Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Josh Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing"

Josh Oppenheimer’s "The Act of Killing"


Wer redet heute noch von der Vernichtung der Armenier?"

"Who speaks today about the annihilation of the Armenians?"
attributed to Hitler

In August 1939, Hitler spoke about the objectives of the war that he was about to prosecute. This speech, transcribed by several witnesses, is called "the Obersalzberg Speech." Three versions of the speech are known to exist. One of them contains the quotation above-stated. The Turks, who massacred one and half million Armenians during World War One deny this genocide. Accordingly, they deny that Hitler spoke about the Armenians at Obersalzburg.

Historians differ as to the authenticity of the quote. The text citing the Armenian genocide in support of Hitler’s plans for a war of extermination in the East was first disclosed during the Nuremberg Trials in a typescript offered as evidence by an American journalist. The journalist, Louis Lochner, an Associated Press reporter, claimed that a German source had provided him with the transcript in 1942. He was unable to provide convincing information about the identity of his source and so Lochner’s version of the speech (so-called L-3) was not admitted into evidence at the War Crimes trial.

It doesn’t really matter whether Hitler said these words. The point remains the same. Everyone knew that the Armenians had been murdered en masse by the Turks in 1915. Hollywood made films about the subject – Ravished Armenia (1919) – and a German novelist, Franz Werfel, wrote a bestseller about the calamity in 1933; lurid posters supported Red Cross fundraising throughout America for Armenian refugees. But the fact that the world knew that the Armenians had been slaughtered made no difference – no one was brought to justice, no reparations were paid, nothing was done to prevent the future occurrence of similar bloodbaths.

In Language and Politics, Noam Chomsky wrote "more people are aware of the Armenian genocide during the First World War than are aware of the Indonesian genocide in 1965."



"The Act of Killing" is an immensely rich and complex documentary. But, on some level, the film is fundamentally about justice.

People raised in the United States and Western Europe during the last fifty years share a concept of international justice that was forged in the crucible of World War Two. In the popular mind, World War Two was a just war in which events followed a mythic pattern that we have been raised to regard as inevitable: unequivocally evil men somehow assumed power and committed vicious acts. The world opposed the wrongdoers and a great war was fought resulting in the total defeat of the evil power and the restoration of justice. This narrative is particularly forceful in the United States where it echoes popular understanding, at least in the North, of the Civil War – a conflict fought to end an unambiguously evil system. Martin Luther King asserts this ideology when he says: "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice..." (Temple Israel of Hollywood Speech, Feb. 25, 1965).

But what if these idealistic notions are wrong? What if the moral universe does not bend ineluctably toward justice? What if evildoers triumph and are rewarded in their evil? What if the suffering of the downtrodden is not ameliorated? This is the great problem posed by Oppenheimer’s film.



Most of The Act of Killing takes place in Medan, an Indonesian city of four million inhabitants, located on the island of North Sumatra. This is where Anwar Congo lives, the protagonist of Oppenheimer’s documentary. (The gorgeous natural locations, the plunge waterfall called Sipisopiso, and the water-filled caldera, Lake Tobu, are north of Medan in the volcanic mountains on the island.)

We know little about Indonesia. It is a huge nation, the size of the United States. It is the fourth most populous country in the world. After World War II, the people in Indonesia waged a war of insurgency against the Dutch who had colonized the country, or, at least, some of its islands – the Dutch had been earlier expelled from the archipelago by the invading Japanese. (Dutch explorers established trade routes to the Indonesian archipelago beginning in 1502 and the many of the larger islands, at least on the sea-coast were operated as plantations by the Dutch East India Company until 1800. In 1800, the country was annexed by Holland, but the Dutch never had more than a tenuous hold on the vast island nation.) In 1949, the 13, 500 islands comprising the archipelago won its independence. At that time, Indonesia was exceptionally poor – it’s standard of living was lower than India, and, therefore, a target for Communist revolution.

Indonesia’s first president was Sukarno. Sukarno navigated a middle way between the Communist party, a very strong political movement in Indonesia, the right-wing military. However, the United States, concerned about the growing Communist threat in southeast Asia, and considering full-scale war in the must smaller and less strategic Vietnam, was determined to retain control over Indonesia. Accordingly, the CIA backed the military in a coup against Sukarno led by six military commanders. The coup was a failure and the six commanders were executed and their bodies dumped in a well. But this attempted coup, on September 30, 1965, led to a counter-revolution. CIA and right-wing operatives in Indonesia proclaimed the coup was the result of Communist scheming – in fact, the aborted coup seems to have been manufactured by the United States and the generals involved. On the pretext that the Communists were about to rise in a full-scale revolution, the American State Department compiled lists of leading Communists in Indonesia and, then, supported death squads that annihilated those alleged insurgents. At that time, the Indonesia Communist party (the PK) was the largest non-Soviet-bloc Communist party in the world – far larger than the relatively tiny communist forces in Vietnam.

The United States feared that Indonesia would become a Communist regime. The nation’s geopolitical strategy at that time was "containment." Adopted during the Truman presidency, the notion of "containment" was to support nations and tribal alliances at the boundary of the Soviet Union to oppose further Communist expansion. The September 30, 1965 coup in Indonesia ultimately brought General Suharto to power, resulted in the suppression of the largest Communist party outside of the Soviet bloc, and established a military regime in Indonesia that has lasted in various incarnations until the present-day.

Erroll Morris, together with Werner Herzog, produced The Act of Killing and have vigorously promoted the film at festivals and colleges. Morris, who is a brilliant historian in his own right, has written an essay that accompanies the movie as a booklet in its DVD version. (Morris is defensive about the film – he recalls vividly that, at Telluride, where the movie had its American premiere, a prominent critic said: "After seeing this film, I know less about what happened in Indonesia than before I watched the movie.") Morris’ essay provides political and historical context for the picture. He notes that the genocide in Indonesia occurred at the same time as Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam war. Robert McNamera, and others in the Johnson administration, seem to have vaguely intuited that the destruction of the Communists in Indonesia removed the single largest domino from the field of play – that is, effectively ended any Communist threat of expansion in the strategically central Indonesian archipelago. In other words, if the "domino theory" is accepted, the slaughter of the Indonesian Communists rendered the war in Vietnam superfluous. Southeast Asia could not possibly fall to the Communists because of the Indonesian massacre. Morris quotes several news articles to this effect and observes that McNamera himself seems to have understood this implication. But Morris, also, observes that the relative ease with which the Communists were butchered in Indonesia seems to have emboldened the United States to additional measure in Vietnam – if the Communists could be defeated so readily in Indonesia, why not in Vietnam? Morris argues that the American obsession with "containment," a doctrine invented by George Kennan, led to the Indonesian genocide which, in turn, emboldened the United States to escalate its war in Vietnam. These events are all interconnected with nightmarish circular logic.

As to the American involvement in financing and supporting the terror in Indonesia, there is no doubt. Lyndon Johnson kept a private dossier on the Indonesian situation with body-counts as to Communists killed. Morris cites State Department memos and telegrams that clearly express support for the military crack-down on the Communists. CIA operatives said that the destruction of the Indonesian Communist Party was a classic, and effective, "black bag operation."




Joshua Oppenheimer was born in Austin, Texas. He is presently 39. He was born in Austin, Texas, graduated from Harvard, and has a doctoral degree from the University of Arts in London. He presently lives in Copenhagen.

Oppenheimer has made a number of films, mostly about economic injustice. In 2000, he first worked in Indonesia on a documentary called The Globalization Tapes. (This film is about oppressed workers on a coconut plantation). Some of the people that Oppenheimer interviewed for The Globalization Tapes were survivors of the 1965 massacres and, in that way, he first learned about the million Communists and ethnic Chinese killed in 1965. Oppenheimer was astounded to discover that the perpetrators of this genocide spoke openly about their role in the slaughter, were celebrated as heroes, and, indeed, led an enormous paramilitary organization, Pacasila youth, dedicated, in large part, to the memory of the death squads who had conducted the killings. Oppenheimer set out to learn more about this phenomenon and conducted interviews, meeting with many of the men implicated in the massacres.

After three years of filming interviews, many with hesitant and evasive subjects, Oppenheimer encountered Anwar Congo and his cronies. Congo was happy to justify his involvement in the killings and, indeed, as the filming progressed asked Oppenheimer to make the footage more interesting by re-staging the murders. It appears that the paramilitaries associated with Congo and his friends, particularly the Pancasila Youth group, were enthusiastic about the project and, in fact, as the work progressed the Indonesian government took an interest and also seems to have lent its forces to some large-scale re-enactments. The result is the extraordinary footage showing Indonesian death squads with tanks and jeeps fictionally destroying entire villages. The Indonesian TV and film industry seem to have been complicit with the killers, at least as the documentary progresses. This is not surprising. In 1984, the Suharto regime produced a film about the 1965 genocide, Penghianatan G30S/PKI ("The Treachery of the September 30th Movement/PKI"). That film is precursor, in some ways, the lurid imagery orchestrated by Kongo and his friends. In the government-produced film, Suharto appears as himself. The movie shows him learning to his horror that six of his comrades, higher ranking generals, have been murdered by the Communists. After much soul-searching and deliberation, Suharto decides to avenge the death of his comrades and crush the Communist insurgency. According to Errol Morris, the film ends with Suharto’s "funeral oragion at the resting site of the dead generals, pleading with the Indonesian people to carry on" the legacy of the murdered men. (In the Act of Killing, Mr. Congo and Adi Zulkadry discuss the 1984 film, Congo asserting that the movie "makes (him) feel not guilty" but Zulkadry denouncing the picture as unrealistic propaganda.)

Oppenheimer worked on his film, The Act of Killing for eleven years. He filmed sequences with Mr. Congo and his friends, particularly the ebullient side-kick, Herman Koto, over a period of seven years. Apparently, vast amount of digital footage exists – unlike filmed documentaries, movies made on digital equipment can produce virtually unlimited amounts of raw imagery. Film has to be developed, a costly process; digital images are simply stored in computers, a technological advance that is virtually free. It may be that the extraordinary material that Oppenheimer has gathered into the finished cut arises as a consequence of the enormous amount of time spent on the project – after working for many years with his principal protagonists, Oppenheimer seems to have enjoyed their complete confidence and was privy to their most intimate thoughts and emotions as to the burden of the history in which they were involved. Oppenheimer also seems to have had an unlimited amount of intriguing and grotesque footage to draw upon in editing the movie into its final form. One has the suspicion that Oppenheimer could construct another half-dozen movies on various subjects from the material that he has gathered and, indeed, during the production of The Act of Killing, the director has made several other shorter films also on Indonesian subjects.

A question that deserves consideration is this: Oppenheimer has devoted eleven years of his life to interviewing massacre survivors and the perpetrators of crimes against humanity in Indonesia -- Why? Oppenheimer is the child of Jewish academics who were also socially committed activists. His grandfather fled from Berlin in the thirties. All members of the Oppenheimer family that remained in Germany were murdered. Accordingly, Oppenheimer feels that his movie is unavoidably related to his family’s experience of the European Holocaust. Oppenheimer, however, remains something of an anathema to most Jewish critics for this reason: he has publicly stated that no one learns from history and, least of all, many Jews – after all, he said in an interview with a liberal (socialist) Jewish newspaper, "the same people who had been brutalized in Europe commenced their own program of ethnic cleansing in Palestine not more than three years after being liberated from the camps." Needless to say, such public pronouncements have been controversial and have not endeared Oppenheimer to many supporters of the Israeli state.

In some ways, another famous and great film, Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust lurks in the background to The Act of Killing. In Shoah, the destruction of the European Jews is represented as an absence, as a kind of great emptiness or void. Lanzmann shows the concentration camps as they look today – haunting, barren spaces, overgrown foundations, railroad tracks that lead nowhere. He avoids any documentary footage of the atrocities on the principle that seeing some pictures minimizes the event. Lanzmann’s point is that Holocaust is so huge and terrible, an annihilating wind of nothingness, that it can not be represented at all – his huge film is profoundly iconoclastic, a series of interviews, voice-overs, words cast into the face of an immense darkness. The Act of Killing is the anti-Shoah. Oppenheimer reverses Lanzmann’s strategies: his film is about the perpetrators, all of them prosperous, respected members of their communities. The victims are without voice in the film. Shoah refused to re-enact or, even, depict, crimes. The Act of Killing gradually becomes nothing more than a montage of re-enactments. Shoah defamiliarizes and asserts the singularity of the event; The Act of Killing shows mass murderers trying to normalize their crimes by construing them within the conventions of mediocre genre films. Shoah is austere; The Act of Killing is gaudy, cheap, meretricious. There are different ways to approach material of this kind. But the comparison is not without merit: after Shoah and Night and Fog, The Act of Killing is the greatest film ever made about mass murder.




The Act of Killing is an epic for an age obsessed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The film proposes that entire societies, whole nations, can be afflicted with PTSD. Of course, a valid question can be posed: can there be post-traumatic stress when the originally traumatic event was not perceived in those terms – that is as "traumatic" – to the men perpetrating the atrocities. But, perhaps, the etiology of PTSD lies precisely in the failure of the perpetrators to acknowledge their atrocities.

After the tsunami scoured the shores of northern Japan, a disquieting phenomenon manifested itself. Hundreds of ghosts appeared to haunt the living. The people said that the most disturbing ghosts were small, bedraggled children searching for their parents and endlessly crying out to their mothers. Many corpses were never recovered and this resulted in the ghost-infestation. Both Buddhist and Shinto priests had to be retained to exorcize the phantoms. Japan is a modern, technological society, but most Japanese believe in ghosts. To the people on wave-ravaged coast, the ghosts weren’t imaginary or metaphoric or symbolic of anything – they were simply objective inconveniences like the shattered roads and the tainted water.

How do you lay to rest an angry or confused ghost? In psychoanalytical terms, what can a therapist do to dissolve the ghostly manifestations of trauma, the flashbacks, the sudden and catastrophic resurgence of repressed memories? An answer lies in the related concepts of catharsis and abreaction.

Let’s consider abreaction first. Freud coined the term (abreagerien) in 1893 and used it with respect to therapy that he provided to patients categorized as suffering from hysteria. The great female hysterics of Victorian era were like opera divas, consummate actresses who converted their sexual repression into bizarre and impressive symptoms – blindness, for instance, paralysis, fits of weeping, sexual mania, masochism. Freud asserted that by forcing his patients to talk about their traumas, almost entirely sexual in character (real or imagined rapes), the victims would abreact – that is, experience the emotions of their trauma afresh and be inoculated against future hysteria arising from the suppression of those emotions. In some respects, The Act of Killing is devised as a cinematic abreaction of the emotional energy suppressed by Indonesian society traumatized by mass murder. When Mr. Congo sees himself tortured on screen, a process of abreaction is triggered resulting in the terrifying final sequence in the handbag shop where the murders occurred. "Murder will out" – Congo tries to violently expel his memories of murder from his body

A related concept is catharsis. Plato thought that catharsis was a therapy by which diseases of the soul were exposed and extruded so that they could be overcome. Aristotle applied this notion to tragedy – tragedy induced strong feelings of terror and pity so that these emotions can be controlled and, even, experienced as pleasureable. Catharsis arises from the representation of tragic events. Congo and his friends are obsessed with recreating, albeit in different film genres, the murders that that they committed. The reproduce the murders as part of a film noir gangster picture, as a Western, even as a movie musical – that is, they re-present the killings in the style of the movies that they enjoyed when they were young men. (It must be remembered that Congo and his cronies began as small-time thugs and gangsters – their first criminal enterprise was scalping black-market movie tickets in front of a theater. This movie-house was across the street from the storefront where the paramilitary committed the "thousand" murders for which Kongo takes credit). At first, Congo recreates the murders for purely documentary purposes – he wants to show his garrotting technique. But as the film proceeds, the representation of the murders in the context of elaborate and stylized film genres seems to become an end in itself. In the hallucinatory last third of the film, depiction of the murders overwhelms any pretense at documentation – the representation of the act of killing absorbs everything into it; the act of killing as cinematically depicted takes over the entire film, creating a dream-like and visionary phantasmagoria in which the boundaries of past and present dissolve, just as the movie erases gradually the distinction between sober documentary and hallucinated fantasy. As the film descends into a surreal reverie in which everything refers to mass murder, the repressed subject matter returns with a vengeance – the memory that was suppressed now takes over the entire world of the film. A subject that was once taboo becomes the only thing anyone can talk about.

The Act of Killing is a decisive film in Indonesian history. It represents the "return of the repressed" in the culture of that country. Although the film is, more or less, forbidden in Indonesia – it is mostly screened in clandestine showing on college campuses -- everyone knows about it. The thing that could not be discussed is now on everyone’s lips.

Joshua Oppenheimer is a persona non grata in Indonesia. He has been threatened with libel suits by most of the people identified in the film, including the formidable Yapto Soejosoemarno, the leader of the paramilitary Pancasila Youth. Oppenheimer received a Tweet from Indonesia after the premier of his film – "if he comes to Indonesia, the name of the movie will be The Act of Being Killed." Oppenheimer has said that he doesn’t intend to travel to the country in the future.



The Act of Killing is a big film, complex, with many scenes and a broad perspective. Because of the film’s ambition, the picture is sometimes compared to Shakespeare’s "theater of the world," his "poem unlimited." In his essay on the movie, Errol Morris invokes Hamlet, specifically the part of that play in which the hero reconfigures an old tragedy, The Murder of Gonzaga, into The Mousetrap for presentation at the royal court. Hamlet inserts lines into the play within the play to see if he can catch "the conscience of the king" – the idea parallels the principal action in The Act of Killing: the reenactment of a murder to see what effects that performance has on the perpetrators of that murder. Morris points out that Hamlet’s objectives in staging The Murder of Gonzaga as a play within a play are obscure: is he trying to verify a suspicion? Force a confession? Or instill rebellion in other members of the Court? Or does he have some other motive entirely? The same questions might be raised about the historical re-enactments staged by the killers in Oppenheimer’s film. Indeed, Oppenheimer’s movie raises even more difficult issues: after all, Hamlet was not the murderer, but merely someone suspecting that a crime had occurred; in The Act of Killing, the garish re-enactments are contrived entirely by the perpetrators. Are they trying to justify themselves? If so, why do they adopt movie musicals, tawdry horror movies, and B-picture gangster films as the vehicle of their justification?

Shakespeare presents many variants on the theme of hidden crime and punishment. Another parallel suggests itself. The re-enactments designed by Mr. Congo and his cronies are, perhaps, advanced as some sort of justification for the men’s crimes, but the project backfires – what happens seems more like the revenge of an angry, unsatisfied ghost, the return of the mutilated Banquo to the feast that Macbeth has hosted. Congo and the other members of the paramilitaries are prosperous, happy, beloved, it seems...but, there is a specter at their banquet. And the return of the murdered man to the festivities signifies the triumph of the conscience: Macbeth can’t convince himself that what he has done is just or, even, warranted. The emblem of his guilty conscience is the apparition. Similarly, The Act of Killing evolves from documentary into a bizarre fantasy – the more peculiar and outlandish the imagery, the more apparent, it seems, that something is terribly wrong, that there is an army of corpses attending upon Mr. Congo and his friends.

Another reference occurs to me: Woody Allen’s 1989 comedy-drama Crimes and Misdemeanors. In that film, a prosperous opthalmalogist, Judah, has an affair with an airline stewardess. The doctor is happily married and, when the stewardess tries to blackmail him, he hires a mobster to kill the woman. After the stewardess has been murdered, the eye-doctor has to retrieve his private effects from her apartment. There Judah sees her bloody corpse, becomes terrified, and believes that a just God will punish him for his crime. But nothing happens. A drifter is accused the murder and imprisoned. Judah finds that he is able to forget about the crime that he has committed. He awaits some sort of retribution but nothing bad happens to him. His wife loves him, his children are successful, his practice flourishes and he is admired by all. At a wedding, the doctor meets a friend who is a film-maker. Judah tells the film-maker that he has an idea about a man who has committed a murder, but not been punished for the crime:

And after the awful deed is done, he finds that he’s plagued by deep-rooted guilt. Little sparks of his religious background, which he’d rejected, are suddenly stirred up. He hears his father’s voice. He imagines that God is watching his every move. Suddenly, it’s not an empty universe at all, but a just and moral one, and he’s violated it. Now, he’s panic-stricken. He’s on the verge of mental collapse, an inch away from confessing the whole thing to the police. And then one morning, he awakens. The crisis has lifted. He takes his family on vacation to Europe and as the months pass, he finds he’s not punished. In fact, he prospers. The killing gets attributed to another person – a drifter who has a number of other murders to his credit, so I mean, what the hell? One more doesn’t even matter. Now, he’s scott-free. His life is completely back to normal. Back to his protected world of wealth and privilege.

Film maker:
But now his worst fears are realized.

Well, I said it’s a chilling story.

Film maker:
I mean in the absence of a God, or something, he’s forced to assume the responsibility himself. Then, you have a tragedy.

But that’s fiction, that’s movies. You see too many movies. I’m talking about reality. I mean, if you want a happy ending, you should see a Hollywood movie.



Why should you care about something that happened in Indonesia almost fifty years ago?

In the film’s most famous shot, six show-girls wearing pink-flamingo-colored garments dance on a suspended walkway that leads into the mouth of an enormous metal fish. A fat man wearing a similarly neon-pink satin dress gestures at Mr. Congo. Mr. Congo is clad in a tuxedo with cane and tophat. The landscape in which this strange scene takes place is unbelievably beautiful and lush, a green slope overlooking a brilliantly blue lake.

On the commentary track, Werner Herzog, one of the producers of the film, observes that this lake is the place where human history almost came to an end. The expanse of water shown in the movie is Lake Toba, one of the largest caldera-lakes in the world. The blue water cradled among the high, lushly forested cliffs rests in the crater of a vast volcano that may, or may not, be dormant.

Between 66,000 and 70,000 years ago, Mount Toba erupted. The eruption was so explosive that a plume of dust veiled the earth and created climate change, a winter that lasted six years. Some anthropologists believe that this climate change wiped out almost all hominids living in Africa – in other words, strangled off most of the human race in its cradle. Only a tiny number of people survived this event, possibly four or five family bands. All modern human beings trace their lineage to the survivors of the six-year winter caused by Mount Toba’s eruption. (Herzog retails this story in the commentary track on the DVD; as with most things Herzog says, his account has to be taken with grain of salt – many anthropologists note that there is insufficient evidence of climate change in East Africa to believe that the Toba event created the bottleneck in human prehistory.)

There are innumerable volcanoes in Indonesia and many of them erupt from time to time. Indonesia is also the largest Muslim country in the world. One day, perhaps, it will erupt with dire consequences to the rest of us.



Pemuda Pancasila – The Pancasila Youth paramilitary club, said to number 3,000,000 members in Indonesia. Werner Herzog, in a wry aside on the commentary track, observes that the Pemuda Pancasila members run around in camouflage outfits that are bright orange – thereby, wholly defeating the purpose of the camouflage pattern.

Pancasila: These are the five (panca) principles (sila), adopted by Sukarno in 1949 as the basis for the modern Indonesian state. The principles are;

– Divinity of one supreme God;

– Just and civilized humanity;

– Unity of all Indonesia;

– Representative democracy;

– Social justice for all.

These principles have come under attack recently from Islamic fundamentalist. The Indonesian word for God ("tuhan") differs from the Arabic word, "Allah" and some Mullahs have preached that good Muslims can not subscribe to these guiding tenets since they don’t properly name the divinity.



1. Who is the leader of the Pancasila Youth?

(A) Herman Koto (B) Yapto Soejosoemarno (D) Adi Sulkadry (E) Mustapha Kento

2. In Dutch, what does the word "gangster" mean?

3. In Indonesia, The Act of Killing is called "Jagal" ("anonymous"). Why does that film have that name?

4. Huddie Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly, recorded this popular tune in 1940. It has also been covered by Harry Dean Stanton, Rose Marie on the Dick Van Dyke Show, Johnny Cash, Johnny Matthis, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Pogues, and Elvis Presley. Name that tune?

5. What American politician came to Indonesia two years after the mass slaughter of the Communists and remained in the country until 1971?

6. Who is Lolo Soetero?

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Clock (at the Walker Art Center)

Like many works of experimental art, Christian Marclay's 24-hour long film, "The Clock," is based on a gimmick,.  But, in the case of "The Clock" (2010), the gimmick is ingenious, simple, and, even, profound.  Here is the concept:  "The Clock" is an anthology of film clips, seamlessly edited together, and featuring innumerable shots that show timepieces.  The anthology is 24 hours long and projected so that the time displayed on the screen is the same time experienced by the audience.  If a harried mobster consults his watch and the camera shows the time as 10:45, an audience member looking at his or her cellphone would see the exact same time displayed on the phone's screen.  The effect is startling:  the coincidence between the real time experienced by the audience as measured by their timepieces and the images of clocks and watches (and snippets of dialogue:  "It's about 11:00") projected on the screen dramatizes the passage of time -- somehow, the film makes time's steady march seems suspenseful, even, melodramatic.  As you watch the film, you experience time as a remorseless machine, an infernal device that manifests itself through sullen waiting, synchronized watches, being either too late or too early, a variety of small suspenseful micro-narratives:  will we reach the airport on time?  when does the burglary or heist begin?  how long can we tarry at this place?  What is this meaning of the silent man standing on the sidewalk and gazing, as if hypnotized, at the clock on the building across the street?  I attended the film at the Walker Art Center between 10:35 and 11:40 in the morning.  The movie is shown in a darkened room with big, comfortable sofas arranged in rows.  The showing in which I participated (and, for some reason, the viewers have a sense of participation in the film) was part of the Minnesota premiere of the picture, a 24 hour screening that had began at 5:00 pm the preceding evening and was scheduled to conclude at 5:00 pm on that Sunday afternoon.  The movie is brilliantly edited and, about a third of the shots don't involve clocks or timepieces or dialogue about time -- these images knit the shots featuring clocks together and provide tiny and surreal mini-narratives:  Angie Dickinson is planning to go to the museum, but first she must see her doctor, Michael Caine (Brian DePalma's "Dressed to Kill").  The doctor hears a sound and looks out the window:  the film cuts to a shot of a train-station.  Some people are looking up at a big clock that displays the time.  One of the people takes a call on her cell-phone.  We see a man in black and white film stock standing in a phone booth, nervously looking at his watch and grimacing. The next black and white image shows a warden waiting for a call on a phone.  Cut to shots of people preparing for an execution in a prison's gas chamber.  A priest reads the Bible.  Cut to a funeral procession of men and women solemnly carrying a casket from an old church, the procession marching across a courtyard under a large clock that tells.us the time.  Sometimes, the footage is arranged to simulate narratives between the different films sampled to make the mix -- eyelines are matched between different movies:  a man racing to get to the train-station ends up, instead, in an airport where we see planes taking off and landing according to schedules shown on big screens that display the time.  In other cases, the soundtrack overlaps between scenes to create the illusion of continuity.  A country-western singer croons "Always late with your kisses..." while the camera slowly tracks away from a huge close-up of a man's sinister eyes, then, a shot of a dangling crucifix, birds fluttering into the air, then, a corpse with a clock visible in the background of the morgue.  A young Johnny Cash with a wolf-man haircut threatens a woman and says that he will kill her in ten minutes if his demands -- which we aren't shown -- have not been met.  We see Marlon Brando arguing with Sophia Loren about her eating breakfast too slowly; Adam Sandler says that there's still time to get breakfast at McDonald's; Stan Laurel marches toward the camera in a 1930's hospital, with the time displayed over his shoulder, then, we see Johnny Cash again threatening the woman with his gun, the hostage's husband bellowing something over the phone while a clock is ticking behind him.  On the evidence of the film, the period of time between 10:35 and 11:40 involves lots of people rising late from bed with hangovers, men and women concerned that they have overslept, lovers cuddling in the morning sunshine, lots of people rushing to airports and train-stations, a church service conducted in Swedish (from Bergman's "Winter Light"), Susan Hayward being executed in the gas chamber with elaborate preparations intercut with images of Japanese businessmen conferring under a huge abstract clock, a sick woman languishing in a hospital bed, some gangsters synchronizing their watches in preparation for a big heist, then, the gas chamber again, the film remorselessly returning to that event.  The picture induces a weird sensation of urgency in the audience -- people are always anxiously looking at their watches and Big Ben, probably the most photographed landmark in all of cinema, hovers over many of the streets, long vistas of pedestrians and traffic that always seem to be menaced by a ticking time-bomb, an explosion set to go off at some specific but unknown time.  Since the viewer recognizes many of the clips, you watch the picture with a curious sense of deja vu -- we have been  in this moment of time before.  We have seen how this comes out.   I suspect that the film would be impossible to watch after a couple of hours, but it certainly held my attention for the 65 minutes that I attended the showing.  Movies that I recognized that were "sampled" by "The Clock" were TV episodes of Columbo, "The Innocents," "Bad Santa," "L'Avventura," Tarkovsky's "Solaris" (Shots of traffic on the Moscow freeways),  "High Noon" (of course), Kris Kristoffferson as Billy the Kid in Sam Peckinpah's Western, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, "Il Divo," "Sid and Nancy", "The Breakfast Club", "Berlin Alexanderplatz."  In one scene, Peter Fonda rips off his watch and pitches it into the dust.  The dropped timepiece shows us that it is 11:38 -- this is a scene from "Easy Rider".  A man shouts at other men, hysterically crying out:  "You're just sitting here uselessly as your lives are ticking away...." A beautiful woman who has risen late from her bed of love is luxuriating in her bath.  A corpse that has just been autopsied rests on a slab.  Too late...or too early:  this is the human condition. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

On Dangerous Ground

Three cops are preparing for night-shift work in a big city.  The first cop is homely and middle-aged.  he looks weary.  We see his wife lovingly strap his service revolver to his torso.  Cut to the second cop -- this guy is older, close to retirement age, and he is watching cowboys and Indians battling on a tiny TV with a screen shaped like an ibuprofen tablet.  The old cop is surrounded by disheveled, raggedy-looking kids.  Wearily, he rises, turns from the TV set, and his haggard-looking wife hands him his gun.  The third cop is alone in a small, Spartan apartment and his gun is already secured against his belly.  He is eating a meager meal.  When he is finished, this cop, played by Robert Ryan, scrapes the leftovers into a little garbage bucket by his desk.  Later, Ryan's character, a detective, Jim Wilson cries out that being a police officer is like working as a garbage-man.  This is the start of Nicholas Ray's film noir "On Dangerous Ground" (1951), an introductory sequence that illustrates that the director works at a brisk pace, crams as much information as possible into every scene (and, indeed, every frame) and that subtlety is not one of his strong points.  A cop-killer is at large in a nightmarish city, a place visualized as one interminable avenue, a greasy black road wild with reflections in puddles and beset at intersections with lurid signs for juke-joints and pawn-shops.  The city is squalid, without tall buildings, the roadway lined by squat tenements and taverns.  Jim Wilson is a specialist in torture.  Other cops look the other way when he beats information out of the grotesque villains that he encounters.  In a dirty apartment, a gun-moll licks her lips lasciviously, looking forward to torture at the hands of the hero.  He raises his hand to strike her and, then,  Ray cuts to the night-town avenue, the dirty alleyways, Bernard Hermann's score screaming at the audience, all throbbing tom-toms, shrieking violins, blatting trombones and French horns.  (The score is pure expressionistic hysteria -- a howl of urgent despair, very similar to Hermann's work on "Taxi Driver" twenty-five years later.)  Another bad-guy is cornered in his apartment.  His face is avid and his eyes glitter with lurid desire as he invites Wilson to torture him -- "Why?  Why do you make me do it?" the cop bellows as he approaches the cowering criminal.  Wilson is clearly on the edge of a nervous break-down and his boss, the police chief, says that he has become nothing more than a "gangster with a badge."  The other cops seem afraid of his violence and counsel Wilson that he should consider getting into another line of work.  After the female informant is killed in reprisal for her talking to Wilson, the rogue cop is sent into the country with instructions to work on a murder case in a little village high in the mountains.  Ray's scenario exchanges one hell for another.  The village in the mountains sits on Tibetan plateau covered with grey snow and ice and ringed by huge spectral summits.  The town is a shabby collection of shacks with mud streets, a place that seems almost completely uninhabitable.  It's always snowing and, at higher elevations, there are forests filled with more snow, drifts blocking roads and paths -- this is one of the coldest-looking movies ever made.  A killer is at large in this wilderness, a retarded boy who has murdered a little girl.  Ryan is drawn into the manhunt with the child's father, an enraged and vengeful Ward Bond, the man toting a huge shotgun and promising to shoot the teenage killer in the belly and leave him to bleed to death.  There are some chases through the icy mud and snow and, after climbing through a frigid forest, Wilson and the father find themselves at a huge square manor house, the kind of place where the young Citizen Kane once played with his sled Rosebud.  (The movie was shot in the Colorado Rockies at high elevation near Leadville.)  A blind woman played by Ida Lupino lives in the big house, seemingly all alone, although quickly enough we discover that she is sheltering the murderer, her mentally ill little brother.  Wilson sympathizes with feisty and kind blind woman's plight and promises to protect her brother from vigilante violence.  But there are more chases and the boy scales a peculiar heap of fractured rock in an attempt to escape, slips on the ice and falls to his death.  Ward Bond is suddenly grief-stricken when he sees that the killer is "just a kid" and he carries the boy's corpse across the frozen meadows to the blind woman's house.  Everything is tense as a coiled spring and the 88 minute films is crammed with savage incidents.  Ray seems to want to put as much as possible into every scene.  Sometimes this strategy works -- he piles up bits of acting business, strange panoramas of black and white desolation, unsettling reaction shots, and cryptic dialogue, a bebop Jackson Pollock frieze of emotion and imagery that seems almost too much to comprehend.  (One scene demonstrates Ray's crazy profligacy:  Wilson is getting dressed-down by his tough boss, the police chief.. This is a standard film noir and genre scene, something you find in every cop movie.  But Ray stages the scene not in the police chief's office but in a big downtown restaurant with stained glass windows, something like the old Berghof in Chicago, and the boss shouts at Wilson while simultaneously eating his way through vast amounts of food, ordering waiters around, and making non sequitur comments about how delicious the vegetables are -- between barking threats and insults at Wilson, the police chief, like a good Jewish mother, keeps begging the copper to share a plate with him.  The whole thing is utterly bizarre -- too much "too much", a surfeit of activity for a sequence that really has little or nothing to do with the plot:  it's merely a way to get Wilson out of hell-city and up to hell-plateau.)   The movie doesn't have much of a story, just a set of parallels between the big city and remote mountain wilderness -- both places involve murders, questionable police tactics, and Ida Lupino even suggests, albeit indirectly, that Wilson might consider "roughing her up" to get the data that he needs -- like the other two victims of Wilson's gestapo tactics she says something to the effect of "I'm sure you'll get it out of me."  Of course, the kind and brave blind girl turns out to be the rogue cop's salvation and the movie's last ten minutes are moistly sentimental -- huge close-ups, images of the couple wandering through obviously rear-projected woods, the ring of mountains shot day-for-night and hovering above the plateau like huge ghosts.  It's kitsch but fairly effective.  The film is frantic in all respects and a good demonstration of Ray's scurrilous, energetic style, technique that transforms garbage into something approaching art. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

In Flannery O'Connor's macabre short story, "A Good Man is Hard to Find", a mass murderer called the Misfit butchers a squabbling family of irritating white trash.  After killing the matriarch of the family, the murderer sardonically observes that the dead granny "would have been a good woman if there had been somebody to shoot her every day of her life."  Tom Cruise's science fiction picture "Edge of Tomorrow" (Doug Liman, 2014) dramatizes the Misfit's bizarre slogan.  Cruise plays a cowardly and egotistical military officer, an advertising executive recruited to serve in a war against nasty extraterrestrial aliens who have captured all of Europe.  For reasons that film never makes clear, Cruise's pusillanimous officer finds himself embedded with a group of hardened combat veterans dropped D-Day style onto the French beaches to battle the beasties that have occupied the continent.  The aliens are ready for the assault and they massacre the attacking humans in a large-scale, spectacular battle scene that is far and away the best thing in the movie.  Within the first ten minutes, Tom Cruise is killed in combat.  Just as we are heaving a sigh of relief, Cruise comes back to life, the film looping back to its opening frames when we first saw our hero arriving in London for a colloquy with a gruff general that results in him being sent to the front again, once more humiliated by the other members of his platoon, dropped again out of the sky in robot-combat armor onto the beach only to die ignominiously once more.  After a short fade-to-black, Cruise is back in London, back in basic training, back on the beach again, where he manages to survive for an additional minute or so before the aliens kill him again.  And so the film continues, the first movie that I have ever seen that adopts as its structural principle the experience of playing obsessively a difficult and gory first-person shooter.  As in a computer game, each time Cruise's character dies, he immediately revives, recalls his past lives, and just as a gamer improves his skills with repetition, so the hero of "Edge of Tomorrow" gets slightly better with each iteration of the same situation, more agile, his aim improved with the BFG weapons that he wields and his running, ducking and jumping across the lethal beachhead better and better until he can avoid enough perils to participate in a kind of rudimentary plot.  Just as in Doom, or any other first-person shooter, it seems that if you are willing to "die" enough times, you can gradually learn the terrain, the weaknesses of your enemies, discover hiding places, and ambush sites from which to enfilade monsters, and gradually make your progress across the computer- (or in this case) film-labyrinth cohere into a quest, a narrative.  The film is unique in the way that it is constructed and the experience of the audience is a cinema analog to playing a computer game.  For the first forty minutes, "Edge of Tomorrow" is good, trashy fun -- it's great to see Tom Cruise thrashed to death by monsters, blown to pieces, squashed by passing trucks, falling to his death or lit on fire, or in a dozen cases so badly wounded that the female action hero -- a tough GI-Jane -- aims a pistol between the injured man's eyes, tells him to "try again", and blows his head off.  In the course of the film, Cruise is probably minced, sliced, diced a hundred times and some of the iterations of the situation are telegraphed to us in one or two three second shots -- Cruise in the helicopter about to be dropped onto the beach, for instance, a fire-ball, then, the hero neatly sidestepping the monster that killed him in the last round only to have falling debris crash into him like meteorite a second or two later.  In a weird way, it's actually comical.  The battle scenes are shot in bright light with thousands soldiers advancing through great tapestries of explosions and fire and the invasion is staged to look like Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan;" certainly, it can't be accidental that the film opened on the weekend that was 70th anniversary of D-Day -- the entire invasion and advance across the deadly beach is shot as if to parody that historical event and the sanctimonious movie about that battle.  This is "Saving Private Ryan," but from spindly metal tumbleweeds equipped with flailing tentacles and lion jaws -- that is, the aliens who bubble up out of the earth, look like insectoid bramble brushes and slash soldiers to death with their flailing tentacles.  As the movie lengthens, it develops a plot that is idiotic: something to do with time-travel and alien blood and a big orb-monster hiding in the basement of the Louvre of all places.  The more plot the film develops the weaker it becomes -- the movie's strength are the combat scenes which have some of the hysterical frenzy of the bug-battles in Starship Troopers, although lacking the almost comical gore in that film.   Cruise becomes increasingly, and more conventionally, heroic and, of course, has to save mankind -- the deterioration of his snarky self-absorbed PR man hero into a standard-issue action hero is one of the disappointments of the picture. The movie's climax in the watery bowels of the French art museum is another blue-screen extravaganza, a hurricane of murky explosions, darkness, and only half-seen creature effects -- it's the standard big-budget cop-out: CGI effects that don't really work, aren't convincing and so have to be buried in infernal gloom.  I don't understand how a movie that begins with such elegant, terrifying, and brilliantly visualized battle scenes can devolve into typical CGI fog -- it's as if the budget ran out 20 minutes before the movie ends and so the climax has to be staged in blurry darkness.   But here's my confession -- this isn't a terrible movie.  It's not a rip-off and the dim-witted plot is no more stupid than the plot of any other first-person shooter -- a rough-tough Duke Nuke'em has to navigate his way through an infernal obstacle course, dies a thousand times, but, finally, beats the horrific end-boss and wins the prize.  If you like first-person shooters, the film is pretty much irresistible and it achieves from a time to time a kind of morbid grandeur.  Tom Cruise is starting to show his age and, after dying a hundred times -- a score of deaths at the hands of his woman-warrior sidekick when he's been badly wounded -- the actor's face looks craggy, his eyes dull, and he displays a convincing "thousand yard stare," the look of a badly traumatized combat-veteran that is even a bit poignant.  The actor is growing into a grizzled and damaged old man, something that is all to the good.   

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Withnail and I (film group essay)

"They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworth’s. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over."
Danny, the drugdealer in Withnail and I

"We live in a kingdom of rain...where royalty comes in gangs. Come on, lads. Let’s get home. The sky is beginning to bruise."

Uncle Monty in Withnail and I

Bruce Robinson’s 1987 Withnail and I is a cult film in Great Britain. Fans of the film demand that the National Trust acquire properties where scenes in the movie were shot. (The National Trust attempted to purchase the cottage featured in the movie in 2009 as a place of historical significance – the price was too high and the place is now a Bed and Breakfast catering to Withnail fans.) Admirers memorize the dialogue and can recite much of the movie by heart. In the UK, the film is used as the media "platform" for a drinking game. Every time, Withnail consumes an alcoholic beverage, the participants in the game are supposed to drink down a similar decoction. When Withnail drinks lighter fluid, players substitute overproof Rum. Participation in the game is not advisable. In the film, Withnail swallows:

9 and ½ glasses red wine

½ pint cider

1 shot of lighter fluid

2 and ½ shots of gin

6 glasses of sherry

13 glasses of whiskey

½ pint of ale

Bruce Robinson

Bruce Robinson is an Englishman born in 1946. Blessed with stunning good looks as a young man, he performed in several important films. He had a role (Benvolio) in Franco Zeffrelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968), worked with Francois Truffaut in The Story of Adele H. (1975) and performed in Ken Russell’s lurid The Music Lovers (1968).

In 1984, Robinson wrote the script for Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields. At that time, he was working primarily as a screenwriter and novelist. Withnail and I was his first film and is largely autobiographical. Although the film was a failure at the box-office, Withnail and I was well-reviewed and Robinson went on to make another picture with George Harrison’s Handmade Films, How to get ahead in Advertising (1989). This film is a surreal black comedy that also confused audiences but impressed many critics. (How to get ahead in Advertising is about a advertising executive who suffers a psychotic breakdown; a boil on his shoulder turns into a talking head –" a head" – that advises as to how he should advance his career). Invited to Hollywood, Robinson directed a crime film in 1992 Jennifer 8. The movie was a complete failure and, in fact, was not released in the UK – it went straight to video. Robinson was so disturbed by the experience that he left Los Angeles and vowed that he would never work there again.

In the latter part of the nineties, Robinson returned to fiction and screenwriting. He wrote Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) with Roland Joffe, a dramatic film starring Paul Newman about the Manhattan Project and Neil Jordan’s In Dreams (1999). By the first decade of the 21st century, Robinson’s Withnail and I had attained legendary status as a cult film in the British Isles and, for years, had been one of the bestselling movies on home video. A new generation of fans were impressed by the film and one of them was Johnny Depp. Depp agreed to produce a film version of The Rum Diary, an account of spectacular alcoholism in Puerto Rico based on the writing of Hunter S. Thompson. Robinson had lost years of productivity to booze – he acknowledges that he is a "chronic alcoholic" – but had been sober for six and a half years when Depp’s production company hired him to direct the film. Depp was hoping that lightning would strike twice and that The Rum Diary would be an indelible cult film similar to Withnail and I. Robinson who was then in his early sixties suffered from a writer’s block and couldn’t mold Thompson’s chaotic prose into a meaningful form. He began drinking heavily again and, in fact, many of the alcohol sequences in the movie are not staged – Robinson and Depp got drunk together and, then, the camera would record the actor’s antics. After the film was released, to tepid reviews, Robinson quit drinking again and has remained sober since that time.

Robinson continues to write novels, short stories, and children’s books. He is a sad figure in the history of film, a promising director who made one great movie and whose career has been blighted by alcoholism.


In the late sixties, Bruce Robinson was often unemployed, living in squalor, with his friend, an actor named Vivian Mackerrel. Robinson finished a novel about this existence in 1969. Publishers weren’t interested in the book but it circulated among Robinson’s friends and associates in manuscript form. Another actor friend gave a copy of the book to a wealthy young man, the heir to an oil fortune. This young man subsidized Robinson’s work rewriting the autobiographical novel into the screenplay from which Withnail and I was produced. Robinson took about five years of desultory work revising his book into the screenplay. Someone associated with George Harrison’s HandMade Films, a production group most well-known for Terry Gilliam’s early movies, read the screenplay and approved the picture for production. (HandMade Films was founded by Harrison and Denis O’Brien to fund the Monty Python picture The Life of Brian).

HandMade Films conceived of the movie as a rowdy comedy, a sort of British Animal House and was distressed by the first few weeks of shooting. The production supervisor observed that the movie was "underlit" and that there was very little comedy in evidence – "where are the gags?" the production supervisor asked. Robinson’s conception of the film was always somewhat dark; the movie was to be a farce-tragedy. Indeed, at the end of the original screenplay, Withnail fills a gun-barrel with wine, Uncle Monty’s Margaux 53, and drinks from the weapon while pulling the trigger.

Robinson was paid 80,000 pounds to direct the film. He quarreled with HandMade over the budget, demanding to shoot the scenes at Uncle Monty’s cottage on location in Penrith, Cumbria in the Lake District. HandMade wouldn’t authorize location work, fearing that this would force the film overbudget and so Robinson invested 30,000 pounds of his salary in the film in order to finance production in the Penrith area.

The actor playing Withnail, Richard Grant, who became a star as a result of this film, was a strict teetotaler. Nonetheless, Robinson found ways to sneak alcohol onto the set and, in fact, there was much drinking in the course of the film’s production. (In the scene in which Withnail drinks lighter fluid, Robinson substituted vinegar for water without telling his actor, this accounts for the grimace and pained reaction by Grant when he swallows the fluid.) Before shooting the film, Robinson required Grant to binge-drink until he passed-out so that he could better play the part of the frequently hungover inebriate, Withnail. Grant recalled the production of the film as "deeply unpleasant."

The movie failed at the box office and Robinson was not reimbursed his investment.


Autobiographical Elements

Bruce Robinson lived with the actor Vivian Mackerrel for about five years, on and off. (The two men met in their first year of drama school; Robinson has written that Mackerrel looked "like Marlon Brando" at that time.) Mackerrel was a Scottish actor, a "splenetic fop," and an alcoholic. He was born in 1945, educated extensively and at great expense, and, at first, thought to show great promise as a thespian. Soon, however, alcoholism and drug abuse ruined him.

After completing his training as an actor, Mackerrel lived with Robinson and another roommate in a flat in Camden. Mackerrel was immensely attractive to women and, apparently, had no difficulty seducing them. But he had no use for sex – his romance was with booze – and his roommates were always astounded that Mackerrel did nothing to prosecute these affairs. (Mackerrel was bisexual in college and may have been primarily homosexual although his various addictions rendered the question of his sexual proclivities purely abstract.) Mackerrel had an acid tongue and was renowned as a great wit. Those who saw him act thought that he had the capacity to be the best of his generation. Photographs show a handsome man with a lean face and piercing eyes wearing a Sherlock Holmes style "deerstalker" hat. His nicknames were "Spine" and "Crime" – no one knew what the first meant; the second referred to his habit of cadging drinks in bars: "Crime doesn’t pay."

Mackerrel appeared in a few TV shows and a couple of short films. He starred with Marianne Faithful in a ghost story aired by the BBC. He couldn’t work live theater because of his alcohol and drug addictions and, after 1974, was unable act for the camera. Prior to that time, Mackerrel had reached a nadir in his addiction when he spent an afternoon guzzling lighter fluid. For many months at a time, Robinson and Mackerrel were so poor that they relied upon a single light bulb for both heat and light – they both recalled moving the light bulb from room to room in their desolate apartment. This poverty led Mackerrel to indulge in the lighter fluid – they had run out of money for boozing – and this concoction caused blindness so that he spent several weeks in a stupor unable to see. Gradually, Mackerrel recovered. One afternoon, a year later, Mackerrel came back from Scotland with a crate of bottles of 100% alcohol, some sort of byproduct of the whisky distilling process. He drank one of those bottles, went on a rampage, and using an artificial leg that he had somehow acquired, smashed out two walls in the Camden flat that he and Robinson were renting. A couple months later, Mackerrel and Robinson, who was alarmed at his roommate’s drinking and violent rages, parted. The flat was so badly damaged that it had to be bulldozed.

Mackerrel sometimes worked as a salesman in an expensive tailor shop. On many occasions, he ordered bespoke suits, wore them one or two times, and, then, deposited the puke-ravaged garments in his closet. After his death, Mackerrel’s family found a dozen expensive, hand-tailored suits rotted out by vomit in the closets of his flat. Mackerrel was sick during the last twenty years of his life. He suffered from esophageal cancer, something that he attributed to his escapade with the lighter fluid. His voice-box was excised and Mackerrel’s famous speaking voice was silenced. A couple years before his death in 1996, Mackerrel went fishing with his father on the loch where his family owned an estate. He apologized to his father writing a note saying: "I never intended to become an alcoholic." But when his father died, Mackerrel was too drunk to attend the funeral.

Vivian Mackerrel died in 1996 at the age of 51. The esophageal cancer returned and killed him. During the last six months of his life, he lived on sherry injected into his stomach through a feeding tube. Robinson wrote in 1985 that as he was dying, Mackerrel changed "from being the biggest coward I ever met...into the bravest bastard I’d ever known. It’s got to be hard to laugh when you’re dying..."

When they got good and drunk, Robinson and Mackerrel wandered into Regent’s Park and looked at the wolves in their pens.

Another aspect of Withnail and I that is autobiographical is the character of Uncle Monty. As a youth, Robinson was cast as Benvolio in Franco Zeffrelli’s film of Romeo and Juliet. Zeffrelli was openly and flamboyantly homosexual and he exhausted himself attempting to seduce Robinson. Robinson resisted the Italian’s overtures and was mercilessly harassed during the production of the film. Robinson claims to have based the part of Uncle Monty on Zeffrelli.

Noteworthy movies about substance abuse
Drinking and drunkenness have been the central themes of a number of well-known films. Here are some examples: Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) starring Ray Milland and Jane Wyman (the movie is about Wilder’s experiences working with the famously alcoholic Raymond Chandler on Double Indemnity, Blake Edward’s Days of Wine and Roses (1962) with Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon, Barfly directed by Barbet Schroeder in 1987 and based on the writing of Charles Bukowski (starring Micky Rourke and Faye Dunaway), Tales of Ordinary Madness also based on Bukowski and directed by the Italian Marco Ferreri in 1981, Once were Warriors, the New Zealand film about drunkenness among the Maori directed by Lee Tamahori in 1994, and Leaving Las Vegas with Nicolas Cage and Elizabeth Shue (Mike Figgis, 1995). No doubt you can think of many other examples. A prominent early docu-fiction, that is staged documentary about alcoholism is On the Bowery shot on location in New York in 1956. Of course, the progenitor of this genre was Eugene O’Neill and his Long Days Journey into Night establishes the template for many dramatizations on this subject.

One of the greatest films about alcoholism is Ted Kotchef’s startling 1971 Australian film Wake in Fright. This was a film that I had hoped to show this summer, but it is currently unavailable.



Perhaps because George Harrison’s HandMade Films produced the movie, Withnail and I has an extraordinary soundtrack. The picture contains one of the rarest of all rare birds, a brief clip from a Beatles song, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." (Beatles’ songs are so expensive that they are almost never licensed for performance in films.) Also noteworthy as well are the Jimi Hendrix songs "Voodoo Chile" and "All Along the Watchtower" heard in the picture. The version of "A Whiter Shade of Pale" (Procol Harum) by King Curtis is from a legendary album King Curtis Live at the Fillmore East. One of the myths associated with the film is that this version of the Procol Harum song was recorded on the very night before Curtis’ death – he was stabbed to death in New York City in an altercation involving a TV set. The story is a good one but it’s untrue.

Withnail and I belongs to a specific and well-defined genre of films – the coming-of-age picture. The most noteworthy and, perhaps, greatest example of this kind of movie is Fellini’s I Vitelloni. (1953). Other excellent examples are Barry Levinson’s Diner (1982) and Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993). These films involve "lads," a group of young men who have graduated from High School (or college) but are unmarried, drink heavily, and remain unemployed. The young men are reluctant to assume the responsibilities of adulthood and, generally, pampered by their mothers or older sisters – the boys stay up late partying or chasing women and sleep all day. Films of this kind are episodic, nostalgic, and, generally, conclude with one of the lads, usually a surrogate for the director, departing the milieu in which the other young men seem pointlessly becalmed. Some of Scorsese’s early films have this outline – there are elements of this plot in Mean Streets, for instance. These pictures celebrate the cameraderie of the young men, but the antics of the characters are viewed from an adult, or mature, perspective. Unavoidably, these films have a sort of "dying fall" – the hero’s assumption of adult responsibilities signifies the end of an era. Withnail and I marks the end of the sixties; Dazed and Confused celebrates the final years of the seventies. Diner is set in Baltimore in the last week of 1959. Invariably, these films have "killer" soundtracks since music inevitably signifies nostalgia for "the good old days."

The template for these films is the first part of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One. Prince Hal conceals his nobility and engages in debauchery with Falstaff but, in the end, must assume the mantle of royalty.



Camberwell carrot – a joint of marijuana made with 12 rolling papers. Kevin Hanson points out that Camberwell refers to a "spike" – that is, a workhouse for the poor and destitute. Orwell mentions the Camberwell spike in Down and Out in Paris and London. Kevin also notes that the Camberwell spike is also referenced in Antonioni’s Blow Up.

Surmontil 50 – 50 mg dose of a tricyclic anti-depressant and sleeping medication made (trade name for Trimipramine).

A Rebours – this is a novel by Joris Huysmans, the French writer, published 1884. Robinson regards this book as the funniest novel ever written. In the film, it is shown with another book, Charles Dickins’ David Copperfield.

Tottenham Court Road where "I" is accused of "toilet trading" is a street three blocks from the British Museum in the Bloomsbury part of London. "Toilet trading" is homosexual solicitation in public restrooms.

Konstantin is the doomed young playwright in Chekhov’s The Seagull (1895) who is searching for a "new theatrical form." He kills himself at the end of the play.

Journey’s End is a celebrated 1928 play about World War I. The play is used to date Uncle Monty and his aborted theatrical career.

Uncle Monty recites lines from Baudelaire’s "A Hemisphere in your Hair" – "Laissez moi respirer longtemps longtemps ..." ("Allow me to inhale at length, at length...") The poem was published in Paris Spleen.

H. E. Bates was a British writer famous for bucolic novels about loveable farmers – Love for Lydia, for instance, and The Darling Buds of May, about a rural family in Kent.

QC is an abbreviation for Queen’s Counsel, a senior barrister authorized to wear silk and defend as well as prosecute felony crimes.

On August 20, 1969, the Beatles’ recorded together for a final time. The White Album which contains "While my guitar gently weeps", was released in 1968. George Harrison wrote the song (although Eric Clapton plays lead guitar). The song is used in Withnail to sign the film, putting the producer, George Harrison’s, mark on the picture at its end.

Withnail’s final speech is from Hamlet (Act II, scene ii).

According to the script, "I" is named "Marwood." We don’t know his first name. Misheard lines account for some writers claiming that Marwood’s first name is "Peter."


On Cult Films

What is a "cult film"? What characteristics do "cult films" share?

My thesis is that cult films involve the representation of forbidden subject matter but with a specific morally neutral stance. It is the film’s attitude toward its material that differentiates a cult film like Withnail from a picture like The Lost Weekend which shares thes ame general subject. In a cult film, transgressive subject matter is portrayed in a manner that is non-judgmental or, in the alternative, even approving. For instance, Withnail and I portrays alcoholism and drug use in a way that resists any immediate implication of disapprobation. The audience is invited to enjoy and, even, vicariously participate in the substance abuse that is portrayed. The reason that Withnail and I transcends mere cult film status is that, ultimately, the picture has broader ambitions and meanings than simply portraying heavy drinking and marijuana use. The core of the film is sexual ambivalence and a classically British lament for that most perishable of attributes: glowing and beautiful youth. Ultimately, Withnail and I is about an entangled web of related themes: lost youth, the refusal to grow up, friendship, and homosexuality. Withnail is politically incorrect, although all the more touching for its retrograde attitudes about a certain kind of homosexuality – the film posits that homosexuality involves, at least, in some of its attributes a desire for a lost paradise of youthful friendship. The imagery of young men chastely sharing beds together, boozing, and tramping about the murky and wet British countryside has something elegiac, even poetic about it – there is an element of A.E. Housman in the film. The monstrous Uncle Monty is a poet, or an admirer of poetry, and the beauty of young men is an important element of the film’s implicit lament for lost youth.

Cult films made self-consciously by John Waters represent homosexual behavior in a way that, in fact, endorses that life style. As society evolves to accept such things as same-sex marriage, of course, Waters’ "bad boy" attempts to shock the bourgeois (epater de le bourgeois) have become increasingly passe – his films devolve from cult status to becoming mere antiques. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a famous cult film, also has become outdated, a quasi-Victorian artifact of another era – that film endorsed homosexuality as more hip, knowing, exciting and sophisticated than square homosexuality. As a consequence, the film was revered but only so long as homosexuality was generally regarded as forbidden. Social acceptance of homosexuality voids the film’s cult status.

Of course, the young are more prone to identifying a film as "cult" because more things are forbidden to them. Cheech and Chong pictures, movies that feature pot-smoking such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Dazed and Confused have cult status. The forbidden relationship in Harold and Maude and that film’s black-comedy portrayal of suicide created a cult around that 1971 movie. Some cult films attain their status by showing alternative lifestyles without moral disapprobation – for instance, the slacker lifestyle celebrated in The Big Lebowski, the disaffected suburban kids in Mallrats, the surfers in John Milius Big Wednesdays or the skateboarders in Surf Nazis Must Die. Of course, the thing that is ultimately forbidden is sheer, hopeless incompetence and many films attract audiences and cult following because of their sheer ineptitude – for instance, Ed Wood’s films such Plan 9 From Outer Space, you watch the film with a cringe, ashamed of being a spectator, like a rubber-necker at a highway accident.

Ultimately, a cult film is transgressive, but not too transgressive – a picture that is enjoyably transgressive because it assembles around itself a group of like-minded fans. The curious feature of cult films is that the people attending something like El Topo or The Human Centipede thinks of themselves as unique, unusual in their world-view, unashamed to be different – but they perceive themselves in that way only as members of group, as a cult. Thus, the cult film provides the benefits of transgressive individualism while, nonetheless, offering the comforts of being part of a group, that is, the cult that admires the picture.

In any event, the term "cult" film is fundamentally meaningless. A concept that embraces Ishtar, Eraserhead, Driller Killer and a sentimental Nazi comedy such Feuerzangenbowle, the number one cult film on German college campuses, is too broad to be useful.


The film credits Richard Starkey MBE at the end of the picture. Who is he?

What Minnesotan played a famous guitar solo on While my guitar gentle weeps in 2004 in honor of George Harrison’s posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Tarnished Angels

“Tarnished Angels (1957)” was the last of eight films made by director Douglas Sirk with Rock Hudson.  The movie is about a troupe of barnstorming pilots in 1930, men who raise small planes at rural air shows and county fairs for prize-money The picture, an adaptation of a problematic late Faulkner novel, “Pylon,” was universally derided by American critics when the movie was first released.  After Fassbinder, and the New German Cinema, Sirk’s Hollywood melodramas assumed an importance in film history -- Fassbinder and his cohorts admired those pictures and claimed them as inspirations and so critics took another look.  Perhaps, not surprisingly, critics now find merits, and even a kind of tawdry greatness,in Sirk’s films, particularly “Written on the Wind,” “Imitation of Life,” and “All that Heaven Allows,” qualities that were not visible in the Eisenhower era when the movies were made.  “Tarnished Angels” was admired from the start by European critics and it is easy to see why:  shot in velvety and expressive black and white, the huge cinemascope compositions are exquisitely designed, the set decoration is lush with symbolic bric-a-brac and various Freudian emblems, and the film’s plot is curiously muted, complex, and angst-ridden.  Images of empty runways, squalid carnivals and cafes, and loudspeakers raised like the banners of a disreputable metal army over the desolate airstrip -- these shots have some of the existential ambience of Antonioni’s films from the early sixties.  Sirk began as an expressionist (in Germany, he was known as Detlev Sierck)  and he freights the film with omens and portents -- a bacchanalian Mardi Gras orgy is always underway in the next corridor or down the street from the place where the characters are bickering and, from time to time, masked figures make sinister entrances:  skulls and devils abound and there is a huge papier-mache figure, a vast head expressing appalled horror shown in close-up from time-to-time.  At the airshow, a man wearing a hideous mask wanders around, apparently, unnoticed by everyone else and when the hero crashes and drowns in Lake Pontchartrain, the masked figure restrains the man’s widow played by Dorothy Malone -- the monster is wearing a little fez.  In one scene, the camera tracks back away from men carrying the coffin of a airman who has perished to glide across an alley and pass by a car where a man and women dressed in harlequin costumes are necking.  Sirk’s staging and camera movements are complex, even Baroque -- in one shot, Sirk drags his camera through a sort of oculus, a kind of eye in the transom of a door, tracking Rock Hudson as the lovelorn journalist, as the movie star ascends stairs (a pointlessly huge and grandiose flight of steps), then, passing through a dark room where the heroic pilot and his mechanic Jigs are sleeping, apparently in the same bed, tracking over a little boy curled up on the floor and, then, emerging in a bright room where Dorothy Malone is seen through what seems like an open door, boozing, of course -- everyone in this film drinks continuously.  The uninterrupted shot follows Rock Hudson through the door under the oculus in the transom and, then, we discover, to our surprise, that Dorothy Malone is, in fact, not where we thought that she was -- we saw her initially in a mirror.  At least three times, Sirk readjusts his spaces showing Malone in a room and, then, moving the camera to show that she is really behind us and that the bright zone in which we saw her approach or recline or just stare baffled into space was, in fact, a mirror.  The formal surprises that Sirk engineers in his mise-en-scene correlate to a bizarre plot that seems to have its emphases and big scenes in all the wrong places.  Robert Stack is a daredevil pilot married to Dorothy Malone, a woman who worships him but whom he disdains -- he married her after rolling dice for her with Jigs, a man reputed to be the father of Malone’s son.  When Stack’s plane is wrecked in a race that kills another pilot -- there is a spectacular crash with the corpse of the other pilot flung like a ragdoll right at the camera -- the daredevil orders Malone to go to a rival, seduce him, and, thereby, entice the businessman to loan his airplane to Stack.  Rock Hudson stands-in for the young Faulkner.  He plays the part of a reporter who observes Robert Stack’s callous behavior toward his beautiful and submissive wife, falls in love with the woman, and tries to persuade her to leave the brutal pilot, a former WWI ace said to “have motor-oil in his veins” instead of blood.  Hudson goes himself to the businessman, a crass fellow who is using the airplanes as a kind of “winged billboard” for his earthmoving equipment.  He persuades the man to allow Robert Stack to fly the plane in the race on the morrow.  In that race, the plane’s engine fails and to avoid crashing into the crowd at the air-show, Stack dives the monoplane into the lake and is killed.  (With a kind of sledgehammer Teutonic gravity, Sirk intercuts the race around the pylons with the pilot’s young boy observing the catastrophe while trapped on a carnival ride, small planes rotating around a column like a merry-go-round.  At this point, the perverse plot becomes even more peculiar.  The crash into the lake is not the film’s climax.  Rather, there is an extended last act in which the significance of the daredevil pilot’s death is considered.  The men in the story all vie for Dorothy Malone’s affections --- she is the weakest link in the film, overly histrionic, and very hard-looking, her breasts funneled to spearpoints and her blonde hair seeming more than a little weary, her features ice-cold and embittered in close-up.  The movie stalls out in a long oration by Rock Hudson about the nobility of the dead pilot -- this is alcohol-drenched Faulkner-style discourse at its most bombastic.  But you have to admire Sirk’s nerve in bringing the film to a dead stop so that Rock Hudson, three-sheets to the wind, can emote about the poor, lost airman.  After more drinking and a melodramatic confrontation between the amorous businessman and Hudson, the film lurches to a tentatively happy ending -- somewhere over the rainbow, Rock and Dorothy will get together again and consummate their aborted love affair.   The movie isn’t great, but it’s memorable.  And the early sequences of the little entourage of pilot, Jigs, the mechanic, wife and son have a grim melancholy force.  Stack seems to be impotent or homosexual and his distaste for his young wife is hard to grasp -- hence, Rock Hudson’s orotund eulogy toward the end of the movie, an attempt to make sense out of what otherwise is difficult to construe.  Dorothy Malone’s hardness and faded looks are cruelly appropriate to the film and the elaborate staging and complex camera movements, as well as the movie’s casual perversity and stoic indifference to suffering, were to be influential fifteen years later in Fassbinder’s reinvention of the Hollywood melodrama in Munich.    

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Anatahan (The Saga of Anatahan)

Death was hunting the jungle…” the narrator of the film “Anatahan” (1953) announces.  “And Keiko was the bait on Death’s hook.”  These phrases, more or less, summarize the plot of Josef von Sternberg’s last film, the eccentric “Saga of Anatahan.”  Of course, the plot is not the film and “Anatahan” is much more than its story:  a curious, unique fever dream, an exotic parable of lust, jealousy and humiliation --  subjects that were central to the director’s greatest work, his symphonies of abject degradation, the two Jannings’ films “The Last Command” (1928) and “The Blue Angel” (1930) and the great cycle of pictures with Marlene Dietrich, including movies like “The Scarlet Empress” (1934), “Dishonored (1932), and “The Devil is a Woman (1935).    A dozen or so Japanese sailors find themselves shipwrecked on a desert island in the Marianas -- the islands are “ a jest of nature” some of them “coral and others volcanic rocks”, stones protruding from “the Marianas trench 35,000 feet deep.”  On the island, a man haunts the ruins of a plantation, living with a woman, the beautiful and fickle Keiko.  Although the castaways believe the man and woman are married, in fact, they are simply living together -- each have families back on Japan “a thousand miles to the north.”  The seamen discover a plane shot down in the jungle and find some guns.  They also erect a mountain-top machine-gun nest with the weapon aimed at the turbulent sea and the brutal-looking rocks that surround the island of Anatahan.  The men brew cocoanut wine, get drunk, and begin to quarrel over the beautiful woman who sometimes teases them by dancing provocatively or bathing while they peep at her or squatting nude on the stony shore of the island.  Three men claim the woman on the basis of the fact that they are armed with the revolvers taken from the plane and knives.  For a time, they enjoy her in a perverse menage a quatre, but, the relationship is unstable and  the menfight and kill one another.  Keiko returns to the plantation overseer, but quarrels with him and he is also stabbed to death.  Another man hunts her next lover with a trident and murders him in the jungle.  A plane flies overhead and announces that the war has been over for five years -- it is now 1951.  But the soldiers stubbornly refuse to leave the island, believing the brochures falling from the sky to be a trick of the enemy.  Keiko knows better.  As the men draw straws to decide who will possess her, she flees through the jungle, dives into the ocean naked, and, apparently, swims to the rescue ship a mile offshore.  A year later, the men are retrieved from the island and return to Japan.  In a delirious final sequence, journalists’ cameras flash their brilliant bulbs at the men as they march from a huge, shadowy aircraft, obviously a rear projection toward the camera.  Keiko then appears in the dense shadow beneath the plane, a spectral figure with a pale face against the darkness of fuselage interlocked with wheels and wings.  The men who died on the island arise from the black shadows and, also, walk toward her, each man’s brow and eyes briefly illumined before he vanishes and von Sternberg’s camera lingers on the ghostly woman’s pale, inscrutable, and beautiful face.  Expelled from Hollywood, von Sternberg wrote and shot and directed “Anatahan”, filming the movie in an abandoned aircraft hangar in Kyoto.  The movie is ridiculously low-budget:  grainy documentary footage of ships at sea and explosions intercut with images of an artificial jungle of tangled vines and tree limbs haphazardly heaped up on the floor, thickets of fronds placed here and there to cast marvelous intricate shadows upon the actor’s faces and bare torsos.  The sets are claustrophobic and like black and white photographs of huge field paintings by Jackson Pollock.  The characters move through a dense haze of light and darkness, a sort of camouflage pattern that covers the entire screen and into which people vanish, sinking as if into murky water, or, suddenly, appear as pale faces, shredded by deep shadow.  The jungle is filmed as a kind of labyrinth, but without depth, a horizontal patterned frieze like a monochrome mural by Pollock.  Von Sternberg shoots the film in Japanese without subtitles but provides an oddly distanced, weirdly eloquent and dispassionate narration for the action.  The director apologizes repeatedly for showing us things that “we can’t know…” admitting that the images are dramatizations based on speculation.  In one sequence, the director adopting the tone of a quasi-Voltaire says that “to invade their privacy would be inexcusable but we do so to learn truths about ourselves.  We are human and nothing human is alien to us” -- these words spoken over torrid shots of Keiko half-naked reclining in a hammock, her face and bosom all dappled with shadow.  The movie contains long sequences of people wandering around the artificial jungle either hunting one another with trident or knife or gun or searching for Keiko.  Sometimes, the characters pray at a Shinto shrine or sing the National Anthem or dance drunkenly with Keiko, the men flopping their arms around like clumsily managed marionettes.  These images are intercut with shots of the machine gun nest on the hilltop, against an obviously painted background -- the men pointlessly defending this nightmare “Gilligan’s Island.”  The entire thing is bizarre, kitschy, a work of art that trembles on the edge of complete folly; although von Sternberg’s narration is anthropological, epigrammatic, and, even, quite eloquent, his words also aren’t that much different from the sort of frenzied, pretentious soliloquies that litter the stranger works of Ed Wood, for instance, some of the hysterical rants in “Plan 9 from Outer Space”.  The bargain basement effects and set decoration is distracting at first, but, ultimately, achieves a kind of eerie grandeur particularly in the last five minutes when the men, and the ghosts of the dead, return to Japan -- in these scenes, the very paucity of resources and the ingenuity of von Sternberg’s staging triumph over his lack of resources.  The castaways have a little cemetery and in one scene they bury one of the seamen murdered in the war over Keiko.  “They laid the dead man to rest in the moist soil and they were sad.  Even an insect that is only an inch long is one-half inch of soul.”  I don’t know what that means, but it’s an extraordinary sentence.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

On some level, I suppose, Bryan Singer's new "X-Men" film, incomprehensibly subtitled "Days of Future Past," makes sense.  My daughter assured me that she generally understood the plot and could, more or less, follow the frantic gyrations on screen.  Indeed, from time to time, I even thought that I had some glimmer as to what was going on.  But, ultimately, unless you intend to decode the film like a picture by late Godard or Tarkovsky,  -- that is, unless you intend to read reviews and collate the observations of various critics into a sort of synopsis and, then, attend the film once more to verify conclusions and plot points -- you will get almost nothing out of "Days of Future Past" except for some instances of eye-candy, a few pallid jokes, and the spectacle of a beautiful woman wearing nothing at all but blue-painted scales.  My suspicion is that a rabid fan could graph the movie's plot and that, in purely causal terms (a leading to b leading  to c etc.), the thing might have some limited coherence, but the film is dramatically a complete muddle.  The X-Men are mutants.  They all seem to have telekinetic powers and nicknames -- Magneto, Wolverine, Storm and so on.  Their powers all overlap and so it is impossible to tell which mutant is effecting which miracle at any given time.  It suffices to say that they hurl lightning bolts around, jump through dimensional vortices, and continuously wreak havoc on their environment like particularly powerful and humorless poltergeists.  The mutants are given to portentous conversations that go on endlessly -- the film is remarkably tedious for a movie that features such baroque and spectacular special effects.  The dialogue is uniformly stupid and subliterate -- one is tempted to say "laughably' bad, but this would give the movie more credit for wit than it deserves.  Imitating the much better and infinitely less pretentious first "Terminator" film, the plot concerns an attempt to alter the course of history by sending the scowling Hugh Jackman ("Wolverine") back in time.  It seems that a malevolent dwarf (I'm not kidding) named Bolivar Trask (again, I'm not kidding) has invented some kind of robotic mutants that mimic the X-men's powers and are capable of kicking their asses.  Exactly why the so-called Sentinel robots should be capable of whupping the mutant X-Men is complete unclear since the heroes have wonderful skills of undefined scope and extent.  (For instance, Jackman is unkillable -- you can riddle him with bullets and his burly torso just heals itself; but, when he is hurled onto the bottom of the Potomoc, and, pinned there with re-rod painfully stuck through all his joints -- the work of Magneto who is either a good guy or a bad guy or both -- his powers fail him and he seems about to expire.)  The first rule in this film is that there are no rules.  Anyone seems able to do anything at any time.  In the first few minutes, the X-Men are engaged in a deadly blue-screen combat (dark sets with lots of murky explosions) with the Sentinels.  The Sentinels kill each and every mutant in spectacular ways -- one guy is turned into ice, his frozen ice-cube of a head ripped off and that shattered to pieces under the steel boot of a refrigerator Sentinel.  These sequence is spectacular enough and, even, a little bit morbid and I was happy that the movie had ended after only five or six minutes of explosions and bodies being hurled through walls.  But, somehow, the mutants leap back in time and avoid the attack which just killed them all and we are transported to some sort of cheesy Fortress of Solitude, a set that looks like something from a late seventies Kung Fu movie with dreary stained glass, Himalayan peaks and big bonfires for light.  (The title tells us that this Shangri-La, obviously meant to be in Tibet is "China" -- apparently, the people who made this film don't want to offend Chinese audiences.)  The mutants have a council of war, although it seems that the better part of them have been killed, and it is at this point that they send poor Jackman back to 1973 to change the past and, thereby, provide mankind with a happier future.   But here is where the film becomes emotionally incomprehensible.  For some reason, Jackman's assignment is to save the vicious dwarf from assassination.  Why the dwarf must be saved is wholly unclear to me.  After all, it was the dwarf, a bargain-basement Alberich, who invented the malevolent Sentinels who keep killing Mutants (although the Mutants keep getting resurrected as well.)  Also, it seems that the hero must kill a shape-changing woman, the blue-scale skin lady, whose name is either Mystique or Storm or, maybe, something else entirely.  The blue-scale-skin lady traipses about naked except for blue body paint and one of the pleasures of the picture is attempting to detect her vulva between her blue and scaly thighs -- I think you can see her genitals in a couple of shots.  Since blue-scale-skin lady has donated a swab of DNA that is used by the Sentinel giants in their shape-shifting, it seems that the time-traveling mutants should be devoting their energy to disposing of her as well -- and, in fact, the mutants spend part of the movie, I think, trying to kill her until they decide that she is really on their side and that she shouldn't be killed.  Whether blue-scale-skin is evil or good is debatable on the evidence presented by the film.   The audience isn't helped by the fact that when the mutants aren't working miracles they all look like strong-jawed variants on Jon Hamm, one actor who thankfully isn't in the show, although every single man seems to be either a skinny or muscular version of him.  The best thing in the movie is a guy who can run at lightning speed, so fast that he plays ping pong with himself and outpaces bullets so that he can gently deflect them away from their targets.  This X-man is a lot of fun -- so what does the movie do with him?  After a couple of adventures, he's exiled from the picture and watches the rest of the mayhem on TV from home with his alcoholic mom -- this sort of bizarre narrative decision is inexplicable.  The X-Men grunt and bear-down grimacing as they transform into super-heroes -- it's as if they are straining over a particular unpleasant and difficult bowel movement.  Each of them is killed two or three times, but they just keep coming back to life.  Even the ice-hero who had his head ripped off and shattered in the opening sequence shows up again in the noisy climax to be killed once more, inconsequentially, however, since I assume he is resurrected in the final scenes of the movie.  I keep going to these big blockbuster films because critics praise them highly and seem to suggest that they are worth seeing.  But they aren't.  I should have known I was in for a bad time in an early sequence in which someone says:  "their species will drive itself extinct just like innumerable species before..." Exactly what species made itself extinct?  So far as I know, human beings are the only species attempting that feat and, even, we haven't succeeded yet.  The movie has five-hundred pointless shots -- dialogue is divided into talking heads and big close-ups of actors woodenly reacting, except they really aren't reacting at all and, in some of the group scenes, the high-paid movie stars lounging around mug and ham it up as if trying to steal the shot for the character declaiming his or lines -- you can generally tell a film's ineptitude by looking at the actors who are not central to the shot to see what they are doing.  If they are mugging outrageously or just looking bored (and both types of reaction occur in this film) you know the movie is in trouble.  I am writing this note within an hour of having seen the movie.  I'm afraid that if I wait for another hour or so, the whole 140 million dollar spectacle will simply vanish from my memory.