Sunday, August 31, 2014

New Tricks

New Tricks is a characteristically well-acted and lavishly produced BBC police procedural. The show is apparently popular in the UK and there are ten years worth of episodes, 97 shows in total.  (The program airs on BBC 1; in the UK, season 11 episodes are currently being aired on a weekly basis.)  You can watch the show on Netflix and DVDs of all past seasons are available in this country.  The program is mildly entertaining and reasonably engaging.  It's the kind of show that I would probably watch as aired weekly if it were shown in the United States.  However, there's nothing particularly memorable about any of the programs -- this is genre TV that is amusing, forgettable, an instantly disposable diversion.  The premise of New Tricks is that a perky young police woman, a detective on the force is disciplined for alleged misconduct (she doesn't fit in with "old boy" network); her punishment consists of being exiled to a basement office where she is directed to solve "cold cases" using a team of three elderly retired coppers.  The show is droll and witty:  it's comedy arises from the interactions between the young and pretty policewoman and the old cops with their antediluvian attitudes and prejudices.  As it happens, the superannuated coppers are eccentric and interesting characters in their own right, have compelling backstories, and each possesses his own set of skills brought to bear on the various unsolved "cold cases" on which they work.  The formula is a successful one and, although, all of the shows are more or less alike, they are generally fun to watch.  The plots make sense and are usually plausible.  The writing is literate.  Typically, someone has accidentally killed someone else -- the series has a high quotient of deaths by impalement or one-punch head injury.  The inadvertent murderer conceals the body, either successfully in that it is never found until the denouement or unsuccessfully -- in which case the killer goes undetected.  Some event triggers reopening of the case:  usually enigmatic new evidence is fortuitously discovered.  A singularly unpleasant wicked person, often a tycoon or business mogul, is set up as the leading suspect.  The bad guy, who is a red herring, gets to chew up the scenery while demonstrating his villainy, as Shakespeare would have it:  "tearing a cat" and "out-Heroding Herod."   But the bad guy isn't the culprit.  Usually someone much more mild-mannered and, seemingly, amiable turns out to be the killer -- hence, the fact that most of the murders are inadvertent.  The actual killer generally confesses when confronted with a fierce cross-examination led by the lady detective, the men call her "guv'nor."  Apparently, the show became stale in its ninth season and two of the actors playing the old coppers refused to renew their contracts for the 11th series -- they depart from the show in season 10, but are replaced by equally worthy successors.  Their "guv'nor", Sandra Pullman, also departs from the show in the eighth episode of Season Ten.  Truth to tell, after ten seasons she was getting a bit "long in the tooth" herself and the contrast between the ambitious younger woman and her elderly wards was becoming imperceptible.  Sandra Pullman was replaced by a much younger female detective to perpetuate the "odd couple" mismatch between boss and employees that generates much of the show's interest and tension.  The program is filled with pointlessly spectacular camera-work -- night scenes are rim-lit and look like Caravaggio and everything is big and lavish:  for instance, a scene in a private hospital uses a crane to track down through a huge marble atrium and the interiors are crammed with extras all of them dramatically lit.  It's a 30 second shot but characteristic of the show.  It's as if the camera crews have lost interest in the plots, which are formulaic in any event, and devote their energy to devising complex tracking shots and weird dislocating effects using mirror -- all of this extraneous to the narrative.  The show has a predilection for lighting its characters brilliantly from above and each episode features several shots that are so splendidly composed and let that they look like beautiful still lives.  The minor characters, a rogues gallery of crazies, low-rent mobsters, and corrupt politicians, are all acted with tremendous enthusiasm -- the program is a showpiece for bravura acting by minor players who get to strut their stuff in big close-ups.  There is always a widow or bereaved sibling who cries picturesquely while demonstrating typical British reserve, a stiff upper lip.  The various suspects are often grotesques -- there was one guy who acted more effectively with his furrowed forehead than most American actors can act with their voice and whole bodies.   This is typical BBC virtuoso stuff.  The transitional episodes, the 8th, 9th, and tenth, episodes in Season 10 are illustrative as to how a show can shed all of its signature characters and still remain reasonably compelling.

Seven Psychopaths

Quite literally a "shaggy dog story," Martin McDonagh's hyperactive, Ritalin-soaked Seven Psychopaths (2013) teems with ideas.  No matter that most of them are bad or meretricious; a lot of ueber-violent crime/action pictures don't have any ideas at all.  McDonagh uses the word "psychopath" to mean either an extremely violent person or someone afflicted with an obsession that drives them to act in an outrageous manner -- I don't think this is correct or accurate, but the notion, which McDonagh would argue, is a fiction in any event, merely a plot device de rigueur in Hollywood, drives the picture.  Indeed, concealed behind all the gaudy flamethrower killings and close-range shootings, hidden by the spurting blood and beheadings, McDonagh's film is pedantic, something like a graduate school thesis:  "The Use of the Figure of the Psychopath" in the American Cinema," a little like a doctoral essay on "The Metaphor of the Garden in 18th Century Poetry."  The film has two intersecting frame stories:  an Irish screenwriter's friend is in league with a sinister old man who kidnaps dogs and, then, returns them to their owners to collect reward money; the Irish screenwriter recognizes that Hollywood demands movies about serial killers -- that is psychopathic murderers -- and decides to write the ultimate psychopathic killer movie, a film featuring not one but seven psychopaths.  These two framing narratives provide the basis for the elaborate system of coincidences and bloody encounters that comprises the film.  In form, McDonagh's picture is a ultra-violent meta-fiction and its stories within stories resembles the ultimate in meta-narratives, Flann O'Brien's novel, At Swim Two-Birds.  The film is drenched in whiskey like O'Brien's stories and it's nested tales are intricately wrought, a kind of Celtic arabesque of stories embedded in stories in which the film's writer can be perceived -- indeed is shown -- to be manipulating the outcome and controlling the strings that jerk and contort his marionettes.  (At Swim Two-Birds with its gunfights and horrific beatings is also staggeringly violent.)  In Seven Psychopaths, the screenwriter's buddy (Sam Rockwell) unwittingly abducts a bloodthirsty mobster's Shih Tzu dog.  The mobster played by Woody Harrelson with vicious aplomb unleashes a horde of  villains on the hapless dog-nappers.  But the leader of the dog-napping gang is played by Christopher Walken, who is married to a psycho-killer who preys on other psycho-killers.  Lurking around the edges of the action is a Vietnamese assassin who has come to the United States to wreak revenge on the members of the "Charlie Company" that slaughtered his family at My Lai.  As one character remarks to the screenwriter, "you can't write women and they exist in your films only to be summarily butchered" -- an accurate criticism of the various bimbos who get slaughtered in this film.  Martin, the screenwriter, expresses contempt for the genre of film that he is composing and, indeed, suggests that he will manage this picture to avoid clichés typical to the form -- instead of a climactic shoot-out, the film will feature universal reconciliation, everything resolved by debate and compromise, and throughout the picture there are images of Gandhi and citations of his words.  But McDonagh doesn't have the guts to follow-through on a program that would be truly radical and surprising and so the audience is disappointed when the last twenty minutes of this briskly paced film degenerates into simply more murderous gunplay and gratuitous violence.  After the set-up, it feels like a cheat; McDonagh is obviously luxuriating in the stuff he has pretended to despise.  McDonagh does have a couple of surprising tricks up his sleeve -- in particular, the subplot involving the vicious, revenge-driven Vietnamese terrorist takes an interesting turn suggesting that non-violence and, even, sanctity are just forms of psychopathy that have been turned upside-down or, maybe, inside-out. The film becomes serious for a moment and there are some jarring shifts in tone that don't always work.  The dialogue is all sub-Tarantino:  everyone speaks in competitive, hipster non sequiturs.  This film is sophomoric, but, I don't necessarily mean this in a bad way -- it's agile, ambitious, crammed with outrageous incidents, the product of too much marijuana and booze, a victim of its own ambitions, an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production.     

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Meshes of the Afternoon

Maya Deren is a bit of a caricature -- she looks like a Russian Jewish Betty Boop with a tiny waist, huge breasts, and frizzy hair.  But she moves with the aplomb of a dancer, at least when gesturing statuesquely to the camera, putting her hand sideways to show denial, or floating in mid-air to observe herself sleeping in the avant-garde film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943).  (Deren's appearance when she runs on her short legs is more comical -- but the movie, which she directed, is tactful about portraying her in any way that might be unflattering.)  Deren made the film in Hollywood as an opening title proudly declares with her husband, Alexander Hammid.  Hammid, who appears in the second half of the 14 minute film, looks exceedingly worried -- clearly, Deren was a handful.  The film is an aria about sexual ambivalence, nakedly Freudian in its imagery and implications.  Deren's character wants sex, seems about to masturbate, but is also conflicted.  When she is finally seduced, after much coy foreplay involving knives, keys, and pursuing shadowy figures, she hurls a mirror, presumably symbolizing her vanity, virginity, and self-absorbed narcissism, through the wall of her bungalow.  The mirror lands in the surf in bright shards.  Hammid, as her lover, appears later as the maison de assignation, to find that Maya has slit her throat with a  shard of mirror and is lying dead in a chair in their living room.  So much for mutually pleasing marital relations!  Scored to Noh flute and drum sometimes interrupted by an ominous drone, the film is shot in clear, lyrical black and white images.  The girl, shown mostly in zaftig profile or shadow, picks up a large orchid on the lane in front of the place where the romantic rendezvous has been scheduled.  She drops her key to the house.  The key hops around like a Mexican jumping bean evading her for awhile, presumably signaling her ambivalence about the sexual assignation.  She enters the bungalow, apparently her house on King's Road in LA, and climbs some stairs to a bedroom.  Reclining in a chair, the girl makes a masturbatory gesture and, then, we see her eye in enormous close-up becoming drowsy -- her eyelids close and she dreams.  A shrouded female figure in a middle-eastern burka flees from her.  When the figure turns to face her, the girl we see that this hermetic psychopompus has a mirror instead of a face, a striking and poetically effective image.  The girl finds a record-player spinning a disk, a phone off the hook, a loaf of bread with a shiny and lethal-looking knife embedded in it.  The key keeps turning into a knife and vice-versa and, sometimes, the girl disgorges the key that is resting on her tongue.  She sets the flower on her bed.  After some dreamy and inconsequential pursuit of the rapidly fleeing, mirror-faced woman, the girl's lover appears.  Hammid knits his brows and frowns with obvious consternation since sleeping with Maya Deren is, apparently, a worrisome and arduous task.  And no sooner is the task accomplished, then the girl slits her throat.  Meshes of the Afternoon is one of the most famous avant-garde films and it is fairly entertaining, if childishly obvious and schematic -- Deren had a poet's eye with the camera.  The short picture is massively self-absorbed and irritating, but it's not dull and still packs an erotic charge. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Stories We Tell

The title of Sarah Polley's 2011, "mockumentary" is ambiguous.  "The Stories We Tell" signifies both narratives that we use to explain ourselves to the world, but, also, those stories that are excluded, concealed, and never spoken.   In the case of Sarah Polley, a renowned Canadian filmmaker super 8 images of an ostensibly happy childhood hide a baroque melodrama involving adultery, abuse, and hidden paternity.  Ms. Polley's mother, Diane, was flamboyant, beautiful actress -- she seems to have been manic and, probably, sexually insatiable.  Diane was briefly infamous throughout Canada as the first mother in that country to lose custody of her children as a result of adultery, a liaison conducted with Sarah Polley's (putative) father, Michael.  Polley's father played aggressive, decisive men on stage but, in actuality, he was retiring Casper Milquetoast fellow cursed with dashing good looks.  Diane abandoned her stage career -- she was undoubtedly too excitable to be much of an actress -- and tried to live as a housewife in Toronto with her second husband.  She had two new children, but soon became bored.  She returned to stage in Montreal where she started an affair with another actor, Harry Gulkin, also a famous figure in Canada; he produced the film The Lies My Father Told Me, a movie that won an academy award for best foreign film in the United States in the mid-seventies.  At the same time, distance revived Diane's passion for her husband, and she ended-up pregnant but unable to identify the father of her child.  After considering an abortion, Diane returned to Toronto and her husband where she had her baby, a daughter that she named Sarah.  Diane, then, died of some sort of fast-acting cancer and Sarah, who looks remarkably like her mother, was raised by Michael Polley, her depressed and reticent father.  Of course, it was later established that the flamboyant Harry Gulkin is Sarah Polley's actual father.  In the course of these revelations, Polley's two oldest siblings, her half-brother and half-sister, disclose that they were abused by servants hired to take care of them.  This lurid tale is narrated by the surviving principals, most notably Harry Gulkin and Michael Polley, both of whom were professional actors and impresarios and who deliver fine performance as themselves:  Gulkey is all regret and Byronic passion; Polley denigrates himself masochistically although with exceptional eloquence.  Polley shows us her family-members expressing embarrassment and concern at being filmed narrating these suppressed tales and, sometimes, she points the camera at her own face:  she nibbles her lips and looks pale and beautiful and emotionally ravaged.  The film's gimmick is its use of grainy, silent 8 mm footage to dramatize events in the past -- these materials are presented as authentic and they show interiors and city streets that seem to have been lovingly reconstructed to appear as they did in the late-seventies when the events occurring in the story took place.  The viewer accepts this footage as completely authentic until late in the film -- then, it becomes apparent that the pictures show things that are too intimate and too consequential for the movie's plot to have been accidentally captured on Super 8.  It is for this reason that I characterize the film as a "mockumentary" -- the documentary footage from the past is all staged, albeit with such precise casting that the people in the 8 mm film seem to be the younger counterparts of the old men and women that we see telling their stories in the present.  I'm ambivalent about this device, perhaps, because it fooled me for half the length of the movie.  Ultimately, the movie makes much ado about a domestic tragedy of the kind that every family conceals, or fails to conceal as the case may be.  The only difference between the secrets lurking in my family and the story on-screen is that the Polley's were Canadian royalty, notorious and beloved apparently in the Great White North so that the narrative has something of the frisson of gossip about the rich and famous.  (One should note that Canada is a humble country and the rich and famous in that nation live in modest suburban houses in modest suburban neighborhoods and remind me of paler, more blonde, and beautiful folks with whom I grew up in the Twin Cities.)  For my taste, the film contains too much self-disclosure and, paradoxically, one yearns to see those characters in the story who were unwilling to share their private misery with the camera -- for instance, what was Diane's first husband like?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Marks of Genius: 100 works on Paper from the Minneapolis Institute of Art

This exhibition of drawings and sketches at the MIA seems to me to be pretty much ideal, more or less a perfect show.  The works presented are mostly small and beautiful.  They range across seven centuries and display an enormous range of styles:  some of the sketches are raw, direct, immediate, scribbled with revisions and hastily executed; other pictures have been carefully finished, even polished with washes of watercolor or colored with oil paint.  Almost all of the works will be unfamiliar to viewers -- indeed, many of the drawings, which are fragile and react adversely to sunlight, have not been seen for half a century.  Accordingly, the spectator enjoys a sense of novelty and discovery studying the works in the show.  Famous painters like Tiepolo and Carracci, Matisse, Picasso, and Degas are represented as are many artists completely unknown to me.  The show has a reasonable proportion and human scale -- it is not painfully encyclopedic and you can look at each object closely and compare works all within the course of an hour to an hour and a half.  Most importantly, these little images are lapidary, fascinating works that repay close attention.  Too often, you emerge from an art show either exhausted at the scope of the display or irritated with monotony:  many artists, even some of them great, are "one-trick ponies" who perfect a certain style or specialize in a particular subject matter and simply repeat themselves.  By contrast, you leave this show refreshed and with your eye invigorated.  This is an exhibition that you should attend and, if possible, on a week day or ninety minutes before the gallery is about to close when the show is not crowded.  It's important to get as close as possible to these drawings, many of them smaller than the screen of the laptop computer on which you may be reading these words.  (I wonder if people younger than me, habituated to watching movies on the cell-phones, aren't, perhaps, better suited to enjoy the pleasures of intricately wrought works presented on a very small scale.)   Approaching these intimately scaled works very closely is important:  you want to enjoy the gestural quality of the drawing, the artist's "hand" or ductus, the way that thickness of the line is varied for effect, the subtle use of white washes or highlights, even, the exquisite texture of the paper on which these drawings have been made.  There's no substitute for seeing these things in person, up close, "taking a walk with a line" as a children's book that I loved 55 years ago called it.  Even the catalogue, which reproduces the 100 works on paper in the show, is no substitute for close study of the pictures in person.  As an example, consider a Milanese sheet of antiphons, a kind of late medieval hymnal, showing Jesus as the Salvator Mundi.  The drawing, which is vivid and graceful, has been carefully tinted in bright color with small highlights of gold leaf.  If you look carefully, you will see that the lozenges of gold leaf have been pricked to texture them -- the pin pricks on the patches of gold leaf are exactly spaced, each tiny indentation a couple millimeters from the adjacent mark in perfectly straight lines.  These minuscule marks can't be seen in the catalogue, but are perfectly clear if you take off your glasses and push your nose to within six inches of the art work.  The care and precision with which the gold leaf was pricked conveys an enormous amount of information about the sensibility of the monastic artist who made this gorgeous picture.  And details like this are not visible unless you seek them out yourself:  the pictures demand to be studied and, even more wonderful, they repay study, displaying tiny and brilliant effects that bring the viewer very close, indeed, to the moment of creation.  Some the renaissance objects show a confidence of line and draftsmanship, an improvisatory beauty not seen until the 20th century in Picasso's fantastically self-assured drawing.  There are agitated baroque sketches, mostly depictions of violence, made with an extraordinarily swift and calligraphic line.  A Modigliani image on rough paper seems almost chiseled; it's sculptural.  An early landscape by Mondrian is a haunting study of spidery trees, Dutch water, and a luminous sky.  Winslow Homer's "Conch Divers" distills sun and sea into a powerful vignette.   And, indeed, there are too many wonderful things in this show for me index them here.

Also on display at the Institute are some wonderful engravings by Cruikshank in the upstairs chamber devoted to graphic works -- the subject of the show is fashion and Cruikshank's satiric images of ridiculously wasp-waisted women and periwigged fat men in bulging waistcoats are funny and elegant at the same time.  Two rooms of woodcuts and engravings on the subject of murder are intriguing -- lots of images of Judith and Holofernes or Jael driving a nail into Sisera's ear.  A Cruikshank engraving of a woman throwing herself off a London bridge is an iconic image -- it has ghastly, near-surrealistic edge.  On the main level, there is a show of tiny cameos, almost all of them images of a single human eye, painted on chips of ivory and, then, glazed.  These images were sentimental forget-me-nots, memorializing love affairs in the early Victorian era and they remind us forcefully that the past was a "different country" indeed.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Old Dark House (film group essay)



1. Lost and Found

Film is the most ephemeral and fragile embodiment of art. It is more mortal than its makers – in the course of single lifetime, 35 mm. film can decompose beyond recognition. Old movies are printed on flammable celluloid. Celluloid itself becomes brittle and readily tears. The mechanical process of projection, involving sprockets that yank the film through a blazing flame of light abrades and destroys the movie even as it is being shown. As a consequence, there are probably more films that are lost, forgotten, destroyed, or simply misplaced than there are those pictures that survive.

I am a witness to how film is ruined by human negligence. In 1983, I hosted a party at my home and we showed a movie that is very important to me and dear to my heart, Wim Wenders’ Im Lauf der Zeit (barely released in this country as Kings of the Road). A friend of mine who was, then, teaching at the University of Minnesota, had access to reasonably good 16 mm. print of the film and he transported it to Austin so that we could screen the picture in my living room. I borrowed a scarcely serviceable projector, probably from the school system – I don’t recall now how that was accomplished – and we showed the movie on a sheet suspended from curtain rods at my living room window.

One important scene in Wenders’ movie involves the hero, a motion picture projectionist, screening the film with the reels scrambled and out of order. In hommage to that concept, we projected the movie out of order, with the reels thread through the old, rattle-trap projector in random succession. People were baffled and, then, became angry. The party moved into the kitchen and backyard (it was a warm night) – most people fleeing the hot living room where the tedious film was being run in a way that made it incomprehensible to the spectators. After awhile, even those who were watching the movie lost interest and wandered off. Everyone was pretty drunk. A couple times the movie tore and, instead of mending the print, we just removed the reel from the projector and threaded another spool into the machine. We were young in those days and could drink a lot and the party became pretty rowdy. In the morning, I found that someone had spilled red wine onto one of the reels that was discarded on the floor. I scrubbed the sticky residue off the movie as well as I could and we boxed up the reels in their tattered condition. My friend, the associate professor, left after breakfast and he drove the movie back to the University.

About twenty years later, I read an interview with the director of Im Lauf der Zeit, Wim Wenders. He was asked why this film, perhaps, the greatest of his works, was not currently available on DVD. Wenders answered: "The movie doesn’t exist in any prints that are really good enough for me to endorse as my work. I love this picture very much, but all the prints that I have seen are in bad shape. I’d rather that the movie be lost than be projected as a mere shadow of itself." To this day, I am not certain whether a properly restored version of Im Lauf der Zeit exists.

I recount this anecdote because James Whale’s The Old Dark House, one of the most important horror films of the early sound era, was thought to be lost. The film was legendary, particularly for featuring Boris Karloff in his first role after Frankenstein but no one knew if there were any prints remaining of this motion picture.

Curtis Harrington was friends with James Whale in his declining years. When Whale died, Harrington, a gay man who admired Whale immensely for being openly homosexual in Hollywood in the thirties and forties, devoted himself to restoring the picture. After many adventures, he found enough fragments of the movie to piece together the KINO version that we are screening tonight.

2. James Whale

James Whale was an Englishman born in the coal mining district of the West Midlands in 1889. As a young man, he moved to London to pursue a career drawing cartoons. World War One intervened and Whale found himself on the Western Front. It was his good fortune to be captured by the Germans during the Flanders campaign and he spent the second half of the conflict in a prisoner of war camp. POW camps during World War One seems to have been jolly places – at least compared with the misery in the trenches. Imprisonment probably saved Whale’s life and also showed him the way to a new, and more profitable, vocation. The inmates of WWI POW camps combated the tedium of their interment by various means. Soldiers formed choirs and musical ensembles; there were variety shows, Latin and Greek societies, and glee clubs. Whale came from a tradition that valued amateur theatrics (see, for example, Virginia Woolf’s luminous Between the Acts) and so he participated in plays that the prisoners produced for themselves. Whale said that he learned to act and direct in these POW camp shows.

After the Great War, Whale returned to London and a career in the theater. He directed a highly renowned production of R. C. Sheriff’s Journey’s End, an important play about the war. Journey’s End premiered in London’s West End in 1928 – Whale cast the then-unknown Lawrence Olivier in a starring role in the play. The show was so successful that it was exported to Broadway in 1929, however, with Colin Clive playing the role originated by Olivier. (Clive was later to play Dr. Victor Frankenstein in Hollywood.) Whale went with the show to the New York, met some Hollywood producers there, and was seduced into traveling to Los Angeles where he lived for the rest of his life. The first film Whale directed in Hollywood was a film version of Journey’s End (1930). He also directed the studio sequences in Hell’s Angels (1930); Howard Hughes produced the film and directed the spectacular aerial combat scenes.

In 1930, Tod Browning had directed a hit movie for Carl Laemmle’s Universal Studios based upon the Broadway production of Dracula. Universal wanted to make another horror film and developed a script for the movie Frankenstein. Robert Florey was hired to direct the film that was to star Bela Lugosi. Film historian’s differ about what happened next. In one version, Lugosi read the script and was disappointed in the characterization of the Monster, the role he was contracted to play. The Monster seemed to Lugosi to be nothing but a murderous automaton. Lugosi is reported to have said: "I was a great actor in Hungary. I am not going to play a mere scarecrow in this country." This account is probably apocryphal. Most likely, Universal wanted to make several horror films simultaneously and simply re-assigned Florey and Lugosi to The Murders in the Rue Morgue. James Whale was assigned direction of Frankenstein. He was close friends with another British expatriate, Boris Karloff, and he suggested Karloff for the role. Whale’s Frankenstein starring Karloff as the Monster was released on December 4, 1931 and is one of the most famous films of all time.

In quick succession, Whale directed three more horror films, all of them excellent: The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man (1933), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Critics are unanimous that The Bride of Frankenstein is the greatest horror film ever made. Although Universal’s horror pictures had excellent production values and were expensively mounted, the genre remained somewhat disreputable. On the strength of Whale’s work with the monster movies, the director was promoted to big-budget project with A-list stars. He made a number of prestige pictures in the Thirties with mixed results. (By this time, Whale was one of the highest paid directors in Hollywood; he moved to a Moorish palace in the Hollywood Hills with an enormous swimming pool – a mansion that is still a landmark in the Los Angeles real estate market. The place is called the Villa Sophia in Los Feliz near Griffith Park and you can rent the pool-house at the place for $395 a night – stay a month for $9500.)

Whale directed Showboat in 1936 demonstrating his versatility. The musical, with its subplot involving interracial marriage, was another box-office hit and the film is regarded as one of Hollywood’s best musicals. (For many years, the movie was inaccessible; it was withdrawn from circulation in the forties to avoid invidious comparisons with a planned remake, the 1951 version of the musical, a movie that suppressed the miscegenation plot. Paul Robeson, one of the stars in Whale’s version was blacklisted by that time and the movie wasn’t re-released until 2006.) I’ve seen Showboat and it has a harsh quality; it’s stylized and more like a Brecht play than a typical Hollywood musical. Whale directed the young Bette Davis in Waterloo Bridge in 1931, a film made at the same time that The Old Dark House was in production. Two of his films from the thirties, The Kiss before the Mirror (1933) and One More River (1934) are said to be superior melodramas that use a moving camera very similar to the staging that Max Ophuls had developed in German films of that same period (and that Ophuls used later in The Earrings of Madame de –).

It’s not clear exactly what ruined Whale’s Hollywood career. In 1939, he directed a swashbuckler, The Man in the Iron Mask, that was well-received and made good money. A couple of films made in the next two years were failures and, thereafter, Whale retired. Some writers suggest that Whale’s sexual orientation doomed his Hollywood career – the director was openly gay. Whale lived with David Lewis, a producer working for Thalberg, from 1930 to 1952. Some biographers believe that Thalberg’s early death put Whale in a difficult situation. Thalberg had been protecting Lewis who was his trusted aid and assistant. With Thalberg in the grave, other studio bosses were less willing to look the other way with respect to the relationship between Whale and Lewis. This seems unlikely to me. Hollywood is a strict meritocracy based on the most crass economic considerations – you flourish if your films make money; if not, you wither and die. Whale was wealthy and successful in the late thirties and seemed disenchanted with the movie business; he had been Universal’s number one director during that decade and I thing he wanted to retired when he was at the height of his prominence. He was continuously importuned to make horror films, a genre that he disdained, and his direction on his last pictures after The Man in the Iron Mask is said to be disengaged. Probably, he just lost interest in the arduous work of making movies.

Whale traveled extensively after his retirement. He sold the immense Alhambra of a house in Los Feliz and moved to Pacific Palisades. (His home there at 788 S. Amalfi Drive is large, but not as ostentatious as the palace in the Hollywood Hills; it looks like the kind of house that a Hormel executive would purchase.) Although he didn’t swim, Whale had a pool installed on the property in 1952 and reportedly hosted all-male pool parties.

Whale liked playing Bridge, apparently a kind of card game. He hosted card parties and smoked expensive cigars. He enjoyed painting and collected art. (In the twenties, he had been engaged to an artist, Dorothy Zinkelstein, who is well-known in England, and he collected her works.) In 1952, while traveling in Europe, he met a Parisian bartender named Perry Foegel. Whale fell in love with Foegle, brought him home from Europe, and installed him in his home in Pacific Palisades. This ended Whale’s relationship with David Lewis who, of course, moved out of the home. (Whale owned a gas station of all things and he had Foegel work at that place, pumping gas.) Lewis and Whale remained friends, however, and it was Lewis who discovered Whale’s suicide note after the director’s death and kept it from publication for many years.

Whale was sick and possibly depressed in 1956 and the Spring of 1957. He was 67, although customarily he gave his age as seven years younger. On May 29, 1957, Whale wrote a note "To All I Love" in ballpoint pen and sealed it in an envelope. He had a couple drinks, took some sedatives, and, then, pitched himself face-forward into the shallow end of his pool, striking his forehead on the cement. His maid found him unconscious in the water. She called for an ambulance and Whale was transported to the Santa Monica Hospital but he was dead on arrival.

Whale’s note reads in part:

Do not grieve for me. My nerves are all shot and for the last year I have been in agony day and night – except when I sleep with sleeping pills – and the only peace I have by day is when I am drugged by the pills....The future is just old agae and illness and pain. Goodbye al and thank you for all your love. I must have peace and this is the only way.

The note is signed "Jimmy." It’s interesting that he uses old World War One parlance to describe his condition – "(his) nerves are all shot." Whale was afraid that his nervous condition would require that he be hospitalized for mental illness, an ordeal he was not willing to face. There has been speculation that Whale died as a result of foul play, but this does not seem to have been the case.

According to manifests for Transatlantic cruises, Whale was between 5 foot 9 and 5 foot 11. He had blue eyes and was rail thin. Those who knew him described Whale as "dapper" and a "dandy." He spoke with a pronounced upper class British accent that was apparently affected – he concealed his West Midlands accent from the coal mines of his youth. He was generous and everyone that knew him liked him immensely. The only exception seems to have been Elsa Lanchester, another expatriate Brit married to the homosexual Charles Laughton. She worked with Whale on The Bride of Frankenstein and said that he looked "curiously like a monkey." Curtis Harrington, who was a close friend of Jimmy Whale, attributed Lanchester’s comments to spite and bitterness over her own unhappy marriage to Laughton. On the later shipping manifests, Whale identified his profession as "painter."

Whale’s ghost haunted the Pacific Palisades house for a number of years and caused all sorts of mischief, suggesting, perhaps, that his suicide had not brought him rest. His spirit was exorcized before Goldie Hawn acquired the property in the 1980's. Whale’s final years are the subject of a conventional if distinguished film, Gods and Monsters starring Sir Ian MacKellen as James Whale and Brendon Frasier as his gardener and fictitious love interest.


3. Production Notes
Hollywood is a company town and, particularly in the thirties, films were produced on the basis of personal associations between artists. You made movies with the same folks with whom you socialized. This is particularly true of The Old Dark House. Ben Levy was imported from London to write the script based on J.B. Priestley’s bestselling novel Benighted – the book was published in the United States under the same title as the movie. Levy was a prominent playwright in London and Whale had directed several of his theatrical works in the mid-twenties before traveling to America. Levy was a close friend to Charles Laughton and recruited him for the film. In London, Whale had directed Ernest Thesiger in a number of plays and cast him as Roland Femm, the signature role for the film. Karloff, as noted before, had worked with Whale in Frankenstein, only a few months earlier. Similarly, the actor playing the demented Saul Femm, Brember Wills, was a British thespian, also one of Whale’s friends and a man he had directed on stage. Raymond Massey, a Canadian native, was also familiar to Whale on the basis of London theater-work, including plays for which Whale had designed sets or directed. Accordingly, The Old Dark House is a reunion for a number of prominent British stage actors. (Sound films had replaced silent movies in Hollywood two or three years earlier. Many silent era actors and actresses spoke with thick foreign accents or had voices that sounded unpleasant when recorded – silent film stars were cast on the basis of their luminous physical beauty. With the inception of sound, Hollywood, not surprisingly, turned to the London stage and its wealth of Shakespearian-trained professionals for performers who were not only handsome but could speak with perfect diction.)

The female performers in The Old Dark House are equally accomplished and similarly connected to the London Theater scene. Eva Moore (playing the deaf religious fanatic Rebecca Femm) was a well-known British character actor and renowned for her Shakespeare work. Moore had been feted as the most beautiful woman in London around the turn of the century and photographs taken of her at the time that The Old Dark House was made reveal that she retained her stylish glamor in the thirties. She had appeared in Whale stage productions in London as had Lilian Bond, one of the two ingenues in the film. Gloria Stuart (who plays Mrs. Waverton) was from Santa Monica. She was nominated for an Academy Award when she was 87 for her role in James Cameron’s Titanic. She died when she was 100 years old in 2010 and provides a commentary track on The Old Dark House DVD as released by KINO, recalling her work on the movie seventy-five years earlier.

Whale’s brilliance in casting the film, based to some degree on contacts with Levy, is shown by the fact the Old Dark Film is the Hollywood debut for Melvyn Douglas, Ernest Thesiger, Raymond Massey, and Charles Laughton, all men who would be ubiquitous in American films for decades. (Melvyn Douglas won an Academy Award for his role in the Paul Newman movie, Hud released in 1963). Although the film was virtually impossible to see after 1940, the movie has cast a long shadow in another respect: Charles Addams, the New Yorker cartoonist, has acknowledged that he based his sinister butler in the Addams family cartoons on Karloff’s brutish Morgan.

In 1927, the German emigre Paul Leni directed The Cat and the Canary for Universal. This film is the prototype haunted mansion picture, a comedy-horror movie about travelers stranded in a sinister Gothic structure replete with hidden passageways and eyes peering through holes cut in moldering portraits on the wall. Many of the pictorial elements prominent in The Old Dark House seem to derive from Leni’s picture. Leni had made a name for himself directing expressionist horror movies in Berlin, most notably Waxworks (1924), an omnibus film in which famous villains depicted in a wax museum (including Jack the Ripper) lurch into eerie life. Leni’s last Hollywood film was The Man Who Laughs (1928), one of the greatest silent films and, although made in Los Angeles, generally regarded as the last fully realized German expressionist classic. Leni would undoubtedly have directed Frankenstein and other Universal horror films but he died of blood poisoning in 1929.

Movies were made quickly in the early thirties. Photography began on the film in April 1932 and the movie was ready for release in mid-summer of that year. (The picture was one of four movies directed by James Whale is the period of twelve months – the others were Waterloo Bridge, Frankenstein, and The Impatient Maiden.) Release of the film was delayed until October 1932 on the basis of contractual agreements with Paramount. Paramount had loaned its contract actor, Melvyn Douglas, to Universal for the The Old Dark House and Universal had agreed to defer release of Whale’s film until after a Paramount picture starring Douglas was shown beginning in August of 1932. It is estimated that the film cost about $250,000 although budget and accounting information relating to the movie has been lost.

Audiences initially flocked to the picture, primarily to see Karloff. However, word of mouth was poor – Karloff’s role disappointed his fans and box-office receipts for the movie collapsed in the second week of its release. In the United Kingdom, however, the film was an enormous success. Critical reception was mixed – Variety and the LA critics panned the movie but it was praised in New York.

The film was re-released in 1939 and played briefly as a secondary feature in double and triple bills. Then, the movie was lost.


Curtis Harrington began his career as an experimental film maker. Later, he worked in Hollywood and made several highly regarded, if obscure horror films, most notably Nighttide (with Dennis Hopper in 1961) and What’s the Matter with Helen?, starring Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters in 1971. (Harrington is a remarkable figure – he knew literally everyone in Hollywood and his affiliations span the not-inconsiderable distance between the Hollywood demi-monde such as Forrest J. Ackerman, the editor of Famous Movie Monsters magazine, and his girlfriend Vampirella, to people like Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier.)

Harrington was fascinated by the Hollywood horror films that had been made in his youth. He recalled seeing an enormous billboard when he was a little boy on Sunset Strip for The Bride of Frankenstein that terrified and attracted him in equal measure. Harrington, who was gay, had friends of friends who knew Whale – particularly Christopher Isherwood – and, in the early fifties, wheedled his way into an invitation to one of the director’s pool parties in Pacific Palisades. (Isherwood’s boyfriend, Paul Bachardy, was a close friend of Gloria Stuart and she often went to Whale’s house to play Bridge with him.) Harrington was very handsome, athletic, and charismatic (and seems to have been a very affable fellow) and Whale was immediately attracted to him. For several years, Whale was a mentor to the young film maker and gave him career advice.

Around 1955, Harrington encountered Whale in Paris. Harrington was living hand-to-mouth and Whale generously gave his young protegee a significant amount of money to help him out. Harrington knew that there was a single surviving print of The Old Dark House maintained by the British Film Institute. He went to London and persuaded BFI officials to screen the movie as part of a retrospective of Whale’s films. The movie was well-received and Whale’s reputation, which was in decline, began to revive. Whale attended the retrospective and was pleased to be recognized again for his work completed 20 or more years before. Later, however, the BFI print of The Old Dark House went missing and by the mid-sixties the film was deemed irretrievably lost. Of course, films that can’t be seen can’t be criticized and the reputation of The Old Dark House increased dramatically during the years when it was inaccessible. Indeed, the two most famous "lost films" in the horror genre were Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927) starring Lon Chaney as a hideous vampire and The Old Dark House.

Harrington suspected that a negative of the film existed somewhere in the Universal vaults. He personally explored the Universal collections in Hollywood but couldn’t locate a negative. Some documents that he discovered suggested, however, that the negative for the film had been shipped to New York for storage. (Universal maintains film repository in New York City.) Harrington made inquiries and persuaded a clerk who was a casual acquaintance to search the inventory of negatives kept in New York. The clerk contacted him and said that he had been unable to find the film. Harrington thought that the clerk’s search had been desultory. He demanded that the man make another search for the negative. A couple of weeks passed and the clerk contacted Harrington and said that he checked through most of the material in the vault, all of it uncatalogued, and that the movie was, indeed, lost. "Make one more check, please," Harrington demanded. He told the clerk that all records led to the conclusion that the film’s negative was in the New York repository: "I just know it’s there," To his surprise, the clerk said he would search the vault one more time. A week later, Harrington was told that a nitrate negative of The Old Dark House had been discovered.

Harrington traveled to New York to examine the negative. The footage was a "track negative" – that is, a camera negative with the soundtrack recorded. The first reel was decomposed and could not be used to make a print. The remaining reels were in reasonably good condition. Fortunately, Harrington located a so-called "lavender print" – sometimes called a "fine-grain master". A "lavender print" or "protection print" is a positive print of the movie with very fine resolution used to dupe additional prints. (The prints have a purplish grain in the emulsion and so are nicknamed "lavender prints.") Using the "lavender" or protection print, Harrington was able to duplicate the entire film with its soundtrack.

Restoration of the film was accomplished at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. Four master-prints were made: one was given to the Museum of Modern Art in recognition of its role in financing the restoration; the second print was delivered to the AFI (American Film Institute), an agency also participating in funding the project. The other prints were provided to Universal and the Eastman House.

Universal no longer owned the rights to the film. It had sold the story-property to Columbia in the fifties. (And Columbia had made a substandard version of the movie in 1963 directed by William Castle.) Harrington obtained legal clearances for the film and since 2008 it has been available on KINO Dvd.



The Old Dark House is a striking film that has attracted a cult following. Its influence, direct and indirect, has been substantial. Pictures as disparate as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre assemble motifs invented by Whale and company in the 1932 picture. The concept of travelers forced to gather for the night in a sinister mansion inhabited by a grotesque family harboring a terrible secret seems singularly productive. The perverse Femm family are the ancestors of the gender-bending characters in Rocky Horror Picture and the cannibal clans in Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. In particular, the concept of a reclusive family that combines savagery, gentility, and strong, if warped, affection between its members has spawned both innumerable comedy and horror films. Of course, the premise is so powerful and appealing that if Whale had not invented the Femm family (with the help of J.B. Priestley), surely some other film maker would have discovered characters like them.

Like another notable picture made around the same time, Edgar Ulmer’s bizarre The Black Cat, Whale’s picture preserves some of the nightmarish atmosphere of the Great War. Indeed, it can be argued that parts of The Old Dark House indirectly invoke World War One and its consequences. Priestley’s bestselling novel, Benighted referenced World War One explicitly. It’s male characters (with the exception of the Femms) were all battlefield survivors and their attitudes were toward life (and death) were formed in the trenches. The opening scenes of The Old Dark House showing the sedan plowing through mud in a heavy rainstorm invokes Paeschendale and Ypres, albeit very indirectly. (The shocking image of the landslide also seems to suggest some sort of awful muddy catastrophe only narrowly averted.) The Femm family in their rotting house suggests allegorically the decaying mansion of Europe, it’s surface gentility concealing madness and nihilistic destruction. In a hidden chamber in the mansion, a madman lurks who is ready to light the whole place on fire and who will delight in the conflagration. A brutal servant, who seems to be a villain, is merely the assistant of a more deadly madman who remains concealed until the film’s climax. While all this mayhem is underway, the lord of the house hides and, when he appears the next morning, cheerfully greets the guests as if nothing untoward has happened – it’s business as usual with all the old customs and traditions, seemingly, intact after the corpses have been removed from the battlefield. An embittered religious fanatic recites prayers while a demented 102 year-old patriarch giggles in his bed, apparently relishing the prospect of the destruction of the whole enterprise. These figures seem to embody the dismay felt by intellectuals and former soldiers at the post-war state of the world. Horrific violence had only made Europe more dangerous – lunatics were lurking in the attic ready to light the whole place afire once more.

Some critics claim The Old Dark House as a precursor to the film movement known as New Queer Cinema. This claim arises from two factors – first, the film implicitly raises gender issues in a way that anticipates the concerns of later gay cinema; second, The Old Dark House was made by an openly homosexual director with several gay actors and, perhaps, qualifies as

"Queer Cinema" for that reason. Certainly, there is something odd about the family name conferred on the reclusive and sinister family occupying the old dark house –they are the Femms. Ernest Thesiger, who plays Horace Femm, was the Queen of Camp and there is no doubt that he lends homosexual inflections to his role. And the actor playing the 102 year-old Sir Roderick Femm, although credited as John Dudgeon, is clearly a woman. (The role was played by a British character actress, then, only 62, Elspeth Dudgeon). Not much attempt is made to disguise the fact that Roderick Femm is, in fact, an old woman. Morgan seems to have a deep affection for Saul Femm and, perhaps, even loves him. Furthermore, the film luxuriates in glamorous imagery of Melvyn Douglas playing Penderal - the sort of soulful, soft-focus lensing applied to leading ladies like Garbo and Harlow is here utilized to depict Penderal. Penderal seems to be made-up to emphasize his luminous eyes. By contrast, the camera-work devoted to the leading ladies is not particularly flattering – they are shot in a "girl next door" mode. Accordingly, the film certainly seems to toy with gender issues in a way that later writers would identify as "camp."

Of course, a film can be defined as related as Queer Cinema on the basis of the director and actor. This raises an interesting question: Is a film an example of Queer Cinema because its director was openly homosexual? Or does the film have to address homosexual issues? In The Old Dark House, the director and one of the leading characters, Ernest Thesiger, playing Horace Femm were overtly homosexual. Charles Laughton was closeted, but known to be homosexual by those in Whale’s coterie. (The sexual orientation of the remarkable Brember Wills, the character who steals the movie with his portrayal of Saul Femm, is not established. Indeed, very little is known about Wills who was born in Philadelphia in 1883, but worked mostly in London on the stage as a character actor. Obviously, Whale admired him immensely because he imported the actor to Hollywood to play his role in the film. Wills made only one or two other movies and no biographical information about him is available. He must have been selected for the role because he is a very small man, slight, and, therefore, makes a strong contrast with the hulking Karloff as Morgan. Karloff has to carry him upstairs, a feat that might be difficult if the actor were larger and heavier. It’s interesting to contrast Douglas gallantly carrying his romantic interest, Gladys (Lillian Bond), who protests that she is heavy – Douglas, in fact, drops her twice climbing the steps to the mansion, a faux pas not permitted in the more dainty and romantic scene in which Karloff bears the dead Saul up to the steps.)

Ernest Thesiger, in particular, was notorious for his campy and histrionic homosexuality. Thesiger’s blood was blue – he was born into a family of British aristocrats. Indeed, the date of this birth coincided with the butchery of his uncle by the Zulus at the Battle of Isandlwana. (His cousin, Wilfred Thesiger, was a famous explorer, specializing in heroic and dangerous treks across the empty quarter of Saudi Arabia.) A beautiful young man, Thesiger was painted by John Singer Sargent and feted by high society. He painted, performed in plays, and was friends with many notable people, including George Bernard Shaw. At 35, Thesiger volunteered for military service in World War One. He claimed that he sought enlistment in a Scottish battalion because he wished to "wear a kilt into battle." "I wasn’t accepted," Thesiger said, "because my feigned Scottish accent wasn’t convincing enough." Thesiger fought in France where he was wounded in 1915. A shell fragment damaged his hands. For physical therapy, Thesiger was prescribed needlepoint and became a master of that craft. (In fact, Thesiger was so accomplished at needlepoint that he was appointed conservator to the Queen’s tapestries – The Master of the Queen’s Tapestries – a role that he relished until the end of his life.) Thesiger volunteered at military hospitals for the duration of the war, teaching wounded men to do needlepoint to pass the time during their convalescence. After the war, he married a society woman, but made no attempt to disguise his homosexuality. He was a fixture in London theater in the twenties and invited to Hollywood by Whale to star in The Old Dark House. Thesiger is famous today primarily for his unique and waspish presence in this film and The Bride of Frankenstein in which he plays Dr. Septimus Pretorius. On set, Thesiger ceaseless passed the time with his needlepoint and called himself "the stitching bitch."

A much-debated question is whether Whale’s succession of great films made in the thirties represents Queer Cinema avant la lettre. Curtis Harrington, who knew Whale well, says that he would have been horrified by the idea. Harrington said that Whale was an old-time Hollywood director whose chief objective was to make the most entertaining film possible. (Critics also observe that most of the bizarre elements in The Old Dark House derive directly from the novel – Whale didn’t invent those things.) Whale didn’t regard his movies as art and deprecated them as mere amusements when asked about them. Much of New Queer Cinema focuses on grievance and oppression. Harrington, himself gay, noted that neither Thesiger nor Whale regarded themselves as oppressed; they were not outcasts or despised but rather the center of a large network of social acquaintances, friends, and lovers in Hollywood, a place generally tolerant with respect to sexual mores. Accordingly, Harrington scoffs at the idea that there are gay themes implicit in Whale’s movie. But, of course, the evidence is on the screen and each viewer must decide for himself what to make of it.

Sunday, August 17, 2014


In the surrealist works of Max Ernst, the figure of Loplop, the King of the Birds is particularly striking.  Tall and regal, sporting a tuxedo, Loplop is a man with the head of a bird.  With beady-eye, he strides through costume balls and presides at the dinner parties of the haute bourgeois.  A figure like Loplop appears in Georges Franju's 1963 film, Judex.  Judex (Latin for "judge" or "avenger") is a proto-super hero, a masked vigilante impelled by obscure motives not to fight crime but to avenge and punish its results.  A wealthy banker whose fortune is built on blackmail and extortion hosts a masquerade party.  Judex attends, a stately figure in evening clothes with a huge, glaring bird's head; carrying a dead pigeon in his hands, he approaches the banker through the crowd of glittering socialites like Nemesis and strikes the man dead on the stroke of midnight.  The imagery has a nightmarish beauty and surrealist power.  This is not surprising since the scene is a reprise of a similar sequence in Louis Feuillade's 1914 serial, Judex.  Feuillade's 5 1/2 hour serial is packed with weird events:  on ordinary suburban streets, usually deserted at twilight or early morning, masked figures climb facades, women in sleek cat suits duel with stilettos, explosions rock trees, and pale, fainting maidens are borne away in the arms of caped and shadowy villains.  Feuillade's achievement was to invent a kind of cinematic paranoia that has been indelible throughout the history of film:  on a quiet street or in a peaceful garden, a horrible crime is being committed -- drawing rooms and salons conceal hidden snares, trapdoors over abysmal oubliettes, and the ground itself is mined with subterranean tunnels and dungeons.  The surrealists were enamored of Fueillade's immense and strangely poetic serials, Fantomas, Judex, The Vampires, and Barabbas, made between 1911 and 1919, all of them featuring convoluted, endlessly regenerating narratives.  Thus, Max Ernst's Loplop alludes to scenes in Judex (1914).  In turn, Georges Franju's remake of Judex in 1963 invokes both Ernst's King of the Birds and the surrealist artist's source, Feuillade's original serial. 

Franju compresses the languid and intricate, ever-evolving Feuillade narrative into a brisk 97 minutes.  The film belongs to the "school of velocity" -- it is all climax with almost no development, less then three for four minute of scene setting and exposition and, then, a network of abductions, chases, and duels culminating in an assault by black, masked figures on a towering tenement building on a desolate and dark side-street:  a voluptuous circus performer clad all in white wrestles with the villainess in her ebony catsuit on the roof of the house, a hostage, his face swathed in black cloth, and tied to a pillar is stabbed in the heart, four men climb a great brick wall, clinging to its bare windowless escarpment like flies.   Franju stages his action with cool, impassive, and, even, theoretical seeming objectivity -- nothing is excessively dramatized and everything is filmed lucidly, with an eye toward the utmost clarity.  The effect is curiously documentary -- strange occurrences captured by the camera and presented in a way that seems to deny their oddity.  The acting, as befits a super-hero movie, is stolid and wooden.  For, at least, half of the film, the heroine, played by the tremulous Edith Scob, is comatose -- she is carried around by various henchmen and villains and rescuers, a frail pennant of a woman, lying like lace across the arms of the man bearing her away.  But she is apparently indestructible:  cast into a river, she floats face up like Millais' Ophelia in the famous pre-Raphaelite painting and emerges from the glittering current, still unconscious but undrowned.  Judex communicates by carrier pigeon and has imprisoned his victim, the evil banker (who is the father of Edith Scob's character) in the cellars of a ruined Chateau.  For some inexplicable reason, Judex watches the evil banker through a prototype television in a curious Art-nouveau cabinet -- why he doesn't just use a peephole is unclear.  When the banker realizes that he is being scrutinized by a sort of mirror-like lens, he hurls his blanket onto the lens apparatus only to have the cloth instantly burst into flames.  There are secret passageways, trapdoors everywhere, sinister hordes of black-clad henchmen, a beautiful young nun who is, in fact, a murderess -- she favors either a silvery stiletto strapped to her thigh or a switchblade for her assassinations.  An ambulance conceals villains; a desk suddenly sprouts handcuffs to trap a man trying to open a lock box on that desk.  Every day events and objects are malign and the film seems like a bizarrely rational version of Hitchcock, Hitchcock without the operatic hysteria or, perhaps, like Fritz Lang's films featuring Dr. Mabuse.  The narrative is designed so that every event, even a killing is revocable -- everything that we are shown will turn out to be the opposite of what we expect and there is always a spectator, a stowaway, someone tucked into the corner of the scene or eavesdropping from behind a wall, a keyhole peeper who will witness the crime and who can summon help or villainous reinforcements as the plot demands.  In this way, Franju pays homage to the continuously evolving plots of the ancient serials, the endless array of hairbreadth escapes and rescues.  Before the final episode, a sad-looking little circus parades through empty midnight streets.  But the circus has a resplendent lady acrobat and she knows the hapless detective who is always too little too late and she climbs the façade of the building harboring the bad guys up to its very cornice to fight the catsuited villainess -- the woman has not been introduced to us before and the movie's audacity of bringing this character into the picture as a deus ex machina in a skin-tight white body-stocking is breathtaking or irritating or both depending upon your mood.  As Julie and I watched this film an elegant spider descended from an overhead fan, dangling like a black onyx pendant on its web directly in front of the TV, certainly a suitable footnote or appendix to this film.   

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Great Beauty (Film Group Essay)

The Great Beauty


The word trenini means "little train" in Italian and names a popular kind of conga-line dance. In The Great Beauty, someone at a dance-party says: "They have the most beautiful trenini here in Rome. They are beautiful because they go nowhere."

The director of The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino has said: "In Rome, we are drawn to oblivion, to nothingness. Parties are the epitome of this void – they’re beautiful but senseless."


The Great Beauty is an Italian film directed by Paolo Sorrentino and released at Cannes in 2013. The movie was awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in that same year. The picture has been successful internationally and has made a profit at the box office.

In interviews, Sorrentino describes the film as an attempt to document the corruption of the Berlusconi era in Italy. (Part of Berlusconi’s media empire is Medusa Films, one of the production companies responsible for The Great Beauty). Italian corruption, as evidenced by the films of Federico Fellini, is highly photogenic and the line between criticism and celebration is dauntingly narrow, a razor’s edge. The movie is beautiful, lavishly symbolic, and lengthy. In all of these characteristics, the movie invokes Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, a great film about decadence along the Via Venuta in Rome, one of the most influential pictures of the early 1960's. Both pictures follow the experiences of a pleasure-loving Roman man wandering about the Eternal City, often at night. Although exuberant in their display of pleasure and beauty, both films are essentially moral – they probe a hollowness and rot at the center of Roman high society.

The history of film in Italy is rife with examples of estimable movies disliked by Italian critics and Italian audiences. Most of Fellini’s films were panned by Italian critics; as early as Rosselini’s Rome: Open City, Italian movie reviewers specialized in denouncing Italian films as crass, vulgar, and, even, unpatriotically critical. The Great Beauty belongs to this tradition: when first released in Italy, the movie was attacked as derivative and bombastic. A few reviews were mildly favorable, but they were lukewarm at best. In the rest of Europe and the United States, however, The Great Beauty was a sensation, easily recouping its 9 million Euro budget at the box-office and, in fact, earning more than 23 million Euros world-wide. When the film was awarded the Academy Award for Best Picture in Hollywood, Italian critics had to take notice of the movie and grudgingly re-evaluated the picture: perhaps, it wasn’t so bad after all. About a week after the film had won the Academy Award, The Great Beauty was shown on TV, on one of Berlusconi’s networks. The presentation was calamitous: the film was presented with many, many commercial interruptions, expanding its running time from two hours and 22 minutes to almost three hours (over 170 minutes). The movie is episodic and shown with innumerable commercial interruptions the picture became indecipherable and tedious – Sorrentino’s carefully configured transitions and thematic bridges were obscured by the commercials and many viewers found the movie initially intriguing, but, then, confusing: just one damn thing after another. Some thought that Berlusconi’s television network intentionally slashed the film into a cubist "hash" as a reprisal against the social critique embedded in the picture.

Although Sorrentino avoids explicit social and political commentary, the film’s epic denunciation of Italian society struck uncomfortably close, particularly with respect to members of the Roman elite. Italy has one of the slowest growing economies in the world and the country’s fiscal malaise seems reflected in the film’s portrayal of aimlessness and moral chaos. The Great Beauty is a film that goes nowhere – one critic has characterized its only plot as comprised by a series of increasingly complex answers to a single question: "Why hasn’t the protagonist written another book after his initial success with his novelette, The Human Apparatus, forty years earlier?" But the reason The Great Beauty goes nowhere is because Italy is going nowhere; the country is languishing and Sorrentino both explores, and dramatizes, this dilemma in his film.


Paolo Sorrentino

Paolo Sorrentino is 44. He was born in Naples, a place that he describes as naturally "theatrical". Sorrentino first came to international attention after directing the 2004 film The Consequences of Love, a movie that also stars Toni Sevillo, the actor who plays Jep in The Great Beauty. Sorrentino is often lauded for his highly literate screenplays – he has, in fact, written and published two novels.

Sevillo appears in Sorrentino’s next film, Il Divo (2008), a biopic about an Italian politician, Giulio Andreotti. The movie is exorbitant, wildly expressionist, and portrays Italian politics in a profoundly sinister light. (The movie is also very topical and complex, featuring elaborate Machiavellian maneuvers by the strangely vacant and robotic Andreotti – I had no idea who was doing what to whom; there are a lot of lurid murders in the picture but I never figured-out who was being killed or why.) Sean Penn was on the Cannes jury that considered Il Divo when it was shown in the French competition. He approached Sorrentino after a screening of Il Divo and asked the director to make a film using him as an actor. The result was This Must be the Place released in 2011. This Must be the Place was shot mostly in the United States, in fact, in Indiana and also Utah – both places that Sorrentino says that he loved. (He had not been to any parts of the United States other than New York City and San Francisco prior to shooting this movie and his English was only barely serviceable.) Visually lavish, This Must be the Place is similarly operatic with respect to its narrative – the story involves an aging Goth rock star who leaves his hermitage in Ireland for his father’s death bed. His father, a holocaust survivor, entrusts his son with the mission of hunting down and seeking revenge on a German guard who tortured him in a concentration camp in World War Two. As it turns out, the guard’s children live in Indiana and the old man is finally discovered in Utah. The film turned out to be impossible to market – Sean Penn’s middle-aged rock-star looks so strange and has such a peculiar affect that the movie is immediately very alienating. When I first saw trailers for the picture, I thought that the movie was some kind of wacky comedy. (Penn modeled his performance on the appearance and behavior of Robert Smith, the lead singer of The Cure.) But, once the estranging aspects of the movie are accepted, the picture is remarkably interesting, a very penetrating road-movie about the American midwest and west, and the film was certainly one of the most noteworthy pictures of 2011.

Critics immediately pointed out the close resemblances between Fellini’s landmark La Dolce Vita and The Great Beauty. Sorrentino is uncomfortable with those comparisons because he reveres Fellini and regards him as a great master of the cinema – "he is the beacon of cinema," Sorrentino says. In response to comments about the relationship between the two films, Sorrentino simply notes that he is an Italian film maker and the influence of Fellini remains inescapable for directors raised in that tradition.

At present, Sorrentino is working on a film about a composer that is in production in the Alps with Michael Caine, apparently, playing a lead role. The movie is called In the Future.

Sorrentino has said that he had a poor relationship with his own father and that he regards Toni Servillo, who is fifteen years older than him, as a kind of surrogate father. "To this date," Sorrentino says, "all of my films are about the search for a father." The director has made four films with Servillo as his leading man. Toni Servillo is a fellow Neapolitan and, according to Sorrentino, "can do anything as an actor" – before working with Sorrentino, he was primarily famous as stage-actor. This range and flexibility is obvious: Sevillo is nightmarishly menacing as a gangster in Gomorrah (2008), gives an expressionistic performance in Il Divo that seems to cross-breed Nosferatu with Richard Nixon, and is instantly appealing in The Great Beauty, a film that might be insufferable with another kind of leading man. Servillo shares with Sorrentino a quality of "mysterious melancholy" that the director thinks important. Sevillo is a well-known director of Italian opera in his own right.

In an interview, Sorrentino said that he conceived of Jep Gambardalla as a figure as handsome and attractive as Paul Newman. Servillo wears blue contact lenses over his brown eyes. When he says "I’m a gentleman – that’s one thing I am sure of," the audience knows what he means and believes him.




The Grand Beauty begins at Fontano dell’ Acqua Paolo, the first great fountain built on the Left Bank of the Tiber, the so-called "great fountain" or fontanone – it was built at the terminus of a Roman aqueduct by Pope Paul V between 1610 and 1620.

The fountain is located on the Janiculum hill. The vista from that hill, which either kills or renders unconscious, the Japanese tourist is a famous overlook in Rome. (Some critics think the Japanese tourist collapses due to Stendhal syndrome – that is, a tourist swooning as a result of an overwhelming excess of beauty.)

Several scenes are filmed near Bernini’s fountain in Piazza Navone, across the Sant’ Agnese church. The small circular structure in which a little girl has been lost – she cries out to Jep from the crypt – is Il Tempietto by Bramante, a small Baroque mausoleum inside the courtyard of the Church of San Pietro in Montorio, a church erected on the site where St. Peter was crucified head-down on the Janiculum Hill.

The nude woman with the hammer-and-sickle razored into her pubic hair performs at Parco degli Acquedotti, a public park in Rome preserving ruins of aqueducts. Of course, many sequences in the film feature the Tiber River, particularly the beautiful bridges in the area of Hadrian’s Tomb, the Castello

During the night-time tour of Rome’s most beautiful buildings, Jep and company walk through the Barbarini Palace, specifically entering the Galeria Nazionale dell Antiqua Arte to see Raphael’s painting called La Fornarina ("The Female Baker"). The camera focuses on the picture, showing a nude woman covering her left breast with her right hand. Some writers believe that the model is covering her breast to conceal a cancerous tumor – probably, the reason that Sorrentino features the image in the movie: Rome’s beauty contains a cancerous rot.

During this nocturnal ramble, Jep with the stripper, Ramona, and Stefan enter the so-called Borromini colonnade, an architectural folly in the "secret garden" of the Palazzo Spada. Borromini designed the colonnade with forced perspective, creating the illusion that the corridor is more than 60 feet long, when, in fact, it is only 24 feet in depth. This "trompe l’oeil" corridor was once marked with a poem inscribed in marble concluding with the line: "The world’s grandeur is nothing but an illusion," a melancholy sentiment in keeping with the film’s theme.

Another stop on Stefan’s midnight tour is the Capitoline Museum, specifically its Palazzo Nuovo, where the camera briefly picks out fragmentary perspectives on the Dying Gaul, the Capitoline Venus, and Cupid with Psyche, all famous sculptures in that place. Finally, Stefan shows Jep and Romana, the famous view through the keyhole in the portone at the Villa del Priorato di Malta (the Palace of the Maltese Knight’s Templar) located on the Aventine Hill. That keyhole view shows the dome of St. Peters framed by ancient cypress trees.

Jep encounters the giraffe and magician in the cavernous ruins of the Baths of Caracalla.




The cinematic precursors to The Great Beauty are evident: La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 ½ (1963), and The Terrace (1980) by Ettore Scola. Sorrentino invokes these films from time to time, albeit obliquely – he claims that the main citation of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita are several shots of the Via Vittorio Venuto (the Via Veneto), the location of all the debauchery in that film, now "very much changed" and "unrecognizable" (since I don’t know Rome, I didn’t recognize the place myself.) It is helpful, perhaps, to summarize the thematic concerns of these films briefly in light of Sorrentino’s project in The Great Beauty.

In La Dolce Vita, Marcello Mastroianni plays a cynical journalist who longs to write a serious novel. Mastroianni’s best friend, Steiner, encourages him to work on his novel, but the journalist is continuously diverted by parties and womanizing. The film is haunted by religious ecstasy and suicide: in the country a little girl claims to have seen visions of the Virgin and one of the journalist’s girlfriends attempts suicide. At the end of the film, Steiner kills himself and his children. The journalist goes to an orgy that lasts until dawn. In the grey light of early morning, the exhausted party-goers wander out on the beach to look at "a sea monster" that has washed-up on the sand. A beautiful young girl beckons to the journalist but he turns away from her. Mastroianni is also featured in 8 ½. In that film, a director is working on an expensive science fiction movie – the film features vast ruinous sets at Cinecitta studios near Rome. The director is "blocked" and feels that he can not complete the big budget movie on which he is laboring. Like the journalist in La Dolce Vita, the director is distracted by parties and offers of sex from beautiful women – he may also be going mad since he is afflicted by nightmarish and surreal visions entangled with nostalgic recollections of his boyhood. In the end, as in The Great Beauty, the film that the director makes is not his high-budget planned project, but a film about not being able to make a film – in the end of The Great Beauty, Jep seems poised to begin writing another novel: the movie is about his odyssey toward a new book. The Terrace involves a group of Italian intellectuals who meet on a terrace overlooking Rome for a meal in which they discuss politics, art, and society – this film is evoked in The Grand Beauty primarily by Jep’s spectacular rooftop terrace overlooking the Roman Colosseum.

There is a literary antecedent to The Grand Beauty as well – a writer named Raffaele La Capria and his book, The Mortal Wound. La Capria is a Neapolitan writer – unlike Jep, he has been prolific and has written many notable screenplays as well as essays, short stories and translations. (He is well-known in Italy for translating T. S. Eliot into Italian.) La Capria’s book The Mortal Wound is about a summer love affair between a young man and a beautiful girl that "goes nowhere" but haunts the man for the rest of his life. Sorrentino has remarked on his admiration for the novel which he regards as a "great classic of Italian literature."

As remarked in the film, the French novelist, Flaubert, said that it was his ambition to write a novel about "nothing." In this context, "nothing" means rumor, gossip, and "a thousand ways of wasting time," Sorrentino says. (The word "nothing" here as the same meaning as in the characterization of the TV sitcom, Seinfeld, as a show about "nothing.") Watching the film, one is unavoidably reminded of the career of Truman Capote. By his mid-twenties, Capote had published several classic books, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s and seemed poised to become a writer equivalent to F. Scott Fitzgerald, the chronicler of the sixties and seventies and beyond. But, after In Cold Blood, Capote frittered his time away courting the rich and famous, appearing on talk shows and hosting extravagant and, now, legendary parties. Instead of making art, he transformed his day to day life into art. Like Jep, Capote continued to work as a journalist and published many interviews with famous and glamorous people, but he never wrote another great book. Like Jep, he drowned in the "vortices of night life" and became the arbiter of a glittering jet-set world – but, in this social whirl, he didn’t really have time to write.




The Baroque

I don’t trust art-historical terms. In particular, I think it is gross falsification of the complexity of the history of styles and influences to claim that one specific type of art or creative expression is uniquely characteristic to an epoch. In my view, three principal modes of representation always co-exist: art can be mimetic (realistic) or it can be overtly stylized in two opposing modes: the classical versus the romantic. The romantic art made in Rome beginning around 1600 and, therefore, the expressive style that is most represented in the Eternal City has been called "the Baroque" – the artist who epitomizes the baroque is Bernini. I insist, however, that the baroque is a sub-species of the Romantic and opposed to classical canons of symmetry and decorum and perfected completion. Further, I insist that, in all eras, all three forms of representation (realistic, romantic and classical) are always present – sometimes, these differing modes of expression exist simultaneously in the same work of art.

The Grand Beauty is primarily baroque. This form of representation is consistent with the city where the story takes place. An opening shot of the muzzle of a cannon that fires a charge directly toward the camera that is deliriously craning back and away from this peril announces the baroque style in which the film will be presented. First, there is a pun: the opening shot is about a shot. Second, the image presents us with a theatrical event: a crowd of onlookers on the bridge above the cannon politely applaud the spectacle. Baroque art is fundamentally theatrical, designed as spectacle, as son et lumiere configured to involve the viewer. Finally, the cannon fired into the face of the audience establishes that the spectacle that the city presents will be enigmatic, inexplicable, and highly hazardous – you look at your risk. And, indeed, too much looking and participation can be deadly as witness the plight of the film’s hero.

Sorrentino constructs the film to mirror the consciousness of his protagonist, the bemused and melancholy Jep Gambardalla. Gambardalla is a flaneur, the man of the great city who spends his days exploring the alleys and byways of the city, looking for something – apparently, la grande Bellezza. The French word, flaneur, derives from flanerie, a term for "idly strolling," "ambling," "walking without objective." To the writers of Paris in the 19th century, the flaneur was the "city’s true sovereign," as Balzac noted, a man of leisure who enjoys "the gastronomy of the eye;" Baudelaire said that the flaneur perceived the city as a great work of art, a moving and living daguerrotype. In the 20th century, Walter Benjamin, in his massive, unfinished Arcades Project, characterized the flaneur as epitomizing modernity, the refined consciousness of the man who explores the city seeking its beauty and who remains remote, inaccessible, a connoisseur of the city’s secret treasures. Benjamin claimed that the flaneur represents a new aesthetic and, therefore, a new kind of sensibility – the flaneur is an intellectual dilettante, the detective and investigator of the city: one who sees and records, but does not intervene. To Benjamin, the figure of the flaneur was an emblem for a dispassionate modern bourgeois art, disengaged, dandyish, and exquisite. The flaneur, it should be noted, is the opposite of the gawker, the gaper – those who gawk at the city’s accidents and wonders are involved in them, stupefied and bewildered and beset by emotions of fear and identification. The flaneur has the opposite reaction – nothing that he sees touches him except as an aesthetic phenomenon.

Sorrentino devises the film to embody its themes. Jep is stalled and blocked; he makes no progress. As a consequence, the film’s time scheme is indecipherable. Time doesn’t really exist for Jep. Every day is like every other day. Indeed, as he ruefully points out, he goes to bed when others wake up and his nights are a continuous social vortex of partying, dinners, drinking, and flirtation. In the movie, we can’t tell how much time has passed. Presumably, Romana’s death must occupy several weeks or, even, months but we don’t experience the passage of time. Everything seems frozen in an eternal present.

Similarly, the film is fractured and episodic because Jep’s life has those characteristics. The movie doesn’t cohere into a narrative arc but Jep’s existence has lost the quality of a story. There is no plot, merely a sequence of highly colored and emotionally charged episodes. Space and time are fractured and treated as fragments, cubist elements in the composition. For instance, in the party scene featuring the little girl artist, we first see the child smeared with paint, forlorn, exhausted, a frightening apparition that materializes out of nowhere. Only later do we realize why the child is shown to us in this way – the film is presaging the emotional abuse inflicted upon this baby-artist, a kind of precocious Jackson Pollock. The image of the abused, paint-smeared moppet has leaped ahead of the narrative to reveal an aspect of cruelty and grotesque exploitation, something ghastly haunting the bright and elegant party: the truth is revealed before we are ready or prepared for the truth.

Like Jep, the film is de-centered, digressive – it wanders like a flaneur down one lane and, then, another. Although the movie is about Jep, the film slips away with him with ease to follow the adventures of other tangential characters. The center doesn’t hold; indeed, there may be no center. Instead, the movie tracks minor characters home from the party. We expect the film to remain tightly obedient to Jep’s activities, but, in fact, the narrative frequently abandons him to pursue other avenues, all of which turn out to be dead-ends. A woman mentions concerns about her son at a party. A few shots later we are with her in her dark palace. At the end of the hall, the woman’s son stands naked – he has painted himself red. Jep is nowhere to be seen – we have come home with the socialite after the party to encounter what she encounters. Of course, the de-centered character of the film, the movie’s willingness to show things from different perspectives, is announced at the outset: we see the mysterious death, or swoon, of the Japanese tourist. Jep, our hero, is nowhere to be seen and the opening episode serves as a kind of epigraph to the film, an introductory motto confirming the message conveyed by the cannon fired toward the camera in the beginning of the film: Rome’s great beauty is potentially lethal.

A film about the danger of distraction, The Great Beauty is itself continuously perplexed by distraction. The digressions, interludes, and episodes that lead nowhere are all epic, exhausting, encyclopediac in their scope. Sorrentino’s first, and favorite, cut of the movie was over 190 minutes long. Vast length is required to exhaust all avenues of meaning: Jep is shown searching for truth in the arts, erotic attachments, Leftist politics, and, at last, religion. In the end, memory shows him the path out of this labyrinth of disappointment. Sorrentino says that he wants "to exhaust the viewer" with his film.

In the first cut of the film, Jep interviews an elderly film maker. The man is still making movies and remarks that he remains younger than Manoela de Oliviera, the 104-year old Portuguese director. (We saw his ghost movie The Strange Case of Angelica last year.) The old man says that he wants to make a movie about a beautiful young girl whose eyes magically change in each shot from blue to green to violet to black. Jep asks the man how he came up with that idea. The elderly film maker describes how he was taken to see Turin’s first traffic light when he was a little boy. He was transfixed by the way the light changed from red to yellow to green – for me, he says, it was la granda Bellezza ("the great beauty"). Later, Jep is strolling in the campagna outside Rome and next to crumbling and ancient wall sees a traffic light incongruously installed in the green meadow. The light changes from red to green. Jep smiles.


Vor dem Gesetz

Kafka wrote a parable apposite to The Great Beauty. The name of the parable is "Before the Law." If you don’t know this little story, you should read it. (The story is important to me personally: when I first learned to read German, I was proud of my newfound talent; I recall translating the story for my mother at the kitchen table when I was nineteen.)

Kafka’s story is about a man "from the country" who has a petition that he wishes to present to the Law. A formidable-looking gatekeeper guards the entry-way to the imperial city and its courtrooms that are said to be deep within the city and protected by many walls within walls. The man asks to be admitted to the city. The gatekeeper tells the petitioner that he can enter through his gate if he dares but that there will be many even more powerful and threatening gatekeepers guarding the entrances inside the outer wall. The petitioner decides to not venture through the gate until he has permission to enter. He takes up a stool and sits beside the gate for "days and months and years." The gatekeeper stands steadfastly by the open gate defending the entrance into the imperial city, an opening in the great wall that doesn’t seem to interest anyone else. When he has money, the petitioner tries to bribe the doorkeeper. The fierce gatekeeper takes the country man’s money but "only so you don’t feel like you haven’t made every attempt to be admitted." At last, the petitioner weakens and his eyes grow dim. He is dying of old age. As he slips into unconsciousness, the man from the country sees the gatekeeper rise to close the gate. From within the walls of the city, the man from the country sees a great radiance emanating from within, la grande Bellezza. Just before he falls falls unconscious, the dying man asks a question: "How is it that in all the years I waited at this gate no one else ever came here to seek admission?" "Because this was your gate," the gatekeeper replies, "and you were the only one who could enter here. But I am closing it now."

Kafka’s stories are often about the difficulties, indeed, the impossibilities of writing. One might paraphrase Kafka’s parable in these terms. A man sits down to write a great novel. During the first page of writing, he suffers terrible difficulties. Each sentence seemed harder to write than the last. After completing a couple of paragraphs, the man is exhausted. So he decides to wait with the blank paper in front of him until "inspiration" instructs him how to proceed. But inspiration does not come and the writer sits peering at the empty white space on the paper for days and months and years. Finally, it is time for the writer to die. Just before he slips into unconsciousness, the writer sees the white, blank page withering before his eyes, reduced to ash and dust. "Why has this happened?" the writer asks himself. "Surely, someone else could use this paper to write his novel." But, then, it occurs to the dying man that the book was his novel and his alone and could not be written by any other person. Perhaps, this thought inspires the writer to begin to frame sentences and paragraphs again, but it is too late: the paper has decayed to ash on the table before his dying eyes.


1. The great Estonian composer, Arvo Part set these famous lyrics that haunt Jep Gambardalla. Name the poet who wrote these words?
2. What does the bo in Bo-Tox stand for?
3. What did Sylvio Berlusconi call his orgies?

4. Jep visits the last place that the Minnesota tourists from White Bear Lake, Jerry and Barbara Heil, visited when they toured Italy. Name that place?

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Strain (II)

As I feared, The Strain has deteriorated into a typical Cable TV mini-series -- that is, unconvincing, bloated, and ineptly written.   It is no longer witty, but, instead, merely stupid.  (The last funny thing that happened in this show was two episode ago when a priapic rock star infected by the strain had his penis fall off while urinating.  He displays the mess to his factotum who says:  "You need to see a good urologist about that.") The bane of mini-series in general is their length.  Most of the time, shows of this kind are insufficiently interesting or complex to support eight or ten one-hour episodes.  The Strain is no exception.  The series is now five weeks old and the show is stalled, killing time before it ramps up to its apocalyptic finale.  By the end of the first episode, it was obvious that the parasitic vampires posed a horrific threat, but, of course, the authorities refused to take reasonable action and, even, denied the existence of the monsters.  It's like the refusal of the county officials to close the Chatham and other Cape Cod beaches when the great white shark began eating teenagers in Jaws.  But Spielberg, of course, uses the conflict between those who recognize the danger and those who are motivated to ignore it to propel the plot of his movie for about forty minutes.  In The Strain, there is no middle-section plot except the protagonist's increasingly desperate effort to persuade the powers-that-be that the vampires should be hunted down and exterminated.  (Of course, there are bloody vampire attacks at intervals of about twenty minutes lest the audience lose interest in a story that seems permanently stalled.)  This middle-section lasts about three or four hours and the only thing that happens in this part of the series is the hero hysterically pleading with various indifferent or hostile government and city administrators to take action.  (The subplot involving the hero's child custody battle with his wife has been mercifully put out of its misery -- we can only hope that the annoying wife and her annoying son will be exsanguinated by the vampires as soon as possible.)  By the fifth episode, the principal characters are mostly dispersed and the various narratives are running independently of one another.  Unfortunately, these narratives aren't stories at all -- they are merely situations in which vampires appear and kill minor and extraneous characters.  The monstrous and terrible boss-vampire, "the Master" as he is called, has been offstage for a long time and the show suffers from his absence -- it's tedious to watch his minions predictably slaughtering bystanders, although the special effects are pleasantly horrific and well-crafted.  A Nosferatu-like subplot involving hordes of rats, clever at first and funny, has worn out its welcome.  The vicious plutocrat who has summoned the Master to Manhattan has been semi-comatose, awaiting a liver transplant, for about three episodes and so that character's villainy also has been dormant to the detriment of the show.  Worst of all, the show has now devolved into dramatizing concentration camp scenes -- we see poor huddled Jews in freight cars, Nazis with vicious German Shepherd dogs threatening the inmates, guard beating old men, women and children, smoke stacks gushing human ash and slave labor.  And, as if these poor bastards didn't have enough misery to endure, every night the Master devours one or two of them for supper.  Early in the film it was suggested that the vampires were Nazis.  Now, we are getting the backstory with respect to this notion -- it  turns out that the Lager were owned and operated by vampires.  This is meretricious at best and offensive at worst:  concentration camp references are the last refuge of scoundrels.  The elderly survivor of the Camps, an old man with a silver sword and nail gun that fires silver nails, in other words the vampire-hunter extraordinaire tells his side-kick, the Center for the Control of Infectious Disease doc:  "We must hunt them down.  They are parasites.  Their blood is infected and they will destroy our society.  We must kill them one and all, without exception, man, woman, and child.  Or they will suck out our blood.  They are a disease, a cancer."   Did no one recognize that these lines mimic the Nazi justification for murdering the Jews?  Or is this some kind of a sick joke?