Thursday, May 29, 2014

American Experience: Death and the Civil War

PBS’ documentary adaptation of Drew Gilpin Faust’s  book “The Republic of Suffering” exemplifies the strengths and deficiencies of the kind of film-making associated with public TV and the National Endowment of the Arts -- that is, the Ken Burns’ school of film essay.  This program, made for Memorial Day 2014, and exploring the mortuary culture associated with the American Civil War, contains about 45 minutes of excellent, almost unbearably sad material.  The picture opens with a fireball sunrise over some nameless Civil War battlefield -- at least, that’s how the viewer interprets the image.  A young soldier has had his shoulder torn apart and he is writing a valedictory letter to his father; the yellowed paper is clotted with his blood and we can see the young man’s handwriting palpably deteriorating as he bleeds to death.  Like innumerable men who fought in the Civil War, the young man’s prose style is exquisite: carefully measured, dignified, courageous.  The effect is extraordinarily moving.  For another twenty minutes, the film quotes other Civil War letters about death on the battlefield.  Again, the diction is superb and this part of the documentary is almost unbearably sad.  People of the Civil War era were schooled to regard death as a public event that occurred with certain ritual gestures in the family home surrounded by loved ones.  Sudden death on the battlefield or in an anonymous hospital horrified these people and the film demonstrates the lengths to which soldiers and their families would go in an attempt to reconstitute the warm, familiar solemnity of dying at home.  Near the end of the show, there’s a couple factual sequences that are fascinating and, also, emotionally compelling.  These sequences involve efforts to retrieve and rebury Union dead strewn across the South by E. B. Whitman and the Federal government as well as parallel efforts undertaken by southern women’s associations.  There is interesting material about freed slave populations tending union graves, protecting them against desecration by bitter ex-rebels, and initiating “decoration day” ceremonies that may be the predecessor to today’s Memorial Day holiday.  A grave African-American scholar with grey and intricate dreadlocks pronounces some words that the rest of the program is afraid to utter:  he quotes Frederick Douglass making a distinction between obsequies for those who died fighting for freedom and those who perished in the effort to preserve and perpetuate slavery.  But the program is too long and immensely padded and, fundamentally, uninformative in the worst Ken Burns manner.  About 15% of the show consists of lugubrious panning or tracking shots over Victorian memorabilia lit by candle.  These images contribute nothing to the film and are, in fact, unjustifiable -- they are simply filler.  The same striking pictures are used again and again, and, often, in confusedly different contexts.  One shot showing a famous image of skulls and bones and tattered uniforms with a boot sticking out of it, this mess heaped on a stretcher with a Black kid gazing out over the rotting remains in a huge desolate cemetery is repeated four times:  in the first application, the picture stands generally for the shock that Americans felt in 1862 when Matthew Brady’s first pictures of corpses in windrows on battlefields were shown in New York.  When used a second time, the picture illustrates disrespectful treatment of Black volunteers forced into disagreeable burial duties.  In its third showing, the picture is supposed to have something to do with Gettysburg.  The fourth time the picture is shown, the war is over and we are being told about Whitman’s work scouring the south for unmarked Union graves.  This is MTV film making; there is a total disregard for the meaning of the original photograph.  In fact, whatever the photograph was supposed to show is completely obscured by the Ken Burns-style use of the image as visual wallpaper for mournful and pretentious voices pontificating over the images.  Many of the pictures that we are shown are extraordinary and one longs for some helpful commentary, some factual information about where the old image was taken and by whom and what exactly it displays to us.  One picture shows rows of men in a hospital sitting up in their beds under elegant wing-shaped white curtains.  The white curtains are all exactly identical and have the look of some sort of wonderful and marmoreal sculpture.  What are those white forms?  Are they mosquito nets or partitions or what?  Why is one man facing the others, apparently with one or both legs amputated?  Who is he and why is he turned in a different direction from everyone else?  A scene of a Southern city shows enormous amounts of devastation -- but why is there a man standing in profile to us with a series of wooden rods wrapped around his shoulder, protruding in a way that makes him like a porcupine?  In a battlefield somewhere, someone has gathered a half-dozen skulls and set them on a slab of rock in the wild looking forest.  In the middle of the skulls, there is a post on which another skull, only semi-decomposed and half-bearded, glares out at us -- what in the world does this picture show?  Is this evidence of desecrated graves or the work of a burial party or what?  Again and again and again, we are shown pictures with bizarre and questionable content -- but the documentarian regards all these images as completely generic.  We see “A Civil War Corpse” that is anonymous and hideous; but, of course, the picture was taken at a specific place and time and was supposed to illustrate something about the battle or the battlefield or the way the man died.  Why aren’t we given any of this information, particularly since the program is as bloated as the corpses that it shows us -- at one point, the documentary stops dead in is tracks so that someone can slowly and deliberately recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, the speech followed by several tendentious and platitudinous interpretations.  Furthermore, the talking heads don’t really seem to understand much of what they are saying -- they are so caught up in being Ken Burns’ interlocutors, so fiercely passionate and solemn and funereal that they really don’t seem to care that much about what they are telling us.  The solemnly hectoring tone of their voices seems more important to these commentators than what they say.  In one sequence, Dr. Faust tells us that the secular religion emanating from the Civil War reinterpreted death not in terms of a Christian afterlife in heaven, but in terms of a civic afterlife in the memories of fellow citizens.  Deaths were consecrated to the State.  This is certainly an interesting concept and one that bears close scrutiny.  In this context, the documentary shows us a seemingly gratuitous image of Abraham Lincoln enthroned in his memorial temple on the Mall in Washington.  For the first time, I noticed that Lincoln’s throne has fasces supporting its arm-rests.  But no one comments on the potentially fascist aspects of defining death in battle as a sacrifice to the State.  

Monday, May 26, 2014


"Philomena" (2013) is mostly based on a true story. However, to the extent that the film is noteworthy and, indeed, thought-provoking, the picture is entirely fiction. The true part of the story is disheartening: a young Irish girl, Philomena, becomes pregnant out of wedlock; abandoned by her own father, she is forced into servitude with the Magdalene Sisters where her child is delivered. The vicious nuns allow the young woman only one hour daily interaction with her son. The toddler is, then, trafficked, sold to the highest bidders who happen to be an American couple. Fifty years later, Philomena embarks on a quest with a British journalist, Martin Sixsmith, to locate the lost boy. "Philomena" is an "odd couple" buddy movie constructed around a road-trip. The Irish woman is working-class, a bit salty in her diction, but very pious. The journalist is the epitome of an urban sophisticate, a writer who has been sacked from his job with the BBC and who salves his wounds by threatening to write a book about Russian history (he served at the Moscow desk of the BBC). The modest pleasure afforded by "Philomena" arises from the interplay between these mismatched characters. The journalist is cynical, analytical, and angry -- he perceives of journalism, generally, as forum for settling old scores and he views his reporting on Philomena as a vehicle for an attack on the Catholic Church. Philomena perceives her mistreatment at the hands of the nuns -- torture that included denial of pain medication during a difficult breech delivery -- as, more or less, warranted by her sins and she remains loyal to the Church. Predictably enough, the journalist tries to persuade Philomena to hate the Church, but, of course, the old woman's kindness and fundamentally gentle and forgiving nature prevail and the film depicts the writer's gradual dawning awareness that his own hard-hearted perceptions of the world are mistaken. On paper, and baldly described, "Philomena" sounds much worse than it is. In fact, the characters are interesting and complex and their motives profoundly mixed -- the film's success is largely due to the excellence of its principals: Judi Dench as Philomena and Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith, the writer. Philomena is not an innocent but rather a canny, somewhat bawdy, retired nurse; she is apparently a heavy drinker. Coogan's character, although projecting callous indifference, is, in fact, confused by his anger at the world, wounded, and, more than a little clueless. A running gag in the film, which is as a whole quite funny, involves Philomena telling Sixsmith the plot of various romantic novels that she reads and, then, revealing twists in the narrative with the words: "You didn't see that coming did you, Martin?" True to this narrative ethos, "Philomena" delivers four or five genuinely surprising plot twists and, indeed, you "don't see them coming." These surprises keep the audience interested and propel the plot forward. The time-honored story of mismatched buddies on a road-trip, accordingly, is enlivened by unexpected developments in the narrative. Interestingly, the central theme in the film, the debate between an atheist and pious believer, is the aspect of the movie that is wholly invented. In a Q & A appended to the DVD of the film, Coogan acknowledges that he is half-Catholic and also half-Irish and that the picture was a vehicle for him to deal with unresolved feelings toward the Holy Roman Catholic Church. In actuality, the real Philomena Lee is Protestant, an Anglican, and, apparently, not religious at all. (Supplements to the DVD show an exceptionally handsome elderly woman who appears to be highly sophisticated, articulate, and elegantly self-possessed; indeed, in the documentary supplement, the real Philomena Lee seems more confident and gracious than the somewhat oafish comedian. This lady looks like the wife of a corporate executive and is nothing like the character portrayed in the film.) The picture is fluently, if unobtrusively directed by Stephen Frears, and the movie looks like a well-composed, high-budget TV show -- Coogan wrote the script and selected the cast and crew and it's apparent that he doesn't want mere "style" obstructing the spectator's view of his comic turns and Judi Dench's "Masterpiece" theater acting. The film is somewhat disappointing and there is, perhaps, not much to it; this is appropriate since the subject matter is also disappointing: Philomena never meets her lost son. The great road movies, for instance Wenders' "Kings of the Road" or Risi's "Il Sorpasso", feature strange landscapes, idiosyncratic locations, and are generously packed with encounters with curious and remarkable minor characters. These films are poetry whereas "Philomena" is content to remain prose. The landscapes are all more or less equivalent: London is like Washington D. C. minus the Lincoln Monument and the scene-setting relies upon the broadest stereotypes. Most of the film is dialogue between the two main players, something that is fine if you have Judi Dench and Steve Coogan as your protagonists. (But the best and most lyrical scene in the film is a colloquy in which Philomena interrogates a giant Mexican who is making an omelet for her at an Embassy Suites style hotel -- this sequence embodies the charm of the authentic road movie mostly eschewed by the rest of the film.) Throughout the film seems in a race neck-to-neck with maudlin sentimentality, but, in the end, the film wins, if only by a hair's breadth.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Il Sorpasso

It’s summer and a holiday and, somehow, Rome is closed. The streets are empty, sidewalks are barren and hot, and, worst of all, the taverns and, even, the little soda-shops are all masked by steel shutters. A man drives a tiny sports car, whirling through the empty streets, making u-turns and, at last, summoning someone who happens to be looking at him from a window -- the man in the window is a shy law student played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. The man driving aimlessly in the sports car is Bruno Cortona (Vittorio Gassman), “il Sorpasso” -- that is, the one who surpasses others, or, more prosaically, the guy who is always passing other cars on Italy’s winding and mountainous roads. Dino Rosi’s 1962 picture was an enormous box-office hit in Italy and it’s easy to see why this big, open-hearted film would be popular -- it is the quintessential road picture. Bruno talks his way into the law student, Robert’s, apartment. The student is buttoned-up, conservative, introspective -- from time to time, we hear his thoughts in a voice-over. (This device, which grounds the audience in Robert’s perspective makes the ending of the film all the more shocking.) Robert has thick books open on his desk and he’s trying to grasp the distinction between void or voidable contracts; the woman that he admires, Valeria Nisi, has a name that suggests ancient legal procedure as well and in a discouraging way -- “nisi” means something like “nothing.” Bruno, who is quick and intuitive and fantastically handsome -- he looks like a harder, stronger Rock Hudson -- persuades Robert into taking a ride with him in the country. For all his brash talk, Bruno is at loose ends, estranged from his wife and daughter, and, apparently, lonely. Bruno motors along the coast, passing every vehicle that they encounter, and, gradually, Robert warms to the older man and, over the course, of 30 hours or so, the time spanned by the picture, they become friends. Bruno is a kind of monster, passionate, sardonic, and impulsive -- he is the sort of man who takes a cigarette out of a stranger’s mouth when he needs a smoke. Every woman that they meet he tries to seduce and most of them are mildly interested in him, although they understand instinctively that Bruno is dangerous. Chasing two German girls in their little sports car, Bruno momentarily loses sight of them, stops at an intersection, and literally sniffs the air. The scent of the girls leads the men to a cemetery, probably a relic of the second World War, where the two German women are languidly reading names on tombstones. Bruno and Robert are put off by the sepulchral setting and retreat, much to the dismay of one of the German girls who is interested in an adventure. Next, they travel to a hilltop palazzo where Robert spent his summers as a child. Bruno entertains Robert’s aunt and uncle and, in the course of three hours, learns more about them and establishes a closer relationship than the law student was ever able to achieve with these people who are, of course, his relatives. In the darkness, Bruno drives to a seaside resort and, after a drunken brawl in a night club, ends up at his ex-wife’s house. He tries his lost puppy routine on his steely former wife who literally knocks him out of bed. The two men end up sleeping on the beach, waking to a riot of sunbathing girls and boys. Bruno water-skis with his daughter’s fiancée, a man who seems to be older than him, and, then, tries to restore his relationship with her. Everyone likes Bruno and most women, it seems, would be willing to sleep with him for a few weekends, but, in the end, no one really takes him seriously -- he’s simply too handsome, too egotistical, too childishly frank and abrasive. (In a way, the character played by Larry David in “Curb your Enthusiasm” is a Jewish variant on Bruno -- and, in fact, Bruno tells Robert that his grandmother was Jewish.) The pleasures in “Il Sorpasso” are intrinsic to the genre of the road picture -- there is a sense of freedom and the camera explores the vivid landscapes with as much enthusiasm as the travelers newly visiting these places. Everyone is doing the twist or listening to the same saccharine pop music -- a tune about a lover “with flippers, and mask, and speargun”. The women are all beautiful and vivacious and, apparently, available -- or, at least, our heroes can imagine them to be available. Sometimes, Risi slows the action and simply scans the crowd for interesting faces and figures -- there is a pretty and pert blonde cha-cha-chaing on the beach in a cast, another elegant-looking woman walking an aristocratic poodle (we later see her bathing the poodle in the sea); when the men stop at a roadside “trattoria”, the fat woman proprietor, with her breasts mostly exposed, curses them while eating pasta from a big bowl, crying out “don’t we ever get a holiday?” Her words are bitter but she’s laughing because she’s surrounded by her children, who are also fat, and it’s a fine day and the seashore is nearby. Confidences that Robert shares with Bruno reluctantly are later retailed to complete strangers. All of this is too Robert’s dismay and he keeps comically attempting to escape from Bruno only to find himself always reunited with the older man -- these scenes provide us with a tour of bus-stops and deserted train stations late at night, places you might meet a girl and flirt with her even, before her boyfriend arrives and off-camera calls her to his car. A truck crashes and Bruno. whose occupation seems to be everything and nothing, tries to buy the slightly damaged refrigerators strewn around the wreck from the stunned driver. The man shrugs at Bruno with disbelief and, then, the camera tracks slightly to the side and we see a corpse covered with a sheet lying on the pavement. Bruno isn’t non-plussed. He’s still willing to take the damaged merchandise off the truckdriver’s hands. Life is immense and the road can lead you anywhere at all and velocity is a gift of the gods -- we roar forward away from the disappointments of our past, ignoring the corpses strewn along the way, into the unknown and radiant future. This is a wonderful film, unassuming, but filled with a kind of gay wisdom.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Crimes of the Heart

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Beth Henley was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her play, “Crimes of the Heart.” A film version of the work was produced in 1986, directed by the Australian film maker, Bruce Beresford. The play is formulaic and derivative: sub-Faulkner Southern Gothic tarted-up with Tennessee Williams’ accents with a little bit of Sam Shepherd yokel absurdity tossed in for a good measure. (Sam Shepherd, limping like Dennis Weaver from “Gunsmoke” and flashing a toothy grin, has a small role as the love-interest of one of the three sisters, unconvincing siblings whose giggling and strangely disaffected dialogue must carry the show.) Everything seems contrived and false and the show is inadvertently racist in an unintentional way -- all the more troubling because the play and its authorim don’t seem to sense the racism implicit in the material. The three sisters laugh uproariously at inappropriate times and this, I suppose, was the feature of the play that disturbed, or fascinated, critics sufficiently for them to bestow the Pulitzer prize on this thing. Briefly, the situation is this: three sisters are waiting for their Granddaddy, (played by an ancient and grey-faced Hurd Hatfield) to die. Predictably, one of the sisters is a man-teasing, peroxide- blonde singer. This unrepentant flirt is played by Jessica Lange -- she is very pretty and looks a little like a young Dolly Parton without the prosthetics. Another sister is a sexually repressed old maid -- this role is played by Diane Keaton who is completely miscast to the point that she is unable to manage a plausible southern accent. (Keaton acts retarded -- she has a sneaky feral way of glancing at the camera; her facial expressions are vaguely simian and impossible to interpret.) Her role is underwritten; she moons around the garden where birds are always chirping in tropical choruses -- Beresford loads the soundtrack with bird songs -- brooding about her one and only love affair. Henley gives Keaton’s character a “shrunken ovary” whatever that is and her inadequate reproductive apparatus is the subject of much discussion in the play. The third sister (Sissy Spacek) has shot her repulsive racist husband after the man has beaten her fifteen-year old African-American lover --Henley’s play shows it’s age with respect to this element of the plot; after all, how would we view the play if the roles were reversed and a forty-year-old white male were depicted in sexual congress (documented by photographs taken by a private eye) with a fifteen-year-old Black girl? In any event, the picture blithely glides past child sexual abuse and statutory rape issues; presumably, the African-American boy couldn’t resist the much older white woman and should count himself lucky that she offered herself to him. In any event, the boy gets beaten, (and, later, is forced to leave town when the token Black character becomes a nuisance to the plot) and the adulterous wife shoots her husband and, then, implausibly makes lemonade for herself and the wounded man who is writhing on the dining room floor. The murderous wife is put in jail but released so that she can romp around and giggle and exchange girlish confidences with her sisters -- presumably she’s out on bail. Everything is completely weightless, a world without meaningful consequences -- we know from the outset that Sissy Spacek’s character will be vindicated in somehowand that no one will come to any harm and, indeed, that the bond between the sisters will be reaffirmed in some bathetic way. At the climax, Spacek’s character tries to imitate the three sisters’ mother who hanged herself and her pet cat at some indeterminate time in the past. Once again, the play and the film lack any sense of gravity or consequence -- the suicide attempts are giddy and played for laughs. The dialogue isn’t sufficiently witty or memorable to impart any meaning to these incidents -- the girls laugh and laugh and, then, they cry some and share confidences and, then, they laugh and laugh some more and we are supposed to laugh with them and feel our hearts warmed by their sisterly affection for one another. But since everything is completely unreal, but without the charm of fantasy, the movie (and the play) is like watching strange insects in a bottle or, ,perhaps, sea monkeys in their tiny aquarium -- it’s sort of cute and vaguely interesting until it ceases to be cute and, instead, is merely dull and annoying.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Godfather II

Projected in a theater, a film image is unignorable. Similarly, the sound accompanying that image has an authority and presence that real life's acoustic muddle can't match. Even films featuring overlapping dialogue present each strand of the conversation with a clarity that actual experience can't match. We listen to a movie like Robert Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" astounded that we can decipher so many different and separate layers of speech -- it is like attending to a Bach fugue. Recently, Austin's Paramount Theater showed Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather II" on a reasonably sized screen,image-sourced from a DVD projected by the kind of apparatus that you see sometimes deployed in bars for the display of sporting events. The pictures were underlit, dim and indistinct. The sound was muddy and the dialogue mostly indecipherable. Worse, the film, as shown in the old theater,wasn't a spectacle of "son et lumiere" but rather something that could very easily be ignored. In that setting,the movie seemed remote, faded, a sort of melancholy compilation of itself and, since the auditorium was not really as dark as it should be, the movie was merely a distraction, a disconnected phenomenon occurring at the front of shadowy room... Accordingly, my comments on the film's substantive merits must be considered in the context of a screening that unfortunately disfigured the movie presented.

I haven't seen "Godfather II" in one continuous sitting for more than 30 years. I recall that the film disappointed me when I saw it as a young man: A film about a hollow man, it seemed to me slightly vacuous itself, an operatic spectacle that, despite its pretensions, rested upon a fairly arbitrary and puny theme: it's bad to assassinate people, particularly family members. These reservations were revived by my recent viewing of the picture. Certainly, "Godfather II" is massively impressive, ambitious, and ornate -- it is the "Intolerance" of gangster pictures, the distention, as it were of a low-budget, tawdry form of B-picture entertainment into a vast and expensive epic. You admire the picture far more than you enjoy it. There are several reasons for this. First, and most obviously, Al Pacino's fantastically restrained performance as Michael Corleone creates a void at the center of the movie; Pacino's "Godfather" is so emotionally strangled, so still and abstractly menacing as to impart a funereal gloom to the entire enterprise. (Certainly, Pacino's feral over-acting for Brian DePalma in "Scarface" was some sort of reaction to the strait-jacket imposed on the ordinarily exuberant actor in this film.) Pacino's Michael Corleone is filmed like a handsome Renaissance prince, but he doesn't seem to be having any fun at all. As a result, the audience's enthusiasm for the film is dampened: I understand this to be an aesthetic decision and one that must be respected, but it imparts an icy chill to the picture. (Similarly, Robert DeNiro's peformance as the young Vito Corleone in the parallel prequel story is also fantastically restrained, taciturn, understated -- even when he's murdering someone, Vito doesn't seem to be having any fun.) The second difficulty that the film poses is that Coppola imposes a foreign European aesthetic on what is essentially an rat-a-tat-tat American genre. The editing and glamorous photography slows to funereal pace a movie that is founded, at its heart, on the old Warner Brothers "school of velocity" fantasy. Gangster movies, even sophisticated ones like Scorsese's pictures, involve wish-fulfillment -- they are typically full of fast cars, tough-talking dames wandering around in silk lingerie, Tommy guns blazing at the screen, men in flashy suits flashing fat, greasy wads of money. But Coppola's masters are the great Italian directors Luchino Visconti and Bernardo Bertolucci -- these men are aristocrats of the cinema and their films are full of elegant images so self-consciously beautiful that the picture has to stop dead in its tracks to contemplate its own sheer gorgeousness. Coppola's DP,Gordon Willis adapts Bertolucci's fantastic sense for the contrast between indoors and outdoors -- both "The Conformist" (1970) and "Last Tango in Paris" (1972) contain extraordinary images of dimly lit, fashionably appointed interiors contrasted with steely ice-grey exteriors -- and designs "Godfather II's" imagery to embody those kinds of contrasts. Willis seems to be competing with Vittorio Storare, the great Italian cameraman who shot Bertolucci's films; he wants to show that he also can film on the very verge of visibility, interiors that are so dark as to show nothing but a few Rembrandt-lit rims of faces, the glint of an eye, a crucifix on the wall, contrasted with the blaze of sunlight outside or the blue, glacial white of snow surrounding the bright void of Lake Tahoe. Coppola adapts his spectacular scenes from Sergio Leone, particularly "Once upon a Time in the West" (1968) and his camera tracks relentlessly across acres of period sets crammed with carefully authentic-looking extras -- there are enormous shots of the lower East Side teeming with immigrants, riots in the slums of Havana, religious processions on Mott Street, even party scenes with hundreds, even thousands of actors. But Leone's tracking shots were usually accompanied by a swoon of music and had some kind of a point other than merely showing-off. Consider, for instance, the scene in which Claudia Cardinale gets off the train to meet her new husband in "Once upon a Time in the West" -- the camera tracks among hundreds of extras, but, then, in a breathtaking crane shot rises up above the crowd to film beyond the hissing, steaming train to show the huge landscape of the American west, the tiny town, the buttes and mesas and desert; the sense is that the actress is now a tiny figure in a huge landscape and that this exhilarating camera-effect captures her awe, her sense of insignificance, and her excitement at coming to this new place. Coppola uses a similar effect in the Ellis Island sequence in "Godfather II" -- he tracks away from little Vito moving laterally across the great floor of the Ellis Island processing center, a camera motion that shows hundreds of people of all races standing in lines and engaged in various activities. It's a wonderful shot and feels fantastically authentic -- but it's fundamentally pointless and doesn't have the soaring impact of Leone's airborne crane-shot flourish. Coppola's other master is the great Francesco Rosi, particularly his seminal Mafia picture from 1962, "Salvatore Giuliana" -- the scenes involving the congressional inquiry clearly derive from that film's trial sequences. The Italian sense of operatic imagery, ritualized camera motion, and sheer opulence (particularly noteworthy in a historical epic like Visconti's "The Leopard" from 1962)provides Coppola with his pictorial vocabulary -- and one must question whether these models are exactly suited to what is essentially a fast and dirty American genre film. These reservations aside, the film is exquisite on many levels. The pictorial design contrasting the tomb-like, tenebrous interiors and sun-dappled outside shots is so thorough-going as to be obsessive, but it results in splendid effects. In some shots, Willis contrives to have both sepulchral darkness and brightness in one frame -- I am thinking particularly of the late monochromatic sequence in which Michael interrogates the feckless Alfredo in front of a huge glass window that opens onto a grey snowy landscape: the characters are menacing black silhouettes against the snow outside the house. Further, the film's contrast between light and dark applies to entire sequences: if New York and Lake Tahoe are dimly lit interiors, Havana and Sicily are depicted as bright exterior spaces. There are many iconic and memorable lines, most famously: "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer." When the Jewish mobster, Hyman Roth refuses to lament over some murderous transaction and says: "We're men. This is the business we've chosen," the character, momentarily assumes a certain lethal grandeur. The scene in which Diane Keaton confesses have aborted Michael's son has a horrible primordial power, mostly because Pacino is so terrifyingly self-contained and silent. Coppola and Willis' compositions are masterful -- he rarely uses close-ups and most of his shots are groups of four to eight men, gathered in an ominous colloqy in a shallow dark space; these images have an enormous authority. Furthermore, the modulation between the past (prequel) and present scenes is subtle, almost Proustian, and there are exceedingly intricate thematic echoes and contrasts and reflections between the two layers of the narrative. (Coppola was going to cut all the Godfather films into one sequential narrative -- this would have been idiotic; one of the pleasures of "Godfather II" is the way that the past and present seem to merge in a kind of monumental reverie.) There is no doubt that the film is great, a kind of towering folly that presages the even more colossal insanity of "Apocalypse Now" and, perhaps, Coppola's last great film, his hallucinogenic "Dracula."

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Devil, Probably

It is probably blasphemy against the Holy Spirit of the Cinema, Robert Bresson, to suggest that the Jansenist austerities of that director’s late style are invidiously thematic. Received wisdom asserts that Bresson’s famously repetitive and emotionally disengaged style is wonderfully lucid, cogent, and, even, transcendental – the filmmaker’s vocabulary of feet crossing corridors, affectless performances, locked and unlocked thresholds and gates is said to constitute a Euclidean grammar of the sublime, quite the opposite of the squalid material that his films dramatize. But there is another reading: one might argue that Bresson’s late style is desiccated, petrified, a series of bland gestures mindlessly repeated that mummify his characters and drain the life out of them. The subject of “The Devil, Probably” is a radically disaffected youth scrupulously observed on his route to a coldly calculated suicide. But if you were confronted with a world where meaning is comprised of carefully interlocking shots of people’s ankles as they traverse floors, hands fumbling with locks, staring faces repeating their lines robotically as if by rote, belt buckles and mid-torsos, a sex scene depicted elliptically by the man reading a newspaper and the woman arriving and, then, departing through a half-locked hotel door, wouldn’t you, perhaps, out of sheer boredom consider suicide yourself? By this I mean if you “read” Bresson’s style as evidence of an alarming spiritual aridity, then, his subject matter and bizarre stylistic tics seem thematically linked. In “The Devil, Probably”, a beautiful and androgynous young man has two girlfriends, neither of which seem to excite him overmuch. At the start of the film, with some friends, he is dabbling in some kind of anarchist politics – the kind of political activity characterized by putting obscene pictures in religious books sold at the local cathedral. (Bresson is not subtle: at the Cathedral, an organist is tuning a huge Baroque instrument that issues alarming burps and hiccups as a group of angry students debate the future of religion and its irrelevance to modern society: Bresson makes the organ comment on the vapid platitudes mouthed by both sides to the discussion – he pronounces a pox on both houses, the irreligious and the glibly faithful; in his eyes, both sides are equally fraudulent.) The androgynous and doomed youth is the son of an (unseen) contractor who, apparently, ravages forests in order to erect homes in the province – in one effective scene, the kid cowers in a car, as big trees topple to the ground. We don’t see workers cutting the trees, nor are we told why the trees have to be sacrificed and the cumulative impact of the montage of inexplicably falling trees is powerful, if enigmatic – like much environmental mischief the images of the falling trees are more fascinating than the forest would be if it were preserved intact; as Antonioni found in “The Red Desert”, the problem with ecological calamity is that it is so damned picturesque. (The montage of trees collapsing into the dust reminds me of the fantastically memorable and brilliant imagery in Bresson’s later “Lancelot du Lac” of knights in their shining armor dropping into heaps of battered metal detritus.) Bresson’s heavy hand is everywhere evident in the picture: the passengers in a Parisian bus debate the course of the world and, when someone reasonably asks “Who’s driving?”, one of the disgruntled bus-riders says: “The Devil, probably.” Predictably, the bus crashes a few seconds later, throwing everyone forward in their seats, and the bus-driver hops off the vehicle and, apparently, runs away – I saw “apparently” because Bresson doesn’t show the crash or what the bus hits and the final scene in this sequence is the front door of the bus, left half-open, through the driver precipitously fled – the shot is held for a long time and we keep expecting the bus-driver to return but he doesn’t. The suicidal youth is an excellent math student, and obviously brilliant, but, needless to say, he is afflicted with a deep sense of futility – presumably because each of his classes at school features tendentious lectures by fools about the benefits of nuclear power, pedagogy intercut with shots (non sequitur, of course) of buildings destroyed by a nuclear blast. Bresson’s alleged genius isn’t much in evidence in these sequences – a nuclear power plant is not a nuclear weapon and conflating the two doesn’t add any clarity to the debate about greed and environmental catastrophe. The hero’s friend is a sleazy drug addict. When the addict suffers from withdrawal symptoms, the doomed protagonist obligingly gets him some heroin and the youths, then, camp out in a cathedral listening to Monteverdi and lying stoned in their sleeping bags on the church floor. A psychiatrist interviews the hero and the kid is so insufferably nihilistic and precociously articulate that you long for him to put a bullet through his brain. Ultimately, the kid hires his junkie buddy to shoot him in Pere Lachaise cemetery. (He gets the idea for the assisted suicide from the hapless psychiatrist who seems pretty much clueless as well – he’s previously tried drowning himself in the bathtub but found that this doesn’t work.) After being shot, the hero falls to the paving stones, the junkie administers the coup-de-grace with a second bullet through the neck and, then, runs off screen – we’re left with an empty frame. Bresson’s austerity is such that he doesn’t even show us the dead kid; the camera impassively eyes a hedge and some tombs and a roadway down which the junkie has just fled – that’s the end of the film and it is, certainly, uncompromising enough. Bresson’s films devoted to unmitigated misery tend to work more effectively when the audience has some sympathy for the doomed victim of the director’s savagely reductive mise-en-scene – in “The Devil, Probably”, the hero is totally remote, uninteresting beyond his great physical beauty, and completely unsympathetic. Thus, it is impossible to feel any sorrow at his fate. In this film, every shot is a “sign” – that is, each shot signifies some aspect of narrative. Hence, the innumerable shots of feet walking – it’s like old Mixtec and Aztec codices where travel is shown by footprints across a map. Bresson never shows you anything for the sheer pleasure of representing the world – rather, each of his images is a picture that signifies some action, a rebus, or an abbreviation of a completed act. The film is impressive, even artful, but punishing.


A noteworthy example of the post 9-11 sublime, Gareth Edward’s 120 million dollar “Godzilla” features splendid panoramas of skyscrapers collapsing into turbulent clouds of dust and swirling bluish fog. In one scene of this kind, a city -- it’s San Francisco -- dissolves into a volcanic firestorm while a vast gargoyle-creature observes from a perch on another crumbling glass tower. The story, which is laboriously complex, has no importance and the characters are stolid mannequins emblematic of valor, fortitude, fear and familial loyalty: small children frequently are the first to behold the behemoths emerging from the depths of murky CGI green-screens, a device that avoids the problem of showing an adult reaction to what is essentially a childish spectacle. (The children gaze at the monsters with loving incomprehension and fascination.) Some critics have complained that it takes this film too long to get underway, that there is too much exposition -- it is a sad thing when mainstream critics on film reveal that they, too, have developed the attention-span of hyper-active Ritalin-dependent teenagers. In fact, in pictures of this genre -- the giant monster or “kaiju” film --the anticipation of the leviathan’s appearance is generally the best part of the film, the most delicious part of the narrative. Once the big fellows appear, the picture collapses, like of one of its fragile skyscrapers, into fisticuffs between men in rubber suits, creatures flailing around with one another against a backdrop of paper-mache buildings and smoke-effects -- generally, the climaxes of films of this sort are, by definition, anti-climactic. This monstrously expensive CGI extravaganza is no exception -- the centerpiece of the last twenty minutes of the movie is two guys in rubber suits battling in a dark, unconvincing void filled with knee-high fires and explosions. All the money in the world, it seems, can’t eradicate this fundamental feature of these kinds of movies -- a fact that is, indeed, okay with this writer. The viewer is satisfied if a few minutes, even a few shots, are sufficiently beautiful and poetic in their sheer destructive frenzy to make the film worthwhile. In this case, I can recommend this movie to people who like this kind of film without reservation on the basis of one fine sequence: for reasons that are unclear, a hundred paratroopers dive into the maelstrom of the burning, monster-ravaged city from 30,000 feet -- the movie terms this a “halo-entry.” The paratroopers carry red flares and they fall like bombs, like Milton’s Lucifer, through a tempestuous sky into the vortex where the monsters, veiled in smoke and hurricanes of dust, are battling-- we see the falling flare-like paratroopers, glimpses of the monsters, seas of fire, facades falling down, all of this from a meteor-like aerial perspective. It is a wonderful scene, like a Chinese screen on which dragons are dueling in a typhoon, and scored to elegiac music that sounds like a chorus of wind-borne voices, something, perhaps, by Ligeti or Khatchaturian. (Most of the music in the movie is utterly atrocious, deafening, and redundant -- when two 600 foot beasts are battling against a backdrop of burning towers, we don’t really need dramatic movie-music to underscore the drama.) For all the money lavished on this picture, most of the CGI stuff is done is a foggy murk, bluish gloom that is profoundly unrealistic and that demonstrates that the film-makers have not solved the problem of making these monsters look even remotely realistic. When you pay your money for a film of this kind, you want to see the creatures fighting on a well-lit proscenium -- either a giant bathtub foaming with turquoise water or a card board city. I prefer the lyricism of the fake, the hokey, the unreal to the typical CGI murk in which these pictures present their fragmented and expensive special effects. And I want the rules to be followed: why doesn’t Godzilla deploy his famous radioactive breath sooner in the film.? (Although once the big guy starts using his mouth as a flame-thrower against his foes the effect is spectacular -- in one shot, Godzilla literally vomits incandescent fire down the throat of a MUTO, a Massive Unknown Terrestrial Object, causing the creature’s mantis-like head to come off in his claws.) Godzilla seems to be pulling his punches when he fights the evil creatures, probably to make the long movie even longer. Too repetitive to be truly thrilling -- the film features not one but three implausible races against the pressure-wave of a huge detonation -- a film of this sort is best appreciated silent, with the sound turned down, listening to Debussy, perhaps, as a sort of wild, disreputable poetry.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Legend of Hell House

A turreted, crenellated monstrosity, the Belasco mansion lurks in a foam of swirling mist. As a skeptical man of science, a physicist, travels to the place for a week of ghost-hunting, he announces to his beautiful young wife: “It is the Mount Everest of haunted houses.” Belasco, it seems, was a wealthy man, the so-called “roaring giant”, and a tormented psychic, played by Roddy McDowell, explains to the company of paranormal investigators that the house sponsored gatherings featuring “alcoholism, drug addiction, sadism, bestiality, cannibalism, and necrophilia.” Richard Matheson wrote the script, which is mostly awful, and John Houff directed this 1973 film: the “legend of the Belasco House,” of course, lacks panache, and so the movie is called “The Legend of Hell House.” The picture has gaudy Hammer Films production values -- it was made at Elstree Studios near London -- and most of the actors speak with plummy British accents. The sets are attractive, ill-lit gloomy baronial chambers clogged with erotic knick-knacks, sub-Courbet paintings on the wall and bedrooms with red velvet walls and mirrored ceilings. Belasco’s corpse preserved like Jeremy Bentham lurks behind some stained glass in a chapel that features a hideously gaunt crucified Christ and Bosch-style murals of hell. The dead body looks debonair and holds, incongruously, a glass of sherry in which the liquid has somehow persisted across the decades. The actresses are skinny, depraved-looking versions of Twiggy, but, when they shriek, their eyes bug out like the great, eerie scream queen, Barbara Steele. The film is awful and unintentionally funny, but, I think, it was influential in its day. Clearly, Kubrick had this movie in mind when he made “The Shining” -- both films are dominated by an elaborate set that is, at once, large and impressive and, also, claustrophobic; both movies also feature a completely pointless motif of designating the time by date, day of the week, and, even, hour and minute. (The difference is that Kubrick knew the device was meaningless and uses it surrealistically -- the effect is simply inept in “The Legend of Hell House”.) Another noteworthy innovation in this film is to foreground an aspect of earlier haunted house pictures implicit but never fully dramatized -- that is, the theme of polymorphously perverse sexuality. The ghosts in Hell House seem primarily focused on fornicating with the comely leading ladies and their male consorts. The physicist’s wife gets all hot and bothered when she opens a cabinet and discovers books on “priapism” as well as a sinister-looking box labeled “auto-eroticism”. (Who knows what horrors that box contains?) After discovering these artifacts, the woman wanders about the spook-house looking for men to seduce. Later, her husband confronts her and she weeps tragically and, of course, the audience wonders why the tight-lipped and dour physicist seems so angry -- after all, his wife in the form of a succubus seems a lot more attractive and frisky than she was before becoming possessed by the amorous spirits. (The sexual themes seems to have resonated with the team that made “Ghostbusters” -- some of the scenes with Sigourney Weaver in that film seem to parody images and situations in “Hell House.”) In sequences in which the physicist deploys a big box of electronics -- it looks like HAL 9000 from “2001” -- the movie seems to anticipate all the green-screen high-tech paranormal shows that now litter the TV wasteland: this is serious ghosthunting replete with pseudo-scientific temperature and “dynamometer” readings: “the house is a giant battery,” the physicist declares when he tries to de-energize the place with his machine and there is lots of talk about electro-magnetic fields and residual haunts. The movie isn’t really frightening. Roddy McDowell looks baffled behind mild, and bland-looking granny-glasses -- he seems pretty overtly homosexual and so the scenes involving the possessed wife’s attempts to bed him are exercises in dimwitted futility. (McDowell is wasted -- he’s silent for three-quarters of the film, traumatized by a previous encounter with the house; in the last couple reels, he gets to rant, albeit unconvincingly.) The sexual stuff is unintentionally funny and the secret behind the raging ghosts is truly risible: it turns out that the wicked Belasco became a savage and perverse necrophiliac cannibal because he was…short -- less than five feet tall. Has there ever been so much ado about nothing?

Saturday, May 17, 2014

You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet

On their single night together, Eurydice mumbles in her sleep: “It’s so difficult.” Orpheus, according to Jean Anouilh’s play, hears the words but doesn’t understand what she means. The next morning, Eurydice flees, departing on a bus for Toulon and dies in an accident on the highway. “It’s so difficult” refers to the impossibility of men and women ever fully understanding one another. This is the great and dismaying theme dramatized by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Female vanity and fickleness, male pride and jealousy and possessiveness -- these ineradicable characteristics in human nature destroy any opportunity for lasting love and happiness. Great love is immortal, the myth tells us: it persists beyond death and unto the gates of Hell itself. But it is equally true -- and the myth informs us of this as well -- that catastrophic misunderstandings between the sexes also persist and are unavoidable and afflict us even unto death and beyond the gates of Hell as well. In Alain Resnais’ 2012 “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet”, a series of phone calls inform 14 famous French actors and actresses, all of them playing themselves, that a great playwright has died. The thespians are summoned to the playwright’s mountain-top manor, a sort of Mount Olympus among the high summits of the Pyrenees or Alps. The actors are gathered in a great round room with a cloister-walk at its perimeter and a sky-band overhead. The place is a cosmos with chaotic winds blowing outside, an environment obviously stylized, like a vast theater set. The actors and actresses sit in big chairs upholstered in funereal black and an enigmatic, half-smiling psychopompus, a white-haired valet who looks like Hugh Hefner, darkens the room and shows a film on a big screen at one end of the hall. The deceased playwright appears on-screen and salutes the company and says that the three women among the mourners have all performed, at one time or another, in his drama about Eurydice and Orpheus. Similarly, the male actors have all appeared in one role or another in the play over the years. The playwright invites his friends to watch an avant-garde version of the play, rehearsals of the so-called Compagnie de la Columbe, on the screen. So the drama about Orpheus and Eurydice begins and, as the play advances, the actors in the audience begin to remember lines and commence reciting them at first, then, acting out scenes, and, finally, are absorbed into a series of stylized sets where they perform roles in the drama. This device allows Resnais to stage scenes from Anouilh’s play (or plays) with the greatest actors of his epoch, all of these men and women very old now, but playing, in their memories it seems, the parts of the young lovers. The effect is initially startling -- ancient, dignified actors playing parts written for men and women sixty years younger. Furthermore, the playwright has invited three separate male-female couples to act the title roles of Eurydice and Orpheus -- this results in some scenes being shown three times, moments of high drama repeated in differing interpretations by the actors in the Olympian palace (and, to further complicate matters, their performances doubled again by the young people in the Compagnie de la Columbe whose rehearsal of the play we are also watching in interpolated scenes on the big screen in the mansion, the movie within the movie.) The performances are powerful and the staging vivid and lucid. The repetition of important lines and scenes by different constellations of actors is coherent and swiftly, and effectively, articulated so that the redundancy in the film never becomes irritating. And, indeed, as the film progresses, the picture focuses more and more on specific sets of actors and actresses, allowing them to hold the screen in extended scenes that last five or six minutes at time. Despite the film’s complexity, it is all disconcertingly clear and lucid, almost abstract, a series of theorems and proofs relating to the differing arts of theater and film. All of the sets are obviously theatrical and, with the exception of a tiny epilogue-like sequence in a cemetery in the film’s penultimate scene, the acting and mise-en-scene are all resolutely non-naturalistic. The fundamental problem that afflicts this film is that the play by Jean Anouilh is highly poetic, static, and filled with rather vapid, ambitious and philosophical speeches. I have no doubt that the writing, which seems to me to be in the tradition of Racine, is extraordinary enough, but it seems awfully pretentious to non-French-speaking viewers. Resnais’ staging is beyond reproach, but the point of the exercise seems a bit self-indulgent -- the movie gives the old director (he died in March 2014) an opportunity to work with great and magisterial actors and actresses and lets him use them in ways that their age would not otherwise allow -- old people playing passionate young lovers. But the conceit is poetic, I think, and moving in some ways -- a tribute to play-acting and the theater that defies the fundamental human problem of time and aging. I just wish the play that affords the framework for the film was better or, at least, more congenial to Shakespeare-influenced English-speaking audiences. There is one great moment: an intertitle says “As they crossed the bridge, the ghosts came forth to meet them…” I knew that this line was hauntingly familiar -- in fact, it cites an intertitle from Murnau’s “Nosferatu.”

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Whispering Pages

Alexander Sokurov’s “Whispering Pages,” made in 1993 and financed with funds accumulated as if in a nightmare (Krupp Steel and Ruhr Coal are two companies credited), looks like no other film. This is characteristic of Sokurov’s film practice -- each of his pictures is sui generis; this is either an extraordinary feat of creativity or a curse, depending upon your perspective. “Whispering Pages” is subtitled as “derived from motifs in Russian literature of the XIXth century” and the movie looks like a daguerreotype or a mezzotint slowly dissolving in some kind of acrid, chemical fog -- indeed, one sequence of the film, literally indecipherable to my eyes, seems to show the interior of a blast furnace, an alchemical inferno with weird piston-shaped forms that appear to be generating hazes of sulfuric acid that are corroding either the surface of the viewer’s eyes or the film stock or both. (This is not merely a fantasy -- the film was, in fact, completely lost and thought to be irretrievable until a single 35 mm negative turned up somewhere in Germany; the strange, misty sepia tones of “Whispering Pages” may be attributable in part to the film’s troubled provenance.) Just about every image in the movie is astonishing and disturbing in equal measure: the opening shot depicts a colossal wall with curious appendages -- millwork or fire-escapes or ladders, who can tell? At the base of this huge, industrial wall, there is a canal full of dank water. Some birds with startling white plumage beat about in this vast cistern. A haggard young man is wandering around in subterranean galleries that seem to be bored into the base of the wall. Some thugs confront him and lift him in the air, remarking at how light he is -- “light as a feather,” someone exclaims. An old woman has been murdered and the young man seems to have something to do with the homicide. Perhaps, he fantasizes that he has killed the old woman. Everything is dull brown and grey, lightless, off-center -- there is some kind of deep well into which people plunge one after another, apparently drunkenly committing suicide. Cityscapes of desolate brick warehouses and piers shimmer in what seem to be drops of water, globular on other images of vacant brickyards and empty corridors. Things seem to be either enormous or curiously doll-like and miniature. People enter the frame from unexpected angles and there are various hellish stairwells rimmed with flimsy ascending and descending steps and filigree balustrade. A character will be filmed from a half-dozen yards behind his filthy shoulders -- then, a reverse shot will reveal the figure sitting in an alcove no more that 18 inches deep; where was the camera located? Various gloomy chambers, like niches in an underground cave, afford claustrophobic spaces where the young man confronts other characters: a bureaucrat like a figure from Gogol, a saintly young prostitute derived from Sonya in “Crime and Punishment”, poverty-stricken Jews and gypsies, a lumbering ghoulish ruffian who once again lifts the young man in his arms and, then, yanks viciously on his hair. A kind of seizure transfixes the bureaucrat and he freezes into a eerie tableaux like an image from an ancient, half-decayed newspaper and, then, the screen shows us more mist and fog, the image gradually clearing to reveal a painting by Hubert Robert that is, itself, surrealistically odd: it is another underground cavern made of towering Roman arches surrounding a lagoon where little gondolas are plying the dark waters. The prostitute tells the gaunt young man to go to the town square and pray. The young man mocks her as a whore. On the soundtrack, we hear distant snippets of Mahler, satanic laughter, fragments of quarrels and endlessly dripping and flowing water. In the city square, there is a vast forty-foot tall monument to a panther. Crowds stagger like zombies around the panther. At the end of the movie, the young man sits between the haunches of the house-high stone panther and idly tries to suck on the monument’s grape-shaped teats. More fog drifts across the image and the picture of the panther looks like an engraving by Dore. And, with this enigma, the film comes to an end.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Keeper of the Flame

An eerie war fever grips George Cukor’s 1942 propaganda thriller, “Keeper of the Flame.” A famous man has died in a thunderstorm when his car plunged from a washed-out bridge into a stony gorge. The great man was a hero of the Argonne Forest in World War One and he lives on a vast mountain-top estate in an expressionistic wilderness -- the milieu reminds me a little of the summit mansion, apparently on top of Mount Rushmore in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.” Cyclopean walls surround dead hero’s manor and there are iron bars barricading the mountain streams that rush down from the canyons below the Berchtesgarten-like aerie. The nation mourns the great man and there is a montage of newspaper headlines and flags and, then, a disquieting shot of a huge crowd of mourners standing as motionless as statues in a downpour on the wet streets of a small city. Among the mourners and their soaking umbrellas, the camera picks out Spencer Tracy, a noble and fearless journalist, who has just returned from covering the war in Europe. We see the dead man’s widow emerge from a sinister-looking church, a rail-thin spike of a woman clad all in black. A malevolent giant (Forest Tucker who was later on TV’s “F Troop”) threatens the journalist and the assembled newspapermen scheme to sneak into the estate that is now closed to them. Tracy’s character makes an alliance with a sexy, and enterprising lady newspaper writer, and they share a hotel room as they connive to get the big story. (The sexy little romance between Tracy’s character and the appealing and sexy lady reporter is abandoned once the film goes into high dudgeon.) Tracy finds a way onto the hero’s estate, enters the courtyard of the dead man’s castle -- the doors are flanked by enormous sphinxes -- and, finally, meets the great man’s enigmatic wife played by a skeletal-looking Valkyrie of a woman, Katherine Hepburn. The dead hero’s name is Forrest, but he might as well be called Charles Lindbergh or Charles Foster Kane. The imagery in the first third of the film is Gothic, startling, and monumental -- everything is bigger than life: the silent crowds of mourners are immense and the wall surrounding the estate looks like the Great Wall of China (it is built with huge ashlars) and the gorge where the dead hero died is a dark ravine spiny with jagged rock and crooked trees that looks like something out of Dante. The décor in the dead man’s palatial manor is suffocating -- Chinese idols and massive bouquets of flowers and vases the size of teenage boys poised and glistening atop ebony pedestals. It’s like “Wuthering Heights” or “Jane Eyre” crossed with “Citizen Kane”, a wild fun-house with leering male secretaries, an insane old woman, and a limping, possibly murderous gamekeeper whose small son is feverish with guilt; the little boy blames himself for the hero’s death. Around the middle of the movie, however, the pace slows and long tendentious speeches paralyze the film. The dead hero’s name is Forrest and this should remind us of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Apparently, the great man was a crypto-fascist conspiring, like Charles Lindbergh, to not only keep America out of the War, but also planning to engineer a coup based on anti-Semitism, anti-Negro sentiment, as well as anti-Catholicism. The picture dissolves into febrile hysteria, messages take over and the whole thing becomes tedious and predictable. Katherine Hepburn, lit like the Bride of Frankenstein, trades long implausibly eloquent speeches with Spencer Tracy and, then, the movie ends in an alarming spasm of violence: lightning, fire, gun shots, rescuers wielding axes, and a man run over and crushed by a speeding automobile. Tracy tells the stunned world that the great man was really a traitor. There is patriotic music, another montage of newspapers and newspaper headlines, and, then, American flags borne in parade as armed multitudes take up arms and march. On the DVD, as an extra there is a fierce and wicked Tex Avery cartoon called “Blitz Wolf” that features a jocular sign that says “No Dogs Allowed” -- the word “Dogs” is crossed out and someone has written “Japs” over its letters. “Blitz Wolf” is savage and wildly surreal -- howitzers spurt bombs like ejaculating penises and, then, go flaccid, enemy shells are deterred by pin-up girl pictures and curl up in front of trenches where the cheesecake is displayed like obedient puppies. The sky is red with fire and huge cannons blast away at the darkness -- in one sequence, bombs erase Tokyo, imagined as a little Japanese tea-garden floating in an azure sea. It’s awful stuff to behold, but more honest, I think, then the genteel war hysteria throbbing beneath Cukor’s lusciously elegant black and white images in “Keeper of the Flame”.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

This must be the Place

Probably the only mainstream movie in the last 15 years to use cigarette smoking as an emblem for both regained mental health and a happy ending, Paolo Sorrentino’s “This must be the Place” is bizarre on all levels. This 2011 picture is also an artifact of stupefying visual beauty, intermittently emotionally powerful and an oddity that amazes on account of its graphic ingenuity, weird performances, and mock-heroic themes. Sean Penn plays an aging heavy metal Goth-rock star, retired to a castle in Dublin. Penn’s outlandish appearance is one of the reasons that this film was a commercial failure in the United States -- audiences took one look at the trailer and fled from the film; I know this was my reaction when I saw the movie advertised as a “Coming Attraction.” Penn has startlingly blue eyes that are intensely sad highlighting a drooping face painted stark, clownish white. Penn wears eye-shadow and red lipstick and he has a fright-wig of scraggly black hair in a huge dark nimbus around the expressionless Kabuki-mask of his features. Penn’s character staggers around walking with a pigeon-toed arthritic gait like an elderly woman and he drags behind him a suitcase on wheels. Dressed in funereal black, Cheyenne (the name of the character) looks exactly like Shock Peter (Struwelpeter), the unfortunate hero of a series of macabre and sadistic German children’s tales -- the character is always being frozen or hacked into pieces or devoured by wild animals or stung into a bloated mass of tumors by bees. (In one scene in the film, Cheyenne stands rigid in the corner of a modern kitchen tormented by a huge goose -- a pictorial image that seems derived directly from the Struwelpeter stories; he is like a more demented and outlandish version of Edward Scissorhands.) Cheyenne talks in an inaudible high-pitched whisper, articulating his words with the puzzling clarity of a long-time drug addict; at times, he acts like Ozzie Osborne in the reality TV show -- he is childish, friendly, and constantly bemused. It seems that two of his young fans killed themselves, allegedly inspired in their suicide by Cheyenne’s music and this has caused the rock star to retire to his castle and become a sort of recluse. Either he is extremely depressed, almost to the point of catatonia, or fantastically bored and, in one startling scene set in New York with David Byrne, he confesses that he is paralyzed with guilt over the death of the two fans -- for no good reason, the scene is visually astonishing, set in an abandoned opera house where Byrne seems to be playing some kind of 120 foot long mandolin strung from the balcony to the place’s ruinous stage. It turns out that Cheyenne’s father was an orthodox Jew who was tormented by a Nazi guard in Auschwitz. When the old man dies, Cheyenne decides to hunt down his father’s lifelong nemesis, a project that compels him to embark on an extended road-trip through the American hinterland. Sorrentino is Italian and his United States is full of dwarf sheriffs, tattooed fat ladies, Nietzsche-influenced gun nuts, and enormous, empty landscapes that are almost surrealistically lovely. Parts of the film resemble Werner Herzog’s road film, “Stroszek,” a gallery of misfits and grotesques poised against vast deserts, prairies and mountain ranges. On the sound-track, we hear Sara Palin speaking and Barack Obama and David Byrne’s kindergarten-singable “This must be the Place (Naïve Melody).” The hunt for the Nazi takes Cheyenne to Bad Axe, Michigan and, then, Alamagordo where the hero chastely courts a war-widow, the granddaughter of the ancient Auschwitz guard. (Cheyenne won’t sleep with the beautiful young widow because he is happily married to Jane, his wife in Dublin played by Frances McDormand in her most plain Fargo-style demotic, a character designed for the greatest possible contrast to the depressed, zombie-like Cheyenne -- Jane is also a firefighter.) The climactic scenes in America are very strange and, probably, represent some kind of fantasy -- they don’t make sense in the context of the rest of the film. A number of critics interpret the confrontation with the superannuated Nazi as taking place on salt flats -- but this is clearly wrong: the scene is shot on a kind of barren icy tundra in high mountains and the staging is dreamlike and overtly unrealistic. Cheyenne takes a picture of the old Nazi and, then, strips him naked and makes him walk naked through the snow and the old man’s mummy-like body and dried striated flesh against the fresh-fallen snow is one of the most shocking, obscene, and remarkable things that I have seen in recent films. Is the old man dead? Where does this confrontation occur? All of this is unclear as are, to be honest, a number of other plot elements -- for instance, there is nice-looking sixty-ish woman in Dublin who we see repeatedly and who encourages Cheyenne to smoke, since people “who remain children all their lives” never pick up that habit, a comment that motivates the final “happy ending” involving Cheyenne and the fag. The woman is an important presence in the film but I have no idea who she is or what she represents. Similarly, a young woman who hangs out with Cheyenne in a Dublin coffee-shop near a huge glass building made of elliptical crystal shells seems to be Cheyenne’s daughter. But we learn that he has no children and that she is merely a fan in whom the aging rock star has taken an avuncular interest. A big dog rambles around Cheyenne’s Irish estate, its head encased in a collar like an inverted lampshade. Someone asks Cheyenne why the dog wears the contraption around its throat. “I don’t know,” Cheyenne says. “Jane takes care of the dog.” And this is indicative of any number of strange images in the film that amaze and confound, and that really aren’t ever explained. The film is not a success -- it is too willfully peculiar and too ambiguous. Many of the film’s puzzles seem to be the result of indecision on the part of the director and his screenwriter, vagueness in the conception or, even, confusion. Yet, I guarantee that you will never see anything else like this movie. The combination of elements -- Glam rock, Ozzie Osborne style befuddlement, John Ford landscapes, and Nazis -- simply should not work; the fascinating thing is that it almost does.