Monday, April 21, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

About ten years ago, I noticed that writers in the U.K. were using a word that I didn't know. Certain works of art were said to be "twee". As I understand it, "twee" means something like "precious, inauthentic, overly contrived, annoyingly whimsical and cloyingly cute." An on-line dictionary informs me that the word derives from "sweet" corrupted by baby-talk. I admire Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel," found the 2014 film continuously engaging and, even, emotionally compelling but, I hesitate to say, an unfriendly observor might characterize the entire enterprise as more than a little bit "twee." A title informs viewers that the film originates in writings by Stefan Zweig, a droll claim that, I assume, bears as much relationship to truth as the Coen brothers' claims that "Fargo" is based on real events or that "O Brother Where Art Thou" imitates Homer. In some ways, Anderson's purported reliance on Zweig is even stranger -- it's a joke so abstruse that no one can get it since readers who know anything about Zweig and his writing are not necessariy thick on the ground. (I've read a couple works by Zweig and can see no resemblance at all.) The film takes the form of what was once called "the shaggy dog story" -- an elaborate, tall tale replete with melodrama and comical,if macabre, exaggeration presented in a slightly archaic, formal manner that seems similar to the spidery Victoriana composed by the late Edward Gorey. An enterprising bi-sexual concierge employed by the Grand Budapest Hotel has supplemented his income by sexually entertaining an elderly countess. When the countess dies, she leaves her fortune to the concierge. The countess' relatives are a group of mitteleuropaische goblins who engage Joplin, a hulking thug played by Willem Defoe, to steal the Countess' codicil to her Will and Last Testament -- the document that transfers her wealth, including the Grand Budapest Hotel, to the concierge. An important part of the fortune is a painting by an artist similar to Hans Holbein, a resplendent image of a boy with an apple that the concierge has stolen from the Countess' gothic Schloss and that serves as the MacGuffin in an extended chase that occupies two-thirds of the film. The concierge is accompanied in his adventures by Mustapha, a lobby-boy at the hotel, and he proves to be a courageous and loyal sidekick, a sort of Gunga Din to the elegant, if world-weary, hotelier played by Ralph Fiennes. This tale involves last-minute escapes, bloody murders, a prison-break, motorcycle chases, and a breakneck pursuit down a snowy mountain that involves skiing, ski-jumping, and bobsledding -- all of this action plays out against a vaguely Austria-Hungarian milieu imagined on the brink of World War Two. Anderson stages his narrative as a series of brightly lit diorama-like tableaux -- the film takes place within a series of nested boxes and the characters are confined within toy-like diorama sets that are symmetrically appointed and filmed frontally. The effect is like perusing the exhibits in an old Natural History museum, a series of theatrically designed glass cases displaying mostly static figures, all oriented toward the viewer in the dim corridor of the theater. In all respects, the film is constructed as a series of boxes. First, the movie has not one but two frame stories: in the opening scene, a girl who is apparently a member of the secret society of concierges, the order of the Crossed Keys (I was once one myself) goes to a snowy graveyard in the center of Europe, a place like Prague, to visit the tomb of a writer that she admires. This writer is the author of a novel called "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and, as she reads the book, it comes to life and is dramatized in the film: the writer travels to the moribund Grand Budapest Hotel, a place like Sils Maria or the sinister Overlook Hotel, perched atop a Carpathian mountain and accessible only by a nearly vertical funicular railway. In the crumbling hotel, the author encounters Mr. Mustapha, the hotel's owner, in the archaic spa. Mustapha dines with the author and recounts to him the story of how he was once a lobby-boy in the hotel and has come to be the owner of the place. As in "The Shining", the hotel is as important a character in the film as any of the live actors and the sets depicting the place are gorgeous and lovingly detailed -- although after the manner of a child's doll-house. Anderson films almost everything frontally. When the characters interact,they speak directly into the camera. (The movie is laden with about two dozen cameo-like appearances by well-known actors and actresses -- there's Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Jude Law, etc.) The mise-en-scene is almost archaeological in form. The film looks like the movies of Louis Feuillade, pictures shot during the First World War such "The Vampires" and "Judex" that use box-like sets into which the viewer peers to pick out the details of the action occurring within these display-case dioramas. Even Anderson's action scenes are essentially static: mostly comprised of an overhead shot of a still landscape through which something moves at incredible velocity intercut with frontal shots of people riding motorcycles or bobsleds. Contributing to the film's impression that it is made from boxes inside boxes is a bold technical effect -- most of the picture is shot in the narrow rectangular aspect ratio of the old UFA studio pictures, the ratio of Fritz Lang's "Nibelungenlied" and Pabst's "Dreigroschenoper"; this means that the scenes have tall black columns on both sides of the image, an element that contributes to the viewer's sense that he or she is peering into a nativity scene or the brightly lit inside of a Faberge egg. The film is not merely an exercise in style: it has a distinct ethic -- the film celebrates loyalty and competency and posits the mountain-top Grand Budapest Hotel as a kind of ark, a hermitage where the last virtues of gallantry and civilization have been preserved against the barbarism running rampant on the German plains below. It's a wonderful movie, intentionally idiosyncratic, an artisan, craft-brewed picture -- I thought it was moving and fascinating and only a little bit "twee."

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Magic Flute

The Minnesota Opera Company's April 2014 production of "The Magic Flute" is exciting, wholly innovative, and wonderfully thought-provoking. Whether the approach to opera on display in this show, an import from the Berlin Komische Oper via the Los Angeles Opera company is another question. Opera is generally static: a few people standing rigidly in place and singing in the approximate direction of one another, although careful to remain facing the audience sufficiently to project their voices across the auditorium. The orchestra is hidden. Sometimes, there are processionals and recessionals that cross the stage and, on other occasions, a chorus will gather and, more or less, motionlessly address their massed voices to the spectators. In this production of Mozart's opera, the dimension in which the singers act is flattened to a plane -- this is consistent with the ordinary staging of opera and true to the form but here heightened to an extraordinary point. On this plane, animated images are projected. The singers emerge through the surface of the plane by various doorways that rotate to reveal the singers pinned against the surface of the screen. In many instances, the actors hover in mid-air, seemingly occupying tiny shelves like religious statues poised high above the floor of a church. (The effect is initially startling and a little frightening -- the players are pinned to the wall like butterfly speciments so that it appears that a single misstep would plunge them twenty or thirty feet to the stage floor; I suspect that the singers are somehow harnessed into their position and spun into visibility through the screen as if on a kind of rotating "lazy Susan".) The singers can't really move in most instance since their motions must be coordinated with images appearing alongside them on the screen -- they perform with gestures, straitjacketed against the flat plane on which the film is projected, their torsos and faces, painted white to catch the light, like cameos or ivory bas-relief slightly extruded from the screen. The effect is something like certain Disney films or Robert Zemeckis' "Whose Afraid of Roger Rabbit" -- that is, live three-dimensional characters interacting with cartoon interlocutors in a stylized cartoon landscape. The images projected alongside the actors are, often, extraordinarily interesting and present a challenging and idiosyncratic interpretation of the heavily symbolic (or allegorical) action comprising the opera. There is always something for the eye to decode, decipher, or enjoy: little ruby-red hearts emerge from singers who are like alabaster busts protruding just slightly from the screen and the little hearts as images of love, spin and dance, and sometimes burst and shatter. The Queen of the Night is a white Egyptian torso suspended atop thirty foot-long spider legs that are as sharply pointed as lances -- the legs twitch and dance as she sings and, sometimes, vertiginous webs appear beneath where the actress is embedded in the screen high above the stage. There are many interesting comical effects: Papageno drinks a cocktail through a straw from a huge martini glass and, then, sees pink elephants that prance around and menace him. Love duets are staged between figures encased by the screen and surrounded by blue flowers and yellow buzzing bees and flocks of little stylized birds that flit here and there -- the "birds and the bees," you see. The eponymous "magic flute" is represented, annoyingly, I thought, as a nude Tinker Bell and the magic bells are portrayed as a dozen plump little female CanCan dancers. The interaction between the live singers and the animation is often astounding and, even, thrilling. However, there is something claustrophobic about confining all action to a single dimension, perhaps, a yard wide and the approach has certain definite limitations -- one of the highlights of the opera is when the magic bells set Monostatos's black fiends helplessly prancing; in most productions, the menacing black figure suddenly become ridiculous and comical and are, literally, danced off-stage. In this show, the black army is portrayed as actors wearing big, bad wolf masks and, when the bells sound, they stand motionless in a row deployed against the screen while the animation projects women's legs, complete with garter belts below their waists daintily kicking and pirouetting. The effect is extraordinary, but it's also static and not really very funny. Furthermore, the animation imposes a very distinct interpretative scheme on the opera -- we are more or less told exactly what to think about the strange, masque-like proceedings. The animation is by an English avant-garde company called "1927" and they spoil the great reveal near the end of Act One -- that is, the revelation that the aggrieved Queen of the Night, who portrays herself as a mourning mother is, in fact, perhaps, the villain of this somewhat misognyistic opera. By depicting the Queen of the Night, from the outset, as a giant spider it's pretty clear what she means and how we are to view her -- and this, I think, ruins an important ambiguity in the opera. Even more idiosyncratic is the determination to treat the noble, if pedantically didactic Sarastro, as a giant robot-master. In this show, Sarastro wears a sinister top-hat and frock-coat, has followers that are dressed the same way, and appears like a frightening figure from E.T.A. Hoffmann (or "The Tales of Hoffmann"), something like the character that animated Coppelia, half Dr. Mabuse and half Anton Mesmer. Sarastro is associated with dozens of robotic animals -- monkeys and horses and, even, elephants all built from gears and clockwork. The concept is that Sarastro's version of the Enlightenment is all soul-less automatons: springs, intermeshed gears and apparatus, monstrous devices that bear huge eyes at their apex. This is completely opposed to Mozart's vision of Sarastro and his noble Freemason followers, but is, I think, a valid, if reductionist, interpretation of the opera. But if Sarastro is merely a Dr. Frankenstein, a sort of mad doctor leading an army of sinister robots, then, the ostensibly happy ending to this opera makes no sense. The animators understand this and, at the very end of the show, the imagery projected on the screen stutters, breaks down, and, then, the film seems to melt. In the default of the projected images, with the machine broken, the chorus steps forth, no longer in any kind of discernible costume and delivers Mozart's final sententious messages about love and virtue and brotherhood singing straight to the audience. It's like a breath of fresh air -- we get a sense of liberation from the all-encompassing machine, in this case, the animated projections that have trapped and confined the actors throughout the three-hour opera. This works well, but makes hash of Mozart's intentions, although, I suppose, extracting an interesting, if controversial, argument of this kind from this sort of staple of the operatic repertory is a good thing. Less successful is the staging of Sarastro's famous aria, "In diesem heiligen Halle" -- perhaps, the most noble and ennobling scene in the play. As Sarastro sings, the Masons dress the heroine in a resplendent gowns, the apparel of a Masonic adept, an extraordinary and generous gesture since the Order forbids women from being present at its rituals or entering its temple. The animation shows us this scene occurring a wall ripped and shredded with a dozen peeping eyes peering into the sacred space where the heroine is undressed and, then, clad in the Masonic raiments. This makes no sense and is completely contrary to the tenor of the aria and the scene. At the performance that I saw, the singers seemed intimidated by the technical innovations and, perhaps, frightened by the elaborate rotating mechanisms that slung them out over the stage floor. Harnessed and belted above the stage, they seemed half-afraid to sing loudly. Furthermore, the two opposing principles -- male and female -- were weak. "The Magic Flute" makes its points sonically -- Sarastro's implausibly deep basso profundo is poised against the Queen of the Night's ridiculously high-pitched coloratura arias. Here Sarastro couldn't quite hit the low notes: I couldn't hear the bottom pitches that he is forced to excavate out of his belly. And the Queen of the Night couldn't quite get the high notes either -- a shame in both instances. The show is a great experience: it revives Mozart for you and makes you worry about his opera and re-think its premises -- this is a wonderful thing, but as an opera, this production doesn't exactly work.

Saturday, April 19, 2014


On the evidence of “Birth”, the British director Jonathan Glazer is one of cinema’s great stylists. Synthesizing image and music, and employing a gliding, precisely tracking camera, subtly reframing for emphasis, and exactly calibrating the ambience of settings and décor, Glazer’s 2004 film develops a portentous mood of elegant, hopeless obsession. Glazer is famous director of beer commercials and similar advertisements in his native England and, I suppose, it is no surprise that he wields camera and lighting with such remarkable aplomb. But, as with his commercial work, the question that “Birth” raises is whether his rather slight subject manner is worthy of such operatic splendor. In my view, “Birth” is strange enough, and sufficiently mysterious and beautiful, to justify Glazer’s icy Kubrick-influenced exactitude and, of course, we must recall that similar questions were raised about Kubrick’s later films as well -- does the enigmatic parable shown in “Eyes Wide Shut” really justify the glacial magnificence of the movie’s camerawork, costumes, and locations? The opening five or six minutes of “Birth” demonstrate that we are in the hands of master film-maker. We hear a voice-over, something about materialism and death, and, then, the camera tracks a man jogging through an icy, rocky landscape; the shot goes on and on and, then, suddenly, a pack of dogs emerges from the underbrush and trot across the man’s path, a curious detail that has nothing to do with the film, but which establishes a sense of unmediated reality at the heart of a highly stylized, even contrived, tracking shot. The jogger enters a tunnel and falls to the ground. We realize, perhaps, with a shock that this oddly desolate landscape is New York’s Central Park. The camera reframes the opening of the tunnel to suggest an oval birth-canal and, then, we see a newborn infant underwater at first, but, then, gently lifted into the light. All of this is staged to music that sounds something like a percussive version of Mahler. After this overture, we learn that a wealthy man, played by Danny Huston intends to marry Anna, Nicole Kidman in a performance that is both radiant and mournful. Anna is the widow of the man who we have seen collapsing in the tunnel in Central Park and, now, ten years has passed. At the birthday of Anna’s mother (Lauren Bacall), a little boy enters the party, confronts the assembled guests and claims that he is Sean, Anna’s dead husband, somehow reincarnated. The boy has an eerie flat affect and a broad, half-ugly face and he is so convinced that he is Anna’s husband that he claims to love her. The child has remarkably intimate information about Anna, knows her secrets and her family history, and, in one remarkable, scene, even, offers to make love to her. Gradually, Anna becomes obsessed with the boy and plans to flee with him. Her fiancée, needless to say is non-plussed, and driven to fury by his ten-year-old rival, attacks the boy at an elegant soiree, shoving a baby grand piano against the child and, then, beating him -- all to the embarrassed horror of the assembled guests and the musicians who were playing Lohengrin’s Wedding March when the affray erupted. As is often the case with films of this kind, the solution to the mystery is disappointing. But the uncanny effect of the strange child doesn’t really dissipate when the riddle is solved and, at the end of the movie, when Anna begs for the forgiveness of her smug, unimaginative fiance, and, then, marries him, we sense that she has not forgotten Sean, that she still loves him, and that the obsessive bond that links her to the boy, and through him to the ghost of her dead husband, will haunt her forever. The boy, although apparently disturbed and deluded, genuinely loves Anna and there is a scene in which the child nobly refuses to tell her how he has learned her secrets that is extremely moving -- we know what the boy’s enigmatic remarks mean, but Anna can’t decipher his statement: “I can’t be Sean because I love you.” Unlike some directors famous for their commercial work (for instance Ridley Scott), Jonathan Glazer is a tactful and excellent director of actors and respects their performances. He doesn’t cut unnecessarily and uses close-ups judiciously, preferring to frame stately tableaux of his wealthy, rather pretentious characters in their gorgeously appointed abodes. Two contrasting scenes show Glazer’s skill: in one scene, Nicole Kidman’s character stutters and struggles to express her conflicting feelings about Sean’s reincarnation as a rather grubby little boy -- she rolls her eyes, makes odd grimaces, and demonstrates an extraordinary range of expression: she seems to laugh at herself and her credulity, while, at the same time, her lips and eyes tremble on the verge of tears. There is a peculiar little motion she makes, brushing at her eyes, that is particularly indelible. It’s an extraordinary virtuosic set-piece, all performed in a single long take. No less astounding is a ninety-second shot in which the camera scrutinizes Kidman’s face while we hear the agitated notes of Wagner’s overture to “Die Walkuere” -- in this scene, the actress does nothing at all, but the viewer hears the music, considers the context, and, then, imputes meaning to Ms. Kidman’s expressionless features. The great critic, David Thomson, probably our best writer on film today, claims that “Birth” is a lost masterpiece, a great work that almost no one has seen. Whether this assertion is true is debatable. But, certainly, “Birth” is compelling, brilliantly acted -- the audience delights in seeing these smug, Wasp plutocrats confronting an ineffable mystery -- and a remarkable showcase for Glazer’s film technique.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Way out West

In the middle of the night in a western town, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are trying to break into a saloon. Olly has his finger’s pinched badly in the sliding gate barring the front door and, then, falls through the flimsy roof of a lean-to shanty to the building. Stan has an inspiration: “There’s a block and tackle,” he says, “I’ll hoist you up.” Of course, Olly agrees to this harebrained scheme and you can, more or less, imagine the outcome. Except, of course, you can’t and the manner in which the anticipated calamity is stranger and more intricate and funnier than the viewer expects accounts for the appeal of “Way out West, one of the best Laurel and Hardy comedies from the later thirties. (It was released i937).There is a classical symmetry and balance to this comedy -- it is the visual equivalent of a musical composition from the classical era, perhaps, a little minuet or a rondo ala Turk by Mozart. The gags are set up with elaborate precision and the comedy proceeds, generally, along clear-cut lines of force and motion -- that is, according to the Newtonian laws of action and reaction, gravity and acceleration, but the ingenuity in the film resides in the little flourishes, the grace-notes, the curious cadences that are, at once, familiar, wholly expected, and, yet, also subtly different and better than we can foresee. “Way out West” has a simple and melodramatic plot that is, of course, merely a framework from which to suspend vaudeville routines and set-pieces. Stan and Olly have traveled to a dusty western city to deliver the deed to a gold mine to a virtuous (and lovely) orphan girl. The poor girl is enslaved to a vicious bar-keep (Jimmy Finlayson) and his saloon-chanteuse wife -- she is a peroxide blonde with slinky lingerie like a poor man’s Mae West. Laurel and Hardy are duped into giving the deed to Lola, the wicked blonde. When they discover their error, a protracted battle follows over the deed but, in the end, Finlayson prevails and locks the deed away and pursued by the sheriff, the boys depart the town. But, later, they return in the dark of night to retrieve the precious paper -- hence, their elaborate and botched efforts to break and enter the residential second story of the saloon. The film is only 65 minutes long and the short film includes three excellent song-and-dance numbers, including the famous duet “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.” Oliver Hardy dances with curious and stately grace -- his soft-shoe routine performed against a rear-projection screen of the busy western village, in fact, justifies my reference to Mozart: he prances and bows and curtsy’s with a dainty late Baroque or early classical aplomb: it is as if he performing to an allemande by Mozart. There are elaborate and complex one-take jokes: in one scene, Oliver has lost a locket somewhere in the depths of his baggy garments and has to undress in front of a lady so that Stan can locate the jewelry, a kind of strip-tease that he performs with cautious and bashful courtliness. Olly keeps losing his clothing and we see him sitting soft as a marshmallow and partly nude in the studio woods, sometimes smoking a corncob pipe or riding like a pasha on a travois drawn by Dinah, the mule. The picture has a sprightly and unforced surrealism -- Stan has magical powers: he can ignite his thumb and use it as a lighter and, in the musical numbers, he’s able to sing in an operatic falsetto as well as in a preposterously deep basso profundo voice. The mule ends up in someone’s bedroom eating a mattress and dogs gnaw at a raw steak used for shoe leather and Stan eats Olly’s hat, first tucking a napkin into his shirt and, then, salting the piece of haberdashery. Like a Mozart overture, the film returns to certain thematic material -- there’s a clear sense of departure from a theme, improvisation, and, then, a stately return to that theme: in the river that must be forded there is a pot-hole that will always swallow Olly when the boys cross the knee-deep stream and Stan’s proficiency at using his thumb as a Zippo lighter will lead Olly to accidentally ignite his own digits at an inopportune moment. Early in the film, Stan must use that same thumb as a hitchhiker to hail a passing stagecoach. He makes a fist and is puzzled to observe that his thumb is gone -- it’s vanished and he doesn’t know where to find it until he unclenches his fist and finds the thumb on the end of his hand where it has always been. It doesn’t matter anyhow: Stan stops the stagecoach by baring a comely calf and ankle exactly like Claudette Colbert in “It Happened One Night”.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Dallas Buyers Club

“Dallas Buyers Club” uneasily combines a muckraking polemic with a buddy movie. The buddy movie is about the friendship between a homophobic substance abusing pussy-hound Matthew McConaughey) and a drag queen. The drag queen is played by Jared Leto, a performance for which the actor won an Oscar. McConaughey’s character, Ron Woodruff, a bull-riding rodeo roustabout who works in the oil fields, discovers that he has somehow contracted AIDS. He forms an unlikely alliance with the drag queen to explore treatments for HIV alternative to the experimental, and ineffective, therapy offered by the medical establishment. McConaughey is charismatic, but savagely biased against homosexuals. However, he recognizes that he needs the drag queen to establish a liaison with the local gay community to support his “buyer’s club” -- a kind of cooperative that sells medications not available in the United States (and, in many cases, banned by the FDA) to people suffering from AIDS. To the extent that the film dramatizes the relationship between the two men and depicts their efforts to discover successful forms of treatment for AIDS, the “Dallas Buyers Club” is intriguing, touching, and, even, inspirational. But much of the film is overtly polemical and this aspect of the movie raises troubling questions of veracity and, even, moral responsibility. The movie makes a very direct and defamatory allegation: big Pharma conspired with the medical profession and the FDA to foist an ineffective, even lethal, medication on desperately ill men and women. The movie claims that AZT doesn’t effectively treat AIDS and, indeed, asserts at one point that the classical symptoms of AIDS are primarily caused by this drug -- “it’s not the virus,” McConaughey’s character says, “but the medicine that debilitates and kills people.” The movie further makes the claim that something called Peptide T, when taken with vitamins and a regimen of healthy nutrition (no processed foods) controls AIDS or, at least, significantly reduces its symptoms. It’s the argument of the film that AZT was peddled to sick people to boost pharmaceutical company profits -- in the film, the medication is said to be one of the most expensive drugs ever produced. These allegations are serious indeed -- this is not science fiction and the film is not merely entertainment: rather, the subject of the movie is a plague, a deadly pestilence that slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people. Furthermore, the film documents a period that is now remote -- the film narrates events occurring between 1985 and 1992. So, presumably, the truth is known and can be established. Either a criminal conspiracy involving the most reckless and wicked corporate skullduggery occurred with the connivance of the medical profession and federal government or it did not. The paranoid averments made by the movie are either true, or exaggerated or partly false or wholly false -- and anyone watching this film is left with an unsettling question: is this movie based on a crackpot fantasy or is it telling us the truth? I must say that my suspicion is that the film retails a crackpot fantasy. I base this surmise on two aspects of the film: first, the movie asserts that Peptide T treats both AIDS and Alzheimer’s Syndrome -- this seems questionable to me. (In fact, Wikipedia tells me that Peptide T has shown some benefit with respect to cognitive disorders but with respect to AIDS does no better than a placebo; to the extent that AIDS symptoms include neuro-cognitive deterioration, Peptide T might be mildly beneficial.) Second, the movie hedges its bets with a final title: that title tells us that AZT proved to be effective but at lower doses than were being administered to the patients in the late eighties. This title undercuts the entire dramatic emphasis of the second half of the film, the thesis that AZT is, more or less, wholly inefficacious and, even, deadly. (There is a deleted scene incorporated as an extra on the DVD that shows the female doctor who is, more or less, McConaughey’s love interest in the film reducing her dosage of AZT to her patients by one-half -- this suggests that the film can’t really support its muckraking argument that AZT is not just worthless but lethal. But that sequence was cut from the version of the movie that was released because it would interfere with the dramatic David versus Goliath narrative of the second half of the movie -- one physically weak but morally courageous man battling the medical profession, the FDA, and the iniquitous pharmaceutical companies.) Setting aside the debate about AIDS that the film embodies, the picture is gripping and effective. McConaughy and most of the other actors in the film look sweaty, emaciated, and deathly ill. The camerawork is point-of-view, largely handheld and unobtrusive -- it doesn’t interfere with the fascinating story. The picture efficiently dramatizes the hero’s conversion from a nasty white-trash lothario into a suave, medically sophisticated big businessman. (The transformation is so swift, however, and complete as to raise some credibility issues). The female doctor who gradually sees the light about AZT is played by Jennifer Garner, an annoying one-note performance of an underwritten role: she has nothing to do but look perpetually worried. The second half of the movie, when the film’s polemical aspect dominates, is less effective than the first part of the picture. There is a court hearing, for instance, that doesn’t make any sense -- we aren’t told what’s at issue or why the matter is before the court. The movie has two bold and beautiful scenes. In one of them, the drag queen dies in a Dallas hospital while the hero, who has traveled to a Mexican medical laboratory where unconventional drugs are being compounded for AIDS treatment, enters a room filled with thousands and thousands of butterflies -- some kind of substance is being extracted from their cocoons. The butterflies alight on McConaughy as his friend dies. (Once Jared Leto’s character is defunct, the air goes out of the picture). In the final scene, the film-makers develop a powerful image for both AIDS and human mortality -- the hero is shown being strapped onto a bull and we see the animal’s fierce eye. All of us, the movie suggests, are on a bull-ride; we all get bucked-off -- it’s just a matter of how long we can hold on.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

What's the matter with Helen?

Curtis Harrington began his career as an underground film-maker. He dabbled with the occult and appears as Cesare the Somnambulist in Kenneth Anger's infamous "Inaugaration of the Pleasure Dome". Harrington was gay, a enthusiast of old horror movies, and a film conservationist -- he is responsible for the restoration of James Whale's bizarre black comedy, "The Old Dark House" (1932). He leased his formidable talents to television and made a half-dozen or so low-budget horror films, some of them made-for-TV. Harrington is difficult to evaluate because he applies a magisterial and highly idiosyncratic film style to trashy melodramatic material. Confined to Hollywood's nether reaches, Harrington made a virtue of necessity: he converts pedestrian material into highly polished and effective kitsch. His films exemplify one sort of gay sensibility: they are campy and outrageous, replete with innuendo and sly in-jokes, and, yet, also, observe the sufferings of their protagonists with a certain amount of sympathy and, even, compassion. Harrington proclaimed "What's the matter with Helen?" (1971) to be his favorite film and it is certainly a curious artifact -- a rip off of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" starring Shelley Winters and Debbie Reynolds that is both extraordinarily beautiful in its design, camera-work, and editing as well as inexplicably odd. Two unmarried women attend the trial of their sons accused of "a mutilation slaying" in Iowa. Debbie Reynolds plays one of the mothers: she is kewpie-doll-pretty, fragile-looking, fun-loving and, possibly, a drunk. The role of the other mother is acted by Shelley Winters who looks elephantine in unflattering and dowdy costumes: she is a religious fanatic, a closeted lesbian (the film takes place in the 1930s), and, obviously, stark, staring mad. (The curious thing about the film is that the plot concerns the gradual revelation that Shelley Winters' character is a bloodthirsy, insane killer -- something signaled by the title and known to the audience within the first ten minutes of the movie; somehow, Debbie Reynolds can't figure this out, although she lives in a close, almost connubial, relationship with the other woman.) After their sons are convicted and sent to "the Big House", the two women move to Los Angeles where Reynold's character re-establishes her academy of dance, catering to battle-ax stage mothers hoping to transform their moppets into movie stars. Shelley Winters plays piano accompaniment to the dancing tykes and raises white rabbits, obsessively listening to Sister Alma, a local eveangelist modeled on Aimee Semple MacPherson and played by Agnes Moorehead. Dennis Weaver -- this film is his failed bid to become a romantic lead -- plays a Texas oilman who becomes enamoured with Reynold's pert, blonde heroine. Of course, the romance between Debbie Reynolds and the handsome Dennis Weaver triggers a crisis in the repressed and sexually confused Shelley Winters that results, predictably, enough in stabbings and general mayhem. The plot is wholly mundane and not very interesting, but Harrington's approach to this material is jaw-dropping: the film is shot in exquisite color with elaborate patterns of light and shadow (the great Lucien Ballard was the cameraman; rooms are crowded with weird decor: art deco statuettes, life-size mannequin-scaled cardboard posters, tapestries on rose-wood walls and the action is theatrically staged. The film often looks like Fassbinder at his most exotic -- odd camera angles, jarring and huge close-ups that are not flattering, mirrors everywhere and clock-faces,sinister dolls, and obsessive images of blades. The Spanish-mission home where the women live and teach their dance classes is visualized in incredible detail and that space, with its odd alcoves and baldachino-style ornamental columns, its stucco walls and arched doorways, becomes a character in the film every bit as important as the leading ladies. Harrington loads the movie up with bizarre minor characters: there is a flamboyantly gay former Thespian with dyed black hair plastered close to his pasty-white skull, a weird and frightening turn by Timothy Carey as a drunk, and a cameo by Agnes Moorehead whose narrow face and tight-lips presents one of the most horrifying images in the film. These roles, almost cameo parts, seem designed as "red herrings" -- that is, figures supposed to divert suspicion away from the clearly homicidal Shelley Winters -- but since we've known from the title that Winters plays the murderer, the function of these characters is peculiar. They are like the grotesque supporting cast in "The Old Dark House", basically a collection of sinister oddballs projected into the mise-en-scene on their own merits -- the pictorial equivalent of the tchotkes that litter the sets. (As in "The Old Dark House" directed by the gay James Whale, Harrington loads up his minor parts with homosexual, or reputedly homosexual actors.) The picture is laden with allusions and cross-references: the opening sequence comprised of a March of Time style documentary establishing the 1930's setting is a knock-off of "Citizen Kane" and there are references to Marion Davies, Hearst's girlfriend, and a variety of forgotten Hollywood stars from that time. Harrington re-stages scenes from Hitchcock films such as "Psycho". His characters pose like icons, statuesque against the elaborately decorated sets. As in Douglas Sirk's melodramas from the fifties, images contain strange, unmotivated zones of color, bands of red or purplish or bluish light -- Shelley Winters paces around in a hideous mauve kimono and there are gallons of syrupy red blood on display. It is all deliriously excessive -- the sets are too big, too complex, too intricately decorated for the story and we spend half of our time trying to figure out all the gewgaws and knickknacks cluttering the background of the images. In one scene, Dennis Weaver takes the lovely Debbie Reynolds to a gambling ship in the harbor -- the place is filmed like something from "Dr. Mabuse", sexually ambiguous couples, a tango playig, people in black tuxedos in steel-grey and blue shadows. Weaver hires a gigolo to dance the tango with his girlfriend, an alarming scene that means nothing to the plot but allows Lucien Ballard's camera to track the dancers in an ecstasy across the dance-floor. Later, we see a performance of Reynold's students, including a little girl with a big heap of curls on her head like Shirley Temple and another child who, with a padded bosom, performs a sexually charged Mae West number. The whole thing is inexpressibly bizarre and disturbing. And there is even a sinister lady midget. This picture is rarely shown. Recently, it has been re-discovered as a prototype to the New Queer Cinema. The movie is astounding -- awful but astounding.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


“Mogambo” is John Ford’s remake of the 1932 melodrama, “Red Dust.” There is an element of the morbid about the Ford picture made 21 years after “Red Dust” -- both pictures star Clark Gable as a tough “sahib” who seduces two women in an exotic locale but he is on the verge of a ruinous old-age in the latter film. In “Red Dust,” Gable was torn between the prim, if secretly wanton, Mary Astor and the overtly sluttish Jean Harlow; the 1932 film took place in a Vietnam imagined as some rooms equipped with Pier One wicker furniture, perspiration by the gallon, and murky tangle of vines in which rain is always falling. “Mogambo” is a large-scale, big-budget picture, filmed in Uganda and Kenya and Tanganyika; the elderly Clark Gable is a curmudgeonly codger who gropes Ava Gardner, playing the bad girl, and an impossibly prim and young-looking Grace Kelly (she has brunette hair) in the role of the upstanding, but frustrated wife who also loves the dashing white hunter. In “Red Dust,” Gable is handsome, dashing, insouciant, and its plausible that the women would immediately desire him. In “Mogambo,” the girls seem to be fawning over the hero because he’s Clark Gable; Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly desire him, it seems, as a souvenir of film history, as a relic of the great past of the medium -- but there’s no chemistry, no electricity between Gable and his leading ladies and all the jungle-fever lust seems pretty contrived. “Red Dust” is raw, erotic, and sketchy -- the picture is about 82 minutes long. “Mogambo” is a huge, lifeless epic -- it’s fully 40 minutes longer that its prototype and features vast amounts of wild-life footage, an Indian uprising of the kind that Ford staged in “Rio Grande,” although in this picture featuring Masai warriors, and lots and lots of hunting and hiking and canoeing scenes -- periodically both Ava and Grace are threatened by wild beasts that must be subdued by Gable’s great white hunter. The 1953 film is equipped with a laudatory opening title reminding us that it was really made in Africa but this only makes the obvious mis-match between wildlife footage shot in the veldt and jungle and the studio scenes with lurid-looking rear-projection seem more annoying. “Mogambo” is constructed of grainy wild-life footage, including what seem to be authentic shots of mountain gorillas in Rwanda, carefully composed African landscapes staged around the stars -- proto-”Lawrence of Arabia” location work or the kind of location shots that Ford favored in Monument Valley -- and studio sequences filmed with potted plants and vines and foliage so ridiculously green and tangled as to be obviously the work of over-active set decorators. Compared with the raw eroticism of “Red Dust,” “Mogambo” is stately, over-determined, and, yet, also curiously prurient and salacious. In one scene, Ava Gardner observes a bull elephant with its trunk rampant and in full erection and remarks to the virginal Grace Kelly: “Remind you of anyone?” This little tidbit of innuendo is followed by a wise-crack about female genital mutilation that is nothing short of shocking -- it has to be heard to be believed. In “Red Dust,” the leading ladies lounge around in silky lingerie. Ford is more realistic, Ava Gardner wears tight pants and camouflage blouses and she seems curiously dowdy -- in one scene, here breasts seem to be pointed like spear-tips, aimed in opposite directions, and separated by about two feet. Grace Kelly looks confused, pallid and out of place. Ford wants things to be dirty and he stages things to get mud all over Ava Gardner’s ass so that people can look at her buttocks and make comments about them, but he’s fundamentally prudish and, even, Victorian. The bad girl in “Red Dust” was a Saigon whore, nothing more, nothing less. Ava Gardner is a traumatized socialite who spends much of “Mogambo” mooning around baby animals and talking to elephants and giraffes and hippos. Ford even installs a Catholic priest in the center of the film, has Ava’s character submit to confession with him, and, in fact, implies that Clark Gable and the heroine are going to stop on their way out of the jungle to have the missionary marry them. Ford is good with drinking scenes and the penultimate sequence involving Gable and Gardner getting drunk together and encouraging the horrified Grace Kelly to join them for a menage a trois is convincingly nasty -- this seems to be something that Ford imagines with pleasure although it’s not certain whether his interest is in the women or the whiskey. But Ford’s not kinky enough to film anything like the perverse sex scene between the young Gable and Harlow in which the brash starlet uses a phallic probe to sound a bullet wound in the hero’s side. There is one memorable shot in “Mogambo”: as the young wife staggers away from a jungle embrace with Clark Gable, her naïve husband unwittingly asks her to pose for a photograph -- she freezes like a deer in the headlights against a drapery of vines and Hollywood jungle and it is obvious that she is terribly frightened and confused by her lust for the old man, something that her husband doesn’t even suspect. “Red Dust” is the better movie and its really not that good.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Red Dust

Everyone sweats copiously in Victor Fleming’s “Red Dust,” a breezy, tough-talking 1932 melodrama. Clark Gable plays the manager of a Vietnamese rubber plantation -- he kicks and punches the coolies and, periodically, talks about traveling to “Say-gone.” A new man arrives at the plantation, half-dead from malaria. The new employee has brought his elegant and beautiful wife, the role played by Mary Astor who is, in fact, alarmingly gorgeous -- she has a bruised,slightly aggrieved and sophisticated glamor. Gable’s brutal roustabout has been fornicating with Jean Harlow, a whore from Say-gone who has turned up at the steamy plantation on a grim-looking little river-faring vessel that looks like “the African Queen.” Harlow’s prostitute talks in double-entendres and wears diaphanous, tattered gowns and it’s obvious that she and Gable belong together. But Gable falls for Mary Astor and, after rescuing her from a monsoon, she seems to love him also. Gable arranges for Mary Astor’s boy-scout husband to be stationed far from the plantation. Poor Harlow thinks that she has been abandoned and moons around the sultry, ramshackle plantation house -- huge banana-leaves suspended over the wooden table move the air above the place where the characters sit to exchange wise-cracks and slug down shots of whiskey and quinine. Gable rides six hours through the rain to confront the Astor character. He insults her -- always a good way to end a problematic relationship -- and she plugs him with a little revolver concealed in her kimono. Harlow and Gable both lie to the aggrieved husband when he appears a few minutes later, having pursued his boss through the torrential typhoon; they claim that Gable tried to rape the wife and that, as a “virtuous woman”, she had to gun him down. Gable is only wounded and Harlow has to penetrate him -- she drives a fat rod dipped in iodine through the bullet hole in his side, certainly, one of the strangest and most grisly sublimations of intercourse ever filmed. After this improvised surgery, they get gloriously drunk together. Mary Astor and her whimpering husband leave Indochina and, I guess, Harlow and Gable live happily ever after, boiling together in the humidity -- he’s shirtless and wet and she’s wearing a filmy negligee and, presumably, wet as well. There’s nothing much in “Red Dust” -- the title refers to the dry winds that blow dust around the plantation when its not raining buckets out of the soundstage sky. The movie is obviously derived from a stage-play and its talky and artificial. There’s nothing atmospheric about the picture but some of the scenes showing the river and the little paddle-wheeler chugging upstream in the monsoon. At the center of the film, there’s a brief documentary style sequence showing how rubber is made, an interesting little digression that has nothing to do with the plot but which imparts a kind of educational patina to the proceedings. Harlow’s acting style is brazen and zippy; Mary Astor is equally seductive, but has a kind of decadent elegance -- both women get to show off their breasts in a variety of skimpy transparent blouses, in Miss Astor’s case wet down by the monsoon rains. There’s a tiger in the bush and a comical Oriental cook. The film is clearly an imitation of “Rain”, the Joan Crawford South Seas vehicle also made in 1932 -- “Rain” is a much better film, featuring performances of alarming ferocity by the entire cast, most notably Walter Huston. “Red Dust” is lightweight and never really generates much emotional interest.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Cold Case (TNT TV series)

Television fosters a mythology of competence. Jack Bauer on "24" always escapes from danger using highly sophisticated martial skills and he is supported by teams of technological savvy anti-terrorism specialists. Everything goes according to plan, weapons don't misfire, and maps are already read accurately, even in the midst of high-speed chases and gunfights. On "NCIS" and other CSI franchise shows, scientists amass clues and effectively evaluate them to solve crimes. All lab tests are run accurately and always yield reliable results. Even the villains are omni-competent, masters of their sinister arts. Of course, in real life, mistakes are made and most people are only marginally competent even in the fields in which they profess expertise. Similarly, by contrast to the indefatigable heroes and heroines depicted in pop culture, men and women are generally extremely lazy -- indeed, this is demonstrated by the popularity of television itself If TNT's true crime show, "Cold Case" has an implicit theme it is the gross incompetency of most law enforcement officers and the utter, inept laziness of the majority of prosecutors in the criminal justice system. Each week, "Cold Case" dispatches a pair of hardnosed female prosecutrixes to some backwater where a gruesome and notorious crime remains unsolved. The two women conduct new interviews, pore over old transcripts and grisly crime-scene photos and visit dilapidated sheds and trailerhouses where the murders were committed. At the end of each episode, enough evidence is accumulated to support a prosecution of the malefactor responsible for the atrocity and the shows end on an ostensibly happy note: grieving families embrace the two heroines and praise them for their diligence, bravery, and persistence in solving the crime. The show incorporates elements of several popular reality-TV genres: the first ten minutes of the program is similar to many paranormal investigation shows -- the two women, who don't look much like movie stars, drive to the scene of the crime while eerie music plays, discussing the upcoming investigation as they travel. (This is similar to the introductory and backstory formulae used in "TAPS," the seminal paranormal investigation series). The women offer themselves as compassionate friends of the family and fearless supporters of law enforcement. In this regard, the show is similar to the various bar, restaurant, and hotel rescue shows afflicting TV -- the locals are too inept to get the job done correctly, but, fortunately, help is at hand courtesy of the show's stars and each episode ends with an embrace in which the tearful famiy of the long-dead victim thank the stars for their diligence, brilliance, and hard-work. The two women who host this enterprise are unlikely TV stars -- they are both scrawny, speak with hillbilly accents; one of the them resembles a ferret wearing a large tawdry cross; the other looks like a blonde weasel. The remarkable thing about the program is that the crimes are all easily solved and everyone, including the bumpkin local prosecutors and cops, knows the exact identity of the villain. In this show no true detection is required; the villain has either confessed or almost confessed and all of his or her associates know that about the crime and that the perpetrator has boasted about it. The reason that the criminal is still at large is attributable to the sheer laziness, negligence, and the brutally apparent disinterest of local authorities. The investigators don't turn up any new evidence. They just reinterview witnesses (who probably believe the statute of limitations has expired or who have now had a falling-out with the bad guy) and get them to state that they know the identity of the perpetrator. But, of course, everyone in the county knows the perpetrator. The only riddle that the show poses, and it is one that is baffling, is this: why is the known criminal still at-large? As far as I can determine, the answer usually has something to with the victim: in one case, the dead girl was an alcoholic, drug addict, someone so hapless that the show couldn't even find any credible relatives mourning her loss. In another show, the victim is a black woman murdered by an ex-boyfriend. The four or five white detectives involved in re-opening the cold-case fourteen years later seem genial and interested in solving the case, but this was clearly not the circumstance when the crime occurred -- obviously, the white police force viewed the crime as one that wasn't worth investigating, particularly, when the suspect seems to have had something to do with a daughter of the token black officer on the force; that man seems very embarrassed by the whole proceedings. An exception is an Iowa case involving a double murder in which the perpetrator was so obvious that the local authorities seems to have considered a competent investigation and indictment to be unsporting and beneath their dignity. The investigators proceed by innuendo and character assassination and their modus operandi is to bully people into giving them interviews, frequently on issues of character and propensity that would have no legal relevancy in a court of law. Since, everyone knows who committed the crime, there's no real surprise when the bad guy is finally indicted. The show is wicked and pernicious in one important respect: people who don't cooperate with the police are portrayed as de facto guilty merely because of their reluctance to confess or otherwise provide information to the cops. In one episode, a man is brought into the police station and asked to confess. He refuses and so the cops use strong-arm techniques on him, handcuffing him again and yanking him out of the interrogation room, apparently as a reprisal for his unwillingness to talk to them. But, of course, the constitution provides us all with a right to remain silent. And silence, or assertion of constitutional rights, is not evidence of guilt. "Cold Case's" nonchalance with respect to the Constitution is shocking: it's not a crime to refuse to talk to police, let alone pushy TV-investigators. Indeed, a good argument can be made that every citizen's obligation is to not cooperate with the police and, indeed, to subvert TV journalists who are, by and large, idiots and liars. Yet shows like this, in concert with public school liaison officers, exist to persuade the public that they should always cooperate with the police and that cops are their friends. From long experience as an attorney, I know the opposite and believe that constitutional principles should be taught in school -- there should be, at least, equal time accorded to teaching kids not to cooperate with cops as is devoted to persuading them to cuddle up with law enforcement. (Kid-friendly cops are installed in many schools and the gendarmes bring in their German Shepherds to indoctrine the children with the cute and frisk "office dogs" when they are tiny tykes.) TV shows and kids should be told this truth: when a cop is accused of a crime or misconduct, the very first thing that he or she does is assert constitutional rights, refuse to talk, and "lawyer up." Even police accused of minor workplace infractions refuse to discuss this with their supervisors without union stewards and lawyers present. But, of course, children in our schools and people watching shows like "Cold Case" are provided with the opposite message.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Grandmaster

When I was an undergraduate in College, I had a friend who was an enthusiast, a pot head, and a mystic. He told me that a Chinese restaurant in downtown Minneapolis was operated by a famous Kung Fu master. This man was an exponent of the Praying Mantis style of fighting and was so lethal that it was alleged that he could kill an opponent merely by glaring at him. The master’s Hunan-style cuisine was also fabulous. Supposedly, this deadly chef taught both cooking and martial arts. When my pot head buddy expostulated on this subject, his voice was hushed and he adopted a reverential tone and, when he compared the various schools of Kung Fu, always concluding that the restauranteur’s “Southen Praying Mantis” style was the most wonderful and deadly, his discourse wandered between occult forms of Buddhism, varieties of teleportation, and the mysteries of the Chih -- it was strangely exhilarating to hear of these things for about ten minutes, but my friend’s enthusiasm drove him to lecture me at length, an hour or ninety minutes, and, after a while, my eyes glazed over from sheer and exquisite boredom of it all. I must confess that Wong Kar-Wei’s 2013 Kung Fu epic, “The Grandmaster” has the same effect on me. The movie is exquisitely beautiful, wonderfully refined, and fanatically misguided. Gong Er, the doomed heroine of the film, intones this line over a gorgeous flashback showing her as a little girl watching her father practicing outside in a snowstorm: “When I was growing up, the most common sound that I heard was breaking bones.” Gong Er is the beautiful daughter of the greatest Northern Kung Fu master. In 1930, the film’s hero, the titular Grandmaster, Ip Man, travels to Manchuria, where the snow is always falling like soft, warm cherry blossoms. Ip Man wants to learn the Northern Master’s style: “64 Feet” -- the varieties of Kung Fu have strangely poetic and bizarre names. The first third of the film takes place in a gilded brothel where Ip Man has to fight and defeat practitioners of various schools of martial arts. After succeeding in these lushly choreographed duels, he then is matched with the beauteous and fierce Gong Er. This battle takes place on a stair in the golden brothel and ends in a sort of draw -- Ip Man seizing hold of Gong Er in an iconic gestures, his hand around her ivory arm, as she falls downward in the stairwell. This touch apparently arouses a lifetime passion in Gong Er for Ip Man, a love that, alas, is never consummated and, indeed, only admitted in the last ten minutes of the picture. The Japanese invade and Ip Man’s two daughters starve to death off-screen -- their deaths matter so little that this tragedy is admitted only in an intertitle. Man deserts his wife in Manchuria and goes to Hong Kong where Dr. Zhivago-style the forces of history separate him from his family. He meets Gong Er in 1950. She has been working as a doctor in a slum in Hong Kong. has renounced martial arts, and has become an opium addict. In an flashback, we see her fighting and killing her father’s disciple who has become a lackey of the brutal Japanese. The battle takes place on a railroad platform with a diesel train roaring by and is shot in luminous honeyed tones -- all close-ups of hands slashing through the omnipresent Manchurian snow, feet gliding over ice, blows so powerful that they shatter metal walls and unseat steel bars screwed into the concrete, giant close-ups of iron bending and coming unstuck, faces like luminous masks hovering over the violence in Godfather-like Rembrandt-tinged darkness. In this fight, Gong Er is badly hurt and her pain has made her into an opium addict: she reclines in the opulent coiling smoke, as beautiful as Julie Christie smoking opium in “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”, and the music plays variations on Ennio Morricone’s most nostalgic and beautiful compositions. “64 feet” will never seen again, Gong Er tells us and, like the thwarted heroine and hero in Wong Kar-Wei’s great and morose “In the Mood for Love”, she confesses her great passion to the impassive Ip Man and, then, walks down a studio alley way, trailed by a dog, vanishing into a silent-movie-style set like something from Von Sternberg -- all tinsel and velvet shadow and rim lit hair and neon in the puddles and amber in the air -- where, of course, she dies of a broken heart. Ip Man played by Tony Leung looks surprisingly like Barack Obama and speaks in short sententious epigrams. “Kung Fu,” he tells us, “is the vertical and horizontal -- that’s all.” What in the hell does that mean? The movie is a great folly, a film that Wong Kar-Wei began working on in 2007 and financed, in part, with booty from making commercials in a similarly lush and ornate style for Dior. BMW, Lacoste, and Chivas Regal. Shooting was halted due to injuries sustained by actors; apparently, Tony Leung broke his arm learning Kung Fu fighting styles from real grandmasters and production of the movie was halted several times. The picture is completely claustrophobic -- even the exquisite outdoor scenes feel like they have been filmed indoors -- and the plot is inscrutable: people fighting for no apparent reason all the time. Furthermore, the movie’s big pay-off is curiously anti-climactic: Ip Man, it turns out, is the Master who trained the young Bruce Lee -- this is his claim to fame: it’s like a film about Shakespeare ending with scenes demonstrating that the poet inspired Baz Luhrman or “West Side Story.” No one ages in this movie and everything takes place in glittering, mirror-empire of gilded walls and ceilings, gardens slowly filling up with snow, decorous tea-houses poised against the darkness, and teeming modern cities that look completely medieval -- I don’t recall a single automobile in the film. I think the movie is a failure although certainly extraordinary enough visually. Some of the picture is unintentionally funny: the duel between and Wan Chung master and a man with a “singing razor” is given as much screen-time as the entire Japanese invasion, an episode in history that is reduced to a couple of flamboyant explosions and a beheading in a rainstorm. Of course, it’s hard to judge this picture -- the version that I saw was mutilated: 108 minutes long when the director’s cut famous in China is 130 minutes. My surmise is that the long version would be so tedious as to be unwatchable, but who knows?