Sunday, September 28, 2014

La Fanciulla del West

Minnie, the protagonist of Puccini's 1910 extravaganza, La Fanciulla del West, makes one of the most dramatic entrances of any operatic heroine.  She is the proprietress of a rough saloon in the California Sierra and the loutish miners are arguing about which of them will enjoy her favors.  Insults are exchanged and guns are drawn.  At this moment, Minnie storms into the scene, dressed like Annie Oakley, and adorned with a big six-shooter displayed in a holster strategically placed directly over her crotch.  She pulls the gun, cocks it, and the saloon goes silent.  Even Rance, the lanky, villainous sheriff, dressed all in black like Jack Palance in Shane, looks alarmed.  A few minutes later, Minnie is leading a bible study in which all the men are docile participants.  Puccini's opera follows the outline of David Belasco's hit play The Girl of the Golden West and involves much card-playing, gunfights and lynchings, even a loyal Indian woman who serves as Minnie's servant.  "Fanciulla" is Italian for "maiden" and the word is often used in connection with the Virgin Mary; but the term is also an archaic word for "wench".  Probably, "Fanciulla" means something like "damsel" and, certainly, Puccini's heroine is a virgin militant, an armed and dangerous wench.  In 25 years of attending opera, I have never seen La Fanciulla del West -- it is a rarity in the repertoire and I have always wondered why the show is not more frequently mounted.  It may be that the opera features an inordinately large male cast -- deputies, posses, and crowds of miners are always noisily entering and leaving the set. (The sole woman is Minnie played creditably in this show by the Welsh soprano, Claire Rutter.)  In productions in New York, the show featured horses, mercifully absent from the Minnesota Opera Company's performance that I saw in St. Paul on September 27, 2014 -- the production did have a wonderful drop-curtain, showing about forty horseman, a mounted posse, standing in two rows across the stage; on one horse, a dead man is slumped, apparently the outcome of their endeavors, and the image, which is painted in delicate sepia, looks like an enlargement of a period postcard.  I didn't have much interest in the show:  summaries of the plot make it seem preachy and implausible -- hokey third-rate Bret Harte.  But, in fact, the opera is extremely impressive and an audience-pleaser.  The show is crammed with action and the principal characters are fascinating.  The music accumulates enormous force as the show proceeds and there are plenty of showy arias, duets, and choruses.  I was surprised at the opera's primordial power -- there's something going on in this show that's far beyond anything Bret Harte was capable of imagining.  Minnie is called a "girl" by the miners, but she's more like a spinster, middle-aged, obscurely withholding herself from the blandishments of Sheriff Rance.  (Rance played by the Wagnerian specialist with the wonderful name Greer Grimsley -- he plays Wotan at the Met -- was made-up and costumed to mimic the vile sheriff in the HBO series Deadwood:  with a scraggly pony tail and a vested black suit, he sits in a wooden chair to the side of the stage and kicks back, balancing like Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine.)  Rance wants to force himself upon Minnie but she rejects him, and has, apparently, been rejecting him for years.  A bandit named Rammerez hopes to rob the miners of their gold that they store in a barrel in Minnie's Polka saloon.  The bandit comes to the bar to scout out the place, calling himself Dick Johnson.  He and Minnie have met before and she is in love with him.  When the posse empties the bar to hunt for Remmerez -- they are led by a Wells-Fargo man in a buffalo-skin coat (he is like the assassin in McCabe and Mrs. Miller) -- the bandit tries to rob the place, but desists when he encounters Minnie.  She invites him to her cabin where they are snow-bound and, in a peculiarly realistic scene, attempts to seduce the bandit, while at the same time appearing to virtuously reject him.  They embrace and Rammerez reveals his identity to her.  She repels him, then, in earnest, and as he flees heartbroken into the blizzard, Rance and the Wells Fargo man shoot him.  He staggers back to the cabin, collapses, and, then, Rance and Minnie play poker to decide who will seize the wounded man.  She cheats and wins.  But to no avail; in a puzzling elision, in Act 3, we see that the posse is closing in on Rammerez; they seize him and Rance beats his victim before preparing to lynch him.  (Puccini can always be counted on for gratuitous nastiness, even sadism).  Just as the posse is about to hang the bandit, Minnie appears again, gun drawn.  There is a stand-off, but, in the end, she persuades the miners, to whom she has shown repeated instances of sisterly love, to spare the bandit.  The two lovers depart as dawn breaks over the jagged peaks of the Sierra.  In Puccini's operas, erotic love is symphonic, a kind of thunderous, prolonged calamity, something like an earthquake.  In La Fanciulla, the love scene in the snowbound cottage has an elemental force -- the score is like Siegfried and Brunnhilde's immense duet in Wagner's Siegfried, two behemoths bellowing melodiously at one another.  Indeed, Puccini's music feels Wagnerian; the opera's love theme is an austere eight or nine note motif, subdued and glacial, like the theme from Parsifal.  When Minnie plays poker for possession of the outlaw's unconscious body, the scene has a primal impact -- she shrieks her triumph to the sky.  Later, when Rammerez is about to be hanged, Minnie appears with unearthly yowling, exactly like a Valkyrie, brandishing her phallic revolver -- if they don't free him from the gallows, Minnie promise to shoot first Rammerez and, then, herself and everyone has no doubt that this is not an idle threat.  The scene in which Minnie persuades the miners to defy Rance and forgive the bandit is persuasive and moving because the enormous flood of music makes it plausible, even sacramental.  In general, Puccini's libretti make sense and his operas all have a stark, emotionally compelling thrust.  The Minnesota Opera Company's staging was cheerfully retrograde -- the detailed saloon interior, the cabin in the woods with snow gently falling on its eaves, and the final act, set in the ruins of a mine with a big head-shaft, a hanging tree, and Gothic-looking steeples and minarets of mountain peaks were all Victorian fantasies with considerable allure:  the staging was melodramatic in keeping with the material, probably not remote from the way the opera was premiered in 1910.   In the final moment of the opera, Rance lifts his Winchester and draws a bead on the off-stage lovers.  We know that Rance is a great gunfighter (he looks like Wyatt Earp gone to seed) and that he is incapable of missing.  But as the sun rises over the Sierra peaks and Puccini's music swells to a titanic climax, he is incapable of pulling the trigger.     

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Night Moves

Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves (2013) is a minimalist thriller that is surprisingly suspenseful and effective.  A young man and woman have joined with a Marine Corps bomb expert to build a nitrogen fertilizer bomb.  For reasons that are never clearly defined, the trio intend to destroy a dam located in the mountains of Oregon.  Working together they build the bomb, load the explosives into a boat, and, at night, moor it near the dam.  After some complications, the bomb is detonated.  The surge of water from the ruptured dam kills a camper downstream.  Then, as happens in all heist movies, the three conspirators begin  to suspect one another:  paranoia ensues with the result that one of them is murdered by the others.  The film ends ambiguously and in media res -- however, it is clear that this misadventure has been disastrous:  if the survivors escape arrest, they will be condemned to a life of fear and hiding.  Reichardt works with long takes and avoids dialogue; her mantra seems to be "never explain" -- as a result the audience has the pleasure (or the frustration depending upon your point of view) of working out the plot and its implications from hints and clues distributed parsimoniously throughout the film.  Her previous movie, Meekers Cutoff, was a punishing trek through austere desert, an abstract trip to nowhere that I found intensely disturbing -- everyone was always dying slowly of exhaustion and thirst.  The movie, a minimalist Western, was often dull and seemingly pointless, but it has stayed with me and left powerful impressions despite several ensuing years.  Night Moves has the same effect -- the movie is ultimately terrifying.  Using the most simple means, Reichardt forces our identification with the disaffected Josh, a kid living and working for a sustainable foods coop.  We don't know Josh's motivations for engaging in the act of eco-terrorism -- the idea is obviously half-baked and Josh doesn't seem the zealous type.  He is a loner, a cipher, and, as the film progresses, we come to share his overwhelming paranoia, his fear of detection -- by the end of the movie, every shot carries an aura of subtle, but fearsome, menace.  The film's final image, Josh looking up at a big convex mirror installed for security purposes in a camping-gear store, embodies the sense of omnipresent surveillance and threat that has become the core of the protagonist's life.  Reichardt's movie is ultra-realistic in its details and aggressively undramatic:  the Marine Corps bomb expert and the rich girl who is bankrolling the project, and who seems to be Josh's closest friend, apparently have sex.  (Movie reviews and plot descriptions describe them as having "a sexual relationship" -- but this overstates the liaison; there is no "relationship").  We know about the encounter by some moans and sighs half-heard on the soundtrack -- nothing more is depicted and the two characters give no sign that they have ever touched one another let alone had sex.  This is typical of way Reichardt constructs her movie.  Like Meeks Cutoff, the film invokes Samuel Beckett -- it's principal theme seems to be the futility of any kind of action.  And this is also characteristic of the movie:  Reichardt is good with landscapes and goofy random encounters; she doesn't like to stage violence -- a scene involving a murder is shot in a sauna so that the director doesn't really have to show you anything.  (Similarly, the explosion and destruction of the dam is just a loud boom off-screen -- Reichardt's ethic seems to be that to present showy images of violence and destruction is to defeat the moral and ethical purpose of a film like this, a cool dramatization that crime doesn't pay.)  In structure, the movie resembles many heist pictures -- films like The Asphalt Jungle or Kubrick's The Killingsome criminals conspire to commit a crime, successfully engineer the heist, and, then, destroy one another.  Night Moves is produced by horror film director Larry Fessenden and Todd Haynes,  the director of another alarming movie with horror film atmosphere, Safe with Julianne Moore.  As Hitchcock was fond of saying, show the audience a bomb with a timer, set the timer ticking, and you have suspense whether you like it or not.  Night Moves is extremely compelling and tremendously suspenseful -- one has the sense that Reichardt was, perhaps, hoping for something more profound, but her almost silent characters and their enigmatic actions can't support much in the way of meaning.  Nonetheless, this is an excellent crime picture.  (The lead characters, Josh played by Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning playing Dena, and Peter Sarsgaard, as ex-marine, are excellent.  In one scene, Josh stops to yank a doe that has been hit by a passing vehicle off the highway.  The doe is pregnant and Josh says that the animal has a baby deer inside of it that is still alive -- this is metaphoric for the characters, who seem doomed before they have really been properly born.)

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Deep

The simile is as apt as it is banal and predictable, the Icelandic director, Baltasar Kormakur's 2012 film, The Deep, is as pitiless and objective an episode from a saga.  Iceland's sagas present hard-bitten, laconic protagonists battling inexorable forces -- often, the stories have the mysterious presence of a parable, except that it is very difficult to ascertain what, if anything, the parable means.  In The Deep, Gulle, a chubby, chain-smoking sailor, parties on the night before going to sea on a fishing boat.  Icelanders drink heavily and people pass out or vomit in alleys; Gulle wanders the streets of the fishing village in a short-sleeved shirt, mysteriously not suffering from the cold that everyone else feels. (Presumably, the alcohol has anesthetized him against the wind and falling snow).  The village is on one of the Westmann Islands, formidable black chunks of obsidian sticking out of the arctic North Atlantic.  The village is a grid of white lights and bare white buildings, all of them new, in a cleft in the volcanic rock -- the place had to be rebuilt when a volcano erupted nearby, destroyed the city, and forced the evacuation of the whole island, an event that Gulle later recalls vividly in flashbacks.  The next morning, before the sun rises, Gulle boards a fishing vessel.  The boat sails three miles from the harbor and casts nets into the churning sea.  One of the nets gets entangled in a spike of subterranean basalt extruded by one of the recent eruptions.  The men can't shut off the machine winch and the boat is pulled upside down.  Except for Gulle, all of the fishermen drown.  Gulle swims to shore, somehow avoids being battered to pieces in the mountainous surf crashing against the island's sheer escarpments, and, then, climbs up the cliff onto the plateau.  The interior of the island is a desert of razor-sharp obsidian glass.  Gulle is barefoot but he walks over the jagged shards of obsidian four or five miles, staggers down from the meadows where there are tiny, shaggy Icelandic ponies, and, leaving a trail of bloody footprints, reaches safety.  No one can understand how Gulle survived:  the water temperature was between 41 and 37 degrees and, yet, he managed to swim three miles in those conditions -- this feat is physiologically impossible.  (We see hypothermia killing the other sailors within a matter of minutes, but Gulle was in the water for six hours.)  The dead seamen are never recovered:  an old man says:  "Drowned fishermen are best to stay in their watery graves."  Gulle's survival baffles the scientists and he is flown first to Rekjavik and, then, London to be studied.  "Are you in good shape?" one doctor asks the fat, chainsmoking Gulle.  "What do you think?" he says.  In London, Gulle is put in a vat of ice-water with four Navy Seals, all buff with ripped abdomens and wearing tight little speedos -- Gulle, who is ashamed of his physique, wears a tee-shirt and underpants for the experiment.  The Seals are pulled out of the ice-water in a few minutes, while Gulle just sits there, churning his legs, apparently indifferent to the cold.  Gulle returns to home and visits the widow of one of his buddies who died in the shipwreck.  One of the dead man's children asks him:  "Are you a seal?  Are you a troll?  Are you some kind of sea monster?"  Gulle says:  "I'm just a man.  A very lucky man."  The film is shot efficiently and without any dramatic emphasis -- it's just one thing following another and the movie's tone is documentary.  The Icelanders are stoic in the extreme -- no one weeps except one child (and, then, it's just a single tear); the widows and mothers are all dry-eyed.  The pastor also chain smokes and he has no homily to explain the shipwreck or Gulle's miraculous survival.  At sea, Gulle talks to a seagull, look up to see the northern lights flickering overhead, and hallucinates memories of the volcanic eruption.  There is a slight suggestion that the volcanic fire has somehow tempered Gulle -- his memories focus on the eruption of the mountain nearby and the flows of magma destroying the fishing village.  But this idea isn't developed in any systematic way.  Gulle feels bad for drinking milk straight out of the bottle and owes money on his motorcycle --in the icy Atlantic, he says that he wants to apologize to his aging mother for the way he drinks milk and pay off his motorcycle; there's a girl that he would also like to see, although she lives in a house with a curtain always drawn over her window and we never see her.  These seem to be his motivations for surviving.  In the water, he swims the way that you and I might keep our head above the waves if we were castaways-- there's no Australian crawl, no discernible stroke at all, he just bobs there dog-paddling.  In the end, someone says that Gulle probably survived because he was fat.  Kormakur doesn't even accept this suggestion -- Gulle was lucky and as the old Icelanders say a man's life is only as good as his luck:  so long as he is lucky, he survives; when he is unlucky, he dies.  That's all there is.  The film is based on a celebrated true story and, during the closing titles, we see the real Gulle, a plump, laconic man with curly hair in his white hospital bed:  he also has no explanation for his survival.  You make up your mind what, if anything, this means. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is an unsuccessful curiosity, a little independently produced movie parasitic upon the Coen brothers, Fargo, and manifestly inferior to that film in all respects.  In the late nineties, a story circulated on the internet that a Japanese woman had misunderstood the facetious opening title in Fargo (everything in this movie is true) and traveled to northern Minnesota in the hope of finding a fictional suitcase full of money shown to be stashed in the snow along a wintry fence-line at the end of that film.  According to the tale, the woman got lost in a blizzard and froze to death.  There are variants of the story:  in some of them, the unfortunate woman is lured to Minnesota by an internet pen-pal with whom she has been conducting an electronic, intercontinental romance.  I recall reading an interview with a Minnesota State Trooper who had encountered the woman -- the officer denied that the treasure in the Coen brothers' movie was the woman's primary motivation, although she had mentioned it.  If I recall the interview correctly, the cop didn't know exactly why the woman had come to northern Minnesota and was never able to ascertain her objectives -- he indicated that the treasure in the film was not the "real story," hinted darkly about something more sinister, but didn't elaborate.  Of course, it is possible that there is no real story at all, that the woman never existed, or that the relationship between the woman's apparent suicide and the Coen brothers' Fargo is completely fictional; certainly, there is a kind of poetic justice in Kumiko the Treasure Hunter goofing on motifs from Fargo and deriving its cachet from the idea that the movie represents actual events.  The opening title in Fargo, shown repeatedly in Kumiko, says that the "All names have been changed to protect the innocent living survivors...(while) all events are portrayed exactly as they happened to honor the dead" -- presumably everything in Kumiko is similarly fictional.  Although the film invokes Fargo and repeatedly samples that movie's scene in which a dying villain buries the cash-filled valise in the snow, Kumiko is far more influenced by Werner Herzog's work.  Kumiko is an isolated loner, apparently mentally ill, with no real friends -- she is mute throughout most of the movie, a melancholy amalgam of Bruno S. in Stroszek and Aguirre.  She fancies herself a conquistador and, at one moment in the film, she is emboldened to action by seeing a plaster bust of a Spanish conquistador  incongruously displayed in the home where she has taken refuge -- a title announces her arrival in Minnesota with the words "The New World."  The movie has a dreamy languid soundtrack that sounds like Herzog's Popol Vuh, a drone that sometimes loudens to fortissimo chords as if underlying a horror movie that the film makers' haven't bothered to produce.  At one point, the dying Kumiko rides a chairlift at a deserted ski hill, a scene very similar to the morose denouement of Stroszek in which the doomed Bruno S. (playing the titular character) goes around and around on a chairlift while a chicken dances frantically in a penny-arcade.  These allusions point to a problem with Kumiko -- both the Coen brothers and Werner Herzog have highly idiosyncratic styles easily imitated but almost impossible to successfully implement over the course of a feature film.  The Coen brothers brand of snarky, magical realism depends on an exceptionally acute eye for actual reality -- the grotesque characters in their films are always theoretically possible:  the Coen's magical realism is like Fellini's, that is satirical caricature pushed past mockery into the realm of startled admiration.  Herzog's bizarre dreamers wandering imaginary landscapes originate in the German director's authentically obsessive personality as well as his war-time experiences of surrealist things happening that "made no sense at all" (to quote Little Dieter needs to Fly).  The Zellner brothers, the Texas-based directors of Kumiko, don't seem to be genuinely obsessed -- rather, on the evidence of this film, they are nice boys from a liberal city in Texas with an attitude of faintly amused, kindly condescension to the eccentrics portrayed in their film.  The Coen brothers' Midwestern, as well as their Jewish films, are often denounced by some Midwesterners and many Jews for their cruelty and their, apparent, indifference to the ugliness of the people that they show -- but as a Midwesterner I can vouch for the uncanny, if heightened, accuracy of the things that they depict.  (And I recall attending a screening of the Coen brothers' most Jewish film, A Serious Man, with an entirely Jewish audience -- the people watching the picture related to the figures on the screen as if they were disreputable, but beloved, relatives.)  By contrast, Kumiko is full of patronizing sequences that demonstrate complete ignorance of the upper Midwest -- shop clerks in convenience stores don't smoke cigarettes, State Troopers know the difference between Chinese and Japanese people, there aren't any grotesque religious fanatics proselytizing people at the Twin Cities International Airport, the owner Indian owners of small-town motels don't show themselves to their customers dressed in grubby tee-shirts -- just about every scene intended to dramatize the alien landscape of the upper Midwest rings false.  (Similarly, the first third of the film set in Tokyo is a dour collection of clichés -- Kumiko has a mother who hectors her by telephone for not being married or dating; her boss is abusive and, yet, when he seems poised to fire her, and has even introduced Kumiko to her replacement, he instead gives her the company credit card, a card that she misappropriates to finance her ill-conceived trip to Minnesota.  None of the scenes set in Japan make much sense -- it's as if the film makers conceive of Japan as so alien and incomprehensible that they don't even try to understand its people or their institutions.  (Why would Kumiko try to steal an atlas from a Japanese public library -- and do such libraries really employ hulking security guards who seem like underemployed sumo wrestlers?)  There are some fine things in the film:  a series of wintry landscapes at the end of the film are beautifully filmed and some business involving a fat, cheerful-looking rabbit is effectively staged and has a poignant impact.  Unfortunately, the handsome rabbit does more acting (and is more engaging) than Kumiko -- she does nothing but mope throughout the whole film and, ultimately, is so thoroughly obtuse and annoying that we are not saddened by her doom.  (Compare this film to Agnes Varda's shattering Vagabond, a picture that the movie also resembles -- the doomed heroine in Vagabond, who freezes to death in a ditch, is ferociously alive:  her mental illness is not romanticized and Varda doesn't hesitate to show her doing awful things, confident, nonetheless, that we will sympathize with her to the very end.  Kumiko is merely cute and hapless -- the film reaches its nadir when she kisses the baffled cop on the lips, a gesture that makes no sense at all in the context of the movie.)  Perhaps, I would have liked the film better if I had seen it in more congenial surroundings than the crowded Walker Art Center theater.  A horde of Minneapolis pseudo-intellectuals can destroy almost any movie with their glib, dull-witted and theatrically ostentatious reactions.  The audience seemed to think that the film was a rip roaring comedy, a kind of Adam Sandler film for hipsters and they laughed uproariously at all the wrong times.  Furthermore, the people in the theater apparently believe that rural Minnesotans are actually as dimwitted and clueless as the rubes in the film -- in fact, a town like Austin, where I live, is crowded with immigrants and far more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than the suburban white enclaves from which the WAC audience came.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Ken Burns' The Roosevelts

Funereally paced, blandly tasteful, platitudinous, and glaringly obvious in its effects, Ken Burns' 14 hour documentary The Roosevelts is, nonetheless, addictive.  Whether this is a good thing is uncertain to me.  Television's frictionless accessibility engenders addiction -- it seems that once we start watching something, it becomes difficult, and, then, impossible to look away. 

My office is only 5 blocks from where I live and so, often, I go home for lunch.  Then, I turn on the television to watch Cable News.  A few weeks ago, all three of the news networks covered a story involving a small plane that had gone off-course and was flying on a rapidly depleting tank of fuel over the Caribbean Sea.  The people on the plane had died, apparently the victims of hypoxia, and the windows of the aircraft were glazed with ice.  The only question was when and where the plane would run out of fuel and drop into the sea -- would it crash in Cuba or Jamaica or in their coastal waters?  Fox, MSNBC, and CNN all devoted full-time programming to this minor tragedy:  experts were telephoned to pontificate on hypoxia, the nature of cabin pressurization in small private jets, Cuban politics, the F16 jets scrambled to pursue the doomed plane, international law, the weather in the Caribbean, and so on.  But all of this was beside the point -- the spectacle was eerily fascinating because it was a story:  When would the jet fall out of the sky and where?  I watched for ninety minutes and, finally, couldn't justify spending any more time in morbid delectation regarding this little narrative -- an event that had ousted Ebola, the Ukraine, and ISIS from the cable news networks for, at least, a couple of hours.  I went back to work and because the doomed plane was so unimportant in the grand scheme of things never found out where it crashed or why this calamity had befallen the little jet and its crew.  I still have a deep sense of loss about this incident.  I feel that I was unfairly deprived of participation in the climax of the story -- that is, the actual crash of the plane. 

The networks now encourage addictive binge-watching.  Every single episode of The Simpsons was shown on FXX in a continuous marathon lasting 12 days.  I also regret not trying to watch all of those shows, surely as complete and encyclopedic immersion in recent culture and history as reading John Updike's Rabbit novels.  (I only saw six or seven hours of the shows.)  The best thing on TV, for a few weeks, was the advertisement for the Simpson's marathon:  a zombie-like housewife wanders through her flooded house, robotically stirring something in a bowl, eyes turned to the TV on which the Simpson's are cavorting -- her husband, bleary-eyed is floating in his Lazy-Boy recliner in the ruined home.  Feral dogs run in packs up the streets of a city where fires blaze in apartment buildings; the fire fighters are apparently watching the marathon while the city burns.  Four or five deer stand on a sidewalk covered with broken glass watching Homer Simpson on a TV screen in an abandoned store.  All of this is shot in the best rainy, desolate Cormac McCarthy-esque style, post-apocalyptic like The Road. The titles say:  "Every. Simpson's. Ever.  We're all gonna die."   Fourteen hours of Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor:  Every. Roosevelt. Ever.  "We're all gonna die."

The reasons that Burns' show is addictive are manifold and they have nothing really to do with the merit of the documentary.  First, Burns' produces a reliable product to which we have become accustomed:  his documentaries are the Coca-Cola or Big Macs of film-making -- they are all exactly alike, all easy and tasty to consume, all, apparently, nourishing but, in fact, mostly empty calories.  Burns' films are where intriguing old movie footage and wonderful still photographs go to die.  He remorselessly pans and scans and zooms the old pictures without ever identifying their source, provenance, or, even, subject matter -- the film's all contain sanctimonious voice-overs, elegantly lit and staged harangues by prominent writers and scholars.  George Wills, with one of his eyes not exactly focusing, appears about a dozen times per episode speaking with inhuman eloquence, in perfect Ciceronian phrases that are exquisitely balanced -- it doesn't really matter that he almost always says something that is completely trite and obvious:  he says it so, so beautifully.  (This is true of Burns' other talking heads as well, for instance, Doris Kearns Goodwin, who I remember with warmth from the old Imus in the Morning show, a frolicsome lass with a sardonic sense of humor, here reduced to mouthing platitudes and liberal banalities; I still shudder with dismay recalling the commentator with the hillbilly accent, Shelby Foote, speaking like the oracle of Delphi, in Burns' interminable and fantastically dull Civil War series.)  It doesn't matter what the subject -- jazz, prohibition, baseball: every film by Ken Burns looks exactly the same, sounds the same, is edited the same and has the same faintly plaintive soundtrack.  As Andy Warhol famously observed about Coca Cola -- "Every coke is the same.  And every coke is good."  This is true of Ken Burns' films -- they are all maddeningly alike and they are all, more or less, good in that you feel it is your duty to stay glued to the Tube to watch them. 

Second, like the awful story of the "ghost flight" as the Cable news networks took to calling the doomed jet, Burns' account of the Roosevelts is, first and foremost, a story:  it has a beginning and an end.  The documentary about the Roosevels is dynastic:  it begins with Teddy's birth in 1858 and, presumably, will end with Eleanor Roosevelt's demise in 1962.  Whether we like it or not, stories made about people's lives, biographies, have the same natural appeal as the flight of the doomed plane:  someone is born, they triumph, they suffer, they die.  This is a profoundly human spectacle and, as primates, we are interested in the fates of other primates -- it's hard to look away from a closely observed portrait of one of our fellow creatures, and, like it or not, Burns' account of the Roosevelts has a primitive dramatic and narrative appeal:  someone is born, does this and that, and, then, dies.  This kind of life-portrait is morbidly interesting:  we want to see the little plane drop into the ocean. 

Third, the story of the Roosevelts is bizarre and, sufficiently, gothic to fill several lurid novels.  A tribe of fantastically wealthy New Yorkers, prone to marriage among cousins, uses their rank and privilege to stir up all sorts of mischief on the international stage.  The tale is epic, complex, and grotesque -- mental illness abounds with much of what would once have been termed "deviant sexuality".  People revenge themselves on others for ancient grievances.  Horrible illness, like Nemesis, punishes Franklin Roosevelt in his thighs and knees and loins for sexual crimes committed against Eleanor.  African-Americans are lynched and massacres occur all over the world.  There are weird family vendettas, evil mother-in-laws, insane alcoholic uncles.  And, at the center of all of this is the spectacle of the uniquely photogenic three Roosevelts, all of whom have the virtue of looking exactly as we imagine them -- they are like dream figures:  we have seen caricatures of them all our lives and, in fact, they look just as we would expect -- there is a sense of curious intimacy in having our expectations so perfectly met.  (Once, I saw The Rolling Stones perform live -- or, better put, saw the Stones as tiny figures cavorting on a remote stage while Mount Rushmore-sized images of them were projected on huge screens overhead; throughout the concert, I had this single impression -- they look so much exactly as I imagined them; they are perfectly consistent with my mental fantasies of how they should look -- it is as if they are wholly creatures of my own delirium, as if I somehow possessed them.  This is precisely the effect of the hours and hours of footage looking at the Roosevelts in Burns' film) Teddy brandishes his spectacular teeth and leans forward to make points, his spectacles glinting like dangerous weapons of war.  Franklin is unbelievably beautiful, an Adonis even when in ruins -- when he speaks, he snorts with wild, equine pleasure.  Eleanor is so picturesquely hideous that you can't take your eyes off her:  her face seems literally deformed:  a winsome pale Victorian beauty from the nostrils up and a huge and grotesquely shapeless mouth drooping over her severely receding chin below; in fact, she has Mick Jagger's famous, blubbery lips:  it's rare to see a visage constructed like this, two mismatched halves sutured together vertically.  Add to this Eleanor's apparent pleasure is selecting the most dowdy and hideous hats possible and the fact that she traipses around in formless sack-like garments, cloth hanging slackly over her equally slack flesh, and you have a figure that appears as alternatively comical and horrible -- she squints at Franklin with dour disapproval and comes to life only when picnicking with her Sapphic paramours.  If a film maker were to invent a figure with Eleanor's predilections and appearance, that person would be accused of gross stereotyping, devising a raw and obvious caricature, and, even, malice.  But Eleanor really existed and, apparently, looked this way and for this reason, Mrs. Roosevelt is wonderfully interesting.

Fourth, we take a kind of guilty celebrity-spotting pleasure in Burns' use of famous actors to voice-over the thoughts and writings of his protagonists.  Here we have Paul Giamatti employing his best patrician New England accent -- the same speech patterns that he used to imitate John Adams -- to mimic Teddy Roosevelt.  John Lithgow, sounding eerily effeminate with the timbre and inflection of John Waters, is heard from time to time and Edward Hermann plays Franklin Roosevelt.  You expect Rin Tin Tin or Lassie to be deployed to bark for FDR's "little dog Fala".  The only clunker in the group is Meryl Streep whose bizarre and outlandishly legato phrasing for Eleanor stinks up the whole show -- every time, we hear Streep's fastidious pronunciation, her languid affected prosody, her melodramatic pauses and caesuras, we wonder:  "What is wrong with this woman?  Was Mrs. Roosevelt really so ridiculously self-important and self-absorbed as to talk in this grotesquely mannered style?"  Presumably, the famous actress is imitating Mrs. Roosevelt's way of speech as recorded somewhere -- but I can't believe that the real woman really sounded as utterly ridiculous as Meryl Streep represents.  Again, one suspects some kind of maliciousness in Streep's mimicry.  Furthermore, Streep speaks so very...very... that her declamations seem to bring the documentary, already slow-paced, to a screeching halt.  (Here is an interesting observations:  at least three generations of British actors imitate the accent of Americans by imitating the rather baroque speech-patterns of Franklin Roosevelt -- whenever you hear Cumberbatch or Ian MacKellen playing an American, they revert to speech that sounds exactly like Roosevelt's inflections and accent.  I presume this is some sort of vestige of W. W. II).

I have always disliked Burns' cavalier and indifferent attitude to the visual appearance of his films.  Simply put, the  his images don't match the narrative and are used as mere mood music.  This has always been the case in a Burns' documentary beginning with his Civil War film, a movie that completely traduced the grave and dignified photographs made by artists like Matthew Brady and Timothy Sullivan by using those pictures for nothing more than atmospheric effects.  You can watch The Roosevelts perfectly happily while reading a magazine, glancing up from time to time, to see yet another black and white image, Burns' camera rambling over a picture that has nothing to do with what we are being told by the soundtrack.  Burns' provides no source for his pictures and doesn't tell us what they were meant to represent.  He's uninterested with original context of the photograph and is obstinately indifferent to the actual pictures that make up the film.  As a result, we are never sure whether we are seeing filler, that is, "file" images generically representing poor people or a battle or a government hearing or whether the images are authentically related to the narrative presented.  Burns' so radically devalues his pictorial material that, in the end, there's no reason to waste your time looking at the screen -- except for archival pictures of the Roosevelts in all their bizarre splendor (and you get to see how they walk and talk and gesture), there's almost nothing in the movie worth looking at in the context of the picture's narrative -- the pictures matter so little that the film could be a radio-documentary.  (Many of Burns' images are spectacular -- but the problem is that they are used so promiscuously and in a setting so lacking in any kind of reasonable context that it is frustrating to look at them, wonder what they mean, and wish that Burns' had paused for a moment to footnote the image, to attribute to it some kind of meaning and source and intentionality.  But he never does this -- witness a shot of some soldiers torturing a man in the Philippines:  a handful of troops appearing to be pouring water onto the bare face of supine man, seemingly a prisoner -- who is this man?  why does everyone seem so cheerful? why is the water being poured onto the man's face?  Is this a reenactment?  Why was the picture taken?  -- As a souvenir, as covert evidence of wrongdoing, for training purposes? Who are the soldiers?  What's the date and place?  In light of our current national debate about torture, it's irresponsible to show a picture like this without providing some sort of background and context.  Even more immoral is Burns' use of horrific images of lynchings -- these are real suffering people, real murderers, an event that took place in our history.  To simply splash an image like this on the screen without providing any additional information does a profound disservice to the victim and his executioners -- whose names and motives should be exposed in my view.  At one point, Burns shows stone steps with bodies picturesquely strewn all over them, many of the corpses small children -- it's a piece of incredibly compelling footage, curiously statuesque, like a Mannerist image of the Massacre of the Innocents:  the picture is part of a montage showing European atrocities.  But who were these people and why were they killed?  Who captured this extraordinary image?  But Burns can't pause to provide any data -- he needs to get back to FDR's antics.  Burns' use of pictorial "facts" like this -- for photographs are evidence, a kind of factual truth -- verges on the irresponsible and, I think, is immoral as well.)

As history, the Roosevelts is mostly banal and obvious.  Burns recycles shots of an endless somber breadline, an impressive image, and a piano on the soundtrack plays over and over again Stephen Foster's "Hard Times."  This is hardly sophisticated or nuanced.  (And who are these men? Where?  What are they waiting for?  Who took the picture? Why?)  When we see FDR lugged here and there, the soundtrack plays variations on the old hymn "Leaning on the everlasting arms?'  It's pretty enough and I like the hymn, but the point is insultingly obvious.   (In general, the film dwells morbidly on FDR's disability -- this seems to me to be unfair to the man himself who worked indefatigable, and unsuccessfully, it seems, to conceal the fact that he was crippled.  I think fifteen minutes of the subject would be sufficient, but Burns has 14 long hours to fill and so comes back to the subject of FDR's polio hundreds of times, always making the same meretricious points.  And, yet, he doesn't tell us what we would want to know:  does FDR use a catheter?  how do his bowels work?  and, most importantly, what about the presidential penis?)  The film is clogged with half-truths, misrepresentations, and bizarre assertions.  In one shot, we are shown a picture of an obviously ailing and weakened Woodrow Wilson.  The picture has a nasty power like some of the pictures of sick and dying movie stars in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon.  The narrator tells us that "Franklin Roosevelt was "never to forget his encounter with Wilson on that day."  What?  Who says? What is the source for this tidbit of psychological gossip?  A friend of mine who is highly literate visually has noted many pictures in the movie that are simply false -- that is, they don't show what the movie seems to represent that they depict.  Some sequences beg questions that are wholly avoided.  Burns, as a good liberal, always emphasizes the role of African-Americans in his films and this picture is no exception, frequently displaying horrific images of lynchings and poverty.  At one point, FDR purchases a whole village in Georgia, a place that he calls Warm Springs, and turns it into a health spa for polio victims.  Burns luxuriates in hagiography at this point, lavishly praising FDR for his compassion and vibrant kindness to fellow polio victims and, indeed, Roosevelt's indefatigable jolliness is wonderful and, obviously, invigorating.  But what about Black victims of polio?  Why don't we see any little African-American children in the swimming pools?  Why aren't there any Black people visible anywhere in these sequences?  Within the moral framework of Burns' documentary, a film in which all characters, except Eleanor, are judged and found wanting on the basis of their racial attitudes, why isn't something said about the fact that Warm Springs, in the middle of the old South, is obviously and ferociously segregated?  (In fairness to Burns, he attacks Roosevelt for cowardice with regard to his refusal to support Federal anti-lynching legislation and, perhaps, he regards the point about segregation at Warm Springs as so obvious as to not require comment -- but, throughout most of the film, Burns ceaselessly belabors the obvious so the question remains:  why not here?)

So should you watch The Roosevelts?  By all means, it's likely the most fascinating thing you will see on TV this Fall.  And, possibly, the most frustrating and maddening.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Belle de Jour

As a necrophiliac nobleman swoons in ecstasy over Catherine Deneuve veiled in black but otherwise nude and reclining in a coffin, the kinky marquis' servant in another chamber cries out:  "Shall I let out the cats?" (The nobleman responds by asking if the servant is "an idiot.")  In Luis Bunuel's 1967 film, the Spanish surrealist invents perversions that haven't yet been named, hitherto unknown paraphilias lovingly, if elliptically, displayed along with more familiar sado-masochistic practices.  The occasion is the unhappy marriage of Severine, a well-bred 23-year old Parisienne, to her handsome, but professionally distracted, physician-husband.  Deneuve is ice-cold, her hair lavishly sculpted into tight serpentine coils, a variant of the glacial blondes that Hitchcock favored in his films.  Although she has no interest in sex with her husband and repeatedly rejects his embraces, Severine enjoys a rich and varied fantasy-life:  in her imagination, she is stripped and flogged by coachmen, has sex with a man under the table on which her husband is dining, and causes duels and all sorts of other havoc with her remote and chilly beauty.  A sadistic and perverse friend of her husband, indelibly portrayed by the wonderful Michel Piccoli, mentions a local brothel.  Severine is intrigued and goes to the brothel, agreeing, at first reluctantly but, then, with considerable relish, to see the establishment's patrons, but only between 3:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon -- hence, the film's title.  A series of increasingly lurid complications ensues.  Piccoli discovers Severine's secret, although his reaction is completely unexpected:  the old sadist turns out to be a moralist after all and chides Severine for her disloyalty to his friend.  Severine falls head over heels in love with a vicious criminal; the man dresses like a dandy, carries a cane enclosing a stiletto, and has a mouthful of silver teeth -- periodically, he threatens his associates with a dagger or pistol, even his best friend.  The film's ending is famously ambiguous -- either Severine's moonlighting as a whore has inflicted horrible injury on her husband or she has reinvigorated their marriage or, most likely, the whole scenario has been her fantasy from beginning to end.  Bunuel's film is as frigid as its heroine and his most impressive surrealist effect is Deneuve's icy hauteur, her somnambulistic disengagement.  Deneuve's mask-like features are alarmingly beautiful, but immobile and marmoreal; it is impossible to determine what she is thinking or whether she has much of a reaction to the perversion in which she immerses herself -- certainly, she feigns indignation and, even, disgust but these responses seem completely inauthentic.  In one scene, we glimpse her sprawled naked across a bed after an encounter with a particularly horrifying client, a pseudo-sumo wrestler who speaks incomprehensible Japanese and carries a small, ornate box with some sort of buzzing insect or apparatus inside.  The maid commiserates with Severine and observes a small stain of blood on her underclothes.  Severine throws back her lioness' head, tosses her mane, and displays a faint, but distinct, afterglow of rapturous pleasure.  Bunuel eschews anything like explanation or psychology (after all what is psychology but a form of explanation?)  He doesn't need to probe Severine's emotions and motivations because in a real sense all of the exterior action in the movie occurs within her imagination:  there is no interior to Severine because everything in the movie, including her automaton-like indifference, is within her fantasy.  The film is brightly lit.  There's no night and no shadow.  In proper surrealist form, all incidents occur in broad daylight and are clearly, and analytically shown.  The film's subject is a profoundly disheartening one -- that is, the disconnect between love and sexual desire.  Severine loves her husband, at least, apparently, but her desire is elsewhere.  The décor and mise-en-scene suggest that this is a pathology of the bourgeois society in which Severine lives although Bunuel is uninterested in etiology and the sample of human behavior that he explores is too narrow to generalize.  The film is surprisingly and cheerfully perverse, completely amoral, but, also, schematic, scientifically dispassionate, and completely without any trace of human emotion, a cold mechanism abstracted from the mess of ordinary life -- in a sequence in which Severine is defiled by having shovelfuls of mud thrown at her, the filth spattering her is ebony, ink-dark, and its effect, blackening her pale alabaster complexion, is almost wholly abstract, a pictorial effect relying upon contrasts between white and jet-black.  One would think that mud would impart an earthier, warmer quality to the film, but it doesn't because this is imaginary mud thrown on an imaginary figure.  Bunuel's effects are precisely calculated but the film isn't shocking because it is so classically analytical.  This movie has always left me cold -- exactly Bunuel's intent.  In the final shot, we hear tinkling bells, the sound-cue for Severine's fantasies (it's the noise the coach and its cruel coachmen make) but, also, the caterwauling of cats.  At last, the cats have been set free. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Like Someone in Love

The first sentence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' The Memory of My Melancholy Whores is this:  "The year I turned 90, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin."   A similarly quixotic sentiment motivates Abbas Kiastorami's 2012 Like Someone in Love.  Elliptically narrated, the film details an encounter between a young call-girl and an elderly and famous sociology professor.  The outcome is alarming and, quite literally, shattering.  The premise of the film is simple enough:  the girl is a college student with a dangerously violent boyfriend and she moonlights as a prostitute.  Her boss, an avuncular if shady bar owner, sets her up with the old professor -- it seems that tavern-keeper, like several other characters in the film, was once a student of the famous scholar.  The girl is reluctant to accept the assignation because her grandmother has traveled to Tokyo to visit her.  But she ignores her grandmother's increasing plaintive phone messages and takes the job, primarily, it seems, because she can sleep in the taxi-cab driving her to the professor's small book-lined apartment.  As one might expect, her interactions with the old man are cringe-inducing -- he wants to be her friend and have a romantic dinner with the girl; she peels off her clothes and is briskly efficient about the transaction.  The next morning, the professor drives Akiko to school where another unpleasant encounter occurs.  Akiko's boyfriend confronts the old man who allows him to believe that he is the girl's grandfather.  Later, the boyfriend learns the truth about the relationship and besieges Akiko and the professor in teacher's apartment, possibly to the amusement of an prying old woman who is the professor's next-door neighbor and who has loved him herself for almost all of her life.  (She was disqualified from marrying the professor because of her duties caring her for handicapped brother -- we hear his voice on the soundtrack and he seems to suffer from cerebral palsy.)  The next-door neighbor pathetically confesses her romantic interest in the old man assuming that the girl is his granddaughter -- and, of course, the prostitute doesn't disabuse the woman of this notion.  Kiastorami narrates this story -- it has the character of a fable -- in an elliptical style:  initially, we hear the heroine speaking but she is off-screen and so we are puzzled:  the voice seems to come from nowhere.  (Akiko is talking on the phone about her violent and jealously possessive boyfriend.)  Later, the busy body neighbor speaks from off-screen as well and, initially, we have no idea as to the identity of Akiko's interlocutor.  The director uses long takes and, at least, half of the movie is shot in a moving car, first the taxi prowling the neon-lit streets of Tokyo and then, the professor's car as he drives the girl back to the college.  Akiko is a cipher, a small-town girl who came to Tokyo to work in the sex-industry and, initially,advertised so aggressively that her picture (dressed as slutty schoolgirl) and phone-number is scattered all around town -- both her boyfriend and grandmother have seen the image but they don't think it's Akiko but rather "someone who looks like her."  She is palpably exhausted throughout the picture and her assignation with the old man probably consists only of her sleeping in his bed, although it is never made clear exactly what happens between them.  Kiastorami reveres Ozu and many scenes in the film invoke the Japanese master -- the motif of the grandparents from the country coming to Tokyo, for instance, is an allusion to Ozu's heartbreaking Tokyo Story.  But Kiastorami's narrative is surprising on all levels and his strategy seems to be to challenge our expectations at each stage in the fable.  The old professor is not isolated or lonely -- everyone apparently knows and admires him and his phone rings constantly; he is more in demand than the call-girl.  In his encounter with the girl, he pretends to wisdom and, even, gives her grandfatherly advice, but the film makes it clear that he is as hapless, foolish, and, ultimately, panicked as everyone else.  The girl doesn't have a heart of gold.  The scene in which she has a taxi-driver circle the train station where her grandmother is waiting for her is particularly excruciating -- indeed, many of the film's scenes are almost unbearably sad, although there isn't any trace of sentimentality in the picture.  The prostitute's boyfriend, who seems to be a thug at first, is remarkably earnest and respectful to the old man, at least when he thinks that he is Akiko's grandfather, and seems like a diligent, competent fellow:  he runs a garage and cheerfully fixes the old man's Volvo when he detects an unusual sound in its engine.  The professor tries to play the part of the wise counselor and, even, sings Doris Day's Que sera, sera to the girl but, in the end, the ill-conceived rendezvous drives him into a state of helpless terror that is painful to watch -- he ends up a little like Professor Unrat in Joseph von Sternberg's The Blue Angel.  This film is one of Kiastorami's most accessible and disturbing pictures, a movie that resonates in the imagination after you have seen it and that raises many complex and troubling questions.  It's a little too refined and elegant to be a masterpiece but, certainly, as an essay in melancholy and as a commentary on Ozu's great works the movie is required viewing.  ("Like Someone in Love" is a tune sung by Ella Fitzgerald that the old man plays on his "date" with Akiko.) 

Monday, September 8, 2014


Although one of the greatest of film makers, Ingmar Bergman was primarily a man of the theater.  He distinguished himself directing plays and operas both before and after his film career.  Bergman's allegiance to theater is evident in Persona (1966).  The film is preeminently the record of a two-person theater-piece, an experimental play conceived and written by Bergman.  The artistically discordant elements of Persona, the aspects of the film that don't seem to cohere, are its most explicitly cinematic elements -- the film's bravura opening sequence, the famous moment when the image is entrapped in the projector to blur and burn, and several shots in the picture's last couple minutes.  Bergman's use of effects to superimpose the images of his actresses, his split-screen juxtaposition of their faces, and similar optical devices are also unnecessary, over-emphatic and feel contrived.  Paradoxically, a film famous for its meta-narrative devices and cubist compositions is most effective when it cleaves closest to its source material -- an austere theater work featuring two great actresses, one of whom never speaks.  Persona's premise is simple enough:  a famous actress has suffered some kind of mental breakdown during a performance of Elektra.  She refuses to speak and languishes motionless in a psychiatric ward.  A young nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) is assigned to care for the actress (Liv Ullmann).  Alma doubts her competency and seems uncertain as to her own identity.  After a prelude in the mental hospital, the actress is transferred to a remote, and, apparently, abandoned island for the summer.  Alma accompanies her to the island and, as time passes, becomes mentally and emotionally unstable herself.  The actress' silence is so daunting that Alma begins to perceive it as willful, obstinate and, even, aggressive.  And the film suggests that Ullmann's character is, perhaps, simply playing a role, acting some kind of sinister part or, in the alternative, seeking refuge in her silence to self-indulgently avoid her responsibilities as wife and mother.  (The actress has an adoring older husband who we seem to see once in the film -- his apparition, however, is probably a fantasy or vision; similarly, the film is bookended by scenes of the actress' son poring over a huge image of his mother as if hoping to understand why she has abandoned him.)   Ullmann's performance is suitably enigmatic -- she seems either catatonic or frustratingly remote:  sometimes, she laughs at Alma, her face shaped into a puzzling Mona Lisa smile that sometimes verges on a cruel sneer.  In many shots, Ullmann's character, with her hair severely pulled back and wearing a black outfit, is a dead ringer for the pale and melancholy Death that beset the Knight on the rocky beach in The Seventh Seal -- indeed, the imagery of empty skies and a stony beach backed by dwarf trees under the midnight sun is very similar to the landscape in Bergman's earlier movie.  The film has something of the character of a forbidden experiment -- the close association of two women in complete isolation, one of them garrulous and self-revelatory, the other mysteriously silent, yields madness:  the nurse imposes her thoughts and fantasies on the blank screen of Ullmann's character and, ultimately, the identities of the two women blur until they are indistinguishable.  (Bergman, perhaps, suggests that the white screen on which movies are projected and that images themselves -- for instance, a monk burning himself alive in protest at the Vietnam war, a woman's motionless face, a field of stone on a cold beach -- are neutral and indifferent fields on which project our own fantasies and desires.  The meta-filmic aspects of the movie are, perhaps, best interpreted in light of the concept of projection -- just as a film is projected, the nurse projects her own concerns onto the vacant and mysterious actress.)  Shot in immense unflattering close-ups -- the primary difference between the two beautiful women in the film is the character of their skin:  Liv Ullmann's complexion is pale and smooth as porcelain; Bibi Andersson's skin is more granular and porous -- the film often resembles Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc.  Everything is highly theatrical, artificial -- the nurse speaks in extended soliloquies and Bergman suggests that the actress' existential crisis is intrinsic to reality:  the world's cruelty and indifference is inescapable and, once this is grasped, the only refuge is silence, exile, and madness.  We sense that there is something wrong with this world early in the film:  the nurse is shown leaning over the bed of her patient and we can see quite distinctly that she is wearing spike high-heels.  This clue, I think, alerts us to the theatrical nature of the experiment, that the movie is a kind of filmed play, and that all of the meta-filmic or overtly cinematic elements are designed, perhaps, to conceal the fact that the action really could be performed on stage with no sets, no costumes, no beach, and no sky.  Two long speeches demonstrate Bergman's unique and feral savagery -- one of them details an orgy in a justly famous and explicit monologue; the other speech, even more ferocious, indicts the actress for despising her son, the poor hapless child that we have seen in adoration of his mother's image in the opening sequence of the film.  The nurse's description of the orgy is suitably Scandinavian, Lutheran, and dour:  in Italian films like La Dolce Vita and The Great Beauty orgies are cheerful occasions to meet future business associates, plan dinners at exquisite and expensive restaurants, and forge valuable friendships; the nurse's orgy ends with her requiring an abortion and in a flood of tears.  Persona is only 85 minutes long and there are many things about it that are astounding -- but I am unconvinced by the film; somehow, it seems to lack authentic inspiration and is too obviously the product of much labor and cogitation.     

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Pirate

Vincent Minnelli's 1948 musical, The Pirate is primarily interesting for what it almost achieves:  the film is almost a witty, socially critical entertainment with a Brechtian edge.  Unfortunately, the picture doesn't achieve this status; "nearly" good isn't enough and the film is dull and poorly acted.  Broadway musicals are an inherently conservative genre and The Pirate seems curiously banal and timid -- it is always just on the edge of breaking through to something interesting but doesn't ever have the guts to reach the conclusions implied.  This is most evident in Cole Porter's songs -- they have clever rhymes, more or less, and are workmanlike, but they don't aspire to the sort of scathing lyricism that you find in Brecht's work or, even, Minnelli's later The Band Wagon (1953) with songs by Comden and Green. The songs are third-rate, forgettable, and insufficiently witty -- Porter rhymes "Nina' with "neurasthenia" and "schizophrenia."This is unfortunate because the book has a bitter and sardonic edge, mostly concealed by the broad and vapid acting and the elaborate, cotton-candy sets.  A virtuous maiden, played by Judy Garland, lusts after a virile pirate -- her desires include not-so-subtle fantasies of violent rape.  Unfortunately, she is affianced (a term the script uses repeatedly) to a fat, middle-aged government official.  A vaudeville show comes to the small Caribbean town where she lives and its principal player, an actor and dancer named Serafin, romances her.  Serafin is played broadly by Gene Kelly who leaps around a lot like Douglas Fairbanks in the silent classic, The Black Pirate.  Serafin discovers that the maiden desires to be abducted and raped by the pirate, a brigand named Macoco.  Accordingly, Serafin hypnotizes the girl into thinking that he is Serafin and, in fact, plays the role of the cruel and lecherous pirate for the entire community.  A clever, and, even, profound plot twist ensues at this moment:  the girl's dull fiancée is, in fact, Macoco, the savage pirate, who has retired from his depredations on the Seven Seas.  Masquerading as government official, the poor fat pirate merely wants to gracefully evade execution.  A series of complications that are not particularly amusing ensue and, in the end, Judy Garland's character presumably marries Serafin, having been cured, I guess, of her fantasies of rape by the piratical Macoco.  The movie features several elaborate dance numbers, all of them revolving around Gene Kelly's character -- Judy Garland doesn't seem to be able to keep up with him and, until the last minute of the film, never dances with him. (There most dramatic scene is a grotesquely over-elaborated temper tantrum in which Garland hurls dozens of knickknacks at the cowering Kelly.)  The picture is spoiled by the total absence of any erotic sizzle between Garland and Kelly -- this is best demonstrated by the last number, "Be a Clown" in which the two lovers engage in broad slapstick, cavorting acrobatically on the stage, but barely touching one another.  Garland, to put it bluntly, is homely and dressed idiotically -- the costumes seem contrived to make her look bad  It's incomprehensible that the swaggering, fantastically handsome Kelly having his choice of all the beautiful women on the island would select Garland as his inamorata.  (As Mencken memorably said once: " if a man set before a resplendent banquet would ignore the food and set about catching and eating flies.")  At every point, where this film threatens to become interesting, the picture takes the wrong turn.        

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Jazz Singer

On my drive to work yesterday, the first day of school, I passed four bus stops teeming with children.  With a couple exceptions, almost all of the children were from immigrant families -- Guatemalans. Hmong, Liberians, Mexicans, Laotians, Sudanese.  If you live in place like my hometown, the 1927 musical The Jazz Singer is mandatory viewing.  The film is one of those movies that you don't really want to see, that seems without much promise on the basis of its plot synopsis -- the son of a Jewish cantor rebels to become a "jazz singer" causing strife in his family."  But, in fact, the film has a primal appeal.  If you watch ten minutes, you will be gripped by picture's relentlessly uncompromising and disturbing view of the American immigrant experience as a brutal zero-sum game:  either you are an immigrant, cleaving to ancient customs, draped in a prayer shawl singing Hebrew hymns in a medieval-looking synagogue or you are...a minstrel, a darky performing saccharine songs in black-face with huge white lips and a nappy wig.  The contrast is so stark as to verge on the expression some kind of collective psychosis.  Al Jolson, playing the cantor's son, is called "a jazz singer," although with one exception the music that he plays and sings doesn't seem anything like jazz to me.  (It's schmaltzy ballads, patter songs with fantastically elaborate hand and facial gestures, rag-time crooning.)  But in the world of this film "jazz" is code:  it means African-American, except that phrase is too polite for the actual significance of the term.  Jolson's father beats him for performing a snake-hips ragtime number in a local beer parlor.  A Hebrew, prominent in the synagogue, and playing a comical stage-villain Jew, has seen the lad dancing and singing and reported this misconduct to the stern old rabbi.  After being thrashed, the kid flees the ghetto tenement on the lower East Side and performs in various dives until he is discovered in a London by a fetching ingénue.  (Jolson first appears in the London sequence; in previous scenes, little Jakie Rabinowicz is played by a gifted child actor.)  The ingénue brings Jolson back to America, where he performs successfully at various venues as a "jazz singer," going by the name Jack Robin.  When the woman goes to New York to mount a big Broadway revue, the "April Follies," Jack Robin follows her and lands an important part in the show.  But he makes the mistake of visiting his mother and learns that his father is dying.  As bad luck would have it, the opening night coincides with the rabbi's death and the Day of Atonement.  Jack Robin, formerly Jackie Rabinowicz, is forced to choose between attending at his father's bedside and singing the Kol Nidre in synagogue or success and fame on the Great White Way.  (Implicit in the conflict is a romantic dilemma as well -- Jack is in love with the ingénue, said to be a Shiksa by his mother.  But the people who made the film are so skittish about the inter-faith love affair that the subplot is concealed, almost entirely hidden from view.)  What makes the character's conflict so fiercely irreconcilable is the fact that Jack performs on-stage in black face:  we see him "cork up" and Jolson performs almost all of the last half of the picture in minstrel make-up.  Obviously, this sort of betrayal of his ethnic traditions can't be accommodated to the orthodox community from which Jackie Rabinowicz comes -- and the cantor's son says that Broadway is his temple, where he brings God to the theatergoers and he is unwilling to compromise.  Or so it seems.  (The end of the film is a classic "cop-out" -- Warner Brothers sets up a dilemma that can't be solved, a savage either/or theorem, and, then, opts for "both"; this gives the film an unearned happy ending and is audience-pleasing -- even I felt relieved to some extent -- but it's dishonest.)  The scenes at the dying cantor's bedside have the character of an episode from Kafka:  Jolson is a tiny, frail man with shoulders that don't extend much beyond the rims of his ears and he has an oversize jack-o-lantern head with grinning lips and weirdly glinting eyes.  He is physically dwarfed by the huge, statuesque cantor with his vast white beard, marmoreal like something carved by Michelangelo.  What makes the film startling and unforgettable is the demonic vitality of Jolson's musical performances -- he mugs and hops around like a frenzied marionette and, when he sings a schmaltzy ballad (for instance a hymn to a boy with the title "Dirty Face, Dirty Hands"), his level of personal investment in this third-rate material is frightening, grotesque, something that must be seen to be believed.  Jolson was apparently a performer like no other and the film is extraordinary, if for no other reason than the fact that it preserves examples of his singing and boneless, prancing choreography.  (He comes across as a combination between Michael Jackson and Liza Minnelli both at their most flamboyant).  The black-face material, at first, seems offensive and stupid, but, then, the viewer senses another meaning -- there is a crazy universality in Jolson's minstrel singing:  corked-up, the little Jewish boy is performing not just for his tribe but for all mankind.  I think this is probably how most viewers would have perceived this material in 1927.  And it's my suspicion that the film is probably psychologically accurate, true, I think, even today, to the way immigrants perceive their relationship to American culture.  The Jazz Singer was a big production with excellent editing and good photography and is almost perfectly preserved:  it's a silent film although the musical numbers have a synchronized soundtrack.  There is good documentary footage of New York's lower East Side and a beautiful view of a great crowd of pedestrians walking through a pattern of light and shadow under the iron grid of an El.