dismayingly enthusiastic, but irrelevant -- since he can't travel to Mecca or Medina, he has to limp around the Mojave desert, favoring his game leg, and cheerleading sententiously 'from the bench' as it were.  He utters a few comments about deserts and, then, sits by a  lonely campfire in the wasteland sulking a bit when he is not skyping with the American pilgrims in Mecca.  Since Feiler is one of the most irritating aspects of this PBS show, his exile from center-stage although manifestly unjust actually improves the program.  Like the other episodes that I have seen, the program follows a dramatic pattern:  the pilgrims have been selected for their relative diversity, a bit like a movie-platoon in a Hollywood W. W. II combat film:  there is a simple, unsophisticated true believer, a cradle-Catholic or -Jew or - Muslim, an enlightened poetic intellectual in the Bill Moyers' mold, a cynical skeptic, and, in the Mecca episode, even a handsome young horn-dog, an amorous fellow who has just been divorced and is sowing his wild-oats (such as they are) on the Hajj to Mecca -- the guy is a little like an Islamist Charley Sheen and he's looking to hook-up with the pious beauties converging the Holy City.  Predictably, everyone, even the skeptic, is deeply moved by their pilgrimage and, at the end of the show, all pronounce the experience to be profound and life-changing -- there's no dissenting voice, no lone rationalist who declares that the whole thing was a monumental waste of time, but, then, my friends, what did you expect from a cautious, life-affirming, beneficent PBS documentary series?  The pilgrimage sites in Saudi Arabia are, apparently, noteworthy because of their sheer, hideous ugliness and the spectacle of millions of people reduced to swarming insects in structures that seem to be modeled after the worst aspects of a modern airline terminal is ghastly to behold.  Islam is iconoclastic and mosques on the scale shown in this documentary -- one of them comprises 100 acres -- are simply too vast and impersonal to be decorated in any way.  The pilgrimage sites look brand-new, as if built in the last couple years, and they consist of gigantic white concourses clinically lit that lead to ramps circling holy places, for instance the Kaaba with its cornerstone of black meteorite.  Since Islamic custom requires that pilgrims circumnavigate the big black cube seven times, the shrine is surrounded by vast concrete ramps, at least three levels, permitting the pilgrims to perambulate around the Kaaba stacked on top of one another.  Viewed from above, the site looks something like a gigantic interstate cloverleaf, cheerless concrete pillars supporting vast viaducts something like colossal freeway overpasses.  A million people blacken the huge ramps, marked by signs like you  migh see on the LA freeway, inscriptions in Arabic and English pointing the way to the various levels of the ramps.  When one of our heroes makes the mistake of actually attempting to kiss the black meteorite at one of the corners of the towering Kaaba shrine, someone throws an elbow into his eye and he makes the rest of the pilgrimage with a swollen shiner.  The throng mangles the knee of one of the women and she has to be shoved from place-to-place in a wheelchair and, as the pilgrimage continues, from sacred place to place, the pilgrims become increasingly desperate -- it's a race against time since the throngs require enormous patience to navigate and, apparently, long hours are stuck in traffic jams comprised of hundreds of buses stalled in impasse in the moonscape of the Arabian desert, and during the ordeal the pilgrims all become increasingly irritable and debilitated.  The women, in particular, are emotionally unprepared for the level in patriarchal institutionalized sexism that they encounter -- one of them weeps and says that the separation of the sexes at Muhammed's tomb, and the fact that women, as second-class Muslims, are kept more remote from the sacred place makes her feel "very distant from the prophet, somehow more distant than when I came here."  It seems impossible to enter the holy places during the day because of the vast multitudes and so the American pilgrims tend to make their ritual observances at odd hours, two or three in the morning, and the lack of sleep takes a toll on them.  Several of the pilgrimage sites require camping in the desert, a bivouac accomplished by means of filling up barren valleys with thousands upon thousands of white plastic tents, a spectacle that looks a bit like the teepee-like profile of the Denver International airport combined with the world's largest egg container turned upside-down.  People have to stagger around the desert to pick up rocks to stone the devil, an exercise that apparently has to be done twice -- but there are so many people picking up pebbles in the wasteland that the American pilgrims are forced to fill their plastic baggies with tiny stones not much bigger than grains of sand.  (This is notwithstanding the fact that the Saudi Arabian government trucks in 8 million pounds of stones every season.)  Satan is a massive textured concrete wall set in the middle of a conical funnel that collects the stones cast against that structure -- presumably so they can be recycled to the adjacent desert.  The concrete wall sits in the center of a enormous plaza, something like the world's ugliest and largest shopping mall, a vast concourse, again with several ramps surrounding the towering wall that represents the devil.  At one point, a cynical pilgrim, a programmer or computer scientist from suburban Boston, says that the whole thing is upsetting to him and a little frightening:  "I wasn't prepared for the industrial aspects of this experience.  It's so industrial," he laments.  Viewed from the air, the Kaaba shrine sits in a crater surrounded by skyscrapers that look vaguely like the Stalinist monuments of Moscow, huge towers half hidden in an aerial labyrinth of orange and yellow construction cranes.  Vast queues of air-conditioned buses await entry to the gigantic traffic circles surrounding the central mosque, a flat-roofed structure with small, ugly-looking minarets screwed into its corners and a huge bureaucratic looking tower on one side, a building that looks like the old Metropolitan Life building in New York City crossed with the high-rise Moscow University in the Russian capitol.  Christians and Buddhists are apt to think of their religions as beautiful, even delicate, and viewing the tracery of Moorish columns and arches in the old mosques in Palermo now converted to Catholic uses, it's clear that Islam has a marvelously intricate aesthetic side as well.  But this is not on view in this disheartening episode of Sacred Journeys -- instead, we are confronted with the disheartening spectacle of religion as brute force, sheer power, a titanic colossus noteworthy for its ugliness and conformity. 

Getting On

Getting On is a six part HBO series aired in November and December 2014.  Designed as a sit-com, the half-hour programs take place in a hospital and, almost exclusively, confined to a ward devoted to the hospice care of terminally ill women.  Getting On is based on a British sit-com with a similar premise and it treads territory pioneered by Robert Altman's Mash:  the characters jest and engage in love affairs to keep up their spirits in the face of tragic chaos.  Patients die and there are too many of them to be provided adequate care and each episode presents a series of crises -- the power fails, the air-conditioning won't work, love affairs come unstrung, computerized records are unavailable, doctors and nurses make fatal, and near-fatal errors.  Everyone does their best to soldier through the on-going chaos and the mantra seems to be "Stay Calm and do your Duty."  Each show features one or more cringe-inducing and grisly medical procedures -- a naso-gastric tube is installed in a writhing cancer patient, a surgeon prepares to excise a squamous cell carcinoma wearing what looks like a welding face-mask, veins can't be located to insert IVs and so on.  All of this is vividly presented to the point that I had to look away from the screen from time to time.  The dialogue is suitably ribald and vulgar.  People familiar with the medical profession and large hospitals in general tells me that the show is highly realistic, if stylized:  the doctors are suitably pompous, callous, and they speak with the soft courtly (and completely fraudulent) manner that I have heard Mayo Clinic doctors often employ -- their soothing voices seethe with rage and they seem always on the verge of hysteria.  The nurses are harried, rude, and aggressive.  The hospital's accountants, lawyers, and administrators are suitably smarmy.  In one scene, a patient care conference is convened with about a half-dozen doctors.  The patient is clearly dying but not one of the physicians dares to speak the truth and each of them suggests increasingly surreal, and improbable, surgical interventions for their moribund patient.  The entire system shown in this series is devoted to death and dying and, yet, no one dares speak the word.  At various moments, the program betrays its U. K. origins -- the Brits seem to think doddering old women, particularly if played by men in drag, are intrinsically funny (cf. any episode of Monty Python); this is a taste not shared by most Americans.  There is lots of scatological humor, toilet comedy of the kind that English audiences enjoy -- one of the doctors specializes in a taxonomy of shit; she has defined "seven kinds of stool" and makes lengthy speeches about female fecal incontinence.  This physician is eccentric, operating her ever-expanding empire of hospice beds in order to finance with her fees an elaborate research program involving hundreds of lab mice.  The research with the lab mice is like something implemented on the island of Dr. Moreau and the characters obsessions fit within a broad mainstream of British comedy dating back to Uncle Toby in Sterne's Tristram Shandy and before.  The show is gripping and spectacularly well-acted and, of course, the subject matter has the kind of calamitous appeal of a gory car-crash -- you can't exactly look away although there is something indecent about watching as well.  The actors all look like real people but, curiously, also are familiar -- you have seen them before and they are englobed by a faint aura of star-charisma notwithstanding their dowdy appearance in this show.  The principal characters are played people that you recognize, but you don't know their names and can't quite identify where it was that you last saw them.  Alex Borstein and Laurie Metcalf are particularly effective as the head nurse, Dawn, and the eccentric, feces-obsessed physician, Dr. Jenna James.  Borstein in particular is a plain-Jane who seems highly intelligent; she gives the effect of always biting her tongue to avoid saying something recriminatory and insulting to the fools around her and this stubby, squat little actress is one of those rare performers who always seems to be thinking, plotting, intelligently contriving. even, designing the plot in which she is acting.  Laurie Metcalf is convincingly strange, obsessive, and her Dr. James is oddly capable, also, a persuasive portrait of a highly intelligent, if peculiar, woman.  The minor characters, including the intransigent and sometimes foul-mouthed, old women are similarly effective.  Getting On is available on HBO-to-go and on-demand for the next month or so.  It is a reminder of a truism -- the best film making today is on cable-TV.

Robinson Crusoe (1954)

Luis Bunuel's 1954 Technicolor adaptation of Robinson Crusoe contains one astounding image:  driven half-mad by isolation, Crusoe lights a torch and runs into the surf of the ocean crying out for help:  the sky is stormy and an eerie half-light burnishes the waves and the turbulent clouds to the color of old brass.  The torch goes out in dark, sinister waves and Crusoe, defeated, staggers back to shore.  Defoe's 1719 book has never seemed to me suitable material for a film -- it is too static, there is no dialogue for much of Crusoe's period of the island, and the story is too infected with Puritan moralizing, albeit, perhaps, delivered tongue-in-cheek.  (Irony is a rhetorical effect alien to the plain, matter-of-fact aspects of film -- particularly in the case of Bunuel's more or less flat affect.)  For the most part, Bunuel plays it straight -- the film is blunt and direct and uncompromising:  the picture begins with Crusoe clambering ashore on the desert island and ends "28 years 3 months and 19 days later" with the hero and Friday on a skiff being rowed to a larger ship at anchor a mile off-shore.  Dan O'Herlihy plays Crusoe effectively -- he was nominated for an Academy Award for the film made by a Mexican production company largely in the jungles of southern Mexico.  (The film is one of two that Bunuel made in English and his first color picture -- the movie's color design is fantastically beautiful:  warm amber sand and the light over the island always bronze with humidity and storm, everything infused with the tint of the yellowish doubloons that Friday wears as a necklace.)  The part of Friday was played by a young man from a fishing village who spoke no English.  As the film progresses, we watch him actually learn English in order to converse with Crusoe.  Bunuel's sober, detached, and almost indifferent film-style is an excellent counterpoint to O'Herlihy's scenes of desperate madness and hysteria -- this is particularly true in several sequences involving women's garments that Crusoe keeps in a chest in his cave:  he reacts with horror to the emotions stirred in him by a lady's frock and, then, gazes lovingly at a scarecrow that he has fitted with a woman's gown.  Later, when Friday prances about wearing a woman's dress, the look that Crusoe casts in his direction is sufficiently terrifying that both men are appropriately chastened and the clothing quickly hidden once more.  Bunuel's surrealist impulses are vividly displayed in a short dream sequence involving the apparition of Crusoe's father, thirst, delirium, and ending with the castaway taking an axe to murder the old man:  Bunuel stages the dream in a series of short shots, figures reclining or adopting peculiar poses, water ladled over everything since Crusoe is suffering from thirst, jump-cuts that jar the viewer; when he picks up a jug to drink there is a fat, hairy tarantula inside -- the effect is similar to the famous dream sequence in Los Olivados.  There is documentary-style shot of ant-lions devouring hapless ants while Crusoe chortles to them as if at a drawing room party and parts of the rugged coast look like the place where the priests celebrated their doomed Mass in L'Age d'Or.  A debate between Crusoe and Friday about theology ends with both men properly baffled; they seem to concede that they have been talking errant nonsense.  Before finding Friday, Crusoe goes to a deep valley lined with cliffs to shout the Lord's Prayer -- he is desperate to hear another human voice.  The death of Rex, Crusoe's faithful dog and only companion for his first ten years on the island is staged with startling verisimilitude and when the castaway departs from his prison he seems to hear the animal barking in the jungles of the impenetrable interior. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Trip to Italy

In Alejandro Inarittu's film Birdman, a character denounces a theater critic:  "All you have to offer is some adjectives and a few half-assed comparisons," the aggrieved artist shouts.  So far as it goes, this critique of critics applies to this note:  comparisons, "half-assed" or otherwise are integral to an assessment of Michael Winterbottom's comedy, The Italian Trip.  The movie, edited into a two-hour film from a much longer British TV series, concerns two British celebrities, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, who are dispatched to Italy to make a TV show about the exquisite local cuisine and lodgings.  Coogan and Brydon play variants of themselves, performing in the movie under their real names and they appear to have improvised all the dialogue.  Unlike American "reality" TV shows, or meta-reality "reality" shows (for instance HBO's The Come-Back), the machinery of filmmaker is not emphasized:  the two men travel alone, without a sound-crew or cameramen, begging the question as to how the television show in which they ostensibly star is being filmed -- in a way, The Italian Journey requires a breathtaking audience suspension of disbelief:  these men are supposed to be filmed at every stage of their travels, but there is no documentary crew anywhere in evidence, an omission that, curiously, the viewer doesn't really sense until thinking about the movie later.  The film is buddy-picture road movie featuring two mismatched travelers:  Coogan is vain, self-regarding, an established movie star but a little bit dim and no match for the mercurial wit that Brydon shows.  Brydon is a mimic of uncanny brilliance, wounded in some obscure way, and a man who retreats from his own emotions and sense of grievance behind a blinding mask of impressions:  in the film, he imitates Humphrey Bogart, then, imitates Coogan's imitation of Bogart, mimics Michael Caine, Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Tom Hardy as Bane in the Batman films, Gore Vidal, and, of course, displays his alarmingly eerie voice of the "little man in the box" --  those strangled words, emanating as a wee whisper from somewhere within Brydon's soft palate, are employed in a dialogue between the actor and the cast of a Pompeiian corpse in a glass casket, a demonstration of heartless virtuosity that disgusts Coogan who walks away in dismay.  Ostensibly, the tour of Italy, proceeding through the most magnificent landscapes imaginable, involves retracing the steps of Lord Byron and Shelley down the peninsula.  The film reprises the two men's earlier series made with Winterbottom, The Trip, in which the mismatched couple traveled through the British lake country in the footsteps of Coleridge and Wordsworth.  The fact that the men are retracing the travels of great poets gives the film an imaginative density of reference and a faint burden of melancholy that increases as the picture proceeds.  The Trip to Italy is bleaker than the first film -- the men are older and the shadow of death falls heavily across them:  many of the scenes are shot in cemeteries and there is a sequence in the ossuary in Naples that directly cites a similar scene in Rossellini's Journey to Italy.  As in Rossellini's film, the Trip to Italy recounts the story of a couple always seething with resentment, prone to adultery, and, more or less, ignoring the gorgeous setting in favor of picking petty quarrels with one another.  In the course of the film, Brydon has a pointless affair and lands a job on a big American motion picture, Coogan reconnects with his estranged son -- the journey changes nothing:  the men don't learn anything -- they remain buffoons, quarreling sadly over whether any trace of them will remain in two-hundred years.  Despite its startling beauty, the film has a autumnal feeling, the sense of life slipping away, an effect enhanced by the repeated strains of Strauss' resplendent late song In Abendrot heard from time to time on the soundtrack,.  The film is a matter of taste:  I admire Byron and Shelley, have read Richard Holmes' book about Shelley, and, of course, have fond memories of trips to Italy.  For these reasons, I enjoyed the movie immensely.  But it's pointless in a particularly elegant way -- as pointless, I suppose as Basho's The Narrow Road to the Deep North -- and an audience expecting jokes and comedy will be puzzled by the film's depiction  of sad, fundamentally hollow and incomplete men, eating luscious dinners, concealing their animosity behind impressions of other more famous men and panicked by their own mortality.

Sunday, December 21, 2014


Riggan Thomson, the actor-protagonist of Alejandro Inarittu's Birdman is drowning in difficulties:  he has invested much of his personal wealth in a theatrical adaptation of several stories by Raymond Carver, a play that he has written, directs, and in which he stars with his girlfriend; New York's most prominent theater critic has vowed to ruin the play and Thomson's co-star, an actor named Michael Shiner, despises him -- from time to time, the two men brawl with one another backstage.  Thomson's ex-wife is worried about the actor's imprudent investment in the Broadway show; his daughter is a junkie and has been seduced by Shiner; his girlfriend has embarked on a Lesbian affair with the other actress in his play and a masked, caped super-hero, dubbed the Birdman is haunting him.  The Birdman is a character that made Thomson famous when he starred in that role in three films based on the comic book superhero -- the Birdman resents being shelved and demands that his alter-ego, the miserable and unstable Thomson, revive the cartoon superhero, angrily denouncing the pretentions of the actor's Broadway theatrical debut.  Thomson is cracking-up and Birdman is the record of his nervous breakdown -- as the actor becomes increasingly beset by worry and helpless in the face of his worries, he begins to develop super-human powers, specifically telekinesis and the ability to fly.  The Birdman eggs him on, urging that he become a superhero again.  But the viewer suspects that the telekinesis is merely a metaphor for Riggan Thomson's increasingly violent rages, episodes in which he breaks glass and trashes his dressing room, damage that the mentally ill hero blames on the specter of the sinister super-hero.   And the Birdman's insinuation that the actor should leap from the top of the old theater in which almost all of the action takes place seems to be an incitement to suicide.  Michael Keaton plays the part of Riggan Thomson and his performance is riveting and courageous -- of course, Keaton played Batman twenty years ago and the sinister superhero, the Birdman, seems modeled on that character.   Keaton is in almost every frame of the movie.  It would be a misnomer to say that he is in every shot -- Emmanuel Lubetzki's remarkable photography stages the entire movie as a continuous take; this has been done before:  the forties film noir, The Lady in the Lake used a continuous first-person take to dramatize the Chandler thriller and Hitchcock shot his Rope (about Leopold and Loeb)  in what appears to be a single, extended take.  (Of course, Sokurov's Russian Ark also consists of one continuous shot -- unlike Birdman and the other films mentioned, Sokurov didn't cheat and, in fact, made his 100 minute film in one continuous HD-video shot; Inarittu sutures his extended take together by tracking the camera into dark zones and, then, recommencing his shot on the other side of the blackness.  Sometimes, he rolls the camera skyward, records the Manhattan skyscraper, and, then, fastforwards from night to dawn or vice-versa).   In Antonioni's film, The Passenger, there is bravura sequence in which a camera moves across a sun-scorched courtyard and, then, through a barred window into a room in which someone has been murdered -- I vividly recall the sense of awe and shock that this extended camera movement induced in the audience.  Inarittu's Birdman involves a half dozen camera movements even more grandiose and spectacular -- in one sequence, the camera travels down a street between buildings and, then, enters a room through a window that is also covered with bars and grating; in another episode, completely unbroken by inserted shots, the hero observes monsters destroying the Manhattan skyscrapers, watches helicopters batted out of the sky by colossal beasts against a background of enormous explosions and, then, levitates a hundred feet to soar through the sky, flying through Time Square and over Grand Central Station in an effect that is completely plausible both emotionally and spatially.  The ancient theater in which almost all of the action takes place is a crumbling labyrinth of dark corridors, sepulchral dressing rooms, and a cavernous backstage, a maze through which the camera tracks, always, it seems, emerging on the stage where the play What we talk about when we talk about Love is either being rehearsed or performed in previews -- the scenes of the play double the action and emotional complications of the plot and are like a feverish recurrent nightmare.  Inarittu, who is from Mexico, echoes some of the themes of classic Spanish theater, particularly Calderon's Life is a Dream, and the vast, dismal theater seems to be a symbol for the protagonist's disordered and feverish imagination -- it is like the House of Usher in which it is impossible to distinguish between what is real, what is truthful, and what is merely playacting.  The distinction between truth and playacting is materialized in the figure of Michael Shiner (Edward Norton), Riggan Thomson's nemesis, a character who is the ultimate "method actor" -- in one sex scene, he embarrasses everyone by playing the part with an actual erection.  Shiner insists that Thomson deliver "the truth" in his play with catastrophic consequences.  In some respects, Inarittu's movie, which is completely extraordinary and fantastically literate (Shiner is reading Borges Labyrinths and the characters cite Roland Barthes and Flaubert), is almost too rich, too complex, and has too many ideas, some of which are not as effectively developed as others.  The film is Baroque in the Mexican style, Churrigueresque Baroque, symbol and metaphor heaped upon symbol and metaphor to create an incredibly densely textured film.  One example must suffice for many:  across from the James Theater where the Carver play directed by Thomson is being mounted, there are advertisements for The Phantom of the Opera; these huge ads, which show a mask with the words PHANTOM come to symbolize the plight of Inarittu's hero, a man shown on stage in the play with a gun to his head, committing suicide because he is "not real."  At the end of the movie, we see the hero wearing white mask, his eyes peering out through slits in the mask and his nose curved into a great white beak -- he has become the Birdman once more, but not in the way that anyone would have expected.  This is a great movie, one of the very best of the year -- if it has a defect, the film is almost too laden with ideas, almost too smart and clever for its own good.  (The film has an extraordinary soundtrack mostly improvised drum solos -- from time to time, in homage to Scorsese's Taxi Driver, we see a street musician playing a drum set in Times Square, and the drumming punctuates many of the crucial sequences in the movie.)

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Tell it to the Marines!

"Trouble?  Tell it to the Marines!"  This is the intertitle in a 1926 silent film directed by George Hill and starring Lon Chaney from which the picture derives its name.  Although forgotten today, Tell it to the Marines! was an enormous success at the box-office when released and an excellent example of a superbly crafted and highly effective popular entertainment.  This was a movie that your grandparents or great-grandparents enjoyed and, unlike many silent films, the picture retains its appeal today.  All manner of things are packed into the film's 90 minute length:  there is raucous physical comedy, various romances, superb, if stylized, acting, and spectacular action sequences.  The picture features Lon Chaney's performance as O'Hara, a tough-as-nails Marine sergeant, a role that is the progenitor of all the other rough and tough Marine drill instructors in film and TV history:  O'Hara is palpably the source of Lee Ermey's ferocious performance in Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket and, of course, the basis for Gunnery Sergeant Vince Carter on the TV show Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.  Chaney plays the part without any of his trademark make-up effects and is enormously charismatic as mentor, and antagonist, to the rather doughy-looking and feckless hero, "Skeet" Burns,  the fresh recruit that Sergeant O'Hara has to "whip into shape."  Cheney's O'Hara has a hideous bulldog, a beast so ugly that it is beautiful in an awful sort of way, and he yearns for the love of a comely Navy nurse, Norma.  But Chaney's character knows that he is too homely, coarse, and professionally motivated -- wedded, as it were, to the Marine Corps -- to win the woman's love.  Instead, the film ends with her married to the soft-faced and pretty Skeet, a palpably disappointing outcome since Chaney, with his sinewy frame and bantam rooster strut and leathery face with a toothy jack-o-lantern grin is the more appealing character.  The most emotionally charged parts of the film are the love scenes between Chaney's O'Hara and Skeets: sequences shot in big close-ups in which O'Hara relinquishes his romantic interest in Norma, and, in effect, cedes her over to the more conventional lover, Skeets.  In the film's final shot, O'Hara is belaboring a new set of recruits -- he glances for a moment at the happy lovers, Norma and Skeets, feels a tear come into his eye which he bats away as if it were a pesky insect, and, then, without dropping a beat returns to hectoring the new recruits.  Skeets begins the film as an indolent, useless youth who has fled Kansas City with a railroad voucher to join the Marines in San Diego.  Instead of reporting to the Marine Corps base, he goes to "Tia Juana" to bet on the horses.  By the end of the film, of course, Skeets is a decorated veteran and combat hero.  The film is efficiently directed and the camerawork and editing is mostly unobtrusively effective -- the picture looks like a movie by Howard Hawks.  There are several astounding sequences:  we get a wild shot from a motorboat whirling around a destroyer plowing through heavy seas -- the image gives the viewer an palpable sense of sea-sickness and must have been fantastically effective on the big screen.  A boxing scene climaxes with Skeet on the ropes, half-unconscious, rolling his eyes at the camera, an alarming image of violence and despair.  We see the Marines landing at Hangchow and advancing up a beach.  As the camera shifts to a full-frontal shot of the Marines marching toward the lens, a perfectly shaped phalanx of bomber biplanes flies overhead.  The climax of the film involves thousands of extras attacking a rear-guard of Marines defending a little arched bridge that spans a gorge that seems to be about a thousand feet deep.  The battle scenes are chaotic and realistic; the Marines fire bolt-action carbines and seem to have great difficulty operating their rifles.  Werner Oland mugs as a wild-eyed Chinese bandit.  There is a savage riot scene involving tattooed Polynesians on Tondo Island, shot with what seems to be a handheld camera and, frequently, out-of-focus -- the fight involves a "Goo Goo girl" also called a "Floosie" in an intertitle.  Much of the movie is a mild-mannered service comedy:  Skeets becomes a toughened Marine with relatively little difficulty and most of the movie involves his mischievous behavior in violation of O'Hara's orders.  Probably, the most interesting aspect of the film for modern viewers is its documentary elements:  the movie shows us what it was like to go on a date with a Navy nurse in 1925 -- we see rural California, San Diego street cars, and, of course, the Marine Corps training facility at San Diego.  This film, available on Warner Brothers Archive DVD, is delightful and entertaining from start to finish.   

Thursday, December 18, 2014

City Lights

Chaplin's 1931 silent film, City Lights, has a limpid and classical purity.  Although produced two years after the end of the silent era, Chaplin made the film as a "pantomime" -- that is, without any natural sound:  he uses a few surrealist sound effects -- a whistle that the tramp has swallowed peeps at inopportune times and politicians' voices are rendered as kind of high-pitched yammering -- but the picture is constructed like a silent film, the narrative conveyed by the action on screen with only a few, laconic intertitles.  (The film is so simple and lucid that it probably could be presented without any titles at all.)  Chaplin's signature character, the little tramp, awakes cradled in the lap of a grotesque, neo-Fascist sculpture, part of a public monument dedicated by the yammering politicians in the first scene, and he aimlessly wanders around the city, a metropolis that stands for all the cities in the world.  The tramp encounters a millionaire and a blind flower girl and, to the extent that the movie has a theme, the picture explores two different kinds of blindness, poised at the both ends of the socio-economic spectrum:  the millionaire is a playboy alcoholic -- when he is sober he can't recall (or pretends not to  recall) his generosity and suicidal impulses exhibited when he is drunk.  Since he is drunk in most of his scenes, he is metaphorically blind to the better, and more emotionally important, part of his life.  The flower girl lives with her grandmother in a tiny, meticulously clean apartment that operatically signifies extreme poverty.  The two women can't pay their rent, let alone finance an operation offered by a Viennese surgeon that "cures blindness."  Chaplin's tramp falls in love with the girl and embarks on efforts to make money to finance her surgery.  Ultimately, he steals from the millionaire, or accepts money that the man gives him when he is drunk, and goes to jail.  In the final scene, the ragged tramp meets the flower girl again -- she is now the proprietor of her own flower shop and can see.  This slender plot is the armature on which Chaplin supports a number of protracted gag sequences, all exquisitely choreographed -- the millionaire tries to kill himself by tying a rope connected to big rock around his waist and, then, diving into the river, the drunk millionaire and Chaplin carouse together, go dancing, and eat spaghetti, the little tramp gets into the ring with a prizefighter to try to finance the girl's surgery.  The boxing sequence, in particular, flows so naturally and has such a limpid precision to its staging that the sequence verges on a kind of poetic realism:  the faces of the boxers are strangely impassive, benumbed, it seems, and they aren't the savage, caricatured bruisers that you expect; the boxers move with feral grace and the scene is clinically lit to provide the sense that the footage is documentary in character.  Indeed, in many sequences, Chaplin's film seems to presage Italian neo-realist pictures such as Bicycle Thieves.  Chaplin is hard-sell for me -- I find the little tramp persona more irritating than ingratiating and, in close-up, the character's make-up, particularly his paitned eye-brows, is weirdly grotesque.  The little tramp is sexually amorphous and, in this film, flirts with the prizefighter in a strange, disconcerting way -- he also ends up in bed with the puzzled millionaire.  The bathos implicit in the plot requires that the film be made as a silent picture.  But the clarity of Chaplin's film making and its' extreme objectivity, economy, and precision are persuasive as to his genius.  In one scene, we see a cat wagging its tail on a window-sill; there's a flowerpot on the sill and we glimpse this detail as part of the long shot of a slum courtyard.  The viewer is tempted to interpret this detail as a mere punctum, a bit of local color, the sort of detail that Griffith might deploy to make the image, which is very stark, a little more picturesque.  But a couple shots later, the cat and the precariously perched flowerpot are the crux of a gag.  Everything fits together with geometric precision.   

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Sacred Journeys (with Bruce Feiler)

On the evidence of the 2014 PBS six-part series, Sacred Journeys, people who embark on religious pilgrimages are not particularly pious -- indeed, they are not even really religious.  At least, this is the reassuring message of the first two of six documentaries presented by Bruce Feiler on world pilgrimage sites.  Pilgrimage seems to involve lots of strenuous travel, much hiking, coping with crowds and inconvenience and hardship and, accordingly, not a lot of reflection, prayer or theology.  The first episode, which chronicles a trip to Lourdes by twenty or so wounded American soldiers is particularly mindless and egregiously disingenuous.  Lourdes seems to be a high-priced Vegas-style resort city with an impressive cathedral built atop a craggy bluff pierced by grottos and medicinal baths.  There is a cavernous underground basilica -- it seats 25,000 -- and the world's most elaborate and ornate wheelchair ramp leading from the riverside grotto up to the cathedral on the top of the cliff.  Not surprisingly, the Hispanic soldier raised Catholic who lost half of his body in a IED blast in Iraq experiences the healing balm of the holy waters most literally. -- his pain goes away and he seems to be at peace with his mutilation. The other soldiers, many of them non-Catholic, regard the experience as metaphoric and consider the holy water as incidental to fellowship, including the consumption of lots of beer in the taverns and bistro's adjacent to the pilgrimage site.  Feiler, who gapes at everything with annoying gullibility, doesn't comment on the obvious incongruity of hordes of soldiers descending on a city sacred to a religion ostensibly pacifist and devoted to peace.  Indeed, much of the film is turgid "wounded warriors" stuff, a "thank you for your service" public service announcement, screened by a public television network that is resolutely liberal, non-violent and, undoubtedly, vehemently opposed to the very wars in which these poor fellows lost sizeable chunks of their faces and bodies. The visual information about Lourdes is interesting; the interior shots of bathing stations in the grottoes are fascinating.  But there is no bite to the program.  Feiler takes everything on face-value and the documentary seems carefully designed to not give offense to anyone, including the atheistic secular humanists in the audience.  The second episode is better -- an account of vigorous pilgrims hiking an 800 mile trail on rainy, windswept island in the Japanese archipelago.  The trail is sacred to the founder of Shingon Buddhism, an eight century monk named Kobo Diashi.  The landscapes featured in this program are spectacular and the Buddhist temples have a splendid weathered beauty.  Feiler provides next to no information about the doctrines taught by Kobo Daishi -- as far as Feiler and PBS are concerned, one religion is as good as another and a general, tolerant aura of moral equivalence underlies the show.  The Japanese Shikoku pilgrimage involves competitive walking, although equally efficacious is making a bus tour of 88 temples located along the coast line of the rugged island.  We see some impressive rituals, including the Homa or fire ritual, and the people watching the rite seems duly impressed and sanctified -- it's all very moving until you remember that there's a camera crew with sound engineers scrutinizing these "private" encounters with the sacred.  Feiler, the "presenter" as the Brits would say, is the kind of man whose mind is so open as to wholly vacant.  It would not be out of character for him to praise a hike to Nuremberg to attend the rallies in that City, or, perhaps, a pilgrimage to the temple of Baal to observe the ritual incineration of infants and toddlers -- it's all the same to him. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Lines of Wellington

The Lines of Wellington is a historical drama written by the great Raul Ruiz, a Chilean film maker who died a couple years ago.  Ruiz' wife, Valeria Sarmiento, directed the picture released in 2012 and the movie is a baffling combination of soap opera, prestigiously mounted costume drama, and made-for-TV (or Cable) mini-series.  The cut of the film circulating on the Film Movement DVD runs about 150 minutes; however, the movie contains odd ellipses and scenes introducing new characters who vanish as quickly as they appear, episodes that suggest dramatic arcs that seem to have been edited out of this version of the film.  Some footage is inserted as flashbacks to provide narrative context, as if the editor were trying heroically, if unsuccessfully, to motivate peculiarities in the characters and story that would otherwise be inexplicable.  (I understand that the film was released in Canada on cable-TV as a mini-series and suspect that it may have been shown in Spain and Portugal in much longer versions.)  The movie is handsome, impressively shot with excellent actors, many of them, apparently, TV stars in the Iberian peninsula.  In the Film Movement version, the film provides an interesting counterpoint to Ruiz' The Mysteries of Lisbon, an engrossing four-and-a-half-hour costume melodrama made for Portuguese TV and the late director's greatest commercial success.  In The Mysteries of Lisbon, a fantastically complicated plot proceeds through a series of riddles that the narrative gradually solves; no loose ends are left unresolved -- every mystery is ultimately explained although on the basis of concealed paternity, fantastic coincidences, and mistaken identities.  The Lines of Wellington presents the opposite case:  in this film, plot-lines are abandoned, characters appear for a few moments and, then, vanish from the story, conflicts are left unresolved while important protagonists are unceremoniously killed or left for dead.  Whereas The Mysteries of Lisbon posited a narrative that was tightly closed and involuted, The Lines of Wellington presents a series of scenes that are not only fragmentary and unrelated, but, also, in some instances, digressive -- a sequence may be fascinating to the viewer but it leads nowhere.  (For instance, early in the film, Sarmiento puts Michel Piccoli, Isabelle Huppert, and Catherine Deneuve in the same shot -- the characters are Francophile Portuguese nobility quarreling about whether Napoleon's invasion signifies progress or barbarism.  There is a lot of star-power in the scene but we never see these characters again after their five minute cameo.)  Ostensibly, Sarmiento's epic concerns the Peninsular War fought between the French and the English in 1811 in the mountains north of Lisbon.  The film begins with carnage, the aftermath of a battle that the British, with their rather hapless Portuguese allies, have won against the French invaders.  Immediately, however, the movie operates against audience expectations:  although the British, led by the foppish Wellington (John Malkovich), have won the battle of Bucacao, they, nonetheless, retreat, withdrawing through the mountains to a series of fortifications called the Torres line.  (The film's title is an adaptation of this name for English-speaking audiences -- the Wellington line is the fortified heights extending for 20 km across the peninsula and protecting Lisbon from the French advance.)  During the retreat, Ruiz' script introduces the viewers to about a dozen characters:  Pedro, a valiant Portuguese fighter has been shot in the head and is convalescent, Bardolo, a poet and French deserter leads a group of Poles, also defectors from the French side in a guerilla war, Vincente is searching for his wife, lost in the retreat, Percy, a red-headed Irish officer, is enticed into sex with a depraved British girl whose previous lover was her own brother -- and there are warmhearted prostitutes, women driven mad by gang-rape, and savage priests who butcher French stragglers while shouting:  Death to Liberty.  (The conservative Portuguese call the French "Jacobins".)  Wellington frets about how he is being portrayed by a Portuguese artist and provides the recipe for Beef Wellington.  There is little violence in the film and no battles are depicted.  When the English reach the Torres line, they continue to strengthen its fortifications and, ultimately, the French simply melt-away -- they vanish.  Throughout the film, people die but mostly by accident -- they are killed in ambushes, hit by stray shells, perish in landslides when the fortifications collapse, or dies from disease.  The movie is mostly a study in landscapes -- the photography is lush and beautiful, composed of panoramic shots of large numbers of refugees doggedly trudging along the Portuguese hilltops.  This is a film about war that cleaves very close to the facts of Rwanda, Syria, and Iraq:  armed conflict is portrayed as shells falling at random from cannons fired at great distances and immense crowds of ragged people dragging their belongings over muddy and rugged roads.  In the end, the Portuguese have prevailed but at what cost -- in a Stalingrad-style defense, they have burned their own villages, vineyards, and farms to deny the French provender:  the final scene shows survivors gazing out upon the ravaged and charred landscape.  The film is interesting and well-made, but, ultimately, it's pointless.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Much Ado about Nothing

In Renaissance slang, "nothing" was cant for female genitals.  The notorious John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, uses the word in that way a couple generations after Shakespeare and, on the basis of the play's content, I suspect a bawdy pun in the comedy's name.  Joss Whedon, the director of such things as the meta-textual Cabin in the Woods and Tv shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, adapted the Shakespeare comedy for the screen in 2012 and his version of the play is better than Kenneth Branagh's  1993 film, an elegant, intelligent, and beautifully acted entertainment.  Many critics damned the play with faint praise:  like a woman preaching or a dog walking on its hind legs, to quote Dr. Johnson, it was not how well the thing was done but that it was accomplished at all.  In fact, I think Whedon's Much Ado about Nothing is one of the best adaptations of Shakespeare for the screen that I have seen.  Whedon has shortened the play and clarified its plot:  in an elegant mansion in the Hollywood hills, some rich and privileged gentlemen and ladies have gathered to celebrate something, perhaps, a military victory -- we see a couple of characters brought to the party with their wrists fettered.  Benedick, a confirmed bachelor, loves Beatrice, an affection that she reciprocates; but Benedick and Beatrice are too independent, cynical, witty and intelligent to admit their mutual desire and conceal it within a brittle badinage, the "merry" combat betwixt the two of them.  The older, but not wiser, members of the company perceive themselves to be "gods of love" and decide to manipulate Benedict and Beatrice into admitting their love.  At the same time, a younger couple becomes engaged with the marriage scheduled for sometime in the next couple days.  But the girl is defamed and her fiancée denounces her violently at the wedding, accusing her of being "wanton."  (It is all libel advanced for obscure reasons by a traitorous bastard step-brother, a man who has conspired to seize the throne of the Prince of Messina.)  The girl seems to perish from grief.  Some of Shakespeare's "rude mechanicals," in this case a security agent named Dogberry and his sidekick, discover the truth and expose the plot.  Beatrice who is more fierce than any of the men demands that Benedick avenge her kinswoman.  Murder and suicide is narrowly averted and the play ends on a sunny note with a double wedding.  Of course, the dark and irrational aspects of sexual desire cloud the play's happy ending and the comedy barely escapes becoming a tragedy of jealousy and violent revenge on the order of Othello or the later romance The Winter's Tale.  Shakespeare's double plot demonstrates the extreme fragility of love and its dependence on the good will of the community -- the self-styled "gods of love" can immediately trick Benedict and Beatrice into acknowledging their mutual desire...after all, it was there all the time.  But, similarly, the deceitful calumniators can also instantaneously change the young fiancée's love for his espoused into hysterical madness and jealous hatred...those passions were always there as well. As in all of Shakespeare's plays, there is a wild, nightmarish and hysterical intensity to the jealousy that his characters experience.  And everyone shares the ineluctable conviction that women are fundamentally fickle, untrue, and that their desire is erratic, hair-trigger, and fatally capricious.  This note is sounded almost immediately in the play when someone remarks that Hero, the young woman, is Prince Leonato's daughter -- "That," Leonato replies, "is what her mother hath often maintained to me" or words to the effect.  No man can reliable know whether the woman he loves is true to him and so the double marriage at the end of the play carries with it the inevitable specter of deceit, jealous rage, and cuckoldry.  Whedon shoots the film in an elegant modern house, apparently, his own home in the mountains above Los Angeles and the movie is exquisitely composed and framed.  Shot in black and white, the film seems sober, even when it is very funny, and like all Shakespeare's comedies the mirth has a "dying fall" -- the faintly sorrowful aspect of the comedy is expressed perfectly in the film's renunciation of color; the black and white gives the picture the sense of being classic, like Woody Allen's Manhattan, a film that is similarly wise, and melancholy, about sexual love.  The movie is mostly impeccable.  My only quibble is that the film's best known innovation -- showing that Benedick and Beatrice have earlier "hooked-up" or fallen into bed together -- although clever, and, although making sense of their mutual distrust, is inconsistent with the rigid, and vehemently patriarchal sexual morality to which the character's subscribe and that, even, the brilliant and enlightened Beatrice endorses when her kinswoman is defamed. After all, the film almost climaxes in an "honor killing" of the kind that continue to vex primitive places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. But this criticism aside, I highly recommend this film.   

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Based on a bestselling novel by the Spanish writer, Vicente Blasco Ibanez, Rex Ingram's 1921 The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was one of the silent era's top-grossing films.  The film, directed by Rex Ingram, is sumptuously mounted and was the movie that introduced Rudolf Valentino to the public.  Rex Ingram is a puzzling figure in film history, an Irish-born director who made a number of financially successful picture in the twenties but was unable to navigate the transition to sound films.  In 1933, Ingram, who was comparatively young, retired from pictures to become a professional sculptor.  Earlier in 1927, he had converted to Islam, certainly an oddity in the "Roaring Twenties." (He lived until 1950).  Ingram had brooding good looks and was much more handsome than most of his leading men -- he would be an ideal Heathcliff.   His sexuality seems to have been ambiguous.  At the time of The Four Horsemen, he was closely associated with the studio producer and screenwriter, June Mathis.  Mathis was squat and homely, with coarse features and avid, glittering eyes and she seems to have been a consort to several gay men, or, at least, men who appeared to be gay -- her close companion was the vaudeville female-impersonator, Julian Eltinge.  (Mathis was also intimate with the lesbian actress, Alla Nazimova.)  Mathis, who wrote The Four Horsemen, was undeniably talented -- her florid but effective intertitles are on display in the 1921 film -- and she had a clear understanding of the passions and interests of the popular audiences for whom she produced films.  Until her sudden death from a heart attack in 1927, she was reputed to be one of the most powerful film executives in Hollywood.  Mathis also had an interest in spiritualism and reincarnation, an aspect of her personality incongruent with her reputation has a ruthless and hard-headed studio producer and motivating much of the action during the second half of The Four Horsemen.  The film is a lavishly produced family chronicle that begins on the Pampas of Argentina and concludes in the shell-wracked moonscape of the Marne during World War I.  Ingram uses vast sets, often augmented by matte painting in the upper half of the image to extend his landscapes and interiors to lofty heights.  This lavish imagery fails on a small screen -- Ingram's characters often seem lost in cavernous drawing rooms and huge circus-like cabarets.  His mise-en-scene alternates between close-ups, two- and three-shots, and establishing shots showing amphitheater-sized sets, scenery that looks vaguely like the furniture and backdrops of a well-made Broadway play but blown-up to immense size.  (This was a characteristic of some expensively produced silent films; even the restrained Dreyer uses cavernous, outsized sets in his novelistic chamber drama, Michael made in Germany in 1924.)   In the famous tango scene about ten minutes after the film's start, Ingram stages the action in a dance-hall that is the size of basketball court, curiously imagined as below-grade -- through an upper arcade, thirty-feet above the dance-floor, we can glimpse people and traffic moving outside of the ballroom.  Since the scene focuses on Valentino's prowess as a dancer and, accordingly, requires tight shots on the star and the woman accompanying him on the dance-floor, the camera dollying back to capture the action as they promenade toward the lens, the huge size of the set is not only pointless, but, also, distracting and, even, counter-productive.  Shots from the vantage of the establishing image show the star and his tango companion dwarfed by the huge set and attenuate the effectiveness of the scene -- everything is too far away.  Valentino is nothing much to look at in this film.  He  has a puffy face and slit eyes that give him a vaguely oriental appearance.  His hair is slicked down and he has a surprisingly inexpressive body -- the tango scene, although perhaps damaged by the way Ingram stages the sequence, is remarkably unimpressive.  To my eye, the Great Lover looks a little like a seal -- he has a white inexpressive face that seems to have been flattened and smoothed and airbrushed until it is almost illegible; he is like a mammal that lives under the water with a round sleek head configured from swimming underwater.

The content of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is mostly family chronicle, the intertwined fates of an extended Argentine family, who have split into two clans and unluckily emigrated to France and Germany.  After an initial half-hour set in gaucho territory, the two feuding cohorts of the cowboy family, the Germanic Hartrott clan (Teutonic father and three grinning blonde sons) and the French Desnoyers (French papa and his raffish son, Julio played by Valentino) settle down in old Europe and, of course, become enemies when the Great War begins.  The first two-thirds of the film involves Julio's adulterous love affair with a young woman married to a much older diplomat, a man named Lauriers.  Just as the affair is disclosed, with dire consequences for the lovers, war conveniently breaks out:  the cuckolded Lauriers goes to the front where he is promptly blinded by mustard gas and committed to the care of his repentant wife -- there are many intertitles invoking the idea of atonement.  Desnoyers, who is a kind of hoarder, travels to his castle in the Marne valley, where, of course, he encounters the Hun, brutish Germans led by the Hartrott eldest son who are looting his estate.  There are battles and rapes, German transvestites dancing drunkenly on smashed pianos and long columns of marching men; a panning shot of men about to murdered by a firing squad invokes Goya and establishes a template for many later scenes of this kind in other films.   Desnoyers, who is a sort of miser, watches as shells destroy his castle.  Julio, chastened by his girlfriend's devotion to her blinded husband, enlists and finds himself in the mud and gloom of the Western Front.  Just as he is about to kill his Hartrott cousin, a shell lands on the two men and puts paid to both of them.  Julio's ghost obligingly visits his former girlfriend who is on the verge of abandoning her helpless husband.  The ghost nobly tells the woman to stay with the crippled man.  An insert shows a caged squirrel running hopelessly on a wheel, presumably a forecast of the young wife's hopeless future.  All of these calamities have been foretold by a enigmatic figure, a sort of wild-eyed religious mystic who looks, more or less, like Rasputin.  This figure studies Duerer's engravings of the Apocalypse and sights the Four Horsemen hurtling through the cloudy skies.  In the film's visionary final sequence, the surviving members of the Desnoyer's family, mutilated by the war, gather in an enormous cemetery, innumerable crosses studding an implausibly steep and barren landscape.  A young woman stands at the crest of the mountain, the sun shining through her garments to reveal her lissome body -- her husband is badly disfigured and has lost his arm.  The wild-eyed religious mystic spreads his arms and seems to assume Christ-like stature as the celestial horsemen depart through the clouds.  The ending is similar to the final reel of Intolerance as well as Ince's Civilization and Vater und Mutter Hartrott, mourning the death of their three sons, pronounce the implicit moral of the work:  it would have been better for these natives of Argentina to have remained in the New World remote from the nightmarish entanglements of European politics -- the film's slant is decidedly isolationist.  Much of this is wonderfully impressive.  This is the terrain of Tolstoy's War and Peace as refracted, of course, through D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, combat, family, weddings and funerals and, of course, adultery.  Ingram can't edit his film to achieve the rhythmic set-pieces that Griffith was able to achieve -- his cutting is a little too obvious and pedantic and he has an unfortunate tendency to allegorize his action by cutting away to animals, usually family pets or Julio's capuchin monkey whose antics mimic the human actors.  But he stages many scenes with a vivid intensity that matches Griffith and his images -- for instance,of wounded soldiers at Lourdes -- have a sober elegance and sophistication.  The film is too long and not well-preserved, particularly in the famous interlude that connects the domestic tragedies of the film's first half with the war scenes that conclude the picture -- these are the images of the four horsemen emerging from a demon's fiery mouth and, then, catapulting across the sky.  But it's worth watching and, for people interested in silent film, Ingram's mise-en-scene and technique makes an interesting counterpoint to Griffith.

Monday, December 8, 2014

La Danza de la Realidad (The Dance of Reality)

Here is a measure of the e ccentric brilliance of Alejandro Jodorowsky's 2013 The Dance of Reality. Consider this scenario: in a remote Chilean seaport, a Jewish dry goods merchant, Jaime Jodorowsky, feuds with fellow firemen.  Jaime worships Stalin and is a True Believer in the Communist Party.  When the local miners strike, they march through the village to the beach and assemble by the sea.  The miners are a horde of men and haggard women dressed in funereal black and carrying battered black umbrellas. They stalk across an unbelievably desolate moonscape -- the gorges and bare peaks of the Atacama Desert, parading finally through Main Street and onto the beach with a bunch of mangy dogs leading the way.  The firefighters, who are also the local police, aim their guns at the strikers and refuse to give them water.  Jaime harnesses his two burros and courageously transports several large barrels of water to the beach.  The miners are also hungry, however, and they butcher his two donkeys and eat them raw.  "You've killed my donkeys," Jaime howls. "How will I bring you water tomorrow?" grasping, it seems, the illogical logic of violent revolution. Horrified, Jaime hobbles back to his dry goods store crying out that the firemen are going to "burn (him) to death."  He collapses on the floor of his shop, police battering at the door to arrest him.  Jaime's wife is a woman who looks somewhat like a Botero painting come to life:  the woman is heavy with enormous creamy breasts that overflow her too-tight blouses.  This is young Alejandro's mother, the mother of our director -- for the film is, in fact, a sort of spiritual autobiography.  She never speaks but rather sings in the mezzo-soprano voice of an opera diva.  Alejandro's mother squats over the dying Jaime -- his skin looks burned and he is twitching as if with a seizure.  She prays for God to overflow His banks within her and grant His healing waters to poor Jaime.  Then, she lifts up her dress and urinates all over her husband's chest and groin.  This act restores Jaime to health and, in fact, emboldens him to action:  he decides to assassinate the dictator of Chile, Carlos Ibanez del Campo.  The scene in which Jaime's wife drenches her gravely wounded husband with her urine is weirdly moving and, in fact, her micturition takes on a religious, even, sacramental character.  Jodorowsky, who is now 84, directed two cult films that were hugely successful in the late sixties and early seventies -- El Topo and The Holy Mountain.  Too uncompromising for the studios, Jodorowsky's career foundered; indeed, his ill-fated attempt to adapt Frank Herbert's Dune may have stigmatized him as a director simply too extravagant, unpredictable, and scandalous for the industry.  He made a couple of other movies, including the bizarre Santa Sangre and, then, vanished.  (He lives in Paris where he has worked as a Shamanistic therapist and written several dozen metaphysically oriented, if action-packed, comic books; he has also published books on psychotherapy and the Tarot.)  The first half-hour of The Dance of Reality doesn't feel like the work of an eighty-year old artist.  Indeed, this part of the film is so bursting with energy and so densely patterned with extraordinary visual imagery that the movie seems, at first, to be one of the best films ever made.  The picture is 130 minutes long and can't sustain the frenetic, surreal attack of its first half hour, but it remains compelling, frightening,and convincingly visionary throughout its entire length. Jodorowsky isn't interested in consistency and the film divides into two halves that seem mutually incommensurate.  In the first part of the film, Jodorowsky's father is monstrously cruel, a martinet who puts out cigarettes on the palm of his own hand to demonstrate his courage.  He slaps little Alejandro until his tooth is knocked out -- it's a test of courage -- and, then, forces the dentist to repair the injury by drilling in the child's mouth without any anesthesia.  A huge portrait of Stalin graces the dry goods shop, something called the Gran Casa Ukrana, referring to the family's origin as Ukrainian Jews.  Little Alejandro has girlish long hair and he consorts with a Theosophist on the beach, a naked man with a shaved head whose body is covered with cabalistic tattoos.  He also itches the back of a double amputee, a worker whose hands were blown off in an mine explosion.  The double amputee is part of a Greek chorus of about a dozen amputees, some of them sans both arms and legs who haunt the streets around the shop, evidence of the brutal industrial practices in the mines.  Jaime hates the cripples and in one scene that derives from Bunuel kicks the quadruple amputee like a soccer ball.  Jodorowsky is imbued with Latin American machismo and his brutal father-figure turns out to be heroic.  The director regards filmmaking as a species of war and calls his actors and actresses his warriors and this attitude is evident in the way The Dance of Reality develops, shifting gears in its second half after the father's resurrection by urine into an account of Jaime's heroism and, finally, conversion into a kind of Christian mystic.  Jaime decides to assassinate Chile's dictator, fails in that endeavor, and finds that his hands are paralyzed, frozen into hideous-looking claws.  He forgets his identity and is aroused only months later when his buxom wife sends him a message by stone lofted into the air incongruously by white balloons. Jaime wakes up in bed with a hunchbacked female dwarf, abandons her, and, then, embarks on a spiritual pilgrimage. (The scenes involving the dwarf and her love for Jaime are powerful, poignant, and emotionally effective:  the poor creature knows that God will take Jaime away from her and so she hangs herself.)  Jaime encounters a saintly carpenter, attends a Church where the Chilean parishioners sing "How Great Thou Art," and, finally, is captured by Nazis and tortured horribly.  Curiously, Jodorowski ends the film on a note of conventional, if outrageous, Christian piety.  Jaime's great-bosomed wife lifts her wounded husband into the air like a sort of voluptuous pieta and, then, the family departs the village, Tocopilla, on Charon's boat, a purplish vessel vanishing into a white sea, piloted by a skeleton. (The scene is similar to the equally visionary ending of Boorman's Excaliber.) Throughout the picture, the exceptionally handsome and charismatic Alejandro Jodorowsky appears cradling the young boy in his arms and offering him lyrical spiritual guidance -- the film is a family production, Jaime is played by Jodorowsky's son, the naked child in El Topo almost fifty years ago, and many of the cast members are Jodorowky's grandchildren, including the little boy who plays the wide-eyed Alejandro as an eight-year old.  Jodorowsky's ideas verge on Jungian kitsch -- he regards the world as a "vale of soul-making" -- but his imagery is so surreal and compelling that one can overlook, I think, the stupidity of many of his philosophical and shamanistic ideas.  In some ways, Jodorowsky's film resembles the work of Dusan Makajayev, particularly the excremental imagery of Sweet Movie or the Reichian sexual adventures in WR:  Mysteries of the Organism.  But Jodorowsky's sensibility, compounded of Latin American machismo and Jungian psychodynamics is completely and undeniably singular.  On a purely visual level, there is no doubt that he is one of the greatest of living film makers.  And who can resist a movie that begins with Louis Prima's "Sing, Sing, Sing" as a sound-cue for gold doubloons, a golden shower, as it were, streaming out of the sky? 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The late, great Mike Nichols' directorial debut, his 1966 version of Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? established the film maker as a force to be reckoned with and the movie remains bleakly impressive today.  Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play Martha and Sam, a married couple locked in a vicious cycle of alcoholism, recrimination, and loathing.  The reasons for their mutual hatred, rage that verges on folie a deux is never established and, indeed, remains somewhat enigmatic since they are an attractive couple and seem intellectually well-matched.  On the simplest level, I suppose that they would do better if they consumed less hard alcohol -- everyone swills gin, brandy, and bourbon. Albee's play, and the film based on it, preserves classical unities -- it takes place between two am and dawn during a single night and plays out in a single location, the home that Martha and Sam share.  (Nichols has opened the play up a bit by staging a scene at a local road-house unconvincingly open for business at 3:00 am.  This addition to the play allows the characters to drive drunk and provides a basis for a lascivious juke-joint dance involving Liz Taylor and George Segal.)  The film's casting is precise and perfect:  Taylor and Burton, who were famously troubled as a couple in real life, provide charisma, terror and pity as the doomed Martha and Sam, figures whose lust and rage and violent antipathy seem like something out of a Greek tragedy -- they are like gods impersonating mere mortals:  nothing can make Liz Taylor look unattractive, even as she sneers and whines and chows down on a drumstick of chicken (which she bites a couple of times and contemptuously tosses aside in her filthy fridge); similarly, no matter how much Burton squints and allows Nichols' savage, analytical lighting to rake across his acne scars, the man remains a great actor, indeed, a great Shakespearian actor with voice and intonation to prove it.  Burton and Taylor bring the inflections of both classical tragedy and Hollywood legend to the film and their sheer star-power can't be eclipsed and accounts for much of the film's emotional force.  Sandy Dennis and George Segal are both irritatingly shallow and callow in comparison to the volcanic eruptions staged by Taylor and Burton -- and this is, also, precisely the effect required by the film.  The young couple make the mistake of visiting Sam and Martha after a drunken faculty party.  Sam and Martha recognize that unless they can entice the young, and innocent (and also troubled) couple into their spectacular sado-masochistic games, they will have no one to torment but one another, certainly a stale pleasure for them by this time.  And so Sam and Martha contrive to keep the young folks on hand as spectators and, sometimes, participants in their dance of death.  The stages of this passion are named after party-games:  Humiliate the Host, Get the Guests, Hump the Hostess, and, then, a final nameless bit of theater that involves a fiction contrived between Sam and Martha, the notion that their fruitless and savage union has somehow resulted in a child, a beautiful son.  The first three stages of the Cross, as it were -- host-humiliation, get the guests, and hostess-humping -- are played out with convincing fury.  On occasion, the characters end up strangling one another in cartoonish, but alarming scenes, that look a little like Homer administering parental discipline to Bart Simpson.  The film's denouement, involving Burton's verbal execution of a fictional son that he and Martha have invented, is unpersuasive and a serious flaw in the both the play and film.  By this time in the morning, after the heroic consumption of booze shown in the film, no one would be able to speak as eloquently and, indeed, with such majestic intonations as the two movie stars.  I can accept this with a willing suspension of disbelief but have greater difficulty with the entire conceit.  Albee, and Nichols start the film on a level of frenzy and rage that would be the culmination of most movies -- there is no "slow-burn" here.  Burton and Taylor leave the party in the film's first shot and warily cross a quadrangle, walking with the wide, rolling gait of punch-drunk fighters, somehow both together but, also, desperately apart.  In their home, Taylor immediately begins to harangue Burton and they start clawing at one another.  The film sounds a single note over and over again and so there is really no way out of it, no exit to the characters'infernal dilemma.  Albee ramps up the antagonism, but can only go so far -- after Segal cuckolds Burton with Taylor, only to be dismissed by her as a sexual "flop" and "house-boy," there's really nowhere else for the film to go.  Indeed, one longs for a little physical violence as a respite from the remorseless emotional carnage.  So Albee has to come up with something even more disturbing, hence, the invention of the imaginary son and his murder by Burton. But none of this makes any sense and so, to use Martha's expression, the film and the play "flops" at its end.  But the movie is essential viewing.  If you haven't seen this picture, you owe it to yourself to take a look.  A lot of people associated with this film won Academy Awards -- none is more deserving than Haskell Wexler for his vividly desolate black and white photography. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Come-Back (2005)

HBO produced 12 shows in this 2005 series starring Lisa Kudrow.   The series is available On-Demand, revived to complement the ongoing 2014 HBO series of the same name and format.  Both programs are exceptional and absurdly addictive.  Fame and celebrity are subjects of importance in their own right.  It seems that there have always been beautiful people famous for being famous -- the Kardashians occupy this niche of ineffable, inexplicable celebrity today.  When I was a child, I recall people like Bennett Cerf, Orson Bean, and Kitty Carlisle who appeared on game shows and were, seemingly, famous merely for being famous.  And, perhaps, you recall Pia Zadora, a habitué of late night talk shows, and, later, the unfortunate and grotesque Anna Nicole Smith.  These people represent celebrity in its purest form, celebrity as a matter of publicity without anything really to publicize, the idea of celebrity as a Ding-an-sich.  It is difficult to understand the fascination of this subject -- perhaps, it has something to do with the ancient Greek concept of "Thumos" -- that is, "spiritedness" and the desire that each of us has to be recognized for our own individual excellence.  Curiously, even people who are afraid to speak in public, who have stage-fright crossing a crowded room, seem to recognize the impulse toward self-aggrandizement, the drive toward achieving recognition even at the cost of other more humane values.  In essence, I suppose, the notion of celebrity and fame is inextricably connected with the desire that each of us has to be loved.  Most people are satisfied by being loved and admired by a small coterie of people close to them:  celebrities differ in that they have a need to be loved and admired by everyone -- and this impulse is simultaneously grandiose and profoundly pathetic:  it is a tragic impulse because it desires a state of affairs that is mostly inaccessible, certainly unsustainable, and, probably, toxic if achieved.  In The Come-Back, Lisa Kudrow plays a has-been actress named Valerie Cherish who desperately seizes upon the opportunity to perform as a minor character in a vulgar sit-com.  She seems to be happily married, is radiantly beautiful and obviously not only intelligent, but very hard-working -- we see her laboring on the sit-com until two or three at night.  She doesn't have friends, only admirers and it's apparent that her life is meaningless unless she occupies the public-eye.  Although she is monstrously egotistical and self-absorbed, she has many fine qualities as well and inspires slavish devotion in her homosexual hairdresser, Mickey, a remarkable character in his own right -- he is playing a variant of the curmudgeonly but loyal old man, something like a gay version of Walter Brennan bespangled with rings and without the shot-gun.  The 12 episodes aired in 2005 have a satisfying dramatic arc and, indeed, a sort of satirical profundity.  Valerie's nemesis is Pauly G., the writer on her show and a demented, sadistic heroin addict.  Pauly's hatred for Valerie inspires him to construct as many ways to humiliate and insult her as possible in the context of the lame sit-com that he is writing with his partner -- the two men are Tv stars in their own right having earned an Emmy for an episode of The Simpson's that they co-wrote.  Pauly is a character like Iago -- he embodies motiveless malignancy; certainly, his loathing for Valerie goes beyond all reasonable bounds and is inexplicable.  But great art always has an irrational core and Pauly G's hatred for Valerie has a metaphysical dimension.  Kudrow's performance is impeccable:  she is annoying, chipper, pert, witty, and generous but periodically the mask slips and we see that she is panicked about her age and on the verge of some sort of break-down.  We discover that she suffered from scoliosis as a child, was humiliated by her peers, and, now, compensates by basking in adulation of the public.  Pauly G. makes her wear unflattering costumes, climaxing with a routine in which Valerie has to fall down repeatedly, risking injury to her back and dressed in a giant and hideous cupcake suit.  The sequence is a reprise of a famous moment in Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd, a scene in which Cecil B. DeMille praises the aging and hysterical prima donna played by Gloria Swanson for her courage in performing painful slapstick routines thirty years earlier when she was a Mack Sennett bathing beauty.  Valerie throws herself at the floor with desperate abandon, apparently willing to savage herself to get a laugh.  When Pauly G. insults her she punches him on-camera (a reality TV show is filming her every move) with horrible and grotesque results -- he vomits and, then, she vomits.  This seems to be the ultimate humiliation and when the incident is broadcast as part of Valerie's reality show, and cut in a way to make her look foolish and vain and cruel, she is horrified.  But, of course, the public is astonished and thrilled.  The reality TV show is a  hit and Valerie is invited back on The Tonight Show, even allowed to smoke in the Green Room.  Like Anna Nicole Smith or the Kardashians, she has become famous once more, and, even, it seems beloved by making a complete fool of herself.  The show's ending is simultaneously happy and horrifying.  Ultimately, celebrities are people that we love because we despise them.    

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Beauty and the Beast (1946)

Jean Cocteau's 1946 version of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast has always left me cold.  The movie is too long by about a half-hour and it's middle section, in particular, drags.  The story is curiously disorienting and confusing.  Although the movie is about sexual transgression -- bestiality, the heroine's love for an animal, Cocteau disguises this aspect of the story or, at least, decorously diverts attention away from that theme.  Half of the film is devoted to the economic travails of Belle's pretentious, if impoverished family, material that seems incongruous with the kinky subtext of the scenes with the Beast.  Furthermore, the happy ending, of course, isn't happy at all and leaves the audience unsatisfied -- this is because the Beast with his silky fur and elegant brocaded garments, his sad bulging eyes, and gentlemanly tiny white incisors adorning his thin black lips, is phenomenally handsome and, in fact, much more desirable than the rather vapid human hero.  Indeed, at every juncture, Cocteau seems determined to make the Beast more appealing than any of the humans, including the beautiful, if dull, heroine. (The actress, Josette Day, is a great burst of white light to the Beast's preternatural and mournful blackness.)  Presumably, Cocteau understands what he is doing and, I suppose, there is Freudian or Jungian analysis that can make sense of the picture's bizarre ending -- but, emotionally, the film falls to earth with a thud when the Beast is transformed into the simulacrum of one of the venal and dim-witted humans.  Cocteau tries to avoid our let-down by suddenly investing his chaste heroine with a leering, sexual impudence -- she pouts and anxiously flings herself at her human lover while simultaneously declaring that she desires the Beast.  The final shots of the lovers ascending into heaven in a great floral bouquet of swirling garments, something like Paolo and Francesca in Dante or the figures one might glimpse on a rococo ceiling -- have a sour desperation:  Cocteau is pulling out all the stops to persuade us that the ending is satisfactory when everyone knows it is not.  (Marlene Dietrich's response to the last scenes in the film is noteworthy and exemplary:  at the screening, she attended she murmured "Bring me back my beautiful Beast!")  The movie founders on a sub-plot involving an attempt to rob the Beast's treasury guarded by an animate statue of the Virgin huntress Diana.  In that robbery, Belle's would-be human lover is shot in the back by Diana's arrow and, then, transforms into the Beast -- whether he is dead or just the victim of a malign metamorphosis or whether this shot is supposed to symbolically signify that the handsome movie star (Jean Marais) was really a beast within is uncertain.  Simultaneously, the Beast turns into a prince, but, disappointingly, his human face is that of the lover just shot down by Diana.  The effect is palpable disappointing, something clearly intended by Cocteau but peculiar nonetheless.  (As a homosexual, he may not be emotionally invested in the conventional heterosexual climax and, perhaps, signals his disdain for the embrace between the pale, pretty movie stars with which he is forced to conclude his film.  I wonder if there is not a more subversive and disturbing implication -- the film was made during the German occupation and I wonder if Cocteau is not mourning the departure of the beautiful blonde German beasts from Paris.)    The picture embodies the spirit of the rococo as refracted through Cocteau's surrealism and the various magical effects are justly celebrated:  statues come to life and the grounds around the Beast's chateau are like the enchanted gardens that we see in paintings by Watteau and Fragonard.  Watch this movie for the Beast;  he moves like a courtier or a great dancer, and, when Beauty has him lap water from her pale hands, the imagery has a delirious erotic impact.  Later as the poor beast is dying, we see a close-up of his face, the silky fur now matted and his nose wet as the muzzle of a friendly Labrador retriever.  Several large and malign geese hiss loudly at him.  This film is classic, but I don't much like it.  Every major director has alluded to Beauty and the Beast in some respect and stolen its effects and so you need to see this movie and make up your own mind about it. 

The Jungle Book (1942)

The three Hungarian born Korda brothers designed, directed, and produced a number of noteworthy British films during the thirties and forties.  I have not seen most of these films, but, on the evidence, of their most famous productions, their work was opulently mounted, beautifully shot, and surprisingly dull.  That Hamilton Woman, The Thief of Baghdad, and The Jungle Book have lavish sets and gorgeous costumes.  The Thief of Baghdad and The Jungle Book, made in 1940 and 1941 respectively, were shot in Technicolor and the super-saturated color design is breathtaking -- some of the shots simulate Maxfield Parrish; the atmosphere oozes rich color like molasses.  In my view, the Korda brothers are a decisive influence on the much greater, and stranger, Michael Powell.  Powell's films, particularly his Technicolor ones, have similarly grandiose sets, vast decorated spaces curiously poised between realism and the theater.  But Powell's movies have an aspect of delirium and hysteria that the staid, rather formal, Korda brothers, for better or worse, can't access.  Their films are civilized entertainments, not fever dreams like Powell's most famous movies.  In the first fifteen minutes, The Jungle Book with Sabu seems to be the most beautiful movie that you have ever seen.  The forest primeval is a holy place filled with colossal Banyan trees, their roots fortified like immense pale walls in a voluptuous green gloom.  Puddles of water are tiger-hued, glistening with orange and red highlights, the faint traces of a fiery sunset hidden by the canopy of the trees.  Vines hang in decorous profusion from the trees and banks of moist-looking orchids adorn places where shafts of sun pierce the jungle overgrowth.  An ancient city is abandoned to hordes of monkeys and huge impassive Buddhas, their faces painted bright blue dream in the silence of abandoned courtyards.  In a pit, a cobra guards a golden treasure -- at one point, the frieze of a temple is cracked open to drizzle gold coins like the shower falling into Danae's loins.  The rivers are purplish-blue full of menacing crocodiles and lily-pads wearing huge flowers like corsages.  Despite the film's startling beauty, it is static, dull, and predictable.  Unlike the Tarzan films that featured animal action of feral, and horrific ferocity, the Kordas don't know how to stage tiger attacks or elephant stampedes.  Their snakes are limp tubes obviously manipulated by strings.  (My guess is that the Kordas, influenced by the British Humane Society, weren't willing to commit the atrocities that Hollywood directors must have used to stage the animal effects in the Tarzan movies.)  Since the aspects of the film involving animals are unconvincing, the movie devolves into a story of three villainous blackguards attempting to loot a temple treasury that Sabu has accidentally discovered.  This story is prosaic and uninteresting, although it allows one of the bad guys an opportunity to flog the pretty Sabu and threaten him with a fiery death at the stake as a sorcerer -- imagery that has a sadistic homo-erotic edge.  The Korda brothers seem to be grooming Sabu for a series of jungle-boy adventures and the film ends on a note suggesting that sequels will follow -- strangely enough, the narrator of the story, a handsome old man with "the head of John the Baptist (as described by the pretty Mem-Sahib who hears the tale) turns out to be one of the villains.  Sabu, who was raised by wolves, swings through the air on vines, howls like a wolf, and, even, kills the animal villain, Shere Khan, a magnificent Bengal tiger, in an absurd underwater duel -- the film makers don't know how to stage the action other than as a wrestling match under the surface of a pond, the boy grappling with a tiger-dummy in murky water to hide the scene's deficiencies.  If you find this film playing on TV, you should watch it with one eye without the sound, while reading a National Geographic or Kipling's poems during the dull stretches. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014


Christopher Nolan's Interstellar (2014) is wonderful in just about every respect and, as science fiction, a monumental achievement.  The movie is a two-hour and forty minute spectacle in which the viewer's interest never lags, and that delivers one marvel after another.  Science fiction is successful when it provokes thoughts, inspires awe and wonder, and depicts human beings as heroic explorers confronting vast expanses of space and time.  With respect to these criteria, Interstellar, is wholly successful.  Of course, certain deficiencies are also characteristic of science fiction and, even, afflict its greatest works -- for instance, Tarkovsky's Solaris and Kubrick's 2001 a Space Odyssey.  (It is high praise to say that Interstellar closely resembles both of these films; indeed, Nolan's film is as gravely serious, humorless, and philosophical as its great precursors.)  Interstellar's characters are dull, inadequately realized, and, mostly, mouthpieces for scientific and speculative discourse that never seems really plausible as anything that a real person might say.  Matthew McConnaughy, haggard as always, gives a powerful, if monotonously single-minded performance -- it's as good as it needs to be given that the exploration of inner space, that is character development, is not the raison d'etre of film of this kind.  The other actors are just serviceable, none of them really bad except, perhaps, the hapless Matt Damon, who plays a villain with motives that the movie doesn't really bother to articulate.  There is a lot of lame exposition in the film and many ejaculations about "singularities" and "wormholes" that are, more or less, blatantly nonsensical.  Nolan, despite the narrative complexity of his films, is not a strong director when it comes to providing clarity of action in his stories (his Batman films are unbelievably bad)  -- frequently, he neglects important clues as to meaning or presents information too early for the audience to grasp it's narrative significance.  The ghostly poltergeist phenomena that provides the focus of the film's first quarter hour is not visualized in a way sufficient for us to understand exactly what is happening and this turns out to be a defect since crucial plot points turn on that activity.  Nolan's narrative approach to his material is frequently elliptical -- we never understand with any clarity exactly what calamity has befallen the world or why everyone has to become a farmer in what looks like Alberta, Canada.  When Jessica Chastain ignites a cornfield in the movie's climactic sequence, we have no idea what motivates her.  Certainly, the holocaust of the burning fields provides a visually effective counterpoint in the fugal construction of the movie's last half hour -- McConnaughy rocketing through a black hole in which space and time are warped crosscut with an immense prairie fire threatening the family home back on earth -- but I can't figure out why she lit the fire in the first place.  (The images of the fire as well as the prairies of Alberta summon to mind another influence on Nolan's film, the works of Terrance Malick, in particular the blazing prairie in Days of Heaven.)  But none of this really matters.  The purpose of this film is to inspire awe and wonder at the majestic indifference of the universe and this the movie achieves magnificently.  Hans Zimmer's score features the kind of rolling arpeggios and slowly amplified crescendos that Philip Glass orchestrated for Scorsese's Kundun and an important element of the film is the use of the music to create a rhythm emphasizing the grandeur of the action that we are shown.  (Zimmer's work mimics the end of Kundun in which Glass' soundtrack rises to a thunderous repetitive roar as we see the Dalai Lama struggling to escape Tibet -- it's a fantastic effect that Zimmer replicates to create a sense of religious awe.  Of course, I worry that the same musical score might create a sense of religious awe underlying images of cooking a tuna casserole or walking a poodle; there's a sense in which the spectacular soundtrack cheats a little both in Kundun and Interstellar inflecting the images with a power that they may not exactly have earned.)  The plot of Interstellar is beside the point:  some kind of plague has destroyed civilization and forced people to revert to farming that is becoming, more or less, unsustainable in the face of vast apocalyptic dust storms.  Humanity must leave earth to survive.  NASA, hiding inside mountains in Canada or Montana, has sent 12 probes through a worm-hole to distant galleries looking for habitable planets.  McConnaughy and his team set forth through the wormhole to explore worlds that earthlings might colonize, planets from which promising signals have been received from the advance parties.  It is a race against time since life on earth seems imminently threatened by malign climactic changes..  In this film, as in 2001 and Solaris, the immense distances of interstellar space are dramatized in terms of the time required to cross them.  Relativistic effects are integral to Interstellar and the theme of the movie, in fact, is time -- the way we experience time and the fact that it can be atomized into a series of moments, a theme of profound significance apparently to Nolan, whose breakthrough film, Memento, dramatized this issue in terms of a man suffering from an inability to recall the immediate past, a hero lost in a maze of present-tense time.  At the end of Interstellar, the themes of Memento are materialized in literal labyrinth of moments, an extraordinary image that I a triumph of Nolan's imagination and his design team.  The movie is full of fantastic and moving sequences, many of them exploiting the sense that as humans we are trapped in the remorseless flow of time, like ants in amber.  Indeed, some of these scenes are so powerful that people were openly weeping in the audience when I attended the film. There are waves on one planet as tall as Mount Everest; on another planet, the space ship knocks off pieces of floating and frozen clouds.  Towering dust storms block out the sunlight on earth, a place that comes to look as desolate as the uninhabited worlds explored by the space adventurers.  Nolan's trademarks from Inception are on display in even more elaborate and spectacular special effects -- a baseball hit up in a pop fly smashes through a window in a house overhanging the field, the interior of the space station is curved so that city streets are wrapped around the inside of the arch to form a sky to the playground.  In the Black Hole, things elongate into bands of color and there are a million rooms each mirroring one another, a recursive brownish labyrinth expanding in all directions.  On the ice-world, two men fight in their space suits and the camera shows them alone grappling in an enormous landscape -- it's like the brutal climax of Stroheim's Greed, when the two protagonists beat one another to a pulp while handcuffed together in Death Valley.  This is an extraordinary movie, highly serious, an example of the pictorial sublime, and one that I highly recommend.