Sunday, January 25, 2015

Motown in Spamtown -- Northwestern Singers (January 24, 2015)

Austin's mixed chorale group, the Northwestern Singers performed a two-hour concert exclusively comprised of Motown hits.  The concert was at the Paramount Theater on January 24, 2015 and featured much dancing, many costume changes, and an emcee so aggressively smarmy and intrusive that his schtick seemed some kind of ghastly and cruel parody.  The Northwestern Singers is a chorale group consisting of about 35 singers.  The performers are amateurs -- during the day, they are small-town bankers, chiropractors, insurance agents, Hormel Food middle-management and the like.  Only two of the 35 are African-American and the choir's director, its choreographer, and the members of the excellent stage band are all White.  Unavoidably, a program of this kind raises a question central to American pop culture:  Who owns Motown?  Or Jazz or the Blues?  Who is authorized to perform music originating within the African-American community?  Or, perhaps, more poignantly who is authorized to perform this music amateurishly, incompetently, without any accurate sense for what the music means?  Is amateur enthusiasm a substitute for proficiency when white people play music created and made famous by African-Americans?

At the outset, I should disclose two factors.  First, my pallid northern European DNA lacks the gene receptive to this kind of music on its deepest level.  Although I admire most of the tunes performed in the show, I don't own a large collection of Motown records, have never purchased an album by Michael Jackson, and don't know much about the history of this kind of music.  In Jim Jarmusch's excellent vampire romance, Only Lovers Left Alive, the two protagonists, ancient and wise aesthetes debate whether Motown recordings are superior to Stax -- the point is that soul music of this kind represents the very pinnacle of world culture, an achievement on the order of Shakespeare's sonnets or Bach cantatas.  Although this may well be true, it is not a view that would naturally occur to me -- I know the songs and love some of them, but they aren't integral to my world-view.  This is my loss -- who am I to quibble with an art form that has enraptured Jim Jarmusch, Camille Paglia and Terry Gross.  Second, my step-daughter, Sena Ehrhardt is an established Blues singer; this week her most recent record was at number 5 on the Blues charts.  Of course, she is as glamorously white as white can be, a star in Germany, and, I think, often disrespected, albeit covertly, because of her skin-color and Teutonic ethnicity.  On the two occasions that I have watched Sena perform to largely African-American audiences in Chicago, at Buddy Guy's venue on Wabash, the crowd was interested, mildly enthusiastic, even encouraging -- but, at some deep level, the Black people in the Hall, many of them related by blood to famous Bluesmen (it was an awards ceremony) seemed indifferent to her performance; I thought it seemed to them to be a kind of novelty.  In that context, the question of who legitimately owns the Blues, and who is allowed to take the stage to perform that music, was highlighted in a dramatic way.

The Paramount show was never exactly embarrassing, although it verged on the cringe-worthy a couple of times.  During "Signed, Sealed, and Delivered," a young Black man, hopped out of the choir, cut a few, unimpressive dance moves, while surrounded by a kneeling circle of admiring dudes and gals in tuxedos.  In general, the performances by the men's ensembles were calamitous -- the complicated texture of call and response between the lead singer and back-up wasn't well managed:  the back-up singers responding to the lead's  yearning expostulations seemed to be singing in a different key and too loudly at that.  A civil rights song written by the great Sam Cooke was performed by a young girl who has become, briefly, an internet sensation, not only in our community but across the country:  she scored a big success with a quasi-gospel, quasi-country-western tune.  Many Soul songs feature an enormous range, particularly in the male parts that often have deep bass lines that surprisingly morph into a high, ringing falsetto.  The Cooke song had this characteristic and it baffled the young woman:  she sang the lower part in a gruff, hollow, barrel-chested voice that seemed like a caricature of Paul Robeson intoning "Ole Man River."  This was unfortunate because the girl had a pleasing voice otherwise and sang the higher parts with competent verve.  The famous funk riff in Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" was drowned in sluggish layers of Lutheran chorale harmonies while the singers posed in freeze-frame, apparently simulating the sinister antics of Boris and Natasha on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.  One of my favorite songs, the transcendent and profound "Some Day (we'll be together)" appeared as a ghost of itself, weirdly uninspiring and lugubrious -- indeed, many of the numbers were performed at a lethargic, funereal tempo. 

Some aspects of the show were simply inexplicable:  the male ensemble contains a spritely blonde woman; during the Jackson 5 medley, choir members sported enormous frizzy Afros, all of them black except for one that was silver grey crowning a tall, middle-aged man -- one of my friends said that the guy was imitating Jerry Garcia and had wandered in from some other show.  At the very start of the program, there was a weird prologue:  the ghastly emcee read opening comments about Barry Gordy and his Motown records while a large motionless woman posed like an adoring fan at his feet, below the stage where he was speaking:  it turned out that the woman, generously proportioned like a Wagnerian soprano, was the choir's director but the effect was baffling and, even, a trifle unnerving -- What in the world was she doing there?  During "Mr. Postman," an elderly lady cavorted about in a cardboard mailbox, excreting from her hind-end letters that were delivered to the female chorus members by the emcee wearing a postal carrier uniform and slinking about with the gait perfected by Steve Martin in his King Tut routine.  Throughout this all, the chorus members gamely shuffled back and forth and dancing in a manner of speaking:  I observed them to perform the rotating lighthouse pointing gesture, the head shimmy where the skull and shoulders wobble with a kind Parkinsonian tremor but the torso is held rigidly immobile, the hand over hand rotary spin, the Indian scout, reeling in the big fish, petting the pooch, the slo-mo Australian crawl, the mammy wave with the palms of the hands flapping over the head ala Al Jolson, and, of course, the disco migraine -- the right-knee flexed to strike a pose, the right hand extended high overhead and pointing at the stars and, then, slowly brought to the forehead in a gesture of despair or exaltation (I'm not sure which).  White people dancing to Soul music, I'm afraid, is generally a grotesque spectacle. 

Some parts of the show were effective and moving:  the tight harmonies in the female trios and quartets were lovely, particularly in "Baby, I'm in Love" and "Endless Love."  Mary Bissen sang a powerful, sinister version of "I heard it through the Grapevine" and throughout the show there were many, if isolated, moments of excellence.  But, in general, the effect was dispiriting.  Many of female voices sounded to me like Jo Stafford, that is very clear with crisp articulation and close attention to pitch -- I am an admirer of Jo Stafford but her phrasing, I think, is antithetical to Motown's baroque emotionalism.  Indeed, my principal criticism of the show was that the music sounded to me like the way I would sound if I were singing to myself in the car or shower.  Even, worse, the music sounded to me the way I imagine it -- the way it replays in my memory, that is, purged of its ethnic force, its vibrancy, it's unique yearning virtuosity, a parody of itself sieved through my White consciousness.  You go to a concert in the hope of being amazed:  someone does a thing that you could never do, someone demonstrates a combination of fantastically assiduous, practiced skill and natural talent and leaves you gasping with the sense that the art partakes in the divine, it is ecstatic, it comes from some place mostly inaccessible to ordinary human beings.  The worst thing I can say about the Northwestern Singers show at the Paramount was that it was generally prosaic. 

As to the cultural insensitivity that some might perceive in a spectacle like this -- middle-aged and elderly white Chamber of Commerce types prancing around in Afro wigs -- my view is that it was all well-intentioned, done with a generous heart, and performed, albeit incompetently, with a great deal of honest enthusiasm.  Clearly, most of the people associated with the show didn't know what they were doing.  For instance, Paul Pruitt, the awful emcee, made a number of ill-considered jests about the Afro wigs worn by the chorus after the intermission:  he claimed that the stage was heavily laden with Jheri-curl creams and lotions.  But, of course, the Afro was called a "natural" precisely because it was a hair-style that did not require chemical relaxers and softeners of the kind necessary to create the glossy, loose curls associated with the permed Jheri coiffure.  It's a minor point, perhaps, but indicative.  In 1992, Michelle Schocked caused a minor controversy with the release of her album The Arkansas Traveler. The record contained a number of "Coon Songs" including "Jump Jim Crow".  Shocked had planned to appear on the cover in minstrel blackface, but the record label vetoed her idea.  In the liner notes, Shocked said that when a person of a one cultural background appropriates the music of another ethnicity, that is, when they "cork-up" (as she characterized it -- referring to white performers smearing burnt cork on their faces to blacken them), this must be done with great skill, sensitivity, and, even, love.  The Northwestern Singers concert was replete with love, but lacking, I think, in the categories of skill and sensitivity. 

I should note that my views on this concert are dissenting.  The audience awarded the singers with a warm standing ovation.   

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Fall

The Fall is a 2013 BBC crime series.  The show features Gillian Anderson, most well-known for her role as Agent Scully in The X - Files.  The series, now in its second season, is available on Netflix and I recommend it to those who like grim, intricate police procedurals.  The premise of the program is formulaic -- a sexually obsessed serial killer is murdering young, vibrant career women.  But the show resembles True Detective, the critically acclaimed HBO series with Matthew McConnaughy and Woody Harrelson in that it is convincingly acted, frighteningly lurid, sexually explicit, and fascinating in a nasty sort of way.  The BBC show is humorless and makes its points with a sledge-hammer, but it has a particular relentlessness that entraps the viewer.      
The Fall is thematically structured compare the icy, and, apparently, heartless heroine, Officer Stella Gibson, with the serial killer.  In order to promote the show's highly questionable premise The Fall introduces us to the murderer in the first ten minutes of the first episode.  We see the murderer plot a crime and, then, consummate it and, by making one of the two protagonists the vicious killer, sets up an unpleasant, if compelling, dynamic.  The viewer is invited to identify with the sex maniac, sees the crimes through his eyes, and, even, experiences suspense as to whether he will be captured while planning and implementing his murders.  The serial killer is a married man with two small children employed as a bereavement counselor.  It is hinted that he has suffered some kind of horrific childhood.  The murderer is handsome, fearless, and bold; he keeps a journal of his criminal exploits in an attic space above the room where his seven-year old daughter sleeps.  He has a nice, if somewhat bovine, wife, a neo-natal nurse who has no idea that her hubby is strangling local girls to death for his sexual gratification.  Stella Gibson is the murderer's nemesis and the show follows her attempts to discover his identity and capture him.  By the end of the first season, the duel between the two main characters has become personal -- they taunt one another by phone. 

There is nothing in this show that you haven't seen before.  The clichés follow one another in fast and furious succession:  Stella Gibson is a loner specializing in sex crimes from MET, apparently London, and, when she becomes obsessed by the crimes, she demands to be assigned a leadership role in the Belfast investigation.  The bad guy seems to be punishing attractive career-oriented women for their sexual freedom -- as always in these kinds of shows, the price of sexual liberation is horrible death.  What is different about this program is the acting -- the killer is petulant but seems to have a kind side; he loves his wife and children, at least, ostensibly.  But he is the bereavement counselor from hell, sketching pictures of his female clients imagining them naked when they are crying in his office about their children.  He keeps a female mannequin in an abandoned shack, reads Nietzsche (and T.S. Eliot), and exercises a lot to keep himself in good shape for this torture-murders.  Of course, the icy-looking female mannequin has the features of Officer Stella Gibson and the film pictures her activities as doubling the sinister scheming of the murderer.  The show's theme is audacious and misogynistic:  the series equates Stella Gibson's casual sexual liaisons with the murderer's torture, rape and necrophilia.  This would be overtly offensive if the performance by Gillian Anderson as the domineering, sexually predatory officer from London were not so persuasive.  Anderson plays the part with frigid impersonality, indifference, and she is eerily imperturbable -- when a corrupt cop blows his brains out in front of a superior officer, she's the only person in the station who seems completely unfazed by the gory scene.  No one calls Gibson a "bitch" and everyone is afraid of her:  she presents herself as without any kind of human emotions; she is not rude or particularly unpleasant -- she is simply completely distanced and indifferent.  Indeed, there is something faintly pathetic about her isolation:  we see her swimming in a pool to maintain her magnificent figure; she writes something about her "daddy" in a dream journal that she keeps, and, entirely committed to the investigation, sleeps in a cot in her office in the police station -- she looks forlorn curled-up in the little bed.  But, of course, she is deadly -- her beauty is lethal:  the chief of police has slept with her previous to the action dramatized in the show and she seems to have permanently destroyed the man.  In a startling scene, early in the series, she invites a young officer to her hotel room, spends the night having sexual intercourse with him, and, then, refuses to take his phone calls the next day.  It doesn't matter because the character is gunned-down in the street, conveniently removing this complication from her life -- she shows no signs of sadness at all when the man is killed.  When she rehearses to other cops, the killer's torture of his victims, Gibson goes into a kind of dreamy reverie that has an unseemly subcurrent of sexual identification. (She's fond of throwing herself on the beds where victims were killed to act out the murders.)  Gillian Anderson is one of cinema's most beautiful women and her beauty has never seemed more mournful, vacant, and stricken -- she is completely impassive, her face a glamorous mask, and, indeed, in profile she looks like one of the grieving women in Picasso's Guernica

The Fall mines a rich load of misogyny and distrust between the sexes.  (This vein was also ex;ored the Jane Campion's excellent New Zealand crime drama, The End of the Lake -- a program that the BBC shows resembles.)  At one point, Gibson is talking to a female forensic pathologist.  The pathologist says something about male violence and rape.  "What do you tell your daughter?" Gibson asks.  "I tell her to not talk to strange men," the pathologist says.  "Strange men?" Gibson asks, just slightly raising an eyebrow.  "Well, any men," the pathologist replies.  Everything in the program doubles:  when a premature baby is dying in an incubator, the child's mother asks:  "Can I touch her?"  When the body of one of the killer's victims is displayed in the morgue, the girl's father asks:  "can I touch her?"  Gibson's pathetic little cot in the office mirrors the murderer's habit of sleeping with his small daughter to keep her from having nightmares -- we seem him on his side in her tiny bed.  The action is complicated by several subplots -- there is an amorous 15-year old babysitter who has fallen in love with the murderer and some cops, including Gibson's one-night stand, are involved in some sort of corruption involving, of course, drugs and sadistic violence against prostitutes.   Some viewers have complained that The Fall is too slow-paced -- I don't make this criticism.  One shot follows a beleaguered cop into his car, tracking him from door of a building to a vehicle.  My heart sank -- it seemed that the director was padding the episode. The camera records the cop sitting alone for a long time in his car and the image is shot from a deliberately inexpressive angle -- we can't really see his face.  This worried me -- but, later, when the man commits suicide, we understand the reason for these extended deliberative shots.  Everything in this series, more or less, makes sense. 


Sunday, January 18, 2015

American Sniper

Clint Eastwood's American Sniper (2014) is trite and surprisingly tedious.  Everything in the film is predictable from the opening sound cue, a Muslim call to prayer distorted in a sinister way by loudspeakers to the final shots of the hero's funeral and valedictory titles.  The film is grim, humorless, and, probably, more or less accurate in its portrayal of the endless war in Iraq.  But the movie illustrates a serious, and, indeed, insoluble problem:  it is impossible to make a compelling movie about a man whose principal characteristics are stupidity, resistance to all thoughtful deliberation, and a staunch refusal to display any emotion whatsoever.  At one point, a letter critical of the war in Iraq is read at a dead soldier's funeral:  the hero's wife asks the protagonist what he thought about the letter.  He replies that he paid no attention to it and, even, makes the bizarre comment that his comrade was doomed because he wrote that letter.  This is one of the movie's few interesting scenes but demonstrates what's wrong with the picture:  you can't make a movie about a character who doesn't really care about anything and whose thinking consists of a refusal to think. The sniper, Chris Kyle, played stoically by Bradley Cooper, has a wife so irritating that one can understand why the poor soldier was driven to re-enlist time and time again -- he served four tours of combat duty in Iraq.  Clint Eastwood's direction has been lauded as efficient, economical and craftsmanlike.  In fact, I think Eastwood's work on this film is just lazy -- he relies upon every possible war film cliché and his much vaunted objectivity seems to me to be indecisiveness:  the material is so unpromising that Eastwood doesn't know what to do with it.  Certain aspects of the film are hard to interpret:  is it really true that American combat forces paused in the middle of fire-fights to call home and converse with their wives?  In at least three sequences, the sniper is distracted from his duties by his whiny wife:  he spends about as much time chatting with her on the phone as killing Iraqis, people that the Kyle and his buddies call "savages."  The penultimate scene showing Kyle involved in a rape fantasy with his wife that involves him threatening her with a revolver is either some kind of joke, an ill-judged provocation, or evidence that Eastwood had no idea what to do with this material.  (I'm surprised no one has mentioned this bizarre scene -- I guess it's not thought offensive because Kyle's wife regards the threat with the gun as particularly merry form of foreplay.)  The film has all the standard material about the hardships of basic training, features a kindly PTSD counselor, and, even, takes time to stage a garden-variety massacre of "savages" -- in a climactic battle, the good guys slaughter dozens of Iraqis, gunning down a horde of attacking villains with unerring accuracy.  The film has the same problem of all other generic war films; like Saving Private Ryan and Fury, Eastwood wants to show that war is hell while simultaneously staging a rousing shoot-em-up climax in which one American soldier seems to equal a dozen bad guys in courage, deadliness, and sheer fire-power.  Similarly, the film personalizes the issues that it raises about the morality of war by staging much of the film as a duel between the American sniper and his counterpart, Mustapha, a vicious enemy who is killed -- in slow motion no less -- in an implausible scene designed to vindicate our hero.  (Kyle was notorious liar:  did he really claim credit for killing Mustapha in his book?  If so, I would be highly skeptical of that claim.)  Viewed in one light, the film inadvertently documents the struggle of a plucky group of freedom fighters, outgunned on all fronts and usually outnumbered by armored troops, putting up a valiant defense against a cruel, and culturally insensitive occupying army -- in this interpretation, the bad guys are the US soldiers.  Indeed, you can't watch these kinds of films without rooting for the bad guys -- Eastwood is making a dour, dull propaganda film about a war that no one really cares about.  To what end?

Foreign Correspondent & Contraband

Both Foreign Correspondent and Contraband were released in 1940.  Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent has a political agenda -- the movie implicitly endorses American involvement in World War Two and, rather cynically, discredits peace activists as Nazi spies.  Contraband is British, directed by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell; set in London during the black-out, the film is a paranoid fantasia about German spies lurking in the cellar of a British night-club.  Both films involve ostensibly neutral outsiders, Joel McCrea as an American reporter caught up in a web of intrigue involving a kidnapped politician, apparently also an advocate for peace who has been hijacked by the Germans -- Hitchcock's symbol for the fate of the peace movement.  In Contraband, a Danish sea-captain breaks up a Nazi spy-ring trafficking information about British vessels to the Germans.  The sea-captain is played by the svelte, sinister Conrad Veidt and the casting is bizarre to say the least.  Both films are brilliantly made and extremely exciting -- Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent is a compendium of spectacular set-pieces, many of which will be revisited in later films made by the director.  (There is a fall from a cathedral tower with nuns as witnesses that presages Vertigo; a sequence involving a plane circling flat country studded with windmills that invokes North by Northwest and the first shot of the movie, the camera swooping toward the window of skyscraper is similar to the opening shot in Psycho.)  Contraband is less frenetic, but more baroque -- the film glories in surrealistic sequences:  bullets blowing off the heads of plaster cast statues, a woman who sings with a man's voice, wild brawls in cabarets, and weird bondage sequences in which the comely heroine is bound to a column under periodic surveillance by the bad guys and shot in a pool of light through wire-mesh.  Contraband is designed around startling contrasts between dark and light:  London is under a black-out but everywhere seems gay and indifferent to the danger of aerial bombardment:  people grope their way down dark streets, feeling the walls as if blind, but when they open doors, they are greeted with bright lights and scenes of almost sybaritic merry-making, plush expensive restaurants and brilliantly illuminated night clubs. 

Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent has some of the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue of the screwball comedies of the thirties.  Robert Benchley wrote the lyrics and the characters speak in wisecracking aphorisms.  "There's a crime hatching on that bedeviled continent," the tough news editor tells Joel McCrea, "So I need a crime reporter."  Asked if he will travel to Europe to cover the preparations for war, McCrea says "Give me an expense account and I'll cover any story on earth."  A British femme fatale tells McCrea:  "Your childish mind is as out of place in Europe as you are in my bedroom" -- the hero has fled some murderers dispatched to kill him, escaping by clambering across window-sills on the outside of the building to reach her room in the hotel.  He is wearing a robe and has garters holding up his socks on his bare legs.  (Part of the appeal of the movie is McCrea's willingness to look foolish -- he proposes marriage to the leading lady on the heaving deck of transport ship, his head covered by a shawl that makes him look like an old woman.)  Much of the conflict in the film is generated by the hero's characteristically American naivety and optimism in contrast to the jaded, sophisticated cynicism of the Europeans.  McCrea is always trying to stage what he calls a "show-down" with the bad guys, although cooler heads, most notably the coolest head in all of Hollywood, George Saunders (playing a playboy called ffolliet -- McCrea:  "How do you pronounce that?  Like a stutter?"  Saunders:  "No, just with an 'eff'.") prevail.  The film has moments of startling violence -- an assassination on the steps of a courthouse in a huge crowd of umbrella-carrying people ends with a number of innocent bystanders gunned-down -- and an important sequence features the torture of an elderly man, an incident that even appalls the villains.  But the general tone of the picture is gay, insouciant, witty.  Three set-pieces are among the most effective scenes ever shot by Hitchcock -- the killing in the rain and wild chase through the country is spectacular and this is followed by an extended sequence involving a sinister circling plane, windmills, and lethal turning gears and wheels inside the dusty, battered windmill itself.  A plane crash at the end of the film, a sequence that seems to belong in another genre of picture, is also staged with great force and conviction -- people are trapped in tiny compartments filling with water and enormous waves batter the slowly sinking fuselage.  The movie ends with a startling declaration of the importance of freedom of the press and government transparency, a climax that gives the film a curious resonance in the era of massacres at Charlie Hebdo and Edward Snowden.  As always with Hitchcock, all supporting players are excellent:  Edmund Gwinn is particularly effective as a jolly Cockney assassin and Herbert Marshall is fine as the head spy, a tormented figure of the sort later played by James Mason in North by Northwest.  This is the kind of superior entertainment that gives the audience everything it wants and, yet, also remains continuously surprising, yielding additional pleasures that the viewers, perhaps, could not anticipate.

Contraband is more complex emotionally because the film is less efficient as an entertainment.  There is no chemistry between the German Conrad Veidt and his somewhat spooky-looking leading lady, Valerie Hobson -- when the two of them are roped together in a dark cellar, their physical contiguity is as forced as their emotional connection.  Powell and Pressburger's German spies are physically ugly, with jutting jaws or fat and glowering.  The film revels is curious delays and narrative deformities -- there is a long sequence set in a Danish restaurant that is comical but seems inconsequential and when Veidt frees himself from the German spies, he leaves the leading lady and his romantic interest in the film still roped to the basement pillar.  It takes him a long time to return and there is something oddly indifferent and lacking in chivalry in his delay in rescuing her.  The film makers are more interested, it seems, in baroque elaboration of the theme of black-out than in the rather halting plot -- for example, there are repeated and delighted references to the fact that the night-time stars are visible in London for the first time in centuries because of the black-out.  In fact, much of the film seems justified as a sort of documentary about the effects of a city-wide black-out, a circumstance that gives the directors free-range to develop many striking chiaroscuro effects (a man lighting a pipe, for instance, on a blacked-out city street).  The movie is also effective but considerably stranger in design and emotional texture than Hitchcock's fairly straightforward suspense thriller.

Three observations may be made about these films.  Although the pictures can be fairly characterized as propaganda, they are both curiously sympathetic to the Nazi villains -- in both cases misguided members of the British upper class.  In each film, the head villain is portrayed as highly intelligent, idealistic, and somewhat ashamed of the dishonorable means used to prosecute their mission.  (Indeed, in the Hitchcock film, the bad guy nobly sacrifices his life in expiation for his crimes.)  Thus, these pictures show a level of civility mostly lacking in American films featuring Islamic or Russian terrorists as bad guys.  Second, the villains are defined by the fact that they use torture.  Both films are replete with discussions of torture and Foreign Correspondent contains an off-screen but alarming scene of torture.  A few weeks ago, I had dinner with a sophisticated Jewish businessman from the East Coast.  I was shocked when this man, a friend of Bill Moyers and a long-time employee of public TV, defended torture enthusiastically on the basis of the fact that this practice is condoned by the Israelis.  Certainly, we live in a much darker world today, a place in which the self-proclaimed "good guys" seem proud of inflicting torture on their enemies.  Finally, both films made in the midst of a deadly war involving murderous air raids on civilian populations are relatively cheerful, witty, and, even, merry.  There is nothing dire in these films, no gloom or doom, and, although both films preach (Hitchcock's movie ends with several political sermons), the pictures are primarily designed as sophisticated, ingenious entertainments.  These films embody the values of civilization at a dark moment in human history; the future will judge us unkindly by the values embodied in garbage like Zero Dark Thirty. At a historical moment far less perilous, we show ourselves to be more craven, cowardly, pessimistic, cruel, and intolerant than the people who made these movies during the Blitz. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Lost Tapes: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes Continued

Let me propose a rule:  if a movie is about music, voices commenting on the music should not be dubbed over the music that is the film's subject.  In other words, it's impolite to talk while a musician is performing -- a principle that applies in concert halls and documentaries about music-making.  This rule is violated conspicuously and with irritating predictability in Sam Jones' 2014 documentary The Lost Tapes:  Bob  Dylan's Basement  Tapes Continued.  This is only one of several things wrong with this film, an amiable muddle that seems to have been made by Capitol Records to promote a recent CD.  The documentary's premise is simple enough:  a box full of lyrics written by Bob Dylan has turned-up.  The provenience of the box is never established and we are never told (or shown) anything interesting about the hundred or so scraps of paper covered with whimsical drawings on which the lyrics are written.  Who had the box?  Who owns the intellectual property?  Why has the box of lyrics not surfaced until recently?  None of these questions are answered.  T-Bone Burnett is hired to produce a record based on these lyrics and six musicians are enlisted for the project -- these include Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Rihannon from the "Georgia Chocolate Drops", and several other young men unknown to me:  one guy is from something called "My Morning Jacket," the other guy plays with a band called "Dawes."    The musicians agonize over writing tunes adequate to the lyrics, most of which are inconsequential fragments, bits of verse rejected by Dylan because too formulaic or too Dylanesque, perhaps.  The record has to be recorded in two weeks and so there is some mild time-pressure, suspense, of a sort I suppose, as to whether the project will be completed.  The work in the studio improvising the songs is intercut with grainy super 8 images that purport to show Bob Dylan and the members of the Band at Big Pink in Woodstock, the place where the lyrics were written.  This footage is faked, although the viewer doesn't realize this until the end of the film and, then, feels duped.  I'm happy, however, to know that the pictures of the Band and Dylan disporting themselves with a football or big dogs at Big Pink is all phony -- the stuff looks like out-takes from a Monkees' TV show.  Periodically, voice-overs purporting to be Dylan or Robbie Robertson or some other musician are heard -- these are also all faked.  One of the serious problems with the documentary is that just about everything interesting in it is dramatized and contrived and not too effectively at that.  The filmmaker seems to suggest that Dylan and the Band produced music like a bird sings, spontaneously and in conditions of great joy and love.  By contrast, the hapless team assembled by Burnett agonizes endlessly over their songs, engages in much muttering and nattering about creativity and the imagination, and seem hopelessly conflicted about their assignments.  But this ostensible contrast is completely fake since the footage of the happy-go-lucky Dylan and his shaggy mates from the late sixties is fictional and the voices describing the cheerful proceedings at Big Pink are also just actors -- something the naïve viewer doesn't figure out until the closing credits.  (Apparently, Dylan et. al. were willing to be paid a cut on the CD and movie but didn't want to be too closely associated with it.)  At times, the movie has the feel of a TV show like The Celebrity Apprentice -- we keep expecting T-Bone to call one of the musicians into his office to summarily fire him for poor performance.  Indeed, one shot of Rihannon listlessly walking down the halls of Capitol records with her suitcase and garment bag seems modeled after the sequences ubiquitous in shows like Face-Off or The Apprentice in which the disappointed cast member is sent home in disgrace.  Since all the action takes place in the recording studio, the show is shot like one of those reality series in which squabbling roommates are forced to interact in some luxury apartment that the network has procured for them -- except The Lost Tapes doesn't have the appeal of scandal or sexual misbehavior.  After immense effort, the musicians produce three or four pretty tunes.  Several of the songs are effective and memorable; Mumford is a pleasant presence and seems genuinely talented.  The dog-eyed and depressed-looking kid from Dawes is handsome and friendly.  The sole woman, Rihannon, seems uncomfortable among all the boisterous boys but, ultimately, after much soul-searching writes a good song; Elvis Costello is dapper -- he and T-Bone Burnett wear their sunglasses at night and Burnett bobs his head benignly in silhouette in the recording booth.  There are snatches of great old Dylan tunes, but the curse of the show is the constant talk -- voices are overdubbed on top of songs like "The Mighty Quinn" and "I shall be released."  Is nothing sacred?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Inherent Vice

To accuse Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice (2015) of excessive and unmanageable intricacy is, I suppose, to miss the point.  Pynchon's source novel was equally densely plotted and, probably, even more confusing.  The notion exploited in both novel and film is that all affairs in southern California in 1971 are controlled by a web of universal drug-driven criminality:  everyone is smoking dope and hallucinating conspiracies except that the conspiracies are not merely paranoid fantasies -- they actually exist at all levels of society.  Pynchon readers will recognize this theme from the author's other books, most notably The Crying of Lot 49, the shortest and most reader-friendly exposition of this idea -- what was new about Inherent Vice is that the novelist approached this persistent theme through the medium of the crime novel (and the crime film).  As a novel, Inherent Vice was influenced equally by Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep (based in turn on the poet noir Raymond Chandler's books) and the Coen brother's The Big Lebowski -- indeed, the film made from Pynchon's novel strikes the viewer as working terrain midway between the two Bigs and, for this reason, will probably seem derivative to some moviegoers:  the movie is funnier than Hawks' labyrinthine film and, somehow, more grave and, even, mournful than the Coen's brothers masterpiece of hipster irony.  To illustrate, the complexity of Inherent Vice consider this subplot, one of about a half-dozen intertwined narratives in the film:  a saxophone player, Coy Harlingen, falls in love with a dope smuggler, they marry, have a child, and, then, the musician, apparently, dies of an overdose.  Later, the musician is mysteriously resurrected and meets the film's hero, Doc Sportello, in the mist at a harbor where heroin is apparently being trafficked -- Doc is a private investigator, hired to locate a missing person, Marty Wolfmann, a real estate developer who has vanished.  Doc is dimwitted and inept and spends all of his time smoking weed, but he is persistent and, as they say, even a blind hog sometimes finds an acorn.  Coy Harlingen gives Doc a clue as to Wolfmann's whereabouts, but, then, vanishes again.  He resurfaces at a party in Topanga Canyon, some sort of weird drug and sex orgy that Doc attends with a prostitute, a woman that the detective met at a brothel featuring a "pussy-eating special" for $14.95.  A banquet is underway and Anderson films the meal blasphemously, parodying Da Vinci' The Last Supper, or, perhaps, in this hall of mirrors film, the shot in Bunuel's Viridiana modeled on that fresco.  Next, we see Coy Harlingen appear at a gathering of the California Vigilance Society, a right-wing club where Richard Nixon is speaking.  Harlingen denounces Nixon and is thrown out of the gathering as TV cameras record his obscene tirade.  But it turns out that Harlingen, in fact, has been forced to denounce Nixon by the LAPD in order to establish his credentials as a snitch blackmailed into infiltrating local subversive and left-wing organizations in order to inform on them to the cops.  Feature this:  Coy Harlingen, a real hippy who hates Nixon is forced to publicly denounce Nixon, by Nixon-supporting cops, so that Harlingen can infiltrate other groups that dislike Nixon and provide the police intelligence as to their activities.  This sort of plotting is characteristic of the film and there is simply no way that the viewer can possibly keep track of the maze of motivations driving the characters on-screen.  So the viewer's sense of the film is impressionistic -- you can't exactly tell what is happening and must content yourself with the gist of things:  a sort of ubiquitous drug-addled menace suffused with a curiously tender eroticism -- much of the film concerns Doc's search for the girlfriend that has abandoned him, Shasta Fat, a woman that he didn't realize that he loved until it was too late.

 I must confess that this genre of film has never really impressed me:  I have watched The Big Sleep about four times because on three of those viewings I fell asleep midway through the picture -- the title of the picture has always seem apt to me.  I have always thought The Maltese Falcon tedious -- at least when Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet aren't on-screen --  and found Chinatown not exactly worth the effort necessary to decipher the sinister crimes disclosed in that film.  Anderson's Inherent Vice (like Pynchon's novel to some extent) has the same effect on me:  the movie is long and contains many fascinating characters and sequences but there is simply too much of it -- after about ninety minutes I found myself longing for some surcease in the plot complications.  Anderson has made the film like Hawks' The Big Sleep; the filmmaking is brilliantly utilitarian -- the camera is always exactly where it needs to be and scenes are shot for maximum clarity.  (There's no point in adding a visual dimension of ambiguity to a film that has this level of narrative ambiguity.)  Anderson avoids "beauty" -- there's nothing pretty in the film, no lyrical sequences in which the camera is given a vacation from recording the facts and just the facts, ma'am, and, on a purely visual level, everything makes sense.  Indeed, the curious aspect of the movie is that the picture is ultimately impressionistic -- that is, we walk away with only vague impression of what has happened -- but that this effect is achieved by the accumulation of innumerable small, clearly shot, and coherently edited sequences.  Anderson uses many close-ups the better to study the faces of his cast and the acting in the film is uniformly superb, surprising, and oddly affecting.  Joaquin Phoenix is excellent as the befuddled hero and the large cast contains wonderful cameo appearances by Martin Short, the great Martin Donovan, and Eric Roberts.  The film has a voice-over pronounced by Shasta, I think -- although I will have to see the movie again to verify this identification and she gives us some access to Pynchon's soaring, if convoluted, prose arias.  But, of course, the book redeems all the hither-thither to-and-fro plotting with Pynchon's unique writing style, a mixture of Hawthorne-like allegory, Faulkner's wild and ornate syntax, and Melville's flights of fancy.  A movie can't capture the ornate writing that is the reader's primary pleasure, and motivation, for plowing through Pynchon's idiosyncratic, and, often, infuriatingly self-indulgent novels.  In fact, Anderson's film style in this movie is unadorned, plain, direct, and very audacious.  He uses very long takes, often shots that are two or three minutes running time and there is one particularly audacious love scene between Phoenix's Doc Sportello and Shasta that begins with provocation, moves through confessional grief and a kind of taunting invitation and, then, concludes with fully realized act of sexual intercourse -- all of this happens in a single, exceedingly forceful, five-minute take.  In sequences of this sort Anderson achieves a peculiar mood of melancholy and regret and many of the scenes in the last half-hour of the film have a peculiar sort of gravity that doesn't exactly comport with the jocular plotting:  And this effect is very characteristic of Pynchon at his best:  in Gravity's Rainbow or Mason and Dixon or any of his novels, the text suggests a vulgar, moronic underground comic book, a kind of Robert Crumb kind of sexually explicit and raw counter-culture comedy that, suddenly, and without warning becomes sorrowful, emotionally intense, and, even, tragic.  Anderson, whose films are always an important event, gets this aspect of Pynchon's writing, even though he creates the effect with very different means.  The score is by Jonny Greenwood and, perhaps, this accounts for the inexplicable power that accumulates around the last half-hour of the movie.  I will have to look at this movie again to fully understand how it is constructed and what it means -- but, perhaps, a second look will merely deepen the mystery. 

Only Lovers Left Alive

Ostensibly about superannuated vampires, Jim Jarmusch's 2013 Only Lovers Left Alive is the filmed equivalent of a decadent prose-poem about glamour and addiction.  Tilda Swinton, who always seems a bit unearthly, plays a vampire named Eve.  She reads all known languages and lives in Tangiers with her vampire-friend, Kit Marlowe (John Hurt).  Marlowe is a little embittered that the plays he wrote around the turn of the 17th century have been attributed to a "philistine Zombie called Shakespeare" -- but he has spent the intervening centuries writing a number of new plays, glimpsed by the camera on his desk amid other scraps of sonnet and essay.  On the other side of the world, Adam, Eve's paramour, lives in a crumbling mansion in a particularly desolate section of Detroit -- Adam is a musician and he collects musical instruments: vintage guitars, Stradivarius violins, and the like.  Adam was a friend of Byron and he is a bit the worse for that relationship:  morose, lonely, a wanderer like Cain on the face of the earth, plotting suicide with a 38 caliber bullet made from the hardest wood in the world.  Adam summons Eve, who takes a night flight to Detroit and they make love and lounge around the haunted mansion discussing arcane subjects such as quantum mechanics, fungi, celestial objects, and the discredited legacy of Nikola Tesla.  The relationship between the two vampires involves something that Adam, who is scientifically inclined, describes as "spooky action at a distance" -- that is, quantum entanglement -- and the film actually illustrates this concept in the bravura opening sequence in which a spinning vinyl record metamorphoses into the vampires spinning simultaneously thousands of miles apart:  ancient, elemental particles whose rotation is entangled even though they are remote from one another.   A sort of story happens when a third vampire interrupts Adam and Eve's Detroit idyll, a vulgar hedonistic blood-sucker from LA named Ava.  (LA is said to be "zombie-central"; "zombie" is a disparaging word that the vampires use for ordinary mortals.)  Someone gets "drunk" -- that is, exsanguinated, and Adam and Eve have to flee back to Tangiers where Marlowe is dying ("contaminated" blood).  Tangiers, of course, is William Burroughs' territory and the final scenes in that city involve the vampires slinking around trying to locate another "fix" -- the film visualizes drinking blood as like a mainline injection of heroin and the movie's real subject, I think, is heroin addiction as a glamorous affliction, a questionable concept to be sure.  The film is shot entirely at night and the landscapes are impressive:  rotting ballrooms and auditoriums in Detroit, the yellow-lit labyrinth of lanes in the souk in Tangiers, empty highways leading through industrial wastelands.  Essentially, the film is an excuse for its director, Jim Jarmusch, to put on screen things that interest him:  eerie rockabilly tunes from the fifties, Goth drone rock in a Detroit nightclub, vintage soul music, and, at the end, a spectacular musical number by a Lebanese singer named, Jasmine Hamden.  (Jarmusch's own band, Squrl, is featured in the memorable opening sequence.)  The vampires are portrayed as harmless, reclusive eccentrics -- they get their blood by bribing hospital pathologists and are too cultured to stoop to ripping open people's throats (although in a pinch, they are capable of this.)  Basically, they are like the characters in Huysmans' novels. esthetes with hyper-acute senses, connoisseurs of arcane knowledge -- they seem to be able to sense the chemical constituents of substances through the palms of their hands.  They are beautiful and (mostly) harmless:  Tom Hiddleston as the tormented Adam is particularly gorgeous; his torso is sculpted like a Greek god.  Both Adam and Eve have the spurious, emaciated glamor of French fashion models -- they embody "heroin-chic":  ivory-pale, hollow-cheeked, glowing with a greenish lunar pallor.  The movie is languorous and dreamlike -- at times, it reminded me a bit of the Scarlet Johannsen film Under the Skin.  It's self-indulgent, mostly an exercise in an outré decadent sensibility, but I liked the film.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

One for the Money

What do women want?  This question has vexed men since the dawn of time.  But there is an answer (or answers) readily accessible to anyone with a few bucks and a DVD-player.  Rent the 2012 crime film, One for the Money (directed by the BBC veteran Julie Anne Robinson) and after 90 minutes of relatively painless viewing, you will have an answer of sorts to this question.  One for the Money is based on the novel that initiated one of the most valuable franchises in the mystery-crime thriller industry, a series of books written by Janet Evanovich featuring the plucky bounty-hunter, Stephanie Plum.  Evanovich's novels seem to be tailored to the interests of women readers and the film version of the inaugural book in the series was written for the screen by three women and directed by a woman as well.  Stephanie Plum is beautiful, slender, and desired by all men.  She is bold, courageous, a quick-learner, loyal to her extended family, and resourceful.  In the film, the newly divorced and impecunious Plum (played by Katherine Heigl) has lost her job and can't pay her rent.  (It is incomprehensible, of course, that a woman with the figure of Playboy model and gorgeously beautiful would be without resources, unemployed, and forced to steal a car for transportation -- but the film is Hollywood wish-fulfillment and so we have to suspend our disbelief at Stephanie's dilemma.)  The heroine goes to work for a sleazy cousin who runs a bail bond business.  She is assigned the task of capturing a former lover, the man "who took (her) virginity on the floor of an Italian bakery when (she) was 17" -- in the movie, women refer to their genitalia as "cannoli," probably the most ribald thing in the film.  (The movie is set in an Italian-American community in Trenton, New Jersey.)  As in The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon and innumerable other movies of this type, the quest for the missing person evolves into the discovery of a broader sinister criminal enterprise involving showdowns with various thugs and enforcers.  One for the Money is competently made and I thought Ms. Heigl was appealing; the story is told briskly and the locations depicting the mean streets of Trenton were gritty and atmospheric.  The film is mild, contains no cursing, and its violence is understated -- the picture is clearly made for a female audience.  On the basis of the film, I can declare that women want to have a choice between two competent, handsome, and aggressive lovers -- one of them, Stephanie declares, to be "like Michelangelo's David sculpted out of caramel."  Women seem to desire independence -- Stephanie Plum has no obligations to either of the two men who desire her and she is free to select between them as her wishes dictate.  She has a close and loving relationship with her mother and grandmother.  Her job is fun and challenging.  Sometimes, she is rescued by her hunky boyfriends; other times, she rescues them or uses her pluck to save the day.  She revenges herself on her old flame by making him helplessly desire her and, then, rejecting his advances -- or, rather, accepting his advances but only on her own terms.  Rather miraculously, she can eat incessantly without gaining weight.  Stephanie is not a mother and doesn't have to deal with irritating children or a demanding husband.  In short, she wants everything but without commitment and obligation and the story satisfies these desires.  I thought the movie was inoffensive, something like a second-rate TV show, and, even, was mildly amused by the picture.  But my wife, who has read the novels, hated the film, thought it traduced the heroine, and was disgusted by the movie, declaring it one of the worst films that she had ever seen.  I thought this response was completely disproportionate to a movie that is, more or less, sweet-tempered and harmless.  But my wife, apparently, is a better critic or, at least, gauge of popular response than I:  this 40 million dollar film tanked at the box-office, has a positive rating of 2 % on Rotten Tomatoes, and earned Katherine Heigl a Raspberry nomination for worst actress of the year.  Everything about this movie I seem to have got wrong:  I have worked in New Jersey extensively and believe that I have a sense for the feeling, the milieu of the Garden State.  I praised the locations to my wife and said that I thought that the film was very authentic in its portrayal of Trenton and environs.  In fact, the entire film was shot in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

After watching the first installment of The Hobbit, I determined that the series had reached a point of diminishing returns and so I avoided the next film in the series.  Peter Jackson's films about Middle Earth, of course, represent an important aspect of my life -- these were films that I saw with my children when they were young and I recall The Lord of the Rings trilogy with great warmth -- these were violent movies for boys, but boys deserve good films as much as anyone else and Jackson's pictures were dignified, noble, and thrilling.  But the vastly inflated Hobbit series seemed to me gratuitous, unnecessary, and redundant.  However, out of  a certain nostalgia, I went to the theater in the terrifying January cold of this new year 2015 to see the last picture of the Hobbit trilogy.  The movie was a disappointment to me.  It seems much longer than its 2 hours and 15 minute run-time and, since I had not seen the previous installment, I really couldn't understand what was happening.  To a viewer innocent of the Desolation of Smaug, the movie is baffling and, indeed, its plot seems willfully perverse.  A dragon strafes a Venice made of wooden towers reducing the island city to burning wreckage.  In a ruinous, but well-illuminated grotto, a parody of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre seems to be playing-out:  a dwarf called Thorinn has succumbed to gold-lust.  Like Humphrey Bogart in Huston's movie, he rants and raves and suspects his dozen or so colleagues of theft.  For reasons that are completely inexplicable, an army of monsters led by bigger albino monsters is marching toward the vast cavern where Thorinn sits surrounded by his golden hoard.  Elves arrive en masse, a Fascist army of robot-like men in sparkling armor -- apparently, they also want the gold under the mountain, a Matterhorn-type peak that looks remarkably like the Paramount Studios logo.  There is a face-off between the elves and the dwarves and, then, a million troll-like orcs attacks the city.  An interminable, tedious battle results with much hacking and piercing --orc heads bounce around like soccer balls.  Thorinn, like Achilles brooding over Briseis, remains in his immense, well-lit cave -- he refuses to join the fray although it is hard to see how his presence with his twelve associates could possibly make any difference in a battle that is fought between a hundred-thousand trolls, twenty-thousand elves, 20,000 dwarves led by an uncle of the intransigent Thorinn, and assorted giants, war-bats, and combat-eagles.  Finally, as in the Iliad, Thorinn emerges from his isolation and leads the allied armies to victory.  Caught in the cataclysmic fighting are a couple hundred bedraggled human beings, refugees from the Venetian city destroyed by the dragon, Bilbo Baggins, a tiny Hobbit, who really has almost nothing to do with the story or the endless battle.  (The most interesting character in the series of films, Gollum, a tormented figure like one of demonic figures haunting a Dostoevsky novel is nowhere in evidence in this movie.)  The film goes on and on and on and seems, more or less, a pointless exercise in violence.  There are some charming special effects:  I liked the way the great dragon, mortally wounded lunges upward above the burning city, like a kind of desperate, exhausted flame himself; at one point, a dwarf riding a kind of bighorn sheep scales an icy escarpment nimbly hopping from crag to crag, and one character is chauffeured around on a sleigh drawn by huge jack-rabbits.  A dead monster, drowned under an icy river or, maybe, a lake, drifts beneath the dwarf who seems to have killed him, partly obscured by a veil of translucent ice.  Many of the images have the stony, crystalline appearance of paintings or woodcuts by Mantegna; everything is densely textured and the screen swarms with detailed action to the extent that it is exhausting to watch the movie.  The Battle of Five Armies is resolutely humorless and the dialogue is mostly exotic proper names and fictional geography:  "Eramor has fled to wastes of Domedon..." and so on.  There is no love interest and the focus of the film on the greed of the dwarf-king sulking in his cavern is baffling to me.  The movie is noble, beautifully made, and, often, exciting but many of its special effects are so spectacularly implausible that, it seems, that Jackson has not only creating his own world, Middle Earth, but also exempted it from the laws of physics.  The sequence of movies is finished now; they are monumental accomplishments, but, The Hobbit trilogy in my mind is flawed and I persist in seeing it as completely redundant of effects and dramatic incidents much more brilliantly realized in The Lord of Rings films. 


Kevin Smith's 2014 horror film, Tusk, on the evidence of the closing credits seems to have been largely financed by crowd-sourcing.  An immense list of donors appears after the final credits, apparently, representative of Smith's fans.  The movie is a variant on torture-porn -- in this case, torture by disfiguring surgery at the hands of a mad scientist.  In this respect, the movie resembles specimens like The Human Centipede and Almodovar's Skin.  Although Smith directs the film for ironic, tongue-in-cheek gross-out humor, the picture is a bit too dire to be regarded as comedy.  Although there are a few funny scenes featuring abusive humor about Canada and Canadians, the ostensible setting for the plot, the movie is best characterized as a well-written, over-the-top horror movie.  Horror films are inherently allegorical and ordinarily moralistic -- the monstrosity that such films show often is intended to call into question, and allegorically illustrate, moral evil, that is, ethical monstrosity.  Smith, who has been a pious Catholic, is inherently a moralist.  His best films convey moral messages with almost theological intensity; for instance, Chasing Amy is a film about the destructive narcissism of unbridled sexual desire; Red State is about religious fundamentalism and Dogma, of course, takes on the Catholic Church.  Tusk is similarly moralizing:  the film's ostensible hero, a sardonic, opportunistic podcaster travels to Canada to exploit a boy's video-taped accident:  a fat kid practicing with a samurai sword has accidentally cutoff his leg on-camera.  The podcaster, who is morally monstrous, is kidnapped by a mad scientist played effectively by Michael Parks.  (Parks channels some of Vincent Price's more plummy and orotund theatrical effects; he speaks in grandiose, grotesque high rhetoric, citing poetry and various historical disasters in Canadian history as the basis for his insane project.)  The mad scientist first amputates one of the smarmy podcaster's legs, as if in recompense for the (anti-) heroes exploitation of the unfortunate fat kid.  Then, he proceeds to surgically alter the podcaster's body, suturing his arms to his sides to create flipper-like appendages, inserting his victim's amputated polished tibia into the man's upper jaw, and, then, grafting him into a blubbery walrus suit, composed, as it happens, from fragments of dead human bodies.  Once, the podcaster has been metamorphosed into a reasonable, if hideous, semblance of a walrus, the madman teaches him to swim -- his concrete lagoon is filled with other walrus-suited victims, decomposing on the bottom  -- feeds him mackerel, and, ultimately, engages him in combat tusk-to-tusk (while the soundtrack plays "Tusk" by Fleetwood Mac.)  The big "reveal" shot showing the final effects of the madman's surgery is shocking enough -- indeed, the image is staged to resemble somewhat the climax of Tod Browning's Freaks in which the audience is shown the once-beautiful ballerina, Cleopatra, surgically transformed into a ghastly squawking duck-woman, and Smith's film packs a similar punch. Tusk is too long -- it's adapted from a podcast skit and the material is too thin to support the ninety minute length of the film.  Further, the grim story seems padded and the horrors in the last forty minutes are intercut with a rescue effort mounted by the podcaster's girlfriend and his partner played by the spectral and fat Haley Osment.  The couple, who have become lovers, travel to Canada and enlist the services of a slovenly French Canadian detective played by Johnny Depp.  Of course, the couple and their idiotic side-kick are far too late to render any meaningful service to the poor podcaster who has now become a bellowing, horrific walrus, irrevocably transformed by the mad scientist's scalpels, sutures, and skin-grafts.  The low-comedy sequences with the rescuing couple and Johnny Depp are self-indulgent and bring the movie to a standstill -- these scenes resemble the similarly low-comedy episodes in Wes Craven's Last House on the Left involving bumpkin cops coming to the rescue too slowly or not at all.  It's a kind of half-wit sit-com humor intended to lighten the otherwise grim mood but not particularly effective.  And, in this case, Johnny Depp is allowed to chew the scenery; he's a big star, even in a caricatured cameo like this one, and his improvised ramblings are allotted too much screen-time.  (The scene with Depp is shot at a fast-food joint ostensibly in Gimli, Manitoba -- a homage, I think, to the genuinely great, and bizarre, Canadian film maker Guy Maddin, whose first feature film was called Tales from the Gimli Hospital.)  The film is most effective during its first forty minutes; the horror sequences at the climax of the movie are spectacular enough and, certainly, nightmarish although the tusk-to-tusk combat is ineptly staged -- Smith doesn't know whether to play this stuff straight or to go for comedy and so he ends up with something that's neither funny nor effectively horrible for his violent climax.  In a way, the film is a little too conventional and doesn't quite go far enough.  The mad scientist claims that he was the victim of priest pederasty and there is a sexual component to his walrus fetish. About thirty minutes into the movie, the podcaster fingers the bludgeon-like penile bone of a walrus displayed in the mad scientist's Gothic Addams family-style home.  I recall a comment made about Mickey Rourke's movie 9 1/2 Weeks -- a critic wrote that if you show someone buying a riding crop in the first ten minutes of the movie, the audience will be disappointed if someone doesn't get thrashed with that crop.  I would amend this comment in application to Tusk:  if you show a character fondling a 24-inch long penile bone from a walrus, the audience will be inevitably disappointed if the film is too chaste to have someone murdered with that artifact or, even, fucked to death by a walrus.  But, for some reason, Kevin Smith isn't willing to go that far in this self-styled transgressive horror-comedy and, in fact, even inserts dialogue to the effect that the poor podcaster has not been sexually altered by the mad scientist.  Here's my question:  if you're in for a dime, you're in for a dollar and so why not go for broke?

Alan Partridge

The British comedian, Steve Coogan, has a voice that is like a special effect.  His velvety baritone makes him sound a bit like Orson Welles and seems too deep and resonant for his slender body with over-sized head.  Of course, it is natural that he be cast as Alan Partridge, a vain, cowardly radio personality with a mid-morning call-in show on a small market radio station in the north of England.  Coogan is apparently a TV personality in the UK and the smarmy Alan Partridge seems to have been developed as a character in a British sit-com.  The film, Alan Partidge, is a ninety minute extension of the sit-com premise into a feature film.  In the movie, Partridge and another broadcaster, the "sleepy-time" disk jockey, Farrell are threatened by the corporate acquisition of their radio station.  The thuggish corporate owner needs to fire some "dead weight" at the station, and so, Partridge betrays his friend, suggesting that management "sack" Farrell.  Farrell is fired, but, then, returns to the station with a shot gun and takes the employees, as well as the managers, hostage.  Partridge, who has gone home, is enlisted to enter the besieged radio station to negotiate with the enraged Farrell.  The film plays out a little like a low-key British version of Dog Day Afternoon -- the police are stymied by the crisis and a crowd of local supporters gathers outside the studio:  Farrell continues to broadcast incendiary, if audience-pleasing, and populist, messages over the air.  Comedies are notoriously difficult to review and too much a matter of personal taste for me to provide much of a critical assessment of this film.  Furthermore, a comedy needs to be seen with a roomful of people.  If the audience laughs a lot, the movie is a success whatever its abstract aesthetic merits; if people don't laugh then the movie is a failure.  (By way of an example, I recently saw once more a movie that consists of nothing more than thirty or forty stand-up comedians, many of them superannuated, telling a filthy joke; the film is named after the joke, a show biz legend, The Aristocrats.  When I watched the film by myself, I thought the movie was tedious and not at all funny, even a bit ugly.  A couple months ago, I saw the movie with six or seven people who enjoyed it, were half-drunk, and who laughed uproariously -- and, predictably, I thought the movie was very funny on that viewing.)  I don't think that Alan Partridge is particularly funny.  Coogan is always fascinating to watch, but his performance in this movie seemed broad and, even, a trifle tedious.  And, at 89 minutes, the film still felt too long by, at least, a half-hour.  In my view, the movie is not daring enough to be construed as a black comedy, but, also, a little too disturbing for the merry TV-style sit-com approach employed in the picture.  Everything is a predictable and the film climaxes with an absurd slapstick shoot-out that I thought was trying too hard -- desperation, always, sinks a comedy.  That said, I should note that on Rotten Tomatoes and other metacritic sites, Alan Partridge scores high -- 87% of the viewers liked the film.  And so, it may be that the movie has merits that were simply invisible to me.   

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Mr. Turner

Mike Leigh's intriguing and spectacular Mr. Turner is an enigmatic film that baffles me.  Ostensibly, the movie is a bio-pic, an account of incidents in the life of the great British painter, J.M.W. Turner.  On first viewing, the long film seems formless -- episodes from the painter's life displayed in chronological order, but lacking any sort of continuity.  An actual life is not a narrative, of course, and lacks the clearly defined rising and falling action that we associate with a plot or story.  True to reality, Leigh's film doesn't show events that sum to a plot.  Indeed, I would argue that Leigh goes out of his way to eschew any sort of narrative and that, in fact, his film is defiantly non-narrative -- it has less actual continuity than a real life might possess.  In the absence of a plot, the viewer might assume that the film is structured according to some other principle -- it might present sociological perspectives on the role of the artist in society (for instance, Peter Watkins' Edvard Munch) or might be thematically designed around certain preoccupations in the artist's work (for instance, Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo).  But on first viewing of this long (2 hours and 29 minutes) and exceedingly complex film, I am unable to locate any thematic or conceptual structure to the picture.  Some continuities are presented by Dick Pope's fabulously beautiful cinematography -- for instance, in one shot we see a close-up of Turner's hand texturing a canvas and, then, the image cuts to an extraordinary weathered cliff, a geological phenomenon that looks somewhat like the abstract squalls of paint on the artist's canvas.  But these kinds of pictorial rhymes don't amount to any discernible subject.  Accordingly, I am at a loss as to what, if anything, Mr. Turner means. 

Mr. Turner starts in media res -- Turner, played by Timothy Spall, is middle-aged and already famous, if also a bit notorious for some of his eccentricities.  He lives with his vigorous, elderly father, a man whom Turner calls "Daddy" and describes as "Covent Garden's finest barber."  A timid housekeeper with bent shoulders and psoriasis cares for Turner's physical needs in all respects:  periodically, Turner has sex with her or mutely puts one of his paws on her breast or crotch.  As the film progresses, we see Turner sketching, painting his pictures, and watch him strutting about like a turkey cock in the halls of the Royal Academy on "varnishing day."  His father dies and Turner goes to brothel where he bellows in sorrow, an inarticulate horrible sobbing sound.  At a coastal resort, he meets the wife of a sea captain, a man burdened with melancholy and a bad conscience because of his involvement in the Atlantic slave-trade.  The sea-captain dies and Turner begins a sexual relationship with his widow.  Turner, then, sickens and dies -- the second harrowing, relentless death scene in the film.  As he dies, Turner cries out "The sun is God," and amused by this remark, laughs a bit and, then, stops breathing.  Leigh ends with three shots that comprise a kind of coda -- first, we see the sea-captain's wife polishing the window panes of a door, one of the few symbolic images in the movie; then, we are shown Turner in a flashback (the only one in the film) heroically standing against a glorious Dutch sunset and sketching in his book, third, we see Turner's servant, terribly disfigured by her psoriasis grief-stricken in the grey and gloomy chambers of the great artist's London apartment.  This account, however, does not suggest the film's fantastic Dickensian richness -- the movie must have more than 60 speaking parts and we see dozens of encounters between Turner and members of his society:  many of these encounters have a indelible strangeness, an uncanny core of mystery, that is enhanced because Leigh doesn't explain the encounters, provides no back-story, and, further, seems to demand that the encounters, which seem to provide an encyclopedic survey of Turner's life and times, are inconsequential -- they lead nowhere and have, little or no, narrative or plot significance.  The film is resplendent with a profuse, wild generosity about the types of people that Turner encounters, but Leigh frustrates the viewer by developing intricate, closely observed characters and, then, simply abandoning them.  The effect is like a novel by Dickens or George Eliot in which the novelist's imagination casts off remarkable minor characters with the greatest profligacy, but, then, discards them after they have interacted with the main figure in the story.  Leigh shows us Queen Victoria and her German-speaking husband, Prince Albert; he presents us with an incredible variety of forgotten 19th century painters; we see the quarrelsome Haydon, an artist who is impecunious ("suffering impecunity" as the dialogue precisely states), the sort of romantic, half-mad genius that we are tutored to expect in a film of this kind, but a man with no talent at all.  There are various society ladies, including a woman with a spectacularly irritating singing voice; she performs a slightly risqué song for a room full of aristocrats, causing a love-stricken dwarf to flee the chamber in morose, and panicked horror -- we have no idea what this about; it is one of those scenes in the film that rings true, but that has nothing discernible to do with Turner, simply an event that Leigh dispassionately portrays without any explanation.  There is nobleman with a florid way of speaking and peculiar mincing gait, a funny walk like something imagined by the Monty Python troupe, who appears, utters something inane, and is, then, dismissed by an older nobleman, possibly the lord of Petworth manor as "a complete imbecile."  We meet the Ruskin family, including the precocious John Ruskin who is incapable of pronouncing his "r" sounds, and who pontificates in an annoyingly pretentious manner.  We see Turner abusing the long-suffering Constable and visit a brothel with the hero where he poses a singularly sorrowful, and half-comatose young prostitute on the bed before bursting into sobs over the death of his father.  Two examples illustrate Leigh's method.  In one scene, a cheerful and gregarious Scottish woman, clearly an admirer of Turner, discusses Newton's optics and, then, uses a prism to flash a rainbow into the artist's darkened studio; the woman claims that the violet light somehow magnetizes a needle and frets over the magnetic qualities of reds and indigos.  The scene is fascinating, brilliantly staged and dramatized, and there seems to be an erotic undercurrent to the woman's presentation.  But we have no idea who she is and, just as we are warming to her presence in the film, Leigh cuts to something else and we never see her again.  At the end of the film, the ailing Turner staggers out of his seaside apartment on the stony shore; a suicide has been retrieved from the water and the dying Turner scratches images into his notebook with his crayon, sketching the bluish corpse lying in the gravel.  We don't know who the woman is, why she drowned herself, and there is nothing really mortuary about Turner's art, most of which is devoid of any significant human presences at all -- the scene is mysterious, beautifully shot, and indelibly strange, but I have no idea what it means. 

Two aspects of the film are extraordinary.  First, all of the acting and speeches seem to me to be pitch-perfect.  It is rare to encounter a film that seems so remarkably authentic to the period which it depicts.  (That said, the film probably would be best seen with subtitles -- about a third of the dialogue was inaudible to me because of the heavy, apparently precisely observed and rendered accents.)  All the cameo parts, and they are innumerable, are instantly convincing and memorable.  Timothy Spall's performance as Turner is horrifying charismatic and gripping -- you can't look away from him, but, of course, the man is a mess:  fat with a blubbery lips and the face of an aggrieved bull-dog; Spall inhabits the part with his whole body -- he marches through the squalid London streets leaning forward as if against a heavy wind, his top hat cocked rakishly to the side, a belligerent presence like a hound straining against its leash.  Spall looks like Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame -- he is simultaneously brutish and spiritual; his great eyes shimmer with intelligence and beauty.  He speaks in voice that is mostly grunts and barks, muttering as he struts around and, as the film progresses, Turner seems to become less and less communicative, more prone to express himself in a kind of growl -- he is literally phlegmatic -- his words gurgling somewhere in his mucousy barrel chest.  The performance is extraordinary and horrifying.  The second aspect of this film that is wholly remarkable is the extraordinary beauty of Dick Pope's camerawork.  The wide-screen images are essentially conceived as a series of landscapes -- close-ups are rare and Pope shows figures in the center of complex interior spaces that read, somehow, like turbulent "landskips" or wandering through outdoors terrain that embodies the early 19th century notion of the sublime.  The interiors are illuminated by raking light, light that imparts the lucid, analytical, yet subtle qualities of a Vermeer painting or a canvas by Chardin.  The lighting allows us to grasp with palpable precision the exact textures of the cloth and wood and other household furnishings that we are shown:  there are muted silk colors, a slight sheen on the cloth, and velvets, and old faded tapestry-like wall papers.  Several of the exteriors are literally breath-taking, there is one image of the white cliffs of Dover with the sea crawling beneath that pale rim of escarpments like a writhing mass of quick-silver worms that almost knocks you out of your chair.  Many of the interiors have the fussy, elaborate detail of a painting by Adolf Menzel -- all manner of curious objects arranged like the subject of a half-dozen still life paintings around the center of the image.  Although Pope doesn't exactly compete with the vaporous hazes that Turner produced on his canvases he doesn't stint on showing us great landscapes with glowing voids at their heart.  Because of the film's visual glamor, its incredible, and sinister, beauty, the movie must be seen in a theater with a large-screen.  (I watched the movie at the otherwise execrable Uptown Theater, a pretentious movie theater that I despise, but I must say that the huge screen in that auditorium showed the film to excellent advantage.)

Mike Leigh's greatest films are mysterious objects to me -- they seem to revolve around some insoluble problem:  there is young girl who mysteriously wants to die by anorexia in Leigh's savage and disturbing Life is Sweet, the mystery of collaboration between men who don't really like one another in Topsy-Turvy, the director's other bio-pic about Gilbert and Sullivan.  I think of the inexplicable and frightening sadistic satyriasis in Leigh's Naked, one of the greatest and most puzzling movies ever made about sex, and, finally, the mystery of inexplicable optimism and happiness in Happy-go-Lucky.  To this roster of films is added Mr. Turner, a movie about the ineffable riddle of creativity, a great movie, I think, but one that I don't understand. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Come-Back (2014 season -- Finale)

Although I am ambivalent about the season finale concluding Lisa Kudrow's eight-part HBO vehicle, The Come-Back, the show's ingenuity and artistry remain impressive.  This is one of the few television shows that looks better, and expresses more of its meanings, on second viewing.  Unlike Guillermo del Toros' horror show, The Strain, a series that stalled interminably and, then, finally lost its way completely, apparently on the basis of a budget shortfall -- the final episodes looked under-financed, the long-promised apocalypse on Manhattan was never delivered, and, in fact, the show's final shot was risible:  a couple of burning buildings, obviously inserted by CGI, over a stock image of the city skyline -- The Come-Back remained inventive (within its limited range), Kudrow's performance continued to astonish, and the final episode was both suspenseful and emotionally gripping.   The show delivers a happy ending, indeed, almost a fairy tale conclusion to the increasingly sordid and melancholy recitation of woes, most of them self-inflicted, besetting the heroine, Valerie Cherish.  Whether the cheerful denouement to all the garish humiliations tormenting Valerie Cherish, an actress who is acting at being optimistic and whose lips are continuously contorted in the rictus of a forced and ghastly smile, is persuasive to the viewer is a matter of personal preference.  On first viewing, I didn't accept the happy ending; on a second look, I was more willing to suspend my disbelief at the show's overtly audience-pleasing climax.  Cherish is doubly burdened:  she is a co-star with Seth Rogen in a HBO series (much like the show we are watching) about a middle-aged sit-com actress' come-back; at the same time, an HBO crew is shooting what was once called a "reality show" -- more pretentiously, HBO styles the show a "documentary" -- about her personal life.  The problem, of course, is that both her personal and professional life are unraveling.  The premise goes all the way back to the unfortunate Loud family, the original victims of cinema verite as "reality" programming was, then, called:  the very act of documenting real life destabilizes that life and in the PBS show, An American Family, the audience is treated to the spectacle of a family falling apart -- the son declares himself a homosexual and the parents divorce.  Although The Come-Back is scripted, the same dynamic is dramatized:  the pressure of filming in their home drives Cherish's husband out of the house and the couple are on the verge of divorce; Cherish's only loyal friend, her gay hair-dresser Mickey, is sick with cancer, and the Tv show that HBO is producing as a sit-com series with Seth Rogen, something called Seeing Red requires Cherish to subject herself to baroque humiliations:  she has to simulate oral sex with Seth Rogen, and, in one episode, spends hours locked in a car trunk in 100 degree heat while snakes are thrown on her. (Cherish is literally covered with human shit in one sequence, a kind of degradation not inflicted on royalty since Marlowe's Edward II). The question that the final show poses, and solves, is how to contrive a happy-ending out of these materials.  This is largely achieved by technical and formal means.  As the show progresses, the jerky, cinema-verite camerawork seems to become increasingly claustrophobic -- the characters are under the enormous pressure of the camera's eye at all times; they are under surveillance that becomes more and more onerous as the show proceeds.  At last, Cherish appears at the Emmy Award Show.  The images are raw, either a collage of jump-cut,short hand-held shots, too close to the actors and, sometimes, not in focus, or remote shots with code-numbers marking the edges of the view-finder.  Suddenly, Valerie breaks away from the surveillance and flees the auditorium, eluding the cameras tracking her.  Instantly, the style of film-making changes:  the shots are made with fixed cameras that no longer jerk and bobble and they have a grave, pictorial quality, a different texture and color composition than the earlier sequences in the series.  Valerie goes outside where it is raining -- characters comment on the fact that the California drought seems to have ended -- and the falling water in the air gives the images an impressionistic tone:  it is sunny but rain is decorating the streets and the atmosphere glows with a subtly vibrant light. Seeing Red is the name of the sit-com in which Valerie stars (the show is named after her trademark red hair) and, as she leaves the auditorium, she darts across the red carpet, now vast and empty and drenched by the falling rain.  A parking attendant hands her a brilliantly red umbrella and the camera luxuriates in that color in the strangely bright and unnaturally luminous rain fall.  In the final scenes, the red of the umbrella remains as a highlight in the compositions -- it is as if we have departed the sordid world of reality TV and high-pressure show biz for an idyll, something like a film by Jacques Demy.  This transformation in the way the series is shot and designed signifies Valerie's escape from the overwhelming and destructive pressure of continuous surveillance by cameras and stylistically implies a sort of serenity and classical equipoise that makes the show's happy ending seem possible against all odds.