Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Fifth Estate

Bill Condon's bio-pic about Julian Assange, The Fifth Estate (2014), is a film about computers and hacking made by someone who seems to know nothing at all about computers.  The entire film takes place in garishly lit caverns or glass chambers layered with gleaming reflective surfaces -- it's as if the set designers and lighting personnel constructed the movie to look like Tron, the action seems to be taking place within some sort of dim cyberspace where picturesque, but useless, arrays of data twinkle like stars in the dark electronic heavens.  At key points in the film, characters gaze at laptops that display massive columns of blinking numbers -- I must say that my computer screen has never shown me a luminous void congested with matrices of shifting green numbers.  But this seems to be how Condon imagines a computer and monitor screen, a curiously retro notion that imparts to the film the character of a fifties or sixties' scifi movie -- it's like Lost in Space or something.  The movie has no real substance and so the set decoration has to carry the film's meaning -- something about radical modernity associated with hacking government sites and whistleblowing, a theme implicit in the movie's title, the questionable premise that "citizen-journalists" like Julian Assange represent something wholly new under the sun, a so-called "fifth estate" that has superseded the "fourth estate" of conventional print media.  This pictorial theme, emphasized by a bravura title sequence tracking human dissemination of data from cave painting through the Gutenberg press to TV and, finally, computers is constantly undercut by the fact that everyone refers to the Pentagon Papers and Watergate to define Assange's project.  Benedict Cumberbatch gives a pseudo-Sherlock Holmes performance, all autistic tantrums and super-smart patter, but the character never comes into focus and remains enigmatic.  There is a back-story suggesting that Assange is the damaged product of some kind of Australian cult that required its adherents to dye their hair white, but this premise isn't dramatized and merely affords the basis for a couple of picturesque shots of small children cowering by a big bonfire.  The movie doesn't know whether to take a Fox News or MSNBC attitude toward Assange and, so, it splits the difference and tries to have it both ways:  Assange is both a heroic zealot for transparency in government as well as a reckless half-crazed egotist whose disclosures put innocent people at risk.  A climax at the Libyan border is contrived to dramatize the hazards that Assange created for our spies in Tripoli -- but spying, like working in the oil patch in North Dakota, is inherently hazardous work and it's unbecoming for the film to ask us to shed tears for people who have voluntarily put themselves in harm's way by betraying their country.  Aware of this problem, Condon gives the Tripoli spy a wife and a new baby -- but it's phony, just an attempt to manipulate our sympathies.  Much of the movie makes no sense at all -- the hero, a naïve German who was Assange's partner, sees the light, adopts a Fox News approach to Assange's journalism, and goes on a rampage in the imaginary Wikileaks newsroom, a set right out of Tron: an infinite office extending to the horizon and populated, as in Being John Malkovich, by hundreds of clones of the white-haired Assange.  The German wrecks the whole virtual newsroom resulting in lots of blinking and twitching on Assange's lap top, this, in turn, triggering tears and a look of total desolation on Cumberbatch's face.  But a title occurring about 30 seconds later tells us that Assange leaked the entire corpus of the American diplomatic cables, over 250,000 pages of them, without redacting anything -- so much for the German's virtual destruction of Assange's virtual newsroom; I guess in the virtual world, virtual acts are without consequence.  This is the kind of showy movie that globe-trots and features realistic glimpses of exotic places but which also shows us Germans speaking accented English to one another in the privacy of their own bedrooms. There's no plot to speak of -- the German guy has to sacrifice his cute and sexy girlfriend for his doomed bromance with Assange, but this is all very conventional -- the clichés concealed beneath the bizarre visual effects and pointlessly whirling camera.  In this virtual universe, everything seems strangely unreal -- do American agents at the Pentagon or Department of State really sit down together like bad guys in a James Bond movie to toast their nefarious schemes with big tumblers of whisky or cognac?  And would the US government really entrust matters of life and death, the greatest and most consequential secrets of state, to a 22 year old, mentally unstable, transgender low-ranking subaltern in military service?  Really?  A government that protects its secrets in that way deserves to lose them. 

Two Days and One Night

The Dardennes' brothers most recent film, Two Days and One Night (2014) has a narrative structure that is as profound, resonant, and classically beautiful as a Euclidean theorem:  a small manufacturing concern somewhere in Belgium is overstaffed -- the boss says that the employees will be paid a 1000 Euro bonus, but, only if, they agree to eliminate one position, the job held by a woman named Sandra who has recently returned to work after being disabled by mental illness, apparently, a bout of clinical depression.  Prior to film's first scene, 13 of the plant's 16 employees (Sandra is the 17th) have voted to accept the firm's bonus and, thereby, eliminate Sandra from the work force.  But the vote is suspect -- a foreman is alleged to made threats and exercised undue influence -- and so another vote, by secret ballot, has been scheduled for Monday.  Sandra has the weekend, the film's titular "two days," to meet with her co-workers and persuade them to vote to forego their bonuses and save her job.  Produced in a scrupulously ascetic, documentary style, the movie follows Sandra as she tracks down her co-workers and pleads with them to cast their vote in her favor.  The situation generates considerable suspense and provides the audience with a series of gripping vignettes, encounters between Sandra and her co-workers, most of whom try desperately (and realistically I think) to simply avoid her.  Each of these encounters has a different tone; some workers are defiant that they have earned their bonus and are not willing to part with it, notwithstanding Sandra's appeals -- indeed, a couple of Sandra's co-workers are so desperate for their bonus that punches are thrown; when one man says he will vote in Sandra's favor, his son, also employed at the company, knocks him out.  Other workers are ashamed of failing to support her and, sullenly, indicate that they will vote in favor of their bonuses but hope that she prevails.  Finally, a number of workers support her without hesitation and are willing to sacrifice not only their bonuses, but their standing in the company and their relationships with wives and husbands to do what they perceive to be the right thing.  Sandra is no pro-labor firebrand -- she's meek and does not want her co-workers to pity her and so she scrupulously avoids any overt or melodramatic appeal to their sympathy, something that mutes the film.  Her depression seems only tenuously controlled by the Zaanax that she gobbles and, at one point, she tries to commit suicide, swallowing a whole bottle of pills, only to learn that one of her co-worker's has unexpectedly decided to vote for her. (This necessitates a quick trip to the ER with an implausibly quick recovery -- she's out canvassing votes within a few hours of this misadventure.)  The movie is resolutely quotidian and understated:  there are no flowery speeches, at the climax, no one changes their vote from what they have promised, and, with only a couple exceptions, everyone is civil and polite.  The camera-work which seems mostly handheld is totally unobtrusive -- there are no pretty shots, no expressive framing of actors, nothing approaching symbolism or lyricism; the camera either shows Sandra talking to her co-workers or eating or preparing food for her two children.  The effect is superficially like Italian neo-realism with a significant difference -- the Italian neo-realists were, at heart, poets and there was a hidden Baroque soul to the events that they filmed; the Dardennes brothers are doggedly prosaic and, although the material has a Capra-esque tone, there is nothing uplifting or, even, particularly remarkable about what we are shown -- everything plays out more or less as you would expect without any surprises or real reversals of fortune.  (One scene in which a co-worker weeps with shame at recalling how he voted against Sandra and is pathetically happy that he has a chance to remedy the situation stands out for its emotional force -- the man seems to be an Arab or Indian and he is ethnically different from the other workers and, seemingly, more willing to display his feelings.)  The film is excellent but I have two significant reservations about it.  First, the heroine is played by a movie star, Marion Cotillard, and, although some care is taken to make her look shabby (she seems to wear the same clothes throughout the whole picture), the protagonist is, nonetheless, a beautiful woman with an implausible Hollywood figure -- tiny waist, long legs, and large bust.  Cotillard is a great actress and her performance is very effective but, nonetheless, she is manifestly a movie star inserted into a group of grubby plebeian Belgians.  Cotillard's movie star attributes make the scenes where men waver as to whether to vote for her while their wives bristle with anger particularly effective.  But anyone who is realistic and knows the ways of the world understands immediately that people who look like Ms. Cotillard are not the people laid-off when male managers downsize a business.  And this points to my second reservation about the film:  the situation, as beautiful and resonant as a fairy tale, is completely implausible.  In the United States, the notion of encouraging a group of workers to vote a woman with a protected disability out of a job would violate about a half-dozen laws at least and no one in their right mind would propose such a thing.  European labor laws are typically far more protective of worker's rights than in this country and, I presume, that the premise for this Brechtian fable is wholly fantasy, an adaptation of some kind of urban legend.  (The Dardennes brothers seem to grasp this problem to some extent -- the company where the heroine works is a start-up technology firm, a business that makes solar panels called Solwal.  Labor lawyers have told me that, in this country, the most offensive and egregious violations of labor law occur in Silicon Valley computer and tech companies -- that is businesses run by spoiled baby entrepreneurs who think that the rules don't apply to them.  I think the story invokes this sort of setting, although we see almost nothing of the managers of the firm.) 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Krushtalyov my car!

In these notes, and elsewhere, I have argued that the Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov is the greatest director working today in the world.  In 1999, both Sokurov and, another Russian, Nikita Mikhalkov, an Oscar-winning filmmaker and also a great director, had films in contention at the Cannes Festival.  Sokurov and Mikhalkov each withdrew their films from the competition in deference to Alexei German's Krushtalyov, my car! also representing Russia that year.  Sokurov and Mikhalkov both declared that they thought their movies were insignificant when compared with German's film and that they were ashamed their works were in competition with his picture.  People present during the screening of Krushtalyov, my car! recount that the soundtrack was largely inaudible and that the loudest noise in the auditorium was, first, the sound of people getting up and fleeing the theater and, then, boos and catcalls.  The European premiere of the film was a catastrophe and the movie was never commercially released in any market.  When the picture was awarded a Nika, the Russian equivalent of an Oscar, a Moscow critic complained with words to this effect:  "Why are the critics giving an award to a movie that the public has not seen and does not want to see, that the critics have not seen, that no one can sit through, and that no one will ever see?"  In the last month, German's most recent film, An Account of the Arkadan Massacre, was shown in New York City.  KINO owns the rights to the picture and has been cautiously screening the 175 minute film, based on a Soviet-era science fiction novel, in big cities.  Critical responses have been generally enthusiastic, even, rapturous and this has triggered interest in German's previous movies including the notorious Krushtalyov, my car!  I found a DVD available through Amazon of the 1998 film.  The DVD's packaging is printed entirely in Russian and I was afraid that the disc would not work in my machine.  But, in fact, the disk plays and the images are beautifully clear and sharp and, even, the subtitles, although sometimes unidiomatic to English, are legible.  And the movie is, indeed, an appalling, fascinating, infuriating masterpiece. 

Simply put, there is nothing in the history of film like Krushtalyov, my car!  I will have to study the movie in depth to understand it.  More than half of the picture, all of which is spectacularly shot in high-contrast black and white, was thematically incomprehensible to me.  As is true with all great works of art, I assume that with familiarity and repeated viewing, the movie will begin to make sense.  At this stage, I can say only that I detect greatness in the film, that I am enthusiastic about learning about the movie, and that I am confident that it will repay close analysis.  Accordingly, these remarks must be construed as purely provisional, tentative, an initial account of the movie's apparent subject matter and its remarkable style.

Krushtalyov, my car! is a phrase uttered by the Soviet commissar, Beria, toward the end of the movie.  Beria has just come from a dacha in which Stalin has died.  In Soviet lore, Krushtalyov, a shadowy figure, may have administered poison to Stalin resulting in his death. German doesn't show us Krushtalyov and Beria treats him as a chauffeur.  The film's action takes place in March 1953, during the three day period ending in Stalin's death.  A remarkable coda is set in Siberia, I think, ten years later.  Essays on the film emphasize German's fetishistic recreation of the Soviet past.  Production of the movie took place between 1991 and 1998 and, reportedly, the film's making was delayed for several years because German could not locate the requisite number of black official sedans (12) required for some of the scenes. 

Although Krushtalyov, my car! can be summarized as having something to do with Stalin's death, this thread in the plot doesn't emerge until the movie is five-sixths done.  Almost all of the film's action, which is frenetic, even, hysterical, takes place in Moscow during a spectacularly cold and snowy winter.  A 12-year old boy, the son of a neurologist named Yuri Klensky ("the General"), narrates some of the story, although the movie shows us many events that the boy could not possibly have witnessed.  Most of the film consists of long, grandiose tracking shots that follow characters through squalid labyrinths filled with grotesque extras who grimace at the camera or threaten the protagonists.  The screen is packed with action and event -- people are always falling down or slapping one another in the corners of the background and there is continuous motion, objects falling, breaking, actors spitting at one another or on the ground, dogs and cats everywhere, strange birds in the trees peering down at the chaos, no score or diegetic music but a cacophony of sounds: gypsy musicians, Jewish minstrels, brass bands playing in desolate city-squares, lions roaring in the distance.  German's players are, often, spectacularly hideous to the point of seeming malformed and everyone poses for the camera as if swooning in a silent film -- the movie is filled with extravagant and inexplicable gestures.  People shriek at one another, paw at each other's bodies with bestial lust, suck on one another's fingers and everyone, without exception, seems to be suffering from ghastly respiratory and sinus ailments -- the movie's soundtrack is a chorus of hacking and mucousy spitting sounds, wet choking coughs all laced with continuous obscenities.  Indeed, the movie's final words as translated by the subtitles is "Fuckall!" an expletive almost drowned in gurgling phlegm.  At one point, a tiny, fat woman expresses her desire for the enormous general -- he is a towering, bald-headed giant -- by punching him repeatedly in the chest, licking his throat, and, then, when he doesn't adequately respond, head-butting his sternum. The movie is full of accidents of all kinds -- in the opening scene someone almost gets electrocuted on a snowy street and there are streetcar collisions, motorcycle crashes, and all sorts of public and private calamities:  people spit into soup, drunks are continuously fighting on the ice, and a children's playground looks like a World War One battlefield with mobs of boys punching and gouging one another.  There are bizarre misunderstandings and intentionally confusing sequences:  the General has an exact double, apparently groomed by the party to represent him in a show trial.  (At show trials, the accused had to read lengthy confessions but were frequently unable to do this effectively because debilitated by torture; to address this problem, the KGB developed doubles for most of its important victims and used them to read the confessions that the accused were too weak and battered to present.)  All of this seems dispiriting, but the sheer magnificence of the film's imagery, the incredible density of the pictorial evidence on screen, imparts a majesty to the movie that his hard to describe, a sort of forlorn visionary desolation.  There are thousands of people on-screen in this movie and every one of them is noteworthy -- it is like seeing the cast of a Dostoevsky novel suddenly swarming the screen before our eyes.  The film is both profoundly exhausting and exhilarating.  (A warning is in order:  the movie also contains one of the most brutal scenes that I have ever watched, the general's gang-rape in a lurching truck designed for the delivery of champagne -- this sequence is astounding, but, also, truly horrifying and relentlessly
uncompromising.  But German follows this scene, which is close to unwatchable, with cartoon antics including the poor general soothing his tormented anus by sitting in a pile of snow -- the film shifts moods with an intensity and ferocity that is stupefying.)

Early in the picture, the camera tracks along one of Moscow's snowy streets, momentarily focusing on a street car.  In the streetcar, a drunk is sitting in the doorway balancing a glass of vodka on his head while the other people in the car cheer for him or shriek obscenities.  In the last shot of the film, the General sits on an open box-car rumbling across the Siberian taiga.  He seems to have a kind of disheveled court around him, a couple gypsies, some blonde whores, a little boy.  He stands up and someone puts a glass on his head filled with wine or brandy and, as the train lurches through the wasteland, he balances the glass on his bald head, defying the "shocks" in the road-bed and, I suppose, the shocks of history as well.

This film dwarfs all other movies that I have seen in the past year. Alexei German, who may have been the greatest filmmaker in the world, died on February 21, 2013 in St. Petersburg.   

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

Fashion designer, Petra von Kant, is "verliebt" with Karin Thimm, a hardened 23-year old college drop-out.  The German word "verliebt" means "to fall in love," but it also carries overtones of disaster, infatuation, and delirium.  Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1972 melodrama, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant delivers both the yearning and calamity of helpless infatuation with astonishing and brutal authority.  There's nothing to the movie; it eschews the profound and remains resolutely superficial, a two-hour operatic tantrum in which the sound and fury really means nothing -- it's just an empty spectacle, but what a spectacle!  Fassbinder confines the action of the film to Petra von Kant's bedroom -- indeed, most of the picture takes place in her bed or within a half-dozen feet of it.  The set is a fabulous labyrinth of densely textured and garish fabrics, mirrors, and an enormous mural of a painting by Poussin, a wall of naked men and women, against which the actresses strike Baroque poses.  Eight or nine pale larva-colored mannequins, nude and cowering, lurk around the corners of the set and form a sort of mute chorus accompanying Petra von Kant's tirades.  An imperious dominatrix, von Kant even has a slave, a silent woman named Marlene whom she alternately shrieks at and teases, a sado-masochistic relationship that stands in contrast to the heroine's helpless infatuation with the heartless Karin.  The film's plot can be summarized in a few words:  Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen), an indolent and cruel fashion designer, grooms Karin to model her garments, falls desperately in love with her model, and, then, suffers extravagantly when Karin betrays her both sexually and emotionally,  Drinking heavily, Petra pitches a howling fit on her birthday, insulting both her mother and her schoolgirl daughter while triumphantly trampling crockery dropped in her deep-ply white shag carpet.  Petra's rage burns itself out and when her former lover, Karin, calls her, she declines to see the woman.  Seemingly chastened, Petra tells her slave, Marlene, that she will treat her more kindly in the future and, indeed, even wants to know something about her life and her past.  Marlene's response is to pack her suitcase to the tune of "The Great Pretender" and hit the road.  (The movie is punctuated by musical interludes:  Verdi, the Platters, and the Walker Brothers.)  The film ends as it began with Petra lying alone in her bed.  This summary, of course, doesn't convey the peculiar and extraordinary effect of the film.  Fassbinder's all-female cast deliver their lines either in a somnolent drone or with an insolent, taunting savagery -- the dialogue is completely flat and, on paper, probably would look banal, but the director's sets and costumes impart a brutal glamor to the proceedings.  Michael Ballhaus' camera prowls the garish bedroom and the clothing worn by the characters has to be seen to be believed -- Hanna Schygulla, playing Karin, is dressed like Bruennhilde, her plump, somewhat squat figure armored behind a gold pointed bra; Petra looks like Salome is a slinky top that seems made of a velvet rope that has been covered with glue and dipped in cheap costume jewelry; her feet are bound by a dress that seems to be strapped around her calves so that she must walk with tiny, mincing steps.  Eva Mattes who plays Gaby, Petra's unfortunate daughter, is clad in a yellow schoolgirl uniform that is intentionally hideous and Marlene (Irm Hermann) wears funereal black.  The movie is embodied hysteria and, perhaps, best seen with an intermission of a few hours or, even, days between halves (it was originally a stage-play and divided into what seems life five acts) -- in one dose, it's just too much to be tolerated.  Everyone swills gin and, at times, the film is like being trapped in a closet with a raging drunk -- you can't get away from it and Fassbinder stages everything for maximum cruelty.  The characters wallow in self-pity:  Karin's mother was beaten to death by her father who, then, hanged himself; the love of Petra's life, Pierre, was killed in a car wreck; and so on.  After an hour, the viewer understands the monstrous self-absorption of the characters and, indeed, sympathizes with them -- who wouldn't be miserable trapped in this mise-en-scene under Fassbinder's tyrannical direction.

This film has personal significance to me because it was the first movie in the German New Wave of the late sixties that I attended and I hated it.  The film was screened at the University Film Society by Al Milgrom probably in 1974.  I recall being completely baffled by the film and thought it was both interminable and shockingly dull.  This reaction is valid -- in some ways, the movie is self-indulgent to the point of verging on the unwatchable. The characters in the film are young people:  Hanna Schygulla was, probably, younger than 23, the age of her character and the great actress, who performs the part of Petra, claims that she is 35 -- I would guess she is lying and, probably, a couple years older. (At one point, someone looks at a newspaper photograph and, in the picture, we see Fassbinder young, even trim, and, perhaps, handsome in an idiosyncratic sort of way -- it's a homage to Hitchcock's Lifeboat, I think, in which the director has to make his trademark cameo in the form of a photograph someone shows. There's something tragic about seeing Fassbinder so young and slender, his whole life, it seems, ahead of him.) I thought the movie was pointless because it dramatized feelings of rage and yearning and rejection that I felt personally, emotions that were integral to my emotional existence when I was 20, and, therefore, banal to me, unimportant -- after all, if I had those emotions and felt them with some of the helpless intensity of the characters in the film, why did I have to go to a movie to have these feelings shoved in my face?  In those days, I fancied myself rational, governed by reason, and I was ashamed of my irrational passions and embarrassed to see such things dramatized.  I went to movies for an escape, to see the extraordinary and the astonishing, and Fassbinder's film, mired in a kind of operatic but very ordinary unhappiness, depressed and bored me.  My eye is better today and I can appreciate Fassbinder's extraordinary talent and the remarkable performances by his actresses in his long theatrical takes.  But I continue to question whether this sort of film isn't a kind of cul-de-sac, a dead end that can lead nowhere. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Phantom of the Opera (Andrew Galuska concert)

There are many effective moments in Universal's 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera, but the film doesn't exactly hang together and seems a wee bit slack -- there is the sense, as in many big Hollywood blockbusters, that we are waiting around, biding time in expectation of the big set-pieces.  And when those episodes occur, they are either over-staged, too wildly ambitious and, therefore, out of control or the opposite -- underwhelming.  The movie was immensely long when test-premiered and had to be radically cut, thereby rendering its expensive full orchestral score useless.  The movie's rhythm in the prints ordinarily shown seems to stutter and stagger:  there is either too much happening at one time or not enough.  Of course, it's hard to assess a silent film that is ninety years old -- we can't recapture the film's ambience when it was first shown and, indeed, existing versions of the movie probably don't exactly capture what was presented in November 1925 when the picture was first-released at New York's Astor Theater. The first part of the picture is good stuff, atmospheric, with the phantom visualized as an eerie shadow cast on the walls of the Paris Opera House.  The film is heavily influenced by German expressionism and the images of the corps de Ballet backstage fluttering around and expressing their fear in choral gestures, bouquets of women in white garments choreographed to pantomime unease and panic, are very effective.  The backstage "cellars" are suitably spooky, filled with hell-mouth sets and colossal headless idols as well as a sinister stagehand holding John the Baptist's severed head -- the decapitated head sometimes opens its eyes in an alarming manner.  The Phantom's underground lairs have a Piranesi-like gloom, a labyrinth of descending stairs over which Erik, the masked villain, leads a black horse over which the heroine is draped.  The woman enters the Phantom's world by passing through a mirror, a scene shot obliquely so as to make it look as if the heroine is actually absorbed by the reflecting glass, an image that was surely an influence on Cocteau and the source of similar sequences in the French filmmaker's The Testament of Orpheus.  The sets are enormous, indeed, so large that the director doesn't know what to do with them -- a set of the grand stairway in the opera house is so huge that it looks like the enormous steps in Griffith's Babylonian sequence in Intolerance, a stage that dwarfs the crowds on it and makes them look puny and indistinct, somehow achieving the exactly opposite effect to what was intended.  In the DVD that I saw on the 8th of February at Our Savior's Lutheran Church, the famous Technicolor sequence seemed faded and only the Phantom's crimson cape had enough color to stand out from greyish murk.  That said, the sequence of the Phantom as Death lurking in a huge terra-cotta statue on the top of the Opera House, his cape billowing in the gale force wind, is an astonishing image -- he emotes melodramatically next to statuary breasts the size of hubcaps.   The film's climax is messily protracted and overdetermined:  it's as if the director wanted to have the film's end summarize the climaxes of all possible films -- an immense mob hunts down the Phantom, while the heroine's lover and his idiot accomplice swoon while they are tortured in the villain's underground chambers; not content to channel Poe's "The Masque of Red Death", the film now enacts variations on "The Pit and the Pendulum" as cells alternately turn into ovens or fill with water.  Driven from his lair, the Phantom embarks on a wild carriage ride, brilliantly filmed as the madman's living skull flickers from light to dark.  Then, Chaney playing Erik, the Phantom, flees along the façade of Notre Dame, an allusion to his success in the 1923 Hunchback of Notre Dame before being hounded to death and hurled into the black Seine by the ravening mob.  Throughout the picture, the acting is stylized and excessively melodramatic; the players are obviously impersonating the characters on the Gran Guignol stage three or four decades before the picture was made and so the way in which the player's move and gesture is intentionally over-the-top -- this is unfortunate to some degree because The Phantom of the Opera is a well-known film and people who are not familiar with silent movies will, perhaps, take the exceedingly melodramatic style of acting as characteristic of these films in general -- in fact, the movie seems to have been made to embody an intentionally archaic kind of acting.  Furthermore, the film is shot without much sophistication -- it has very few close-ups and the camera angles are often designed to look like a representation of a filmed play.  Lon Chaney is mostly masked throughout the film and doesn't really have an opportunity to exhibit his trademark pathos.  Although packed with action, the film still drags a bit in its mid-section.

I saw the picture accompanied by an organ score improvised by the virtuoso, Andrew Galuska,  The film was presented at Our Saviors Lutheran Church as part of a music series, a sort of recital and Galuska's thunderous accompaniment was thrilling and effective.  Galuska periodically referenced the Andrew Lloyd Webber score, particularly the signature pentatonic descending and ascending chromatic scales that serve as the Phantom's leit motif and his work was astonishingly inventive and powerful.  I only wish that Galuska had worked with a better print of the film -- it seemed to me that he used a poor quality public domain version of the movie, not properly reconstructed, and particularly damaged in the moments before the famous unmasking scene.  Galuska's version is the weird 1930 reissue that was released with sound and the movie begins with an extended and almost invisible sequence in which a man carrying a lantern in the catacombs harangues the viewers -- this scene was shot with recorded sound, but it makes absolutely no sense at all on screen if the picture is projected silent and, in fact, is off-putting to the audience (if this is their first experience of a silent film, it's not an auspicious start).  Later, the man with the lantern mysteriously appears just before the climax, once again, bringing the film to a halt with a dark, illegible and protracted sequence that is completely confusing.         

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Fall (Season Two)

The Fall is a BBC crime series starring Gillian Anderson.  I have previously written about this program, a compelling police procedural, noteworthy primarily because of the performances of its antagonists, the icy, sexually predatory Stella Gibson (Anderson) obsessively pursuing a handsome and petulant serial killer, Paul Spector, played by Jamie Dornan as a warm and kindly father to his young daughter but with a penchant for torture and murder of attractive young career women.  (Dornan is apparently hot stuff, eye-candy to match Gillian Anderson -- he's the star of the upcoming film Fifty Shades of Grey.) The show is overwhelmingly somber and lugubrious, often to the point of absurdity, but it's addictive as well, handsomely mounted, and impressively, if monotonously acted.  The series' first season was based on a disheartening and questionable notion -- Stella Gibson's sexual promiscuity and dominatrix-like imperiousness was equated to the serial killer's vicious antics with his victims.  The second season abandons that premise without refuting it, but substitutes an equally discomfiting and absurd theme:  the paradigm for the relations between men and woman is that of a sexual serial killer to his victims.  Gibson, as usual, gets the best lines:  at one point, she plies her glacial charms on another woman, a spunky forensic investigator;  as she plots to get the woman into bed, she notes that "the female is the exemplar of the species; maleness is a kind of birth defect."  While she is whispering sweet nothings like this in the ear of her reluctant lady-love, the bad guy, Paul Spector, has invaded Stella's hotel room, rummaging through her lingerie, and carefully reading the heroine's dream diary to secure clues as to the psyche of his nemesis.  The pathologist chickens-out, fleeing the planned Sapphic encounter and Stella enters the hotel room alone where the villain hides in the closet.  A moment later, one of her previous sexual partners, the perpetually morose and sad-eyed chief of police pounds on her door, tries to inflict himself on her, only to get his nose efficiently broken by the heroine.  As she treats his injuries, the bad guy slinks away unnoticed.  Later, Stella remarks that as far as sex is concerned, there is no distinction between men -- they are all rapists, a comment that the poor chief of police protests, but can't really dispute in light of his own conduct.  This second season has to amplify the perversity and sexual frissons of the first year's five episodes and so the program becomes weirdly fantastic, dream-like in some respects, and surreal.  None of it makes any dramatic or logical narrative sense, although the show triumphs over the spectator's disbelief by establishing a kind of hushed, half-expectant, and languorous mood of sexual fantasy -- the program demonstrates that Stimmung and gloomy, perverse ambience can overcome the viewer's resistance to plot elements that are simply implausible.  For instance, the cops know the identity of the killer throughout four of the six episodes of season two but until the last two hours don't take him into custody and simply observe his increasingly bizarre behavior -- Spector has enlisted a sixteen-year old strumpet, a sadistic Lolita, in his planned sex-crimes and this imparts another layer of unseemly perversity to the proceedings.  (And, for a good measure, there is an arrogant pedophile priest as well who gets to spout his theories as to his superiority to the authorities -- it's not enough to have one Nietzsche-influenced monster in the show; rather, we have two -- or, possibly, three if you count the omniscient Stella Gibson in that category.)  In the final ninety minute episode, the viewer gets what he has been waiting for:   the big confrontation between the heroine and the serial killer, a long dialogue that is shot impressively in huge, but inexpressive close-ups.  This is the show's pay-off and it's legitimately thrilling.  In the final scenes, Stella goes into a dank-looking forest to search for one of Spector's victims and there is a shoot-out in which her most recent lover, a young fellow who closely resembles the serial killer, and the bad guy himself are, apparently, gunned-down.  (Richard Pryor had a  hilarious, if unprintably obscene, routine about a woman whose sexual partners all ended-up dead or badly wounded:  The Fall verges on the comic with respect to the fate of Stella's paramours.)  Ignoring her wounded boyfriend, Stella runs to succor her true soul-mate, the dying Paul Spector, reiterating the theme of kinship between them.  At one point, earlier in the show, the boyfriend, another of Stella's one-night stands, asks her if she is attracted to him because he has the benumbed blank affect and movie-star good looks of the killer.  Stella deflects the question and, then, tells this parable:  "What are men afraid of when it comes to women?  Men always say that they are afraid women are laughing at them.  What do women say that they are afraid of with respect to men.  Women always say:  we are afraid they will kill us."  I think the BBC has another season of this show in the works -- are they going to resurrect Spector somehow and set him free to further his depredations?  This would be ludicrous, but, of course, I like the show and hope that this can be accomplished.

Expedition Unknown

Josh Gates is a beefy fellow, muscular in a soft sort of way, with a reddish beard and a self-satisfied smirk.  His first starring venture in the world of paranormal TV was a show called Destination Truth.   That program followed a reliable formula:  in the first five minutes, Gates would meet his team at a sort of funky clubhouse in LA and discuss the apparition of a monster or ghost in some remote part of the world.  Then, Gates and expedition members would fly to that place and interact with the colorful locals for fifteen minutes before venturing into the spooky boondocks.  Usually, Gates et. al. would access the haunted location by dirt-bike or dune-buggy or some other suitably picturesque means of conveyance.  At the site, Gates would wait until dark, establish a perimeter with motion-sensing infra-red cameras, and, then, hike around in the inky blackness until someone either got hurt or panicked, dashing through thorns and brambles with some large and hulking something in hot pursuit.  Scientific samples, typically in the form of a strand of hair or a lump of fur would be collected, put in baggies or plastic bottles, and, then, returned to the United States for invariably inconclusive laboratory analysis.  Sometimes, when things got dull, Gates would trot out a staple of all paranormal investigations -- the EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena) session, in which spirits and poltergeist are invited to comment by whispering answers on microphone to belligerent questions poised by the researchers.  The resulting tapes inevitably contain a shimmer of static or a tremulous gust of wind or the stutter of old boards creaking, sounds that, with the proper manipulation, can be made to approximate snarled threats or enigmatic two-word burps.  Destination Truth was fun in a disreputable way because Gates' obvious contempt for the paranormal trappings and his apparent inclination toward National Geographic style ethnography -- he always seemed more interested in the local folkways and cuisine than the ghosts and monsters that he was supposedly hunting.  Gates' new show Expedition Unknown on the Travel Channel capitalizes on the hosts somewhat shaggy and avuncular appeal -- it's Gates' bid to become respectable, a sort of Anthony Bourdain of the mysterious and eerie.  Gates' crew of easily spooked fellow adventurers has been jettisoned and he now plots his trips from pseudo-Victorian digs in Manhattan.  He no longer indulges in the hokey EVP sessions and there is no green-screen infra-red camera footage of shadows and inexplicable hot spots perambulating through the bush.  Its' clear that Gates takes his cues from Anthony Bourdain, whose show follows on the heels of Gates' program, and the host now exudes a sort of faux-naif but sophisticated savoir faire, he is a cosmopolitan adventurer seeking to broaden his mind by encounters with primitive people.  In the first episode, an ungainly two hours long, Gates went to Papua, New Guinea, ostensibly to search for the remains of Amelia Earhart but really to visit exotic-looking tribal people with long, intimidating lances and scary masks.  To find some bones, he has to worm into a crawl space under a tropical bungalow, a place that is scary, of course, because of the arachnid ecosystem but, otherwise, prosaic -- he wriggles around under the hut like an exterminator.  Of course, he finds nothing.  In the next episode, Gates' travels to Cambodia, eats some bizarre foods ala Andrew Zimmern, tours a Khmer Rouge concentration camp where he looks like he is about to cry, staring at the horrors like a sad-eyed Labrador Retriever, and, then, hikes around a ruined city in a thunderstorm:  there's a little, badly damaged bas relief of serene-looking Buddhas but, other than that, he finds nothing.  The third episode puts Gates' on horseback -- he looks handsome and would do well in cowboy movies -- searching for Jesse James' lost gold in Oklahoma.  The premise is questionable, but the show features an interesting comedy interlude, Gates' trying to coax balk mules across a shallow creek. There are some interesting landscapes and Gates' rappels down a cliff in a thunderstorm (bad weather is a staple on his show) but discovers nothing of any note.  The fourth episode has Gates' driving on bad roads in the Andes looking for a lost city.  He pulls a few withered and ancient potatoes out of an icy mountain lake but, other than the spuds, of course, he finds nothing.  At the end of each episode, Gates provides ninety seconds of poetic, quasi-rapturous commentary on the fact that he has found nothing -- usually words to the effect that "although I have not discovered the lost city of gold, I found something else probably more important -- the warm hearts and generosity of the gracious Peruvian people, hardy ancestors of the Incas proudly inhabiting these spectacular mountain heights..."  In a few more years, I suppose, Gates will migrate to Public TV and, perhaps, host legitimate archaeology shows, perhaps, on NOVA or Secrets of the Dead. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Twentieth Century

Twentieth Century is a frenetic screwball comedy directed by Howard Hawks in 1934.  The film is noteworthy for its two leads -- Carole Lombard as the rebellious Galatea to John Barrymore's Pygmalion.  Barrymore plays a Broadway director, Oscar Jaffe, who has elevated a lingerie model, Lombard's character (Mildred Plotna renamed as "Lily Garland") into fame and fortune as a leading lady on the Great White Way.  Inevitably, the actress clashes with her tyrannical benefactor and departs to Hollywood where she becomes a famous movie star.  Jaffe grooms another girl to serve as his theatrical muse, but the magic is missing -- his spectacular shows fail and the director goes on the lam to avoid creditors.  On "The Twentieth Century," an express train running from Chicago to New York, Jaffe encounters Lily Garland and contrives a scheme to persuade her to sign a contract to return to the theater under his direction.  The last two-thirds of the picture, involving a series of farcical events on the train, follow closely the movie's Broadway source material, and are the most effective (and funniest) parts of the story -- Barrymore's Jaffe is a megalomaniac and he rants in purplish, pseudo-Elizabethan blank verse and Lombard's Lily Garland, alternately swooning and engaging in fisticuffs with her former lover, is more than his match.  She has come onto the train with a young, beefy swain -- but he is quickly abandoned in the titanic battle of the sexes orchestrated by the insanely egotistical director and his spectacularly vain leading lady.  This is a pre-Code film, absolutely cynical and callous about sex and romance -- we are given to understand that Jaffe's leading ladies are expected to sleep with him in tribute to his greatness although the man is a sadistic bully (he teaches Lombard to scream properly by jabbing her in the derriere with a straight pin; she, then, keeps the pin as a fetish, enshrined in a kind of reliquary.)  Lombard plays a lengthy scene in a sheer silk blouse that demonstrates with complete clarity that she is not wearing a brassiere -- the images leave almost nothing to the imagination.  The film is not particularly funny, although it is amusing.  Barrymore is not well known to modern audiences but he is a startling apparition, the embodiment of the great actor as enfant terrible, a sacred beast of a species that once trod the stage around the time of the Great War.  Barrymore's eyes are huge and expressive, disproportionate to his face, and he has the speaking voice of a great nineteenth century orator -- his hair is disheveled in this film, a great shaggy mop that denotes genius, and his signature effect is his ability to switch on and off his grandiose and melodramatic hysteria at a moment's notice.  One instant, he will be raging in torrents of brilliantly sculpted words; a moment later, he will be pragmatically assessing a comely female assistant's rump or conspiring to defeat his creditors.  The remarkable aspect of the film is that Carole Lombard's Lily Garland is conceived exactly as a creature of Jaffe's genius -- she is his creation and she mirrors his excessive and grandiose volubility, his manipulative threats and wheedling, as well as his ecstatic transports into the world of the spirit.  When Lombard and Barrymore are together on-screen, their frenzies mirror one another and the effect is almost surrealistic -- male and female versions of the same prima donna.  It has always been true that the "Great Artist" as conceived by publicity is, at least, half con-man and  charlatan and "The Twentieth Century" exploits this point.  The funniest moment of the film is when Barrymore, persuading himself that he will mount a Broadway version of the Oberammagau Passion Play and cast Lily Garland as Mary Magdalene ("you shall be clad entirely in emeralds from head to foot, and nothing else") starts to play all parts, including a ruminant camel.  (I saw this film on TCM's "The Essentials" hosted by Robert Osborne and Drew Barrymore; it is remarkable to see the similarity between Drew Barrymore's classically beautiful features and the famous face of her grandfather.)