Sunday, November 30, 2014

Beauty and the Beast (1946)

Jean Cocteau's 1946 version of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast has always left me cold.  The movie is too long by about a half-hour and it's middle section, in particular, drags.  The story is curiously disorienting and confusing.  Although the movie is about sexual transgression -- bestiality, the heroine's love for an animal, Cocteau disguises this aspect of the story or, at least, decorously diverts attention away from that theme.  Half of the film is devoted to the economic travails of Belle's pretentious, if impoverished family, material that seems incongruous with the kinky subtext of the scenes with the Beast.  Furthermore, the happy ending, of course, isn't happy at all and leaves the audience unsatisfied -- this is because the Beast with his silky fur and elegant brocaded garments, his sad bulging eyes, and gentlemanly tiny white incisors adorning his thin black lips, is phenomenally handsome and, in fact, much more desirable than the rather vapid human hero.  Indeed, at every juncture, Cocteau seems determined to make the Beast more appealing than any of the humans, including the beautiful, if dull, heroine. (The actress, Josette Day, is a great burst of white light to the Beast's preternatural and mournful blackness.)  Presumably, Cocteau understands what he is doing and, I suppose, there is Freudian or Jungian analysis that can make sense of the picture's bizarre ending -- but, emotionally, the film falls to earth with a thud when the Beast is transformed into the simulacrum of one of the venal and dim-witted humans.  Cocteau tries to avoid our let-down by suddenly investing his chaste heroine with a leering, sexual impudence -- she pouts and anxiously flings herself at her human lover while simultaneously declaring that she desires the Beast.  The final shots of the lovers ascending into heaven in a great floral bouquet of swirling garments, something like Paolo and Francesca in Dante or the figures one might glimpse on a rococo ceiling -- have a sour desperation:  Cocteau is pulling out all the stops to persuade us that the ending is satisfactory when everyone knows it is not.  (Marlene Dietrich's response to the last scenes in the film is noteworthy and exemplary:  at the screening, she attended she murmured "Bring me back my beautiful Beast!")  The movie founders on a sub-plot involving an attempt to rob the Beast's treasury guarded by an animate statue of the Virgin huntress Diana.  In that robbery, Belle's would-be human lover is shot in the back by Diana's arrow and, then, transforms into the Beast -- whether he is dead or just the victim of a malign metamorphosis or whether this shot is supposed to symbolically signify that the handsome movie star (Jean Marais) was really a beast within is uncertain.  Simultaneously, the Beast turns into a prince, but, disappointingly, his human face is that of the lover just shot down by Diana.  The effect is palpable disappointing, something clearly intended by Cocteau but peculiar nonetheless.  (As a homosexual, he may not be emotionally invested in the conventional heterosexual climax and, perhaps, signals his disdain for the embrace between the pale, pretty movie stars with which he is forced to conclude his film.  I wonder if there is not a more subversive and disturbing implication -- the film was made during the German occupation and I wonder if Cocteau is not mourning the departure of the beautiful blonde German beasts from Paris.)    The picture embodies the spirit of the rococo as refracted through Cocteau's surrealism and the various magical effects are justly celebrated:  statues come to life and the grounds around the Beast's chateau are like the enchanted gardens that we see in paintings by Watteau and Fragonard.  Watch this movie for the Beast;  he moves like a courtier or a great dancer, and, when Beauty has him lap water from her pale hands, the imagery has a delirious erotic impact.  Later as the poor beast is dying, we see a close-up of his face, the silky fur now matted and his nose wet as the muzzle of a friendly Labrador retriever.  Several large and malign geese hiss loudly at him.  This film is classic, but I don't much like it.  Every major director has alluded to Beauty and the Beast in some respect and stolen its effects and so you need to see this movie and make up your own mind about it. 

The Jungle Book (1942)

The three Hungarian born Korda brothers designed, directed, and produced a number of noteworthy British films during the thirties and forties.  I have not seen most of these films, but, on the evidence, of their most famous productions, their work was opulently mounted, beautifully shot, and surprisingly dull.  That Hamilton Woman, The Thief of Baghdad, and The Jungle Book have lavish sets and gorgeous costumes.  The Thief of Baghdad and The Jungle Book, made in 1940 and 1941 respectively, were shot in Technicolor and the super-saturated color design is breathtaking -- some of the shots simulate Maxfield Parrish; the atmosphere oozes rich color like molasses.  In my view, the Korda brothers are a decisive influence on the much greater, and stranger, Michael Powell.  Powell's films, particularly his Technicolor ones, have similarly grandiose sets, vast decorated spaces curiously poised between realism and the theater.  But Powell's movies have an aspect of delirium and hysteria that the staid, rather formal, Korda brothers, for better or worse, can't access.  Their films are civilized entertainments, not fever dreams like Powell's most famous movies.  In the first fifteen minutes, The Jungle Book with Sabu seems to be the most beautiful movie that you have ever seen.  The forest primeval is a holy place filled with colossal Banyan trees, their roots fortified like immense pale walls in a voluptuous green gloom.  Puddles of water are tiger-hued, glistening with orange and red highlights, the faint traces of a fiery sunset hidden by the canopy of the trees.  Vines hang in decorous profusion from the trees and banks of moist-looking orchids adorn places where shafts of sun pierce the jungle overgrowth.  An ancient city is abandoned to hordes of monkeys and huge impassive Buddhas, their faces painted bright blue dream in the silence of abandoned courtyards.  In a pit, a cobra guards a golden treasure -- at one point, the frieze of a temple is cracked open to drizzle gold coins like the shower falling into Danae's loins.  The rivers are purplish-blue full of menacing crocodiles and lily-pads wearing huge flowers like corsages.  Despite the film's startling beauty, it is static, dull, and predictable.  Unlike the Tarzan films that featured animal action of feral, and horrific ferocity, the Kordas don't know how to stage tiger attacks or elephant stampedes.  Their snakes are limp tubes obviously manipulated by strings.  (My guess is that the Kordas, influenced by the British Humane Society, weren't willing to commit the atrocities that Hollywood directors must have used to stage the animal effects in the Tarzan movies.)  Since the aspects of the film involving animals are unconvincing, the movie devolves into a story of three villainous blackguards attempting to loot a temple treasury that Sabu has accidentally discovered.  This story is prosaic and uninteresting, although it allows one of the bad guys an opportunity to flog the pretty Sabu and threaten him with a fiery death at the stake as a sorcerer -- imagery that has a sadistic homo-erotic edge.  The Korda brothers seem to be grooming Sabu for a series of jungle-boy adventures and the film ends on a note suggesting that sequels will follow -- strangely enough, the narrator of the story, a handsome old man with "the head of John the Baptist (as described by the pretty Mem-Sahib who hears the tale) turns out to be one of the villains.  Sabu, who was raised by wolves, swings through the air on vines, howls like a wolf, and, even, kills the animal villain, Shere Khan, a magnificent Bengal tiger, in an absurd underwater duel -- the film makers don't know how to stage the action other than as a wrestling match under the surface of a pond, the boy grappling with a tiger-dummy in murky water to hide the scene's deficiencies.  If you find this film playing on TV, you should watch it with one eye without the sound, while reading a National Geographic or Kipling's poems during the dull stretches. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Interstellar

Christopher Nolan's Interstellar (2014) is wonderful in just about every respect and, as science fiction, a monumental achievement.  The movie is a two-hour and forty minute spectacle in which the viewer's interest never lags, and that delivers one marvel after another.  Science fiction is successful when it provokes thoughts, inspires awe and wonder, and depicts human beings as heroic explorers confronting vast expanses of space and time.  With respect to these criteria, Interstellar, is wholly successful.  Of course, certain deficiencies are also characteristic of science fiction and, even, afflict its greatest works -- for instance, Tarkovsky's Solaris and Kubrick's 2001 a Space Odyssey.  (It is high praise to say that Interstellar closely resembles both of these films; indeed, Nolan's film is as gravely serious, humorless, and philosophical as its great precursors.)  Interstellar's characters are dull, inadequately realized, and, mostly, mouthpieces for scientific and speculative discourse that never seems really plausible as anything that a real person might say.  Matthew McConnaughy, haggard as always, gives a powerful, if monotonously single-minded performance -- it's as good as it needs to be given that the exploration of inner space, that is character development, is not the raison d'etre of film of this kind.  The other actors are just serviceable, none of them really bad except, perhaps, the hapless Matt Damon, who plays a villain with motives that the movie doesn't really bother to articulate.  There is a lot of lame exposition in the film and many ejaculations about "singularities" and "wormholes" that are, more or less, blatantly nonsensical.  Nolan, despite the narrative complexity of his films, is not a strong director when it comes to providing clarity of action in his stories (his Batman films are unbelievably bad)  -- frequently, he neglects important clues as to meaning or presents information too early for the audience to grasp it's narrative significance.  The ghostly poltergeist phenomena that provides the focus of the film's first quarter hour is not visualized in a way sufficient for us to understand exactly what is happening and this turns out to be a defect since crucial plot points turn on that activity.  Nolan's narrative approach to his material is frequently elliptical -- we never understand with any clarity exactly what calamity has befallen the world or why everyone has to become a farmer in what looks like Alberta, Canada.  When Jessica Chastain ignites a cornfield in the movie's climactic sequence, we have no idea what motivates her.  Certainly, the holocaust of the burning fields provides a visually effective counterpoint in the fugal construction of the movie's last half hour -- McConnaughy rocketing through a black hole in which space and time are warped crosscut with an immense prairie fire threatening the family home back on earth -- but I can't figure out why she lit the fire in the first place.  (The images of the fire as well as the prairies of Alberta summon to mind another influence on Nolan's film, the works of Terrance Malick, in particular the blazing prairie in Days of Heaven.)  But none of this really matters.  The purpose of this film is to inspire awe and wonder at the majestic indifference of the universe and this the movie achieves magnificently.  Hans Zimmer's score features the kind of rolling arpeggios and slowly amplified crescendos that Philip Glass orchestrated for Scorsese's Kundun and an important element of the film is the use of the music to create a rhythm emphasizing the grandeur of the action that we are shown.  (Zimmer's work mimics the end of Kundun in which Glass' soundtrack rises to a thunderous repetitive roar as we see the Dalai Lama struggling to escape Tibet -- it's a fantastic effect that Zimmer replicates to create a sense of religious awe.  Of course, I worry that the same musical score might create a sense of religious awe underlying images of cooking a tuna casserole or walking a poodle; there's a sense in which the spectacular soundtrack cheats a little both in Kundun and Interstellar inflecting the images with a power that they may not exactly have earned.)  The plot of Interstellar is beside the point:  some kind of plague has destroyed civilization and forced people to revert to farming that is becoming, more or less, unsustainable in the face of vast apocalyptic dust storms.  Humanity must leave earth to survive.  NASA, hiding inside mountains in Canada or Montana, has sent 12 probes through a worm-hole to distant galleries looking for habitable planets.  McConnaughy and his team set forth through the wormhole to explore worlds that earthlings might colonize, planets from which promising signals have been received from the advance parties.  It is a race against time since life on earth seems imminently threatened by malign climactic changes..  In this film, as in 2001 and Solaris, the immense distances of interstellar space are dramatized in terms of the time required to cross them.  Relativistic effects are integral to Interstellar and the theme of the movie, in fact, is time -- the way we experience time and the fact that it can be atomized into a series of moments, a theme of profound significance apparently to Nolan, whose breakthrough film, Memento, dramatized this issue in terms of a man suffering from an inability to recall the immediate past, a hero lost in a maze of present-tense time.  At the end of Interstellar, the themes of Memento are materialized in literal labyrinth of moments, an extraordinary image that I a triumph of Nolan's imagination and his design team.  The movie is full of fantastic and moving sequences, many of them exploiting the sense that as humans we are trapped in the remorseless flow of time, like ants in amber.  Indeed, some of these scenes are so powerful that people were openly weeping in the audience when I attended the film. There are waves on one planet as tall as Mount Everest; on another planet, the space ship knocks off pieces of floating and frozen clouds.  Towering dust storms block out the sunlight on earth, a place that comes to look as desolate as the uninhabited worlds explored by the space adventurers.  Nolan's trademarks from Inception are on display in even more elaborate and spectacular special effects -- a baseball hit up in a pop fly smashes through a window in a house overhanging the field, the interior of the space station is curved so that city streets are wrapped around the inside of the arch to form a sky to the playground.  In the Black Hole, things elongate into bands of color and there are a million rooms each mirroring one another, a recursive brownish labyrinth expanding in all directions.  On the ice-world, two men fight in their space suits and the camera shows them alone grappling in an enormous landscape -- it's like the brutal climax of Stroheim's Greed, when the two protagonists beat one another to a pulp while handcuffed together in Death Valley.  This is an extraordinary movie, highly serious, an example of the pictorial sublime, and one that I highly recommend.  

Friday, November 28, 2014

Jodorowsky's Dune

After making two successful, and internationally acclaimed, cult films, the Chilean-French film maker, Alejandro Jodorowsky, acquire rights to direct an adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune.  A visionary director with a pulp sensibility, Jodorowsky wrote a vast script and, then, storyboarded it -- a comic book artist with whom Jodorowsky had worked both before and after the abortive Dune project, Moebius, sketched the 3000 images comprising the outline for the film.  Jetsetting about Europe and America, Jodorowsky began assembling his team of "warriors" -- that is, collaborators on the project.  Much of Frank Pavich's 2013 documentary about Jodorowky's work on Dune has the classic form of a Hollywood Western or heist movie -- that is, the assembly of the team of idiosyncratic specialists required to implement the project.  Jodorowsky recruits Pink Floyd and Magma, a French Goth band, for the soundtrack -- although the film doesn't mention this, he also hired Karlheinz Stockhausen to work on the picture.  Mick Jagger asks to be cast.  Jodorowsky agrees to pay Salvador Dali $100,000 a minute for a 3 to 5 minute appearance in the film, Dali demanding that a burning giraffe accompany him in his scenes.  Tracking Orson Welles down in a Parisian restaurant, Jodorowsky promises that he will hire the chef of the establishment to feed Welles on the set of the film -- so Welles, as the story goes, enthusiastically enlists in the project.  The film's special effects were to be designed by Dan O'Bannon and H. R. Giger.  O'Bannon describes how Jodorowsky appeared to him as a kind of shaman, altering his shape with an LSD mandala haloing his handsome features and it's clear that Jodorowskiywas (and remains) remarkably charismatic.  Although the enterprise had all the earmarks of the sort of profligate and quixotic ambition that dooms film projects, it's a testament to Jodorowsky's persuasive abilities that the movie was almost produced.  (At the last minute, the Hollywood money-men quashed the project -- Jodorowsky had already spent 2.5 million dollars of his 9 million dollar budget and many of the film's elaborates special effects were simply impossible to implement with movie technology in the mid-seventies.)  Pavich's documentary argues that although Jodorowsky's Dune was never made, the film's extravagant visual style, as evidenced by the storyboards that circulated in Hollywood for many years, was adopted, even plagiarized by subsequent films -- the movie cites sequences from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Bladerunner, and Star Wars among others for this proposition.  It's hard to evaluate the assertion that the fingerprints of Jodorowsky's Dune mark many later Hollywood sci-fi films --that's because most films in that genre were influenced by Star Wars and the cartoon-like features of the films in that series do, indeed, look similar to some of Jodorowsky's story-boards.  But I'm not aware of any evidence that George Lucas' designers were aware of Jodorowsky's project and Lucas has always claimed that his influences were low-budget movie serials produced in the forties and fifties.  The problem with attributing source with respect to Jodorowsky is that his style has always been derivative itself --El Topo, for instance, was modeled on the more outrageous examples of Italian spaghetti Westerns and the hyper-violent confrontations in that film were based on images extracted from movies made by Leone and others.  Similarly, Jodorowsky has spent most of his career writing comic books, often with Moebius, and his visual style is clearly derived from American comics like Batman, Superman, and The Green Lantern.  Accordingly, my suspicion is that the reason many science fiction films made after the collapse of Jodorowsky's Dune look like his storyboards is that both Jodorowky's picture and the later films by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were designed to look like frames from DC and Marvel comic books.  It's an open question as to how good Jodorowsky's Dune would have been -- the material was probably impossible to produce; after all David Lynch failed spectacularly when he attempted to adapt the novel in the mid-eighties.  Jodorowsky's version of the film had a visionary conclusion, a sort of mystical variant on the end of Spartacus in which the spirit of the murdered Paul Atreides transmigrates into all the other characters who announce that they have become one with Paul.  The sand-planet Dune, then, becomes a sentient and lush green world and this world rambles through the rest of the universe infecting it with life.  Although the ending of Jodorowsky's Dune was an example of the director's psychoshamanism, it seems that the rest of the movie was pulpy sword duels in outer space interspersed with torture and mutilation scenes.  Like many films proposed but never made, Jodorowsky's Dune is probably more interesting as an idea than it would have been as a finished film -- an artwork's potential always exceeds its actual realization.  Frank Pavich's documentary features Jodorowsky and, at 84, he remains astonishingly vibrant, youthful, and forceful.  He has just completed a new film, his first picture in 23 years, and, says that "although I probably have only one year to live, I am creating as if I will live to 300."  A sacred monster, Jodorowski is probably best appreciated from a great distance -- the documentary is inspiring but also horrifying in a way. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Five Million Years to Earth

Five Millions Years to Earth is a 1967 Hammer Films production based on a teleplay for the BBC called "Quatermass and the Pit".  The original program aired as a series in 1957 - 58 and was, apparently, memorable -- SciFi fans still speak fondly of the show and it is recalled as a prototype to the X Files.  Of course, the X Files was best when it was funny and relied in large part on the sexual chemistry simmering between its principals, the tormented Mulder and the beautiful skeptic, Dana Scully.  Five Million Years to Earth is for purists -- there is no trace of sexual tension or romantic interest in the film and the movie plays its outrageous premise straight:  no laughs here.  Overlit and excessively schematic, the film is the diagram of its plot until the impressive last ten minutes in which all hell breaks loose -- quite literally in this film.  Although the exposition is dry and overt -- people lecturing one another in conference rooms or labs filled with skeletons -- the movie is sufficiently interesting to engage the viewer throughout its length and the pay-off is spectacular enough to make the wait for the special effects seem justified.  While excavating a subway in a dingy part of London, workers discover anthropoid bones.  The skulls and femurs belong to hideous, snub-nosed primates interred next to a blue, helmet-shaped space-craft.  At first, the space-craft is believed to be a German Vergeltungs-Rakete of unknown provenance, but soon it demonstrates curious properties -- it's shiny blue surface is non-metallic and impervious to blow-torches and diamond-tipped drills.  People working around the space-craft suffer strange hallucinations and poltergeist activity manifests itself in the shell-like interior of the flying saucer.  Ultimately, the saucer somehow opens itself and giant locusts are found within, locked in a crystal matrix.  The locusts are unconvincing as monsters and they are rigid and dead -- but the Hammer special effects people, have a fun time making the creatures exude green goo.  The space-locusts immediately decompose and the film has many shots of scalpels cutting into rotting carapaces with green slime pouring out over the blade.  The film's premise is that the space-grasshoppers fled Mars, landed on earth, and telepathically communicated the customs of their civilization to humans.  In order to control their population, the Martian bugs periodically conducted "race-purges," shown in inadvertently funny video images of hundreds of locusts stumbling around unconvincingly like penguins at the South Pole, masses of them hopping to their destruction across desolate plains.  These lemming-like tendencies have been inculcated in our primate ancestors, the ugly pug-nosed monkey-men, and they account for the human belief in Satan and our predilection for intra-species homicide and warfare.  No sooner is all of this explained, then, the sinister aura around the space-ship is activated, resulting in gruesome telekinetic havoc.  A ghostly image of a huge horned locust, sculpted in alabaster mist rises over the carnage and the city erupts into flames.  Although this film is not well-known in the United States, the movie has a distinguished reputation and, certainly, I can read its influence in other pictures.  The notion that prehistoric ape-men were impregnated with traits that we interpret as human by aliens, of course, is the controlling idea in 2001, A Space Odyssey.  And the telekinetic carnage wrought by monster-locusts re-occurs in the spectacular climax of John Boorman's remake of the Exorcist, a film known as The Exorcist:  The Heretic starring Richard Burton of all people.  I also detect influences on Brian DePalma's two telekinesis films, Carrie and The Fury.   All films of this kind share a genetic resemblance and derive from the first and mightiest example of the genre, Euripides The Bacchae:  in these tales, a god comes to town in the form of a lizard-man or locust-aviator or vampire; skeptics doubt the power of the god and so he shows his fury by destroying believers and unbelievers alike.  In this film, the skeptical general, still arguing that the space-craft is a Nazi V-2 weapon stands paralyzed like Lot's wife while the blast of the divine burns away his flesh.  Five Million Years to Earth is humorless, overly literal, and frequently silly -- but it packs a punch. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Manakamana

Near Chitwan, Nepal, cable cars ascend immense green hills to a mountaintop shrine.  This is the temple of a goddess, Manakamana, and believers visit her shrine with sacrificial offerings, hoping that their wishes will be granted.  The documentary film made about this place is a production of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, released in 2013, and directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez.  The Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab is probably the world's foremost producer of lyrical, if demanding, documentaries:  the group is responsible for Sweetgrass, a film about the last sheep drive over Montana's Bear Paw Mountains and the hallucinogenic Leviathan, an impressionistic documentary about a fishing ship trolling the turbulent waters of the North Atlantic.  These films are presented as raw data, without voice-over and, in the case of Manakamana without any explanatory intertitles.  The audience is immersed in strange images and sounds and forced to draw their own conclusions about the filmed data -- the effect is exhilarating but, also, infuriating in its purity and refusal to explain the mysterious things that we are shown.  Manakamana is an example of remarkably lucid and powerful minimalist film-making.  The film consists of a single shot repeated 11 times in a film that is about 90 minutes long.  Six shots show ascents in the cable car to the shrine apparently located in the majestic foothills to the Himalayas.  Five shots depict the cable car and its passengers descending from the shrine.  The footage seems to have been recorded by a camera concealed so as to face the passengers seated across the car from the hidden lens.  There is no narration or diagetic music; although, in one scene, two musicians play a duet on wooden peg instruments called sarangi.  Each shot begins in darkness in the cable-car shed.  We hear indistinct voices, the bleating of goats, and, then, perceive the shadowy silhouette of a person against the dim light of the building.  The car lurches forward and we see a great wheel turning overhead and, then, as the compartment brightens, we find ourselves staring at the passengers seated across from the camera.  The car zooms upward (or falls with scary speed) and the camera dispassionately records the passengers and a the vast landscape that the cable car traverses:  lush green mountains, either terraced or forested with Sal trees, steep zigzagging paths, sheds and houses on a ridge -- when the cable car passes that place we sometimes hear music and people calling to one another below -- and the steel pylons supporting the cables; when the car passes across the pylon, it rumbles and shifts, dislodging the passengers slightly.  The ride ends in another dim shed and the image darkens into complete blackness.  We hear machinery and gears rattling and, then, a shadowy form emerges, a silhouette, and, as the car is pulled forward, we see the next set of passengers replacing those that we have previously observed.  In the context of the ascent of the sacred mountain, the effect is undeniably poetic and lyrical:  the great turning wheel seems to symbolize reincarnation and the passage up (or down) the mountain, although completely factual and undramatized, is an allegory for human existence:  life begins in darkness, rises or falls, and, then, ends in another dark place where we await the next passenger or group of passengers in the cable car.  The round-trip ride lasts 17 minutes, but the film is edited so that we see six ascents one after another and, then, five descents from the temple.  In only one case, do we see people both before and after their visit to the temple -- the film shows us a farmer and his small, apparently ill, wife both ascending and descending.  The couple scarcely speak and the dour farmer holds a beautiful rooster in his arms; man and wife are dressed in what seems to be their Sunday best and, when they come down from the mountain, the rooster is dead, although we see only its feet in the image -- the camera is immobile.  We can't read from anyone's face any sort of religious inspiration or any kind of devotion or ecstasy.  The temple itself is off-limits -- we don't even glimpse it and have no idea what takes place in the shrine.  (Obviously, there are sacrifices, possibly of flowers, roosters, and goats -- but we have no idea how those sacrifices are performed or what they mean.)  Some people return from the mountaintop with small souvenirs or ice-cream treats -- in one comical sequences, a woman and someone who might be her elderly aunt eat ice-cream bars that melt, covering them with goo.  (The younger woman shields her nice sari with a plastic bag, but the older lady isn't equipped to protect herself against the melting ice-cream; surprisingly, the younger woman does nothing to help her.)  The apparent asymmetry between the number of trips ascending and descending is explained by the fact that the last uphill ride involves four tethered goats who bleat pitifully as their open car rumbles between cables at the pylons.  It's a haunting image and one that doesn't bode well for the sacrificial animals.  One man mentions that it used to take three days to walk from the nearby village to the mountain shrine.  Two American girls sit in morose silence and seem to have quarreled before getting on the cable car to descend the mountain -- but they brighten and talk cheerfully as the car flies down the hill: one girl is writing in a journal and they both "hydrate" themselves by drinking water from bottles and canteens.  By contrast, the Nepalese are mostly silent.  The travelers are an old man and his grandson, a handsome, formidable-looking woman with a decorated bucket full of garlands, the dour farmer and his petite wife (she says that her wish has come true to see the shrine and its goddess), three old ladies who comment on the beauty of the landscape, three boys who take selfies of themselves with their phones, and, then, the four goats.  The people descending the mountain are a woman with a wooden souvenir, the two American girls who are warm and fan themselves with their journals, the women with the ice-cream bars, two musicians with sarangi, and, finally, the grim-looking farmer and his wife -- the farmer looks at his watch several times.  He seems angry that he has taken time from work and sacrificed his rooster to this foolishness.  Manakmana is not to all tastes and it is undeniably dull at times.  But it is a major work of art and its peculiar form is necessary and intrinsic to its meaning. What does it mean?  Many things:  the sacred is invisible in our world; our encounter with the sacred leave no visible impression; we come from darkness and end in darkness; goats are readily frightened and the visible world is a beautiful, mysterious place.  (I saw the film in the only way that it is available for a home viewer -- that is Netflix streaming:  this is not the way to watch the film because there is no commentary and no short explanatory segments to provide context.  The work of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab is important and brilliant, but context is necessary to better understand these films -- and in a streaming format, there's no way to obtain that context.  And the fact that context is required to fully appreciate these remarkable films illustrates both their excellence and their deficiencies as documentaries.) 

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Come-Back (2005 and 2014)

Lisa Kudrow has the improbable physiognomy of a Pontormo Madonna:  her neck is immensely elongated and her head is capped with a lustrous crown of brilliantly red hair.  She looks curiously boneless and immaterial, as if she had just stepped forth from a Mannerist painting.  Kudrow's pale skin and stretched-out figure make her seem vulnerable -- it's as if a strong breeze might blow her away and she exploits this aspect of her persona for maximum poignancy in the HBO series The Come-Back.  Kudrow plays a middle-aged actress well-known for appearing in 97 episodes of a popular eighties sit-com; Tv-industry professionals cite this show as if it were Holy Scripture, although one character blithely observes that he has seen episodes on archive at the Museum of Broadcasting, a commentary as to the leading lady's status as an artifact in a culture that regards events occurring only a couple of years ago as ancient history. The Come-Back is not just a narrative periodically deflected into its own exegesis; it's not just a story with some meta-fictional aspects.  Rather, the entire story is meta-fictional -- there is no palpable ground to the program's Talmudic commentaries upon commentaries, a Gnostic structure of imitations of imitations of imitations.  Kudrow's narcissistic, but desperately needy, heroine is hired to play a minor role in a raunchy network sit-com, something like Two-and-a-half Men, featuring a two gorgeous young girls and two half-naked hunks.  The middle-aged actress mistakenly perceives that she is the center of attention in this TV show, shot before a studio audience.  This misapprehension results in a series of humiliations that are painful to watch, but emotionally compelling.  Simultaneous to her work on the TV series, the actress has agreed to participate in a reality TV series, something like The Osbornes' or any number of similar shows featuring half-witted celebrities desperate to keep their faces before an audience, even an audience of morons invited to pity and laugh at them.  So The Come-Back's premise is that a film-crew shooting a reality TV show documents the daily activities of the middle-aged actress as she shuttles between her home and the studio and business-related luncheons and parties.  The reality show documentary crew shoot the cast and crew of the sit-com in which the actress plays the role of  Aunt Sassy, a pathetic older woman who wants to participate in the sexually charged activities of the two much younger couples renting a condominium from her.  Kudrow's character -- she's named Valerie -- keeps trying to take-over the sit-com just as Aunt Sassy tries to inject herself into the debauchery enjoyed by her young tenants.  One of the writers on the sit-com, a kid named Pauly G., despises Valerie and works to debase her by writing degrading lines for the actress.  Valerie protests, but she's a trouper, a professional, and The Come-Back grants her, at least, a measure of skill and acumen in the performance of her duties on the set -- she doesn't flub her lines and gamely appears wearing hideous running suits with her hair curled into a grotesque mop of curls and gives it her best.  I have been describing the premise of the 2005 series, an HBO show that you can see on-demand, and that yielded 13 highly regarded half-hour episodes.  (Although the show was a critical success, it wasn't popular and was canceled.)  The 2014 version of the program is, in anything, even more complex in its layers of meta-fiction.  In the new Come-Back, Kudrow plays the same character, now nine-years after her 2005 debacle in the sit-com and with the reality TV show.  The program begins with the news that Valerie's nemesis, Pauly. G. is writing a new sit-com for HBO, apparently, something more or less identical to the program that we are watching.  Rumor has it that the new HBO show will feature a cruelly caricatured, and thinly disguised, version of Valerie.  Valerie calls her lawyers and asks them to quash the show.  As it happens, she has just begun filming yet another reality show and a film-crew of eager, but inept, students is documenting her life, intruding into just about every aspect of her existence.  Valerie goes to HBO to confront the producers of the show imminently scheduled for production and discovers that her agent failed to tell her that she was considered for the part and, indeed, invited to audition for the role of playing herself.  Pauly G. and his cohorts give Valerie a spectacularly degrading monologue to read and she  does so well as a desperate middle-aged actress playing a desperate middle-aged actress that she is awarded the part.  Her ire subsides with the pleasing notion of playing herself on the HBO series and, indeed, the network even offers to pick up the reality show.  So Valerie embarks on the task of reconstituting the crew that made her 2005 reality show.  Viewed in tandem, the two versions of The Come-Back offers something of the frisson of Richard Linklater's recent Boyhood -- the characters have aged in real-time and the world has developed around them; there is a sense of the collision of personal and public history.  The little girl who upstaged Valerie on the 2005 sit-com is now a world-famous movie star, far too busy to make time for her old mentor.  Pauly G. has completed rehab twice for his heroin addiction and seems to have matured.  Kudrow is older and even more desperate for attention; her husband has lost most of his hair and is palpably embittered.  The tattooed girl who directed Valerie's 2005 reality show has come-out as a lesbian and has an Oscar for a short documentary on lesbian victims of Treblinka -- since she can't get money for her latest project, about Thailand "boat-women", she keeps the statuette as a door-stop in her kitchen.  Kudrow is in every shot of both shows and the program, a massive exercise in Schadenfreude, is wholly dependent upon her performance.  As far as I can ascertain, Kudrow is virtually flawless in the part.  She is a monster of self-absorption and, like an oriental potentate, travels with a slavishly loyal eunuch, her hairstylist Mickey.  Blithely unaware of her foolish pretensions, she plays the part of the Grand Lady, unaware that she is the object of derision by those around her.  Yet, her panic at growing older and her fear of being ignored is so startlingly and vividly presented that you can't look away from her performance.  In one sequence, she faces the camera pretending to be indifferent to the fact that the younger actress -- she calls her "Baby Girl" -- on the 2005 sit-com has stood her up.  But she keeps biting her lip and blinking back tears and it's obvious that she is deeply wounded.  In another remarkable sequence, someone suggests that Valerie use a hair-care product for her red mane that she has never seen before -- it's part of a sponsorship deal.  Valerie's sheer terror with respect to this product, her fear that it will damage her hair so that she will not be seen to best effect, is vividly portrayed -- in fact, Valerie looks more realistically frightened by the bottle of shampoo than an actress in a slasher film confronting a madman with an axe.  I've seen seven episodes -- two of the 2014 show that is now ongoing, and five of the 2005 Come-Back.  The programs are all interesting and beautifully acted although I wonder how many humiliations the scriptwriter can devise for the hapless Valerie.  People get a shabby pleasure from seeing a beautiful and accomplished woman humiliated and there's something sadistic about the whole enterprise.  (I have always objected to televised beauty pageants because it seemed that the main objective of those shows was to make beautiful women look foolish and turn 49 out of fifty of them into "losers" -- there is, of course, only one Miss America.  The program is clearly derivative of other similar shows:  it's ultimate ancestory is the The Gary Shandling Show, about a TV talk show host, and Kudrow's character has some of the characteristics of Larry David who plays himself on Curb your Enthusiasm; the program is also similar to Ricky Gervais' Extras -- there is a nasty tag-line associated with Aunt Sassy ("I don't need to see that!") similar to Gervais' bĂȘte noir --"Are you havin' a laff?" And the show's much-vaunted poignancy is a bit specious -- in a world filled with so much genuine misery, why should we care that an unimaginably wealthy woman, who is also a great beauty, suffers from a series of petty embarrassments and disappointments?  In the most recent episode, Kudrow's character has a ticket to the Golden Globes.  She gets an expensive gown and attends with her entourage.  But the ticket is only to a viewing suite -- in other words, she has to watch the show from a hotel room near the auditorium in a room cluttered with Russian prostitutes and industry has-beens.  This is presented as very sad.  But, of course, dear Reader, you and I will never get a ticket to see the Golden Globe awards from any vantage at all except our living rooms. 
   

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Ida

Sister Ann, a mousey novice at a Polish convent, is about to take her vows when she is told that her aunt has asked to meet with her.  In the past, the aunt has shown no interest in the orphaned girl.  Sister Ann takes a street car through a dingy city to the apartment of her aunt.  Ann seems to have never left the convent on her own and she looks out the street-car at the gloomy city with wide and apprehensive eyes.  Ann's aunt is "red Wanda," a notorious Communist prosecutor and judge, now declining into alcoholism.  "Red" Wanda chain-smokes, drinks vodka straight from the bottle, and picks up burly older men in the dismal taverns that she frequents.  Pawel Pawlitkowki's 2014 film doesn't beat around the bush.  Wanda, who looks grim and haggard, meets Sister Ann at the door in her frumpy house-coat -- in deep-focus in a room behind her, a man is putting on his pants.  Wanda is sadistic and happy to tell Ann that she isn't even Catholic, that she's a Jew raised in the covent after her parents were murdered during World War Two.  She taunts Ann, whose real name is Ida, and, then, for reasons that are never fully explained, takes her on a road trip to the desolate rural area where Ida's parents were killed.  (The ostensible purpose for the trip is locate the place where Ida's parents were buried.  But it's unclear why Wanda has waited this long to undertake this venture.  My suspicion is that Wanda, in a last spasm of allegiance to the dying Communist regime, wants to distract Ida from becoming a nun -- although, Wanda seems disgusted by the filthy towns and her own complicity in Poland's misery, she also can't imagine a better future and, nihilistically, wants to subvert Ida's faith.)  The two women motor around a spectacularly dismal-looking landscape, stopping at ramshackle farms and shabby gas stations; at one point, Ida kneels to pray at a shrine at a crossroads.  All of this is filmed in elegantly composed and funereal black and white.  The movie's compositions are designed so that the characters occupy the lower third of the film-frame -- the upper part of the image is usually just a grey sky or a blank, whitish void.  At times, this device is mannered to the point that the faces of figure are cut off in their middles by the bottom of the frame.  At a gloomy hotel where the women stay, there is a curious column in the lobby that extends upward but seems to have no structural function -- the column is like the pillar on which St,. Simeon Stylites exiled himself, a pedestal with nothing on top of it, and a pictorial correlate to the empty space extending up above the figures in the landscape.  It's hard not to view these images, which comprise about half of the film, as pictures of a heaven that has been denied its transcendence, a void above the characters where the sky and God should be located.  Ultimately, the two heroines descend into the earth, moving away from the heavens above, and root out the bones of their relatives.  They go to another cemetery, just as desolate as the barren forest where they found the skeletons, and inter the remains.  There is an abortive love story -- Ida spends the night with an alto saxophone player who the women have picked up while hitchhiking.  Red Wanda commits suicide and Ida tries to drink and smoke, tottering on spike high heels to imitate to her aunt.  At Wanda's funeral, someone plays a scratchy version of "The Internationale."  We last see Ida walking toward the camera in a shot that lasts a long time, a sequence similar to scenes in Bela Tarr's films -- Tarr's influence is everywhere apparent in Ida.  We have no idea where she is going.  And the problem with the film is that the director doesn't know where she is going either.  The film's characters are laconic and rarely speak.  When they do speak, it's mostly in grunts and uncommunicative half-sentences.  Since no one tells us or one another anything, we have to infer motivation from what we are shown.  And what we are shown is austere, non-dramatic, people in landscapes or dirty-looking bars silently staring off into space -- imagery like Robert Bresson's more austere films, although cut to a quicker pace.  Is the silence of the characters intrinsic to the situation or is it a mark of laziness (or a lack of confidence) on the part of the film maker?  Red Wanda is such an interesting figure, and the performance embodying her is so stark and effective, that I would have liked to have heard much more from this character.. In an early scene, we see Wanda presiding over a tribunal that is considering the case of a malcontent who used a pre-communist saber to cut down a "socialist display" of flowers.  The trial is meaningless and the lawyer's presentation maunders on in an irritating way, but Red Wanda's face is a study in indomitable, and grim, ferocity.  She has sent people, as she says proudly to their death, "enemies of the State," as she calls them, but, now, she is judging a case involving cut flowers where the primary evidence seems to be the fact that sword used to decapitate the blooms was once owned by a Polish nationalist.  What does she think of this?  What are we to make of her mask of  imperturbable, and indifferent, savagery?   The film doesn't answer these questions and give us silence -- the silence of those empty skies -- instead.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge is a four-hour mini-series first aired on HBO on November 2 and November 3, 2014 brilliantly directed by Lisa Cholodenko.  The mini-series is novelistic in ambition, following the destinies of a number of characters over a period of 25 years.  Olive Kitteridge derives from a Pulitzer prize-winning book written by Elizabeth Strout  and comprised of linked short stories; the eponymous character is a strong-willed woman, a schoolteacher retired for three of  the four hours of the mini-series and married to a pharmacist in a small and picturesque coastal village in Maine.  Frances McDormand plays the title role and her performance is brilliantly natural, penetrating, and uncompromising -- Olive Kitteridge is clinically depressed, an embittered kill-joy who finds the happiness of others disheartening, naive, and silly.  McDormand's portrait of this woman is bold -- she makes no attempt to soften the edges of this character whose abrasive demeanor and sarcastic remarks inflict injury on all those around her.  We tolerate Olive Kitteridge because she is witty, intelligent, and, as much a hapless victim of her own angry melancholia as those around her -- in the first scene in the film, the elderly Olive seems to be planning to commit suicide, loading and cocking a gun with which to blow out her brains.  Many years ago, I saw Bill Forsyth's excellent film version of the Marilynne Robinson novel Housekeeping.  In that film, a woman suffering from profound and disabling depression observes to a little girl entrusted to her care and there is nothing in the world that requires that a person be happy -- some people, the woman says, are naturally unhappy and dissatisfied with the world and that's just the way it is.  Indeed, in Housekeepintg as in Olive Kitteridge, the distance between those who are blessed with natural happiness and those afflicted with depression seems incalculably great, a vast impassable gulf:  in these films, happy people speak an entirely different language than the unhappy; those who are depressed regard themselves as the custodians of the truth about existence, clear-sighted victims of a vision of existence that is too acute for most people to bear.  The question posed by Olive Kitteridge are profound and ancient ones:  are human beings entitled to happiness?  And who has the truer vision of reality, the pessimist or the optimist? Olive Kitteridge's husband, Henry, is a man of perpetually sunny disposition, gentle, kind, and sentimental -- at the wedding of his son, he cries unabashedly and makes a stammering, naively sentimental toast that crucifies Olive with embarrassment and dismay.  As the mother of the groom, Olly, as she is called, prefers to sit in the front row of the wedding party, eating from a can of Planter's nuts, and making sardonic comments; she terrifies a flower girl and openly insults the conventional, self-absorbed, but well-meaning mother of the bride.  Her family is embarrassed by her behavior but everyone tiptoes around her, afraid of incurring her wrath.  (Later, we see that Olive's son has married a beautiful young woman who is, apparently, fierce in her own right and, probably, closer in disposition to Olive than might first seem apparent -- in a petty gesture of revenge, Olive has stolen one of the bride's earrings, a theft immediately apparent to the victim's eagle eye, and the bride seems quite willing to spend her wedding night tearing the honeymoon room apart in search of the missing jewelry.)  This scene raise the film's fundamental question   on which side of the great divide in human personality does this bride exist -- is she one of the satisfied cheerful ones or one of the perpetually dissatisfied?   You either see the world as a tragedy or as a comedy with a happy ending ; there doesn't seem to be much middle ground and the film's grim emblem seems to be suicide..  Olive Kitt3ridge is lovingly constructed; it is beautifully shot and acted and the script is a model of intelligent implication, proceeding through a series of leit motifs and tiny, penetrating details from which the audience constructs a picture of the people involved in the interlocking and linked stories.  The film observes certain aspects of existence that are tragic -- a young husband is accidentally shot while hunting; a woman drops dead of a stroke in the opening scene  -- but the film also accepts the proposition that these things are all a matter of perspective:  for some people, everything is fundamentally tragic and futile; for other people, nothing is tragic -- all will be well in the end.  The clash of these two viewpoints provides the film's drama and its rationale.  One of Olive's students has a mother who is a drug addict and so seriously depressed that we learn that she has killed herself.  Olive calls her "an interesting woman" and praises her intelligence.  Olive's pharmacist husband, refusing to fill the poor doomed woman's prescription of valium -- she is over-medicating herself -- suggests that she buy several 100-watt light bulbs to brighten up her house against the long Maine winters.  In the contrast between the points of view, we sense the heart of this mini-series:  Olive's husband wants to help people; he's a problem solver and acts aggressively, if naively, to "treat" the depression of those around him.  Olive doesn't even see depression as a problem -- to her, depression is a valid and truthful orientation to a world that is stony, cold, and, generally, disappointing.  (She loves a fellow-teacher, an alcoholic who reads John Berryman, and who, apparently, commits suicide when Olive's husband takes measures to limit his contact with his wife.  The dead teacher leaves a note scribbled on a bar napkin:  "Save us from shotguns and the suicide of fathers," a quote from one of Berrryman's Dream Songs.)  Olive Kitteridge has much of the subtlety and sadness of Chekhov -- it feels a bit like a Chekhov play, or the dramatization of several of Chekhov's stories:  we have the sense of characters whose relationship to the world is involuted and repressed -- Olive would never express her sorrow or anger explicitly; it is all bottled-up inside her, a rage that reveals itself through little twitches and spasms of sardonic cruelty.  When we see her bellowing with sorrow over the death of the alcoholic fellow teacher, we have a brief sense for the abyss of her grief, the inconsolable nature of her depression, but it is something revealed for only a moment, but, then, concealed again.  The entire film proceeds under the sign of Saturn -- it is dark, sad, melancholy.  When a young woman falls into the sea, the disturbed man who saves her can't conceive that she slipped into the icy waters accidentally -- he has come back to Maine to kill himself and his only explanation for the girl's fall into the water was that it was intentional.  But the girl is one of those people whose personality doesn't admit depression and she is completely unable to grasp the young man's point of view:  his idea that she might have intentionally dropped herself into the sea is completely incomprehensible to her.        

The notes posted above reflect my assessment of the first half of Olive Kitteridge.  Unfortunately, the second two episodes don't sustain the philosophical intensity of the series' opening two hours.  In the third hour, Olive Kitteridge and her husband are held hostage in a hospital hold-up -- the scene is frightening, but, also, implausible and seems extracted from a different film.  Furthermore, the sequence, and much of the film's second part, is overly explicit -- speeches are made explaining things that we already understand.  After the dissonant, confessional exchanges of the hostage episode, the film never quite recovers its equipoise and, in fact, slips into sentimental bathos.  The mutual confessions articulated in the hostage scene suggest that Henry and Olive's marriage will have to develop in a different direction -- but just as that relationship threatens to become interesting, Henry has a stroke and becomes inanimate for much of the rest of the film.  This removes Henry's perspective from the film and without his radical, unmotivated cheerfulness as a foil to Olive's nasty pessimism, the show loses force -- it runs out of energy.   Drama requires opposition and, without Henry, there is no counterweight to Olive.  A character like Olive is tolerable only to the extent that she is witty and funny; otherwise, her individualism, which is meant to be heroic, deteriorates into something like social autism -- the story of a woman who is impolite and doesn't know how to act in public.  And, at times, the second half of Olive Kitteridge threatens to become merely cranky.  There are still good scenes in the last two hours of the picture and, throughout, the attention to detail is dauntingly exact and powerful, and the acting uniformly (if, perhaps, monotonously) true to life.  Olive's trip to Brooklyn to meet her son's second wife is a humiliating catastrophe and those scenes are funny in a cringe-inducing way:  she slaps an offensive child and is, then, forced to accept the brat's forced "forgiveness" after first apologizing herself. During the last half-hour, Bill Murray appears playing the role that has become standard to him -- an old curmudgeon with a heart of gold.  Murray's always fun to watch -- he is s sad-eyed tragic clown and our knowledge of his history and career adds greatly to his performance.  But, ultimately, he's imported into the show as a sort of deux ex machina to cheer up the suicidal Olive.  Although I think the movie loses its way in the second half, it remains capable of small, but effective shocks:  when Olive peels an apple using a pocket-knife, she drops the green peel onto the ground at the edge of the seashore.  We recall how her unrequited love, the suicidal English teacher, peeled his apple and rebelliously let the peels drop to the floor.  Olive sees the fallen coil of apple peel metamorphose into a green serpent which, then, blithely drops into the sea. and swims away.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Hansel and Gretel

Richard Strauss conducted Engelbert Humperdinck's opera, Hansel and Gretel, at its premiere in 1893.  A pastiche opera, the work seems similar to the early oratorios by Andrew Lloyd Weber.  Humperdinck works on a modest scale and his musical themes are accessible, crowd-pleasing, even, hummable.  Many of the tunes appear to be derived from folk-songs and they have a lilting simplicity.  The German words are cleverly rhymed and have a Mother Goose (or Dr. Suess) effect -- knittelvers couplets one step about doggerel.  (Hansel and Gretel, often conceived as children's opera, is usually presented in English; I have no idea why the work was performed in German, an odd choice since there are very good, rhymed English versions of the libretto.)  The witch's theme cites one of the melodies in Mahler's First Symphony -- this causes me to suspect that there is a folk tune common to both melodies.  The opera even concludes with a few purplish bars of chorus that sound like a Lutheran chorale and have the same general sentiments:  virtue triumphs and order is restored.  For an opera, the work is surprisingly short and concise -- and, yet, even so, the material feels padded; Grimm's eight or nine page Maerchen is too slight, grim, and condensed to support 100 minutes of musical theater and so Humperdinck adds a couple of ballet entr'actes, a dream sequence, and two completely superfluous characters:  the Sandman to put the children to sleep and a Dew Fairy to wake them up.  On its own terms, the opera is successful and engaging; it's well-paced, despised the padding, and has a number of pleasant, if banal, tunes.  The texture of the work is a little monotonous; Hansel is a "pants role" for a contralto and Gretel, of course, is a soprano part.  For most of the opera, all of the singers are high voices -- there is only a single male role, that of the father, and his part is decidedly secondary, although his deep voice is reassuringly equated with the restoration of order and decency to the world and affords an underpinning to the chorale-like music that concludes the piece. The opera's ending is overtly gendered expressing the return of male-imposed order to a world that is otherwise inflected with the worst aspects of the female:  the children's mother is a bitchy shrew and, clearly, the wicked witch is a surrogate for her -- cooking and baking, emblems of female nurture, here have gone radically off-track to signify cannibalism.  The production that I saw had a couple of bright ideas and a few dim ones as well.  The sets represented a tenement in a city, probably New York, and the opera was imagined as if set during the Great Depression.  A difficulty that a late Victorian popular entertainment presents is extreme, and kitschy, sentimentality.  In Hansel and Gretel, the pious children dream of fourteen angels who come to their rescue, figures that Humperdinck obligingly presents in an intermezzo ballet.  This is too saccharine for modern viewers and so the angels have to be exiled from the story -- although this makes the Lutheran chorale concluding the piece seems a little bit out of place.  Instead of angels, the director of the Minnesota Opera show had ballroom dancers appear to succor our protagonists, specifically a gent in top hat and tails and a woman in a long white gown.  Seven matched couples arrayed in this way stand in for the angels and, also, represent Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers -- we have seen a huge movie poster for one of their films painted across the side of the grey, and dingy, tenement where the children live.  At the climax of the ballet, little Shirley Temple appears, salutes Hansel and Gretel, and hands them Oscars.  I thought this idea was charming and effective, avoiding the sickly sweet descent of the dancing angels that Humperdinck contrived for the amusement of his audience.  Less effective was the idea of presenting the witch as an evil clown, the impresario of a deserted and abandoned carnival qua amusement park called Playland.  This notion seemed promising but didn't really work.  The climax of the opera has to take place in a gingerbread house in the dark woods and setting the action in a disreputable amusement park doesn't really make sense.  (Furthermore, the idea of the shabby amusement park as a sinister house of horrors -- an idea explored by various horror directors including Tobe Hooper -- wasn't effectively developed. The setting for the gruesome last scene, accordingly, was neither fish nor fowl -- not exactly an amusement park but, also, certainly not the witch's gingerbread house in the deep, dark forest.  Instead of clarity, this directorial innovation just resulted in confusion.)  The singing was only adequate.  The fat woman playing the dual role of the mother and the wicked witch was a good comedian, spry and light on her feet, and she gave the part of the cannibal a bawdy, over-ripe esprit that I thought was very effective, notwithstanding the conceptual muddle caused by the director's innovations in set and costume.  The woman looked like an animated cupcake and, when she emerges from the hot oven,  baked into that form, the scene had a sort of garish plausibility. 

Adieu au langage

Jean-Luc Godard is 83 and his film, Adieu au Langage ("Farewell to Language") is generally described in valedictory terms, as an autumnal and graceful movie in which the old sorcerer, like Prospero, bids adieu to his magic, breaks his wand, and buries his book full fathom five.  This account of the film, like any other that can be written or spoken, falsifies the experience of the movie.  More than any other film maker, Godard insists on the autonomy of film -- a movie, no less than a composition by Bach or Beethoven, can not be described in words:  it's method of meaning is non-linguistic and any verbal summary is merely the rawest, and most inept, approximation.  For better or worse, Godard makes films that can't be paraphrased in words.  This makes writing about his movies perilous.  Since his films can't be accurately summarized, and since educated people tend to think in words, an audience confronted by one of Godard's pictures, newly made and without critical baggage of received opinions as to what the images mean, will be baffled, even, perhaps, infuriated.  At the Walker Art Center, the crowd applauded Godard's Adieu au Langage, perhaps impressed by the picture's sheer, if rebarbative, technical virtuosity -- but I don't think anyone had any real idea what exactly they had just seen or what, if anything, the barrage of images and words and music was supposed to mean.  People clapped but I don't think they knew what they were applauding.  Produced in a devilishly perverse and headache-inducing 3D, Adieu au Langage was filmed by two side-by-side cameras.  The film operates according to a series of oppositions, a difference-engine that exploits the dialectic between nature and metaphor, man and woman, human and animal, water and shore.  A critic might equate the two cameras to the opposing terms in these dialectical oppositions and argue that our sense of the third dimension, our concept of a shape on a flat two-dimensional plane, arises from the contrast of these binary terms:  for instance, we imagine a world from the opposition between nature and metaphor -- there are things outside of us and we transform those things into ideas by making metaphors; from this process, we construct a world.  Similarly, arguments could be made about the terms man and woman, human and animal, the fluid of the lake and solid of the shore, as well as other binary terms that I probably didn't notice.  This is an interesting idea and I would not advance it if I didn't think that it was, at least, partially true -- but, of course, Godard does everything in his power to so complicate and invert (or reverse) the oppositions that they generally vanish into one another, ending up as identities, or, even, completely unrelated terms.  A critic could correlate Godard's willful refusal to develop, or, even, consistently accept, the terms of these oppositions that he has himself imposed on the film with his eye-wracking use of the 3D image.  Sometimes, Godard exaggerates the 3D effect to the point of utter absurdity -- in a murder sequence, staged in a rainy public square, Godard sticks the frame of a chair and the edge of a table covered with books so deep into the audience's space, so far into the foreground that these objects seem to be sitting in our laps; in several sequences, he has the muzzle of his dog, Roxy Mieville, protrude so deeply into the spectator's space that the tip of the dog's nose seems poised to touch our own noses -- it's as if the mutt were about to lick our face.  At other times, Godard films leaves floating on water above other submerged leaves, objects in mirrors, reflections in puddles -- these images are already three-dimensional in that they are comprised of a surface and something perceived within the surface; adding the optical 3D effect to these images turns them into visual puzzles that are very hard to sort out, difficult to unscramble.  In some parts of the film, the 3D vanishes and the images are presented as a blur of impressionist colors, a super-saturated humid watercolor.  In three sequences, Godard pans one of the two cameras required to create the illusion of three dimensions, causing the image to slip out of the third dimension and, then, complicate itself in a labyrinth of superimpositions; Godard, then, tracks the camera back to its proper position causing the image to resolve into three-dimensions again, a sort of correlate of moving from a major key into the an extremely discordant minor and, then, resolving the discord by bringing the image back into three-dimensional focus -- all of these effects are difficult for the viewer and continuously require the spectator to not only think about what the picture shows, but how it is shown, and, then, even more daunting, how our eyes actually work to perceive and interpret or decode the image.  Thus, the film is about seeing itself, about the mechanism of optics and perspective that we bring to interpreting images.  These optical difficulties -- the film presents itself as a blinding sequence of pictures in sharp focus, somewhat blurred, very blurred, or without any focus at all -- are part of an experience that involves decoding titles flashed on the screen, often at different apparent depths on the picture plane, highly philosophical discourse rendered in whispers and subtitles, fragments of music that start and stop for no apparent reason, and lurid imagery, much of it obscene or violent, that frequently seems completely unmotivated.  A herky-jerky, fragmentary narrative that seems to involve a woman having an affair with a hairy older man who is married and, usually, shown on the toilet defecating, apparently, culminates in some kind of assassination -- however, a man speaking German is involved in the shootings.  The man and woman are not characters, but, rather, merely mouthpieces for Godard's koans, a series of paradoxes that they utter sententiously:  "In Russian, the word kamera means prison" or "When Chairman Mao was asked about the meaning of the revolution of '89, he said --it's too soon to know," or "Monet said you have to paint what you can't see," this last proverb, appearing in variations as words to the effect that the only thing that is visible is what is invisible."  The film's dialogue, which is really just opposing monologues, don't reveal character, doesn't advance the action (and is not expository) and the ideas expressed are either gibberish or paradoxes so radical that they can't really be understood in any rational way.  The woman seems to relate everything to death and conceives of her relationship with the man in terms of oppression and concentration camps.  The man responds to her words with farts and appears obsessed with shit and shitting.  Needless to say, the relationship between our hero and heroine is an unhappy one.  While they speak, classic films flicker behind them on a wide-screen TV.  At one point, Godard repeats shots that he has earlier interposed in the film, documentary footage of helicopters in Vietnam and bursts of napalm incinerating forests.  From these images, he cuts to a young man and woman that we have earlier met in the public square where the assassination was elliptically enacted -- the man and woman are defined as philosophers in that scene, planning to leave Europe.  In the later sequence, the man and woman reappear after napalm bursts in super-saturated color in the viewer's eyes -- now the woman is Mary Shelley and the man is Percy Shelley; we are on the shores of Lake Geneva where Mary Shelley is writing her novel Frankenstein.  (I think think the helicopters emerging from the sky are supposed to signal inspiration, the impulse to make art, literature -- but who knows?)  The man and woman can't have children; their relationship is too problematic for child-bearing or child-rearing.  Instead, the woman expresses the monstrosity of their relationship by writing Frankenstein and Godard and his own companion, invest their emotion in their dog, Roxie Mieville.  The dog is the surrogate for a child, and an image for a creature made by the dialectic of man and woman, that is without words and beyond language.  Many of the most beautiful images in the film seem to present the world from the perspective of this handsome and intelligent-looking hound, certainly, the most engaging, sympathetic, and well-developed character in the film.  A dog, Godard tells us, is the only creature that loves us more than it loves itself -- and so the dog represents, it seems, the resolution of the oppositions, the solution to the problem of death and love, shit and truth, words and silence, and all the other binary terms that we can't quite resolve into a single focused perspective on the world.  But Godard's imagery always has a kind of awful truth; it is never sentimental -- the dog isn't a metaphor; Roxie is, in fact, always just a dog.  Several times, we see the dog rolling in shit, luxuriating in the stink of the world, playing in a deep, melancholy landscape, a green forest and the agitated waters of a lake in the background, a serene, faintly menacing nature from which human beings have been banished.  The experience of Adieu au Langage is literally unreproducible -- much of the film's meaning is encoded in its remarkable and sadistic use of 3D -- and no one is ever going to show this movie in any kind of reliable repertoire rotation.  The picture is just too difficult.  I'm sure that it is profound and important, perhaps, an achievement on the order of Beethoven's last quartets, and that on several viewings much that is now unclear to me would come into focus.  But there is no way to see the movie again, at least, in three-dimensions, and so this picture, probably Godard's last, may always be inaccessible.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Detour

Edgar Ulmer's Detour (1945)is a febrile blast furnace of a film:  shot in black and white so deliriously dark as to be almost illegible, the movie doesn't show us characters so much as the x-rays of those characters.  Pillar-boxed, the movie looks dirty in most versions, like something glimpsed through a filthy windshield -- even on Turner Classic Movies, you watch the picture as if through a fog of black smoke.  The camerawork is a weird combination of extremely simple locations and set-ups -- for half the film a man driving a car with a blurry rear-projection showing behind him -- and baroque chiaroscuro:  huge shadows loom and people's faces are reduced to the masks of Greek tragedy -- dark eye sockets and cheek-bones sculpted by the light.  Ulmer doesn't pull focus and so several shots, conceived in depth, boldly feature one of the two principal figures blurred, out-of-focus, an effect that gives a curious documentary look to these scenes.  (Ulmer used the same approach in his equally hallucinatory, although more conventionally shot, The Black Cat made in 1934).  The film's story is proto-noir and vestigial:  a pianist ashamed of working in cheap bars to make a buck sets out hitchhiking across the country.  His plan is to meet his blonde girlfriend in Hollywood.  Along the way, a sinister small-time crook picks up the hero and, then, dies as they are driving across the desert, Although its probably a drug overdose, the pianist decides to hide the body, steal the dead man's money and identity, and continue to LA in the crook's huge finned and sepulchral vehicle.  The hero picks up another hitchhiker, Vera, and she turns out to be the dead man's girlfriend.  Vera played by Ann Savage, looks battered and has scary glaring eyes -- she's not exactly attractive enough to be a Hollywood leading lady and there is something distinctly strange about her features. (The scene is which Vera opens her eyes while the two of them are driving across the country and accuses the hero of murder is one of the scariest scenes ever shot:  it's like a nightmare emerging into the cold light of day.) Vera is monstrous, drunk most of the time, sexually taunting, and a blackmailer.  Vera demands that the hero pretend to be the dead man to inherit his money -- it turns out that the crook was also the scion of a wealthy family whose patriarch is dying.  The pianist refuses and, when Vera tries to call the police to inform on him, he kills her, albeit accidentally, in one of the strangest deaths ever contrived for a film.  In the movie's last scene, the hero, fatalistically awaiting his doom, is trudging along a black and deserted highway when a car ostentatiously labeled "State Trooper" pulls up alongside him.  Ann Savage's Vera is cruel and unpredictable; it's a great performance, verging on the tediously maniacal but never quite crossing over into caricature -- Vera's sloppy alcoholism and her sexual provocations give the part an unstable, demented edge.  The pianist is obsessed with fate, consciously superior to the lowlifes around him, but entrapped by them, afflicted by bad conscience and raving throughout the entire picture -- much of the film's action is underscored by his feverish narration.  The character has only one note -- that of panicked guilt and so he's a little boring to watch; clearly, he's not getting any pleasure from any of the exotic crimes that he's forced to commit and the actor tends to bellow his lines.  But this defect doesn't matter:  the film is short, only 65 minutes, and concentrated, a poverty-row symphony of doom.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Iron Sky

Computer-generated special effects worthy of the big screen have progressed to the point that exploding planets and space invasion holocausts are now pretty much available to anyone.  Computer geeks producing homages to Star Wars are now capable of making low-budget films that have better CGI than the the effects in the big buck Hollywood films that they ape.  It's a paradox:  a low budget knock-off of Star Wars looks better than the original.  The bizarre Australian-German- Finnish production Iron Sky (2012) illustrates this proposition.  The film's premise is ridiculous and, apparently, intended to be comical:  in 1945, the Nazis fled to the dark side of the moon, erected a space-metropolis based, it seems, on some of Albert Speer's grandiose plans for the Tausendjahre-Reich in Berlin, and, when an American space probe inadvertently discovers them in 2018, the Moon-Nazis decide to invade the Earth.  The Moon-Nazis wear elaborate black leather, have Wehrmacht helmets and SS regalia and traipse around the moon in Darth Vader masks.  Their leader is played by Udo Kier, the most depraved-looking actor in the world -- although, the poor fellow is elderly now and has lost  some of his decadent panache.  Iron Sky is an oddity -- it has impressive special effects, vast armadas of space vessels including silvery Zeppelins clashing in outer space, huge explosions, and spectacular vistas on the moon (the footage of the Nazi's mines and industries on the moon is better than anything in 2001 A Space Odyssey)  This state-of-art wham-bam stuff illustrates a story that is completely puerile, a thin tissue of gags that aren't really funny:  the Americans are led by President Sarah Palin, an athletic idiot with lots of guns and the nations of the world are all inept and self-aggrandizing when dealing with the threat of an invasion by Space-Nazis.  There is an unfunny subplot involving a Black astronaut who is albinized -- that is, turned white -- by a Nazi scientist wearing an Albert Einstein fright wig.  The women prance around in bondage costumes, but there's no sex, just lots of explosions and bombings from outer space, the so-called Meteor Blitz Krieg raining destruction down on the earth.  More than half of the movie is shot in German, probably one reason why the picture was a hard-sell in the US -- I'd never heard of the movie before I saw it at the Afton Film Festival on November 1, 2014.  A lot of the film is designed like a computer game and the visuals have the same murky blue-screen appearance, although, I would hasten to note, they are as good as the visuals in most big Hollywood blockbusters -- that is to say, not that great.  The soundtrack features variations on themes by Wagner and it is appropriately pretentious -- the Siegfried theme and the Ride of the Valkyries blasted from outer space.  I counted one good idea and one half-way funny joke.  A German school teacher thinks that Nazism represents peace and love; she shows her class a severely edited version of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator for the proposition that National Socialism is benign -- it's a clever idea and also an example of why the film seems to me to have been unmarketable:  who, in the film's target audience, would know anything about Chaplin's anti-Hitler comedy?  The joke is this:  when the Space-Nazis unleash their Goetterdaemmerung death satellite the nations of earth respond by attacking with their own satellites all armed with nuclear missiles and death rays.  The leader of the UN says something on this order:  Fortunately, everyone violated our rules and put nukes on their so-called communications and weather satellites.  Is there anyone here who didn't secretly arm their space stations?  The sole delegate raising his hand is a sheepish and abashed representative of Finland.  The movie is way too long and its clever ideas are too slender to support all of the explosions and battle scenes -- it's joyless in a sort of Teutonically diagrammatic manner.  (At the Afton Film Festival, we saw the great, mournful Western by Sam Peckinpah Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia -- as an example of how far special effects have developed since that film was made in 1974, I observe that Peckinpah's cameraman shoots all the night scenes day-for-night and so the film has the look of an old episode of Gunsmoke.  But this shows the ultimate insignificance of special effects -- despite the flawed visuals, Peckinpah's film is a nihilistic tragedy that ranks among the best films of its kind ever made.)

Nymphomaniac (Part One)

An old euphemism for sexual intercourse is "carnal knowledge."  The notion that sex is a way of exploring the world, as Levi-Strauss said about certain mythical motifs, "good to think with," is integral to Lars Von Trier's depressing epic, Nymphomaniac.  On the evidence of the film's first two hours -- the movie is released in two parts -- Nymphomaniac has encyclopedic ambitions:  the film seems to a be an attempt to catalog the diversity of human thought and endeavor under the rubric of sexual desire.  The concept is an ancient one:  Socrates taught that sexual desire is the model for the acquisitive and questing aspects of the soul:  carnal knowledge turns out to be the paradigm for all knowledge and eros is the engine of the imagination that leads the soul upward toward the celestial love that sets the planets and galaxies spinning in their appointed places.  More prosaically, French philosophes like Diderot and de Sade used sexual transgression as  a vehicle for exploring other unconventional and radical notions with respect to the organization of the state, the rights of man, and the true constitution of the human imagination:  all politics and understanding is essentially sexual and embodied.  Indeed, Nymphomaniac resembles de Sade's nightmare parodies of Rousseau's Heloise,  his lavish pornographic novels Justine and Juliette.  The camera prowls a desolate maze of brick alleyways and wet, moldering dead-end corridors, a dark, rusty industrial wasteland,  and comes upon a woman sprawled across the flagstones of a tiny courtyard.  (The soundtrack features an infernal sounding tune by Rammstein.)  The woman has been badly beaten -- her features are swollen and bruised.  Although this is problematic, the camera seems to reflect the point of view of an older man, a kind of flaneur.  The man, Seligman, ("Blessed man") played by the enigmatic Stellan Skarsgaard, brings the woman to his anonymous-looking apartment -- a place that seems more a state of mind (like the maze of dank alleys) than a real location.  At his apartment, the man interviews the woman who insists that she is a transgressor and has violated the laws of man and nature -- the dialogue in the film is Byronic and high-flown, melodramatically histrionic with a tint of Ingmar Bergman's relentless savagery.  As in de Sade's novels, the woman embarks on a lengthy narrative, divided into specific book-like chapters, each episode bearing a literary title.  During the first two hours of the film, the woman (played by the formidable Charlotte Gainsbourg) tells her story in a series of flashbacks, the first of them detailing her discovery of "(her) cunt at age two."  Skarsgaard is a sympathetic interlocutor and the film cuts back to him from time-to-time as he argues with the young woman and, in fact, seems to hold her in higher esteem than she holds herself -- he is forever justifying her bad behavior or finding it philosophically compelling.  Both Skarsgaard's interlocutor and Gainsbourg's narrator are fantastically articulate, highly cultured, literate, and intelligent:  the film's encyclopedic pretensions involve learned disquisitions on mathematics (Fibonacci numbers are important to the movie's themes), literature, music, psychology, botany, and, surprisingly, the art and practice of fly-fishing.  (Skarsgaard is a fan of Izaak Walton's The Complete Angler and he equates the young woman's predatory sexual practices with using flies and bait to snare the big fish lurking in the cool depths of a river.)  Since the young woman, she names herself "Jo", sees everything as sexual, the film demonstrates an interesting paradox:  if everything is sexualized, nothing is erotic.  Although the movie dispassionately surveys dozens of sexual encounters, there is nothing pornographic or, even, remotely titillating about all the fornication on display -- rather, the couplings are filmed with cold, even, cruel, clinical precision; the sex is explicit but not arousing, like a series of diagrams from a medical textbook.  The film's erotic charge is invested in the digressions, the curious mini-essays on botany and fishing and numbers:  at one point, Jo tells her listener that if all foreskins lopped off penises were piled end to end they would reach to the moon -- a memorable, if implausible, claim; I'm still working on this calculation.  Von Trier works to keep his audience from enjoying the sex:  when his heroine trolls a train for men to fuck in the lavatory, we hear a few bars of Steppenwolf's Born to be Wild, but this is just a teaser -- the music is used as in a Godard film, just a few snippets and, then, silence.  Jo is an explorer at the outer limits of human experience:  her philosophical experiment is to divest the physical act of love from any emotional consequences, staging as many as ten sexual encounters per day.  But, of course, we know that the experiment is forbidden and will have dire consequences -- the Dane Von Trier revers Carl Dreyer and he is a kind of perverse moralist.  Jo falls in love with her first boyfriend, a kid with a motorcycle to whom she issues the imperative demand:  "Take my virginity!"  This character is played by Shia LaBoeuf, who seems baffled by his role.  (The film has a number of expensive American actors, including Christian Slater and Uma Thurman.)  Von Trier is nothing if not intelligent and penetrating and he stages several episodes that have an indelible, nightmarish impact -- particularly noteworthy are the scenes of a sex contest between the heroine and her friend on a commuter train (the girl who fucks the most men gets a small package of chocolates) and a sequence in which a wronged wife confronts the nymphomaniac in her small, airless apartment.  This part of the film, featuring a haggard-looking Uma Thurman, is extraordinary -- a combination of Sirk-style melodrama and over-the-top Kafkaesque dialogue.  Jo, like Erica Jong's heroine in Fear of Flying, wants to have sex without emotional involvement, the so-called "zipless fuck," and so she takes to rolling dice as a triage method for her innumerable lovers -- if she rolls a one, she will tell you that she loves you; a five means that she will treat you with the utmost cruelty and hostility.  Jo has rolled the dice and been told get rid of a bulky, earnest married man that she is screwing.  She tells the married man that she "loves him too much" but that he "will never leave his family" and so she must break up with him.  As he departs crestfallen, she shudders visibly with a  visceral distaste for the man.  But a couple hours later, he turns up on her doorstep with his bags packed -- he's abandoned his wife.  In a scene that borrows a little from the Marx brothers, the wife (Uma Thurman) shows up with the man's three small sons.  She says that she wants to give her husband his car keys and that she and the kids will take the bus ("public transportation," she says) to the home that the nymphomaniac has now wrecked.  The whole thing is hideous and embarrassing -- the spurned wife escorts the little boys into Jo's bedroom  to see the "whoring bed."  And, then, one of Jo's other lovers, a kid like a befuddled high school quarterback turns up at the door, forlornly clutching a bouquet of flowers.  It's a scrotum-tightening scene, a nightmare of obligation and entanglement, that goes on and on and on until everyone is wincing with abject humiliation.  Like much of the film, this scene can't be construed as realistic -- rather, it is a dream sequence like one of the more fevered episodes in an Ibsen play.  And, indeed, as the film progresses we are compelled to wonder whose fantasy we are seeing -- certainly, some of the scenes undeniably originate in the imagination of Jo's interlocutor, the patient older man played by Stellan Skarsgaard.  Perhaps, Jo is a figment of his imagination, an image of his fears of the uncanny power of women.  The first two-hours of the movie is tedious, but impressive and the movie can't be legitimately judged on its first-half.  There is a sort of narrative arc:  Jo's education of the senses, which includes becoming sexually aroused at the bedside of her dead father, culminates in an extended scene involving her cool, analytical comparison of the sexual styles of three lovers, an extended polyphonic section involving a trifucated screen, that climaxes with the heroine's paradoxical cry during intercourse that she has lost the ability to feel anything at all -- that her entire body has gone numb.  (The second half the movie has to do with the consequences of her sexual anesthesia).  The acting is flawless and the young woman, Stacy Martin, who plays the part of Jo in the flashbacks is fantastically compelling -- she gives a great performance, simultaneously tender, calculating, and indifferent:  at times, the girl looks like a child; in other scenes, she seems to be a kind of vampire.

Snowpiercer

Like Fritz Lang's similarly grandiose tour de force of set design, Metropolis (1927), Bong Joon Ho's 2014 Snowpiercer is essentially a film about labor relations.  Lang's film concludes with a mass of  workers marching in a triangular formation up the steps of a Gothic cathedral.  At the apex of the triangle, the leader of the workers, a burly hirsute bear of a man, hesitantly approaches his boss, the formidably arrogant Freder, and, then, shakes his hand.  An intertitle informs us that "The Heart must mediate between the Brain and the Hand."  Some such form of mediation is sorely needed between workers and management in Snowpiercer, a dystopian allegory that takes place on a huge train plowing through the interminable ice and glaciers of a ruined planet.  In an attempt to reverse global warming, apparently, scientists went too far, inducing a lethally cold and disastrous ice age.  The last remnants of humanity are gathered together on the train, a kind of ark, that roars across the frozen planet on an endless, futile journey to nowhere.  The train is powered by some kind of mystical energy that, nonetheless, has steam-punk elements -- the engine has chambers full of elaborate gears and pinions, whirling governors, and pipes oozing fumes; implausibly, the huge machine must be maintained by hardworking, scrawny four-year olds:  anyone above the age of the five is too large to creep through the compartments to replace parts that have failed.  (This is one of many allegorical touches in the film, elements that are absurd from the perspective of narrative plausibility, but necessary to the movie's symbolic structure.  Lang managed effects of this sort in his equally symbolic Metropolis, Snowpiercer's most obvious antecedent, by installing hallucinatory visions in his film:  for instance, the image of the machine as Moloch in Lang's epic or the dance of Death in the Cathedral, or the Tower of Babel -- all episodes that are conceived as the product of delirium on the part of his characters.  The Korean director Bong Joon Ho is much less skillful and prosaic:  he doesn't stage his absurdities as prophetic visions; instead, everything in his film is stupidly literal.)  The folks at the rear of the train, a couple hundred grimy-looking proles,are apparently responsible for some kind of industry -- Ho doesn't really explain the economic basis of the train or what the oppressed workers are supposed to be doing, other than reproducing so that their children can be harvested to serve as grease monkeys press-ganged into  the ultimate exercise in dangerous child labor in the engine compartment.  The proles live in a clanking factory, crammed together in narrow metallic corridors, and they are led by an old mutilated gent, Gilliam -- the name is a clue to the Ho's source for his camera-work and set design, the lurid grotesqueries of the British director, Terry Gilliam.  (Gilliam's influence is also a bit malign:  the British director is fond of whimsical upper-class characters, similar to the twits found in Monty Python sketches, and this translates into a number of bizarre personages wandering through Snowpiercer, most notably a fat girl in a yellow frock who measures everything she encounters and an eccentric characterization by Tilda Swinton of an evil factotum of the train's engineer and master, Wilford.   Back in the rear of the train, the character, Gilliam, (played by John Hurt as a compound of Gandalf the Grey and Jimmy Hoffa) encourages his protegees to rebel against their masters and a bloody uprising waged as  a series of ax-battles in narrow corridors ensues.  The combat scenes are brutal and undeniably effective, particularly one fight complicated by long pitch-dark tunnels and the train crashing through cascades frozen to the side of towering, icy mountains although Ho indulges himself in one too many shots of the locomotive's wheels splashing sparks in all directions and about to come off the rails.  The film's first half has little exposition and is mostly devoted to the violent uprising -- this part of the film is lavish with horrors:  various kinds of tortures and humiliations inflicted on the grumbling proles, then, lots of throat-cutting and bashing with axes and the movie's first hours is fun and effective in a Spartacus sort of way.  The revolt of the slaves seems just and their violence righteous and their foes are uniformly despicable.  But as the film progresses, it becomes increasingly turgid and windy -- the picture is front-loaded with violent action so that the narrative exposition, heavy freight indeed, has to catch up with the story.  As a result, the movies slows for speechifying and satire and, becomes, progressively more and more philosophical in a sophomoric way.  The final scenes involving a colloquy between Wilford and the leader of the rebels are impressively operatic, but tedious.  It turns out that that the train's locomotive, a series of orbs and metal rings within rings is something like Dante's unmoved mover, an image for God, and the strangely involuted speeches in the film about the Great Chain of Being and how each social class has its own divinely appointed station, orations that could come from a Shakespeare play like Coriolanus, turn out to be not just comical interjections but, in fact, serious discourse about how society is organized: Bong Joon Ho seems to be saying that the only alternative to a rigidly hierarchical and repressive society is Hobbesian chaos, the war of each against all others -- a theme that also connects this film to the implicitly Fascist imagery of Lang's far greater picture.  Snowpiercer is spectacular in some ways, intelligently made and constructed, and more or less, coherent if implausible.  The acting is grim sword and sandals stuff, sub-Spartacus ranting, but the characters are vividly drawn and the bad guys, at least, have a certain stylish appeal.  Obviously, this film, a Korean - American production, was a prestige vehicle and the picture has A-list stars.  Harvey Weinstein, the American producer, thought the movie was too long and demanded that the Korean director cut out 20 minutes -- the film runs 126 minutes, but like many spectacles of this sort feels much longer.  Ho refused to comply and so Weinstein, in a ferocious gesture that seems to confirm the film's suspicions about the people in charge of our world, buried the movie.  .In a Caligula-like fury, Weinstein destroyed his own movie, killing its publicity and limiting its release to only a few screens -- he, then, sent the picture to the Siberia of direct-to-video within a few weeks of its theatrical release.  It's heresy to say this, but Weinstein was right -- the film isn't twenty minutes too long; it feels at least a half-hour too long.