Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The House is Black

You will need to watch Forough Farrokzhad’s “The House is Black” three times to properly appreciate this film. Since this documentary is only 22 minutes long, you can accomplish this in about an hour. The first viewing will fill you with revulsion and horror. The second time you watch the movie, a great sadness will afflict you. Only on the third viewing will the lyric beauty of the picture become apparent. A proper appreciation of “The House is Black” requires the viewer to traverse all three states of mind. The film begins with an epigram: “There is no shortage of ugliness in the world. If a man closed his eyes to it, there would be more...” The first image in the picture shows a woman whose face is ravaged beyond recognition by leprosy peering at herself in a mirror. A woman’s voice recites poetry from what seems to be the Holy Qu’ran, praise to God for creating the beauties of the world and lamentation for being trapped in a place that seems to be hell. For about eight minutes, we are shown images of lepers in various forms of decomposition -- flattened noses, twisted lips, faces thick with impassive, mask-like scar tissue, hands and feet reduced to bony stumps, eyes rotting in eye-sockets that seem to have melted. One leper dances and sings while children watch him. Leper boys in school read from shabby-looking text books. We see food being prepared and disfigured mothers suckling their children. The narrator recites verse that seems to come from the Psalms: “I have been made in a strange and frightening knew me in the womb.” There is a five minute account of leprosy’s nature and etiology, an actual documentary passage in the film featuring images of physical therapy, debridement of hideous-looking wounds, eye-drops administered to festering eyes and needles and syringes extracting blood. Then, we see a leper woman being married and a wild kind of dance, two face-less men wrestling to the joy of disfigured onlookers, a dog caring for its newborn puppies and a beautiful little girl being pushed across a dusty yard in a wheelchair by a shuffling leper. We see the bride preparing herself for her wedding by putting on eye-shadow -- her face is a chalky swollen mask with lips that seem completely dead and alien to her face. These images are intercut with shots of leaves fallen onto an expanse of shallow, murky water, the camera passing along the pond as the woman’s voice intones a poem about the evanescence of life. The film ends with a classroom catechism, a staple of many Iranian films -- such a scene is central to Kiastoarami’s “Where is the Friend’s House” and many of the features made by Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The teacher asks a boy: “Why should we praise God for giving us a father and mother?” He answers: “I don’t know for I have neither.” The teacher asks another child: What things are beautiful? The child says: Stars, the moon, the sun, flowers, playtime. The teacher asks: “What is ugly?” The same child says: “Feet, hands, heads.” And all the leper-children giggle and laugh. The teacher asks a confused man with his hair falling-out to write a sentence using the word “house.” After a long pause, the man’s twisted hand writes: “The house is black.” The camera withdraws, pulling back from a great procession of lepers as they approach a threshold, a kind of clay and mud gate that stops their forward march. Someone pulls the gate shut and on it, written in Arabic, are the words “Leper Colony.” The film is shot in grainy black and white. Many of the images remind me of footage taken in Hiroshima after the atomic blast: grainy pictures of horrible wounds. Forough Farrokzhad was, perhaps, the most important feminist poet in Iran and she is apparently revered today - I presume that some of the biblically-cadenced verse in the film was written by her. She died in a car accident when she was only 32 and seems to be famous for the candor and intensity of her erotic poetry. A brief interview with her sister, made quite recently and an “extra” on the disc, contains some images of the woman -- we see a dark-haired woman with a large nose and huge black eyes, dressed like a Vogue model, without veil and head-scarf. She looks fashionable, intense, modern, beautiful. What has happened to the world since 1962? (The Facets DVD containing “The House is Black” also features two other short documentaries by Mohsen Makhmalbaf -- the first about a school that was blown away is extraordinary: we see a huge landscape riven by immense canyons and, then, attend school with twelve boys and their teacher -- the same Persian catechism scene -- and learn that in a dust storm the tent-school was blown away and one of the boys had his head “fractured”. The little film is only nine minutes long and exceedingly simple but it is memorable -- the little scholar with the fractured head bawling his poems to the camera makes a powerful impact. The other documentary is about a painter and I must confess I found it completely impenetrable -- it ends with a chorus of barking dogs with the soundtrack looped to suggest that they are singing while the film shows us a pack of the animals jumping up and down.)

Sunday, January 26, 2014

August: Osage County

Tracy Letts' Pulitzer prize-winning play, "August, Osage County," is occasionally funny and undeniably impressive in the torrents of verbal abuse that the characters unleash on one another. But the experience has an ugly undercurrent: people hurl vituperation and calumny; the victim passively endures the insult -- an aspect of both the theater piece and its film adaptation that doesn't exactly ring true. Finally, someone snaps and there are fisticuffs and the character with the vicious tongue gets her comeuppance. The audience's reaction is similar to the pleasure that we feel when a villain is slaughtered in an action film: we get a burst of adrenalin and feel complacent indignation mingled with pleasure. The effect is powerful and, even, in an unfortunate way, pleasureable but you walk out of the picture feeling just a wee bit dirty. The central scene in "August: Osage County" employs this dynamic: it is a long bravura ensemble scene, something like Chekhov on amphetamines. Meryl Streep, playing the drug-addicted and vicious matriarch of a family with three daughters (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis), torments everyone at the dinner table. She excuses her cruel comments as "truth-telling" but she is really just taunting everyone within ear-shot. Finally, Julia Roberts has had enough and grapples with her mother, knocking her to the floor, and yanking her pills away from her. The audience gets the kind of charge out of this violent release of action that you might feel when a nasty professional wrestler gets beaned with a folding chair by a good guy. It's theatrical all right, but a fairly low species of theater. Later in the film, which goes on and on, a virtuous Indian maiden takes a shovel to Dermot Mulrooney and knocks him senseless -- the audience gets the same charge out of this assault and, in fact, wishes that the war-like Cheyenne girl would take the shovel to the rest of the cast and put paid to their endless carping and whining. Kin to Edward Albee's "Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf," the play features all sorts of deep dark secrets including incest and every big scene involves several speeches involving embarrassing self-revelations, accusations, and Gothic accounts of assault and battery. It's no surprise that the ever-annoying Sam Shepherd, an actor who increasingly resembles in tone and diction (if not appearance) Walter Brennan has committed suicide to escape from this clan. In a fundamental way, the play (and the film) seems false. We have no idea why these characters are so bitter and cruel. Alcoholism and drug abuse don't seem sufficient causes for the torrets of vitriol that the characters unleash on one another. And the film's labored and realistic-seeming mise-en-scene doesn't really comport with the play's rather heightened speech and stylized action. Is there really a huge house baking on the west Oklahoma plains without air conditioning? And, if so, why don't the actors and actresses shed some of their outer clothing in light of the heat? (Letts seems to grasp this incongruity and provides a lame explanation of sorts: Meryl Streep makes the men put on their suit-jackets in the big luncheon scene shouting: "This is a funeral dinner, not a cock-fight.") When Streep's character plays an Eric Clapton song "Lay down Sally" near the end of the movie, we see her carefully put the needle in the groove of the record so as to start the tune at its exact beginning -- but wouldn't her hand tremble? Would she really be able to start the song at its precise beginning so accurately in a single, rather casual gesture? And the song is not the last tune on the LP. So wouldn't the record keep playing during the completely predictable scene (the audience expects this from the first five minutes of the movie) in which the abandoned matriarch is comforted by the valiant earth-mother Cheyenne maid -- an example, if ever there was one, of inverse racism in a film. Julia Roberts, who looks fantastically fierce and ugly in this film, flees her mother's home in a pick-up -- but whose pick-up? A big point is made of the fact that Roberts has arrived with her husband and daughter in the same car. Is she stealing the pick-up? And the final shot in the film, suggesting that Roberts is planning to drive 625 miles to Denver is unwittingly risible -- she's dressed in rather shabby pajamas and has left all her luggage, and, presumably, her purse, her wallet, and her money back at the ranch that she has just fled. These are minor points but the film is designed in such a way as to cause you to be troubled by mistakes of this sort. The direction by John Wells is only barely functional -- it's just shot and reverse-shot with many huge close-ups emphasizing Ms. Streep's waxy pallor and wild eyes. This is the kind of hammy role for which actresses are awarded with Oscars -- Streep looks like a zombie and her lips and eyebrows writhe with effort as she pronounces her baroque lines. And Julia Roberts vies with her for hideousness -- never a conventionally attractive actress, she is picturesquely awfu-looking in this movie: her profile resembles an angry bull-frog and her huge swollen lips seem the result of cosmetic surgery gone awry. All the acting is excellent in a showy kid of way. Poor Benedict Cumberbatch is completely wasted in the role of a sweet nitwit in love with his own sister -- the poor guy has a fine imitation American accent with, even, a trace of a south-western twang and his eyes fill up with tears when violent tongues begin to flay him.

Top of the Lake

Adapting Raymond Chandler right after World War II, Hollywood discovered a sure-fire narrataive formula in pictures like "The Big Sleep." A detective story, generally the search for a lost person or thing, provides a loose framework on which to sling vivid character portraits of eccentric and sexually deviant criminals, con-men, entertainers, millionaires, etc. These narratives employ naive, but resourceful, outsiders who gradually penetrate networks of depravity festering in remote or isolated communities. The outsider's journey of discovery simulates the viewer's participation in the story, decoding events to perceive a sinister pattern. By nature episodic, these kinds of narrtives can assume great length and, often involve, torturous plots -- Faulkner, who helped to write "The Big Sleep," claimed that neither he nor director Howard Hawks understood the story. The fascination that these stories exerts has almost nothing to do with the narrative's ostensible plot -- rather, the tale fascinates because of its unusual and menacing characters, and, frequently, its exotic, carefully observed setting. "Chinatown" ends in a place that no one can decipher; "True Detective," a noteworthy recent example of this genre, explores rural poverty in Eastern Louisiana and, of course, the tribal habits of career cops; "Top of the Lake," Jane Campion's engrossing mini-series, plunges into the multi-cultural and male chauvinist milieu of New Zealand's improbably mountainous outback. In setting, Campion's show resembles a paradigm of the genre, David Lynch's "Twin Lakes" -- both programs assemble their casts of isolates, visionaries, and monstrous villains in a remote village surrounded by sinister and majestic landscapes that threaten to engulf the characters in their malign indifference. Campion's show is more naturalistic -- at least, on the evidence of the two episodes that I review here -- and her motives are clearer than Lynch's perverse, self-generating narrative that, ultimately, had nowhere to go. Campion's subject, similar to previous films including the highly regareded "The Piano," is feminism tested by immersion in a society that is male-dominated to the point of madness. Her strength is that she doesn't really take sides -- her brutish men are, often, sexually appealing and exert a strong erotic attraction on her female characters. Her feminists are, often, loony, moon-struck dreamers and her vision of an all-female society, a feminist colony in which the women live in storage containers, genuflect to an eerie white-haired crone (brilliantly played by Holly Hunt), and sit around discussing marital traumas and masturbation all day, represents a solution to male-female conflict and masculine power that is as sinister and vicious, it seems, as the drunken all-male cameraderie of the taverns where the boys gather to plot their rapes and murders. This show is mostly atmosphere and acting -- the locations are astounding: a narrow Loch Ness-style lake, said to contain a throbbing demon's heart according to Maori legend, ensconced in mountains that look like something an eight-year-old might draw, sheer pointed peaks, glaciers, and canyons clogged with rain-forest jungle. And the acting seems to me to be pitch-perfect, although much of what is said involves New Zealand accents and argot so dense as to be inaudible to my Minnesota ears. The plot involves a pregnant 12-year old who refuses to identify the father of her child and, then, goes missing. The little girl is the daughter of a alpha-male bad guy, although as the program advances the father's motives becomes increasingly complex and his personality develops in surprising ways. The bad guy lives on a compound surrounded by gates, smokes pot openly when the detective interviews him, and seems to have impregnated half the women in the community. He menaces everyone and is a savage bully. But he also seems to love his daughter and appears to have raised her to be some sort of woman warrior, an avenger of her gender. At first, the little girl seems frail and desperate but, later, when we see her armed with a shotgun and riding a horse through the mountains, one has the sense that there is much more to this character than mere victim and pretense for the show's quest. The detective entering this unknown terrain, in fact, has come from this community, but been absent for many years -- apparently, the young woman detective seeking the identity of the man who raped the little girl lives in Sydney, the metropolis to which everyone refers, and she is estranged from her mother, probably because the older woman, a kind of aging hippie, lives with a Maori boyfrien who periodically beats her. (The relationship begs the question of the heroine's father -- a man who has drowned in the lake and whose shoes the detective caresses, murmuring "Daddy.") The young woman seems, at first, to represent feminism, the role of women in the modern world, but, in fact, she is also complex and her relationship to the men around her is ambiguous. The program suggests that the matriarch of the feminist compound (the storage container colony) is in mortal combat with the alpha-male patriarch of the male-dominated society behind the locked gates across the lake. But, in fact, the two characters, with their oracular pronouncements and their flowing white hair, seem very much alike, prophets of their respective domains doomed to collide precisely they are so similar to one another. The series is dense with interesting characters and strange confrontations. Campion understands that the two sexes, ultimately, reside in different worlds but that they are inextricably entangled -- the separatist female commune operates on bizarre principles (one matron goes into town to have sexual encounters that she has been told by the matriarch must last less than seven minutes)and one has the sense that the alpha-male's proudest possession is his warrior-daughter, fleeing the authorities, armed, dangerous and pregnant in the High Sierra. A little scene embodies the complexity of Campion's vision. A wealthy man is ferried to the compound by helicopter and drops off his teenage daugher who hates him. The wealthy man has divorced his longsuffering wife for a much younger woman and the spurned woman has fled to the compound -- she is the one with the seven-minute sexual adventures. The rich man seems brutish, ugly, and insensitive. But before he leaves in his helicopter, he comes upon his daughter seated by a stream playing her guitar. Suddenly, he begins to sing with extraordinary passion, scat-singing in which he imitates a guitar while flailing away with his own air-guitar The girl refuses to look at him but, nonetheless, imitates the sounds that he is making and plays a kind of tiny duet with him -- clearly, there is some connection between the father and daughter, probably extending far back into her childhood that all the misery of the present with its betraysls and calamities has not wholly effaced.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

To the Wonder

Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder” is a film that is radically empty. The film poses beautiful people against landscapes. Generally, the camera moves as if discovering the landscape, passing through (or across) an invisible threshold as the character moves into the terrain. In many instances, the actor is alone in the frame and back-lit. Often, images of landscape or atmospheric effects or empty rooms brooding in light that is intensely specific and individualized are inserted into the film. Editing is swift, fluent, and completely non-narrative: characters appear against the sunset on an open prairie; the next shot shows the same figures, but against an urban landscape. Sequences are edited with time-jumps: we see a woman dancing, then, another angle of her lying down in a forest or park, then, another shot of her running toward the camera in that same location. The film seems to involve complicated dialogue scenes, but the editing obscures the relationship between the figures speaking and the sound-recording makes it impossible for us to hear what is being said. (A peculiar opening title tells the DVD viewer to “turn up the volume”, but, I think, to no avail since you aren’t supposed to be able to hear most of the words spoken in the film.) The movie produces the effect of being more completely silent and visual than an actual silent film -- in silent films, intertitles explained the action to the audience. In “To the Wonder,” there is no explication of any kind -- we can determine approximately what is happening and there is a consistent “tone” or mood to the film, but there is no story, no exposition and no attempt to tidy up the imagery by reducing repetition or duplication of effect. Indeed, to the contrary, the film is obsessively repetitious -- the same thing seems to happen over and over again; we see the same locations in the same “magic-hour” light repeatedly; the Good Friday music from “Parsifal” is played not once, but three times, and, about a third of the shots in the movie, show a beautiful young woman, either dark-haired or blonde, spinning ecstatically. In Griffith’s films, his heroines, Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh, never walked through a shot -- the girls either pranced or skipped or danced through the image. Malick treats his actresses the same way -- they move like sprites, dipping, leaping, and spinning in circles. The movement of the women contrasts with Ben Affleck who is directed to move slowly, stiffly, deliberately -- clad in black, Affleck’s character is like a sullen, half-submerged boulder around which the women prance. The film is visionary and remarkable -- but it is also cloying and vacant. “To the Wonder’s” vacancy is akin to Ozu’s “empty frames” -- it is a philosophical stance and Malick completely controls this aspect of the movie; the picture is designed to obstruct its own narrative and to empty story and plot into a radiant void of pure light and color. The cloying aspects of the film feel like a defect and I think represent a weakness in Malick’s temperament with respect to the feminine -- the “Ewig-Weibliche” that provides the gravitational field around which the movie’s astounding imagery orbits. Some critics have declared the film insufferably pretentious -- this is unfair to the movie and untrue to the experience of watching “To the Wonder”. Pretentiousness requires ideas and, as I have said, the film is “empty,” a vessel for light and movement that is immune to concept. I think the most precise way of describing the film is in terms of the religious notion of “kenosis” -- that is, a “pouring out” or “emptying”: the movie establishes a sort of plot, a kind of vestigial romantic triangle and, then, empties that situation of anything like character, drama or narrative. Wikipedia’s entry on the movie describes a fairly detailed narrative -- but this narrative is not apparent to someone watching the film for the first time. A man falls in love with a woman in France and there are a number of travelogue-style images of Paris and Mont St. Michael. The man induces the woman to move to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, a small city that is strangely vacant, like a down-home De Chirico painting: small brick towers, vacant lots, immensely wide streets with no traffic, throbbing oil fields and refineries seemingly in people’s back yards. There is an immense golden prairie and a suburb under a huge sky with ominous pyramid-shaped roofs of the big houses looming over cul-de-sacs. The European woman (and her daughter) are lonely and there are bad fights with Ben Aflleck’s stolid, uncommunicative character and the family disintegrates. The woman and child return to Paris. The man meets an old sweetheart and embarks on an affair with her at a ranch where there are herds of bison. (This part of the film seems nakedly autobiographical -- Malick apparently reconnected with a high school girlfriend and married her in Bartlesville, his hometown.) The love affair with old flame also collapses and, then, the European woman moves back to Bartlesville. She and the man begin to fight and the same events that earlier ruined their relationship seem to re-occur -- this time, heightened by an adulterous love affair conducted in an Econo-Lodge to the strains of Wagner’s “Parsifal.” The man confronts the woman; they fight some more; he forgives her. But she flees again, once more returning to Paris. Intercut with these events is a story -- really, just a situation -- involving a lonely and tormented Catholic priest. The priest, played by Javier Bardem, is desperately seeking Christ in the world and he spends his time in a decomposing slum interacting with criminals, meth-addicts, teenage mothers, street preachers, and homeless people -- these scenes are very beautiful and the faces of the poor folks on the street, in psych-wards, and prisons are terrible and attractive, both sublime and hideous at the same time; there is a neo-realist glory about some of this footage that reminds me of Rossellini. The priest’s desperate search for meaning, for God in the world, seems to parallel the hopeless plight of the lovers who seek the divine and ecstatic in one another but are perpetually disappointed and wounded. Documentary footage showing the film being made suggests that the priest interacted with the tormented couple and, perhaps, even counseled them in the movie’s original design -- there are a few vestiges of this aspect of the plot remaining in the film, but those encounters seem to have been mostly edited-out of the movie. Instead, we are left with an almost purely abstract, contrapuntal organization to the film in which the search for erotic love parallels the priest’s search for divine love. The film was, apparently, shot like Griffith’s silent pictures without a script, improvised on location from a broad outline of ideas in the director’s head. “To the Wonder” is more interesting to write about than to watch -- in real time, the movie’s repetitive structure is maddening. It is an important movie, perhaps, a landmark, but also a creative dead-end -- visionary emptiness is beautiful and, I think, philosophically compelling but ultimately the ineffable can’t be photographed and so the movie, a structure of pictures, necessarily must fail. The film’s unique manner of failure is its importance. “Fail again,” Beckett wrote, “fail better.”

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Chasing Shackleton

A vainglorious and dim-witted PBS mini-series, this three-program special documents an attempt by six adventurers to replicate polar explorer Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated 1913-1917 Transpolar Expedition. As most everyone knows, Shackleton was a dullard who botched everything in his life except the extrication of his twenty or so men from Antarctica once his folly marooned them there. A visionary and media-savvy con-man, Shackleton planned to cross Antarctica, documenting his exploits on film. Instead of crossing the continent, his ship, the Endurance, became mired in ice and, ultimately, was destroyed. Shackleton was stranded and, ultimately, had to venture across 800 miles of frigid tempestuous seas in a tiny boat to reach help at a whaling station on South Georgia island. Making shore on the wrong side of the island, Shackleton and two of his desperate men (three of them were too weakened by their ordeal to continue) had to cross 32 miles of mountainous and heavily glaciated terrain to reach the Norwegian encampment. Achieving that objective, rescue parties were sent to pick up the three men "hors de combat" on the other side of the island and, further, dispatched across the violent seas to Elephant Island to retrieve the rest of his adventurers who had been subsisting on a diet of greasy penguin for the last two years. Everyone survived the catastrophe. Ironically, a number of Shackleton's men decided to exchange the rigors of polar exploration for the Western Front where they were killed. When the chips were down, Shackleton acted with undeniable fortitute and resolution but, of course, one must question his judgement in getting into these desperate straits in the first place. Pictures of the explorer show a man with unexpressive, stolid features, a fellow who looks like an uninspired Presbyterian minister. In recent years, a cult has grown up around Shackleton and his prowess as a leader has been extolled -- mostly to melancholy middle-aged accountants and business executives who seek to emulate their hero's determination and resolve. No one in their right mind would follow Shackleton in fair weather and under blue skies. But I suppose if you let him lead you into catastrophe, he would be an excellent fellow to follow to safety. But why put yourself in danger in the first place? Inadvertently, the idiotic "Chasing Shackleton" raises these issues. The leader of the expedition, a splendidly bearded gent named Jarvis, worships Shackleton as if he were a God. Jarvis says that he wants to prove that modern explorers have sufficient fortitude to endure the kind of hardships that Shackleton suffered and to prevail against similar challenges. Although at the end of the show, Jarvis, who at one point bravely proclaims that -- Yakuza-style -- he will trade a couple digits (pinky-toes, I think) for success, loudly and dramatically declares victory at the end of the show, the viewer is left unconvinced. First, the modern adventurers are coddled by an accompanying rescue ship, fully equipped with a modern infirmary doctors, and, wiggling out of the corner of the frame, a couple of comely nurses. On several occasions, disaster looms and the heroic explorers have to seek assistance from the rescue vessel. It is clear that the open boat in which our heros have crossed the sea from Elephant Island would have crashed into the black escarpments surrounding South Georgia Island with all hands lost but for the intervention of the GPS systems on the rescue vessel. On South Georgia Island, the six member team encounters all sorts of peculiar medical problems and people have to be evacuated from the island. Bad weather forces the three remaining explorers to huddle in cozy Gor-tex tents for several days, a luxury not available to poor Shackleton and his explorers -- they had fifty feet of frayed rope and a carpenter's adze. In short, it is pretty clear that, contrary to Jarvis' boastful proclamation of victory, his expedition has proved the exact opposite of what he purports it to have established. Jarvis tells us that modern explorers are just as tough as Shackleton. But the film shows that everyone would have perished repeatedly except for modern medical technology and the benefits of such amenities as gortex tents, satellite cartography, and GPS The show is solemn and dull, although the landscapes are beautiful. (This TV show profits by the largest screen possible -- the sheer magnificent malelovence of the polar islands and seas is diminished by a small screen: the spiky and sinister Triton Ridge on South Georgia Island, for instance, is a terrifying sight, but, undoubtedly, appears much lessened when viewed on TV.) The show takes itself and its moron adventurers too seriously. In one sequences, the men have to slide on their buttocks down a thousand foot ramp of steep snow and ice. The effect is inadvertently comical, but the narration solemnly explicates the humorous image: "The men descend from the ridge using a well-established mountaineering technique called the controlled, roped glissade" -- evidently, a technical term for tobogganing down a mountain on your ass. Much of the show is occupied with the men bitching at one another and making catty remarks. This is a staple of reality TV. Of course, one must hypothesize that Shackelton's unfortunate followers spend a lot of time whining and carping at one another also. But there was no camera around to record these conversations. Instead, the primitive movie camera that the Transpolar expedition lugged with it recorded stark and beautiful images of the crucifixion of the Endurance by ice, some of the most dignified and profound pictures made in the 20th century.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Klondike and preliminary notes on "True Detective"

For all I know, the last two hours of the Discovery channel's mini-series, "Klondike" is enthralling, inspiring, and brilliantly written. I abandoned this gargantuan absurdity after suffering through the first two parts of the six-hour show. "Klondike" represents an interesting, if perhaps, unfortunate development in television: hitherto, reality TV shows have amped-up conflict to create phony melodrama approximating the Sturm und Drang that you might expect in a rather florid fictional mini-series; now, however, reality shows are so popular that fictional melodrama seems anxious to imitate them. Periodically, the frenzied and improbable action in "Klondike" pauses for digressive conversations about geology and mining techniques. This seemed peculiar to me since the lurid subject matter of the show really has little or nothing to do with mining -- the drama is just an excuse for lots of violence and sex. But, from the ads interspersed in the proceedings, I see that "Klondike" is thematically liked with, at least, two other shows on the Discovery channel, both of them reality programs -- something called "Gold Rush" and another show called "Bering Sea Gold". These shows presumably feature low-grade morons belching insults at one another as they search in vain for the proverbial "glory-hole". (A friend of mine who has seen these shows tells me that nuggets and veins of gold are as scarce on these programs as ghosts on "TAPS" or the other paranormal programs haunting the Networks.) Furthermore, there have been a number of reality shows recently broadcast involving logging operations. "Klondike" seems 'tied-in' to these enterprises as well -- the fetching heroine of the show runs a saw-mill and, frequently, boasts that her "timber" is more valuable than the gold the other characters are trying to pluck out of the ubiquitous Klondike muck. Generally speaking, mini-series languish because they have too many characters and too few incidents -- in the middle of these programs, the producers of such shows often neglect even fundamental editing techniques: if someone says they are going to the bakery, the show kills time by filming the hero walking to his car, opening his car door, driving to the bakery, getting out of his car, walking to the shop, and, then, enjoying some light, and pointless repartee with the shop proprietor: the craft of editing is used only to jerk responses out of the viewers in various poorly conceived and implausible action sequences. Otherwise everything proceeds more or less in real-time with lots of shots of people walking across rooms and opening doors to fill out the lengthy running time of the show. "Klondike" has the same poorly conceived and implausible action scenes, many of them edited into a mismatched hash of quick cuts, but it doesn't slip into longuers -- to the contrary, "Klondike" packs so much action into its narrative that the viewer starts to look forward to the relative respite of the TV commercials. In the first forty minutes, the two feckless heros are beset by homicidal knife-wielding Chinamen in a gambling den, survive a spectacular avalanche, crash through deadly rapids and are attacked by wolves. Around the one-hour mark, one of the heros, a whiny, irritating Jewish kid, is inexplicably gunned-down and spends the next forty minutes lying on a block of ice while flies buzz around his nose and his buddy ineffectually seeks "justice" for the dead man. The best part of the show -- and I concede I don't know how it ends -- was this second hour of episode one and, on the strength of those scenes, I tuned in for a second night. Alas, part two is just more of the same and, in fact, the show's plot becomes increasingly hysterical: everyone is dying from typhus, an evil gunslinging businessman, played effectively if extremely negligently by Tim Roth (the role is clearly derived, like most of the show, from the bad guy in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller"), humiliates a sublimely beautiful prostitute by making her strip in a mud-storm; this mistreatment causes the prostitute to minister to the ill who are being treated by a kindly (but wolf-slaughtering) Catholic priest played by Sam Shepherd in a part so annoying and overwritten that you long for one of the bad guys to put a bullet through his brain. Wicked bureaucrats scheme to slaughter innocent Native Americans; the mounties are pressured to hang two poor Indians whose tribe plots to attack Dawson City and everyone schemes to steal everyone else's claim. Just as the hero's mortgage is about to be foreclosed -- on a one-week redemption period! -- he and his new friend, the pale guy from "O Brother Where Art Thou" who isn't George Clooney or John Turturro, find lots of big fat nuggets which saves the day except for the fact that a crook has trapped them in their own mine where they almost suffocate before someone else digs them out. And so and so on. Every possible hot-button is touched: women give proto-feminist speeches and bad guys are variously anti-semitic or anti-American-Indian and the show's diction involves lots of cussing, people saying that "they don't give a shit" or are "pissed-off", probably idioms not much in use in the Klondike. Jack London watches the proceedings with a jaundiced eye. The show has fantastic location photography and the depiction of Dawson City as a muddy boomtown is extremely authentic as are the images of gold mining fields, muck and water wastelands with weird scaffiolding all over the place and a matte mountain range, as improbable and blue and beautiful as the hazy background of a Brueghel allegory, painted across the top of the image. But it's meretricious garbage and ultimately unwatchable. There is an unpleasant aspect of commercial TV that involves pandering to the audience's lowest and most base instincts. "Klondike" represents that tendency in the extreme, but, even, very high-quality and brilliant TV shows seem to be made by directors who feel that they must, periodically, interrupt their narrative to provide some cheap thrills that producers perceive to be necessary to maintaining market-share. In "True Detective", the astounding series on HBO (starring and jointly produced by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConnaughey), the second show predictably installed a rote, by-the-numbers sex scene in the program's first fifteen minutes. Woody Harrelson, a middle-aged and blunt-spoken cop, goes to see his nubile girlfriend. She handcuffs him to a conveniently located bracket, straddles him, and proceeds to have sex with him after taunting the lucky copper with her exceptionally large and perfectly formed breasts. (She also obligingly wiggles her perfectly formed, if a little scrawny for my taste, ass in his face -- and the camera's lens.) The woman is a typical HBO starlet, hired primarily for her figure (miraculously slender with huge breasts) and willingness to engage in kinky sex on camera and the scene, although titillating enough, completely stalls the show and distracts the viewers from the real subject matter of the series. Furthermore, the woman is so improbably beautiful that her appearance in this degraded and debased rural parish of west Louisiana makes no sense at all -- what is this miraculous sex-angel doing in these benighted boondocks surrounded by a cast entirely chosen for their ugliness, blubber, and realistically slumped shoulders and blotched, pimply faces? It's a lack of confidence, a sense that audiences are so ridiculously stupid and depraved that you have to show them hard R, strip-tease, action every ninety minutes or they will bolt the room. Critics of "True Detective" also demonstrate part of the problem with commercial (is there any other kind now that PBS is also all laced-up with ads?) TV. "True Detective" features many impressive and nightmarish soliloquies spoken by McConnaughey's character. In these speeches, the half-mad cop -- he has been driven to the brink of insanity by the death of his little girl -- expresses a profound and utterly black pessimism. He argues that human consciousness is a mistake and intones variants on the ancient Greek dictim that "not be be born is best." All of this makes perfect sense in the death-haunted milieu that the film shows. Several critics writing about the show have characterized this cop's philosophical attitude as "existentialism." But, of course, the character's musings have almost nothing to do with existentialism -- these speeches are essentially variants on Schopenhauer's pessimism, a precursor idea to existentialism but, ultimately, thought of entirely different tenor. I assume most TV critics are graduates of expensive Ivy League schools. Have we really reached such a nadir in our education that these legions of smart-phone surfing pundits don't know what existentialism is? And, if so, does this explain, to some degree, the pervasive stupidity of something like "Klondike"?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Post Tenebras Lux

You can't accuse Carlos Reygardas of not providing good value in his 2012 film "Post Tenebras Lux." The movie is crammed with all sorts of exotic incidents: an eight-foot tall red demon with the head and horns of a bull and carrying a briefcase, explores a suburban home, a sadist beats a dog to death,there is a shooting and an orgy featuring acres of naked flesh, much of it elderly; we see a Christmas party, a gathering on a beach, a rugby game between Junior High school kids, and, as a kind of climax, a bad guy rips off his own head, a remarkable feat and, then, sprawls dead and headless in a meadow where his corpse is bathed in torrential rains. Lyrical shots of nature are interpolated with this subject matter and there seems to be a theme involving environmental despoliation -- in an early sequence, the guy who pulls off his own head uses a chain-saw to cut down trees and, just before he decapitates himself, this fellow experiences a vision of a gorgeous old-growth forest in the Sierra Madre under assault, trees toppling this way and that. It's impossible to decipher what these variegated episodes are supposed to mean -- at least, I couldn't decode the movie at all and remain unsure as to whether people bearing the same names but appearing in different sequences are supposed to represent the same characters or different folks confusingly named the same. In general, there is a kind of plot, albeit time-scrambled and elliptically narrated. Natalia and Juan are Mexican suburbanites living in a rural part of their country. They have two children, Eleazar and Rut --I suspect some Biblical precedent in those names but haven't researched those meanings. Natalia and Juan's marriage seems to be collapsing -- at one point, they have a long and bitter argument about anal sex and Juan has a couple of alarming propensities: he is an addict to on-line pornography and beats dogs to death. Although the scenes narrating the film's principle plot are dispersed throughout the film, an outline of a story emerges. Juan attends a meeting of the local AA, a conclave conducted in a tin shack, and confesses he is pornography addict. He meets Seven, the guy with the chainsaw cutting down the forest. Seven is a sort of small-time hoodlum, also unhappily married -- his wife and two kids live in a shack near Juan's nice place. (Seven and his wife seem to mirror in a squalid, and poverty-stricken way, the marital problems besetting Juan and Natalie.) Seven conducts a burglary at Juan's house and is surprised when Juan suddenly shows up (Natalie has forgotten something -- we're never told what -- at the house causing Juan to return from a road-trip with his wife and kids. Juan's fat servant, Jarro, a guy who stands by impassively while Juan is beating a puppy to death, is supposed to be watching the house but he's gorging himself with his diabetic mother at a buffet nearby -- Mexicans love buffets.) When Juan confronts Seven about the burglary, he gets shot and loses a lung. Juan survives but is an invalid. His wife serenades him by singing (out-of-tune and arythmically) a Neil Young song. Seven's wife leaves him. Juan, apparently, dies. Some alien force begins knocking down trees in the forest and, after his wife leaves him, abandoning their shack and taking the kids, Seven pulls off his own head. The demon reappears and Juan and Natalie's children wander around, both of their parent's mysteriously absent and, probably, dead. The film ends with footage of boys enthusiastically playing rugby, possibly a game between two private schools near Montreal. The movie has an extraordinary opening sequence -- a little girl alone wanders around in a flooded meadow full of cows and barking dogs and, in real time, the sun sets behind some green cliffs shaggy with tropical jungle. (The movie is shot in the landscape where "The Magnificent Seven" was filmed -- lush jungle, sudden downpours, and strangely-shaped eroded mountains.) One of the film's themes is endangerment -- the little girl seems obscurely endangered in the long, bravura opening shot; she ends up lost in total darkness among the big cows. Later, we see the two small children playing alone next to a raging sea and, at the end of the film, both children are playing by their house and babbling that their parents are dead. One lengthy sequence involves the camera pointlessly tracking a speeding motorcyle -- we expect the motorcyle to crash but it doesn't. The suspense is transferred, like referred pain it originates in some other kind of peril -- in fact, Juan is in his car following the motorcycle; he turns around to go back home to pick up something and gets shot. But I am rationalizing the film by this account -- there are many inserted scenes, for instance, the rugby game, that appear to be occurring in an entirely different place and time and the scenes of the Christmas party (upper-crust Mexicans discussing Chekhov and Tolstoy) have characters with the same names (Juan, Natalie, Rut, and Eleazar) but they appear to be different people. I have no way of accounting for the spectacular orgy and sex scenes -- this seems to involve Natalie and Juan as well, but, again, in some sort of dream or science-fiction setting: the orgy involves a sacrificial and ritualistic deflowering of Natalie in a steam-bath called the "Duchamp room" -- is this the "bride and the bachelors?" The characters had previously stumbled into another orgy in the "Hegel room' but were told to go elsewhere. The film bears some resemblance to Tarkovsky with sudden and inexplicable changes in weather, torrential downpours, and peculiar flooded landscapes. A stronger influence seems to me to be the films of Apichatpong Weeresethakul, the Filipino director, who specializes in discontinuous, multiple narratives in places inhabited by all sorts of weird and spectral beings. But I wasn't able to form even a hypothesis about what this movie is supposed to be about.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

What's wrong with Martin Scorsese's bloated, elephantine "Wolf of Wall Street" is epitomized in the movie's last scene. The hero, a crooked stock broker, has become a motivational speaker. In the final scene, he is teaching forty or fifty hapless-looking wannabe tycoons how to make sales in a Holiday Inn banquet hall in Auckland, New Zealand. He displays a pen and demands that a man seated in the first row sell him that pen. The man stammers and stutters and is embarassed. Scorsese is reprising a scene in the first half-hour of the movie, a gag about how to get someone to buy a pen and so the audience watching the movie knows the punch-line. Turning from the first poor fool, the hero shoves the pen in the face of the man seated next to him and demands that he sell him the pen. This guy also is baffled and stammers something completely witless. At this stage, the movie has made its point -- and, in fact, made it twice: most people don't know how to sell anything and a man who is a good salesman has certain advantages in the world. But the film goes on to have Leonardo DiCaprio, playing the disgraced "Wolf of Wall Street," push the pen into the hands of a third man and, once again, demand that he sell him the pen. This is the problem: we understand the rather simple and obvious point that the movie is making and, yet, Scorsese, and the screenwriter, Terrence Winter, keep hammering away, treating the audience as if we are as stupid as the marks that DiCaprio has been defrauding for our entertainment throughout the picture. It's the third iteration of this situation ("sell me the pen!") that exposes the movie's major problem -- it's three hours long but with plot insufficient to support a two hour running time, let alone this movie's epic length. The first iteration of the gag with the pen was sufficient and an alert viewer would understand what Scorsese intends by the scene; the second iteration can be chalked-up to Scorsese's Italian-American volubility, his tendency to say everything once and, then, repeat himself in a louder voice. But the third iteration is completely unnecessary, dull and, further, condescending -- it assumes that the audience has to have everything shown to them three times to grasp even elemental thematic aspects of the film. (This is part and parcel of the movie's condescending approach to the audience -- at this stage in his career, Scorsese must think that he audience for his films is comprised of idiots. Throughout the movie, DiCaprio talks to the camera and, on several occasions, says in an avuncular tone that he doesn't expect the viewers to understand the details of his various scams and frauds but that they are all illegal -- this is also significant: Scorsese doesn't trust the audience to grasp the intricacies of high finance and tells them so.) The first 45 minutes or so of the film are good, raucous and vulgar fun -- we enjoy seeing rogues at work and the movie-making is exuberant. The last hour of the picture is pretty much a drag, but this part of the film is clearly a Scorsese picture and has some merit: we get to see some domestic abuse (Marty Scorsese loves to show beautiful women being beat up) and there is a certain intensity to some of the scenes between DiCaprio's character and his trophy wife. But the film's middle hour is completely redundant and, worse, boring in an almost baffling way -- who would have thought that orgies and spectacular excess could be so dull? Curiously, Scorsese completely loses any sense of rhythm, a peculiar failing because, if nothing else, the old master's films have always been brilliantly and incisively edited. The movie has no dramatic arc and there is no conflict of any sort. It's nothing more than spectacle, as hollow in some ways as a typical Hollywood blockbuster involving the Iron Man or the Fantastic Four or Batman. Scorsese is enamoured with DiCaprio's hammy acting -- he's like a less appealing Ray Liotta -- and he indulges his star with innumerable close-ups, allowing DiCaprio to make not one, but, at least, three St. Cripin's Day speeches to his assembled minions, the last of them almost unbearably sentimental and maudlin. Furthermore, these St. Crispin's day speeches, particularly the last are almost comically inept, sub-Mamet posturing. In the last speech, in particular, an entire sub-plot involving a female employee is referenced -- but we have never seen this woman before and have no idea who she is and Scorsese hasn't bothered to lay any foundation for this maudlin sequence. (Of course, I understand Scorsese's point, a theme that like everything else in this movie is ridiculously over-determiend -- he wants to show that the same man tearfully addressing his loyal troops is willing to betray them at the drop of a hat, but, surely, this message could be more economically conveyed.) At every juncture, DiCaprio is allowed to emote and shriek obscenities; the problem with the performance is that it has literally no place to go. DiCaprio just screams more and more loudly and grits his teeth as if suffering a severely uncomfortable bowel movement and, sometimes, throws tantrums so impressive that the veins in this throat stand out and his face turns red -- this is neat to see but it has nothing to do with acting. Every plot point is repeated four or five times and the endless orgies and sex scenes end up being completely flaccid -- this is because nothing in the film seems even remotely true to life. DiCaprio's character is so incomprehensibly stupid that he tries to bribe an FBI man and has to have the distinction between the SEC and the FBI explained to him. In the big crowd scenes, every member of DiCaprio's organization seems slavishly obedient to their boss and absurdly gung-ho -- is it true that there wasn't a single sane person in DiCaprio's entire, massive trading operation, a single person who didn't obediently cry "Sieg Heil!" to their Fuehrer's machinations? -- the scenes showing the devotion of DiCaprio's lieutenants and employees are totally unconvincing and poorly staged to boot. There are scenes that don't make any sense at all: in one sequence, Rob Reiner, playing the hero's father, discusses female pubic hair with his son -- the conversation is so glaringly unconvincing that the audience cringes in dismay. no father and son in the world have ever had a conversation of this kind. The orgies involving crowds of perfect movie-star bodies are the purest fantasy and not even convincing as pornography. (I've been at cocaine parties with crooked and super-wealthy people and the kind of stuff shown in the movie isn't even remotely true to life.) Even worse, the sequences involving plea bargaining with the Feds simply recycle hoary cliches from third-rate TV shows about cops and robbers -- no wealthy man would ever act the way DiCaprio behaves in these sequences. It's all totally and complete phony and, worse, morally meretricious. Most people who see this film will admire DiCaprio's character and want to emulate him -- this is the same problem afflicting Brian DePalma's "Scarface," a film that "The Wolf of Wall Street" resembles in its ambivalent approach to its hero. The moral point is completely buried under a mountain of footage encouraging the audience to admire the antics of the vicious main character. In fact, Scorsese clearly allies himself with DiCaprio's character and the corrupt one percent against the rest of us: this is evident in a sequence equating the FBI man's ride on the subway with DiCaprio's transportation to jail on a similar public conveyance, a bus -- the FBI man with his limited salary is perceived by the film as a fool, a chump, and a prisoner; this point is rammed home by the cut from the FBI man on the subway to a shot showing DiCaprio transported to prison. "The Wolf of Wall Street" is surprisingly bad and, even, incompetent. In one scene, Scorsese puts two equally bland blonde bombshells on the screen -- one is Latvian and the other is the hero's wife -- and we literally can't tell them apart. There is nothing in this picture that Scorsese hasn't done better, more authentically, and with more pictorial authority in other movies. "The Wolf of Wall Street" suggests that Scorsese needs to extricate himself from Leonardo DiCaprio's baleful influence -- the two men have made five films together; this should be their last.


Astounding and a revelation: “Rain” is a film adaptation of a novel by Somerset Maugham directed by Lewis Milestone and released in 1932. The film features Joan Crawford as a prostitute, Sadie Thompson, and Walter Huston as a missionary who attempts to convert her. Guy Kibbe plays Trader Joe and the film, set in Pago Pago, is a famous example of early sound-era kitsch...except that the damned thing is completely contrary to everything that the viewer expects, subtle, challenging, and, ultimately, disturbing. Clearly, “Rain” is intended as a rejoinder to Von Sternberg’s “The Blue Angel” and, in fact, a dream double-feature would screen these two films, both equally great, I think, back-to-back. In “The Blue Angel”, Lola Lola seduces and, then, humiliates an exemplar of haute bourgeois society, poor Professor Unrat, played by Emil Jannings. In “Rain,” Walter Huston as a relentlessly righteous missionary seems to humiliate and chasten Sadie Thompson, bending her to his will. In the German film, “The Blue Angel” the narrative is a critique of bourgeois values; in “Rain”, by contrast, the prostitutes seems to succumb to the preaching of the missionary and agrees to repent and accept penitentiary imprisonment as evidence of her atonement. The question animating any analysis of these two films is this: what does the director, the film-maker, think about his alluring prostitute heroine? In “The Blue Angel,” Von Sternberg sides with the whore against polite society -- although Jannings’ professor is destroyed, he is, at least, liberated by his destruction, he dies but the cage in which he is confined is also wrecked. In “Rain,” the situation is more complex, and, dare I say, more profound: the prostitute seems to accede to the will of the missionary -- she can not evade his ministrations and humbles herself to his preaching. And, yet, the movie’s ambiguity is remarkable and can not be resolved -- has the prostitute really been converted or is she merely feigning obedience to the will of God? And doesn’t the denouement, shocking even in 2014, suggest that the prostitute, like Lola Lola wins the day? The fundamental question is this: whose will is the stronger -- the whore or the missionary? a theme articulated by Trader Joe who reads Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra” each night before going to bed. The complexity of this film is enhanced by imagery of Joan Crawford, draped in skin-tight black garments and back-lit -- she looks like Aimee Semple MacPherson and has the same decadent erotic frisson, the same seductive appeal -- the most powerfully sexual women at the end of the Jazz Era (and the film laments prohibition) are like Mary Magdalene, former sinners turned into saints, or vice-versa. In many scenes, Joan Crawford’s Sadie wears an ill-fitting plaid garment, much too tight across her lower belly and hips -- this is a pre-Code film and imagery of this kind would not reappear in Hollywood until the mid-sixties. The fact that Crawford’s gowns don’t really fit and, indeed, are unflattering to her rather mannish physique is intentional -- she isn’t comfortable in her whore’s garments and they don't, in fact, fit her very well, a point that is thematic to the film. Milestone, who directed “All Quiet on the Western Front” a couple years before, seems to have been the Scorsese of the early thirties -- his camera movements are delirious (he favors 360 degree tracking shots) and violent whip-pans. In an early sequence, the camera whips to the right at high speed, cutting from men marching in that direction to natives carrying a canoe on their shoulders and moving to the left. The effect is disorienting, but establishes a sense of spatial expressionism that is integral to the film: we can’t really figure out where we are -- four other whip-pans in fast succession, all snapping to to the right, establish the major characters. At the melodramatic climax of the film, the camera focuses on Walter Huston’s face, suddenly contorted with an odd asymmetrical leer, and, then, the camera whips to the left -- a sinister turn, one might say -- signifying the sudden and calamitous resolution of the film. Throughout the movie, rain pours down and many scenes are almost inaudible because of the rush and roar of falling water. The rain gushes out of penis-shaped downspouts and the downpour is a symbolic backdrop to the super-heated confrontations between the characters. This film is incredibly subversive -- it rouses strong feelings about vice, virtue, and hypocrisy and seems to endorse Hollywood norms as to morality, a position that is surprising: lip-service paid by Bablyon go Jerusalem -- after all, there is nothing more fundamentally subversive in Hollywood than a film that endorses Christian morality -- and, yet, in fact, the movie takes a completely unanticipated and surprising turn. This is the kind of film that we would watch in University film studies classes had it been made in Berlin in the twenties or France in the thirties. Unjustly neglected, I think, “Rain” is one of the greatest films of the thirties.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Inside Llewen Davis

Ostensibly about the Greenwich Village folk music scene in 1961, the Coen brothers film, "Inside Llewen Davis," is about something more fundamental, mysterious, and enigmatic. The movie explores two closely interrelated and baffling questions: How is it that some people are destined to bad luck? and, conversely, why does fortune inexplicably favor one man and not another? Claude Levi-Strauss famously said that some subjects are "good to think with". The Coen brothers portrait of Llewen Davis, a bad man with a sweet voice, is "good to think with" -- watching it,we are forced to consider a great and awful subject, the workings of providence in human affairs. Davis is a folk singer, talented enough but unable to make a living. When we first meet him, we have the sense that something inexplicable and terrible has happened to him. A ghostly figure assails him in the alley behind the coffee shop where he has been performing and knocks him down -- the attacker is shrouded in the darkest shadow: he looks a bit like Baron Samedhi, the voodoo loa, trickster, an emissary of death and the dark powers. We don't know exactly why Davis is assaulted, but the way that the scene is staged suggests that he richly deserves the injury inflicted upon him. Later, we learn that Davis is one-half of a folk singing duo that has released an unsuccessful record and that his partner has killed himself. The film's purpose is to raise questions, not answer them -- it remains ambiguous throughout the movie as to whether Davis' rage and dysfunctional egotism is a traumatic reaction to his partner's death, whether the man's suicide simply functions as an excuse for Davis' misconduct, or whether, in fact, the anti-hero's feckless and irresponsible behavior has induced his partner to hurl himself from the George Washington Bridge. We can't decide and the film's ambiguity on this and other points is part of its uncanny richness. Certainly, Davis is a wretched fellow and deserves to be punished: he is the kind of man who will try to cadge money for a girl friend's abortion from the woman's husband. But the film's stark progression of calamities befalling Davis doesn't appear to proceed necessarily from anything that the hero does or fails to do -- rather, Davis is cursed simply because of who he is. And the Coen brothers relentless (one might say Talmudic) study of this theme, the curse that has befallen Davis, engenders the film's phantasmagoric and allegorical features. Critics misunderstand this movie if they assess "Inside Llewen Davis" according to the canons of ordinary realistic narrative film making. In fact, the film demands to be understood in light of ancient classical archetypes refracted through the sensibility of Franz Kafka. Some writers have denounced the film on the basis that nothing significant happens in it. This is to misunderstand the film's genre -- the picture is an allegory of a kind of stagnant damnation in which literally nothing can occur. Davis is trapped in a time-loop; the movie ends exactly where it begins with a reprise of the scene with the mysterious assailant in the alleyway. Davis' bad luck is that he is a seaman who can't ever get to the sea; a merchant sailor without a boat; a man who can't escape the bad luck that has trapped him without resources and made him homeless. Everything in the picture is designed to make the Kafkaesque point that Davis is imprisoned by his bad luck and his entire milieu is a form of solitary confinement -- we see this expressed in the ramshackle squalor of the office of Davis' agent, a kind of Jewish purgatory with yellow caricature pictures of the old, miserly man on the wall and giant heaps of moldering paper on the desk. The apartments in the Village are comically tiny and their hallways converge to nightmarish points where doors on opposing walls that face one another like the set decorations in an expressionistic film like "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." A trip to Chicago lands Davis in a club called "The Gate of Horn", a real Chicago folk venue and, also, a reference to the source of true dreams derived from the Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid. (The Coen's delight in references to their previous musical, "O Brother Where Art Thou," a film that was claimed to be a free adaptation of "Homer's Odyssey" -- "Inside Llewen Davis" features a cat called "Ulysses" and John Goodman reprising his role as the malevolent Tiresias figure, a prophet who pronounces his malediction on the doomed Davis. Unlike Homer's Odysseus who couldn't get home from his voyages on the wine-dark sea, poor Davis can't even escape the city -- he's an Odysseus who never even reaches the harbor.) Indeed, the concept of "old music" ("musica antica")-- deployed for a laugh during a nightmarish dinner party -- is symbolically central to the film: folk music is an inauthentic form of nostalgia for a past that never existed. Davis' failure to escape his environment, his peculiar doom is reflected in the music that he plays -- songs that are neither old nor new, songs that can't progress, music that is trapped, somehow, in a rut. There is something subtly wrong about the folk songs in the film -- they are somehow trapped and willfully, even, perversely, antiquarian, further, evidence of the peculiar paralysis that afflicts Davis. Even the film's astounding color design reflects the tone of paralysis and stagnation established by the film's non-narrative narrative: the entire movie is designed in monochrome, wintry greys, snow white, cold brown -- it's like an entire movie defined by the color scheme in the picture on the cover of Bob Dylan's second, and most famous, album, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" -- a image that the film duplicates with scary accuracy in several shots. Contrapuntal to Davis' misfortune, the Coen brothers stage a curious subplot -- "Felix" (the fortunate) cat. This aspect of the film is cited extensively in trailers promoting the movie, creating anxiety in me that the otherwise acerbic Coens' had succumbed to cat-video kitsch. Fortunately, my worst fears on this point are not realized by the film. The cat (or cats) are filmed in a way that emphasizes feline agility and indifference -- there are several close-ups of the animal glaring at the camera in an unnerving way. Like Little Blackie in "True Grit," the cat seems strangely autonomous and occult. In a film about bad luck, about being "snake-bitten," the episodes involving the cat are staged in a way to suggest that the animal is a messenger from the gods, a creature with nine-lives that will always finds its way home -- a contrast to Davis' dismal situation: he seems to have barely one life, he is lost with no direction home and, indeed, unlike the cat, ultimately homeless. (The scene in which Davis confronts a film poster for Disney's "The Incredible Journey" triggers powerful and emotional recollections in a person my age -- an allusion that I would suspect that younger viewers don't recognize and can't decipher. This sort of hermeticism is integral to the Coen brother mise-en-scene: another example is a reference to Al Milgram, the doyenne of the University of Minnesota Film Society when I attended college in the early and mid-seventies: Adam Driver plays a cowboy folk-singer with the stage-name Al Cooper. Cooper is revealed to be Arthur Milgram, although like Bob Dylan he plans on permanently changing his name -- hence, we have "Al" (Cooper) Milgram," a secret and self-indulgent allusion that delights me but that means nothing to just about everyone else attending the film.) The cat that finds its way home and Bob Dylan, who makes an appearance in the film's penultimate sequence, implicate the film's second, and equally, troubling question: why are some fortune? Why do some people have good luck? Bob Dylan's singing completely lacks the suave finesse of the other folk singers shown in the film. So why is it that he will become famous and wealthy and beloved beyond all measure while others equally talented, perhaps, will labor forever in the vineyards without any recompense at all? The Coen brothers answer is no answer at all -- we don't know why some succeed and others fail. It has everything to do with luck and luck is inscrutable. Llewen Davis' misfortune is so thoroughgoing and complete as to seem majestic. It's like the miseries inflicted on Job. With respect to this theme, "Inside Llewen Davis" (the title, by the way is a complete misnomer -- we never get inside him at all) bookends the Coen brothers' other film on the subject of theodicy, "A Serious Man." The protagonist of "A Serious Man," the beleagured physicist, also involved with cats -- he lectures on Schoedinger's cat in his quantum mechanics class -- is a mysteriously good, humble and virtuous man. But he's as unlucky as Llewen Davis and everything goes wrong for him -- he is beset by woes that seem to emanate from the indecipherable will of God and that have nothing to do with his ethics. "Inside Llewen Davis" reverses this formula -- it shows a bad and immoral man, surrounded by (some) mysteriously kind and virtuous people, afflicted with all sorts of misfortunes. (One of the pleasures of the Coen brothers' mature films is their willingness to portray simple virtue -- the scene in which the benevolent and kindly Gorfeins' welcome Davis into their home, feed him and offer him a place to sleep, after he has lost their cat, deceived them, and caused a horrific scene at an earlier dinner party, is surprisingly very moving: this aspect of the film has Biblical feeling, complete with imagery of a menorah prominently displayed in the background of many of the shots.) Taken together, "A Serious Man" and "Inside Llewen Davis" constitute a meditation on the role of luck in human affairs, a sort of modernist study of the Book of Job. Neither your virtue nor your sin will avail you against bad fortune: the curse that John Goodman's junkie, chauffered through the snowy wastelands by the wholly enigmatic Johnny Five, pronounces upon Llewen Davis is both prospective and retroactive: it takes away his future and his past happiness. The film proceeds in a greyish fog of ambiguity: in one sequence, Llewen Davis visits his elderly father who seems to be wholly demented and uncommunicative. Davis strums his guitar and sings for the old man and, momentarily, the glazed and indifferent look in the demented patient's eyes relaxes -- for a second, the man seems to come alive, an extraordinarily subtle and powerful effect achieved entirely through an indescribable, slight change in the way that the actor moves his head and focuses his gaze. We seem to see the Orphic effect of music: art brings the dead to life. But, then, Davis becomes agitated, rushes from the room, and tells the attendants that the old man "needs cleaning up." Is the momentary change in the old sailor a sign that he is hearing the music or just the effect of a messy bowel movement? The film's lacerating ambiguity requires that we consider both possibilities.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Diary of a Country Priest

Critics speak of Robert Bresson's 1950 "Diary of a Country Priest" in reverent stained glass tones. There is often a hushed quality about this criticism, as if the writer were hesitant to discuss what should be ineffable. In fact, "Diary of a Country Priest" is reasonably entertaining and not significantly different in appearance, at least, from conventional Hollywood and European films of its time. The picture is not ponderous or austere in its design. In fact, if anything, the movie is a bit too expansive, contains too many confrontations and subplots and is briskly, if elliptically constructed -- the movie proceeds by way of short, disconnected tableaux-like scenes, generally concluding with a fade to black. If anything, too much material is crammed into a film that seems slightly too short for its ambitions. The result is that the movie seems to stutter slightly -- it is episodic and a little rushed: one calamity proceeding quickly after another in a procession of, more or less, unbroken misery for the doomed country priest. (Bresson's initial cut of this very literal adaptation of Bernanos' novel was more than three hours long and the highly condensed and efficient narrative style exhibited in the 115 minute final cut, an approach to cinema that characterizes all the director's later works, here seems almost accidental, a consequence of ruthless pruning required by the studio before the film was commercially released.) An unnamed young priest appears at a hamlet called Ambricourt where, immediately, all of his parishoners despise and taunt him. The young man seems a little unearthly with a huge and pale spherical head surmounting a stick-like body -- the poor fellow, mysteriously ill with "stomach trouble," looks something like a waxen lollipop. (Pacing about the barren countryside in his jet-black soutaine he looks uncanny, like the figure of Death in Bergman's "The Seventh Seal".) At first, the priest's congregation bullies him and the priest appears to be weak and tentative; he seeks counsel from a wiser and older priest, the Priest of Torcy, who provides a kind of running commentary on his young colleague's travails. The old priest warns the young man against seeking to be liked and says that the maintaining order and discipline in the parish is imperative: every night, the darkness, the Priest of Torcy says, undoes the works of the day. At first, we dislike the callous and rather inquisitorial Priest of Torcy, but as the film develops we grasp that his common-sense and worldly approach to the ministry contrasts starkly with the protagonist's unworldly sanctity - and not always to the benefit of the young priest whose relentless self-doubt and suffering becomes, on occasion, annoying and masochistic. Bresson's genius is allowing both perspectives to exist simulataneously: the young priest is too good for the world and his ministry seems to result in an unbroken succession of misfortunes -- and, yet, at the same time, the hero is undoubtedly some sort of saint, convincingly holy and intensely passionate about his faith. (There is no point in heaping additional praise upon Claude Laydu whose performance as the priest of Ambricourt is beyond reproach, miraculous in itself.) Everyone misunderstands the young man and, in fact, even the film's viewers may have some doubts about him: the young man subsists entirely on old bread boiled in wine and, although at first this seems to be evidence of his holiness, some of the characters, including the Priest of Torcy, think that he is also an alcoholic, the son of alcoholic parents, we learn, and born, as his older colleague, says "pickled in the stuff." (In a characteristically French touch, the Priest of Torcy suggests that the young man would do much better if he were to drink a higher quality wine.) As he wanders through the desolate country, collapsing in the mud, his congregation attributes these misadventures to drunkenness. At the film's midpoint, the country priest achieves a great spiritual victory, converting a woman who has fallen away from her faith because of her baby son's death. The scene involving the confrontation between the priest and this woman, an embittered countess, possesses a remarkable, and thrilling, power -- it is a duel to death between the priest and his quarry, the wounded woman, and one of the most exciting sequences ever committed to film. But the priest's success in this mortal combat with the countess seems to result in her death and he is, then, immediately blamed for engaging in "spiritual blackmail" and imagined to be complicit in the woman's demise. And, indeed, it is both true that the priest saved the woman's soul, accepting the film's theological framework, and brought her peace, while, also, mercilessly bullying her and engaging in questionable tactics to restore her to faith. This is emblematic for the entire film: no good deed committed by the priest goes unpunished and he is continuously misunderstood on all levels by just about everyone he encounters. Further, although there is tangible evidence that the priest might adduce as to his merit -- actual testimonials in writing from people he has helped -- the priest is unwilling to use this ammunition against his well-situated and relentless foes. The film's dialogue is extraordinarily profound -- the priest and those that he opposes continuously say the most startling and brilliant and emotionally moving things to one another. Ultimately, the poor fellow departs his parish, is diagnosed with stomach cancer, a medical conclusion that the audience, particularly those who have seen Kurosawa's "Ikiru" produced in the same year, has long seen looming, and dies. Very late in the film, Bresson (following Bernanos) introduces a dissolute and possibly drug-addicted ex-seminarian and his compassionate mistress into the plot -- this development attenuates some of the force of the film and it seems a bit odd that the priest dies alone and miserable in a squalid apartment far from his equally wretched country parish. Here fideltity to the novel seems to me to slightly weaken the film. Bresson's title is pedantically and literally developed: the movie is not so much about events narrated "in" the diary of the country priest, but, in fact, about the diary itself: in the opening shot, we see the priest begin writing in the diary, and about every three or four minutes, the film dissolves between episodes into another shot of the young man writing in his journal. When the dying priest can no longer hold his diary in his hands and drops the pages to the floor, the film ends. The priest's diary entries are recited on the soundtrack while we see him writing and, then, the events described in the journal are also dramatized pictorially -- hence, we see the priest's story acted-out before us, while at the same time, the narrative is both intoned and simultaneously shown to be written in ink on paper by way of large close-ups of the priest's pen inscribing words in his diary. This curious tripling of the narration (voice-over, written text, and picture) gives the movie its odd sacramental quality -- events have an eerie weight because they are shown, spoken, and written: this pleonastic quality to the film has the effect of giving the picture a massive, impenetrable gravity. The acting is superb and Bresson's camera placement is quietly effective, typically close shots of the priest against a blurred and indistinct background. The script is so highly literate that it would be a pleasure to quote pages and pages of the dialogue: Sin, someone says, is blessed if it teaches us shame; a foreign legionaire tells the doomed priest that he could be his friend if they were in the service together because good combat soldiers are like good priests -- for them, it is "all or nothing." The film is a masterpiece and not as daunting as many of its admirers suggest.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Berberian Sound Studios

The UK National Lottery and something called “The Low Budget Film Funding Project” are the corporate producers of "Berberian Sound Studio,” a 2013 film starring Toby Jones and directed by Peter Strickland. Conceived as a horror film and shot according to the conventions of the genre, “Berberian Sound Studio” is, in fact, a art-house picture, a morose and, ultimately, pretentious exercise in anomie. The situation is this: a milquetoast little Englishman travels to Italy to provide his expertise in sound-engineering on a torture-porn movie in post-production. The Englishman doesn’t speak the language and the Berberian Sound Studio where he works is dowdy in the extreme, a Kafkaesque labyrinth filled with antique analog (reel-to-reel) equipment. The film that the Englishman works dubbing is called “The Equestrian Vortex” and from the evidence of the title sequence that we are shown and the dialogue (mostly imprecations and shrieks) that we hear, the movie seems to be a cross between “Mark of the Devil” and Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” -- something about horribly tortured witches returning from the dead to wreak vengeance on their inquisitors or their progeny. The first half of the film is by far the best: the mousy little Englishman is nonplussed by the gory and erotically charged imagery that he has to dub. At first, he does his best simulating the sounds of bodies being hurled onto pavement, knifings, people boiled in oil, and a red-hot poker thrust up someone’s vagina. But, after a while, the poor bloke loses his mind and enters into the film that he is dubbing -- except in a post-modern and recursive plot development, the movie that he finds himself trapped inside is, in fact, the movie that we are watching, not the horror film, but the movie about the movie being dubbed. There are some effective moments -- the awful torture sequences in the film are cleverly simulated by imagery of watermelons being hacked apart and cabbage heads repeatedly knifed and the floor of the studio becomes a ghastly stew of rotting fruit and vegetables (close-up images of the putrefying sound props stand in for the pictures on screen that we only imagine.) The director of the film is a nasty Casanova and he mistreats one of the women hired to dub the film. LIke the witches in the picture in post-production, the woman wreaks vengeance on the studio, ripping the tape soundtrack to pieces. By this point, the film has advanced into David Lynch territory -- the hapless Englishmen seems to be sleeping in gloomy chambers that are an anteroom to the studio and the line between what is real and imagined becomes hopelessly confused. A new actress in the studio mouths words from letters that the hero, Gilderoy, has received from his mother and there is the obligatory shot in a film of this kind of celluloid caught in the projector and burning up. The second half of the film is clever, and frightening in parts, but doesn’t go anywhere. The plot can’t advance and, when new actresses are hired by the pussy-hound director and, then, seduced everything seems to simply repeat albeit with the frisson that we are now watching a film of the first-half of the film that we have just seen. Toby Jones’ performance is muted and annoying, one minor chord after another cued to a perpetual scowl of worry and loneliness. The Italians are broad caricatures and, after an hour, we feel like the main character, trapped in a sub-par version of David Lynch-land, prisoners of a weak parody of “Mulholland Drive” and, perhaps, Francis Coppola’s melancholy “The Conversation.”

Saturday, January 4, 2014


By my estimate, less than 10% of "Leviathan" is scaled to human proportion or human perspective. The movie is about ninety minutes long. We first glimpse a man, clad in brilliant orange cover-alls about five minutes into the film -- but the camera angle is severely canted and the man's activities are inscrutable and, indeed, the distortion in the image is so extreme that we can't tell if its midnight or dawn: pitch-black water erupting into a phosphorescent wake surges underneath some kind of grim-looking scaffolding and there are sea-gulls occasionly flung out of the torrent like soot or ash and a vast fibrous, pulpy tentacle twists and turns while the soundtrack roars like a waterfall; periodically, purplish and red bubbles, like clots of blood emerge from the inky darkness and, sometimes, we see a distant horizon turned on its side showing a faint radiance of pinkish-blue sky. The colors are all over-saturated and bleed into one another and you literally can't tell up from down. Long passages in the movies resemble Stan Brakhage's experimental films: blobs of intense color trembling against ribbons of light, a pictorial field always splashed with globular drops of water and frayed into darkness at its edges. At one point, we see a pinkish-grey landscape, porous with gravel depressions and, then, boulder-shaped protrusions on which a greenish-moss seems to be growing: it turns out that we are viewing parts of the body and face of the captain of the New Bedford fishing vessel on which the documentary was filmed. From this angle, the man looks like a sad-eyed walrus, scarcely human at all. Later, we see the torso of a man taking a shower, but the image is filmed through a red shower-curtain, blurred by the water pouring over the man and so it looks like he is bathing in blood. Actual blood gushes from the side ventricles on the fishing craft and the high-def video camera is placed on the surface of the water to participate in the high-velocity, wind-blur of the gore pouring off the ship. Many shots are filmed under water -- they give the impression that the vessel is racing through the turbulent black seas like a motor-boat, almost hydro-foiling, a savage mill-race of bubbles and star-shaped debris (fractured shells and fish-bones and actual star-fish) whirling past the lens. Vast flocks of sea-gulls whirl around the boat but the perspective from which they are filmed is so bizarre that the birds read as fragments of a black jig-saw puzzle inexplicably spinning in circles, the birds' feet and rumps sometimes crashing through the vortex of spinning water when the camera is yanked beneath the seas. Many of the images can't be deciphered at all -- you have the sense, inaccurate I'm sure, that the footage was printed color-reversed, upside-down, and, then, projected backward. The film is intensely beautiful, a symphony of water hurling in all directions, and we get a powerful sense of the boat heaving on heavy seas -- in one sequence, the camera is placed ankle-high in a steel chamber full of dead fish and the incarnadine water in which the battered, blubbery fish float sloshes back and forth as the camera rocks to and fro with it. The movie is startling but not revelatory -- we have no sense for what the men are doing or how their fishing tasks are performed. The key to the film is a long static sequence in which the walrus-faced captain stares at the camera -- actually he's watching TV -- and repeatedly falls asleep. The sea-captain is watching "The Most Dangerous Catch," a reality TV show about crab fishermen in the Bering Sea, and once a very popular show. "The Most Dangerous Catch" is the opposite of "Leviathan," a scripted narrative documentary that shows us exactly what the fisherman are doing, establishing novelistic motives and characters for its burly, foul-mouthed seamen. Clearly, the film makers who produced "Leviathan" did not want to compete with reality TV and so their film is impressionistic, a welter of fantastically kinetic and beautiful images that really don't communicate much of anything at all. From the way the movie is made, one perceives commercial fishing to involve fantastically swift vessels roaring at impossible speeds through turbulent seas -- is this what it is like to be on a commercial fishing vessel? Is it really complete and abstract chaos? The film creates powerful impressions but I have the sense that they are distorted and don't represent anything but an abstract sense of speed, pouring water, and vast, sinister machinery. Whenever I have been on a vessel crossing a large body of water, my visual field has been defined by the horizon, the place where sea meets sky -- I don't think the horizon is visible in any of the shots in this film except for a few seconds in the opening sequence. The film is by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Parvele of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab and the "auteurs" of "Sweetwater," (2009) a brilliant documentary about a last sheep-drive over the Bearpaw Mountains on the Wyoming and Montana border.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Troubadors (on American Masters)

When I was a young man, every woman that I met had a copy of Carole King's LP album "Tapestry" sitting on the floor next to her bed. The record was like Tampax or a brassiere -- some kind of attribute of femininity that seemed to have nothing to do with music. (I can't recall ever hearing anyone play that record.) Once upon a time, billions of Carole King records must have existed -- you can still find bins full of them -- and the American Masters documentary, "Troubadors," about Carole King and James Taylor has the merit of providing some information, albeit limited, about Ms. King. I had always wondered about her: who as she and where did she come from and, most of all, what happened to her? The documentary provides some information, but like most "American Masters" programs about subjects still alive, the project seems to have been thoroughly sanitized by its hero and heroine, libel and defamation lawyers have carefully scoured from the film anything really interesting, and, it seems, that Taylor and King have had the final edit on this hagiographic and authorized version of their lives. The movie, like the previous Jimi Hendrix documentary, contains some excellent concert footage and it is undeniably pleasant and nostalgic in a creepy sort of way to hear those old songs performed again -- much of this music was a soundtrack to my youth. But you don't really learn much of anything. Taylor, in particular, is uncommunicative -- from the film, you would never know that he suffered a severe motorcycle accident (broke both his hands and feet), has been treated for Depression with thorazine, and has two children by Carly Simon. Carole King is provided a more comprehensive biography but there are also curious gaps in the record: we learn that she worked for Tin Pan Alley in the Brill Building (presumably with Lou Reed) when she was sixteen, was a child bride at 18, and, after her incredible success, with "Tapestry" moved to Idaho. She is an attractive and gregarious figure in the film -- but her life story ends when she moved to Idaho, now thirty years ago, and re-commences only for a triumphal tour with James Taylor around 2007. There are lots of pictures of her but pictures, of course, don't tell the whole story -- or, really, even part of it. The documentary is constructed around a place called Doug Weston's "The Troubador," a gritty bar on Santa Monica boulevard that, apparently, fostered every major comedy act and musician originating in LA. Weston seems to have been a manic-depressive and there is some fascinating footage showing his antics, but here the libel lawyers have been hard at work, scrubbing the film of anything scandalous or interesting -- Weston always seems to be on the verge of cracking-up and the film implies he flamed out in the early seventies, so it's a surpose when a closing title tells us that he died in 1999. At the fringes of the film, we see figures like Joni Mitchell, Steve Martin, and Jackson Browne who are more interesting than Taylor and King. Most of the film plays like a promo for reissue of "Tapestry" and some of "Sweet Baby James'" albums. And the picture is curiously obtuse in some ways. We see some brief footage of Robert Christgau ranting about the moral and artistic bankruptcy of West Coast pop stars like James Taylor and Carole King. Christgau mentions Lester Bangs' famous essay "James Taylor Marked for Death" and the movie shows a momentary shot of Bangs, fat and wormy-looking, the very archetype of a basement-dweller in his mom's house. Someone defends James Taylor saying: "Who ever heard of Lester Bangs? He's forgotten now while the whole world loves James Taylor's music." Well, this is a half-truth: in my house, a copy of Lester Bang's essays and music reviews was read so many times that it fell apart and, now, exists only in forlorn fragments. Then, some LA session man adds insult to injury by saying: "Lester Bangs 'marked' James for death. He should have tried it. James could have taken Lester Bangs any day." This is the best moment of the documentary, invoking a knock-down-drag-out fight between the girlish and effete James Taylor and the fat Nyquil-addict Lester Bangs.

Piano Tuner

Kira Muratova's 2004 "Piano Tuner" confirms my suspicion that this Ukrainian director is the most innovative and baffling film maker alive. Notice: I don't say that she is the best director in the world, nor do I claim that she makes the most entertaining or profound or intelligent films. My claim is simply that her pictures seem to me to be utterly unique, the product of an idiosyncratic sensibility unlike anyone else. "Piano Tuner" aka "Tuner" is a "sting" picture -- that is, the movie belongs to the genre of films about con-men laying the foundation for, and, then, implementing some form of cunning criminal fraud. Saying that the 158 minute "Piano Tuner," is a "sting" picture, however, is like saying "Crime and Punishment" is a detective novel. The movie is huge, fantastically loquacious, and utterly perverse. Two women, Lyuba and Anna Sergeteeva occupy an apartment crammed with expensive knick-knacks and musical instruments. Anna is a handsome widow in her early sixties. (But she may be a drug addict; one of Lyuba's functions is to administer injections into her hip.) Anna has a mewling, whining little Pekinese, Mikki, with bug eyes that she carries everywhere with her. Lyuba is about ten years younger, a plump and love-starved woman who posts personal ads in the newspapers to meet men. Most heist films feature a group of attractive grifters scheming to separate some much less attractive and ruthless criminals from their ill-gotten gains. In "Piano Tuner," these two nice and sympathetic older women are the target of the grift and, certainly, the viewer can't see anything about them, other than their generosity and exuberance, that justifies the confidence men (in this case a man and woman) selecting them as victims. The grifters are a piano tuner, a fellow with exceptionally mobile and expressive features, and his consort, a mysterious blonde woman who seems to have some sort of mythic and allegorical status. The tuner and the blonde live in a bizarre storage attic accessed by a vertical ladder rising about the top of a vertiginous elliptical stairway in a strange stark white silo-shaped building. The flat has no running water and seems to be scorching hot -- fans run all the time and the decor is wicker cages that diffract the sunlight into moire patterns (the film is beautifully shot in black and white), mannequins -- we see something like looks like a squat voodoo-doll version of Lyuba -- chess boards, and other arcane objects. In one scene, the blonde woman appears as the figure of death wielding a great scythe. In other images, she sits among rocks on a sea-shore like a stranded mermaid or stares with unsettling candor at the camera. The piano tuner develops an elaborate strategy to convince the women that they have won a lottery prize -- apparently, Russian banks encourage deposits and saving by offering lotteries based upon the numbers on Certificate of Deposit accounts (at least this is how I construe the framework for the "sting" plot.) The "sting" requires printing a fake page in a Russian Yellow Pages phone directory, retaining other criminals to answer the phone and pretend to be bankers and a variety of other complicated and recondite maneuvers. At the end of the movie, after the women have been deprived of their savings, we see them riding a street car crammed with Muratova's trade-mark zanies. The older woman forgives the piano tuner his perfidy, noting that grifter claimed that his father was an alcoholic and that the con-man told them he had suffered a difficult life. Then, she makes an interesting observation: "They could have just robbed us and avoided all of this plotting." And, of course, that is completely true -- the con man piano tuner ingratiated himself with the elderly ladies to the extent that they would have simply given him the money had he asked and, certainly, he had complete access to their apartment and a summer-house crammed with valuables. This remark puts into question the entire complicated plot of the movie. The sting or con is so immensely complex, so hypertrophic and over-developed that it suggests that the grift is some sort of performance art, some kind of exercise for its own sake. The grift exists to place the women in contact with the piano tuner and his sinister mistress. The ultimate outcome of the machinations seems unimportant; rather, the film is about the construction of a bizarre phantasmagoric narrative, a dream-like novelistic accretion of peculiar details that is completely excessive to any plot necessity. My son, Jack, with whom I watched the film, unlocked its theme, I think, with an astute observation: in one scene, the piano tuner is playing a piano and grimacing (as well as winking) grotesquely toward the camera. I wondered: is he performing these elaborate grimaces for Mikki, the pekinese? Jack answered that he interpreted the character as looking directly into the camera and inviting us to understand that the entire performance was for the film audience and that the movie was, itself, a con -- that, in fact, all art is a species of fraud, the perpetuation of a lie, not necessarily for an ulterior motive, but for its own sake. I think this interpretation makes sense of many aspects of the film: someone coments that piano players are always embarrassing because of the masturbatory grimaces that they produce to dramatize the music they are producing. Muratova populates her images with Brueghel-like grotesques and she seems to have one rule that she applies to directing her extras -- make faces and contort your body into weird postures to try to distract the viewer from the principal action in the foreground. Every minor character in the film seems engaged in acting-out some private, intensely melodramatic opera scene -- everyone dances and prances around, gesticulates wildly, and hams it up for the camera; there is a distinct amateur film, Super 8 feel about some of the scenes. When the grifter goes to buy cups for a musical soiree that the elderly ladies are going to host, the sales lady, who has an immense mouth like a frog, scowls and gurns at the camera as if trying to make the most grotesque faces possible. Everyone, it seems, is acting, posturing, scheming to perpetuate some form of fraud. Lyuba meets two men, one of whom she marries on a whim. Both steal her money. In the case of the man she marries, we see her setting out the old gent's slippers in their sleeper-car on a train during their honeymoon. Outside the window, a mob of people are crowding around the train waving stuffed animals like the banners of the revolution. Lyuba's elderly husband says that he wants to buy her a stuffed hippopotamus, departs, and, then, apparently, absconds with her money. The grifters, inexplicably, hunt the husband down and, in a film projection booth, threaten him with a gun to retrieve Lyuba's cash -- presumably so that they can steal it themselves. The sinister femme fatalle proclaims: "film is the most important art -- Lenin said that", reaffirming, I think the theme that art itself is a form of confidence game. Some of this can be interpreted but other aspects of the movie seem impenetrable to me -- possibly because Muratove is "freely adapting" several short stories (as per the credits) that don't really fit together. The tuner's girlfriend prattles on and on about a female pope and seems blood-thirsty. She talks about the "hand of God" and wants to avenge fetuses killed by abortion -- she accuses the elderly woman who has no children of having "at least thirty abortions." And she says that she has had three abortions in the last couple years herself just with her current boyfriend, the tuner. In one scene, we see a fat woman digging in a garbage can. We can't figure out where she is located or how she relates to the story. Ultimately, the film produces a reverse-angle, and we observe that the fat woman is being watched by the sinister blonde. The blonde invites the fat woman to sit at her table at an expensive cafe and pours her glass after glass of wine. the fat woman proudly shows the blonde "green stripes" in her blouse, but, of course, we can't see those colors since the film is shot in black-and-white. But the blonde can't see those colors either -- she says: "So on top of all your problems, you're color-blind too." In another scene, Lyuba leans forward to light her husband's cigarette. She hands him the thin, elegant-looking lighter but the husband mistakes it for a cell-phone. He puts it to his ear. "No dear," Lyuba says, "it's a cigarette-lighter." But, as she lights his cigarette, the damned thing repeatedly rings like a phone. In the climax in the bank, an elderly banker, like a cross between Walter Brennan and Andy Devine, whines in a high-pitched voice. On the wall of the bank, there is a big poster that says "No Dogs" with a picture of Mikki under that legend. The old curmudgeon whines and squeals with indignation, screwing up his face into a cartoon caricature while next to him a sleazy, if handsome, young man with lacquered black hair -- he looks like a 30's tango instructor -- looks on impassively. Then, suddenly, the film cuts to a pair of beautiful, Asiatic-looking twins. The elderly woman, who have been defrauded, are thrown out of the bank. As they leave, another set of dowdy middle-aged twins walks into the place. All of this is astounding and incomprehensible. Groping for comparisons, I initially wrote that Muratova's film, with its bizarre players, characters draped in feathers and fur, two homosexuals wearing matching Marilyn Monroe tee-shirts and camping-it-up for the camera, its operatic mise-en-scene, and torrents of semi-hysterical dialogue, its dislocated camera syntax (you can never tell where you are or why), its odd and distracting musical cues, all of these factors, I wrote reminded me a of a Werner Schroeter film. But I decided not to use that comparison. I have never scene a Werner Schroeter film, but only imagined them. You can't get DVDs of Schroeter's pictures in the United States and his movies have never played commercially in any theater.